Wednesday, June 30, 2021

Independence Day (1996)

"In less than an hour, aircraft from here will join others from around the world. And you will be launching the largest aerial battle in the history of mankind. "Mankind." That word should have new meaning for all of us today. We can't be consumed by our petty differences anymore. We will be united in our common interests. Perhaps it's fate that today is the Fourth of July, and you will once again be fighting for our freedom. Not from tyranny, oppression, or persecution, but from annihilation. We are fighting for our right to live. To exist. And should we win the day, the Fourth of July will no longer be known as an American holiday, but as the day the world declared in one voice: "We will not go quietly into the night!" We will not vanish without a fight! We're going to live on! We're going to survive! Today we celebrate our Independence Day! "

- President Whitmore (Bill Pullman) delivers an historic address in Independence Day (1996).

Independence Day (1996) remains one of the big “event” movies of the 1990's, a sci-fi blockbuster of monumental, almost unimaginable proportions.  The crowd-pleasing film successfully tapped into the decade’s unending fascination with aliens and UFOs (The X-Files, for example) and significantly augmented that interest too, resulting in a slew of further alien films and TV programs from Dark Skies (1996) to Men in Black (1997).

As an inside-the-industry cautionary tale, Independence Day also represented the (unfortunate) cementing of the Emmerich/Devlin blockbuster “formula” -- a revival of 1970s disaster film tropes. This format would meet its Waterloo in 1998’s Godzilla, but nonetheless continues right into the last decade with films such as the dreadful 2012 (2010).

Of all the Emmerich genre fare, I’m most fond of 1994’s Stargate, as it seems to strike the right balance between spectacle and intelligence.  After that film’s release, the scales in further efforts kept tipping towards spectacle and away from brains, and so the ensuing films suffer mightily for the imbalance. 

That established, I was certainly part of the enthusiastic audience for Independence Day upon its summer release, and I still remember how great the film looked on the big screen.  A recent re-watch confirms how terrific the miniature effects remain.  The scenes of awesome alien saucers lumbering to position over major world cities -- though obviously reminiscent of Kenneth Johnson’s V (1984) -- remain downright staggering.

What ages Independence Day most significantly, instead, is the pervasive shtick and the schmaltzy, sentimentality-drenched characters. At every step of the way during its narrative, Independence Day punctures its end-of-the-world majesty and gravitas with low humor and over-the-top sentimentality, qualities which today render the whole affair close to camp. 

Science fiction fans, of course, experienced conniption fits over Independence Day’s unlikely finale: a third act which sees an Earth-produced computer virus successfully uploaded to an alien computer aboard a mother-ship, thus giving humans the opportunity to strike back…on July 4th, no less. 

The movie doesn’t pay even lip service to the idea that aliens from another solar system might have developed anti-virus software (!), let alone computer systems totally incompatible with our 20th century Earth technology. 

Given how badly things go for Earth in the first hour of Independence Day, it’s difficult to countenance the film’s final veer into outright fantasy as every heroic campaign – with split-second timing – comes together perfectly.

Despite my misgivings about the film’s humor, sentimentality, and narrative resolution, however, I still find the grave, apocalyptic, anxiety-provoking tone of Independence Day’s first hour worthwhile, especially the President’s grim choice to deploy nuclear weapons in an American city to drive off the aliens.   

It would be absolutely foolish to deny, too, that some of Independence Day’s imagery has become iconic in the annals of cinema history.  We all remember that portentous shot of hovering saucer pulping the White House for instance.  Thus -- even while criticizing this over-sized beast -- I've got to give the Devil his due for getting matters right on a visual terms

In terms of theme, Independence Day works overtime to remind all of us that although we are separated by oceans and other Earthly partitions, we are all nonetheless citizens of the same planet. It’s a laudable message in an age of hyper-partisanship to be certain, even if delivered with little nuance or subtlety.  This through-line in the film is consistently and well-conveyed, both in terms of incident and in the make-up of the diverse dramatis personae.  Who would have imagined our precious Earth could be saved by a war veteran, a drunk crop-duster, a Jewish cable repairman and an African-American fighter pilot?

Movie critics were understandably divided on Independence Day.  At The New York Times, Janet Maslin wrote: “Guess what: "Independence Day" lives up to expectations in a rush of gleeful, audience-friendly exhilaration, with inspiring notions of bravery that depart nicely from the macho cynicism of this movie season. Its innocence and enthusiasm are so welcome that this new spin on "Star Wars" is likely to wreak worldwide box-office havoc, the kind that will make the space aliens' onscreen antics look like small change.

