Tuesday, August 09, 2016

SPACE CAMP VOL. 5: SPACE JUNK


Wikipedia defines "space junk" as a collection of defunct manmade objects floating around in outer space. Old satellite parts, rocket droppings, space station remainders, etc. Imagine the Great Pacific Garbage Patch orbiting the Andromeda Galaxy instead of the coast of the Aleutian Islands. Imagine if your West Virginian relatives stacked all of their broken appliances on Saturn's rings instead of their front porch.

But there's another type of space junk out there, that of the cinematic variety. When you watch a ton of sci-fi movies over the course of six months, you tend to build up a lot of space waste. This is not to say that all of the below films are terrible. Some of them are quite good. By "junk" I primarily mean leftovers, the films that didn't fit so neatly or thematically into the previous four Space Camp entries. Some of them I watched as far back as six months ago. One I viewed as recently as last evening. They're an accumulation of spare parts looking for a home. So I've grouped them into easy-to-digest junk food double features with off-the-cuff commentary.

My time at Space Camp has been entertaining, enlightening and frequently extraterrestrial, but it's time to come back down to Earth. To quote a certain wrinkly fellow: "M.B., phone home." This is the last time you'll see rocket ship icons in place of star ratings, I guarantee. That said, I make no promises regarding bullwhips...

BARBARELLA (1968) - Roger Vadim πŸš€πŸš€πŸš€1/2
GALAXINA (1980) - William Sachs πŸš€


It's shocking that it's taken me this long to get around to Barbarella, perhaps the campiest outer space movie that ever existed. The day-glo shag carpet rocket interiors. The zero gravity peepshow routines. Pills that simulate sex without need for touching. Blind birdmen named Pygar ripped from a Caravaggio painting. There's Marcel Marceau and a villain named Durand Durand. There's an orgasmatron that threatens to pleasure our heroine to death! All the midnight movie elements are there, and indeed Barbarella is a sumptuous late '60s free love kitsch feast. So many directors/actresses have tried and failed to remake this movie, from Robert Rodriguez/Rose McGowan to Nicolas Winding Refn/Christina Hendricks to Vadim himself (a tantalizing '80s version with Sherilyn Fenn). I say leave well enough alone. Barbarella is a product of its time, like the lava lamp. It should probably stay in suspended animation. Any other rendering will just be perfunctory air quotes.

As for Galaxina, be my guest. The movie wasn't much more than a sci-fi starring vehicle for Playboy Playmate Dorothy Stratten anyway. Other than some interesting color tinting during a Western-style showdown near the movie's end, Galaxina is a snooze and Stratten relatively stiff. Appropriate, in that she's playing an android. Sad, when you consider her character's goal is to become more human (she even fails as a "pleasure robot").

INVADERS FROM MARS (1986) - Tobe Hooper πŸš€πŸš€
MASTERS OF THE UNIVERSE (1997) - Gary Goddard πŸš€1/2


Tobe Hooper gave lovers of space camp a thing of beauty with 1985's Lifeforce. You can't expect him to win 'em all and especially not the very next year. Somehow, I missed his Invaders from Mars remake as a kid. I guess even then I was studying the local newspaper's reviews (the film landed with a resounding thud). Invaders isn't entirely unwatchable, the way any movie starring Bud Cort, Karen Black and Louise Fletcher simply can't be. But the child actor at the movie's center reaches fingernails on chalkboards levels of annoyance. His line readings are atrocious and his "fright face" barely sustained, as if he's anticipating the "Cut!" coming at the end of every scene. It almost feels like sadism on Hooper's part, as if he's perversely testing audience endurance. Given that this is the same man who directed Texas Chainsaw and Poltergeist, a little schadenfreude isn't out of the question. Other than that, a few of the rubber latex space invaders are kinda neat.

Masters of the Universe is another kiddie-friendly Cannon Films feature that bypassed me as a small fry, this one even more baffling since I owned He-Man and She-Ra action figures, the entire Castle Grayskull playset. I probably preferred the cartoon at the time, a rarity in my animation averse childhood. Either that, or I suspected Dolph Lundgren would never hold a candle to the chunk of opposable plastic I already held in my hands. I was onto something there. For though I love Dolph in Rocky IV, in Masters he is a slab of gym-sculpted dead weight. The producers obviously feared this, because instead of getting him emergency acting lessons they overcompensated by adding a dozen other characters and taking the focus off He-Man. If Masters has one big problem (other than piddling around on Planet Earth for too long), it is this...there are too many masters running around!!! Courtney Cox, Billy Barty, cops and assorted pimple-faced teens and their younger kin. What are we doing hanging out with them? For the love of Skeletor, get us back to Frank Langella and the planet of Eternia, please!!!

EXPLORERS (1985) - Joe Dante πŸš€πŸš€1/2
SPACE CAMP (1986) - Harry Winer πŸš€πŸš€


The most interesting aspect of this "Children Who Really Shouldn't Be In Space But Are" double feature is watching young actors who will later grow into great thesps. Between Explorers and Space Camp, you get a Hawke (Ethan) and not one two Phoenixes (River and Joaquin, then named "Leaf"). 

Explorers begins on a promising note with a trio of young science nerds who invent a flying space bubble that allows them to float around their neighborhood, peek into girls' bedrooms (of course) and, eventually, breach outer space. For a while, it's kind of magical, as if Dante directed an hour-long Spielbergian advertisement for STEM learning. But then the trio gets tractor-beamed onto an alien ship and it's all downhill from there. The aliens derive all their Earth knowledge from old '50s television transmissions, which makes for a lot of dated Honeymooners references and tired Jimmy Durante impressions. Surprise! The aliens are children just like our trio. They watch too much TV and get in trouble with their parents. This probably sounded great on paper. In execution, not so much.

Space Camp, the namesake movie of this blog for the past six months, is a bit too earnest to be Grade A campy fun. It's basically an hour and half long ad for NASA's Space Camp program. The actors are all fine playing science camp types, from ambitious Leah Thompson to airhead savant Kelly Preston to ladies' man Tate Donovan to starstruck prodigy "Leaf." But the real keeper here is Jinx, the robot who's so devoted to young Phoenix that he'll do anything to ensure he gets his dream of being in space. This includes sabotaging NASA computers during a grounded space shuttle simulation, thereby causing the young crew to emergency launch. Apparently, it's an easy security breach for a rolling hunk of tin. Hopefully, NASA has corrected this operational oversight somewhere in the last 30 years. 

SPACEBALLS (1987) - Mel Brooks πŸš€πŸš€πŸš€
GALAXY QUEST (1999) - Dean Parisot πŸš€πŸš€πŸš€


The Star Wars spoof versus the Star Trek goof...which nerd franchise will win? Let's call it a draw. I loved Spaceballs as a kid, saw it in the theatre and on VHS countless times. Watched again as a somewhat discerning adult, a lot of Mel Brooks' jokes fall flat, and many of the Dark Helmet zings are unforgivable groaners. But I'll always be a sucker for dripping Pizza the Hutt, and the "comb the desert" sight gag gets me every time. 

Galaxy Quest was the more welcome re-watch of the two. I saw it in the theatre when it came out and remembered the premise being "kinda neat." My Star Trek franchise apathy and general aversion to all things Tim Allen kept me away from revisiting it for years. But after binging all the Star Trek movies in July, it seemed incumbent I give Quest another go. Being recently versed in Spock and Kirk definitely added a few extra layers to the jokes. And, man, are those Thermians worth the price of admission (especially, Enrico Colatoni). I didn't mind Tim Allen that much this time. He may be the perfect person to play William Shatner, after the actual Shat.

