Sunday, June 23, 2019

30 Years Ago Today: Batman (1989)

"I don't know if it's art, but I like it!"

- The Joker, in Tim Burton's Batman (1989)

Bob Kane and Bill Finger's Batman character has gone through nearly as many cinematic and television incarnations, perhaps, as Bram Stoker's Dracula or Shakespeare's Hamlet.

The Adam West Batman TV series of the 1960's showcased a colorful world of campy characters, stereotypical comic-book affectations (ZAP!) and obsessively-labeled Bat gadgets and devices (like the Batcave's clearly marked "Lighted Lucite Map of Gotham City").

Contrarily, Christopher Nolan's currently in-vogue interpretation of the mythos adopts the opposite tack, grounding absolutely every aspect of Batman's universe in kitchen sink, War on Terror Age reality.  Here, the Batmobile is more Hummer than hot rod, an all-terrain military vehicle adapted by the Dark Knight for urban use.  The Caped Crusader's costume, according to Batman Begins (2005)  is actually a "Nomex Survival Suit" not a mere "costume," and Gotham City appears to be a very real, very grounded metropolis (actually Chicago in The Dark Knight [2008], if memory serves).

Between these opposite poles of  tongue-in-cheek comedy and naturalistic, gritty realism, director Tim Burton presented his own unique take on the Batman legend in the final year of the 1980's.  Given what we understand of Burton's aesthetic, it's not at all surprising that his vision for the Caped Crusader is largely expressionistic; one that distorts reality, essentially, to create an overwhelming sense of mood or psychological and emotional experience. 

In short, Burton's blockbuster 1989 film largely concerns two men (Bruce Wayne and Jack Napier) who  owe their very identities (and their mutual senses of alienation...) to the failed city-state where they dwell.  Batman and Joker could conceivably exist, according to this film, nowhere but in Gotham City.  The city -- heir to skylines like those seen in  Metropolis (1927), Blade Runner (1982) and Brazil (1985) -- functions  itself as a character in the drama, and as an important player in the action.  In some ways, the very architecture of the city  reflects the mental landscape of the Joker and Batman.  All three "characters" are strange, jumbled, "new" edifices (psychological and concrete) built upon old, shaky, crumbling and "dead" personalities or foundations.  Or as Jack Napier notes, "decent people shouldn't live here."

If you remember the summer of 1989 at all, you'll likely recall the "Bat Frenzy" that seized the nation upon release of Burton's film.  It was an authentic and unforgettable Zeitgeist moment. Although many fans had grown concerned about the casting of "comedic" actor Michael Keaton as Batman, most complaints evaporated once the film was screened.  Never before on-screen had Batman been taken so "seriously," and his world rendered so impressively and expensively.

Accordingly, most critics raved about the picture and the power of Burton's vision.  Ken Hanke, writing in Films in Review, called the film "a work of brilliance" (October 1989, page 480), and David Sterritt of the Christian Science Monitor commended Batman's "haunting tone." (June 29, 1989, page 10).

For me, those things that remain so vital and and impressive about Burton's Batman are the canny psychological underpinnings.   Batman becomes an understandable/relatable personality only because Burton erects the Caped Crusader's universe from the ground-up.

In other words, Gotham is indeed the "prime actor" on Batman's psyche, and the very thing responsible for making one man "The Bat" and  another The Joker.   In focusing on the surrounding universe (rather than merely the people inhabiting it), Burton's Batman more readily functions as an epic fantasy than either its comedic antecedent, the Batman TV series, or Nolan's big-budget pictures, which are basically action-films played straight, with few fantastic or fantasy elements at all.

Burton's Batman also thrives on its two central performances: Michael Keaton as a man dwelling in the past and wholly absent-minded about the details of the present, and Jack Nicholson as a monster who leaves behind day-to-day matters of concern (like his physical appearance) to dwell on a more abstract (if terrifying...) plateau; that of a "fully functional homicidal artist."  These men, joined by their twisted "origins" -- or more accurately their twisted resurrections -- fight to control Gotham City, and also the love of a woman, Vicki Vale (Kim Basinger).

"Haven't you ever heard of the healing power of laughter?"

In crime-ridden Gotham City, crooks and thieves fear a new presence in town, the nighttime avenger known as "The Bat."

Actually, criminals fear Batman, the alter-ego of millionaire philanthropist Bruce Wayne (Michael Keaton), who each night patrols the mean streets of Gotham and recalls (and relives?) the crime that robbed an innocent child of his parents.

As a nosy reporter, Knox (Robert Wuhl) and a beautiful photographer Vicki Vale (Kim Basinger) plot to learn more about the mysterious Batman, Gotham's Underworld undergoes a dramatic shift.  After a confrontation with Batman at Axis Chemicals, thug Jack Napier (Jack Nicholson) is transformed into the mad Joker, and murders crime boss Carl Grissom (Jack Palance).  He assumes control of the Grissom operation and begins a reign of bizarre terror.

While Bruce and Vicki embark upon a romantic relationship, the Joker terrorizes Gotham with his deadly Smilex toxin.  After Batman unravels the Smilex puzzle, the Joker challenges Batman to meet him during the nighttime parade celebrating the 200th anniversary of Gotham City.  For the people of Gotham, the big question is: who do you trust?  The clown, or the man in a bat suit?

