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 🚀🚀🚀


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 protégé 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 🚀🚀🚀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 🚀🚀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 🚀🚀🚀🚀


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 🚀🚀🚀


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 🚀🚀🚀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 🚀🚀


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) - René Laloux 🚀🚀🚀


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 🚀🚀🚀


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.

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