Saturday, November 30, 2013
Quick Plot Synopsis
Set-up Story: The science community of PAX has an orbiting space station. It’s three-person crew are undergoing hibernation experiments. A swarm of deadly meteorites is headed for Earth. PAX extends the timers on the hibernation computers and sends the space station into a long orbit around the sun to get the station out of the path of the meteors. Earth is pummeled into the dark ages. The space station returns 180 years later. Upon awakening, their new mission is to find PAX where other survivors may be in suspended animation too. Captain Anthony Vico (Saxon), Dr. Allison Crowley and Dr. William Scott, zoom down in a shuttle. From there, they roam the “new world” in a eight-wheeled vehicle named Vestia. From this commences two distinct “episodes”. Eterna is an advanced civilization enclave that tricks the 3 PAX folk into range via a faked PAX signal. They are stunned and brought inside. Once in, it is clear that all is not right in paradise. There are no old people and no children. The 20-30-somethings live “forever”, doing nothing much. Their leader, The Surgeon, shows them advanced surgeries and science, since they’ve been advancing science for the missing 180 years. Surgeon wants Scott to take over as the new leader, as Surgeon is going senile. The Eternals use clones to provide donor organs to keep fixing themselves up, but with each cloning, their resistance to disease decreases. Surgeon wants to drain Vico and Allison of all their blood to rejuvenate the clones’ immune systems. Scott rebels and the cloning lab “blown up.” Somehow, this kills all of the Eternals at once. The PAX team flee. Animaland is a tale of mankind divided. The team first encounter the outsiders, the poachers. Allison is captured by the Insiders, so Vico and Scott employ the aid of a poacher named Badger to find her. Instead, they get captured too, and Badger gets the much-coveted flare gun. The insiders are descendants of park rangers, so their mission is to protect the animals — from the poachers. Eventually, Allison and Vico convince the old Warden that they are good-guys, when they stop an attack by Badger and four poacher henchmen. In parting, the wardens agree to share water resources with the poachers and maybe become friends someday. They also promise to not be so hide-bound to their old Fish & Wildlife Manual as their law book. The PAX team drive on, still in search of the PAX base out there…somewhere… The end.
Why is this movie fun?
The premise of SNW has some intriguing possibilities. Seeing some previous tropes recycled had some amusement value too.
60s Optimism Meets 70s Pessimism — Gene Roddenberry’s original Star Trek series placed its emphasis on an optimism about mankind and their future. This may be part of why the original series developed a cult following among the young. The 70s however, was a very different decade. Technophobia and pessimism about all the BAD things that science would do, was the rule of the day (decade). Roddenberry’s PAX story placed an emphasis on the gloomy side of humanity and its history. Whereas Star Trek’s Federation was a better upgrade of contemporary society, the background in the PAX Trilogy is of a post-apocalyptic Earth with mankind starting over in all its brutalism and bad tendencies.
Neo-Sequel — First, there was Genesis II in ’73. This was revamped as Planet Earth in ’74. The third installment of the PAX Trilogy was more a re-telling of the original premise in Genesis II, but with variations. Both feature someone from the past in suspended animation, awakening to a post-apocalyptic Earth, primitive survivors and getting captured by one side or another, or both. The PAX team roam from adventure to adventure, encountering “strange new” enclaves of survivors. SNW varies things in that the PAX team are all there is of PAX. In fact, PAX lives on in name only and as a sort of long-lost McGuffin for the team to search for.
Episode One: Eterna — James Olson stars as the leader of a supposed Utopia named Eterna. This episode has more than a passing resemblance to Zardoz. A colony of immortals who cheat mortality with clones. Where Sean Connery served as the outsider that crashes the system, Saxon does exactly that — also in a scanty red costume. Where Star Trek had its noble Prime Directive, the PAX folk seem unburdened by any such moral foundation. By blowing up the cloning lab, they manage to somehow kill all of the Eternals. The PAX team just walk off, stepping over the bodies, as if to say, “Oh well. That didn’t turn out very well, but let’s push on.”