"You can't make an omelet without breaking some eggs."

The Batman character first appeared in May of 1939 in an issue of Detective Comics. Importantly, Burton's Batman film seems to seize on that era of American history (say 1939 - 1945) and to forge a sense of reality with that epoch as its creative basis. 

Accordingly, the Gotham City featured in Batman is one in which the Art Deco and "Futura" style of the late 1920's and early 1930's has given way to the terrors of both fascism and more utilitarian architecture.  The beautiful deco Gotham -- representative of elegant, stylish and streamlined modern architecture -- has been "built over" willy-nilly by a melange of industrial grunge and blight.  It's as though someone constructed a beautiful contemporary city in one decade, and then just kept building and building upon it randomly for generations, with no thought or strategy about how to expand.  And each expansion is uglier, less stylish...less optimistic than the last.

You can detect the late-1930's early-1940's touches not merely in the architecture featured in Gotham in Batman, but in the costumes as well.  The policemen wear leather jackets, and male citizens are adorned in fedoras and other hats.  Also, aspects of the dialogue purposefully play up this era of American history.  Knox (Robert Wuhl) talks like he's out of a snappy, 1940's-era Howard Hawks movie (perhaps His Girl Friday [1940]) and Joker's base of operations is called Axis Chemicals.  As other critics have rightly pointed out, "Axis" is the name of the military alliance between Germany, Italy and Japan circa 1936 - 1945, and so again, a particular era of world history is alluded to, at least sub textually, in Batman.

If we remember what was happening in the world at the time of the Axis Powers perhaps we can understand why this reference is important to an understanding of Burton's Batman.  After the defeat (or death) represented by World War I and the Treaty of Versailles, Germany was "resurrected" as a global player...and terrifyingly so, as a monster; as the much-feared Nazi movement. The Joker's journey in the Burton film actually mirrors Germany's in some odd fashion  Jack Napier meets his Waterloo (or Versailles) at Axis, and is resurrected from the toxic (primordial?) goop as the Joker...only to ascend to greater power and tremendous madness.  Like Nazi Germany, he nearly wins his battle for domination too.

Thus, in some sub textual fashion, Batman seems to be about the idea of a "good" world going very, very wrong, taking a nearly fatal wrong turn; of art deco modernity giving way to industrial blues, and the rise of fascism.  Incidentally, this is also the very production design pattern that George Lucas utilizes in Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace (1999), showcasing in that film how a chrome, Art Deco Republic transforms into a  utilitarian, totalitarian state, where the ugliness of the movement is reflected in the ugliness of the new architecture.  In both cases, production design and wardrobe represent audience cues to express for us something important about the film's milieu.

Another way to explain this aspect of the Burton Batman: It's as though the film maker's took a snapshot of Batman's world in 1939, on the comic book's very parturition, and expanded that snapshot into a full-length film.  Also encoded in that "snapshot" is the idea of one "free" man (Wayne) utilizing his resources and wealth to challenge a system that isn't working.  In Gotham, the police are mostly helpless and citizens cower in fear because of the rampant crime.  In 1939, as America saw Nazi-ism rise overseas and countenanced the ascent of a more socialist state in America, some people would have viewed a capitalist crusader Batman as the express antidote to both: an entrepreneur using his own resources, by his own will, to restore justice.

Interestingly, both Bruce Wayne and Jack Napier are depicted in Burton's Batman as victims of what Gotham City has become.  Even as an adult, Bruce remains obsessed with the death of his parents in Gotham, a result of out-of-control crime and the failure of the establishment.  To characterize this on-going obsession, Burton features at least two similarly-staged scenes.  In the film's opening scene, Batman arrives (too late) to save a family of movie-goers as they are accosted by criminals. Later, Bruce remembers the death of his parents (in flashback) after a similar night at the movies, and an encounter with young Jack Napier.  These scenes are very similar, right down to the single-child nature of the family, and they suggest that Bruce is caught in a kind of endless, obsessive loop, unable to put the past down.   His nightly ritual of crime-fighting is in fact an attempt to exorcise the images he can't get out of his head: the death of his parents.  A third scene adds meaningfully to this conceit, showcasing Bruce brushing off the optimistic present (a date with Vicki) to return to the alley where his parents tragically died, and lay flowers at the spot where they expired.

This approach is intriguingly contrasted with Bruce Wayne's inability to focus on the details of the present.  He can't be bothered to pay attention to a gala being hosted at his house (in support of the 200th anniversary of Gotham City), and is glib about his wealth and belongings, even offering Knox a "grant" for his work, seemingly off-the-cuff.  A later scene involving Vicki and Bruce on a date at Wayne Manor, in a vast dining room, purposely seems to reflect a famous scene in Citizen Kane (1941) that -- through the spatial gulf across a colossal dining room table -- expressed the idea of marital alienation between an obscenely wealthy man and his emotionally-desolate wife. Here, the scene reveals the gulf between Bruce and his present.  He can't quite reach it; can't quite touch or embrace it. Again, notice how the focus in this Batman is upon the psychological state of the characters; on an expression of their interior dilemmas.  And also notice, please, how a visual film allusion to Citizen Kane also functions as a call-back to the time period I mentioned above, say 1936 - 1945.

