Saturday, July 09, 2016

Saturday Morning Cult-TV Blogging: Blackstar: "The Crown of the Sorceress" (November 28, 1981)

Blackstar and Warlock come to the aid of a damsel in distress: the beautiful Princess Talena.  A monstrous man Thorg attacks her relentlessly.  

Thorg is driven off, and Talena promises to become an ally to the rebellion if Blackstar delivers her safely home to her kingdom in the west.  Blackstar happily agrees.

Unfortunately, Blackstar has been bamboozled. Talena is an evil witch, and controls the all-powerful crown of Karn.  Thorg’s people have been enslaved by it, and now she wishes to enslave Blackstar as well.

Mara, the Trobbits and Thorg join up to save Blackstar, but he becomes brainwashed by Talena, and she summons “demon fire” to stop her foes…

“The Crown of the Sorceress” is another good episode of Filmation’s Blackstar (1981), in part because it reveals that our hero isn’t exactly infallible. 

He interferes in the affairs of Thorg and Talena, and makes an assumption about who is good, and who is evil.  The beautiful Talena, he assumes, is good, because she is under attack and attractive.  

The rock-man, Thorg, by contrast, seems aggressive and “ugly” by conventional standards of beauty.

This lesson is not relentlessly hammered home (as it might be on a series like Secrets of Isis, for example…) but it is still there for children to recognize. Blackstar acts without having all the facts, responding to superficial physical traits. 

Fortunately, Mara comes to the rescue and returns Blackstar to his heroic self, and the climax of the episode is pretty strong because it sees Talena summoning all kinds of monsters to stop the heroes, including giant, purple, horned ape creatures, and the aforementioned demon wind.

Next week, the final episode of Blackstar: “The Zombie Master”

Series Primer: Shazam (1974-1976)

As a character, Captain Marvel first appeared in Whiz Comics in 1940 as a kind of competitor for D.C.’s popular Man of Steel, Superman.  

However, in the mid-1970s, Filmation’ Studios’ Lou Scheimer and Norm Prescott brought the superhero to life on TV for the first time with the live-action Saturday morning series Shazam! (1974–1976).

The title of the series -- which has caused some confusion for a generation -- stems from an exclamation made every week by adolescent hero Billy Batson.  When he shouts “Shazam!” aloud, Billy is actually summoning a pantheon of Greek Gods and heroes, and calling for their powers: 

Solomon for wisdom.

Hercules for strength.

Atlas for constitution and endurance.

 Zeus for sheer power.

Achilles for bravery and skill.


Mercury for velocity or speed.

But “Shazam!” as many folks mistakenly believe is not actually a character or hero’s name or designation, only the utterance which transforms young Billy Batson into the aforementioned Captain Marvel (Jackson Bostwick, John Davey).

In the TV version of the comic book material, young Billy (Michael Gray) travels around the United States in a Winnebago RV with an older teacher named, appropriately, Mentor (Les Tremayne). 

Batson receives sage life advice from Mentor, but can also ask for the input of the Gods, a Greek chorus, known as The Elders. 

These Elders are the aforementioned Solomon, Hercules, Atlas, Zeus, Achilles and Mercury. 

In somewhat non-traditional fashion, this Council of Elders is depicted in every episode in animated or cartoon form.  Billy (in live-action, superimposed over the animation) stands before the assembled Elders in what appears to be a cave of some type. This is either a revolutionary blending of media for the time, or just a really bizarre, kooky 1970s touch.

The stories featured on Shazam! countenance very little violence as we reckon it today, and the villains are never the sort who poses much of a challenge to Captain Marvel, who possesses great strength and the ability to fly.  

Instead, the stories focus on “kid” problems of the day, like bullies and peer pressure.  This makes it a superhero series, frankly, in a kind of minor league.  Shazam! has a great deal of value as historical nostalgia, but we'll be seeing too, how the stories hold up. (Hint: not very well).

