Saturday, March 19, 2016

Saturday Morning Cult-TV Blogging: Jason of Star Command: "Phantom Force" (November 10, 1979)

In “Phantom Force,” Jason (Craig Littler) escapes a trap in another dimension via the alien star gate and warns Commander Stone (John Russell) that Dragos (Sid Haig) is planning to use an alien power source on the planet Stygion to aid his coming invasion of "the universe."  

Star Command travels at “warp speed”(!) to intercept the alien power source on Jason’s information, but both Stone and Samantha (Tamara Dobson) are upset with Jason because his source of information is a former enemy: Adron (Rod Loomis).

After Samantha rescues a young buy, Carius (David Comfort) from a deadly ion storm, the tensions between Jason and Samantha escalate. Jason suspects something is not right with the boy, but Samantha is baffled by her friend’s suspicious behavior.  When Star Command undergoes a series of “accidents,” Jason’s worst fears are proved correct, and Carius is revealed to be…Dragos, or rather an “illusion” of Dragos.

In fact, the “Phantom Force” of the episode’s title refers to Drago’s apparently-new found ability to create hallucinations such as spaceship armadas and even phantom planets. In the episode’s final scene, Jason re-establishes his trust for Samantha by allowing her to choose which of five phantom planets is actually Stygion, Drago’s HQ.  She picks correctly, and Dragos' latest scheme is foiled again.  Star Command destroys the entire planet.

This episode of Jason of Star Command delves more into character fireworks then some installments of the Saturday morning program do, but here the frissons between main characters feel forced and manufactured.  

Suddenly, Jason and Samantha are at odds, and Jason and the Commander are at odds, and there are no good reasons for their behavior. Everyone starts spontaneously acting shitty, and that’s about as much depth as the story provides.  

Again, this is where – speaking as an adult – Jason of Star Command begins to fail. The straightforward episodes are designed for children and thus many of the plots just can’t really hold your attention as a grown-up.   I’m sure I would have loved “Phantom Force” when I was eight, and I don’t mean that sarcastically or as a put down.  The show was designed for kids, after all.

However, I must note that all Saturday morning programs are not created equal in this regard. Land of the Lost (1974 – 1977) and Space Academy (1977) both manage to remain interesting to adults even today because their narratives involve more than mere action.  There’s subtext to many Land of the Lost stories about the environment, and environmental stewardship, for instance.  Perhaps owing to the success of Star Wars, Jason of Star Command is so straightforward that it often plays as…flat.

That established, the special effects of Jason of Star Command remain astounding. A highlight of “Phantom Force” is Samantha’s rescue of Carius’s pod from the ion storm. The visual effects here are really terrific, as usual, a more-than-satisfying blend of live action, spaceship miniatures and glowing opticals (in the form of the charged ions…).  If you’re watching Jason just to enjoy the accomplished special effects, there’s nothing disappointing whatsoever about this segment.

Storywise, however, you can just detect how the ball is kind of being dropped in terms of the larger narratives.  Dragos goes from one hopeless scheme to the next, doomed to failure.  

And now even the star gate (still in Star Command’s landing bay…) looks as though it is going to be dropped as an instigator for new stories and new mysteries.   

Other elements of "Phantom Force" also raise questions. Star Command -- like the Death Star! -- boasts the power to destroy planets?  

Are only Dragos' forces living on Stygion?  Nobody even checks before obliterating the planet.  And if Carius is a phantom -- an illusion -- does that mean that Samantha never touches him, even while tucking him into bed?  

Anyway, three episodes left before the end of season two and the end of the series.

Next Week: “Little Girl Lost.”

Saturday Morning Cult-TV Blogging: Flash Gordon: "Chapter Nine: Monster of the Glacier" (November 17, 1979)

Flash Gordon's (1979-1982) ninth chapter, "Monster of the Glacier" by writer Ted Pederson finds Dr. Zarkov, Thun, Dale and Count Mallow in the evil clutches of Bruka and the giants of Fridgia. 

Meanwhile, Flash and throaty-voiced Queen Fria are assumed to have perished in an avalanche, but in truth, they have survived and are plotting to rescue their friends.

While Dale resists the thuggish advances of the brute Bruka, Flash makes googly-eyes at Fria, calling her a "lovely lady." She offers him a place near her throne, but then they get back to business. While Fria frees the group, Flash battles Bruka underground for Dale's freedom. Flash is victorious (thanks to a well-placed rock, in a variation of the David vs. Goliath battle).

All together now, the fugitives flee into the caverns (which Flash quips are "worse than the Los Angeles freeway system.") They dive into an underwater river to escape Bruka once and for all, but then find themselves in the "dominion of Korel," a multi-headed electrical hydra. 