NUKIE (1987) - Sias Odendaal & Mike Pakleppa πŸš€1/2
MAC AND ME (1988) - Stewart Raffill πŸš€πŸš€πŸš€1/2


I spent a whole month watching Star Wars Rips, then another watching Alien Knock-Offs. The least I could do is give the E.T. clones two solid nights, right?

E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial isn't as near and dear to my heart as other early Spielberg efforts (i.e., Raiders). Even way back then, the Little Ebert in me thought the movie was "just OK, a little too sappy, certainly no Poltergeist." So watching more or less the same narrative play out in on lesser budgets isn't exactly sacrilege. To be honest, I'd much rather watch the bizarrely entertaining McDonald's funded trainwreck Mac and Me a dozen more times than the original E.T. If not the entire movie, then at least this impromptu Micky D's dance scene.

After this and The Ice Pirates a few months ago, I'm steadily building a closet appreciation for the unsung genius of director Stewart Raffill. Who's up for a midnight screening of Mannequin Two: On the Move? No takers. OK, then how about cinema's most curious U.S. citizen naturalization ceremony?


As for Nukie, there will surely be no repeat viewings. If you've ever wondered what E.T. would be like if our glow-fingered hero crash landed in South Africa instead of Southern Cali, well, wonder no more. Nukie is your answer, and you'll wish you never asked. As much as I appreciate Steve Railsback, chimpanzees who think in voiceover, grumpy computer mainframes and alien visitors who look like worn down catcher's mitts, I'll never be able to get the endless wailing "Nukie! Nukie!" out of my head and not for reasons of fondness. Unlike Mac and Me, Nukie is more Plain Bad than Bad but Kinda Fascinating. Someone please put poor alien twins Nukie and Miko out of their misery. At the very least, spot them a bag of Reese's Pieces.

Sunday, July 24, 2016

SPACE CAMP VOL. 4: SOVIET AIRSPACE


I've mostly supported the home team for the last three "Space Camp" entries. Apart from a few outliers (Solaris, Message from Space, Turkish Star Wars), the focus has mainly been on films made and released in the U.S. in the years between 1950 and 1990. But, lest we forget, the Space Race was a contest waged between two countries during that period of time. The Soviets had a strong start out of the gate, launching satellites and human beings into orbit before the Yanks (not to mention a few dogs and primates). Then, in 1969, the States had a come-from-behind lead with the Apollo 11 landing. It wasn't until the USSR dissolved in '91 that the U.S. officially won by default. But what about the Space Movie Race during that same period? Who was the winner/loser there?

Surprisingly, the Soviet Union was pretty stiff competition here too. As I've discovered over the last few weeks, they turned out some quality space operas and sci-fi satires in the Cold War days. Although the films below are not all strictly Russian in origin, they do primarily come from countries considered to be in the Eastern or "Soviet Bloc" at the time. Almost half are based on Stanislaw Lem novels ("the Phillip K. Dick of Russia"). A few of them espouse obvious communist ideologies. Most importantly (for the purposes of "Space Camp," at least), they all tend to feature funky spaceship interiors, snazzy jumpsuits, multi-tasking robots and one or two fetching lady cosmonauts.

I know what you're thinking: "Houston, we have a problem." Has this blog defected, been taken over by Chechen hackers? I come here for American trash and American trash only!! Cashiers De Cinema not Kacca Der Kinho!!!! Well, calm down, fair reader. Sit back, relax and mix yourself a Stoli tonic. It's only for one month, and these are shorter than average capsule reviews. I've been in a Russkie sorta mood lately. I missed the Strange Lands Soviet sci-fi series at Lincoln Center a few years ago, and I just started reading Gary Shteyngart's growing up Russian-American memoir. I promise for the next (and final) installment of Space Camp, we will return to the States for some honest-to-goodness American astronaut movie junk food. In the meantime, "Red Alert"...

THE SILENT STAR (1960) - Kurt Maetzig πŸš€πŸš€1/2


An East German-Polish co-production based on Stanislaw Lem's first novel, The Silent Star (aka First Spaceship on Venus) is notable for being one of the most expensive Eastern Bloc productions of its era as well as for the refreshingly international makeup of its cast (Chinese, Japanese, African, German, American). When scientists find an artifact in the Gobi Desert (a sort of black box recorder with undecoded messages), they trace its origin back to Venus and embark on a manned fact-finding space mission to the supposedly uninhabited planet. Once there, they encounter a Technicolorful landscape, some metallic spider creatures suspended from wires, and a nasty sea of black sludge that looks like extra thick Dutch chocolate brownie mix. Venus is bereft of accompanying walnuts, but strong evidence leads the team to believe the messages are of alien origin and the precursor to an Earth invasion! The Silent Star boasts a healthy dose of thinly veiled anti-American sentiment, especially in reference to Hiroshima, but it's mostly in the service of a well intentioned (if a touch hamfisted) anti-nuke message.

IKARIE XB-1 (1963) JindΕ™ich PolΓ‘k πŸš€πŸš€πŸš€1/2


Another Stanislaw Lem adaptation, this time a Czech production filmed a few years before the country's liberation during the Prague Spring. While journeying to a White Planet, a large crew of assorted scientists and astronauts encounter a "dark star" that threatens them with harmful radiation (i.e., intense drowsiness). One crew member (pictured top left) gets too big a dose and begins to act out, threatening the safety of the community at large -- a big no-no in socialist governments and highly enclosed spaces.

And, boy, what lovely geometrical spaces! The spaceship interior in Ikarie has some of the best astro art decoration I've ever seen, a monochromatic combo of Lego blocks and Lite-Brite panels. It tapped directly into my childhood toy box. In general, the Theory of Relativity gets a lot of play in this film. It's one of the earliest to tackle the issue of time passing more slowly for our orbiting crew than their family members back on Earth. It's a huge crew, too, one of the biggest I've seen in a space movie. There's enough bodies on board for a ballroom dancing scene and even some very intentional family planning. I'm not sure if I'd seen a baby born on a spaceship before Ikarie (unless you count the 2001 "Star Child"), but it felt new, as did many other aspects of this delightful film. No small feat for a 50+ year old space flick.

EOLOMEA (1972) - Hermann Zschoche πŸš€πŸš€1/2


If you're looking for an Eastern Bloc space movie to "Netflix and chill" to, you could do a lot worse than Eolomea. Of the eight films I watched, it's definitely the Jackie Brown of the bunch, a laid back hangout movie with a great '70s lounge music soundtrack that also happens, occasionally, to drift into outer space. Think of it as a summer beach read (or beach stream). There are even a few romantic oceanic interludes on the lovely sands of the Galapagos.

This East German/Soviet/Bulgarian co-production opens with a bureaucratic council discussing what to do about the eight ships that have gone missing from their space fleet. Fetching Professor Maria (Cox Habbema) wants to investigate, though the council has banned further space travel. The disappearances seem to be coming from a constellation sending out the word "Eolomea" in Morse Code. Another planet perhaps? She teams up with a lazy playboy astronaut (think Nicholson in Terms of Endearment but younger, thinner, grouchier) to find out. Sparks fly, picturesque lounging ensues. A.I. fans take note: this movie also features a great dysfunctional robot, an East German version of Forbidden Planet's Robby that overheats and fries its circuitry when supplied with an illogical order. Given the era, it could've also been the brown acid.