Shazam ran for three seasons on CBS, and I’ll be blogging the first season over the next several weeks. The first year consists of fourteen half-hour long episodes, and these episodes originally ran from September through December of 1974.

I attempted to get through the entire series in 2013, and failed.  So here I go again.  I made it through Secrets of Isis, so I know I can get through Shazam.

Next Week: “The Joyriders.”

Friday, July 08, 2016

Cult-TV Movie Review: Earth II (1971)

Not to be confused with NBC's Earth 2 (1994 - 1995), Earth II (1971) was the failed pilot for a TV series that first aired on American television in late November of 1971.  At that time, Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) was still a dramatic influence on genre productions, and Earth II looks and feels a bit like 2001 as a TV series, with much attention paid to space hardware and other technical details.  Additionally, Earth II is very much a political story; one about the need for humanity to grow up and truly consider the pervasive belief that "might makes right; thus we should be mighty," to quote one character.

Earth II opens in the near future as a rocket is launched from America on a "special mission" to carry the components of a space station into orbit.  The U.S. President (Lew Ayres) appears on national television and reports that the space station, Earth II, will be established not as an extension of United States power, but as an independent, sovereign nation with its own government and laws.  Only in this manner, the President believes, can Earth II solve the problems of hunger and poverty on Earth, and devote itself to the problems of all mankind.

Not everyone is so happy, however, to see the revolutionary mission launch.  A saboteur working for the Red Chinese government attempts to destroy the rocket on the pad, but the Coast Guard intervenes and the launch is a success.  The American people vote for the President's space initiative by turning on their lights in the dark of night, as the rocket travels over the continent.  Seventy-one percent of Americans believe in Earth II's mission of peace, a fact which the President -- a "citizen of this struggling planet" -- appreciates.

Some years later, Earth II is established, and has become the independent nation the former President dreamed of, one overseen by administrator David Seville (Gary Lockwood), one of the astronauts who was aboard the first launch. 

As the story proper begins, David welcomes to the station the Karger family, which includes conservative Fred Karger (Tony Franciosa), his wife/photographer Lisa (Mariette Hartley) and their son, Matt.  Fred is far less idealistic about political problems than Seville, and upon arrival demands "debate and decision" conferences for the entire Earth II population of 1,982  citizens regarding a new and pressing problem.  

Specifically, the Red Chinese have launched a nuclear device into orbit, one that is only 150 miles from Earth II.  Fred fears the nearby presence of such a destructive war machine, and believes Earth II should take aggressive steps to neutralize the threat.  David, meanwhile, suggests that to intervene with the Chinese nuclear device is to risk World War III  and also the very pacifist principles of Earth II.  The population votes and  sides with Fred, however, and a mission is launched to defuse the nukes in space.  The problem, of course, is that the Chinese -- if they become aware of the mission -- could detonate the missiles in space, destroying Earth II entirely.

After the defusing mission fails, the nuclear device is brought back to Earth II.  There, Fred demands a second "debate and decision" conference, this time over the issue of keeping the nuclear weapons permanently.  Specifically, he wants the peaceful Earth II to become a nuclear power, so it can no longer be threatened or bullied by forces like China.  Fred's wife, Lisa, vehemently disagrees with him on the issue, and launches the nuclear weapon into space towards the sun.  Unfortunately, the trajectory fails, and the weapon plummets towards the Great Lakes.

With little time available for a rescue attempt, Seville, Karger and the men and women of Earth II race to retrieve the weapon, and prevent the beginnings of World War III.

Although today the special effects in this TV pilot seem somewhat dated, and the overall pace is decidedly slow, Earth II is nonetheless almost revolutionary in terms of its intelligent approach to detailing with global political issues, and how they relate to the well-being of all mankind.  Overall, the plot might be described as the Cuban Missile Crisis in Orbit and indeed, that event is referenced directly in the dialogue.  