The team appears doomed until Zarkov figures out a way to short circuit the monster, and Thun and Flash do the grunt work. After the beast is destroyed in a cataclysmic series of shocks and pops, Flash comments: "Some fireworks, huh?"
Free now, Flash says goodbye to Queen Fria, who has come to realize that the hunky hero will never leave Dale Arden. They part friends and Flash, Thun, Zarkov and Dale next raid Mongo's rocket railroad! They board the train for Arboria with the Orium they came for, and after destroying several of Ming's metal minions. Then it's au revoir at last to Fridgia (the subject of two chapters).

Watching "Monster of the Glacier," one can determine why Flash Gordon (like Buck Rogers or James Bond) is such a basic and enduring male hero. 

He's got cool, colorful friends (like Thun, a lion man, for goodness sake), a good girl at his side through thick and thin (Dale Arden), and the universal affection of bad, sexy girls like Aura, Undina and Fria.

Plus, he has super-cool adventures in caves, underwater, on trains, in spaceships and the like. Who wouldn't want to be this guy? 

What's funny is that this variation of the character Flash is such a square. Sure, this is a program for kids, but Flash is still awfully righteous and stolid. Every now and then, I miss the leer and humor of Gil Gerard's Buck Rogers in the 25th Century.

"The Monster of the Glacier" is a pretty undistinguished story. If last week's chapter copied note-for-note episode 6 (the water world story), then this one is a blatant re-do of "The Beast Man's Prey."  

Here, however, giants replace the beast men.  Still, that's a small distinction.  And for the third time, we get the same shot of Dr. Zarkov being trapped by an enemy bola.  

Next week: "Blue Magic."

Friday, March 18, 2016

Cult-TV Movie: Gargoyles (1972)

In Bill Norton's made-for-TV movie Gargoyles (1972), written by Steven and Elinor Karpf, the human race encounters a very old enemy: Gargoyles...the monstrous spawn of Satan himself.

As the film's opening narration and title cards reveal, Gargoyles are real, and arose from Hell, from the lake of Fire.  Every six hundred years (or thereabouts) the Gargoyles vie for supremacy on Earth with mankind.  In every battle thus far, we've defeated these insurgents, but the beasts always survive to threaten us once more.  In the modern age, most humans have forgotten the truth, and consider Gargoyles only myths...

Short and sweet at 74 minutes long, Gargoyles is one of those classic horror TV movies of a bygone age (like Satan's School for Girls, Don't Be Afraid of the Dark, or Dark Night of the Scarecrow.)

The production values are minimal, and the Gargoyle costumes -- often shown in fully-revealing slow-motion photography -- perhaps don't hold up particularly well in 2012.

And yet, the movie casts a powerful and sinister spell despite such concerns.  It is also clearly of the age of "social critique" genre films such as Conquest of the Planet of the Apes (1972), wherein a group/cadre of non-human characters symbolize some element or component of real life in contemporary America.

In many crucial ways, the first half-hour of the film, in which the Gargoyles are not fully seen, sets the macabre, unsettling tone for the picture.

We follow an anthropologist, Dr. Mercer Boley (Cornel Wilde) and his halter-top wearing daughter, Diana (Jennifer Salt), into a barren desert as they visit a crazy old coot, "Uncle Willie" (Woody Chambliss).  Willie claims to have made a discovery of some scientific significance, but wants to show it to the Boleys, not merely tell them about it.

In these early moments, Gargoyles generates a mounting sense of dread and foreboding as Norton's camera adopts high angle shots of great distance. From a viewpoint high atop ancient rocks and outcroppings, we watch the Boley station wagon traverse, essentially, nothingness.

Roads seem carved out of the Earth, and all around, there is no sign of life. In this barren, isolated realm, something evil lurks...and watches.  After a few such shots, this effect becomes rather unnerving.  In one instance, a dark, inhuman shadow falls over a mountaintop...

Later, Willie reveals to the Boleys a Gargoyle skeleton he found in the desert and has meticulously re-assembled..and then the first Gargoyle attack arrives in a flash.  We see slashing claws break through a metal shed wall, and all Hell breaks loose.  The Boleys manage to escape (Willie is not so lucky...) and they flee in their car.

Again, a Gargoyle attacks, and nearly destroys their vehicle.  The Boleys make it to a lonely gas station by thick of night, and the sensations of emptiness and vulnerability are pretty powerfully rendered once more.