IN THE DUST OF THE STARS (1976) 
Gottfried Kolditz πŸš€πŸš€πŸš€


Another party-friendly offering from East Germany, In the Dust of the Stars follows a Day-Glo costumed crew of space explorers who get a distress call from a unknown planet. On touching down, they're informed by the planet's master of ceremonies in between hits of hallucinogenic breath spray (see pic top right) that the signal was a mistake. He invites them to stay and celebrate, partake of his Dionysian planet's various feasts, orgies and interpretative dance routines. "When on TEM-4, do as the Romans do!" Everything is absolutely groovy, until stick-in-the-mud crew navigator Suko discovers a subterranean mining colony of slaves. Bummer, man.

This one is pretty hard to find in English. As far as Google knows, the only version online is here in the original German. A trip to one of the last remaining video stores on the planet is the only way I was able to track down a copy I could understand. Considering that I was already within 20 miles, it was well worth the trip.

TEST PILOT PIRXA (1978) - Marek Piestrak πŸš€πŸš€


Yet another Stanislaw Lem adaptation, this Polish-Soviet entry is based on his short story The Inquest. Human test pilot Pirx is tasked with the mission of testing a crew of "nonlinears" on a spaceflight to Saturn. By "nonlinear" they mean android. By "testing" they mean: Is this robot more Ash from Alien (bad) or Bishop from Aliens (good)? Hard to know with these skin jobs. The proceedings are mostly pretty dull either way, in flight and back on Earth. That said, I watched a version with terribly out of sync subtitles, which may have ruined the dramatic effect. If you happen to know Spanish, you can give Test Pilot a properly subtitled whirl here and judge for yourself. 


TO THE STARS BY HARD WAYS (1981) -
Richard Viktorov πŸš€πŸš€πŸš€πŸš€


Speaking of robots...imagine Ex Machina but with a more sympathetic heroine who looks like a cross between a young, platinum blonde Sinead O'Connor and Shelly Duvall's Olive Oyl. Are you sold? I was. Of the eight "Soviet Airspace" movies I watched, Russian-born To the Stars By Hard Ways was the best (and freakiest) of the bunch.

Niya (Yelena Metyolkina) is a humanoid woman left for dead on an abandoned spaceship before being brought back to Earth for study. A neurocenter is found in her brain that allows her to be controlled remotely. For a while, she hangs out with a scientist's family, learning about Earthly pleasures and practicing her low-grade supernatural abilities. But she soon remembers details about her home planet, Dessa, which was being ravaged by greedy (and occasionally elfin) industrialists before she left. She and her new human pals go back to save the planet, its polluted atmosphere and water systems now clogged with something that looks like electrified marshmallow fluff.  Along the way, we encounter a robot that plays doubles tennis, a blobby marine creature who dislikes cats and bad guys who shave all but one small section of their cheek (see bottom left). This is also one of the first movies I've seen where tickling is used as a primary mode of defense.

Apparently, this film (aka Per Aspera Ad Astra) was a pretty big hit in Russia when it came out. So much so, that many Russian women adopted the close-shave Niya haircut. I can see why: It's hard to take your eyes off her, and often she can't take her giant round orbs off the audience (there are frequent shots where she stares into camera, obliterating the fourth wall). The version I watched was a newly restored one done by director's son, a fantastic transfer with a great synth-heavy soundtrack. There's also a badly dubbed MSTK3000 version out there, if you desire a built-in audience.

KIN-DZA-DZA! (1986) - Georgiy Daneliya πŸš€πŸš€πŸš€


Ever wondered what the Russian Spaceballs might be like? Or how about Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy done as a Samuel Beckett play? Kin-dza-dza! may be the closest to those two things you will ever get.

This late '80s Soviet space satire about a Moscow working stiff and a street fiddler who accidentally get zapped to a run-down desert planet still has relevance in today's political landscape. Nothing is free, everything is up for barter. The currency of choice is matchstick heads. There's racism among the clans, and newcomers are racially profiled with a contraption that looks like a light-up USB stick. "Koo" is an all-purpose word that means a dozen different things, more linguistically reductive than any Twitter buzzword. People also wear bells in their noses and prostrate themselves in odd crouches when meeting others. I'm sure it's only a matter of time before we all have nose bells. There's probably a ton of other political commentary on '80s Soviet society in Kin-dza-dza! that went above my pay grade, but, at heart, it plays more as lighthearted spoof than Soviet economics lecture.

HARD TO BE A GOD (1989) - 
Peter Fleischmann πŸš€πŸš€πŸš€


If you've seen 2013's black and white Russian miserablist masterpiece Hard To Be God by Aleksei German, you may still want to check out this '89 color version just so you know what the hell was going on in that. A USSR-German film based on the popular 1964 Brothers Strugatsky novel, it sticks more closely to plot in telling the tale of  a planet that has regressed back to the medieval ages and the operative, Anton, who's sent back to study it by impersonating a demigod. 

While not as immersive (or as mucus slathered) as the 2013 version, it does have its distinct film geek pleasures. Werner Herzog plays a previous operative who was sent to the planet but unfortunately gets lanced in the back in the first ten minutes. The lead actor looks like a cross between Highlander and Rutger Hauer in Flesh + BloodThere's yet another great synth-heavy score and a laughable title song that sings out the film's title ("It's hard to be a god!"). In short, good late '80s stuff. It would only be two more years before the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics collapsed, but in their heyday the "failed experiment" made some pretty diverting cinematic space camp.

Friday, May 20, 2016

SPACE CAMP VOL. 3: SPACE B.C. (BEFORE CHEWIE)


A longer time ago in a galaxy farther, farther away (i.e., pre-1977), a number of great space-related films laid the foundations for our beloved modern classics: Star Wars, The Thing, Lifeforce,
Apollo 13, Gravity.
Even respectable newbies like The Martian and Midnight Special bear their indelible traces. Believe it or not, George Lucas/Disney's cherished franchise was not the product of immaculate conception. As Lucas admits, there were numerous forefathers (Kurosawa, Joseph Campbell, Flash Gordon serials, etc.), but the degree to which Star Wars turned the film industry on its head and put it in blockbuster hyperdrive for decades thereafter sometimes gives it the illusion of miraculous virgin birth. For many nerds of a certain age, it's as if May 25th, 1977 is Day One on their life calendar. Every movie that came after A New Hope is A.D. (After Darth). Every flick that came before is B.C. (Before Chewie).

I'm definitely not the biggest Jedi disciple out there. Nor am I typically a sci-fi deep diver. It's embarrassing how non-conversant I am in the expanded universes of Star Trek or Battlestar Galactica. But there are certain pre-Star Wars space movies that, as a film geek, I KNOW I should've seen, ones that when mentioned in passing conversation send me into a cold, guilty nerd-sweat. Many of these films have been on my to-watch docket for years. Some have been lingering in long forgotten queues and on dusty discs for more than a decade (Solaris, I'm talking to you). I spent the last few weekends catching up on some of these unseen "Space B.C." movies and re-screening a few old favorites (2001, Close Encounters). Consider the nine films below my trip to the Cinephile Confessional, the capsule reviews my whispered Hail Mary's. "Bless me, Father, for I have sinned...it's been 10 years since my last trip to the Monolith."

THE THING FROM ANOTHER WORLD (1951) - 
Christian Nyby/Howard Hawks πŸš€πŸš€πŸš€


As a John Carpenter fan and devotee of the '82 remake, this one was LONG overdue. What kept me away for so long? Probably the fact that "the thing" is played by a day player from Gunsmoke in a bald Frankenstein costume instead of Rob Bottin and Stan Winston's fantastically goopy F/X. As guessed, the monster portions of the original Thing are heavily dated and largely goofy. Arness's lumbering linebacker sprung from a chunk of polar ice won't faze modern moviegoers who've made a few trips to Jurassic Park. He doesn't infect your blood the way Carpenter's elusive shape-shifting entity did. Basically, you can fend him off by dousing him in kerosene or zapping him with electrified chicken wire, sometimes just closing a door on his arm (don't worry, it'll grow back...he's composed of regenerative vegetable matter).

