Saturday, August 20, 2016

Saturday Morning Cult-TV Blogging: Space Stars: Episode 3 (September 26, 1981)

This week’s Space Stars begins with the Space Ghost segment “City in Space.”  

The Phantom Cruiser, moving along the inner worlds of civilized space, encounter a floating city ship on a collision course with the sun.  The ship’s denizens have forgotten that they are on a ship, and are ruled by a malfunctioning computer that believes the new visitors are “demons.” Space Ghost and his friends must activate the city’s engines and avoid total catastrophe.

“City in Space” -- if you couldn’t tell from the synopsis above -- is a total knock-off of The Starlost (1973). That series involved a city ship too, Earthship Ark.  It too was on a collision course with a star, and its denizens, except for the protagonists, had lost all knowledge of their ship.  The mission of the main characters was to find the engine room, activate the engines, and avert disaster. 

The domed metropolis in "City in Space" even looks like one of the dome habitats from Earthship Ark.

The Teen Force story this week is called “Prison Planet” and it more in common with Star Wars (1977).  The evil warlord Uglar has captured the beautiful Princess Chrysa aboard his spaceship, and the Teen Force must come to the rescue.  The heroes make a mistake, however, and believe she is being held on a “heavy gravity” prison planet.  They must engineer their escape from the wardens, who resemble dwarf scarecrows, and rescue the princess in time.

Intriguingly, there are walking tanks in this episode that resemble Imperial AT-ATs, and one must wonder why Uglar interferes with his own scheme when it seems to work so perfectly. The Teen Force is decoyed to the inescapable prison and locked in a cell. Why not just leave it there?  Instead, defying sense, Uglar has to get involved.

In The Herculoids story this week, “The Snake Riders,” the Herculoids must contend with other beings from Quasar. The Snake Riders live on the other side of the planet, but are separated by an ocean.  Now, however, they have found an underground cavern and tunnel system, and use it to attack the Herculoids’ valley.

Meanwhile in the second Space Ghost segment, “The Toymaker,” Space Ghost sees his camping trip with Jan, Jace and Blip interrupted by robots created by his nemesis.  The Toymaker wishes to steal Space Ghost’s power band and create an army of robot Space Ghosts to do his bidding.

“The Education of Puglor” is the Astro and the Space Mutts selection of the week.  Puglar is Uglar’s nephew, and he visits a planet called “Space Springs,” which he attempts to take over. This episode has the audacity to recycle a Don Adams “would you believe?” joke.

The Space Stars finale, “Worlds in Collision,” sees a team up between Space Ghost and the Herculoids. The evil Uglar has set Quasar and the Ghost planet on a collision course. Both planets will be destroyed unless his plan can be foiled.  Again, science is a stumbling block.  Two planets are yanked out of their orbits and sent hurtling into the void of space to collide, but certainly the very act of leaving their original orbits would be destructive enough to assure Uglar’s victory.

In “Space Magic” this week, Space Ace demonstrates to Astro how to make his finger look like an alien inside a box (hint: cut a hole in the bottom of the box and insert your decorated digit…).  Space Mystery features the Herculoids and it shows how Doro knows not to trust an alien stranger that arrives on Quasar.

“Space Fact” also features the Herculoids and explains why stars shine.  The Space Code of the week spells out Uglar’s name.

Adventures as big as the cosmos?” Not exactly.

Saturday Morning Cult-TV Blogging: Shazam: "The Road Back" (October 5, 1974)

The sub-plot in ‘The Lure of the Lost” about the evil drug dealer Brok (Ron Soble) is concluded in this episode of the live-action Filmation Saturday morning series, Shazam (1974 – 1977).  

In “The Road Back,” Billy and Mentor go back to help Gary (Christopher Nelson Guy) set-up Brok, but Gary’s friend, Mark (Derrel Maurry) is really working for the criminal.

In his initial contact with the Elders this week, Billy (Michael Gray) learns that the greatest gift is not trusting another person, but finding a person who trusts you.  Mark fails that test, both with Billy and with Gary.  

Finally, it’s up to Captain Marvel to make sure Brok -- the first adult villain and law-breaker we’ve seen on Shazam -- gets put behind bars.

Ron Soble’s performance is the undeniable highlight of this Shazam episode.  

In big sun-glasses and a slick suit jacket, he presents perfectly as the stereotypical 1970s TV drug dealer.  But aside from the costume, Soble infuses the role of Brok with a sense of menace and the sinister.  And again -- for Shazam -- that’s tradition-breaking. Brok is a much badder guy than teenage car thieves or a rancher who dislikes a horse, for sure, and he knows it

The moral of the week is that “finking” on friends who break the law actually does them a service in the long run.  By telling on him, Gary prevents Mark from going down a road of crime that could have consumed his whole life.

It’s all so very After School Special in nature, and yet I can’t deny Shazam’s heart is in the right place.  Today the whole series feels incredibly anachronistic in its small-potatoes storylines, heavy-handed didacticism and general lack of super-heroics.