Our protagonists are surrounded by darkness on all sides of this lonely outpost, and you can just imagine that they are being closely observed by the monsters,who are conveniently obscured by blackness.

In its short running time, Gargoyles is filled with moments such as the one I describe above, at the gas station at night.  Later on, Diana walks along a desert road by herself, on the way to a police station, and she's the only soul in sight.

Out in the darkness, there be dragons...

I suppose the creepy success of Gargoyles is a testament, in part, to effective location work and choice in setting.  Director Jack Arnold often utilized the desert background to great effect in his genre films, and that's the same trick Gargoyles pulls off.  Almost immediately, the film disarms the viewer with a powerful sense of place, and the impression of a malevolent intelligence working behind the scenes.

When the monsters do finally take center stage, the film shifts into a different gear all-together. The slow-motion photography that frequently showcases the beasts is perhaps a double-edged sword.  On one hand, it gives the creatures a kind of "alien" or unfamiliar sense of movement and grace, and grants their monstrous footsteps a level of gravitas.  They seem to move according to their own laws of nature.

On the other hand, the slow-motion photography also reveals, fully, the costumes.  Gargoyles (deservedly) won an Emmy for its special effects, but fully-costumed, head-to-toe monsters are hard to vet well, especially if you show them (well lit) so frequently. The masks/make-ups by Stan Winston and Ellis Burman remain exquisite, but in some cases -- probably because of superior DVD clarity -- you can make out that the Gargoyles seem to be wearing tights/pants.  You shouldn't let this inhibit your enjoyment of the movie, however.

For the latter half of Gargoyles proves effective, and unsettling by developing the character of the lead Gargoyle, a sinister but intriguing character played by Bernie Casey and given vocal, icy life by Vic Perrin, the Outer Limits "Control Voice."

There's a malevolent, clever intellect at work in this Gargoyle's voice and dialogue.  He is truly a monster to be reckoned with.  He's not merely a dumb brute or savage beast, but an intelligent, curious, and yes, often diabolical being.

Late in the film, for instance, the Gargoyle captures Diana and forces her to read human books to him, so he can gain an increased understanding of his enemy.  There's a definite Beauty and the Beast vibe happening here, and in one suggestive moment, Diana reads the diary of a woman from 1417 AD who was visited in her bedroom --and  seduced -- by a Gargoyle.

Nothing remotely physical or sexual actually occurs between the Gargoyle and Diana in the film, but this scene scintillates with danger, uncertainty, curiosity, and the undercurrent of forbidden sexuality.

In one provocative moment, the Gargoyle approaches Diana, probing aggressively into her physical space, and informs her that he is "curious" about her.

If this admission from the Gargoyle is coupled with the scene of his first approach -- wherein he caresses an unconscious Diana and seems to cover her prone body with his own --  the idea of forbidden "attraction" between Gargoyle and human seems inescapable.

And make no mistake, in some weird, twisted way, the Gargoyle is a beautiful, regal and even attractive creature. He has dignity, poise, stature...and icy intelligence.   And that description, of course, fits the very nature of evil as we sometimes understand it: it sometimes carries a wicked, seductive allure.

Here, the mystery of the Evil "Other," is quite powerful, and the scenes between Diana and the Gargoyle compensate for some of the less-than-overwhelming heroics that dominate the last few minutes of the film.  

Also noteworthy about Gargoyles is the film's sense of imagination regarding Earth's "secret history."

The film suggests that man and Gargoyle have been locked in a war over the generations, and that the Devil's children are real, and perhaps possess an equal and rightful claim to the Earth.  Even more than that, there are points in the film, including the climax, wherein Dr. Boley reveals compassion for the Gargoyles.  Early on, when a Gargoyle is struck dead in the street by a passing truck, Dr. Boley notes that it seemed afraid, just like a human being would.

I find this degree of sympathy for "the monster" an endlessly fascinating touch, because the voice-over narration at film's commencement establishes, without a doubt, that the Gargoyles are born of Evil, and therefore evil themselves.  Yet when we meet the Gargoyles, we immediately recognize such human characteristics as pride, lust, and even the survival instinct.   

Can we treat the enemies of mankind with compassion?  Is this actually sympathy for the devil?

Thus Gargoyles forges the subtle argument that just because one is born of evil does not mean that such evil must be one's destiny.  The Gargoyles can choose to be different, perhaps. I wonder, do they possess the same "free will" as man?

Regardless, in allowing the Gargoyle and his winged mate to escape, Dr. Boley saves his daughter's life. But has he also assured, through his behavior that -- at some juncture -- a truce is possible between these two races?

Read a little deeper however, and I suspect, on some level at least, that Gargoyles is actually a horror treatise concerning race and race relations in America.