It all fits together.

In Burton's Batman, Bruce as he appears now was "created" in the crucible of his parent's death, and has never been able to step outside that person.  He can't live in the present.  He can only live obsessively in the past; the past that Gotham City made for him.  In fact, Bruce has used all his considerable resources to trap himself in a cage, a technological cage in which he becomes a strange alter-ego; one who is always seeking to avenge the one act he cannot undo.  He can't quite reach across that dining room table to Vicki, even though a part of him desires that outcome.  "Are we at least going to try to love each other?" Vicki asks Bruce at one point, and his answer is determinedly a "no."  He's got work to do; a job to do.  Avenging the past.

By contrast, the Joker is cannot live in the past. After being dropped into toxic chemicals and suffering botched plastic surgery (in a very dark, very creepy scene...), the present doesn't interest the Joker. What interests him, instead, is the very act of creation, or perhaps, more accurately, of transformation.  He focuses on what he can make of himself, the world, and other people around him, like his unfortunate girlfriend.  The Joker realizes that he can be an artist: skilled at the very activity (with some sensitivity and imagination) of destroying and resurrecting lives.  The past is dead to the Joker, and he is characterized in the film by his need to "re-paint" or tarnish the present, which we see during his efforts at the museum.  The Joker survives his pain -- like a true artist -- by making the world share it with him.

For this reason alone, I must confess that I prefer Nicholson's Joker to Heath Ledger's in The Dark Knight.  Nicholson's Joker is engaged in the act of becoming; of transforming the world into a nightmare reflecting his own point-of-view (again, remember the fascism/Nazi subtext I noted above). By contrast, Ledger's Joker seems more like a force of pure chaos; one whose only purpose is to have no express purpose; destruction for the sake of destruction.

Both performances are powerful, but for me, Nicholson is both funny and terrifying, whereas Ledger was merely terrifying.  The powerful idea underlining a villain like the Joker is that he both attracts and repels; he's both charismatic and totally untrustworthy.

You can readily believe that Nicholson's "showman" Joker would inspire followers and "believers," whereas that's not exactly the case with the character in The Dark Knight.  Also, Burton expresses the hows and whys of the Joker's parturition in this Batman, granting the character a distinctive world view as a "homicidal artist."  The character in The Dark Knight, in my opinion, remains a bit charmless and opaque, if undeniably menacing.  Again, people of good will shall differ on favorites, and perhaps the bottom line is that Nicholson's Joker can exist only in Burton's vision for the mythos, just as Ledger is appropriate to Nolan's vision.

The idea or resurrection looms large in Burton's Batman. The once beautiful Gotham City has been resurrected as an industrial nightmare of out-of-control crime, Bruce has taken his obsession with is parents' death and resurrected himself as Batman, and out of the battle at Axis Chemicals Jack has been resurrected as that homicidal artist, the Joker.  Each character suggests what happens when a trauma isn't diagnosed or handled, but merely scabbed or built over.  The results, in all cases aren't "exactly normal" to quote Vicki's description of Batman.   The intertwining of Joker/Batman and Gotham is made explicit in the Batman screenplay as Joker and Batman fight atop Gotham's abandoned cathedral and argue "I made you?"  "You made me."

Batman premiered near the end of the pre-CGI age in terms of special effects, when miniatures, animation and other older creative tools were still widely in use.  For some audiences, the effects will seem dated, but for others, they will feel appropriately more tactile and bizarre, in some fashion, than what we have grown accustomed to in the digital era. Like so many Burton films, this is a messy, organic effort. We see acid burned on human faces, the bloody instruments from a botched plastic surgery, sweat-drenched criminals and other distinctive horrors. There's always very much a feeling here that these horrendous events are real and happening, not flesh-less, gravity-less affectations superimposed after the characters were actually there.  This fits into the psychological underpinnings of the film, the idea of people living in a nightmare state, in a nightmare city.  You can't achieve that effect that so easily with green screens, or CGI blood spurts.  This movie is about making us feel we live in Batman's world, and for that reason, it's very successful as a work of art.

Back in 1989, I had a high-school friend whom I absolutely loved, who described Burton's Batman -- humorously -- as "pretty darn plotless," and perhaps there's some truth to that complaint. The film is about a  lengthy grudge match between two men in a place "synonymous with crime." The narrative details are less crucial than the expression of the locations, and the emotional, psychological particulars of the two combatants. Danny Elfman's magnificent score adds to the aura of a moody, introspective rumination, one overcrowded with ideas, and in some cases, authentic horrors.

I realize that Batman is far from Burton's favorite film, and yet it does, quite readily, reflect much of his nature as an artist, stressing visuals as psychological symbols of fractured and damaged mental states. The film also diagrams the story of misfits and outsiders, a frequent Burton leitmotif.