More uniquely, however, the plot is set up as a kind of back-and-forth between a Cold Warrior-styled conservative (Karger) and a more idealistic, future-minded progressive, Seville (Lockwood).  Delightfully, neither one is treated as a villain or as a two-dimensional punching bag.  Instead, both point of views are thoroughly explored, and the two men of different stripes learn how to work together for the betterment of all.  In Washington D.C. today, this spirit of cooperation seems to be the very thing that is missing from our debate.  As a people, we now cherish ideological purity, it seems, over compromise. 

Delightfully, when Karger and Seville debate the issues on Earth II's station-wide television broadcast, their words and arguments are instantly measured by a dispassionate computer.

This means that as the progressive and conservative each speak, the machine puts up sub-titles that help to better inform voters about what is being said.

One argument is spoken alongside with the chyron descriptor, "emotional appeal."  Another with the legend: "no evidence of this conclusion."   There's even one that reports the "argument [is] presented in unbiased terms."

How I would love to see this idea played out in Presidential debates, with the media dispassionately, objectively and accurately noting the emotional and logical fallacies of the candidates as they grandstand, demagogue, and distort facts.  Somehow, I don't think it will happen.  But anyway, it's an excellent idea, and if our mainstream media were doing a good job, something like this computerized "translation" of a politician's words would already be in place.

More intriguing than the amusing chyrons, however is the nature of the debate between Karger and Seville.  Karger believes the Chinese should be confronted powerfully about their illegal action (putting a nuclear device in orbit), while Seville notes that there are already missiles pointed at space all over the Earth, in silos in many countries, and so there's no need to provoke a war simply because of proximity of one device to the station.  It's a battle between a person with too little trust, and a person with too much trust, perhaps. 

The character of Lisa (Hartley), is also portrayed in an interesting fashion. She notes trenchantly that we "cannot carry a stick and live for peace," bringing up the inherent contradiction of "fighting for peace." 

Yet this idealist and pacifist is the first to take matters into her own hands -- overruling the democracy of Earth II -- when it has chosen a path she doesn't approve of; her own' husband's.  Lisa launches the missile towards the Sun because she is not willing to trust in the people -- in democracy -- to decide the way she wants them too.  It's a very interesting depiction of democracy, and the role that hawks and doves each play.

But the conceit that comes through in spades in Earth II is this idea that conservative, progressive, hawk or dove, we can all choose to work together for the common good of the human race.  We won't always agree on how to reach the best solution, but -- by presenting arguments "in unbiased terms" -- we can choose a little from each philosophy, and then step forward into the stars. 

Alas, I fear that even today this is not possible, since so many people in Washington D.C. and the heartland view political opponents as mortal enemies to America, not as fellow Americans who just happen to think differently.  I mean, I can't imagine what many modern Americas would think, even, of a sovereign space station in orbit.  Look at how the U.N. has been demonized over the last forty years, for example.  A sovereign space station, one truly independent of American control, would likely be viewed as a threat by many of our countrymen.  And yet, truly, we must make a crucial decision about space: is it to be the frontier of our best angels, or our worst demons? 

Earth II may be slow going at points, but it struggles with this idea in grand, intelligent and illuminating ways.  If we are ever to reach the Star Trek era of the United Federation of Planets and acceptance of all life forms, we must first come to accept that even here on Earth, we do not think alike. 

In terms of logic and internal consistency, Earth II is generally pretty strong, but with a few notable lapses.  For instance, no guns are allowed on the station (not even toy guns), and hence there are no security personnel on the station, as it were.  This (poor) decision means that there is no one present to stop Lisa from launching the nuclear device, and nearly causing World War III.  I understand that the station is all about "peace," but look what lax security and oversight nearly causes.  A station -- even one of peaceful means -- needs security personnel. 

Also, there's a tense scene near the end of the pilot during which Seville, Karger and other technicians work madly and quickly to defuse the Chinese nuclear bomb as the light of the sun threatens to melt several control leads.  A character named Capa (Scott Hylands) flies a shuttle pod to slow the rotation of the station to prevent passage towards the sun (and increased temperatures), but it's tough to understand why he didn't just fly the pod in front of the bay hatch where the work is being done, thus blocking the star's heat in that fashion.

