Saturday, June 18, 2016

Saturday Morning Cult-TV Blogging: Blackstar: "Tree of Evil" (November 7, 1981)

After escaping The Overlord’s latest trap, Blackstar and Klone return to the Sagar Tree only to find it in a dark sinister forest.  The tree itself is inhabited by twisted, evil trobbits.

Blackstar and Klone realize they have fallen into another trap, and that the Overlord has grown an evil tree to vex them, one that can create through seed pods evil versions of all their friends.  

The evil tree even conjures a diabolical version of Blackstar…

“Tree of Evil” is the “Mirror, Mirror” of Filmation’s Blackstar (1981), one might rightly conclude.  

In this story, heroes stumble upon an evil mirror of their own world and encounter evil duplicates of their friends.  Of course, in this case, all this does not happen in an alternate universe, but merely another forest.  There's also a touch of Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1954/1978) here since the evil spawns from pods.

The primary question “Tree of Evil” raises, however, is: how come Blackstar and friends never knew about this forest before? 

And why -- other than a bad sense of direction, perhaps -- do they mistake it for their own home?

It seems to me that if the evil forest is close enough to be mistaken for the “good” forest, then the two must be side-by-side, or at least in close proximity.  And if the evil forest is far from the good Sagar Tree and trobbits, how does Blackstar end up there?

This is likely a spot in which the “kiddie” nature of the series works against the overall series.  As adults, these are not difficult questions to ask.  Maybe, as children, we just glossed over them.

On the other hand, one might argue that the “how” of this story is less-important than the aura of creepy dread  that “Tree of Evil” creates.  The evil forest and its minions certainly make for some of the most menacing villains featured on the series. 

In terms of episode rankings, I’d rate “Tree of Evil” relatively high because of the evil, fairy tale forest, and the “dark” trobbits. 

Overall, the plot is the same as always -- an evil scheme by the Overlord vexes Blackstar -- but the mechanism of that scheme (an evil duplicate of the Sagar Tree and its inhabitants) is a fresh touch.

Next week: “The Air Whales of Anchar.”

Saturday Morning Cult-TV Flashbak: Flash Gordon: "The Freedom Balloon" / "Sacrifice of the Volcano Men" (October 23, 1982)

In “The Freedom Balloon,” Flash and Dale are captured by mutants, led by the evil Racar. Fortunately, Flash has been watching history tapes about cowboys and westerns at the library in Arboria and knows just the ticket to escape enslavement: a hot air balloon.

In “Sacrifice of the Volcano Men,” Thun is captured by vicious ape men and taken to Volcano City. There, he is to be fed to the active volcano as a living sacrifice to the ape man God.

Only two more episodes of Flash Gordon (1979-1982) to go, but the second season has more than worn out its welcome by this time.  

These fifteen minute stories are hobbled by hoary narratives, and rendered dopey by the ubiquitous presence of trouble-prone sidekick, Gremlin.  Worse, Flash acts more like first season Buck Rogers (Gil Gerard) than like his dependable, stolid self in this batch of episodes.  He has a wise crack for every scenario, every danger.

I don’t know what it is about Saturday morning shows and hot air balloons, but every 1970s series -- from Land of the Lost (1974-1977) to Valley of the Dinosaurs (1974) -- seems to feature an episode about one.  “The Freedom Balloon” is Flash Gordon’s version.  

The big question to ask here is why Flash is watching library tapes about Westerns on Arboria, a kingdom on distant Mongo…

The second story in this half-hour is just as clichéd as the first. Thun is captured so as to be a sacrifice to a volcano God.  That is also the plot of “An Act of Love,” a 1977 episode of The Fantastic Journey.

I suppose one could make the argument that Flash Gordon season two is attempting to function as a pastiche of 1930s serials, reviving old tropes like The Most Dangerous Game, or the volcano god.  But the stories are told without flair and without regard to context.. They are without any sort of fresh touch at all, and feel long, even for their brief length.

Next week: “Beware of Gifts” / “The Memory Bank of Ming”

Friday, June 17, 2016

Cult-TV Movie Review: The Archer: Fugitive from the Empire (1981)

I was just eleven years old when The Archer: Fugitive from the Empire (1981) first aired on NBC in prime time.  Although that premiere event was a long, long time ago, I distinctly remember the TV-movie (and back-door pilot...) being announced on-air as the first of several TV adventures set in a fantasy universe created by writer and director Nicholas Corea (1943 – 1999).

To my disappointment, no additional adventures ever appeared.  