Writing for The Washington Post, Rita Kempley opined: "Independence Day" is primarily a $70 million kid's toy, a star-spangled excess of Roman candles and commando games designed to draw repeat business from 9- to 12-year-old boys. Little girls won't find any role models among the barnstormers, though a plucky exotic dancer is featured among the heroines. Even with the end of the world in sight, she shakes her booty. It's for her kid. No, really.  Maybe the moviemakers' mission was to boldly go where everyone in Hollywood has gone before: the bank.

Honestly, I can see both sides of the critical equation in this case. Independence Day is such dumb fun, and yet fun nonetheless.

“A the end of the world.”

The people of planet Earth watch with anxiety and wonder as three-dozen alien saucers descend from orbital space to take up positions over cities around the globe.  President Whitmore (Bill Pullman), a former jet pilot in Desert Storm, advises calm, but new information from genius cable repair man David Levinson (Jeff Goldblum) suggests the alien ships have initiated a countdown and are preparing a coordinated attack.

As the countdown ends, Levinson’s suspicions are confirmed, and the alien ships destroy Los Angeles, Washington D.C., New York and other population hubs. President Whitmore survives the attack on the Oval Office and escapes by Air Force One.  He promptly orders a retaliatory strike.  Pilot, top-gun, and would-be astronaut Steven Hiller (Will Smith) downs an alien ship during battle, and captures one of the fearsome aliens for study.  The rest of the fight, however, is a rout, and the U.S. jets are unable to penetrate alien shields.  Humanity stands upon the edge of extinction.

The President visits the secret military base at Area 51, and learns there that scientists there have been experimenting with an alien ship for close to fifty years.  When Hiller arrives, the President attempts to communicate with Hiller's captured alien, but finds the being implacably hostile.  The aliens, he soon learns, are like locusts.  They travel from solar system to solar system using up planetary systems and then moving on…leaving only carnage and waste in their wake.

After nuclear weapons prove ineffective against the aliens, President Whitmore is at a loss how to save the planet, or the human race.  But David comes through again.  He believes he can take the captured alien ship at Area 51 to the mother-ship and upload a computer virus there, thus bringing down alien shields…at least for a few minutes.  When Steven volunteers to fly that risky mission, it’s up to the President himself to coordinate and lead a huge aerial attack against the alien saucers, both in America, and world-wide…

It's a fine line between standing behind a principle and hiding behind one. You can tolerate a little compromise, if you're actually managing to get something accomplished.

For a film about such a terrifying topic – an alien invasion – Independence Day frequently plays thing...light.  At least a half-dozen major supporting characters in the film are defined by their shtick. Judd Hirsch plays a nagging Jewish Dad, Julius Levinson, and his lines and delivery are pure Borscht Belt ham-bone.   Harvey Fierstein plays another kitschy character, Marty, who hams it up and makes jokes about his therapist and his (presumably overbearing...) mother.  Harry Connick Jr. portrays a cocksure pilot who provides the film at least one dopey gay joke.

But the worst character is likely Randy Quaid’s Russell Casse, a drunken crop-duster (and alien abductee) who joins the air battle against the aliens during the film's denouement.  Quaid’s dialogue is so incredibly dreadful that it has become the stuff of legend and MST3K fodder.  “I picked the wrong day to stop drinking,” springs immediately to mind. 

Among all these actors hamming it up and stealing time, Brent Spiner likely fares the best as aging ex-hippie and scientist Dr. Okun. Spiner comes off as weird and eccentric, but not so dreadfully hammy that you want to turn away from the screen in shame for watching.  His last scene -- played with alien tentacles pressing against his larynx -- is also genuinely unsettling.

Why do I have a problem with the film's pervasive moments of low humor?  Well, Independence Day already boasts Jeff Goldblum and Will Smith continually cracking wise in leading roles.  Their dialogue is dreadful too, from "Welcome to Earth" to "Now that's what I call a close encounter!"  Given all this material from our leads, do we really need Judd Hirsch, Harvey Fierstein, Harry Connick Jr., Randy Quaid and even Brent Spiner dishing out lame one liners too?  The ubiquitous nature of these characters makes Independence Day, at times, resemble an overblown sitcom.  Maybe if the material were stronger, these characters would not seem so objectionable. I guess what I'm saying, is that these moments are rarely actually funny.