Episode Two: Animaland — Somewhat recycling the premise in Star Trek’s “The Omega Glory” episode. Instead of Yangs and Kohms, the PAX team discover a community of wardens who care for (and almost worship) animals with a former state park, and a tribe of scruffy poachers who live on the outside. There is an environmentalist undertone to the episode. Friends of the Animals are nominal good guys, who, like the Yangs, have a pseudo-religious devotion to their pre-holocaust documents. In this case, it was a Fish & Wildlife book of regulations. This book has clearly been ignored or heavily amended over the years, as death penalties seem rife. Not quite SOP for the current Fish & Wildlife Service.
Weak Sister — Among fans of the PAX Trilogy, SNW is often regarded as the weakest of the three. SNW had a less complex plot line — 3 people roving in search of a lost base. It also had just the three main characters. These three were somewhat stock characters too: The macho/implusive/fight-prone leader, the token pretty female, the wise older guy. The woman is somewhat stereotypic in being the damsel in distress which needs rescuing by the hero. SNW doesn’t develop the three much at all. Perhaps this was what the series episodes was intended to do. But, in just the pilot, it leaves the 3 rather flat. The special effects were fairly modest too. The overabundance of stock library music and effects gives the production a generic-TV-show quality. Warner tried, but not terribly hard.
Enterprise On Wheels — The little multi-wheel vehicle, Vestia, serves a similar role to the starship Enterprise. Her mission was to be the vehicle that ferries the crew from weekly adventure to weekly adventure. Instead of planets, as on TOS, they would have been isolated enclaves of somethings “strange.” In this, Vestia functions like the tube trains in Genesis II and Planet Earth, but with more individuality, like the Enterprise.
Pre-Logan — The move Logan’s Run (’76) and subsequent TV series by the same name, made a much bigger impression on the culture than SNW did. People who see SNW after its original broadcast (via VHS and later DVD) often see it as a poorer version of Logan’s Run. This, despite the fact that SNW came first. In this case, being first was not a ticket to immortality.
Bottom line? SNW is passable entertainment, if one is accepting of 70s style television production values. Fans of TOS and/or the PAX story line, can find some additional fodder, even if in diminished quality. Fans of 70s style dystopias will find more of the same. Not great stuff, but not bad either.
Monday, November 25, 2013
Below are the sci-fi films of 1974, in roughly chronological order.
The Last Days of Man on Earth — Based on a Michael Moorcock story, “The Final Programme”, about creation of an Übermensch.
Zardoz — Future dystopia of mankind split into effete elites and labor class. Sean Connery stars as Zed, the human that exposes the false god: Zardoz.
The Questor Tapes — A Gene Roddenberry creation of an android given sentience by mysterious tapes from a Dr. Questor. He turns out to be more than just an android.
Dark Star — A student film by John Carpenter. A dark comedy of a planet clearing crew in the lonely isolation of space and a self-aware nuclear bomb.
Planet Earth — Second attempt by Roddenberry to get a television series on his Genesis II premise. Picks up the same story thread sometime later.
Digby: Biggest Dog in the World — Another small-thing-big heart-warming comedy of a sheepdog made huge by secret space serum.
Moonchild — A convoluted quasi-New Age tale of Deja’ vu, reincarnation and Hotel California story of a young man's encounter with allegorical characters of good and evil. (mostly evil)
Chosen Survivors — Just before nuclear armageddon, a group of semi-random citizens are put in a deep bunker. Trouble is, a flock of crazed vampire bats live down there.
Terminal Man — George Segal stars as a mentally-ill killer to reformed via computer implants. The process did not account for the adaptable human mind.
UFO: Target Earth — A low-budget film about a man’s search for a UFO hiding in a mountain lake.
Invasion: UFO — Feature film created from episodes of British TV series UFO, the work of Gerry and Sylvia Anderson.
Phase IV — A planetary alignment causes Earth’s ants to become collectively sentient. They set about subjugating mankind in phases.
It’s Alive — A mother gives birth to monster baby that kills when frightened. It escapes the hospital, eluding searchers, some with ulterior motives.