And adding insult to injury, The Archer: Fugitive from the Empire has never been officially released on DVD, though Universal Studios did put out a VHS release back in 1987, which I tracked down and screened for this retrospective.

Other countries, it seems, have done a little bit better by the TV-movie.  It has been released under the title The Archer and the Sorceress in parts of Europe, I understand.

I was very eager to see this made-for-TV film for the first time in over thirty-years because I possess such strong memories of the imagery from The Archer.  

These images -- including Snake Men warriors rising out of the ground to ambush unwary travelers, or the beautiful Sorceress Estra (Belinda Bauer) and her fearsome tomb guardian -- gained a foothold in my young psyche all those years ago, and they remain strong enough that I have never forgotten them.

Re-watching the telefilm in the 21st century, I could see why my young mind was so drawn to this fantasy adventure.

It features great visualizations of an “acid lake” (which an unlucky Snake Man falls into, face first...), involves a sentient (or at least conscious) mystical weapon called “The Heart Bow,” and showcases a great villainous performance by Marc Alaimo -- DS9’s Gul Dukat -- as a traitor named Sandros who seems cut from the same diabolical cloth as John Colicos’ Baltar.  Genocide is hardly a consideration when personal power is at stake.

Additionally, Belinda Bauer is absolutely smoldering and sexy as the sorceress Estra, and the ubiquitous Vasquez Rocks even makes an appearance in the latter-half of the film.

But clearly, and I mean this without negative judgment, fantasy television has come a long way since 1981, as Game of Thrones (2011 - ) testifies. The Archer: Fugitive from the Empire is an intriguing and ambitious production, but one saddled with a low budget, and some poor acting.  Yet despite such abundant drawbacks, the productions also boasts some memorable interludes.

The Archer: Fugitive from the Empire is set in a fantasy world, “in a time that may have been, or a time that still might be.”  A voice-over narrator explains in detail how the warring people of Malveel are imperiled by an Invasion of the Dynasty, a force led by Gar the Draikin (Kabir Bedi) and his army of Snake People.

The King of Malveel, Brakus (George Kennedy) wants to join together all the barbarian tribes of his land to repel the invasion of the Dynasty, but is betrayed by the cowardly Sandros, and then murdered.  Brakus’s son Toran (Lane Caudell) is framed for the King’s murder, and he must flee the land, lest he be killed too.

After accepting ownership of a mystical weapon called “The Heart Bow” which can vanquish enemies with explosive power, Toran sets out to find Lazar-Sa, the legendary wizard who may be able to train him, and help him restore his kingdom.  

But the Goddess Estra (Bauer) presents both a love-interest and an obstacle for Toran.  She wishes to avenge the spirit of her Mother, who was murdered by Lazar-Sa years earlier…

The first observation I should probably make here is that I watched The Archer: Fugitive from the Empire on a 26-year old VHS tape  

The color palette was dark and darker, and the sound was muddy to say the least. These factors surely hindered a pleasurable viewing to a great degree.  In other words, the movie probably looks a lot worse here than it otherwise would on an official new release, all things being equal.

But even outside the problems with the medium of VHS, I could still detect how The Archer suffers tremendously from its insufficient budget.  It features a lot of familiar-looking TV actors wearing bad wigs, bad costumes, and mouthing incomprehensible, declamatory exposition. Indeed, even the persistent voice-over narrations can’t fully explain all the byzantine intricacies of the nation of Malveel and its storied history.  

On the one hand, I admire Corea for so clearly taking the fantasy milieu seriously.  This TV-movie premiered just as D&D was really taking off in the pop culture, and with Conan: The Barbarian (1982) on the horizon, so he must have sensed there was an opportunity to treat the genre in a grown-up, respectful fashion.  

Accordingly, Corea doesn’t play his movie for laughs, or mistake the adventure for high-camp. Additionally, it’s clear that the writer devised a lengthy and intricate history for his fictional world, and had really thought that history through.  

Yet on the other hand, the ambition to impart so much meaningful information about his fantasy universe in just 97 minutes renders much of the action and relationships baffling.   The "bigger" story of Malveel keeps getting in the way of telling a compelling story about Toran's heroic quest.

The current iteration of dramatic narrative television, best exemplified by Game of Thrones, allows for a complex world to be introduced almost literally a kingdom at a time, with the grand action moving only a chess-piece at a time, or a chapter at a time, so that viewers come to understand character motivations, alliances, history, and other important factors.  By contrast, the storytelling style of 1981 offers The Archer: Fugitive from the Empire no such safe harbor, and so the narrative and characterizations are, frankly, a bit of a mess.