Next Week: “The Athlete.” I smell a lecture about sportsmanship and cheating coming on…

Friday, August 19, 2016

The Films of 1961: Mysterious Island

Jules Verne's Mysterious Island opens with images of a turbulent, unsettled ocean (over opening credits and a brilliant, bombastic Bernard Herrmann score.) Immediately after this interlude, the film lands the audience in Richmond, Virginia during the Civil War, at the siege of 1865 to be precise.

In short order, the audience witnesses brutal warfare -- brother-against-brother -- in close-up with sputtering, smoking cannons, and then, once more, Nature us unsettled in the form of driving, never-ending rain...during the "greatest storm in American history," according to a voice over.

Before long, a group of Union Army prisoners of war, led by the dashing captain, Cyrus Harding (Michael Craig) escape from this violent "modern" setting in an observation balloon. 

His group includes cynical war reporter Gideon Spillt (Gary Merrill) as in"spilt" or "spilled" blood; a Confederate soldier held captive, Pencroft (Percy Herbert), and an emancipated African-American Union Soldier, Neb (Dan Jackson). One of the young soldiers, Herbert (Michael Callan) harbors fears that he is a coward.

These diverse men soon become "prisoners of the wind" when they find themselves unable to control the wandering balloon. They end up high over the ocean first, and then -- in a harrowing and terrific special effects sequence that hasn't aged badly at all -- face a fast-moving descent (er, drop...) that smashes them in the water just short of land. Captain Cyrus falls into the swirling sea a mile short of landfall but is rescued by a mysterious, unknown presence.

If you've seen this film before (shot in "super-dynamation" with special effects by the legendary Ray Harryhausen), you'll recall that the team makes landfall on a strange rocky island that recalls the creepiest aspects of Kong's Skull Island (down to a chasm which can only traversed by a fallen tree...). 

The island consists of such oddities as live volcanoes, subterranean sea grottoes, and most frighteningly, roaming gigantic wildlife. The stop-motion "monsters" featured in the film include a colossal crab, an over-sized chicken, and most disturbingly (and convincingly rendered...), a veritable swarm of giant bees. 

The marooned 19th century men face these over-sized beasts with equanimity and calm while they attempt to construct a boat and escape. Also, to their unceasing delight, the men discover two modern women trapped on the island, the regal Lady Mary Fairchild (Joan Greenwood), and the mini-skirt wearing hottie, Elena (Beth Rogan).

These castaways together seek haven in "The Granite House," a high mountain cave that becomes their sanctuary. Far distant from civilization (New Zealand, the closest outpost, is some 1873 miles away...), this small but incredibly diverse "family" begins to form a Utopian society of sorts, reflecting the changing and evolving nature of the United States, Civil Rights, and world at that time the film was was forged.

For instance, we see here a black man and a Southern white working together in peace, as well as working women contributing to the survival of the group. It's important to recall much of what was happening in the world at the time the film was released: young, optimistic Kennedy had just been elected President; his predecessor, Eisenhower, had signed the Civil Rights Act of 1960, and so on. 

The great accomplishment of this isolated group, however, are contrasted in Mysterious Island with the nature of society itself. 

Bloodthirsty pirates arrive on the island to commit murder, and America is locked in a deadly Civil War. 

Again, in 1960, the first 3,500 American soldiers were already serving in Vietnam, Eisenhower's final address in '61 warned of the looming dangers of the "Military Industrial Complex," and the U-2 Spy Incident of 1960 heated up the Cold War. In 1961, as in the 1860s of the film, every step towards peace that man made seemed threatened by a backward step into warfare, destruction, and self-annihilation.

I bring up these specific historical currents and events not because Mysterious Island alludes to them in any direct fashion, but because of the manner in which the film presents the islanders' secret benefactor, our friend Captain Nemo (Herbert Lom). 

Near the final act of the film, we learn that Nemo has been protecting Harding and his entourage from death, and furthermore, that he has been toiling away on the island, "conducting horticultural experiments" on animals. In other words, the gigantic animals are his creations, because Nemo has opted to "destroy the concept of warfare itself." By creating giant animals, he is creating for man an inexhaustible food supply. He is attacking the root causes of war and injustice. Hunger, prime among them.

Unfortunately, Nemo doesn't survive the climactic escape from the island, leaving the diverse Utopian group to carry his message of peace back to civilization, to "end strife among men."

Nemo's message of peace and brotherhood in Mysterious Island is a clear a sign of the dawning of the 1960s Age of Camelot, just as 1954's 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea reflected the atomic age anxieties of the early Cold War. Yet as admirable and valuable as this message remains, it would be foolish to state that this variation on Nemo's story is a literal or faithful interpretation of Jules Verne's novel, Mysterious Island

For instance, in the book Nemo reveals his true origins (as Prince Dakkar, an Indian national...) to the castaways. Nothing of that sort happens in the film version. 

The Nemo of the book and the film do share much in common, however. They both remain hungry for liberty and independence, but the Nemo of the Endfield film wishes more: to "save" civilization; a sweeping desire the literary Nemo did not share. He destroyed warships, yes, but that literary Nemo had little affinity for his fellow contemporary man.