The Stranger Within — Barbara Eden becomes mysteriously pregnant with what turns out to be an alien baby. She is not alone.
Where Have All The People Gone — Peter Graves stars as a father who survives (along with his son and daughter) a solar flare that turns people into powder.
Invasion From Inner Earth — An obscure, low-budget tale of aliens, dormant for centuries beneath the earth, rising to spread a killer virus.
Wednesday, November 20, 2013
Quick Plot Synopsis
The story opens (slowly) to a rollerball game between the Houston team and Miami. The game is tough, but Jonathan’s leadership gives Houston the win. Afterward, Mr. Bartholomew (Houseman) gives the team a locker room pep talk about their semi-finals match against Tokyo. He also asks Jonathan to come see him at his office. At the corporate headquarters, Mr. Bartholomew tells Jonathan that the corporation wants him to retire. Jonathan is puzzled, thinking only of his team winning another championship, but Bartholomew insists that he announce his retirement on a TV special. Jonathan is polite, but noncommittal. Later, he asks his trainer to find out why he is supposed to retire. Jonathan, still trying to research why he is being pressured to retire, tries to check out books from a library. All his choices have suddenly become classified. His corporate-assigned mistress has been replaced. Daphne tries to urge him to retire. At the taping of the television special about Jonathan’s career, he refused to make his retirement announcement. Jonathan flies to Geneva to get information from a major computer portal. Zero, the computer quietly managing mankind via information control, only answers in tautologies. “Corporate decisions are made by executives. Executives are those who make corporate decisions.” Bartholomew demands that Jonathan retire. Jonathan demands several concessions — one of which is to see his former wife, Ella, who was taken by an executive that fancied her. There is a party in Jonathan’s honor (and to watch the TV special). Later, many of the party guests go outdoors and blow up several spruce trees with incendiary bullets. (a metaphor) The Tokyo game is brutal, as a rules change eliminated penalties. Still, Jonathan leads his team to victory. His friend and teammate, Moonpie, is rendered brain dead by the Tokyo team. Jonathan refuses to sign the release to take Moonpie off life support. When Jonathan returns to his ranch, Ella is there. They reconnect in a distance sort of way, and share apologies, but their former life is irretrievable. She, too, urges him to just do what the corporation tells him. “Comfort means freedom.” Still, Jonathan refuses to retire. The finals match against New York has more rules changes. No penalties, no substitutions, and no time limit. It is, essentially, a cage fight to the death. Many players are killed in savage ways. It comes down to two NY men vs. just Jonathan. He escapes the attack by one of the NY men, killing the NY man in front of Mr. Bartholomew. He defeats the attack of the second man, but stops at the moment of killing. Instead, he takes the ball and scores the game’s only goal. The stone-silent arena bursts into cheers and chants of Jon-a-than, Jon-a-than! He skates toward the camera, smiling. Freeze frame. Roll credits. The End.
Why is this movie fun?
This is a serious and well-done dystopia tale. There is much to muse over and discuss over beverages later. The directing and acting are great. The writing has depth. The cinematography, while dark at times, has a richness to the views and textures. While the vehicle is gruesome, the story is engaging.
Corporate Villains — Big corporations as villains was not a new trope. They had taken on some air villainy back in the late 1800s. This was the era of the “robber baron” tycoons: Carnegie, Mellon, Morgan, Vanderbilt, etc. A couple world wars and a Cold War added some more urgent villains, but when those waned, the old corporate villain archetype re-emerged. The “flower child” youth who came of age after the crest of Atomic Angst did not share their elders’ fear of communism. Instead, the old villains were rediscovered.
Pre-Hunger Games — There are many similarities between the 70s dystopia of Rollerball, and the 2000s’ dystopia in The Hunger Games. Both feature an oppressive tyranny that uses an annual brutal sport as a distraction to keep the masses’ energy spent in useless channels. In both, the protagonist is good at “the game.” In both, the protagonist becomes aware of the larger picture (the games are deception) and thus the protagonist opts to rebel. In both, the evil overlords try to manipulate the rebellious protagonist with rules changes. In both, the protagonist “wins” their way and thus anger the overlords, who are all the more angry at the protection fame gives. Rollerball is the Hunger Games of the X generation.