If you're a fan of such productions as 2001: A Space Odyssey, Journey to the Far Side of the Sun (1969), and Space: 1999 (1975 - 1977) you'll find much to enjoy and appreciate in Earth II.  Like those other programs, it's about the space program in the near future, not the distant age of the 23rd or 24th century.  Accordingly, mankind is as much a threat to his continued survival here  as are the hazards of space travel. 

Personally, I've always enjoyed this idea tremendously and feel such efforts showcase a realistic side of man as a species.  We are capable of great achievements -- technologically and philosophically -- but we still have some growing up to do.  It's a race, I think, to see which part of the human equation takes the lead.  Will we become space pioneers of a new age, or introverts locked down on Earth and doomed, eventually, to self-destruction?

I would have loved to see Earth II run for a few seasons to kick around that idea.  Instead, I'll have to settle for this memorable pilot, which is now available at the Warner Archive.  I recommend you watch it, but with the caveat that you'll see something paced more like the works of Kubrick than the works of Lucas.

Thursday, July 07, 2016

Guest Post: The BFG (2016)

The Big Friendly Giant is trapped in the mud

By Jonas Schwartz

Back in the '80, after the gargantuan success of E.T. The Extra Terrestrial, a string of imitations flooded theaters.

Some were enjoyable on their own merits (Explorers by Joe Dante and Randal Kleiser's Flight of the Navigator), and some were rip-offs, through and through (Stewart Raffill's Mac And Me). BFG feels like Stewart Raffill attempted to emulate a much more successful Steven Spielberg film. But no, this sluggish adaptation of the Roald Dahl classic was actually directed by Spielberg himself with all the mistakes that a more amateur director would have made.

Young Sophie (newcomer Ruby Barnhill) wanders the halls of her orphanage after another night of insomnia. In her wanderings, she discovers a giant in the London streets.

The giant (Oscar winner Mark Rylance) kidnaps Sophie and takes her back to his magical world because he can't allow her to reveal the presence of giants. They build a friendship and he shares with her his magical jars of captured dreams. He lives amongst a cruel band of even larger beasts, cannibals who now smell a human being in BFG's lair.

And they are hungry.

Most of The BFG's problems relate to pacing and script issues. Melissa Matheson, who sadly passed away last November, wrote the remarkably sensitive and thrilling E.T. for Spielberg in '82, but the character development in her script for The BFG lacks the magic of that earlier hit.

The script features scenes, like the dinner party with the Queen (Penelope Wilton), that drag on and bring the story to a halt. Then there are missing moments that would have fleshed out characters. Sophie tells BFG that she was lonely in the orphanage, but because we never saw her interact with the other girls or the irresponsible matron, the audience has no sense of how lonely. She appears to have the run of the house in the early scenes, so she doesn't appear to be in a Dickensian hell, despite the correlation between her life and her favorite book, Dickens' Nicholas Nickleby.

The villains come off more as jerks in a Fraternity house than as flesh-eating monsters. The original book litters human bodies throughout the giant land and Sophie can smell humans on the creatures' breath. That would be too vivid for a children's movie but the script merely lifts that out with nothing to replace to give a sense of dread. Other than an article in the newspaper, it's never made clear that any giants OTHER THAN BFG are kidnapping children.

And if he knows his vicious neighbors will eat children, why does he bring Sophie there?

The first act is mostly a getting-to-know-you between Sophie and BFG with no clear goals or motivations to engage the audience. Spielberg films the climax like he ran out of time. There's no war or battle just a roundup of all the usual suspects in five minutes. The dinner party took longer than that.

Both leads are as charming as can be. 

Even though mostly built with CGI, Rylance's gentleness and naiveté shines through. Barnhill is never cloying. She's a strong heroine with more courage than a lady triple her age. Penelope Wilton lends her regal kindness to Queen Elizabeth.