Still, even though the surfeit of ambition collides repeatedly with the tele-film's paucity of budget, some elements of The Archer: Fugitive from the Empire yet shine.  

The Snake Men, for instance, are rendered in frightening and believable make-up.  In fact, this make-up holds up very well both in terms of the series’ contemporaries (such as V [1983]) and in terms of today’s special effects expectations.  Additionally, some of the staging with the Snake Men, particularly their first appearance as they rise -- in slow motion -- from a leafy dirt bed to attack unwitting sojourners, remains impressive.'

I also like how the Heart Bow vanquishes enemies.  An arrow strikes an opponent, and it looks like a grenade has detonated on their torsos...

Finally, Belinda Bauer remains beguiling as Estra.  I have long been an admirer of Bauer’s work, in genre films such as Timerider (1982) and TV efforts such as Airwolf and Starcrossed (1985).  In her many roles, she often combined exotic or erotic beauty with a sense of fragile strength or power, and such qualities ares put to perfect use in the film.  Every time Bauer is on screen as the vengeful sorceress, the movie automatically gets more interesting.

The Archer’s obsession with the Heart Bow also brought back memories for me of Krull (1983), and the glaive, another mystical weapon found on a different heroic quest.  But that fantasy film had a visual sweep  and majesty that the comparatively low-budget The Archer simply can’t muster.

It's always tough when nostalgia meets reality, and I can't honestly claim that The Archer: Fugitive from the Empire lived up to my enthusiastic youthful memories of it.   The images I had remembered from my youth remain vibrant, but at times the movie just seems to drone on, one talky-scene after the next. The last half of the film is particularly dull, and some scenes with "humorous" towns-folk are positively cringe-inducing.

Still, I'd love to see a cleaner print of The Archer: Fugitive from the Empire, and watch this old tele-film under ideal viewing conditions.

Thursday, June 16, 2016

The Films of 1957: A Face in the Crowd

Based on the 1955 short story by Bud Schulberg, “Your Arkansas Traveler,” Elia Kazan’s A Face in the Crowd (1957) is the cautionary tale of an American demogogue’s rise to -- and fall from -- power. A demagogue might be defined, broadly, as a “political leader who seeks support by appealing to popular desires and prejudices rather than rational argument.”

The film focuses on "Lonesome" Larry Rhodes (Andy Griffith), a small-time crook and fraud plucked from obscurity in a county jail in Arkansas by a radio programmer, Marcia Jeffries (Patricia O’Neal). She is seeking “local color” for her radio show, and Rhodes can spin a story and sing a folk tune like no other.  

Marcia's search for an audience -- ratings, in modern lingo -- gives the charismatic but malicious Rhodes both exposure and a public platform. Before long, he’s moved to a bigger radio market. Then he transitions to national TV, talking politics and “telling it like it is” to a receptive, low-information audience that hangs on his every word and believes his every (false) piety.

Rhode’s rise to fame and fortune is aided and abetted by his sponsors and his network. They see his viewership swell to 65 million people. That's a lot of consumers who will buy products from sponsors.

A drunk, misogynist, mean-spirited narcissist, Rhodes appreciatively soaks up all the adoration and power, coming eventually to believe his own press. 

Eventually, he grows so powerful that he advises a presidential campaign in the art of slogans and sound-byes. He also begins hosting a political program, shrouding extreme right wing, isolationist views under the soothing umbrella of Southern-fried common sense. 

Eventually, Marcia realizes the key to Rhodes’ downfall involves revealing his true colors to the masses that worship his “home-spun” wisdom and apparent “truth telling.

As that synopsis makes clear, A Face in the Crowd is a terrifying story of what can happen to America once “politics has entered a new stage: the TV stage.” 

One man’s hateful, ignorant words -- not to mention resentment and anti-intellectualism -- finds purchase in the psyches of millions of like-minded people. Kazan’s camera cuts, at one point to a veritable forest of TV antennae jutting upwards from the rooftops of an urban jungle in order to make his point. These receiving devices look like metal weeds, growing and stretching upwards to the sky. 

The point, of course, is how the mass media can instantly amplify -- for its own enrichment -- one voice to a volume previously unimaginable in human history. Even Rhodes himself -- in a rare moment of apparent self-awareness – recognizes the danger inherent in this technology and its ability to broadcast an entertaining (albeit dangerous) voice to million.  