Boring Middle? — Some viewers regard the middle third of Rollerball to be weak and boring. This may be because they expect an all-action film. Instead, the middle of the film is all about the awakening of Jonathan’s soul. In the first third, he is the unaware pawn of the overlords. He lives to play the game and win. His natural leadership qualities, which made him the championship team captain, alarm the overlords. They rule by bribes. Keep the people comfortable and they won’t make trouble. The game was designed to vent any aggressive urges. But, the overlords’ brutal diversion was breeding a populist leader. That would not do. The call for his retirement on the eve of another championship series is the dissonance that breaks the spell. The middle third of the film is about Jonathan’s growth. He is the reluctant rebel. His former life was good, but once the genie was out of the bottle, there was no turning back. Even when the corporation gave him his stolen wife back, he could not resume his former life. Everything had changed. His growth in the middle third explains why he fights so hard to stay in the game designed to kill him: why he kills the second-to-last New York player directly in front of Mr. Bartholomew: why he refuses to kill the last player and why he bothered to make the winning goal. Defiance of the overlords. That, is what the middle third is about.
Closet Colossus — Behind the scenes of this comfortable world of 2018, is the super computer Zero. Not much is made of it, but it is hinted at by the Librarian, that Zero controls everything. Zero talks in smoke-screen tautologies. Zero controls all of mankind’s information. If Zero wanted the whole of 13th century history to “disappear down the memory hole,” that history is gone. With no books anymore, mankind has no recourse. Unlike Colossus (of the Forbin Project), Zero operates behind the figureheads of the corporate oligarchy. But, do even those directors actually control things, or does Zero actually control them?
Hockey Roots — Screenwriter William Harrison was a hockey fan. He liked the game as a game. It was at one particular game that a nasty fight broke out (surprise!) and the fans cheered with bloodlust. It was the savage nature of the hockey fan and the opiate of violence that inspired and informed his screenplay. Rollerball is not so much an indictment of sports — even violent sports — so much as it’s an indictment of the masses’ addiction to them and the corporate/media pushers who feed the addiction.
What’s Up With Killing Trees? — A scene that puzzles some viewers is when the guests at Jonathan’s screening party amble outside and take turns gleefully blowing up tall spruce trees with incendiary bullets from a revolver. This scene often elicits a “What was THAT all about?” It’s partly a metaphor for how the corporations consume (burn up) the rollerball players with the game. Note how many players die before the end. But it is also a metaphor for the public’s complicity. Note the idiotic glee the guests show while destroying the trees. Only the acceptance by millions of fans can give the game its mesmerizing power. Near the end, the team’s exec shouts at the trainer, who was upset that the game had become just a street fight. “The Game? This was never a game!”
Bottom line? Rollerball is well worth watching. The party music is badly dated, but the rest of the film is timeless. Yes, it has some brutality. The “gore” is very mild by today’s grim standards. Caan plays his role excellently. He is heroic, but has no swagger. Houseman does an excellent job too, as the silky smooth villain. The supporting cast are good too. There are a great many subthreads and tangental topics in Rollerball. This makes it worth watching several times.