For instance, there's the specter of forbidden love between a white woman and "monster" here (as well as the concurrent mythologizing of the ethnic "Other" as a kind of sexual Goliath).  The diary speaks of the seduced woman's frenzy, but does not make clear if that frenzy is terror, sexual, or some unique (and pleasurable?) combination thereof.

In Gargoyles, you also see the idea of a separate ethnic group existing within our national borders, seeking to redress past wrongs. And as the lead Gargoyle states, this is the end of "our age" and the beginning of his.

In Gargoyles, there is also a well-recorded history of animosity between the two peoples, but also an acknowledgment that in terms of our desires and characteristics, humans and Gargoyles are very much the same creature.  We both fear death.  We both possess "desires." We both love our young.  

In America, alas, we have also witnessed a long and ignoble tradition of people referring to other ethnic groups as Satan's representatives on Earth, and this real life parallel casts the film in a new light.

 If Gargoyles -- children of evil -- and humans can achieve a rapprochement, what's to stop us from healing racial divisions among our own kind?

When Boley lets the Gargoyles go free in the climax rather than burning them in their egg chamber, he is striking a blow, perhaps, for racial justice. He's turning the page on an age old animosity, and re-setting the state of human/gargoyle relations for a more positive future.  Again, the closest parallel I can think of here is Conquest of the Planet of the Apes, which positioned the apes, essentially, as a derided, mistreated ethnic minority.

An in-depth discussion of Gargoyles reminds me that in the 1970s, our pop culture often examined things from a somewhat more nuanced and even-handed place than it does today.  Here, rather than render an entire race extinct, Boley reveals the human qualities of mercy and hope.  In today's genre films, he unlikely would be so forgiving. Rather, he would probably wipe out the Gargoyles without a a second thought.  They are monsters.  Man kills monsters.  Period.

Anyway, there's much more to Gargoyles than meets the eye.  It's an ambitious and heady effort for a "movie of the week" made in 1972. That's one reason it still possesses an avid cult following, I suspect.  I saw it for the first time as a child in the late 1970s -- around the same time I saw Don't Be Afraid of the Dark, I suppose -- and it terrified, intrigued, and fascinated me.

Gargoyles still has that effect on me, all these years later.

Thursday, March 17, 2016

Cult-Movie Review: Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (2008)

In light of this week's announcement regarding a new Indiana Jones film coming in 2019 -- and the resurrection of snarky criticisms about the 2008 entry in the saga, I thought it would be an ideal time to re-post this review.

Although it remains a perennial source of ridicule and scorn for many disenchanted fans, the fourth, much-delayed installment in the Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981) franchise is, overall, a charming throwback to the other entries in the long-lived adventure series.

In fact, Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull serves up  -- in almost identical proportions -- the same mix of dedicated swashbuckling and tongue-in-cheek adventure that made Raiders, Temple of Doom (1984) and The Last Crusade (1989) such pleasurable and memorable cinematic rides. 

Beyond carrying on established franchise tradition, however, this 2008 Indiana Jones adventure also bristles with originality because the filmmakers have moved from the 1930s (and the influence of 1930s movie serials) to the “new” atomic age of the 1950s.

This shift in creative background or “inspiration” permits for a fresh series of visual and thematic influences, and helps to foster a sense of surprise about many of the proceedings.  In short, this is the movie that takes Indiana Jones into the “new” era of 1950s adventure tropes, including flying saucers (or “saucer men”), Tarzan movies, rampaging army ants, and nuclear mushroom clouds.

I appreciate that this Indiana Jones movie takes place in that “new” space, and furthermore, has something positive to say about the process of growing old.  Old age doesn’t have to be about losing people and things…it can be about gaining “knowledge” of one’s self, and one’s family too.

Whatever misgivings I have about Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, I would not give up the chance to see Indiana Jones, twenty years later, and see what the adventurer has made of his life.

In 1957, a caravan of vehicles heads to Hangar 51, the predecessor to legendary Area 51. This caravan is made of up not of U.S. military men, but rather of Russian soldiers, and led by the diabolical Irina Spalko (Cate Blanchett). These foreign soldiers are on a quest for a specific artifact…one that could grant Stalin the power to control the minds of all Americans: a crystal skull.

To help them locate this artifact in the vast Hangar 51, the Russkies have captured archaeologist and war hero Indiana Jones (Harrison Ford).
In 1947, he was part of the team that investigated the UFO crash at Roswell, where the alien skull was first tagged, and Spalko believes he can locate the corpse.