The effects are realistic but a bit lackluster. The giants are cartoonish which strips them of menace and even the dreams, balls of light zooming through the air, have been done before to greater effect.

E.T. leaves audiences awestruck because an oversized child directed it. Spielberg captured the magic of the fantasy world to perfection. The BFG was directed by his grandfather, for whom childhood is a very distant memory. 

Jonas Schwartz is a voting member of the Los Angeles Drama Critics, and the West Coast Critic for TheaterMania. Check out his “Jonas at the Movies” reviews at Maryland Nightlife.

Movie Trailer: The BFG (2016)

Wednesday, July 06, 2016

Wacky Races Arcade Game

Video Game of the Week: Wacky Races: Crash and Dash

Wacky Races Pinball Machine

Wacky Races (Johnny Lightning Edition)

Wacky Races Halloween Costume (Ben Cooper) - Dick Dastardly

Wacky Races Coloring Book

Comic-Book of the Week: Wacky Races (Gold Key)

Model Kits of the Week: Wacky Races (MPC; Build and Play)

Board Game of the Week: Wacky Races (Milton Bradley)

Theme Song of the Week: Wacky Races (Hanna Barbera; 1968-1970)

Tuesday, July 05, 2016

Star Trek 50th Anniversary Blogging: "Errand of Mercy" (March 23, 1967)

Stardate 3201.7

The U.S.S. Enterprise is ordered to proceed to the strategically-important planet, Organia as peace negotiations between the United Federation of Planets and the Klingon Empire break down.

There, Captain Kirk (William Shatner) and Mr. Spock (Leonard Nimoy) must convince the primitive people of that world, ruled by a placid ruling council, to accept the Federation’s protection. 

Over and over, the Organians insist they are in no danger.

Soon, a Klingon garrison beams down to Organia and occupies the city. Governor Kor (John Colicos) orders hostages taken.

As Kirk attempts to establish a campaign of resistance against the brutal Klingon occupation, the Organians show their true colors, and intervene in the conflict. 

As the Federation and the Empire soon learns, the Organians are incorporeal life-forms who long ago evolved beyond the need for physical bodies.  They find conflict distasteful, and impose peace upon the two warring governments.

Helmed by One Step Beyond (1959-1961) host and director John Newland, “Errand of Mercy” is a historically important Star Trek (1966-1969) episode because it introduces to the Klingon Empire to the franchise. 

In their original series incarnation, the Klingons are dedicated to conquest and expansion. After Star Trek III: The Search for Spock (1984) and continuing into the Next Gen era, the Klingons become concerned primarily with “honor.”

But this is not all the case to start out. 

The Making of Star Trek (Ballantine Books, 1967, page 257) provides an official behind-the-scenes summary of the Klingons and their aims. “Their only rule in life is that rules are meant to be broken by shrewdness, deceit, or power. Cruelty is something admirable, honor is a despicable trait.

Regardless of the specifics of their alien nature, the Klingons perform important thematic and allegorical purposes in Star Trek.

In universe, they serve as a check on the expansion of the sunny United Federation of Planets and its Starfleet.

Artistically-speaking, the Klingons serve as a stand-in or corollary for the Soviet Union in the 20th century Cold War. They are a force of equal strength to the West (the Federation) but possessing a vastly different ideology. 

The Klingons and the Federation clash in the series, particularly in the second season, over the direction and loyalty of several sovereign less-advanced (read: Third World) planets in stories such as “Friday’s Child and “A Private Little War.” 

Very clearly -- and very effectively -- Klingon and Federation interference in these cultures is designed as an explicit mirror for United States and Soviet influence/interference in Vietnam.

It is clever how “Errand of Mercy” creates a futuristic Cold War scenario too.  The advanced Organians impose a peace, outright forbidding a “hot” war between parties. Thus it is left for the two sides to use more subtle methods (like arming third parties…) to achieve their galactic agendas.

In real life, the competing powers possessed the wisdom not to fight a “hot” war because they realized it had but one possible conclusion: nuclear Armageddon and the end of the world.  Star Trek proposes, instead, an interruption of war by a race of incorporeal, highly-evolved aliens.