And maybe this is why the multitudinous characters in TTFAW seem so casual about their Arctic alien visitor. One of the more interesting aspects of this relatively brisk film is just how much time it expends on witty/flirtatious banter amid the standard where-did-it-come-from, what-does-it-want-from-us exposition. If you listen to the Carpenter commentary track (guilty as charged), he'll remind you that this is the genius touch of Howard Hawks, the man who reportedly ghost-directed the film over protΓ©gΓ© Christian Nyby's shoulder. He'll also point out (if you can't tell from the pics above) the astounding number of characters he's able to fit into each frame. Craft-wise, the original Thing is a fun, educational watch for these and other reasons. But if you're looking for legit scares, probably best to stick to the '82 remake.

FORBIDDEN PLANET (1956) - 
Fred M. Wilcox πŸš€πŸš€πŸš€1/2


If someone had told me that Robby the Robot could duplicate filled whiskey bottles on cue, zap a capuchin monkey stealing fruit without looking or heat a coffee pot just by touching the surface it's resting on, I'm sure I would've watched Forbidden Planet YEARS ago. Hell, I probably would've purchased my own model Robby. These are practical applications I could use in my own home (lousy with capuchins and room temperature coffee pots).

If monkeys and robots aren't your bag, there are numerous other reasons to seek out a crisp HD copy of FP. That old time Metrocolor really pops, and the Cinemascope compositions are wide and brimming with matte-painted beauty. The actors in those frames aren't half-bad either. Walter Pidgeon runs the show as wizened Dr. Morbius, a cross between Shakespeare's Prospero and Hammer's Vincent Price. There's a charming (if chaste) space romance between astronaut Leslie Nielson and Morbius's daughter played by Anne Francis (think Naked Gun without the full-body condoms). There's lots of diverting talk about a highly advanced, highly extinct native space race (The Krell). But, honestly, who really needs a Krellian "plastic educator" when Robby's right there to read your New York Times feed to you and re-heat your morning cappuccino?

PLANET OF THE VAMPIRES (1965) - 
Mario Bava πŸš€πŸš€1/2


I wouldn't call Planet of the Vampires a classic must-see, but one could definitely argue for its influence over later, greater space movies...Alien, Lifeforce, maybe even Pitch Black (another I still need to see). It's among the first (if not the first) to use the time-tested storyline of an astronaut crew searching a second crash-landed ship only to find it infested with...in this case, zombie-vampires. Pretty soon, the new crew members become infected/possessed one by one, and you can probably guess the rest. If I hadn't seen this plot played out a couple dozen times already (especially last month), I think I would've been more intrigued. 

What bowled me over were those costumes. Planet of the Vampires features some of the most snazzily designed crew uniforms in space movie history. Leather with goldenrod racing stripes. Smooth-as-a-softened-grape streamlined helmets. Those high arched collars that make everyone (not just the infected) look like Count Dracula. Somebody was definitely working overtime in the Wardrobe Department. I may not want to revisit the Planet of the Vampires anytime soon, but I know what I'm wearing for Halloween next year.

2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY (1968) -
Stanley Kubrick πŸš€πŸš€πŸš€πŸš€


What else can I say about Stanley Kubrick's game-changing space epic that hasn't already been said in greater detail by others with better critical faculties and more time on their hands than me? Not much. 2001 is one of those movies I need to revisit every decade, the existential head-scratcher that keeps on giving. As an early devotee of Kubrick, I'd already seen the film multiple times, but it had been a while since the last viewing (possibly as long ago as 2001). It may have been a worn-out print at the New Beverly, possibly even a VHS copy (letterbox, not pan and scan...I may be a lapsed cinephile, but I'm not an aspect ratio heathen!). This year, I watched on a DVD of respectable quality. Next decade, I'm sure I'll upgrade to Ultra HD 3D or whatever new format they're pimping then. Maybe I'll even board the Discovery One and hang with Dave and HAL by way of virtual reality. 

What did I geek out about this time around? The camerawork as usual, but maybe the effects more than the norm. After watching a bunch of old sci-fi movies, I really have to hand it to Stanley...this is the first movie where space looks like space (or what we now know of space). The weightlessness, the emptiness, the endless depth of field, the apes. 

OK, maybe not the apes. The obvious monkey suits at the beginning of the film still tend to yank me out of 2001's otherwise hypnotic pull. I know children and animals are hard to work with, but Kubrick was such a perfectionist-- why didn't he just use the real thing? Also, I locked into the Clavius conference room/moon monolith scenes more than in the past. For some reason, I'd forgotten those parts, all that fantastic space age bureaucracy. I mostly remembered the more obvious stuff...monkeys throwing bones into the air, the long menacing stretches with HAL. And, man, does that stuff just get better with age. No other filmmaker can siphon paranoia and dread from spare parts like Kubrick. Give the guy a simple glowing red light and a calm, even-toned computer voice, and I'm crapping my pants every time. 

MAROONED (1969) - John Sturges πŸš€πŸš€πŸš€


Sure, you've seen Ron Howard's Apollo 13, but have you seen its big brother, Marooned? Me neither. I recorded this on DVD-R years ago from Turner Classics during a Gene Hackman marathon, then quickly consigned it to a bin of other forgotten discs. The recent closure of the Ziegfeld Theatre (R.I.P) put it back on my radar, as Marooned was the very first film to grace its very large (and now very blackened) screen. 

If you've seen Apollo 13 or Gravity, the beats will feel familiar, despite Marooned getting there first. Some doohickies on an Apollo spacecraft fail during mission re-entry (those damned retro-engines!), and time and oxygen are quickly running out for the crew. Will they make it back in time? Will one of them cut his oxygen supply, take one for the team? You've seen this crisis before but maybe not with such fine actors. Gregory Peck, Richard Crenna and, of course, Gene Hackman. For me, the highlight of Marooned was watching Hackman play against type. Rather than his usual hothead or reticent mastermind, Gene gets to play full-on lily-livered. He is without a doubt the crew's weak link, its pansy, its spazz. He jeopardizes the crew several times, once by pocketing his "calm down pill" (see above), eating up valuable oxygen when he later goes off on a panicked rant. The ending is also pretty nifty, considering this was the era of the Cold War. SPOILER ALERT: Some kindly orbiting Russkies may or may not be integral to the crew's rescue.

SOLARIS (1972) - Andrei Tarkovsky πŸš€πŸš€πŸš€1/2


Did someone say orbiting Russkies? Yes, no doubt Solaris is Soviet in origin, but that's not what kept me away from it for so long. I have no issue with subtitles, nor do I mind a good, long arthouse brood (run time: 166 mins). But with a film like this I need to make sure I'm wide awake, have downed at least three cups of coffee and am in a "Tarkovsky mood." This doesn't happen every day. I saw Stalker a few summers ago, so I kinda knew what awaited. I'd also seen Soderbergh's 90-minute remake when it came out in 2002, which was probably bad form. "Bless me, Andrei, for I have sinned, it's been 14 years since..." You get the point.