After being betrayed by a colleague, Mac (Ray Winston), Indy escapes Russian custody in an experimental rocket sled, but ends up on the grounds of a nuclear bomb testing site.  Again, he barely escapes death when a test bomb is detonated.
Sometime later, Indy teams up with Mutt Williams (Shea LeBeouf) a young, rebellious man who reports that Indy’s old colleague, Harold Oxley (John Hurt) has disappeared somewhere in Peru.  On suspension at his college, Indy agrees to help the lad find “Ox.”
 Locating the missing archaeologist however, will not be easy, and the journey involves solving the riddle of the legend of the crystal skulls, and locating a lost city of gold called Akatar.
When Indy and Mutt are captured on this quest by Spalko, they find Oxley and also Marion Ravenwood (Karen Allen), Mutt’s mother.
Indy realizes that Mutt is actually his son, but has little time to contemplate the revelation, for he must keep the secret of the Crystal Skulls and Akatar out of avaricious Soviet hands.

Okay…so why is there so much enduring, vehement, non-stop hate for Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull

In part, some fans don’t wish to welcome “aliens” into this particular movie universe. For those fans the inclusion of extra-terrestrials in an Indiana Jones film feels like a creative misstep, perhaps even desperation.  Is this an adventure franchise, or a sci-fi franchise? 

(The answer: it’s both.  Raiders of the Lost Ark opened up, just a crack, the idea of non-human intelligence in the notion of the Ark of the Covenant as a “radio transmitter” to beings not of this Earth.)

Others, it must be said, simply cannot get past Harrison Ford’s advanced age here, though many fans -- this one included --  will be lucky indeed to be in such good physical shape at age seventy. 

I still remember reading a series of posts at Ain’t It Cool in which sarcastic talk-bakers devised geriatric-sounding titles for the next Indiana Jones adventures.  The titles were funny, but the tone was disrespectful and unnecessarily harsh.  It’s strange, isn’t it, how fans can demand that William Shatner return to the role of James T. Kirk at his advanced age, while complaining when Harrison Ford gets the opportunity to play Indiana Jones one more time?

Even more fans tend to find Kingdom’s action scenes -- like the trademark “nuke the fridge” moment -- preposterous and even a bit campy.  (And this criticism fits in with a popular narrative about George Lucas “losing it” regarding his blockbuster movie-making instincts).

The real underlying issue with all those complaints, however, stems from just one problem. 

To put this bluntly: our pop culture had clearly moved on in 2008 in terms of what it demanded from films, vis-à-vis “realism.”

To wit,  in 1984, Indiana Jones jumped out of a plane on an inflatable rubber raft, survived the fall, raced down a snowy mountain, and then successfully navigated a waterfall…all without getting a scratch, or even losing his hat. 

The “nuke the fridge” moment in Kingdom of the Crystal Skull is absolutely no more ludicrous than that inflatable raft scene in Temple of Doom.   Yet audience tastes have changed dramatically, and modern audiences don’t buy the “nuke the fridge” set-piece in the way that viewers in 1984 accepted the raft cliffhanger.  Nor do they buy “aliens” in an adventure film, or a geriatric hero defeating bad guys.  “Realism” is not served by these creative choices, and so these choices are, widely in some cases, derided.

To some extent, Kingdom of the Crystal Skull’s most serious genre competitor at the box office in the summer of 2008 bears out my theory. Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight re-imagines Batman as a “realistic” superhero to an extent never seen before in film history.  In this vision, Gotham City is a real metropolis, not one created with CGI effects or matte paintings and the Batmobile is an experimental military vehicle, built in war-time. 

Even the sense of movie romance is gone: Batman doesn’t save the film’s damsel in-distress…she gets blown up!  This is another reflection of 21st century “realism.”  Gazing at the film objectively, it’s fair to state that virtually every imaginative and fantasy element has been shunted from the Batman format so as to make it feel “real” (and very unlike the “camp” 1960s TV series, or the Schumacher movie entries).

I’m not saying that this development is bad, per se, or that The Dark Knight’s interpretation of the Batman myth is invalid.  Rather, I’m pointing out that the great sweep of film history is away from theatricality and artifice and towards naturalism and realism.

Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull is -- in broad terms -- a movie that achieves the same things in the same ways as the previous movies of the Indiana Jones cycle.   Yet this time -- and largely for the first time – some audiences weren’t with the filmmakers for the ride.  Movie-goers had moved on to a new and more “realistic” movie paradigm, the very paradigm expressed by The Dark Knight and in the new, grounded interpretation of James Bond we saw in Casino Royale (2006).