Another weak character is Secretary of Defense Nimzicki (James Rebhorn), a man who in one scene advises the full scale nuking of many American cities, but in a later scene argues against a “risky” maneuver to attack the alien mother-ship and upload the virus.  His objections to the (ultimately) successful plan make no sense, and aren’t consistent with the “war hawk” image he projects in the film all along; a guy who advises going to Def-Con 2 before the President has made his final decision.  Instead, Nimzicki is contradictory simply so the audience can boo at him, and the President can dress him down…thus appearing tough and resolute. 

While I have real disdain for much of the writing and characterization in Independence Day, I do feel that the film's visuals often still shock, and often still carry real emotional resonance.  One shot, set on July 3rd, reveals the Statue of Liberty toppled, face down in the harbor...a massive saucer hovering low in the sky.  Colored in autumnal browns,  this is a terrifying composition of American culture annihilated.  

It’s tough indeed to compete with the amazing Statue of Liberty imagery of Planet of the Apes, yet this moment in Independence Day remains quite upsetting.    The film is also anxiety-provoking in the way it reveals American military might crushed before a more technologically-advanced enemy.  The battle sequences, the nuclear option, and other heavy moments are all deeply scary because one realizes that if America can’t save the world…the world ain’t getting saved.  Indeed, Independence Day plays up the alien threat so successfully in terms of spectacular visuals and special effects that there’s almost no way the scripted, climactic victory can ring true.  It’s like we’ve slipped into an alternate movie or something.

The first half of Independence Day is undeniably the strongest, as alien saucers push through storm and cloud fronts, and emerge over our cities, casting dark shadows upon bewildered and amazed populations.  These moments continue to impress, and pack an almost visceral gut punch.  We’ve all wondered if, one day, we’ll wake up to something like this imagery…a new dawn in which we learn definitively we are no longer alone.   As much as I deride Independence Day’s silly humor and bad dialogue, I have no quibbles whatsoever with the way that these scenes of “arrival” are vetted.  As I said in my introduction, many of these scenes still carry a staggering punch.

From its first shots to its final ones, Independence Day also makes an interesting point about mankind being unified by a threat from the outside.  The film opens with imagery of a plaque on the moon which reads “We came in peace for all mankind.”  That’s a wonderful thought, the movie seems to suggest, but then the filmmakers set up a paradigm by which that hopeful expression of common cause is tested.  Suddenly, all mankind must work together to defeat the alien threat, putting competition and petty differences aside.  This idea is expressed through scenes set in Iraq, the location of America’s most recent war (Gulf War I).  There, in the desert, British and Iraqi soldiers join the battle against the mother ships.  The implication of such scenes is that mankind is indeed capable of working together.

The same idea is presented in the film in the (positive) character of President Whitmore.  Before the alien crisis, he is viewed not as a warrior, but as a “wimp.” He can’t even get his Crime Bill passed by a hostile Congress. Whitmore laments that “it’s just not simple, anymore” and that people don’t seem to understand that compromise is the only path towards moving everyone ahead, together.  He then works with the nations of the world to defeat the aliens, and in the process transforms an American holiday into an Earth holiday.   Again, the message implicit in Independence Day is that we can apply ourselves to solve big problems, not just alien invasions. Why can’t we all band together to keep our neighbors and our neighbors' children from starving? Or to eliminate poverty? Once we acknowledge our common humanity, petty partisan differences shouldn’t really matter, should they?

In this sense, Independence Day -- set in part on July 4th -- acknowledges a new, evolved brand of patriotism. It is a patriotism not merely to party or to one nation, but to all of humanity.  As a fan of Star Trek and a person who believes we can achieve great things if we sometimes accept compromise, I appreciate the film’s ultimate message of hope about human nature. This consistently-applied theme almost mollifies my concerns about the film’s ridiculous and ill-conceived conclusion, and the surfeit of characters who spew cliché after cliché, bad joke after bad joke.  Almost, but not quite.  Still, I know I'm spitting in the wind against an 800 million dollar blockbuster, a veritable entertainment machine.

So am I a hopeless sentimental for recognizing Independence Day’s entertainment and social value, even amidst so many stupid groaners and moments of cynical, calculated humor?  

Or, like Randy Quaid's character...did I just pick the wrong day to stop drinking?

Saturday, June 26, 2021

Thundarr the Barbarian in "Last Train to Doomsday"

In “Last Train to Doomsday,” Thundarr, Ookla, and Ariel defend a locomotive from a Mummy, who actually turns out to be the two-faced Gemini, a deadly wizard.  