Power,” he says, “it’s dangerous. You gotta be a saint.”

But as the film makes plain, Rhodes is no saint. 

His father was a con-man who abandoned the family, and one feels that this is the galvanizing influence in Rhodes’ life. He has never been able to get past his father’s actions, or feel truly confident in himself. Accordingly, he hates authority in all its forms. He hates his father, who abandoned him. He hates the law, which punishes him for infractions. He hates establishment figures, who possess the power he covets. 

Rhodes also hates those who are smarter than he is, like TV writer Mel Miller (Walter Mattthau). Miller represents the education and knowledge that could expose Rhodes as the ignorant lout he is.

One of the most intriguing aspects of the film involves Miller’s impotence in the face of Rhodes’ continuing disdain and hatred for him. We are led to the conclusion that is easier for a demagogue to to hate and attack than it is for a rational person to respond meaningfully to that demagogue. 

That’s undoubtedly because demogogue’s rely on powerful emotions (anger, rage, resentment) and mob-like followers who repeat mindlessly their every word and slogan. Educated intelligent people are like deer in a headlight by comparison, making logical cases and appealing to cerebral arguments.  
Miller simply can’t conceive of the fact that a nativist, bigoted simpleton could have a better innate understanding of human nature and human foibles than he does. But Miller knows what makes his people tick.

Importantly, Miller fails to fully understand his role in Rhodes’ rise. Like Marcia, he is culpable for elevating a demagogue to the status of national treasure. Rhodes is a distraction, a joke, a fad when it is good for Miller’s wallet or career.  

Only later is the coarseness of the superstar a danger to freedom itself.

What’s amazing about Rhodes, the film subtly observes, is the yawning chasm of cognitive dissonance between his public “persona” and his real personality. 

Rhodes lives in a luxurious penthouse apartment, surrounds himself with wealth and women, and covets his TV ratings. In short, he is a coddled, entitled rich man.  But his public shtick -- his fake, media-driven image -- is as “The voice of grass roots wisdom.” 

On stage, he voices syrupy Christian platitudes like “the family that prays together, stays together,” from his humble “cracker-barrel” sound stage. In real life, he is a philanderer who marries a 17 year old girl and then cheats on her.

In real life, he is also being supported by a political establishment that wants his audience’s votes. 

So Rhodes is a text-book fraud. 

He pretends to be a common-sense, salt-of-the-earth, plain talker when in fact he is a messenger boy for the wealthy elite.  Rhodes claims he believes in the common man, but he hates and derides the common man.  

His ambitions are bottomless.  “The whole country is just like my flock of sheep,” he enthuses at one point.

Delightfully, A Face in the Crowd provides a prescription for the destruction of Rhodes and demogogues just like him. 

Realizing she has created a monster, Marcia turns up the studio sound during a live broadcast, and she lets Rhodes hang himself on-air. Believing the sound is off, Rhodes expresses his true feelings for his audience. “I can make ‘em eat dog food like it is steak!” He reports.  

He is so confident in the fact that his followers will mindlessly follow wherever he leads that he actually says he could “murder” people, and they’d still be on his side.

But that’s not the case. He has overestimated his appeal.

The audience at home finally realizes that Larry is not one of them at all. He is an impostor, and just as much a tool of the hated “elite” as any conventional politician or leader. He has not “told them like it is,” at all. 

He has, contrarily, pandered to them in the worst ways possible, and they have taken his words as the God’s honest truth. He has not only played them and abused them at every turn...he has gotten rich doing so.

Kazan finds a clever visual to express Rhodes’ sudden and dramatic fall from grace. We see the elevator lights going down, quickly, in his apartment building, floor to floor. He starts at the penthouse, and drops to ground level, before our eyes, in seconds.  The fall is more than symbolic. It is a meteoric crash he experiences, one even faster than his surprising, relentless rise.

A Face in the Crowd is a terrifying drama in part because of its plausibility. The mass media often gives irresponsible voices of hate, bigotry, and false piety a platform and open mic to influence the nation. 

The film notes the media’s inherent culpability for creating such a demogogue, and rightly so.  If you willingly invite the devil to dance with you, you can’t complain, later, when you don’t like how he treats his dance partner.

The film also thrives because of Griffith’s unforgettable performance. He portrays a monster of such high energy and narcissistic pride. Rhodes is a monster of considerable charisma and, hauntingly, occasional moments of insight. But he has no loyalty or feelings of responsibility to anyone or anything beyond his own self-glorification.  The thought have him possessing real power is terrifying.