In short, Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull arrived when old movie franchises were being re-booted and updated to appeal to modern sensibilities, and even at the same time that the horror film genre was moving in an identical direction: towards ever-more realism with found footage movies. 

But the creative approach of Kingdom of the Crystal Skull didn’t take any of this into account. The film is made in the exact same style as the earlier pictures, and with the same creative conceits in place.  Instead of being lauded for consistency, however, the film is despised for failing to “live up” to modern expectations.

When people complain that this fourth Indiana Jones film boasts the wrong tone or is somehow campy, they are both right and wrong in the assertion. 

Yes, the film is campier than The Dark Knight or Casino Royale, if by the term “campy” one means that the film knowingly “stretches” reality for purposes of fantasy and humor.  

But at the same time, Kingdom of the Crystal Skull carries on with the very approach that made Raiders of the Lost Ark so popular in its day.  It is canny and clever about how it deploys movie influences, and how it operates as a pastiche of those influences.

One way to gain a better appreciation of Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull and its relative value within the Indiana Jones franchise is to watch all four Indy films over a period of days.  In that regard, Crystal Skull hardly stands out as being of a lesser or even different quality.  In fact, it’s remarkably of a piece with the other three films. 

It’s just -- plainly -- not in step with the kind of films being made now.  I leave it up to you, individually, to judge which approach you prefer.  I’m not trying to champion one film or one approach over the other, only illuminate why Kingdom of the Crystal Skull is not a betrayal of the Indian Jones series, only, perhaps, out-of-step with “modern” Hollywood filmmaking.

I will go out on this limb, however. Personally, I enjoy Kingdom of the Crystal Skull more than I do The Last Crusade (1989) because of the new and different 1950s context.  Spielberg and Lucas had already shown us the 1930s movie serials universe ably in the first trilogy and by the last film in the original cycle, I felt ready to move on.

Well, this film does move on, and Kingdom of the Crystal Skull benefits from a whole universe of new influences.  Just as Raiders of the Lost Ark did, Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull contains visual allusions to our communal past -- and to our beloved movie traditions and history -- in a very deliberate and specific way. In short, the movie pulls visual “quotations” from popular films of the 1950s, and weaves them into the narrative so that audiences realize they are seeing not a “real” story of 1957, but rather a story set in the universe of silver screen adventures from that span, or that decade.

The ants of The Naked Jungle (1954)
The ants of Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (2008)
In brief, Indiana Jones and The Kingdom of the Crystal Skull features a deliberate homage to Charlton Heston’s The Naked Jungle (1954) in its march of man-eating ants. In the film's central premise, and in a cool bit of production design, one will detect resonances of Invasion of the Saucer Men (1957) and Earth versus the Flying Saucers (1956). 
The saucers of Earth vs. The Flying Saucers (1956).

The saucer of Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull.
Additionally, in Mutt's "juvenile delinquent" world, and Indy's reaction to it, there are traces of teen or “juvenile delinquent” films of the day such as Rebel without a Cause (1955), and motorcycle films like The Wild One (1953).

Marlon Brando in The Wild One (1953)

Mutt Williams in Indiana Jones and The Kingdom of the Crystal Skull.
Even the detonation of an atomic bomb and Indy's survival of a nuclear blast with no deleterious side-effects from fall-out also alludes, tongue in cheek-style to such "educational" films as 1952's Duck and Cover, which implored "You must learn to find shelter!" (like a refrigerator?) during a nuclear attack. Thus, one way to enjoy this film is simply as a time capsule of 1950s influences.  And again, one must note that the film is not meant to be “real” but a fantasy set in the world of Hollywood 1950s movies.
The “nuke the fridge” moment has been widely ridiculed by fans, and even become an Internet meme, but again, one must consider the world of 1950s film that Crystal Skull emulates.  Those movies were constantly -- as in the case of Duck and Cover -- undercutting the danger of atomic warfare.  In this “movie” universe, that blasé approach to nuclear attack and the dangers of fall-out represents reality, itself, and that fact helps to explain why Jones survives in the movie.  He is not defying the laws of science.  He survives according to (1950) movie laws of science.

Nuked Refrigerator
Despite all the criticism of the “nuke the fridge” sequence in the film, I find it powerful and worthwhile within the context of the Indiana Jones films.  In Raiders of the Lost Ark (1936) we saw man humbled before God’s wrath in the finale, and a kind of “storm of death” sweep away the remnants of Belloq and the Nazis. 
In Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull we get a book-end visual: Indiana Jones facing a tempest of a different sort; a man made “storm of fire” in that nuclear mushroom. 