A few weeks back, I wrote about the “gunboat diplomacy” of the otherwise very good, very enjoyable episode “A Taste of Armageddon.” There, Kirk interfered in another culture in defiance of the Prime Directive to reshape it to his liking; to his perception of human standards.  His threat over the inhabitants -- General Order 24 -- permitted him to legally destroy the planet in question, Eminiar VII, if it didn’t comply with his choices.  

This was textbook imperialism.

“Errand of Mercy” is a perfect mirror for that tale, and a refreshing look at Federation smugness. In this case, the tables are turned. Kirk finds out how it feels to have conditions imposed on him, and his choices overruled. He must live with the Organians' decision regarding war.  

At first, it’s a tough pill for both Kirk and Kor to swallow.  Later, however, Kirk is chastened, realizing that he was arguing in favor of a war that would kill millions.

Intriguingly, “Errand of Mercy” makes mention of Armenia and the early 20th century Armenian genocide. 

Specifically, Kirk fears that the Organians will suffer the same fate.  That’s why intervention is necessary; to prevent another genocide.  

The irony of the episode is that Kirk's concern is misplaced, and so is that analogy. The Organians aren’t the Armenians at all in this scenario.  In fact, they are the “world” power with the authority and will to prevent deaths, on both sides. 

“Errand of Mercy” is a compelling and surprising story, with a great final twist; the reveal of true Organian nature. The episode also succeeds, however, because of John Colicos’ performance as Kor.  His performance -- his choices as an actor -- basically defined, for a generation or two, what a Klingon should be, and how one should act.  He doesn't seem evil, actually, just thoroughly committed to the command structure and nation to which he declares allegiance. He is just as skilled and effective a leader as Kirk is.

What remains less effective here is the episode’s capacity -- because of quite understandable budgetary limitations -- to depict much of the action.  

Fleets gather in space over Organia, but are never seen. 

A Klingon garrison occupies a planet, but we see just a half-dozen soldiers. 

Hundreds of Organian hostages are taken to the town square to be killed, but we only hear the disruptors firing. The episode is so clever and well-performed that such limitations are only recognizable in retrospect.

Next Week: “The Alternative Factor.”

Cult-Movie Review: The Legend of Tarzan (2016)

Watching The Legend of Tarzan (2016) in theaters this weekend, I was struck with the nagging confirmation of a feeling I have felt growing for some time, but tried not to voice -- at least not often -- for fear of sounding like an old curmudgeon.

What is that thought?

Superhero franchises are killing the movies. 

Every studio in town views a famous long-lived pop culture property -- like Tarzan, for example -- not as an opportunity to tell a meaningful story, or to craft a fun, unique adventure. 

Rather, every such movie is now an opportunity to compete with Marvel, or DC, and create another superhero series.

Every such movie is now a major tent-pole under construction. Formula has replaced original thought.  Famous characters can now be cut-and-pasted into pre-existing superhero templates, regardless of their literary or film/TV source material.

As I hope my Tarzan week proved on the blog last week, the Tarzan character created by Edgar Rice Burroughs boasts a long and storied history both in literature and film. There are different kinds of stories the franchise can tell, from the plunder of the natural world (and Tarzan’s defense of it), to the exploration of forgotten “lost worlds.”

There was no reason why the new film had to merely be Spider-Man (2002) in the jungle, but that’s what the 2016 edition ultimately feels like; right down to the valedictory coda of a CGI Tarzan swinging from vines high over his (non-urban) jungle.

In eighty-something years of cinema, Tarzan films have never really had to “ape” (pardon the term) something else; something popular, to meet the approval of general audiences.

Until now.

This new film gets a lot right about the character and his world, yet for every notable triumph, there’s still the inescapable feel that Legend of Tarzan is a blockbuster cartoon (replete with CGI jungle animals) set firmly in the superhero mold. It’s all incredibly two-dimensional, just like most modern superhero films.