A Face in the Crowd is a sobering reminder of how a dangerous, narcissistic demagogue can use and exploit the media (in a symbiotic relationship…) to change the face and values of a whole nation. 

But the film also reminds us how to stop such monsters.  

Journalists, concerned citizens, politicians, and voters all possess a responsibility to see that his “personality finally comes through,” preferably on the very channel that created him.  

When we get wise to him, that’s our strength,” the film knowingly concludes.

The question that makes A Face in the Crowd such an intense, anxiety-provoking experience is one for the ages. 

What happens if we get wise to the demagogue too late?

To answer that interrogative, one need only look at some of the worst historical tragedies of the 20th century.

Movie Trailer: A Face in the Crowd (1957)

Wednesday, June 15, 2016

At Den of Geek: "A Return to Millennium?"

Over at Den of Geek, scholar and writer Matt Allair has penned an article about the campaign to resurrect Chris Carter's Millennium (1996-1999), and, in general, the efforts of series fans.

"Could the commercial success of The X-Files revival prompt a decision to revive Millennium in a limited run? Carter was repeatedly questioned on whether there was a possibility of reviving his beloved cult series during press for The X-Files and maintained that interest was there.

"I can tell you, there is a constant drumbeat to bring back Millennium, and I'm just always so taken back by that..."

Action Figure of the Week: James Bond, Moonraker (Mego; 1979)

In terms of sci-fi movies and collectible toys, 1979 was a banner year. 

Movies such as Star Trek: The Motion Picture, Alien, Buck Rogers in the 25th Century, The Black Hole and Moonraker premiered that year, and every title on that list also saw memorable toys produced by Mego Corp.

I collected toys from all those sci-fi franchises, but never had the full line of Moonraker action-figures, alas. 

Still, I vividly recall seeing these 12.5” -tall action figures on the shelves at Toys R Us and wishing for them.

Recommended for children three and over was this action-figure of Roger Moore as James Bond, described here as “The World’s Greatest Secret Agent…Legendary Commander 007.”  On the box is emblazoned the legend: “Action-packed Spy Adventures in the Fabulous Realm of Space.”

The most amusing facet of the action-figure, however, is that Bond wears a (loose) bow tie over his space suit.

Other figures in the “fully articulated, fully poseable” line included Holly Goodhead, the menacing Jaws and Drax. I remember seeing all of the figures in stores many times, save for Drax, and to this day, Jaws fetches a pretty penny on E-Bay.

What makes this particular Bond toy special and memorable to me is that Moonraker represents the first occasion since the 1960s, I believe, that James Bond action-figures were mass produced and widely available.  This is the first time, in other words, Bond was in toy stores in his 1970s Roger Moore persona.

I also had a Moonraker model kit in 1979, which, of course, was merely a space shuttle model with special decals.

Moonraker Shuttle (Corg; 2003)

Moonraker GAF Viewmaster

Halloween Costume of the Week: James Bond, Moonraker (Collegeville)

Model Kits of the Week: Moonraker (Airfix and Revell)

Trading Cards of the Week: Moonraker (Topps; 1979)

Moonraker: To Color, Cut out and Fly!

Tuesday, June 14, 2016

Star Trek 50th Anniversary Blogging: "This Side of Paradise" (March 2, 1967)

Stardate 3417.3.

This 25th episode of Star Trek (which first aired March 2, 1967) sees the U.S.S. Enterprise arrive at planet Omicron Ceti III. The crew had expected to find the colonists assigned there dead due to exposure to poisonous Berthold Rays, but instead, everyone on the planet appears healthy, happy, and content. 

The rub, of course, is that alien plants -- spores -- are keeping the human colonists alive. But the spores are strange parasites that also take away the colonists' will to work, to produce, to do anything but experience constant bliss. Is it an idyllic existence..or a trap, an inhuman nightmare?

As Captain Kirk (William Shatner) puzzles this mystery out, Spock (Leonard Nimoy) encounters an old flame, Leila Kalomi (played by the lovely Jill Ireland). On Earth, and in public, Spock could never acknowledge that he loved this young woman, but once infected by the Omicron spores, Mr. Spock can finally do just that. He can finally be happy. 

Unfortunately, when the deleterious spores are transported aboard the Enterprise, they cause a suddenly euphoric crew to mutiny, leaving stubborn Captain Kirk all alone on his ship, determined to remove the influence of the spores once and for all...