As Bruce Wayne might characterize Batman in terms of Burton,  "some of it is very much me," and "some of it is not."  Though there's much of the film's director personal taste evident in the mix, Batman Returns (1992), in some ways, is an even more perfect representation of the director's aesthetic. It's weirder and wilder, even, than the gruesome sights on display here. That film, in my opinion, is some kind of twisted Burton high-point, a second run at the Batman legend that improves on the expressive, psychologically-adroit ruminations of this admirable and unforgettable 1989 effort.

Friday, June 21, 2019

Buck Rogers in the 25th Century, Series Intro

Airing on NBC-TV as the Star Wars craze went into full swing, Buck Rogers in the 25th Century (1979 - 1981) updated the legendary Nowlan character (originally featured in Amazing Stories in 1928, and then in newspaper comic strips) for the disco decade. The series starred Gil Gerard as Buck, Erin Gray as Wilma Deering and Tim O'Connor as Doctor Huer, and ran for two seasons and over thirty episodes.

The introductory montage for the series was altered slightly for its second season to comport with cast changes, but many images remained the same as those featured below (culled from the series' first year).  

The Buck Rogers montage commences with a brand of information age or high-tech overload: a composition featuring three split-screens simultaneously. 

And like the opening montage of The Six Million Dollar Man (1973 -1978), the images chart a technological, space-age mishap, and the ramifications of that mishap on one human being.  In both cases, this human being impacted is a pilot/astronaut.

Specifically, as the narrator (William Conrad in season one) informs us, in the year 1987, America launched Ranger 3, the last of its "deep space probes."  The craft is piloted by William "Buck" Rogers.

The next series of images (still split-screen), showcase Buck's shuttle, Ranger 3, approaching some kind of anomaly or distortion in space which freezes his life support systems, and hurtles him into a wider which does not return him to Earth for 500 years.  The images of the distortion/phenomenon overtake the images of technological accomplishment.

The next images depart completely from the technological sheen of the earlier split screen compositions documenting mission failure.

Now, we see an unconscious Buck Rogers superimposed over a kind of mystical or cosmic vortex -- representing Time Itself -- as he sleeps for five hundred years in a fast-frozen state.  The time meter at the bottom of the screen -- heretofore steady at 1987 -- begins to tick rapidly, as Buck sleeps well into the distant future.

As Buck continues to sleep, we see him passing or descending through concentric "rings" of futuristic imagery, rings that represent images of his journey into a new time period.  I have always thought of these rings as being like those of a tree interior, charting a time-line or life.  Only in this case, the rings show not age, but a journey ahead.

Specifically, the imagery shows us a space ship (Ardala's yacht), a starfighter launch corridor, the post-Holocaust ruins of Chicago (called Anarchia), and finally, the metropolis of New Chicago.

In the next images, we get our title screen, as the time meter stops at the year 2491.

Below the title screen, we meet our cast members inside the concentric rings or circles, images which represent both Buck's journey through time and the shape, incidentally, of his computerized friend, Dr. Theopolis.

Finally a shot of our likable and charming hero, now fully ensconced in his new life in the 25th century.

You can see the montage in living color below, though it is from the second season of the series and features a different narrator.

Thursday, June 20, 2019

Cult-TV Blogging: Buck Rogers in the 25th Century: "Awakening" (1979)

The beloved heroic character of Buck Rogers first appeared in the pop culture fifty years before the 1979 television series debuted on NBC TV. Conceived first in comic-strip form by John Flint Dille, and artists Russell Keaton and Rick Yager, "Rogers" became a perennial American fan favorite in 1929. A radio serial about the pilot trapped in a future world was produced in 1932, followed by a series of cinematic cliffhangers starring Buster Crabbe in 1939.

It is fair to say that Buck Rogers, along with Flash Gordon, personified space adventure in the first half of the twentieth-century. Even that was not the end of Buck, however. Ken Dibbs took on the role for ABC television in 1950, in a series of twenty-five minute episodes that aired for a single season. Shot lived, it was limited to small sets and primitive (by today's standards...) special effects.

Buck Rogers in the 25th Century, the 1979 series I’ll be looking at over the next several months, is Glen A. Larson's second science fiction "opus." It premiered on NBC scarcely a year after Battlestar Galactica bowed on ABC. And like it's 1978 compatriot, the first Buck Rogers television pilot played with great success in movie theaters throughout the United States. Starring Gil Gerard and Erin Gray, the series last for two years, thirty-six hours in all. It was a moderate success in the ratings during its Thursday night time-slot, slated against the highly-rated Mork and Mindy (ABC).

The 1979 Buck Rogers series was a hip updating that kept all the character names from earlier incarnations, but veered sometimes into tongue-and-cheek, humorous settings. We all know the premise: Astronaut Buck Rogers awakes in 2491 and finds Earth has survived a devastating nuclear war. Vulnerable, the planet is on the verge of annihilation from many alien sources. Pirates regularly attack shipping lanes, and every two-bit dictator in the galaxy has set his sights on conquering the green planet. In this environment of danger, Buck, his "ambuquad"(!) Twiki (voiced by Mel Blanc) and the gorgeous Colonel Deering defend the planet as secret-agent type operatives. In addition to his peerless ability as a starfighter pilot, Buck takes the world of the 25th century by storm with his 20th century wisdom and colloquialisms.