When compared with the humanity and sheer eroticism of the Weismuller/O’Sullivan pictures, or the dignity of Greystoke (1984), this generic, homogenized “superhero” retelling is a disappointment.

The Legend of Tarzan, for example, gives us the haunted, brooding protagonist of personal pain and angst, seeking to find his place and responsibility in the world. It also gives us his “origin” flashback, so we understand the source of his pain. 

And then the film sends the protagonist on a quest that concerns, not surprisingly, the vengeance trope.

Specifically, a villain called Chief M’Bonga (Djimon Hounsou) desires revenge against Tarzan for killing his son. This is actually a two-for-the-price-of-one revenge trope because Tarzan killed that young man out of revenge for a crime against his family.

Like so many superhero films, it’s all a big fat revenge circle, as if vengeance is the sole motivating force of the human race; heroes and villains alike.

The film also lurches between play-it-straight angst and self-reflexive humor, uncertain of how to translate Burroughs’ material to 2016. 

It settles on the simplest path, I guess.

The filmmakers made this movie, look, sound, move, and breathe just like every popular superhero film since the summer of 2008.

Eight years on, that template is old and tired. Much more tired than any of the Burroughs Tarzan stories, which imagine characters of myriad motivations and agendas, and worlds of wondrous imagination and potential. 

This Tarzan surely could have pumped new life into a story that has resonated in the culture for 104 years. 

Instead, The Legend of Tarzan just follows the pack. It’s not horrible -- and I hope I can enumerate why -- but it is sadly predictable and familiar.

Eight years after he left the jungle, John Clayton, Earl of Greystoke (Alexander Skarsgard) is invited to return to the Congo at the invitation of the Belgian King. 

An American diplomat, George Washington Williams (Samuel L. Jackson) is suspicious of the king’s motives and invitation, and asks Clayton -- also known as Tarzan -- to accept. He fears that the King is using slave labor, in violation of international accords and agreements.

Tarzan agrees, and his wife, Jane Porter (Margot Robbie) also wishes to join the expedition, and return to her childhood home.

In truth, the invitation is a ruse set up by the Belgian king’s liaison to Congo, Rom (Chrisophe Waltz).

He wants to possess the diamonds of Opar, but the leader of the people in that region, Chief M’Bonga (Honsou) refuses to permit the taking of the diamonds unless Tarzan is handed over to him for his vengeance.

Rom seeks to capture Tarzan, hand him over to M’Bonga, and acquire the diamonds for his king, whose empire is virtually bankrupt and therefore relying both on slave labor and mercenary armies.

Once in the Congo, Jane is captured by Rom, and Tarzan must team with Williams and re-acquaint himself with the ways of the wild -- and his Mangani family too – if he hopes to save his beloved life.

The Legend of Tarzan gets so much right about the Burroughs character and his universe, and I appreciate that fact. 

Here, for example, Jane is an American (as she was in the novels), not British.  And Tarzan is an educated, well-spoken man, not the clichéd “Me Tarzan, You Jane” savage popularized in the 1930s films. 

Similarly, this is the first Tarzan film that I can remember which actually names the Mangani, and notes that they are not mere gorillas…but something else.

In short, there’s an authentic and dedicated attempt to adapt Burroughs’ work in a faithful way.

Delightfully, the film also uses real historical people as characters in the drama.  Rom was a real personality, for instance, and so was George Washington Williams. 

Rom is widely believed to be the role model for Kurtz in Joseph Conrad’s Heart for Darkness (1899) for example, and Christoph Waltz gives the movie’s best performance. Some of his throwaway touches (like one suggesting OCD), add remarkable layers to the despicable character.

I was lukewarm on Waltz’s Blofeld in SPECTRE (2015), but the actor veritably steals this film, making Rom a potent threat despite the fact that he is not physically-intimidating.

But it is actually the character of Williams who is treated in a mostly-historically-accurate fashion. Notation is made of Williams’ military service in the Civil War, in Mexico, and in the Indian territories.  And when the character references Williams’ familiarity with pain, he is no doubt referring to a spell in which Williams was badly wounded and hospitalized for an extended period. 