"This Side of Paradise" came about late in the first season, after the series original story editor, John D.F. Black had departed. So had the series' second story editor, Steven Carabatsos. Accordingly Gene Roddenberry approached D.C. Fontana about Nathan Butler's story, and told her that he wanted a major re-write on it, and that if she could do it on time -- and to his satisfaction -- he would promote her to story editor. She did the job. And how.

Originally, the story had involved George Takei's character, Mr. Sulu, and was called "The Way of the Spores. Dorothy Fontana, whom I interviewed in 2001, told me how she changed the episode: 

"I read the script and Gene wanted to know my opinion about it. I thought about it and realized that there were a couple of things that weren't working. The love story really had to be about Spock because the situation of the spores offered an opportunity for us to get to his emotions. And as a result of the character switch, the love story just worked."

"The other thing was the technical part of the show," Fontana recounted to me. "How do the spores infect the people? In the original story, you had to go into a cave where the spores were, to be compromised. The answer to that problem was, simply, don't go into the cave! But if the spores were ubiquitous, if they were all over the planet in this flower form, you couldn't escape them. They were going to get you one way or another."

As anyone who has seen this episode can attest, the coda on the bridge is one of the most emotional and touching of the entire Star Trek canon. Spock admits he has never before been truly happy. If you don't get a lump in your throat over that line (and Nimoy's direct delivery of it...) you really are a Vulcan with green ice-water in your veins.  Although the Uhura/Spock relationship in the new Star Trek (2009) is delightful, it certainly undercuts the character history as this episode suggests it.  Clearly -- in that alternate universe -- Spock has experienced happiness.

"The spores gave us an opportunity to see the softer side," Fontana considers, "to find out about the emotions Spock could have."  And indeed, this knowledge that Spock is not a robot, that he suppresses his emotions (also revealed in "The Naked Time"), makes the character far more sympathetic.  

The visuals highlighting episode are also powerful ones in regards to Spock's relationship with Leila.  In one very well-done shot, for instance, a spore stem intersects the frame vertically down the middle, splitting up Spock and Leila.  The composition which suggests that they can never be together except in a place where spores dominate.

Not only is there Spock's first "romantic" relationship to reckon with in "This Side of Paradise," but the episode's social commentary suggests that mankind is an animal who must work, who must toil, who must constantly strive if he is to endure.  We can't go back to the Garden of Eden and live in innocence and bliss.  There are mountains to climbs, roads to build, planets to explore.  The struggle to climb the next summit is the quality that defines us as a species.

A great moment in the coda is Kirk's reflection on the Omicron Ceti III experience. "Maybe we weren't meant for paradise," he suggests, and, indeed, this is a line that resonates all the way through the Star Trek franchise. As late as Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country (1991), Spock seems to be thinking about this very notion. He hangs a painting in his quarters - the expulsion from Paradise. A reminder to him, at that point, that all things must end.

There are Star Trek episodes of cosmic importance -- space battles with Romulans and Klingons and so forth -- but there are few episodes with more heart or humanity than "This Side of Paradise."

Spock's first experience with happiness is unforgettable, and indeed, haunting.

A Crisis in Confidence: The Economic Underpinnings of Time Bandits (1981)

"In a nation that was proud of hard work, strong families, close-knit communities, and our faith in God, too many of us now tend to worship self-indulgence and consumption. Human identity is no longer defined by what one does, but by what one owns. But we've discovered that owning things and consuming things does not satisfy our longing for meaning. We've learned that piling up material goods cannot fill the emptiness of lives which have no confidence or purpose…”
-President Jimmy Carter, July 15, 1979.

“God isn’t interested in technology.”
-Evil Genius (David Warner), Terry Gilliam’s Time Bandits (1981)

One of my favorite genre movies from childhood is Time Bandits (1981), which I saw with my father, Ken Muir, at the Royal Theater in Bloomfield, New Jersey when I was just eleven years old. 

The Terry Gilliam film is a rip-roaring, time-hopping comedy fantasy, and a story dramatized from a child’s perspective. The movie is droll, naughty, and like no other time travel film in sci-fi history. 


Well, for a film that so meticulously diagrams a hierarchy or order to the universe, Time Bandits is, actually relentlessly chaotic. In short, it's about destroying or overturning systems of order, not merely mapping them.

But the irreverent Time Bandits is more than that description suggests, as well.

Above, I quoted President Carter’s famous “malaise” speech of 1979, and in many ways, Time Bandits absolutely feels apiece with that historical context.