These changes from book to screen won't affect your enjoyment of the film, but they are certainly worth noting. More importantly, perhaps, Lom does a fine job bringing an older, white-haired Nemo to life, even if we don't learn the details of his heritage. Lom exudes dignity and charm in his portrayal, and seems a hair more approachable than James Mason's Nemo. He's a little softer and less brittle.

Another point worth mentioning: Mysterious Island has designed Nemo's magnificent submarine, The Nautilus (interior and exterior) to very closely resemble the craft as seen in the famous Disney picture. The attempt here is clearly to make this not only an adaptation of Verne's work, but rather an unofficial sequel to a popular movie

But just take a gander at the great hall of the Nautilus (with velvet sofas and massive pipe organ...), because it's a dead-ringer for the set design in Fleischer's film. The miniature of the Nautilus exterior here also features the trademark front "spine" made famous by the James Mason/Kirk Douglas classic. This is good cross-movie-continuity if you are inclined to gaze at it as such.

These days, especially with movies, it's always popular to deride older productions as being campy or corny, or my least favorite descriptor in existence: "cheesy." 

Mysterious Island suffers from virtually none of these faults and I was amazed to see how well the film's set pieces and action sequences hold up to present-day scrutiny. The Harryhausen-created scene in which Herbert and Elena become trapped in a honeycomb (with a giant bee...) is beautifully realized, as is the first discovery of the Nautilus in the cove. Although it makes heavy use of rear projection, the opening scene in Richmond -- with the daring balloon escape -- is tightly-edited and impressive.

The film version of 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea took pains to establish that the anti-hero Captain Nemo was an anguished, multi-faceted man, both a "devil" and a "a genius." Mysterious Island reflects that debate in just one brief dialogue sequence, but it's clear where the movie's loyalties rest: Nemo is meant to be seen here as a hero, as a savior, as man of peace attempting to help all mankind. That takes some of the fun (and humanity...) out of Nemo, but Mysterious Island remains a richly-imagined, fun, action-packed fantasy.

Mysterious Island is the kind of film that made Saturday afternoons special way back in the 1970s. Refreshingly, it hasn't lost an iota of its visual or fantasy luster, even if Nemo himself has perhaps been sanitized a bit too much.

Movie Trailer: Mysterious Island (1961)

Thursday, August 18, 2016

The Films of 2016: Equals

[Beware of spoilers.]

The great era of the dystopian science fiction film arrived in the early 1970s. That’s the age that gave audiences films such as THX-1138 (1971), Z.P.G. (1972), Silent Running (1972), Soylent Green (1973), and Logan’s Run (1976), to name just a few titles. All these films posited future societies wherein something had gone terribly, dreadfully wrong, at least in human terms.

The majority of these disco-decade dystopian productions focused on issues such as Statism, environmentalism, and overpopulation, to name just a few hot-button issues of the epoch.  Those with a knowledge of literature will suggest that these films are, in some ways, children of George Orwell, and that author’s seminal dystopian work: 1984 (1949).

The success of George Lucas’s Star Wars (1977) ended the reign of the dystopia in the science fiction cinema, and the format never really managed to reinvent itself into something popular, except on isolated occasions (1987’s The Running Man, 1997’s Gattaca, or 2002’s Equilibrium).  Recently, film franchises such as The Hunger Games, Divergent and Maze Runner have revived the form in the guise of young adult entertainment.

Part of the reason for the relative paucity of single-serving, adult dystopic productions involves the changing nature of Hollywood movie-making.  One-off dystopian films don’t lend themselves easily to happy endings, and the homogenized nature of films today requires, often, precisely such happy endings. The Hunger Games, a series, had the opportunity to take several films to establish both its world, and the undoing of its dystopia.

The 2016 film Equals, starring Kristen Stewart and Nicholas Hoult and directed by Doremus Drake, however, is a one-off dystopian film, and a fascinating one at that.  The film involves a future society called “The Collective” that has outlawed -- and genetically removed -- human emotions.  However, some denizens of “The Collective” experience a disease called S.O.S. (Switched on Syndrome) that renders them susceptible to emotion, and therefore human contact and intimacy.

The film’s production design and palette involves a stark brand of white-on-white minimalism. This color scheme suggests the Collective’s literal lack of “color” and dynamic individualism.

Remarkably, however, at the same time that Equals is set against a blinding white-on-white world, it creates, through beautiful close-ups, a sense of not just tactility, but subtle eroticism. The film is a love story, at least of sorts, and because it is set against a world without touch, each touch carries amazing impact.  In short, Equals is beautifully-staged and executed.

In terms of detail Equals owes some of its narrative twists and turns to literary and film antecedents including the aforementioned 1984, and THX-1138, but also, in its last act details, Shakespeare’s tragedy, Romeo and Juliet (1595). 

That description may make the film sound derivative or half-cooked, but on the contrary, Equals accomplishes well the central task of the dystopian cinema: The film lands the viewer inside an alternate world that we can read, at least in terms of visual and thematic subtext, as being closely-related to our own.

“Every day, I’m practicing unbearable discipline and self-control.”

After a devastating and destructive world war, only two known inhabitable places are known to still exist on the Earth. 

One such place is “The Peninsula,” a wild land believed to be inhabited by primitives who congregate in families, and cling to one another for survival.