Still holding a grudge from his last encounter with Thundarr, Gemini captures the barbarian and traps him in a rock pool with silicon-based life-forms called the Silicoids.  Unless Ariel and Ookla can rescue him, Thundarr will be transformed to stone…for eternity.

“Last Train to Doomsday” feels a bit like old-home week for Thundarr the Barbarian (1980-1981).

The episode features not only the return of the Janus-like sorcerer Gemini from the episode “Secret of the Black Pearl,” but also the young blond “swamp urchin” from the episode “Harvest of Doom.”  

Less impressively, “Last Train to Doomsday” also reruns the central threat from the episode with Circe (“Island of the Body Snatchers”), that of being transformed into a statue.

Still, there are some good touches in this installment, including Gemini’s use of “acid rain reservoir” to threaten the heroes, and also Ariel’s powerful magic, which turns a runaway train into a walking vehicle on the equivalent of stilts. That’s something you don’t see every day: a walking locomotive engine with long steel railroad metal for legs.

The best touch, however, is a brief tribute to Marvel Comics, home of series mastermind Jack Kirby. At one juncture, Ookla stops to read an ancient “Marble” comic-book titled Slime-Boy.  He promptly breaks up with laughter.

That’s the kind of touch that renders Thundarr the Barbarian a delight more often than not. Although I wish this episode featured more certainty in terms of its post-holocaust locations, a frequent pleasure of the series, it’s nice to see the throwaway Marvel Comics homage.

Less pleasant is yet another sexist touch. Thundarr dismissively scoffs “Females!” at one juncture, and it’s irritating to see that male chauvinism has endured two centuries and a global catastrophe.

Oddly, 1970s-era slang has also endured this span. “Let go of me, you turkey!” shouts one character here.

Wednesday, June 23, 2021

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 1960s 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 Christmas, Burton high-point, a second run at the Batman legend that improves on the expressive, psychologically-adroit ruminations of this admirable 1989 effort.

Tuesday, June 22, 2021

50 Years Ago: The Andromeda Strain (1971)

For my money, the late Robert Wise (1914-2005) remains one of the most underrated of all genre directors. 

Wise gave the world remarkable horror films including The Haunting (1963) and Audrey Rose (1977), and sterling science fiction pictures such as The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951), Star Trek: The Motion Picture (1979), and, of course, the adaptation of Michael Crichton’s best-seller, The Andromeda Strain.

Underlining all these disparate efforts is the sense of a curious and engaged guiding intellect, an artist determined to treat his material with intelligence. Wise's films are cerebral, open to new possibilities, and rife with visual imagery that skillfully reinforces the content of their narratives. Throughout his genre canon, one can detect how deeply Wise respects both his material and his audience, and this quality is a rare gift, for certain.

The Andromeda Strain showcases this Wise style or approach to a significant degree. It is pitched at a high-level, features no spoon-feeding, and creates a flawless, impeccable sense of "reality" even when dealing with futuristic hardware and the "sci-fi" threat of an alien bug landing in an American town. The film seems frighteningly plausible.

Similarly, The Andromeda Strain's actors actually look and sound like real scientists, not super models or super-stars, and so nothing is allowed to shatter the film's sense of authenticity or, similarly, suspense.

The Andromeda Strain imagines a future of science and high-tech computerization that today may seem dated, but underneath those bells-and-whistles the film -- much like Contagion (2011) -- is really about people. Specifically, The Andromeda Strain involves the ways that humans can sometimes erect barriers to success through miscommunication or personal foibles; barriers that, in the end, threaten civilization itself.  After a year of pandemic, this idea is not news, perhaps, to the American populace.

"Establishment gonna fall down and go boom..."

A satellite from Project Scoop carrying an alien micro-organism crashes in Piedmont, New Mexico, and exposure proceeds to kill all but two denizens of the town.

The U.S. government quickly marshals an emergency response, and two scientists, Jeremy Stone (Arthur Hill) and surgeon Mark Hall (James Olson) explore the contaminated town in bio-hazard suits. They rescue the two survivors: an old drunk, and a crying baby.

Later, at a state-of-the-art, subterranean scientific facility called Wildfire, Hall and Stone are joined by other scientists including Charles Dutton (David Wayne) and Ruth Leavitt (Kate Reid), and together the group attempts to determine if the strange alien micro-organism could threaten human life throughout all of America, and indeed the world.

Studies reveal that the alien micro-organism, code-named “Andromeda” is 2-microns in diameter. Possessing a crystalline structure visible only under electronic microscope, the ever-mutating Andromeda can also grow in a vacuum, and its development is accelerated by energy discharge.