Man’s technology has reached a dangerous place in Jones’ life-time and now man is “playing God” with Earth and the environment.  In other words, Indiana Jones goes from living in a pre-nuclear world of relative innocence and “faith,” to the “apocalypse mentality,” technological world, post-Hiroshima.

The Age of God, and Indiana Jones is there.

The Age of Man, and Indiana Jones is there.

Man’s irresponsible use of the atom bomb is directly compared in the film with the power of the alien beings.  They created a city where their “treasure” is “knowledge.”  Yet mankind does not see “knowledge” as a treasure for its own sake.  Spalko seeks another weapon of mass destruction -- like the atom bomb -- that can bring the Western powers to their knees. Spalko (and by extension the Russians) see knowledge as the opportunity to create terror, not as an end itself.

Outside all the visual allusions to films of the 1950s, I appreciate that Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull doesn’t attempt to pretend that no time has passed. 

This Indiana Jones is a very different man than the one we last met in 1938.  He has lost his father and Brody, and he broods that he’s gotten to the point where life doesn’t give him things.  It only “takes them away.” 

Then, throughout the course of the film, Indy’s observation is proven determinedly wrong-headed as life gives him a wife…and a son.  Those things he thought were lost forever are not lost at all, but within his grasp.  The film acknowledges the melancholy nature of growing older.  You know more than you once did, and are perhaps wiser, but your channels of opportunity are also narrower.  Here, Jones swings across that chasm, and finds a happy ending.  Who wouldn’t want that for him, and what’s so wrong with him finding that happiness?  Not dark and angsty enough?

When I watched this film again recently, I came to the (surprising...) conclusion that Crystal Skull features the same weaknesses and the same strengths as other series entries. If you liked those films, there's no particularly compelling reason not to like this one too. All the Indiana Jones films are essentially non-stop roller coaster rides and pastiches that hop with cinematic dexterity from jaunty dialogue scenes to exaggerated, over-the-top action sequences.

That pretty much describes Kingdom of the Crystal Skull too.

You know, I've even heard people complain about the two-dimensional nature of the Russian villains in this film. 

Like the Nazis were really handled with three-dimensional maturity in Raiders and Last Crusade?  They, like the Russians here, are treated in Hollywood fashion as pure movie villains. seems clear that Lucas and Spielberg aren't in the realism business here.  Instead, they're playing the same stellar game they did in 1981, 1984 and 1989.  They’re creating an adventure within the context of a beloved movie past (in this case the cinema of the 1950s), and they’re doing it with a sense of robust, larger-than-life style.

In other words, sometimes, they do make 'em like they used to.

But some of us can’t appreciate this fact, because the new productions don’t have the warm glow of nostalgia upon them. 

Movie Trailer: Indiana Jones and Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (2008)

Wednesday, March 16, 2016

(More) Action Figures of the Week: Battlestar Galactica (Mattel)

In 1978, Glen Larson’s Battlestar Galactica premiered on ABC television amid a merchandising and toy blitz from Mattel. 

The toy company released several small-size Colonial ships (and a Cylon Raider…), two large figures and a line of smaller, three-inch figures as well.

Released in the first Mattel figure series were Commander Adama (“the wise statesman,”) Lieutenant Starbuck (“flight leader”), The Imperious Leader (“Sinister Mastermind”), the Cylon Centurion (“evil warrior”), the Ovion (“Insect Enemy”) and Muffit the daggit (“robot pet.”)

The human figures -- Starbuck and Adama -- came garbed with capes and Colonial laser pistols but oddly, their faces boasted no color or facial detail.  The eyes and mouth were left unpainted, giving them a kind of “blank” pallor. 

The Cylon came with a fierce-looking, show-accurate rifle, and the Ovion was garbed in a kind of webby yellow shawl.

The second series of Mattel Battlestar Galactica figures consisted of the traitor Baltar, his robotic number one, Lucifer, a golden Cylon Commander, and a pig monster called a Boray from the episode “The Magnificent Warriors.”

There are two big omissions here as you likely noticed from the above tally. 

First, no Captain Apollo action figure was produced, and this is roughly akin to releasing a Star Wars line without Luke Skywalker, or a Star Trek line without Captain Kirk. 

Secondly, no female figures were produced.  I can understand why no Cassiopiea wasn’t made, given her non-kiddie designation as a“socialator” (prostitute…). But why on Earth wasn’t an Athena figure released?  Athena (Maren Jensen) was a shuttle pilot and bridge officer, for goodness sake.  I can’t think of another 1970s action-figure toy line off-hand (from Mego Star Trek, Black Hole and Buck Rogers to Kenner Star Wars to Mattel Space: 1999) that featured no female characters. 