The other place is “The Collective,” a technological society that has outlawed human emotions, and genetically engineered for such emotions to be suppressed at a point between conception and birth.

However, some individuals in “The Collective” still feel emotions, and break the law by expressing emotions, or worse, “coupling.”  Those who couple -- known as “Defects” -- are taken to the Den, a facility where they are encouraged to commit suicide. 

One denizen of “The Collective,” Silas (Hoult) is horrified to learn that he has acquired Stage One of S.O.S. (Switched on Syndrome) and will eventually be sent to the Den for the execution of a “pain-free death scenario.”

At his job at Atmos, a kind of propagandistic magazine for The Collective and its space program, Silas falls in love with an illustrator, Nia (Stewart). 

As he soon discovers, she is a “hider,” meaning that Nia has S.O.S. (Stage 4) but has thus far been able to hide it from the society, including the doctors and her co-workers.

Silas and Nia embark on a dangerous and intimate relationship, becoming, in secret, couplers.  When Silas’s manager comes to suspect the nature of their relationship, Silas realizes they must stop meeting.  They are unable to do so, however, and continue to violate the laws of their culture.

Then, further complicating issues, a state-mandated cure for S.O.S. is released, meaning that Silas and Nia now have the opportunity to be “cured” of their emotions.

“I’d rather be with people who feel.”

Imagine what it would be like to live in a world in which you can’t act upon -- or even show -- your feelings, or emotions. In Equals, Silas lives a live of solitude.

He touches no one, and is touched by no one. He lives alone, functions in an emotionless work-place, and is not able to feel compassion, anger, sadness, or any other emotion that we take for granted every single today.

The early portions of the film do a powerful job of diagramming Silas’s empty life. His sky-rise apartment is an empty cube, wherein functional modules emerge and retract from the walls to serve his needs. A control panel gives him three options: “Eat. Sleep. Live.” 

If he wants to eat, a kitchen module emerges, then retracts to the wall when he is finished. If Silas wants to sleep, the bed extends from the wall and he naps. And the living aspect of the equation involves showering and playing puzzles. 

All these activities, all these tasks, are vetted alone.  There is no companionship. There is no family.

To us, it seems an empty life of the proverbial “quiet desperation,” and the filmmakers are extraordinarily effective in revealing the sameness of life in The Collective. Silas has a closet stacked with identical white outfits, for example. And we are told that he has solved, already, over 2,200 puzzles.

A good dystopian film must complete a significant amount of world-building, to seem convincing, and the early passages of Equals reveal the routine and nature of this world in glorious detail. As the film continues, and we begin to ask questions how the society could continue to exist like this, the film provides further answers.  Since there is no coupling in the Collective, the population, we learn, is controlled by the State through a process of compulsory insemination. Some female citizens are required to report for “conception duty.”  Children are raised by “guardian” citizens, not parents.

The laws are enforced, as well, not by Sandmen (Logan’s Run), or robot policemen (THX-1138), but by individuals wearing white uniforms with overall-like decorations on the front and back of their shirts.

We also the pervasive role of propaganda in this State. There are public TV-type screens of enormous size in entrance-ways, and every apartment is also outfitted with such a screen. These screens appear to display only State-sponsored messages.

What I find interesting, and perhaps a little out-of-date about this fascinating society is the fact that The Collective appears to have no surveillance of its own citizenry.

It does appear, however, that citizens are encouraged to look for signs of S.O.S. and rat each other out, but if TV technology exists, it seems like surveillance would be ubiquitous too.

Above, I noted in my introduction to this review that the great test of a dystopian film involves the audience’s ability to relate the imaginary world to its own real world. 

Certainly, Equals passes this test with flying colors. When Silas and Nia meet clandestinely on the job, and note that their love is forbidden, it is impossible not to think of the way that homosexuality has been historically marginalized and derided in our society.

The “Defects” in the Collective are told that their feelings are actually symptoms of a disease, and that they can be cured of it if only they submit to the state. The constant drumbeat of being told they are sick is not merely propaganda, but a form of psychological bullying, at least in some senses. Silas’s manager at Atmos, for instance, asks him “Have you thought about killing yourself yet?”

Silas and Nia know what they feel for one another, but are constantly told by society and by denizens that those feelings are invalid; and that they are not entitled to those feelings because, simply, they are not the (sanctioned) “norm” of the society.  This is what an overbearing State looks like: one that enforces conformity in “love.”

On another level entirely, Equals seems to concern, at least obliquely, the Autism scale, particularly Asperger Syndrome.

As you may know, Asperger’s is a developmental disorder that affects an individual’s ability to communicate or socialize effectively within a culture. The Collective in Equals is essentially a society that encourages such restrictions, but considers those restrictions the norm.

In that way, the society is a mirror or reflection for our own. We expect people to be like us, and to express emotions the way that we do.  But not everyone is wired to achieve that benchmark.

Forbidden love in a totalitarian society has been a cornerstone of the dystopian film, seen in versions of 1984 and in THX-1138. Equals re-treads familiar territory by taking it on as its central theme, and the film’s final act gets caught too deeply in the mechanics of that love story.