Unlike its somber Galactican counterpart, Buck Rogers was, essentially, a lark, at least to start.It was Mission: Impossible in space, only lighter, and on that basis a tremendous amount of fun. In the first season, the series eschewed morality plays, focusing instead on Buck's "unofficial" missions to bring down galactic criminals.

In "Plot to Kill a City", Rogers disguised himself as a mercenary named Raphael Argus and combated an organization called the Legion of Death, led by Frank Gorshin's Kellog. In "Unchained Woman," he masqueraded as an inmate on Zantia to rescue from a subterranean prison a woman who might finger a crook. In "Cosmic Wiz Kid" - starring Gary Coleman(!) - he rescued a 20th century genius from the hands of mercenary Ray Walston.

This was essentially the pattern for the first 20-something episodes, and in many ways it was a unique formula for the genre on TV at the time. The "caper" was all that mattered. On Buck Rogers, there was no continuing alien menace, although Princess Ardala (Pamela Hensley), Kane (Michael Ansara) and the Draconians showed up occasionally. And unlike Star Trek, there was little or no exploration of new worlds. Instead, Buck was an outer space crime/espionage show. And that meant - that for the first time I'm aware of -- all the conventions of crime and spy television were transposed to the future; to outer space.

On Buck Rogers, this transposition was accomplished with charm and a degree of wit. There were telepathic informants selling their services in "Cosmic Wiz Kid," powerful assassins from "heavy gravity" worlds in "Plot to Kill a City," super-charged athletes looking to defect from dictatorial regimes (the futuristic equivalent of the Kremlin) in "Olympiad," cyborg gun runners in "Return of the Fighting 69th" and a planet conducting a booming slave-trade in "Planet of the Amazon Women.".

However, in one important category, Buck Rogers was a letdown. The outer space battles were competently achieved with the special effects of the day (models; motion-control), but were often badly mis-edited into the proceedings. In the early episode "Planet of the Slave Girls," mercenary ships transformed into Draconian marauders - a noticeably different design - from shot-to-shot. In the same episode, a shuttle on the distant world Vistula launched skyward and passed the matte painting of New Chicago (on Earth), a matte painting that was used EVERY SINGLE WEEK to depict Directorate headquarters. This was the kind of goof that occurred repeatedly. The impression here is of an over-worked special effects department, and an editor with no eye for detail.

Another repetitive and very bad edit concerned the principal spaceship of the show, the very cool-looking starfighter. There were two different designs for this craft, the single and double seaters. Each one had a distinctive and recognizable cockpit design: one slim, one fat. However, the "space" footage of different crafts were often cut together interchangeably within one sequence. In one shot, Buck tooled around space in the single-seater, and in the next, his ship was the impossible-to-miss wider version.

Special effects from Buck's sister series, Battlestar Galactica, were mercilessly plugged into the proceedings too. In "Planet of the Slave Girls," the Cylon base from "Lost Planet of the Gods" substituted for Vistula's launch bay. In "Vegas in Space," "Cosmic Wiz Kid," and many others, the Galactica planet Carillon, seen in "Saga of a Star World," was substituted for the planet of the week. This was achieved in so sloppy a fashion that the Cylon-mined Nova of Madagon, a red star field, was even visible for a few seconds. BG spacecrafts were also brought out of mothballs. The Galactica shuttle doubled as Buck's shuttle in the second season, and ships from Galactica's rag tag fleet showed up in "Planet of the Amazon Women" and "Space Vampire" among others.

Make-up, costumes and props from Galactica also materialized with regularity. The alien "Boray," the focal point of the Galactica episode "The Magnificent Warriors," was seen in the BR episode "Unchained Woman," and Colonial fatigues, also BG hand-me-downs, were utilized as the uniforms for Roderick Zale's henchmen in "Cosmic Wiiz Kid." This oppressive re-use of Galactica equipment, effects, make-up and sets, along with the frequent editing glitches, often made the future depicted in Buck Rogers appear cobbled-together, cheap or just unimpressive.

Story-wise, Buck Rogers also rehashed identical plot elements in tale after tale. A spy in the Directorate might have made an effective plot development in one or two episodes. However, different spies in Huer's HQ showed up in "Planet of the Slave Girls," "Plot to Kill A City," "Return of the Fighting 69th," and "Unchained Woman," episodes 2, 4, 5, and 6 of the series!

There was also the embarrassing overuse of what this author calls the goofy drug. This was a chemical compound that, when injected into suspects, made them look like a total goofball, stoned and "groovy" feeling.

Buck received the goofy drug twice in "Awakenings," and once in "Cosmic Wiz Kid." He used it on a thug in "Vegas in Space," and Wilma utilized it on Quince in "Polot to Kill a City" and then again on Mykos in "Olympiad." This drug was a truth serum, and interesting to see deployed, but six times in less than two-dozen episodes may have been too much.