Gilliam’s film concerns a child of great imagination and dreams -- Kevin (Craig Warnock) -- who lives with parents that are enthralled with -- nay enslaved to -- “things,” like new appliances.

Where Kevin’s bedroom is filled with objects that spark his unbound imagination, like toys and books, his “zombie” parents simply tune out before the TV set watching brain-cell destroying programming such as “Your Money or Your Life.”

Kevin’s parents you see, must possess the latest tech toys so as to keep up with some external yardstick of success. That's the only way they can feel okay about themselves.

Like President Carter suggested, however, this obsession with things doesn’t seem to make them happy, or even fully alive.

If you’ve seen the film, you’ll remember well what comes next.

Kevin takes a rollicking trip through the space-time continuum with a group of renegade dwarves. 

Their physical dimensions conveniently permit the audience to “see” the world at approximately eye level with Kevin, and therefore to experience the adventure not as a jaded, consumption-concerned adult, but as an imaginative child who questions the way things are. 

To Kevin, life is wondrous, baffling, occasionally terrifying…but never dull. He is all about "tuning in," not tuning out, like his parents do.

Importantly, the film’s (anti)-heroic dwarfs, much like Kevin in his particular domestic situation, are also rebelling against a parental figure or societal structure: The Supreme Being (Ralph Richardson), or God, and his imperfect realm of Existence; the universe itself.

In some ways, the film even seems to suggest, rather boldly, that Authority is always the same, regardless of specific ideology. 

God and Evil (David Warner), are, in a way, one-in-the-same. They are both part of the same (corrupt?) system. Why? They both exist within the boundaries of a corrupt, unequal economic system.

Kevin travels with the bandits, and the film finally involves his reckoning, perhaps, that a rebellious, imaginative and independent mind-set is a quality that one should never surrender, or allow to be chipped away at; one appliance, one game show, one paycheck at a time.

“Dead? No Excuse for laying off work…”

Young, middle class Kevin (Warnock) is surprised when adventure comes to his humdrum middle-class life.

A group of renegade dwarfs in defiance of the Supreme Being (Richardson), have stolen a map to all the “time holes” in creation.  The time bandits travel from time period to time period not to learn or grow, but to loot and pillage, partly out of feelings of resentment towards their Maker, who has not given them proper credit for their contributions to Existence.

Kevin travels with the Time Bandits and is drawn into a remarkable adventure. He visits the deck of the Titanic at sea, France of Napoleon (Ian Holm), the Sherwood Forest of Robin Hood (John Cleese), and meets King Agememnon (Sean Connery) of Ancient Greece.

Unfortunately, Evil (Warner) also desires to possess the Map of Creation, so he can use the time holes for his own, malicious purposes. Kevin and the Time Bandits must there confront the madman in His Fortress of Ultimate Evil…

“The fabric of the universe is far from perfect.”

The crux of Time Bandits seems to be mankind’s uneasy relationship with material things, and therefore, by implicit logic, wealth.  

It’s a story, in some manner, obsessed with economics. Economics, after all, is defined as the study concerned “with the production, consumption, and transfer of material prosperity.”

Kevin’s parents are hyper-focused on the things they can own in the technological 20th century. They covet things, like a two-speed hedge cutter, or a brand new toaster.

Ultimately, those things, symbolized by the toaster, literally kill them.

From the beginning, they are held rapt by the idea of owning new things; things that their neighbors (The Morrisons) do not. 

On TV, an announcer talks about “Moderna Designs and the latest in Kitchen Luxury: The Moderna Wonder Major All Automatic Convenience Center-ette” which “gives you all the time in the world to do the things you really want to do.”  

What do they want to do?  Watch more TV

The Bandits themselves seek to rob and steal from all of Creation. Why? They are God’s workers, and he has not treated them well, or fairly. The bandits work long, unfulfilling hours, and get no credit for what they create.

To the Supreme Being goes all the glory.

So whether the bandits actually loot time and space to be rich, or to thumb their noses at God and his unequal realm is ultimately immaterial. Their status as unhappy workers is the thing which motivates their rebellion. 

At the film’s conclusion, their transgression is also punished, on explicitly economic terms.  The Supreme Being threatens them with “a 19% cut in salary…backdated to the beginning of time.”

The Establishment always wins, right?

This idea of inequality plays out in the film in a wicked visual fashion too.  Behind reality itself is the realm of Evil (and by extension, Good). This realm is hidden behind an "invisible barrier," or, to coin a term, a "glass ceiling." In other words, it is an unseen barrier that prevents those outside the Establishment from entering the Establishment.  You don't know it's there, but it's omnipresent.