For instance, Nia is captured and sent to the den, and Silas becomes despondent, contemplating both suicide and taking the cure to “switch off” his emotions.  Those are both irreversible acts. 

Silas is then “helped” by an S.O.S. support group to rescue Nia, but through a mistake of mistaken identity, fails to understand that she is alive and free. 

So, the supporting characters of Jonas (Guy Pearce) and Bess (Judi Walker) -- friends of Silas -- prove about as helpful to the lovers as Friar Laurence and the Nurse do to Romeo and Juliet, in the aforementioned tragedy.

Still, Equals overcomes some of its grinding, mechanical plotting through two virtues. 

The first one, unequivocally, is the film’s gorgeous photography. Director Drake crafts a series of beautiful close-ups of eyes, lips, hands, and flesh, making us feel the impact of every look, every touch.  For a film that paints a “snow blind” world in terms of human interaction, it is shocking to see how effective these close-ups are in ratcheting up the film’s sense of eroticism, and keying us into Silas and Nia’s sense of discovery about each other, and the joys of physical contact (and sex).

The second virtue, of course, is the underlying, humanist message. Equals features several characters debating emotions, and whether they are, in fact, contagious.

When you meet someone who feels deeply…are you more inclined to feel deeply too? 

When we are loved, do we “switch on” and give love back more fully? 

The film’s final close-up, which I will not reveal here, suggests -- in inspirational fashion -- that there is no cure, genetic or otherwise – that can overcome the bonds of human connection.

Equals ventures into some familiar territory, it is true, but this is a dystopian film worth visiting in 2016, both for its beautiful photography, and its nuanced emotionalism. 

Movie Trailer: Equals (2016)

Wednesday, August 17, 2016

Pop Art: The Partridge Family: Keith Partridge, Master Spy

The Partridge Family Bus (Remco)

The Partridge Family David Cassidy Dress-up Set

Comic-Book of the Week: The Partridge Family (Charlton)

The Partridge Family GAF Viewmaster

Lunch Box of the Week: The Partridge Family

Trading Cards of the Week: The Partridge Family

Board Game of the Week: The Partridge Family (Milton Bradley)

Theme Song of the Week: The Partridge Family (1971)

Tuesday, August 16, 2016

Star Trek 50th Anniversary Blogging: "Who Mourns for Adonais" (September 22, 1967)

Stardate: 3468.1

As the Enterprise approaches a Class M planet, Pollux IV, during a survey mission, something strange and frightening occurs. A giant green hand, composed entirely of energy, snares the ship in a trap.
Captain Kirk (William Shatner) soon learns that he and his crew are prisoners of the Greek God, Apollo (Michael Forest).

Apollo and his fellow Gods were actually space travelers who visited Earth 5,000 years earlier and were mistaken for deities by the primitive human beings of the time.

Apollo orders Kirk to beam down and attend him, but leave Spock (Leonard Nimoy) -- who reminds him of Pan -- on board the starship. Kirk complies, and he transports down with Dr. McCoy (DeForest Kelley), Chief Engineer Scott (James Doohan), Ensign Pavel Chekov (Walter Koenig) and “A & A” (Anthropology and Ancient Civilizations) officer Carolyn Palamas (Leslie Parrish).  

Scotty has a crush on Palamas, and does not take it well when Apollo shows a special interest in the Earth woman, promising to make her a “Goddess.” 

As for the remainder of the crew, Apollo plans for them to spend the rest of their days worshipping him. He thrives, in fact, on such worship and adoration.

Kirk refuses to “bend knee” and Apollo demonstrates his power. He is able to hurl lightning bolts like the mythical Zeus, and growing to gigantic proportions.

While Spock and Uhura (Nichelle Nichols) attempt to find a way to punch a hole through the force field created by Apollo, Kirk must convince Palamas to spurn Apollo, even though she has fallen in love with him.

If she fails, Kirk observes, the Enterprise crew better get used to “herding goat.”

On first blush, “Who Mourns for Adonais” feels like a very formulaic episode of Star Trek (1966-1969). 

We have already seen the Enterprise crew grapple with a God-like being on several occasions, in “Charlie X,” “Where No Man has Gone Before,” and “The Squire of Gothos,” to cite three examples.
The Squire of Gothos” seems to be a major influencer, in particular, on this episode.  There, as in here, the god-like opponent to the crew (Trelane/Apollo) does not like Spock, traps a landing party on a planet surface, and dresses a female crew-member (Yeoman Ross/Lt. Palamas) in an historical/period dress. In both stories, ship technology (transporter/vs. phasers) at Spock’s command plays a role in rescuing the stranded crew members.

“Who Mourns for Adonais” also pipes in the Khan/McGiver romantic subplot from “Space Seed,” with yet another vulnerable female officer being forced to choose between her Starfleet duty and her romantic love for a charismatic, larger-than-life male.
Once more, I would be hard-pressed to find an opposite example in Star Trek; an episode wherein a male officer succumbs to the charms of a charismatic female character and his loyalty (or lack thereof) threatens the crew.