At the time -- as a nine year-old kid -- the bigger concern for me was the glaring lack of a Captain Apollo figure.  I would sub-in a Han Solo figure, but the hair wasn’t right, obviously, and neither was the costuming.

I have very fond memories of my Granny from Texas, Tippie, buying me several of these Mattel BSG figures (and even doubling up on the Cylons so I could create an army…), and how thrilled I was to have them.  

Today, I still have all my original figures, though they are very heavily played with, and a few mint-in-box.  If memory serves, Lucifer is among the rarest and most prized of the bunch.

Battlestar Galactica Rub n'Play Magic Transfer Set


Battlestar Galactica Hallowen Costume (Collegeville Edition)

Battlestar Galactica Colorforms

Action Figures of the Week: Battlestar Galactica Cylon Centurian and Colonial Warrior

“In the far reaches of space, human colonies were founded by a legendary mother race.  The Colonials are their descendants.  Now, in the seventh millennium of time, these freedom-loving humans try once again for peace with their rivals, the evil, non-human Cylons.  On an errand of peace, the Colonial fleet is treacherously attacked.  The battle lines are drawn again.  Now it’s Colonials against non-human Cylons.  The epic struggle resumes.”

-From Mattel’s Battlestar Galactica Colonial Warrior and Cylon Centurion Box Art, circa 1979.

In 1979, the Star Wars (1977) toy and movie craze was still going strong, and Mattel acquired the license to Glen Larson’s new outer space series, Battlestar Galactica (1978 – 1979). It produced many toys for the line, including small toy ships (Vipers, Cylon Raiders, stellar probe, Scarab, etc.), as well as a full line of 3-inch figures.

In addition, however, Mattel manufactured two large, 12-inch figures, the Colonial Warrior and his enemy, The Cylon Centurion.   The figures shared the same body mold, which was actually a re-cast or re-use of a character called Captain Lazer” (“Major Matt Mason’s Friend from Outer Space") in the late 1960s.  This wasn't the first time Mattel had re-purposed old space toys.  Their Space: 1999 Moonbase Alpha set, for instance, featured a "star flash" computer that was also, actually, a Matt Mason toy.

Both BSG action figures came complete with a large black backpack and a “pump” that when pressed would activate the lights on their crystalline-appearing energy weapons, and in the Cylon's case, his chest light or "heart."  These energy weapons came with a variety of strange extensions, of different shapes, and made “star system sounds.”  

Additionally, the Cylon Centurion’s tell-tale red “eye” could be moved back and forth in his robotic skull by a horizontal lever on the back of his helmet.

The Colonial Warrior was a blond-haired, elfin-looking fellow garbed in a tan vest, who failed to resemble Apollo or Starbuck to even a slight degree.  In fact, he appeared to have slightly pointed ears and up-swept eyebrows, granting that kind of “fantasy" elf impression.  I remember, when my aunt Patty and Uncle Bob bought me these great toys for my birthday, the first thing I did was paint the Colonial Warrior’s hair brown.

Somewhere along the line, I managed to lose my customized Colonial Warrior.  I still have in my home office the Cylon Centurion, complete with his chrome chest-plate, though his “laser pistol” extensions are all broken or gone at this late date.  

Tribute: Sylvia Anderson (1927 - 2016)

Sadly, the press has today reported the death of Sylvia Anderson (1927 - 2016), producer and long-time creative partner in the colorful and creative TV/film world of Gerry Anderson.

Sylvia Anderson began her career working as a production assistant on such programs as The Adventures of Twizzle (1957-1959), and Torchy the Battery Boy (1960). 

She also worked as dialogue director on Supercar (1961-1962) and soon became famous and beloved for voicing Lady Penelope on the classic series Thunderbirds (1965).

Many TV historians also credit Sylvia Anderson with the unique, unforgettable look and style of live-action cult-series UFO (1970) and Space:1999 (1975-1977) Year One.  

Ms. Anderson also produced the films Thunderbirds are Go (1966), Thunderbird 6 (1968) and Journey to the Far Side of the Sun (1969).

In 1991, Ms. Anderson penned her autobiography, Yes M'Lady, which chronicled her time as a formative and important force in the Anderson-verse.

Sylvia Anderson's contributions to cult-TV will live on for decades, but her presence -- and her singular voice -- will be much missed.  My deepest condolences go out to her family.

Trading Cards of the Week: Battlestar Galactica (Topps)

Model Kits of the Week: Battlestar Galactica (Monogram)

Lunch Box of the Week: Battlestar Galactica (Aladdin)