After its first year on the air, Buck Rogers underwent dramatic changes. Gil Gerard and Erin Gray were both apparently unhappy with the less-than-substantive storylines. In an interview with Starlog, Gerard confided that he'd re-written virtually every episode of the first year, sometimes on-set, to make terrible stories passable. As a result of his disenchantment, a new format was devised. Dr. Huer, the Defense Directorate, Dr. Theopolis and the Draconians were axed. Buck, Wilma and Twiki became crew-members aboard a starship called the Searcher (really the redressed cruise ship from "Cruise Ship to the Stars.") The Searcher's mission was to locate the "lost tribes" of Earth, men who were believed to have fled the planet sometime after the nuclear holocaust of the late 20th century.

But before we get to the second season, let’s revisit the first, starting with the premiere episode.

Buck Rogers in the 25th Century -- though designed as a TV series -- actually had its premiere in American movie theaters on March 30th, 1979.   

The film, originally a pilot called "Awakening" quickly provided a remarkable return on Universal’s investment.  It was produced for a little over three million dollars (or one-third of Star Wars’ budget, essentially, in 1977) and the movie grossed over twenty-one million dollars in American theaters alone. 

Perhaps even more surprisingly, the film was generally well-received by critics, despite its TV origins.  Vincent Canby at The New York Times belittled the film as “corn flakes” while simultaneously comparing it to the big boys: Star Wars and Superman: The Movie.  He also noted (with grudging admiration) the ingenuity of the film’s makers.

I remember seeing Buck Rogers in the 25th Century in theaters and enjoying it tremendously, unaware that it had been conceived and shot as a TV series pilot and then kind of exploded into becoming a full-fledged feature film.  In 1979, the special effects held up on the big screen beautifully (particularly the moments in Anarchia, a ruined 20th century city inhabited by mutants…), and the film, overall, was a lot of fun. 

Today, however, it is not difficult to detect some of the “growing pains” of this production as it stretched from being, essentially, a kid-friendly TV pilot to a more adult-oriented,“big” event movie.  What began as a relatively straight space adventure inched closer to a nifty and ingenious paradigm: James Bond in Space

This shift in premises is best exemplified by an opening credits sequence which features Buck romancing scantily-clad women of the 25th Century, who pose and preen on the over-sized letters of his “name” while a Bond-like ballad blares on the soundtrack.  It’s a little bit ridiculous, and a little bit cheesy, but it definitely captures the 007 aesthetic: sexy women and a catchy pop-tune.

The Women of James Bond Buck Rogers.

The women of Buck Rogers #2

The Women of Buck Rogers #3

The Women of Buck Rogers #4

The Women of Buck Rogers #5

Other moments are more clumsily folded into the narrative than the enjoyable Bondian-opening.  Late in the film, aboard the Draconia, for instance, Ardala declares she wants Buck to take her father’s “seat” on the throne.  Suddenly, the film cuts to a shot of Buck -- obviously shot at some later date, on a different set -- declaring that her father’s “seat” is the furthest thing from his mind (implying it’s her seat – her buttocks – that interests him). 

Thus sexual double-entendres were ham-handedly added to the production when the shift in venues was broached.  Other double-entendres work a little better than this one because they arrive via the auspices of ADR or looping, and therefore we don’t get the chance to visually note the inconsistencies.

Another not-entirely successful addition to the original pilot sees Buck going mano-a-mano with Tigerman, Princess Ardala’s hulking bodyguard and the film’s equivalent of Oddjob, or Jaws…a so-called soldier villain.  There’s nothing wrong with the climactic physical confrontation between Buck and Tigerman, except that Buck faces a different Tigerman here, not the one seen throughout the film.  This discontinuity is left unexplained, but Derek Butler plays the character throughout the film, and H.B. Haggerty (who returned to the role in “Escape from Wedded Bliss” and “Ardala Returns”) plays him for the fight sequence.  The two men are both imposing, but boast very different looks in terms of muscle-mass and body-type.  Honestly, I didn’t notice the substitution as a kid, but the switch is impossible to miss now.

Tigerman #1 (Derek Butler)

Tigerman #2 (H.B. Haggerty)

These last minute additions to the enterprise feel somewhat jarring, even if they add to the James Bond mystique of the thing.  A more significant problem, however, involves the thematic approach to the material.  Buck -- in both the film and the series – is raised up as some kind of paradigm for Earth’s future, the ideal man.  A professor and friend at Hampden-Sydney College called the idea “American Exceptionalism in Space,” and he was right.

The only problem, of course, is that Buck is from the very age on Earth that brought about the devastating nuclear holocaust.  His generation, in essence, destroyed everything.  It seems strange and counter-intuitive, then, to deride the sincere 25th Century folks -- just climbing out of a five hundred year economic and cultural hole, as it were – for depending on computers, since the episode makes plain the notion that ungoverned emotions and passions were what brought about the end of 20th century mankind. These benevolent robots, acting dispassionately but helpfully, instead rely on logic and rationality.  As Dr. Huer notes, they saved the Earth from "certain doom" and have been "taking care of areas where we made mistakes, like the environment."

So…would you really want to go back to the approach that led to Earth’s ruin?  Would you life Buck up as a role model, or see him as a backward man from a much more primitive time?

It would be one thing if the movie noted that some balance between approaches -- logic and emotion -- needed to be struck.  But the 25th century characters are treated, in broad strokes, as gullible fools who can’t even pilot their own star-fighters (even though those ships are built with very prominent joy-sticks designed for manual control).  