“Who Mourns for Adonais” is “sixties sexist” in its depiction of Palamas, no doubt. In the teaser, Kirk notes that she will get married and leave the service.  Really? Married female officers can’t serve in Starfleet? (See: “Balance of Terror:” where a woman getting married does just that)

And why can’t Carolyn’s prospective husband be the one to leave his career? Why does it have to be her? 

In this way, and in comments like Apollo’s line “she seems wise…for a woman,” Star Trek is every bit 50 years old. I find it constantly baffling that Star Trek can be so forward thinking in so many ways, and yet still demonstrate such sexism towards females.

Also, Scotty seems woefully out-of-character here, pining away for Carolyn Palamas. We all know he’d rather be reading his technical journals, right?

Lastly, there is an element of “camp” creeping into the series here.  Instead of a story with genuine science fiction concepts, “Who Mourns for Adonais” provides an opportunity to raid Greek myth, Greek architecture, and so forth -- even Greek drama, actually -- for its story.  Lost in Space (1965-1968) often featured stories wherein the Robinsons, stranded on an alien world, encountered “types” from Earth history.  They met police men, Western bandits, pirates, department store managers (!), Arabian thieves, and so on.

“Who Mourns for Adonais” threatens, in visual terms, to be of the same school. But Star Trek gets away with it because there is usually a reason for such Earth-types to appear (they are either space travelers, or from a parallel world).  In other words, there is usually a real underpinning for the existence of such colorful Earth clichés.

But here’s the rub.  All the flaws I have named don’t ruin the episode in the slightest, and “Who Mourns for Adonais” works effectively because there is a genuine intellectual debate behind it, and an emotional context to that debate.

In simple terms, “Who Mourns for Adonais” is about the never-ending battle between progress and tradition. 

On one side is Apollo, who believes that mankind has “lost something special” in the 5,000 years since he last saw them. He wants them to return to a simpler, more basic time. He is, in essence, the call of tradition, longing for a lost golden age. 

For Apollo, the age for which he longs is in which he is privileged as the unquestionable “God” of the people and worshiped as such. In that age, Gods such as he stood apart, and beyond others.  They took mortals as wives, and these wives were not “officers” with “jobs” or “duty.” They wore dresses, not uniforms.

On the other side of the equation is progress, represented by Kirk and the Enterprise crew. Kirk and his crew possess no desire to go back to a system which benefited Apollo, at their expense. They are not goat or sheep herders, and they don’t want to gather laurel leaves for a personality who is their equal…not their superior.

Kirk and his crew want to chart their own destiny and be independent…free. In other words, Kirk and his crew are all about egalitarian modernity, which promises equal rights and sovereignty for all people.

Kirk’s world is not about a return to nature and a Luddite life (represented by the gathering of laurel leaves…), or accept subjugation to an authority he no longer recognizes and has “outgrown.” His world is about pushing the edge of knowledge; self-direction and self-determination. Justice and self-determination for all.

These two philosophies -- status quo/tradition vs progress -- come into direct conflict in “Who Mourns for Adonais.” And, of course, we know which philosophy wins.

As Kirk understands, history only moves in one direction, ultimately. It moves forward. There are those who resist progress, and wish for a “golden age” (one usually based on myth…like Apollo’s very existence) to return.  But it can’t return, for a lot of reasons.  Conditions change. Technology changes. People change. Progress meets resistance, but progress always wins, even if there are setbacks along the way.

Other episodes very much concern the idea of false or erroneous progress (consider the androids of Dr. Korby in “What are Little Girls Made of” or the M-5 in “The Ultimate Computer,”) but Star Trek almost never rejects true, human progress.

Kirk strikes a blow for progress and self-determination in “Who Mourns for Adonais,” but the spectacular quality about this episode is that he ultimately takes no joy in his victory.

Neither do the others.

In the coda, McCoy wishes, aloud, that they had not had to take down Apollo.  Kirk wonders if it would have hurt them to gather a “few laurel leaves,” simply to respect the tradition that, in a very real way, made Western civilization possible.

This compassion for a former enemy, and a philosophy that doesn’t serve them, is a factor that distinguishes Star Trek from other space adventures.

Kirk and McCoy can honor what Apollo was, and what he gave our culture, in context.  But that doesn’t mean that he can win; or that they can accept his prescription for their lives (see: goat herders).  Time eventually passes all ideas by, including Apollo’s.  Humanity simply can’t go back to what it was, 5,000 years ago.  Just like we, in America, can’t go back to what we were 60 years ago.  We can have compassion for those who desire a return for that (mostly mythical “golden age”), and you can help them cope with change, but progress will not stop for them; any more than Kirk allows progress to stop because of his respect for Apollo, or the ancient Greeks.

An appeal to tradition is, simply put, a logical fallacy. It says, simply, we should continue to do something because we have always done that thing.  But knowledge does -- and must -- intervene in that thought-process. We learn new things, and we develop.  And so we can’t relive or re-conjure the past, knowing what we now know. 

Sixty years ago, in film, pregnant women smoked and drank alcohol on-screen. Even in futuristic drama, women were treated in a sexist fashion. We know today, that there is a reason not to continue such behaviors. 

The chain of tradition, at some point, must be broken in the name of egalitarian justice, and knowledge, instead.  That’s, finally, what “Who Mourns for Adonais” is all about.  We can appreciate the past.  But we will not relive it.