In a nutshell, Solaris is everything I hoped and feared it would be. Beautiful and impenetrable, emotional and glacial, affected in its design yet accessible in its themes (lost love, memory, grief), a space movie that, other than one or two spaceship-esque interiors, you'd never know took place in outer space. The best parts don't in my opinion, those long, gorgeously photographed "before and after" sequences with Kelvin at his childhood home. I guess I'd rather watch a guy gaze through a farmhouse window as it inexplicably rains INSIDE his kitchen than watch him gaze into a planetary ocean which feeds on brainwaves, conjures recurring manifestations of his dead wife. Call me sentimental. Just don't call me over to re-watch that sleep inducing five-minute traffic scene.

SILENT RUNNING (1972) - Douglas Trumbull πŸš€πŸš€


Long before Matt Damon was growing poop-sourced tubers on Mars, Bruce Dern was fretting over his carefully tended carrots in a geodesic dome orbiting Saturn's rings. But unlike botanist "Mark Watney," Dern's "Freeman Lowell" does not have the luxury of living alone. He's stuck with a crew of ATV-riding layabouts, fratboys in space onesies basically. Freeman wants an idyllic commune comprised entirely of the last remaining Earth-sourced produce. These other chuckleheads? They just want to play Texas Hold 'Em all day. When orders come down from Mission Control for the domes to be destroyed, the normally pacifist Lowell predictably takes shovel in hand (see above) to defend his cosmic co-op. Nobody's going to lay a corporate finger his goddamn root vegetables!

Silent Running has to be the ultimate Lapsed Hippie in Space movie (correct me if I'm forgetting one). And like many a hippie bromide, the film's pro-ecological message is well-intentioned but clunky and ham-fisted in its delivery. It's amusing (unintentionally, I'm guessing) how quickly peacenik astro-farmer Lowell turns to brute violence when his crops are threatened. This is not a knock against Dern. No actor in the '70s could go from free love to white hot rage better than him. But once his crew mates are whacked (relatively early in the film), there's nothing much for him to do but play rummy with his two robots, Huey and Dewey, disobey more orders, tend his fragile, dying crops and listen to Joan Baez on the soundtrack. Reportedly, F/X wizard turned director Trumbull used some leftover Jupiter footage he did on 2001 and repurposed it for this film's Saturn sequences. So at least there was some real-life sustainability involved.

FANTASTIC PLANET (1973) - RenΓ© Laloux πŸš€πŸš€πŸš€


If you've read this blog before, you might recall that I have something of an "animation block." For some unfathomable reason, I just can't get into rendered characters, especially the CGI Pixar stuff. Even as child, I mostly avoided what I called "cartoons," opting for 100% human portrayals. There are exceptions to the rule: tactile things like stop-motion or puppetry got a pass (I love the Quay Brothers and The Dark Crystal). Non-Disney, hand-drawn films that pre-date 1990 and originate from countries other than the U.S. also tend to sit well. That said, I can't claim to have ever sat through an entire Miyazaki flick.

Fantastic Planet is one of those rare exceptions...I made it all the way through! It may have something to do with the old school paper cut-out techniques, the striking compositions, the psychedelic colors and imagery, the groovy French jazz soundtrack. Whatever element is to blame, I was engaged by the allegorical struggle between the Draags and the Oms, those tiny humans the blue alien Draags keep as pets until they decide to rebel. It reminded me of Animal Farm and Where The Wild Things Are but then also of Jodorowsky and that old Porno for Pyros song ("We'll make great pets, we'll make greeeat pets..."). If I ever have children, I will definitely force them to watch Fantastic Planet. If I can snag the copy of Zootopia out of their sticky mitts first.

CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND (1977) -
Steven Spielberg πŸš€πŸš€πŸš€


I know, I know. Technically speaking, Spielberg's very first alien flick is not a "Space, B.C." movie. It came out the same year as Lucas's ubiquitous space opera but not until a few months later, in November of that same year. I'm including it here because, along with Star Wars, Close Encounters  marked a turning point in portrayals of outer space, when the blockbuster B-picture was born and every movie thereafter with a UFO was expected to be an event. It was the end of an era and the beginning of a new one. Small-scale speculative sci-fi becomes big box office fantasy spectacle, losing a bit of science along the way. Not necessarily a bad thing, but Lucas and Spielberg are certainly two gents who can bear much of the blame.

Watching Encounters again after many, many years, I was reminded what a bastard child of the decades it is. The story begins with typical Cold War era space visitor paranoia ("they've come for us") and ends on a note of distinctly '70s touchy-feely optimism ("they've come for us, yes, but they just want to jam"). The last 30 minutes of the film is basically a Speak-N-Spell version of a Pink Floyd laser light show conducted by none other than Francois Truffaut. It's a far cry from Spielberg's 2005 War of the Worlds remake, which stuck closer to the '50s malevolent visitor playbook, while upping the property damage significantly. About the only thing which really gets destroyed in Close Encounters is Richard Dreyfuss's complexion (that two-toned UFO face tan) and his kitchen, the scene where he manically throws every plant, mound of dirt and stretch of chicken wire from his backyard through his window to build the Devil's Tower replica.

All those scenes (the mashed potato tower, etc.) still work the best for me. Give me a semi-crazed Dreyfuss to balance out the saccharine Spielberg wonderment, the soaring John Williams score, the cherubic blonde toddlers and friendly pre-E.T.s, and I'm happy. Pauline Kael called Close Encounters "a kid's film in the best sense," and I tend to agree. It's part and parcel with my childhood, frequently blends with the original Star Wars in my earliest movie memories. The only difference is format: One I saw in an actual movie theater sitting on my mother's lap (Close Encounters), the other (A New Hope) on a long since vanished Betamax.

Tuesday, April 26, 2016

SPACE CAMP VOL. 2: ALIEN RIPS


When Ridley Scott's Alien first burst onto movie screens in May of 1979, adult cinema goers finally had their R-rated answer to Star Wars, a heady sci-fi-horror hybrid thick with atmosphere, sexual tension and a host of strange bodily secretions. Its template was the haunted house movie, the twist that the house was now an orbiting spacecraft. The monster at its center was a not a ghost rattling chains. It was an extraterrestrial that clung to your face and laid eggs down your throat only to have its embryos violently pop out while you were eating dinner, the worst kind of acid reflux. Finally, a space movie even Grandpa could get behind.

The Nostromo's crew was less than action figure ready, a mixed race, mixed gender assortment of surly professionals. No star-gazing farmboys named Skywalker. No charming rogue smugglers named Han. No cute bickering droids, unless you count the "skin job" (Ian Holm) secretly sent by the company to do them all in. The closest thing to a Wookie on this ship? Harry Dean Stanton. For most of Alien's run-time, there is no single protagonist. But as the creature begins picking the crew off one by one, a hero finally emerges...better yet, a heroine. Not a princess per se, but a practical, resourceful warrant officer who doesn't want to save the planet or preserve a new alien species. She just wants to get home in one piece.

Much like Star Wars, the critical and commercial success of Alien spawned many modestly budgeted imitators. Some of them were good, some not so good. A few took the narrative lessons learned aboard the Nostromo and expanded them. A few even borrowed key creatives from the Alien franchise (Dan O'Bannon, James Cameron). Most, of course, squandered their teachable moments with chinsy Giger-monster knockoffs and extra helpings of space sex. Though none of these Xeroxed xenomorphs could match the shock of the original or duplicate Scott's knack for atmosphere, a few of them do still entertain. I watched a handful of Alien "rips" over the last few weekends and lived to tell the tale, Ellen Ripley-style. In space, no one can hear you scream. But they can certainly hear you thieve.

CONTAMINATION (1980) - Luigi Cozzi πŸš€πŸš€1/2


aka Alien Contamination. aka Toxic Spawn. aka Contamination: Alien on Earth, directed by "Lewis Coates." When the title and director of a movie are this up for grabs, you know it has to be terrific, yes?