"So that's what an invisible barrier looks like," one character quips.

Robin Hood too is contextualized, amusingly, in Time Bandits as a figure associated with economics. Traditionally, we note that this hero steals from the rich and gives to the poor.  The film describes his action differently.

Robin Hood is a man who believes “there is still so much wealth to re-distribute.” 

And the Evil Genius, of course, is obsessed with material things like lasers and tanks. He champions technology, specifically, and believes that his understanding of it will make him a master of the universe. 

He understands, for example “digital watches,” and claims to have growing knowledge of “video-cassette recorders and car telephones.” 

Ultimately, and prophetically, he wants to understand computers. “when I have an understanding of computers,” he dreams, “I shall be the Supreme Being.”

In short, the control of  the production of material things that people desire transform a captain of industry into…God. At least in the Evil Genius’s eyes.

Each one of these characters sees ownership of things, control of things, as the reason to exist.  They are all flawed characters in some ways, and they echo the line of dialogue that the fabric of the universe is far from perfect.

Kevin is an exception, of course.

He is loyal and loving, imaginative and curious. He doesn’t see life as an opportunity to accumulate wealth, or to possess things.  Kevin's bedroom exemplifies the fact that he lives in an economy of ideas.  

Toy soldiers, books, posters and other things are all around him there. They are not products, however, for consumption, in the strictest sense.  They are avatars, instead, for imagination itself. They help Kevin seek not things, but knowledge.

Most of all, Kevin seeks a place of belonging, and an opportunity to encounter someone who really loves him. When Agemenon, a father figure, asks Kevin “Who sent you? The Gods?” Kevin may be asking himself he same question.  

Finally, someone who seems to love life and experience and adventure, and is interested in the things Kevin is. Most importantly, as Kevin notes, money is “not important” to Agememnon.

At the end of the film, when technology destroys Kevin’s parents, Agememon re-appears, but as a modern fireman. 

This development seems to suggest that even in our technological epoch, we can still find kindred spirits who don’t see wealth as being more important than “hard work, strong families, close-knit communities, and our faith in God.”

What’s so daring and indeed anarchic about Time Bandits is the idea that revolution and rebellion are good things.  

The notion seems to be that the existing order -- epitomized by the TV show title “Your Money or Your Life” -- isn’t worth fighting for or improving.  Instead, it actually needs to be blown up. Kevin becomes an orphan when his parents die, and yet the movie has a happy ending, doesn’t it? 

Kevin leaves behind his parents and their obsession with things for a relationship about life, not consumption, with that firemen as father-figre. 

Personally speaking, this idea is not appealing to me.  Contrarily, I believe that incremental change, over time, can improve human life significantly. Rome wasn’t built in a day, and neither will a 21st century utopia. 

So I don’t believe you need to destroy a village in order to save it. But I absolutely credit with Time Bandits of courageous ambition and follow-through. It doesn't chicken out.

Consider, Kevin has seen that the “fabric of the universe” is not perfect.  

Not only is the Supreme Being fallible/duplicitous (in regards to ownership of the map), but egotistical. 

The Evil Genius even calls him a lunatic. 

But more to the point, the Supreme Being and Evil are two sides of the same coin, just as ‘ownership’ of things has two faces: the face of those who have things, and those who want things. There are those who want to keep what they have (and make policy to keep it), and those who want to take what others own, and re-distribute it.

Kevin learns in his travels to be wary of those on both sides of the equation; that Evil itself dwells in the wealth that is to be protected, or re-distributed. Specifically, a piece of ‘evil’ finds a home in his parents’ toaster.  

The way to succeed and find happiness in life, says Time Bandits, is to rebel against and destroy the established order. Kevin’s parents are destroyed (truthfully, they were already dead...) and the Time Bandits have rebelled against God himself.

In real life, I hope we don’t destroy all that we have constructed because we believe that Good and Evil are two sides of the same corrupt Establishment, but I credit Time Bandits, as I credit President Carter, with forecasting the dangers of a system wherein “human identity is no longer defined by what one does, but by what one owns.

That’s no place to raise Kevin, or any other child.

Time Bandits is fast and furious, fantastic and funny, but most importantly it reminds us that life is a one-of-a-kind experience and a miraculous opportunity not just to “own” things, but to see sights of unusual beauty, mystery, and even terror. 

It's a journey that should be shared with those you love, and who love you, not a race spent keeping up with the Jones, or Morrisons, as the case may be.