Bad news soon reaches the base about their newly discovered “bug”: a super-colony of Andromeda has formed over the Pacific Coast and is growing larger by the moment. It could kill millions of people in days.

The scientists race to avert a nuclear strike on the colony that they recommended and that was subsequently ordered by the President of the United States, realizing that the energy involved in such a detonation would only impel Andromeda to grow even larger.

Meanwhile, Dr. Hall studies his patients -- the old sterno drinker and the crying infant -- and determines that Andromeda can only survive in a narrow range of pH levels.

Before this knowledge can be applied to destroy Andromeda, however, Wildfire is contaminated, and the base’s computer initiates a timed self-destruct sequence. 

Now Dr. Hall must race through the many, self-contained levels of the Wildfire complex to avert total annihilation.

"Enemy? We did it to ourselves!"

Mankind enters the “future age” of ascendant science in director Robert Wise’s impressive techno-thriller The Andromeda Strain, and the film ultimately proves that technology and scientific know-how can battle a deadly space “bug” to a stand-still.

Accordingly, Wise and his film itself -- an adaptation of a Michael Crichton best-selling book -- seem to worship at the feet of machinery, medicine, and science, not to-mention provide a reverent near-religious litany of techno-talk. In this world, ordering up a computer test is more like quoting Scripture.

The film’s assessment of mankind, however, may seem less gracious. Here, mankind’s failings get in the way of progress, slow-down the process of stopping Andromeda, and nearly destroy the entire world. The film’s final message, diagrammed in a computerized “601 Error” is that machines are ultimately only as good as their users.

In other words, we are the weak link. If computers fail, it’s because of us.

From The Andromeda Strain’s dynamic opening credits, Wise takes pains to present new technology as a vivid brand of modern art. The colorful credits reveal overlapping, multi-colored images of schematics, inter-office communiques, top-secret documents, and the like.

These seemingly non-romantic dispatches are cut together and blended into new patterns (via superimposition) for the remarkable montage. These swirling and dazzling images are also accompanied by Gil Melle’s machine-like electronic score, and the final effect is both staggering and thematically daring. 

We might very well be watching a computer program’s vision of art. This imagery conveys the idea that machines aren’t just tools, but capable of moving into terrains that man has long reserved for himself: artistry, creativity, imagination.

In assembling the blueprints, maps, graphs and other images for the purposes of this montage, the film’s opening credits take a step beyond Jackson Pollock, forging heretofore unseen, unconnected patterns out of dot matrix scans and the like, in the determined synthesis of something new and bold.

The implicit message: technology is your friend.

This pro-automation approach runs deliberately counter to one of the most common ideas of 1970s science fiction cinema, as related in films such as Colossus: The Forbin Project (1970) or Demon Seed (1977), that technology will prove man’s undoing.

Instead, The Andromeda Strain’s dialogue reinforces the notion of a world in which science will save the day. The film is dominated by tongue-twisters like “Red Kappa Phoenix Status,” and the scientists eat “Nutrient 2-5” while ordering up a test called a “7-12.”

Although these phrases seem like meaningless jargon in simple human terms, in this world they are vital symbols of man’s ascent to a more evolved plateau.

The science-talk reflects Wise’s uncanny ability (also seen in Star Trek: The Motion Picture) to forge a documentary-like or “realistic” tone in science fiction, but also suggests that in the first space age emergency, space age lingo is a necessity. Advances in computers, science and medicine will change the world, and they will also change how we talk, the film indicates.  Our words will change, in their very nature, as we embrace the machinery of the future age.

It’s difficult to deny that this is actually the case, and in the 2020s laypeople talk about “wireless routers,” “diagnostic updates,” “system restores” and other once arcane-seeming phrases with the enthusiasm and knowledge of the scientists portrayed in The Andromeda Strain.  The revolution in technology involves not just what we can achieve with computers, but how we speak about them, and relate to one another over them.

The tools used by the scientists in The Andromeda Strain are often the focus of Wise’s intent directorial sight, and electron microscopes, computer scans, “electronic diagrams” and other visuals are regularly highlighted by the camera. The idea, of course, is that in the dawn of a new age, machines will make the difference between life and death on planet Earth. Robert Wise even once called his film’s setting -- the Wildfire Base -- the real star of the movie.

And of course, he’s right. Without the resources of this subterranean base, man would not be able to stop the spread of Andromeda.