Actually, it's not a total stinker, though the movie itself revolves entirely around rotten eggs. When an abandoned Colombian coffee barge in the New York harbor becomes a delivery system for alien pods instead of Juan Valdez, a female government spook and male NYPD beat cop team up to trace the source of the pulsating, green lactating orbs. First, this takes them to the South American plantation that shipped the eggs, then to the aborted Mars space mission that brought them back to Earth. They uncover a plot to hide the eggs in the New York sewer system (the place where all '70s-'80s horror movie conspiracies begin and end), an unsettling prospect in that the eggs when touched tend to scramble people's insides and expel them violently through their chests.

If you're looking for a tried and true space movie, Contamination will disappoint. The movie is mostly landlocked, the only space scenes told in flashback on cheap miniatures where the alien pods appear to be un-shelled edamame. But if you're looking for an agreeable Alien rip with frequent chest-bursting, laughable dubbing and a one-eyed Cyclops monster that looks like an inbred version of the Giger xenomorph, you could do far worse. Also, if you're a fan of the Italian prog rockers Goblin (not their best score, but still...Goblin!). I hadn't planned on watching this movie originally, but Cozzi's Star Wars rip, Starcrash, was so good I figured why not give his Alien cash-in a try. If only there was a Caroline Munro cameo...

GALAXY OF TERROR (1981) - Bruce D. Clark πŸš€πŸš€1/2


It never takes long for Roger Corman to hop aboard the blockbuster rip-off bandwagon. Less than two years after Alien hit screens, he'd already dropped his own space-horror hybrid. Galaxy of Terror sticks closer to the Ridley Scott playbook than Contamination, keeping its characters in space for the duration and having the source of their extraterrestrial woes also come from a previously crashed vessel. There are slimy creatures that attach to heads, wrap tentacles around necks, sometimes eat you whole, especially if you are an adult female who, for specious reasons, happens to already be undressed. There's also some hoodoo about empaths, telepathy and a pyramid structure on the planet that used to house extinct races. But I'm pretty sure the only pyramids the writers were interested in here were those on the backs of U.S. currency (with a movie like this, yes, I assume they were paid in cash).

Galaxy of Terror's heavily borrowed plot is definitely nothing new and definitely not its most interesting aspect. For me, the joy was delighting in its wildly diverse astronaut cast. Joanie from Happy Days. Laura Palmer's mom from Twin Peaks. Zalman King, the softcore Red Shoe Diaries producer. The guy who played Freddy Krueger. A glowing Mr. Hand from Fast Times at Ridgemont High. The ubiquitous Sid Haig from just about everything else. This is a spacecraft I wouldn't mind being trapped in...or at least a craft services table I would've loved to loiter around. As for the movie itself, it's fun in fits and starts. Go ahead, take a peek.

FORBIDDEN WORLD (1982) - Allan Holzman πŸš€πŸš€πŸš€1/2


One year later, Roger Corman produced a knockoff of his own Alien knockoff, repurposing some of the James Cameron sets from Galaxy of Terror and recycling a few scenes from his 1980 Star Wars rip Battle Beyond the Stars. Common knowledge says that a copy degrades the integrity of the original, but in this instance-- a copy of a copy-- somehow the results were better. 

How so? Because Forbidden World (aka Mutant) mostly dispenses with plot and revels in its exploitation movie roots. It goes all-in on the space scuzz. The genetics aboard this Xarbian research station are dicier than the norm, the monster in question a mutant with both human and alien DNA. The actors are unknowns and the air aboard the vessel thick with lust. It feels like a porno scenario could break out at any moment ("Ding dong! You ordered a pizza from the Sombrero Galaxy, ma'am?") and, for an R-rated early '80s movie, it at times comes kinda close. There's a sub-Carpenter minimalist electronica score that's kinda catchy and probably cost $2 but somehow works to the film's advantage. The effects are cheap but cheaply effective...goopy, bloody, lots of rubber cement, Karo syrup and spirit gum. It reminded me a bit of Cronenberg's The Fly, though not as philosophically inquisitive. Or maybe a daydream Paul Verhoeven had on the set of Starship Troopers directed by someone less talented than himself. 

Despite its sketchy heredity, Forbidden World is yummy, trashy fun, the forbidden fruit of Alien clones. See if you agree.

ANDROID (1982) - Aaron Lipstadt πŸš€πŸš€πŸš€


If you've committed to watching a bunch of sci-fi/horror quickies from the early '80s, it's only a matter of time before you must contend with Werner Herzog's (and the world's) favorite wildman antagonist, Klaus Kinski. Kinski isn't the primary character in Android, but his disturbed presence looms over the entire film like a future Dr. Frankenstein. Also, a horny Dr. Frankenstein. He really wants to sleep with his half-human, half-robot creations it seems, not to mention anyone else so unlucky as to board his ship. 

The plot in a nutshell: Imagine Alien but from Ash the Android's POV. Imagine him as he grows more sentient, begins to question his creator's programming (Kinski, not Weyland Corp). Imagine him learning about human sex from in-flight instructional videos, then imagine what happens when a fully-human female space prisoner (Brie Howard) and her two male cohorts crash land and are forced to come aboard. Human-robot sexual power struggles ensue, and sorting the humans from the robots is not as easy as it would seem.

Still confused? OK, then just imagine Ex Machina from Ava's POV, if Alicia Vikander looked a bit more like Jackie Earle Haley. Android is nothing you haven't seen before or read in your high school Mary Shelley. But it's a mercifully brief and frequently amusing. And need I repeat...Kinski, Kinski, Kinski.

CREATURE: THE TITAN FIND (1985) - 
William Malone πŸš€πŸš€


Speaking of Klaus, his glorified cameo as the sole surviving German astronaut in Creature: The Titan Find is really, for me, the one and only reason to give this tired Alien rip a go. When he strolls aboard the downed American spacecraft on a Titan moon midway through the film, scenery chewing with glee, you realize immediately what a good actor can bring to even the most formulaic of movies, the gift his mere presence can be to the most humdrum of directors. All they really have to do is hit record, keep the boom mic out of frame. Fortunately, director Malone does that for this one scene. As for the rest of the movie...

To be kind, let's just say it's highly derivative of the original Alien and not in the most charming way. The movie is called Creature after all, the most vaguely generic version of the Alien title possible. It's like that can of no-name Budweiser everyone drinks from in Repo Man labeled simply "Beer." The story beats are nearly identical, minus Ridley Scott's flair for slow-burn suspense, interestingly lit interiors. This director bathes everything in blue gels instead, the scenes mostly under-lit as to hide the cheap effects. The scripting and staging are tone-deaf, and the "creature" looks like an ambulatory space lobster. It's got nothing on the Alien alien, not to mention the Aliens aliens. Probably the best thing that can be said for this 1985 knockoff is that it landed a few of the FX crew jobs on Cameron's fantastic sequel the following year in '86.

LIFEFORCE (1985) - Tobe Hooper πŸš€πŸš€πŸš€πŸš€


Can you even call the whacked-out, otherworldly thing of beauty that is Tobe Hooper's Lifeforce an Alien rip? Hard to say. It definitely shares some of '79 original's genre lineage and even one of its screenwriters (Dan O'Bannon). But its source material pre-dates the original Alien, a 1976 novel called The Space Vampires. Either way, Lifeforce is that singular, exceptional case: It tosses what, by then, had become formula (the haunted house in space) into the creativity blender and comes out with a glorious sci-fi/horror smoothie of a movie that is startlingly, refreshingly new.