This conclusion is not without pain. Carolyn hurts Apollo, the man he loves.  And Apollo, in being spurned, realizes he has outlived his usefulness. He learns that, even as a near-God, he can’t re-conjure a past age, or past ethos.

“Who Mourns for Adonais” is a glorious episode, in part because of the contradictory thoughts/emotions it raises.  We definitely don’t want Apollo to succeed.  And yet we never hate him.  We always feel compassion for him.  Kirk’s final line, wondering if they couldn’t have gathered, for their host a  few laurel leaves, is perfect. It captures the tradition vs progress debate perfectly, and reminds us that there are, in this battle, unfortunate casualties.

The march of progress cannot stop.  But we can still honor our past, and the tradition that brought us to our current stage of development.

Next week: “The Changeling.”

The Films of 2016: Hardcore Henry

Everything old is new again.

Or is everything old just all dressed up with a new coat of paint, so it looks pretty?

Case in point: In 1947, the noir production Lady in the Lake, directed by Robert Montgomery, spearheaded the unusual technique of shooting a film entirely from the viewpoint of the drama’s central character.  

Viewers saw through the lead character's eyes, but very rarely saw the character himself.  Audiences only saw the lead character when he passed by a mirror, or cast a reflection.

Since then, we’ve had the “camera” serve as our "eye" in hundreds of first-person, found footage horror films, but that’s not precisely the same thing.

Hardcore Henry (2016) goes all the way back to the Lady in the Lake approach but attempts to distinguish itself (according to the MPAA rating information) through “non-stop brutal violence.”

In a nod to film history, a poster for Lady in the Lake is even prominently displayed on-screen during the early moments of Hardcore Henry, as our set of eyes -- the titular Henry -- crashes through an exterior window into an apartment living room.

It’s nice that this film, from director Timur Bekmambetov, remembers and honors cinematic history. 

Simultaneously, it unfortunate that the film suffers -- nearly seventy years later -- from the same set of deficits that compromised Montgomery’s effort.  

What are those deficits?

Basically, in a first-person movie there can be no (significant) cutting or scene shifting, since we are witnessing an “experience" through the eyes of an individual.  After all, we don't "cut" in life. Instead, our vision is continuous. When we want to leave one locale and go to another, we have to walk, or drive.  In a third person film, we can fade out at the first location, and fade in as characters arrive at the new one. 

Similarly, filmmakers utilizing first-person techniques can not avail themselves of third person film grammar conventions (for example, the use of high angle or low angle shots to express visual imagery).   Instead, they must commit and dedicate themselves to being one person's eye, for all the limitations of viewpoint and imagery that position entails.

Instead, first person films tend to be stuck with a relatively narrow set of narrative parameters. Such efforts are great at charting time-limited experiences (like an expedition in the woods to learn the truth about a folk legend, for example…) 

They are not so great at expressing characterization or emotions. 

In a film like Hardcore Henry, for example, we can never see the hero’s expressions or view his emotional responses to the harrowing experiences he endures. Thus we can’t intuit a decision-making process or selection behind his moves and actions.  

Accordingly, the character is never more than a cipher.

As a substitute for characterization, Hardcore Henry moves rapidly from stunt sequence to stunt sequence. 

At first these stunt sequences engender a sense of real awe and admiration.

By mid-film, they seem familiar and repetitive. In fact, by the second act, Hardcore Henry is Deadly Dull.  It pulls things back together for a gonzo, climactic fight sequence, but by then the film can't really recover any sense of momentum or good will.

I was hoping to report here that Hardcore Henry had infused the action film with a new sense of purpose and depth -- much the way Cloverfield (2008) energized the giant monster or kaiju movie with its street-level perspective -- but that’s simply not the case.

Sure, Hardcore Henry shocks (and might even offend) with its graphic violence, and features some truly impressive action scenes. But there’s no humanity, context, or perspective in that action. Without giving anything away, the film involves a major personal betrayal to Henry. 

Of course, emotional betrayal is a huge, emotional experience. Yet the audience is robbed of its impact in Hardcore Henry because of the limitations of the first-person perspective.  We are encouraged to gawk, but not allowed to feel.

Accordingly, Hardcore Henry would make one hell of a great video game with its nutty dedication to action scenes and gunfights. But as a dramatic movie, it’s a decidedly mediocre affair.

“I love you Henry. I can’t wait to hear you say it.”

A man named Henry awakens in a laboratory without his memory. A scientist, Estelle (Haley Bennett) claims to have brought him back from the dead, and furthermore, that she is his wife. She installs a cybernetic hand and foot on Henry.

Before Estelle and her fellow scientists can install Henry’s voice implant so he can speak, an albino telekinetic madman, Akan (Danila Kozlovsky), attacks…killing a number of scientists.  

Henry and his wife flee the massacre, and Henry learns that they are aboard an airship in flight.

Leaping into action, Henry helps Estelle board an escape pod, and they ride it down to the surface, where they are confronted by soldiers. 

Estelle tells Henry that he was made to fight, and to challenge the soldiers.