Wise’s treatment of man himself is far less generous in The Andromeda Strain

For example, Dr. Ruth Leavitt is an epileptic, and she hides that vital knowledge from her co-workers and hence from the computerized databases in Wildfire. So when an important computer screen transmits its data to her in red-blinking lights, Leavitt cannot receive it. She seizes instead, and has no memory of having seen the crucial data.

Thus a personal embarrassment or foible nearly ends the world.  Ruth's sin, perhaps, is vanity. She does not wish to be seen as weak, or incompetent in front of the other scientists, but her plan to hide her illness nearly has catastrophic impact.

Again, no one can blame this series of unfortunate events on the computer, which accurately tagged the “no-growth” medium for Andromeda that Leavitt sought. Instead, user error -- human error -- is the culprit. 

Similarly, the scientists at Andromeda order a nuclear strike at Piedmont before they have all the facts. They make an assumption that a nuclear blast will wipe out an alien organism, and this is -- again -- proven catastrophically wrong. In fact, the opposite would have been true. A nuclear blast would have spread a super-colony of Andromeda across the entirety of the North American continent.

In this case, the scientists are prevented from causing global-scale catastrophe only by a machine failure: a paper jam in a printer-like device. So again, even inadvertently, the machines of The Andromeda Strain save man from himself.

And, of course, Andromeda comes to Earth in the first place as part of a secret plot by the U.S. government to harness it as a bio-weapon, and then develop it at the Wildfire installation. Man brings about his own near-death by his self-destructive tendencies, by his jingoistic desire to defeat enemies. 

Other Wildfire denizens seen in The Andromeda Strain are not much more self-aware than Leavitt is. Trained scientists panic and flee when they believe that Wildfire is contaminated with the alien organism. They do not act rationally and attempt to help Hall, who has -- dangling around his neck in the form of a key -- the capacity to save everybody from nuclear apocalypse. 

Instead, they resort to fear, paranoia and terror.  Once more, we must consider that our machines are not susceptible to such influences. 

Again, post-pandemic, we have seen how human fragility -- regarding vaccination hesitancy, mask usage, and more -- has made the resolution of the pandemic that much more difficult.  It's not the science or the technology hampering us now, it's our irrational, stubborn human beliefs and attitudes. 

All of this material about panic and paranoia comes late in the film, but Wise hooks the audience early (and permanently) with his staging of the Piedmont reconnaissance.  

We are led, by two relatively staid scientists, through a ghost-town of sorts, the aftermath of a grisly disaster. And yet Wise doesn't linger or wallow in the terror.  

Instead, his camera again adopts a documentary approach, so that we are asked to observe the events in all their stark, clinical horror, but largely without editorializing.  He reports, and we take note, coming to conclusions ourselves about occurred to Piedmont.  Wise sticks with this restrained approach as, in the finale, the countdown to annihilation occurs.  

As a result, the film's denouement is extremely anxiety-provoking and suspenseful.  We feel we are watching real events unfold from a distance, and with no guarantee that things will turn out as we would prefer.

There may be some viewers who watch The Andromeda Strain and seek a more human-centered story about resolving the first biological crisis of the space age. But the film’s glory is that this is not the story it tells at all.

Instead, Wise tells the story of man’s amazing machinery solving the problem, and this is a creative, counter-intuitive approach to the material.  

 If we can just get out of our own way, the director seems to suggest, we'll be all right.

This idea is also -- in its own weird way -- optimistic.

After all, who built all these great machines in the first place?

Monday, June 21, 2021

30 Years Ago: The Rocketeer (1991)

A strange factoid about superhero movies is that period pieces rarely succeed at the box office.

Doc Savage: The Man of Bronze (1975), The Shadow (1994), The Phantom (1996), and Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow (2004) are all examples of superhero movies set in yesteryear that failed to succeed with audiences.  

In 2011, Joe Johnston’s Captain America: The First Avenger beat that long-standing curse. Perhaps that success happened because the director had faced the same problem once before with 1991’s The Rocketeer, a brilliant and beautiful genre film that never achieved the success it so abundantly deserves.

Why do fans prefer modern superheroes over ones operating in the past?  

Perhaps it is because the superhero template is -- broadly -- similar to the Western format, only with some technological upgrades. Substitute a cool car like the Batmobile for Silver, and a man in a cape for a cowboy in a ten gallon hat, and one can detect how alike the genres truly are. 

In both brands of stories, singular men (or sometimes women) tackle corruption and evil, and then, largely, go on their way…until needed again.  

So take a superhero hero movie out of the present, and you might just as well be watching a Western.  