It’s all a little bit…incoherent.  Yet the film gets away with it because, again, of the James Bond comparison.  We all know that James Bond is irresistible to all women, best in a fight or shoot-out, and supreme exemplar of style and taste.  Nobody does it better, right?  Here, Buck Rogers seems to have the same magic touch.  We accept the premise, in short, because we recognize it from that other franchise.

Despite such flaws, the movie vets an intriguing premise involving the Draconian “stealth” attack (a kind of Trojan Horse in Space dynamic), and features at least one authentically great sequence set in Anarchia, or “Old Chicago.”  Here, Buck goes in search of his past, and finds it…in a grave-yard. 

This scene in Anarchia is particularly well-shot, acted, and scored, and adds a significant human dimension to the film’s tapestry.  We are reminded that Buck has lost everything.  Not just his family…but the world he knew.  Here, Buck Rogers harks back to a 1970s movie tradition earlier than Star Wars: the dystopia or post-apocalyptic setting of such efforts as The Omega Man, Logan's Run or Beneath the Planet of the Apes.  I’ve always wished that the ensuing TV series had followed up on this plot-line a little more sincerely.  There were many stories to be vetted in Anarchia, but in its two-year run, Buck never returned there (that we know of).

I should add, the special effects visualizations of New Chicago and Anarchia are nothing less-than-spectacular, even today.  Again, it’s difficult to reckon with just how cheaply this movie was made because it features extensive, highly-detailed matte paintings, numerous space dogfights, and huge sets (like Ardala’s throne room…replete with Olympic-size swimming pool). 

Finally, I would be remiss without mentioning Buck Rogers’ other great “visual.”  Vincent Canby writes: Pamela Hensley is the film's most magnificent special effect as the wicked, lusty Princess Ardala, a tall, fantastically built woman who dresses in jewelry that functions as clothes and walks as if every floor were a burlesque runway.

There’s probably a case to made that Hensley is one of the Best Bond Femme Fatales ever…except that she’s not technically in a Bond film, of course.  Still, the material is close enough, and boy does she have a sense of…presence.  I can't think of many actresses who could pull-off that "boogie" scene with Buck Rogers here.  But Hensley disco dances with the best of them, retains her character's regal sense of dignity, and is awfully sexy...

Pamela Hensley as Princess Ardala
I can’t really argue that Buck Rogers in the 25th Century is in the same artistic class as contemporaries like Star Wars or Superman: The Movie.  But the movie is undeniably fun, and it sets up – with tremendous entertainment value -- the boundaries of Buck Roger’s new life in the 25th Century.  In other words, it’s a pretty great TV pilot for 1979 even if -- blown-up to the silver screen – it all plays as a bit scattershot.

Next up: "Planet of the Slave Girls."

Wednesday, June 19, 2019

Memory Bank: Zombies (1983)

One of the greatest (and coolest) video games I ever played on my old Atari 800 in the 1980's was Mike Edwards' Zombies (BRAM Inc; 1983), later re-released by EA in 1984-1985 as Realm of Impossibility.

This game was available on both cassette (!) and floppy disk, but my memory is that I played the game on disk.  It was so long ago now, I'm not entirely certain about that detail, however.

Regardless, my father was vice principal at Mountain Lakes High School in New Jersey, and was close friends with a 1980's Atari guru, one who was outfitting the school with a number of computers as the PC era began in earnest.  One day, out of the blue, my Dad arrived home from school (on his motorcycle...) with a bundle of video games on disk and cassette.  I had never heard of any of these games, but it felt like Christmas morning.

They had titles like Blue Max, Trains, Murder on the Zinderneuf, Bruce Lee, Astro Chase, B.C.'s Quest for Tires, Caverns of Mars, and last -- and best -- Zombies!

In Zombies, the goal was to recover the "enchanted crowns of the middle kingdom" from an evil wizard named Wistrik.  The cleric had apparently stolen the crowns and stored them in a variety of hellish dungeons where they were protected by rampaging zombies, giant spiders and poisonous snakes.  The realms had ominous, mythological-based names such as "Cankaya Keep," "The Abyss," "The Stygian Crypts," "Tartarus" and "The Realm of Impossibility."

Designer Edwards was inspired in part by his love of TSR's Dungeons and Dragons, as he wrote in the marketing booklet for Zombies. But he also wanted to get away from simple shoot-em-up games of the era.  Thus he devised Zombies with a few diabolical and genius twists.  

Among these were the fact that as a player you were not awarded multiple lives.  When you died, and had to begin the game again.  

Secondly, there was no "elimination" of the supernatural enemies and vermin.  Instead, you had to drop crucifixes around yourself (while you ran...) as supernatural barriers to the surrounding threats.  Additionally, the player could acquire scrolls with spells such as "Freeze," "Protect" and "Confuse."  Believe me, these came in handy...

And thirdly, the game was two-player compatible, but the two players did not compete against one another.  Rather, they had to work together, in unison, to avoid the zombies and retrieve the crowns.  This made the game perfect for when my friends came over after school, or on Saturday afternoons, for surviving Zombies was an exercise in team work.