Henry and Estelle are separated after that fight, and Henry is soon aided by a mysterious man named Jimmy (Sharlto Copley), who seems to die with alarming regularity, only to return in new guises.

With Jimmy’s help, Henry plans to attack Akan’s headquarters, and rescue Estelle.

“You didn’t make history, Henry.  You helped end it.”

The element I enjoyed most about Hardcore Henry is its regard for film and TV history. The film not only gives us a visual call-back to Lady in the Lake, but offers a funny scene in which Henry is nearly installed with the voice of a very recognizable cyborg character: Darth Vader.) 

The film’s cheeky humor extends throughout the drama. Jimmy is a character, for instance, who keeps dying in horrible ways, and who keeps coming back in new guises.  I couldn't help but think that Jimmy was a science fiction homage to Kenny on South Park (1997 - ).

Additionally, there are times during the movie when the audience will feel the film was put through a 1980s sci-fi blender; one that mixes the styles of David Cronenberg and Paul Verhoeven.  

From the former, we get a queasy kind of treatise on biology and technology (think: Videodrome [1983].) 

And from the latter, we get a tacky, bloody, blunt approach to violence (think RoboCop [1987].)

You may notice the common element there. Hardcore Henry is all about the human body, and what it can be made to feel or do. 

Joined with technology, the body can endure beyond physical death at, least in this universe, and also give new arms and legs to a remote operator. At the same time, the body remains vulnerable to damage, and Hardcore Henry ticks down a veritable checklist of the damage and destruction a put-upon body can suffer.  

Human flesh is perforated by bullets, burned to ashes, ripped apart, and subject, even, to whirring propeller blades. 

Contextually, these two elements work together well enough. The film concerns a world in which cyborg soldiers will fight our future wars, and because of their machine nature, their pain will not really matter to those they protect. These soldiers are, instead, slaves.  

They are built to kill, and to endure. Not to feel. Not to love. Instead, love is a deception, a trick, a phony psychological motivation for murder.

But the sad fact for these soldiers? Most will get immolated, dissected, or otherwise destroyed unmourned.

If Videodrome meets RoboCop sounds like an intriguing film, I may have done too much heavy lifting in the previous paragraphs.  

Hardcore Henry mixes these styles and ideas, but resolutely lacks the humanity one would expect to find in a Cronenberg or Verhoeven film. We feel for Murphy in RoboCop, for instance, because we see that he is, despite his cyborg nature, still human.  We come to understand, from watching him (as well as his dream-like flashbacks) that he still thinks of himself as a man. 

There are a few powerful memory flashbacks (involving actor Tim Roth) in Hardcore Henry, but they relate not to Henry’s longing for humanity, or feelings of family connection. Instead, they form his impetus to keep going, to keep fighting to defeat the bad guys. In other words, these memories are a structural mechanism by which the movie keeps its hero motivated to complete his task. Therefore, they seem a bit hollow.

I suppose there are two pertinent questions a prospective viewer may have of Hardcore Henry, before going in.  

I will attempt to address both.

First, you may want to know: will you see incredible things in the film?

The answer is undeniably affirmative.  

There is a shock early in the film when Henry swings open a door, and nearly steps off a plane into mid-air, for example.  

And then there is the perilous ride down to the Earth’s surface, in the escape pod.  

Even later, there’s a chase scene involving a truck caravan that will likely blow your mind. The stunts, and the pure imagination evidenced here are truly admirable.

The film's final battle is nuts too, and one-ups some of the out-of-this-world fisticuffs featured in The Matrix films over a decade ago.

The second question viewers may ask is: do all those incredible moments come together to convey a meaningful and dramatic story?

Here, the answer is negative. 

By the film's mid-way point, the viewer feels visually exhausted from the non-stop action, and the constant detachment from the central character's emotional states. 

The director has failed to respect a key rule of action films here:  when everything is accelerated, all the time, nothing feels accelerated, at any time.  

In other words, Hardcore Henry just keeps powering through its running time with that “non-stop brutal violence” and so, after a while, you begin dreading the next gunfight, or the next chase, or the next scene of hand-to-hand combat.  

The film possesses no peaks and valleys. It’s just a straight run, without variation, throughout. And boy does that become tiresome.

That approach makes the action feel mechanical, and yet I don’t really think that’s the point, as some may argue (given Henry's cyborg nature). Hardcore Henry is ultimately about a machine reclaiming his humanity, and using the human part of him to survive.  I submit that you can’t tell that story if you never see the character’s face, identify with his emotions, or stop for moments of reflection about his journey.

Found footage horror movies are superior in format, because, finally, a Heather Donohue or someone like her can always turn the camera around, on herself, and address us directly.  Hardcore Henry doesn’t provide any opportunity for its hero to do that.

Hardcore Henry has been touted as the next iteration of the action cinema, a realistic, “one of a kind experience.” 

Actually, it’s just a sort of one-trick pony.

After fifteen or twenty minutes, there’s no inspiration or ingenuity left in Hardcore Henry

So the movie makes the incredible visuals feel, in the final analysis, utterly routine and mindless. Hardcore Henry is like watching someone else playing a first person shooter video game, while you impatiently wait to get your turn with the controller.