Or perhaps it is just too difficult for us to suspend disbelief in a period superhero film. Audiences might accept a man in a cape fighting criminals in a modern day urban jungle, but if it happened in, say, 1939, how come nobody ever heard of the guy?  

My point is that a period superhero not only asks us to believe in one fantasy element (a person with super powers, for instance), but two, if you count alternate history.

One can speculate any number of reasons why modern audiences will readily accept an Indiana Jones, but not a Kit Walker or Lamont Cranston.  The point is, I suppose, that audiences seem to prefer superheroes with a hard, technological -- even futuristic -- edge.  We want them saving our world, today, operating on the bleeding edge of now. 

And in the case of The Rocketeer, it’s a crying shame that our tastes run in this direction.  As critic David Ansen observed, regarding the film, it is “determinedly sweet,” and features “action scenes that are more bouncy than bone-crunching.”

Because of such virtues, I have always considered The Rocketeer the spiritual heir to Superman: The Movie (1978), my choice -- still -- for the best superhero film of all time. 

At one point in The Rocketeer, a character notes “you’d pay to see a man to fly, wouldn’t you?” And indeed, Superman’s famous tag-line was “You’ll believe a man can fly.”  

People flocked to Superman: The Movie in 1978 (in the immediate post-Watergate Age) because they wanted to dream about just such a thing being a reality; they wanted to “believe again.”

The Rocketeer understands perfectly that brand of emotional longing in general, and the long-standing human fascination with flight in particular. 

It depicts the magic of leaving terra firma behind as pilots attempt to touch Heaven itself.  Indeed, the film’s hero, Cliff Secord (Bill Campbell) discusses flight in precisely -- nay, explicitly -- those terms. 

In the film’s denouement, he discusses wearing the film’s rocket pack and getting as close to Heaven as is possible for a living mortal. “It was the closest I’ll ever get,” he says.

In pure human terms, The Rocketeer is very much about that yearning to touch the sky, and few modern superhero pictures feature such a direct and delightful, human through-line. Instead, they get bogged down in character backgrounds, villainous plans, and byzantine back-stories.

Beyond that accomplishment, The Rocketeer lovingly (and meticulously) revives 1930s Los Angeles, and features a great turn by Timothy Dalton as a flamboyant villain.  

Significantly, there is no angst in The Rocketeer.

There is no trademark genre darkness, cynicism or bitterness.  

The film doesn’t focus on revenge, either.  

Instead, The Rocketeer is really about joy; the joy of flight, and, in a way that can’t be diminished, the fact that love of country can bring people of unlike backgrounds together. The movie, after all, ends with Italian mobsters, a failed pilot, government agents and Howard Hughes banding together to stop a Nazi invasion.

What could be more American, or more ennobling, than that “flight” of fancy?

“I may not make an honest buck, but I’m 100% American. I don’t work for no two-bit Nazi.”

A young pilot, Cliff Secord (Bill Campbell) becomes embroiled, accidentally in a battle between Federal agents and gangsters. Through a strange set of coincidences, he ends up with his hands on a new super-weapon, a rocket-pack designed by Howard Hughes (Terry O’Quinn) called the X-3.

Hoping to make a living after his plane is destroyed in the battle, Secord secretly keeps the X-3, and has his resourceful mechanic friend, Peeve (Alan Arkin) make him a helmet to go with the rocket.  

Before long, he emerges as a hero the press dubs “The Rocketeer.”

Unfortunately, the number 3 box office draw in America, Neville Sinclair (Timothy Dalton), is actually a Nazi spy and has been tasked with stealing the X-3 and returning it to the Fatherland.   He is allied with mobster Eddie Valentine (Paul Sorvino), though Valentine doesn’t know Sinclair’s true allegiance.

Sinclair attempts to ingratiate himself with Secord’s aspiring actress girlfriend, Jenny Blake (Jennifer Connelly) to get close to the X-3.  When that doesn’t work, however, he resorts to force. He abducts Jenny and makes a bargain with Secord: the rocket pack for the girl.

Unfortunately, Howard Hughes and the U.S. government also want the rocket pack back, and Cliff must make a difficult choice.

“How did it feel? Strapping that thing to your back and flying like a bat out of Hell?

The Rocketeer is adapted from the work of graphic novel writer-illustrator Dave Stevens, who first published the title in 1982.  And overall, the title, like the film, is an homage to and pastiche of the pulpy genre entertainment of yesteryear.

For example, the visual look of the title character seems inspired by Commando Cody, a hero who wears a leather flight suit, a bullet-shaped helmet, and a jet pack. The character head-lined in King of the Rocketmen (1952) and Radar Men of the Moon (1953).