Friday, November 15, 2013
Quick Plot Synopsis
In the grim future of America, the oppressive dictatorship keeps the people distracted and amused with an annual “Death Race”. Five teams race from New York to New Los Angeles. Teams get points for arriving first AND points for killing pedestrians on the way. The teams in the year 2000 are: Calamity Jane in her bull-mobile, Nero the Hero, Matilda the Hun in her nazi-themed V1-mobile, Machine Gun Joe (Stalone), in his black gun-wagon and the returning champion, Frankenstein (Carradine) in his godzilla-mobile. Each driver has a navigator / paramour. Frankenstein’s navigator, Annie, is the granddaughter of Mrs. Pierce, the leader of The Resistance who seek to sabotage the race and rescue America. Annie’s role is to facilitate the capture of Frankenstein. The race begins and so does the gratuitous killing. The Resistance blow up Nero’s car first, with a bomb in a fake baby. At a rest stop in St. Louis, the drivers get massages, so the viewers get lots of nudity. The government covers up Nero’s death by The Resistance. Later, The Resistance kill Matilda with a detour off a cliff. Calamity Jane is taken out with a land mine. Annie leads Frankenstein into a Resistance trap, but the Resistance are too incompetent to capture him. Later, Lt.Fury of the Resistance tries to bomb Frankenstein with a small plane. This fails too. Annie asks why Frankenstein is so obsessed with winning the race. He confides that his artificial hand (always gloved) is a hand-grenade. (Get it? HAND-grenade?). He plans to blow up Mr. President and thereby free America. During a desperate driving battle between Joe and Frankenstein, Annie uses the hand-grenade to blow up Joe. Frankenstein arrives in New Los Angeles, the winner. Mr. President is there to congratulate the winner. Annie, dressed in Frankenstein’s black leather costume, mounts the podium with a knife, but Mrs. Paine steps out of the crowd and shoots at Mr. President, only to hit Annie instead. Amid the chaos, Frankenstein (now naked) revs up his car and rams the podium. Mr. President falls to his death. Fade to black, Fade in to Frankenstein and Annie in white, at their wedding. He is now President Frankenstein, who promises to many good things and restore America. In one last act of poetic justice, he runs over the whining and obnoxious TV reporter. Roll credits. The end.
Why is this movie fun?
DR2K is a comedy — albeit a very grim and dark comedy. Despite the juvenile gore-humor, there are some amusing lines and a few funny sight gags. The social-commentary part, while secondary to the blatant exploitation pandering, does give some fodder for musing.
Cannonball Run — In the 70s, there were several coast-to-coast unsanctioned amateur races from New York City to Los Angeles. They started as a sort of grassroots protest against stricter traffic laws. Speed limits were disregarded (though each driver was still responsible for his own tickets.) As such they began with an air of “stick it to the man.” With the oil crisis of 1973, its subsequent gas shortages and rationing, the “freedom” of the open road seemed like lost dream. In 1974, the federal government imposed the nation-wide 55 mph speed limit (on the pretense that it would save a significant amount of gasoline). The 55 limit was widely unpopular, seen as just another heavy-handed intrusion by “the man.” This was the background in which DR2K was released.
Based on Print — Ib Melchior wrote a short story titled “The Racer,” published in the January 1956 edition of Escapade (a minor “men’s magazine). His story featured a transcontinental road race in which the drivers scored points for killing bystanders. It also suggested the idea of The Resistance, in passing. Melchior said the inspiration for his story came from a speedway race he attended and the crowd’s bloodlust enthusiasm for crashes. (A parallel to hockey fans who watch for the fights, not the game.) Melchior’s story also featured a woman who changes the protagonist, Willie, from heartless killer to caring human being. Melchior would later write Angry Red Planet (’61) and Robinson Crusoe On Mars (’64).
Political Statement — Despite the trappings of comedy, DR2K makes dystopian warnings about America becoming a dictatorship under a president who uses crises as an excuse to remain in office. Mr. President sponsors the gruesome annual race as a sort of “bread and circus” distraction to keep the masses minds off the oppression. Note how the government is constantly trying to control the media and what the public hear. Note too, how “France” is blamed for just about everything. France as the evil empire? That’s funny by itself.
Evil Media — Where DR2K can be seen as an indictment on oppressive government, it is even more of an indictment on the entertainment media. In a rather fitting commentary, even for today, is the sinister collusion between Big Media and the oppressive government.
Virgin Sacrifice — An odd, and somewhat disquieting scene features Lori. She is the “chosen” fan from the Frankenstein fan club. She talks with Frankenstein so that he will know her and remember her. The next day, the fan club has her set up in the middle of the road, dressed in a flowing white “virgin sacrifice” dress. She will give her life for Frankenstein to get more points. He coldly runs her down. Why? asks Annie. “Because she said she loved me.”