The historical figure, Williams, has basically been imported into a Tarzan story…and he fits, because of his efforts to end slavery in the Congo Free State.

Alas, the movie simultaneously sees fit to have Williams make comments about how his mission is “screwed” and how he is not about to “lick the nuts” of a dominant Mangani alpha ape. 

These moments stick out like a sore thumb, and take one right out of the film’s reality. They are pandering, unfortunate attempts to build relatability with a juvenile 21st century audience.

And therein lies the movie’s greatest problem.

On one hand, it works hard to be faithful both to the historical period (and the politics of the Congo Free State circa 1890) and the Tarzan mythos.

And on the other, The Legend of Tarzan wants to play the mythos in a tongue-and-cheek fashion.

Remember how Man of Steel (2013) didn’t even want to use the name “Superman” seriously, without cracking a smile?

The Legend of Tarzan is like that, only worse.

The movie makes self-aware jokes about the terminology “Me Tarzan, You Jane,” and even goes “meta” about Tarzan’s trademark jungle yell, noting that it doesn’t sound like Rom expected…but better. 

One on hand the movie is serious -- or superhero-dour as I call it -- about its world, and on the other, it wants to poke fun at it.

The only consistent approach the movie settles on is the desire for audiences to interpret it as a superhero origin/introduction story.

In terms of the characterizations, Skarsgard is fine as Tarzan, but generally unmemorable. The script requires Tarzan to be sad and emotionally removed for much of its running time, so he can rediscover himself in the jungle.  Even Tarzan’s sperm doesn’t work until he gets away from being Greystoke in England and back to being Tarzan in the jungle.

I’m not joking.

Margot Robbie’s Jane has pluck, but let’s just say she’s no Maureen O’Sullivan. Robbie doesn’t have the easy grace or charm of that still-remarkable interpretation.  That Jane chose the jungle, and loved that choice. This Jane has agency, but not at the level the character demonstrated in the 1930s, which says something, I suppose about how our entertainment has changed -- or degenerated -- in eighty years.  There’s no scene in this movie that can match the innocent eroticism of Tarzan and His Mate (1934).

Again, there are aspects of the film that I appreciate and admire.

I like that the 1930s theme of Africa’s exploitation by white civilization has been retained from the MGM pictures, and in historically accurate fashion, for the most part.  

I also appreciate the movie’s color palette, which actually has a thematic point.  In England (where Tarzan is cut off from himself) and in Opar (where M’Bonga has done the same thing, essentially), the color palette is dead and cold: a silvery, lifeless blue. 

But in the jungle, the color scheme is green and vivid; alive and magical.

I dislike, strongly, the use of CGI gorilla, elephants, lions, ostriches and other animals for the action scenes. These scenes are all “dead” in terms of the sense of menace or danger.  If you go back and watch the MGM Tarzan films of the 1930s, there was definitely some fakery like rear projection and stock footage, but there were also real stunts, where animals and human beings existed in the same frame, and in close proximity.  The animal scenes, like so many in this film, are cartoons that lack a sense of gravity and mass, and therefore reality.

Tarzan is a great character, finally, because he possesses so many contradictions. He is a man of the wild, and yet a man of great intelligence. He is a man who understands the law of the jungle, and yet can also be, notably, gentle (both with Jane, and with the animals he encounters).

But the superhero-dour template requires Tarzan to go through familiar beats. He is lost, then found. He is sad, then finds purpose in defeating the bad guys.

These beats are so well-trodden at this point, that Legend of Tarzan can’t really show audiences well the contradictions of the man. 

“Tarzan” is simply a well-known name to be fit into a formula, and made a new, moneymaking brand.
Just like every other modern superhero brand.

This Tarzan had the opportunity to recreate a long-beloved character for the 21st century.

But have no doubt, this Lord of the Jungle will remain lost in the pack.