The film, however, focuses much of its artistic vision on the 1930s milieu. The audience encounters Hollywood legends Clark Gable and W.C. Fields, for example. A singer in the South Seas Club croons tunes from Cole Porter.  And the soldier villain, Lothar (Tiny Ron) is a dead ringer for Rondo Hatton (1894-1946), a screen actor who suffered from Acromegaly, and put his fearsome visage to menacing use in films like The Brute Man (1946).  

The film also reveals the evolution of the landmark Hollywood sign. It goes from reading Hollywoodland (in 1923) to reading Hollywood (1949), all because of a Nazi incursion on American soil.  And Neville Sinclair, of course, is a variation on film idol Errol Flynn (who was once believed to be a Nazi spy, oddly enough…).

One of the best moments in The Rocketeer, for my money, however is the Nazi propaganda film featured in the last act. In a sort of Art Deco (or Futura) style, we see an animated representation of the Nazi plan for world domination using the X-3.  The terrifying (but beautifully-wrought) imagery shows rocket men destroying Washington DC, burning the American flag, and raising the Swastika.  This short film sells perfectly (and cheaply) the threat that America faces.

Thanks to production designer Jim Bissell and director of photography Hiro Narita, The Rocketeer looks fantastic.  But just as powerful, if not more so, is the movie’s sense of heart, and innocence. 

After Secord saves a fellow pilot (dressed as a clown for an air show), and takes off using the rocket for the first time, the film veritably soars.  One might attribute this feeling of emotional flight to James Horner’s musical score, or to the setting -- wide open wheat fields under Big American Sky.  

Whatever the cause, this inaugural flight sequence is one of the few in superhero movie history that legitimately deserves comparison to the Smallville interlude in Donner’s Superman: the Movie.  The overwhelming feeling is for an age -- an innocence -- lost, but also a yearning for Americana and the American Dream. 

What is that American Dream? In films such as The Rocketeer it involves the achievement of something more than wealth or success.  It involves doing great things; breaking barriers; going where none have gone before. Touching the sky.

It is an indicator of The Rocketeer’s unfettered gentleness and innocence that its call to patriotism in the final act plays not as cheesy or overdone, but as authentically stirring. We see a mobster, Eddie Valentine (Paul Sorvino) make common cause with G-Men to stop a threat to America’s future: Nazi soldiers.  

Then, after he implores Secord to “go get” the bad-guys, we get the glorious shot of The Rocketeer posed next to Old Glory herself, the American flag. The not subtle (yet still wonderful…) message behind this imagery is that Americans may have many, many differences, but in times of strife and crisis, they come together.  

Mobster or G-Man, Americans draw strength from one another and defend their country -- and the ideals of their country -- when they are threatened. I still remember seeing the film in the theater, and the audience hooted and hollered with raucous energy when the Valentine expressed his love of country, and his urging for Secord to fight the good fight.  It gives me chills thinking about it, even today.

In some way, superhero movies are really about (or should be about…) the things we can’t always do; the ideals we can’t always live by, even though we wish to. 

Like rising to the occasion in a crisis.  

Or strapping on a rocket pack and taking off into the sky; touching Heaven.  The Rocketeer absolutely understands this facet of the genre, and presents a kind of wish-fulfillment genre story of the highest order.

The Rocketeer is a light, joyous film that never focuses on special effects over people. The film’s feet never touch the ground, and the action scenes, particularly the final set-piece on the Nazi dirigible, are memorable and well-orchestrated.

So why didn’t audiences flock to the film? 

I think that goes back to my original point about audiences deliberately not-seeking out period superhero efforts. Even Captain America, Joe Johnston’s genre follow-up to The Rocketeer, eventually reaches the 21st century, right? Some people might see that development as hedging a bet; protecting against an undesirable outcome (financial failure).

Today, superhero films have largely become mechanical and formulaic. They give us everything we expect as part of some multi-media franchise experience (the teaser, the trailer, the second act surprise, and the post-credits reveal or preview for the next picture), but somehow forget to hold up as narratives, as movies that live and breathe and tell us something about human nature.

The Rocketeer makes us believe that a man (and America with him, in one of its darkest hours)…can fly.  

You’d pay to see that, wouldn’t you?

I know I would.

National Twilight Zone Day: "Come Wander with Me"

There are, perhaps, several episodes of Rod Serling's classic   The Twilight Zone  (1959-1964) more sharply-written, more morally-valuab...