Euthanasia Day — On race day, a hospital sets all it’s old infirm patients out in the road. That way, the racers can get some valuable points and the hospital clears out some beds. In a foreshadowing of Frankenstein’s change of heart, he drives instead behind the hospital, running over several of the doctors and nurses who were trying to thin the geriatric wing.
Inept Resistance — Of some comic value is the bumblings of The Resistance. They talk in high-sounding phrases, but are poorly organized and inept. They do manage to blow up Nero with the baby bomb, get Matilda to drive off a cliff and blow up Jane with a land mine, so they do manage to strike a blow at “the man,” and his Race. Their leader, Mrs. Paine’s announcement over hijacked TV waves was “The Age of Obedience is Over!” Surely a motto that resonated with young drive-in audiences.
Spawning Sequels — DR2K managed to spawn remakes and sequels. There was a video game named “Carmageddon” in the late 90s. The movie Death Race in 2008. Death Race 2 in 2010 and Death Race 3 in 2012.
Mad Before Max — The Mad Max movies did not invent the trope of tricked up cars covered with spiky and jagged things, as featured so prominently in the second Mad Max film, 1981.
Auto Trivia — DR2K feeds on the muscle car mindset which the oil embargo was emasculating. For those into automotive trivia, Frankenstein’s car is a modified Corvette. The cars of Jane and Joe were heavily costumed Manta kit cars (fiberglass “Mclaren” bodies on VW Beetle running gear). Nero’s car was a gussied up Fiat 850 Spider. Matilda’s car is a Karmann Ghia with much added bodywork to make it resemble a nazi V1 buzz bomb.
Plane Crazy — For aircraft fans, there is good footage of the Rutan VariViggen 2-seater. it is a pretty cool looking machine, so it is a treat to get to see it doing so many fly-bys.
Bottom line? DR2K is a pretty flagrant exploitation film. The female announcer’s name, Grace Pander, makes it clear that the movie makers knew they were pandering. The gore and violence are juvenile. The nudity is gratuitous. The film amounts to pro-wrestling in cars. Still, the dystopian elements and social commentary between the humor, do make DR2K worth sitting through.
Sunday, November 10, 2013
Quick Plot Synopsis
The Eberhardt family move from an apartment in downtown New York City, to an upscale suburb in Stepford, Connecticut. The move is entirely Walter’s idea. Joanna reluctantly goes along with the disruption. She notices that the women of Stepford are nice, but shallow. Joanna meets another newcomer to Stepford, Bobbi. (Paula Prentiss) Happy to find another “normal” person, they become friends. Walter is invited to join the locally prestigious Men’s Association. This flares up some lingering squabbles over male chauvinism vs. feminism between Walter and Joanna. Odd little events start to worry Joanna. Joanna and Bobbi notice that the Stepford husbands are bland milk-toasts of men, but all have adoring trophy wives. Joanna and Bobbi do meet Charmaine, (Tina Louise) another newcomer and avid amateur tennis fan with her own court. Joanna sits in on a Men’s Association meeting at the Eberhardt home, One man (a sort of Vargas parallel) sketches Joanna while the others banter fundraising ideas. The meeting leader, (Patrick O’Neal) is called “Diz” because he was once an engineer at Disneyland. Charmaine goes away for a weekend with her husband and returns a Stepford wife. Bobbi and Joanna are convinced that all the high-tech firms in Stepford must be polluting the water. They get a sample analyzed, but there’s nothing odd in the water. Bobbi goes away for a weekend with her husband, and returns a Stepford wife. In a moment of frustration, Joanna stabs Bobbi. There is no blood. Bobbi goes into repeated motions (dropping coffee cups) and repeating phrases. Joanna runs home to find that her two kids are gone. She comes the Men’s Association mansion on a suitably dark and stormy night. Diz is there and tells her it is her time. Joanna runs from dark spooky room to dark spooky room, stopping in what looks like a partial recreation of her bedroom. In it, is a copy of herself, brushing her long hair. The copy, however, has only incomplete black spheres for eyes (Eyes as windows of the soul, therefore Robo-Joanna has no soul, get it?). Joanna 2.0 looks the same, but is now a 36 DD where Real-Joanna was a 34 AAA at best. Robo-Joanna smiles a menacing smile, secures a strangling cord in both hands and walks towards Joanna. Fade to black. Fade back in to the Stepford supermarket. Tepid muzak plays while Stepford wives float along behind their shopping carts. They are all dressed in long, frilly sun dresses and wide-brimmed hats. Joanna is there too, in similar frilly attire. Zoom in on her now complete, but expressionless eyes. Freeze frame. Roll Credits. The End.