The film begins in familiar enough outer space movie territory. A crew of astronauts discover a second starship stocked with specimens trapped in suspended animation. Instead of warty alien eggs, however, the specimens appear to be three nude humans housed in glass cases. In the case of one Mathilda May, they are very naked, very beautiful humans (see here for further pervy film nerd commentary). Then the film takes an interesting narrative turn. It jumps forward to the point where the specimens are already back on Earth in a London research laboratory and, for now, leaves us in the dark as to what happened during the rescue mission. An autopsy is about to be performed on the comatose female specimen until-- wouldn't you know it--a security guard saunters into the lab and is captivated by her beauty. She suddenly awakens and approaches him, seemingly for a kiss. Before you can shout "Look out, space vampire!" she's not just sucking the blood from his shriveling body but draining the "lifeforce" right out of him.

Sound like a bad relationship you've had in the past (definitely a few I've had)? Well, I promise it's more interesting than that. The space vampires turn out to be equal opportunity soul-suckers, with the ability to shape-shift and hopscotch bodies after they've drained them. The comely young Mathilda May not your bag? Then how about this older British redhead. Still not your preference? Then how about the body of Patrick Stewart. Eventually astronaut Steve Railsback (Charlie Manson from Helter Skelter) shows up in a crashed escape pod to fill us in on what happened in outer space. It turns out that when hypnotized he can psycho-sexually "tap into" the female alien (lucky sonofabitch). Things get wilder and weirder from there, and suddenly London is lousy with shape-shifting soul suckers and surprisingly great FX. I hereby refuse spoil the rest.

Surprisingly, this wonderful movie was a box-office dud when it came out. Or maybe not so surprisingly. Audiences were probably exhausted with space horror by that point. But thirty-one years later Lifeforce still holds up beautifully, aged like a fine extraterrestrial wine, Alien rip or not. Perhaps all it needed was a lengthy spate of hypersleep.

Monday, March 28, 2016

SPACE CAMP VOL. 1: STAR WARS RIPS

Long before internet pirates and torrent sites were ripping high quality Blu-ray copies of Star Wars: The Force Awakens, industrious filmmakers around the globe were ripping off the original box office behemoth, A New Hope, to make a fast buck. Their motivations may have been less than artistically pure, but the "sweded" movies these cinematic robber barons churned out were frequently delightful, liberally borrowing plot lines, settings and archetypes from the original Star Wars and warping them to their own creative ends. In some cases (The Man Who Saved The World or "Turkish Star Wars"), they actually smuggled copyright-infringing space battle footage into their films, lifted music from the soundtracks of Flash Gordon and Raiders of the Lost Ark because, hey, why not?

They say imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. If that's true, then the seven Star Wars clones I watched over the last few weekends are certainly blowing the sweetest of Huttian joonga smoke up George Lucas' derriere. You know that scene in Empire when C-3PO gets dismembered in the Cloud City recycling plant and then poorly (but charmingly) reassembled by Chewbacca a few scenes later? Well, I like to think of these laughable but largely entertaining Star Wars rips kinda like that.

Here are some quick (space) capsule reviews of the films I watched, with rocket ship icon ratings in place of stars. Yep, I can be just as cheesy and opportunistic as the filmmakers featured herein.

MESSAGE FROM SPACE (1978) - Kinji Fukasaku πŸš€πŸš€πŸš€


Leave it to the Japanese (and my favorite Japanese yakuza movie director) to get to the Star Wars exploitation game first. At this point in history, they were churning out automobiles better and faster than Ford and Dodge, so why not the movie assembly line too?

As with Lucas's space opera, Message begins with a peaceful planet (Jillucia) in danger of destruction by an evil empire (the Gavanas). The Darth Vader in this scenario is an evil emperor in kabuki makeup with mother issues. Instead of a hologram hidden in a droid, the leaders of Jillucia send eight magical Liabe Seeds into space to help them recruit rebel heroes to defend their planet. Basically, the seeds are intergalactic walnuts that glow intermittently (see above). If you happen to be in possession of one, it's something like having a bite-size piece of "the force." Woe to the hero who receives a seed and is not up to this noble challenge. Woe to the hero with a serious peanut allergy.

The ensemble cast borrows liberally from New Hope character tropes. There's a spunky princess (Emeralida), two wisecracking "rough rider" pilots (think Han and Chewie with less fur), a heroic prince played by Sonny Chiba, a lovable droid by the name of Beba-2 (note: Beba-1 suffers a cruel demise in the beginning, R.I.P.). Best of all, there's Vic Morrow in what could only be described as the alcoholic Obi Wan role. With every line of cornball cosmic wisdom he delivers straight-faced and ruddy-cheeked, you can see the question behind the great actor's eyes: "How did I get here? In space? In Japan? Spouting faux wisdom to a garbage can with legs?" For Morrow's sake, I hope the Suntory they plied him with was not just "movie scotch."

Message makes very little sense in any galactic language. It has way too many characters, and probably too many Liabe Seeds. But, thanks to Fukasaku's energetic direction, it's a peppy trash compactor full o' fun. Sample the Message for yourself right here.

STARCRASH (1978) - Luigi Cozzi πŸš€πŸš€πŸš€πŸš€


The Japanese might have gotten there first, but, in the case of goofball Star Wars clones, the Italians absolutely got there best. Starcrash has everything you could ever hope for in a drive-in friendly, late '70s exploitation movie, Star Wars themed or not. A beautiful model-turned-actress (Caroline Munro) who wears a revolving door of skimpy outfits and occasionally gets to kick ass with equal style. A hero with a sketchily defined mystical powers and a John Holmes curly perm that's even more mystifying. It's got a robot with a Georgia accent for no apparent reason, a glowing Christopher Plummer cameo in which he actually glows. It's got stop-motion robot/creature fighting that falls just short of Clash of the Titans quality, a villain played by a Scorsese veteran and the original Maniac (Joe Spinell). Most importantly, it's got a young David Hasselhoff...at least for a few minutes. Blink, and you might miss him. In case you were worried Starcrash isn't Star Wars violating enough, yes, it actually ends with a green light saber fight.

I have no idea how this movie passed me by as a youngster. Had I seen it, I know I would've loved it as much as Star Wars, hounded my parents ceaselessly for a Stella Star action figure, an Elle droid which when you pressed its stomach shouted something along the lines of "darn tootin'" or "gosh darn dang." Seeing it a few weekends ago was gift enough though, and I'm pretty sure I'd rather re-watch Starcrash any day of the week than any actual Star Wars movie new or old. Pop a freeze-dried brew and treat yourself if you haven't. Here's a link to the full movie. Here's the MST3K version if you want a commentary track. If you only have time for highlights, here's a fun trailer narrated by Eli Roth, who I usually can't tolerate but, in this case, will endure as a kindred fan.

THE BLACK HOLE (1979) - John Barry πŸš€πŸš€1/2


Decades before Disney was buying legit rights to the world's most lucrative sci-fi franchise, they were shamelessly aping its business model in 1979's The Black Hole. I never caught this one as a kid but remember going over to friends' houses where it was playing in the background, wondered how they could get as excited about their V.I.N.CENT and Maximillian action figures as everyone else did about R2 and 3PO. Even at that tender age, the whole thing whiffed of cash-in. I remember the merchandising attempts in toy stores more than wanting to see the film in the movie theatre or on TV. To put it in '80s sneaker parlance, Star Wars was Nike; The Black Hole was Zips at best.