Zombies also featured, according to the promotional material: "3-D graphics, on-line instructions,"..."74 different screens, high-score save to disk, full sound and color, zombies, poisonous snakes, giant spiders, evil orbs, scrolls, talismans, magic spells, lost crowns and spectacular underground scenery."

On that last front, Zombies showcased unbelievable, M.C. Escher-inspired screens that, despite the young age of the form, were authentically mind-blowing in terms of viewer perspective.  I've written here before how I'd like to see a consistent set of aesthetic criteria applied to video games because I do consider them an art form. When I think about it, Zombies is likely the game that began me thinking along those terms, even as a teenager. The game was beautiful to behold, and completely immersing.  For instance, I remember (I hope correctly...) that when the zombies touched you during the game, your life energy would bleed away quickly, but also that the game screen would pop and crackle, like you had been struck by electricity.  If you ask me, I can still "feel" that shock, though of course, no such physical shock was actually delivered.  

I can't even begin to estimate how many hours I spent during my teenage years navigating Tartarus, the Stygian Crypts, or the Realm of Impossibility.  But it was a lot, I'm certain.  I have wonderful memories of playing this game with my best friends in high school.

The graphics may look primitive today, but the game play was absolutely incredible.

Makes me miss my Atari 800...

Tuesday, June 18, 2019

UFO: "The Sound of Silence"

In "The Sound of Silence," A UFO trails a NASA probe back to Earth, and puts down in a lake in the English countryside. Soon, an alien stalks the nearby grounds, tracking the movements of a local estate owner and famous equestrian show jumper, Russell Stone (Michael Jayston) and his sister, Anne (Susan Jameson).

After a local tramp, Ben Culley (Nigel Gregory) and his dog are found murdered, and Russell disappears, Commander Straker (Ed Bishop) sends Colonel Foster (Michael Billington) to investigate the situation.

There is a pitched battle on the lake, as SHADO Mobiles destroy the UFO. A strange tube is found among the wreckage, and brought back to HQ. Straker and Foster fear it is a bomb, set to detonate, but the truth is something stranger and more frightening. They have recovered Russell Stone, who is sealed inside the canister, having been prepared to be sent to the alien home world...

"The Sound of Silence" is another underachieving episode of this classic and generally high-quality series. This segment focuses on the Stone family, characters who the audience has no vested interest in. Worse, Russell Stone -- whose life is on the line in the drama's last act -- is a cold, unsympathetic person.  He nearly tramples Ben Culley, without sympathy, and is not at all a warm personality.  He seems as cold and distant as the aliens who capture him.  Yet the success of the episode's third act depends on audience identification with him, as an alien abductee.

As was the case in "Destruction," the previous episode I reviewed here on the blog, UFO's large cast seems mostly like an afterthought here, far away from and only minimally involved in the action at hand. Straker is sidelined or the most part.

By contrast, the story might have worked effectively as a horror tale, with the alien creeping around the woods, abducting and killing people and animals, but the pacing is flaccid, and the episode has no sense of style beyond the freeze-frames during the opening credits.  The tramp, Culley, meanwhile, is referred to as a hippie, and the episode also features some-dated jokes about Native American people.

There are a few highlights in "The Sound of Silence,: although even they are marred, to some extent by other factors. The battle between the Mobiles on the shore and the UFO rising from the lake is incredibly impressive. It is literally a show-stopper.  The visual highlight of the story loses a bit, however, from Billington's disinterested performance.  Foster is ostensibly leading the Mobile attack, but is only seen in cutaway shots and doesn't respond with much urgency, even as explosions and laser beams dot his immediate area. In short, the live-action performance doesn't match the intensity level of the miniature work.

The final canister opening scene at Shado HQ is indeed tense, and well-orchestrated, by comparison, and yet still feels like a missed opportunity. We learn that Russell is "all packed up, ready for shipment," but beyond that tantalizing detail we learn little of why the aliens warehouse humans in this fashion. Is it so their organs survive long distances? Light speed travel? Does travel in this manner preserve life? This plot-strand seems like a tailor-made opportunity to provide a few more bread-crumbs of knowledge about the aliens, but then the episode doesn't really deliver.

Finally, again, there's a stalker-y aspect to Paul Foster's behavior in "The Sound of Silence." In "The Dalotek Affair," we saw him romance a scientist he mete on the moon. She then was administered the amnesia drug and forgot all about him.  Later, Paul found her on Earth, and began a romantic dalliance with her all over again. He does the same thing with Anne Stone in "The Sound of Silence." He returns to her estate after she has been dosed with amnesia, and hits her up for thinly veiled "riding lessons." 

Once, this kind of thing is forgivable, perhaps. But twice?  Does Paul make a habit of stalking women who have no previous knowledge of him, but whom he has met and interacted with?  It feels a bit creepy. I know he is the series' resident horn dog, and everything, but in these particular relationships the women are on unequal terrain. He knows all about them, and they know nothing about him. Why is he so insecure that he has dalliances with amnesiac women, where he always holds all the power?  It's weird.

Next week: "The Responsibility Seat."

30 Years Ago Today: Batman (1989)

"I don't know if it's art, but I like it!" - The Joker, in Tim Burton's  Batman  (1989) Bob Kane and B...