As it turns out, The Black Hole has a little more going on narratively than your average Star Wars rip. The storyline is more Heart of Darkness than "let's ban together to destroy the Death Star." A crew of astronauts (and great actors) including Robert Forster, Anthony Perkins, Ernest Borgnine and Yvette Mimieux happen upon a lost craft orbiting a black hole, cautiously decide to board. Inside, they encounter eccentric scientist Dr. Reinhardt (a perfect Maximilian Schell), a Kurtz-like figure who may have gone off the deep end, turned his entire crew into drones and now has designs on piloting his ship (and his new guests) directly into the black hole.

Like Starcrash, there's another robot with an inexplicable Southern accent...B.O.B., a damaged version of V.I.N.CENT voiced by Hollywood's then go-to hick Slim Pickens. Unlike Starcrash, The Black Hole doesn't have much of a sense of humor beyond that, though watching Perkins slowly get indoctrinated under Schell's spooky cult leader influence is kinda fun. It's a handsomely mounted production with a quality John Barry score, and there's an interestingly ambiguous black hole dream sequence near the end which, this being Disney, of course must conclude unambiguously upbeat. Ever heard of a white hole? Well, someone at the Mouse House surely did.

BATTLE BEYOND THE STARS (1980) - 
Jimmy T. Murakami πŸš€πŸš€πŸš€


George Lucas has always claimed the heaviest influence on his "space western" Star Wars was Kurosawa (especially The Hidden Fortress). So it's only appropriate Roger Corman's rip-off of Star Wars would be ripping off one of the first westerns to rip off Kurosawa, namely The Magnificent Seven.

Battle Beyond the Stars, as penned by a young John Sayles, is basically an hour and a half long recruitment film. When peaceful planet Akir (yep, short for Akira) is threatened by an evil space tyrant (John Saxon), Richard Thomas ("Johnboy" of The Waltons pedigree) takes it upon himself to gather up the best of the best in the galaxy, a motley crew of space mercenaries including Space Cowboy (George Peppard), a beautiful brainiac doctor's daughter (Darlanne Fluegel), a well-endowed Amazonian warrior (Sybil Danning) and a reluctant master assassin in hiding (Robert Vaughn) who's persona non grata throughout the cosmos but looking for a new planet to couch crash. I'm probably forgetting three or four other recruits, but that's OK...by the end of the film so will you.

The best parts of Battle include a group of albino clones called Nestor (top right) who share a single consciousness and are absolutely fascinated by Earth-imported hot dogs. The movie also boasts the most judgmental, hen-pecking on board computer system in movie history. If you thought HAL in 2001 had a passive-aggressive chip on its shoulder, wait until you spend a little time with NELL. Her primary function seems to be denigrating Richard Thomas's Shad, to the point where you wonder if she is truly his ship's navigational system or the voice of his Jewish mother beamed in from Nyack.

TURKISH STAR WARS (1982) - Cetin Inanc πŸš€πŸš€


Of all the Star Wars rips I watched, The Man Who Saved The World (aka "Turkish Star Wars") is certainly the most literal objet d'theft. Virtually all of its outer space scenes are cribbed footage from Star Wars scrunched together in the wrong aspect ratios and overlaid with abrupt music cues pilfered from John Williams, Raiders of the Lost Ark, Flash Gordon and, most baffling, Ben-Hur. The Turkish talking head actors spout nonsensical subtitled dialogue against rear-screen star field projections, and occasionally a poorly recorded narrator booms across the soundtrack making even less sense. Things get more fun once our two buddy heroes crash land on a desert planet, begin karate chopping and high-kicking creatures that look like oversized plushies or benign adult furries. Our placeholder Luke and Han make awkward advances at local space women and indulge in five minute training sequences that involve lots of running and jumping in canyons and tying boulders to their legs. There's also a bad guy somewhere in here who looks like Ming the Merciless with a cadre of Tin Man henchmen.

Is Turkish Star Wars a good movie in its own language? I tend to doubt it. Is it even a good Star Wars rip? Well, if it didn't have literal stolen footage and music from Star Wars, I'm pretty sure I wouldn't have known what movie it was ripping off. That said, at times it reaches a level of inspired absurdity that left me gasping at my screen. It's like that long buried VHS epic you made with your friends in grade school (if you happened to go to grade school outside of Gaziantep), an amateur effort you'd probably rather stayed buried. But just in case you're feeling archaeological or nostalgic, here's the link to see for yourself.

SPACEHUNTER: ADVENTURES IN 
THE FORBIDDEN ZONE (1983) - Lamont Johnson πŸš€1/2


After watching five unseen Star Wars rips, I decided to circle back to my childhood comfort zone, revisit a few space operas I remembered enjoying as a kid. For some reason, Spacehunter always held a sweet spot in my movie memories, but seeing it again some 30+ years later I'm not sure exactly why. The Forbidden Zone isn't really that forbidding. And our hero Wolff (Peter Strauss) is kind of a drip, Han Solo without the caustic wit.

Perhaps it was the 3-D. Spacehunter was among the first movies in the early '80s 3-D revival craze, reportedly one of the most expensive too. I know for sure I saw it in the theatre, so I must have seen it originally with those ubiquitous red and blue lens specs. Perhaps it was Wolff's shrill young sidekick, Molly Ringwald. Sixteen Candles came out around the same time, and my affection for the film could have been the byproduct of some adolescent crush. Ernie Hudson as Spacehunter's comrade in arms? Doubtful. Ghostbusters didn't come out until the summer of '84. In retrospect, it probably had more to do with the OTHER movie Spacehunter was ripping off. The souped post-apocalyptic trucks and armored transport vans. The chain mail outfits. The obstacle course fortress of the evil Overdog (Michael Ironside) that reeked of "poor man's Thunderdome." Two words, neither of them Star Wars. I'm talking Road Warrior, folks.

THE ICE PIRATES (1984) - Stewart Raffill πŸš€πŸš€πŸš€


By 1984, the last of the original Star Wars trilogy had come and gone, I was speeding dangerously towards puberty and growing weary of all things Jedi. Girls were becoming the new creatures worthy of prolonged contemplation, and the sci-fi action figures littering my bedroom floor were starting to seem like sad opposable jokes. Apparently, I hadn't gotten all the Wars out of my system though, because I remember being quite excited about this new space opera that had just hit Betamax and VHS. It was called The Ice Pirates, and, boy, was I in for a cold splash of water to my still acne-free face.

The shock was that the movie itself was in on the joke. Couched somewhere between Star Wars homage and its later, funnier straight-up spoof, Spaceballs, Ice Pirates was an odd '80s middle child. It mucked about in the George Lucas Universe but also made half-hearted attempts to breach the Land of Zucker Brothers too. Put it this way: A few of the robots in the movie speak "jive," one or two of them are working pimps. There's a subplot involving an outbreak of "space herpes" (pictured, bottom left), fleshy nubbins that erupt from cracked pods and scuttle about the spacecraft. The movie is rife with eunuch jokes, and the most memorable scene in the film involves a factory castration device that chomps people's private parts. Did I mention that Bruce Vilanch is in this thing? First as a decadent space king/queen and later as a wisecracking severed head.

Long story short, I loved The Ice Pirates, maybe more now than I did then. 50% of the jokes do not connect whatsoever, but, light years later, I finally understand the very adult-oriented targets at which they're taking aim. Open Letter to Rian Johnson: I'll give you $100 if you give a major character in Episode VIII a nagging case of space herpes, $50 if you squeeze in a cameo by a bodiless Bruce Vilanch. Just for kicks, mind you. I'm pretty sure, given the box office returns of Force Awakens, he won't be needing the cash.