Why is this movie fun?
Fans of the paranoia sub-genre of 50s sci-fi, can appreciate this mid 70s refresh of the trope. There are a lot of tangent topics raised by the script.
The term “Stepford wife” entered into the general cultural language. Even forty years after the movie, it is still understood. The word “Stepford” has gotten into dictionaries, meaning someone that is bland and submissive. A “Stepford wife” being “a married woman who submits to her husband's will and is preoccupied by domestic concerns and her own personal appearance.” In 2011, Cindy McCain (wife of Senator John McCain) said, “I've seen things written about me that said "she's cold," or "she is a Stepford wife." Really, I'm just very shy.” Levin’s novel, and Forbes’ movie, made a lasting impression on the culture, even spawning
Based on the Book — The movie follows the story line of Ira Levin’s 1972 novel very closely. There are always ways in which movies cannot capture what the written word can, but in this case, the movie almost did a better job. For instance, in the book, the robotic nature of the duplicates is not made as clear. Levin may have preferred the ambiguity. Were they biological clones? Petty zombies? Forbes makes it clear that the Stepford wives are robot duplicates. The real wives were killed. This point too, is not as clear in the book. Forbes' scene with Robo-Joanna and her strangling cord make the fates of the real women terribly clear. Both the book and the movie indulge in vulgarity like a college freshman away from home for the first time. Both Levin and Forbes may have sought to use vulgarity as a marker for “real” people, but what does that say about the culture?
Better Without Bimbos — William Goldman had originally envisioned the Stepford wives to be dressed provocatively. They would be trophy bimbos. Bryan Forbes’ wife, Nanette Newman, was cast as Carol Van Sant. Newman was an accomplished actress in her own right and attractive, but at 40 years old, did not look good in Goldman’s bimbo-wear. So, the costuming took a more conservative tack. Barbie gave way to Betty Crocker. This actually saved the film from becoming kitsch — a slightly darker version of Dr. Goldfoot and the Bikini Machine (’65) in which the robots are primarily eye candy. Middle-aged men making bikini-babes would have been shallow and juvenile. Them making “nice” mild suburban homemakers has more complexity.
The Dark Side of Disney — Apparently, the animatronics at Disneyland creeped some people out. Disney’s robo-entertainment was also the inspiration for Westworld (’73). Forbes’ robots don’t go bad as overtly as the Gunslinger, but the scene in which Robo-Joanna is implied to kill the real Joanna shows the same technophobia. The Disney connection is made abundantly clear in the “Diz” character, who worked for Disney. When Joanna is talking with the therapist she says she knows she is due to be replaced. It will look like her, “but it won’t be me. She’ll be one of those robots at Disneyland.” Some people saw a dark side to the magic kingdom.
Pods For A New Age — The Stepford wives are the pod people for a new generation. There is much similarity between TSW and Invasion of the Body Snatchers (’56). Both are classics of the people-being-replaced conspiracy trope. In both stories, the “normal” people exhibit several human imperfections, and they are slowly and systematically replaced by bland, emotionless duplicates. Where Body Snatchers was responding to the insidious creeping in of communism (or McCarthyism, if you prefer), the Stepford wives represent a very common 70s anxiety about technology dehumanizing us.
Feminist Film? — On a shallow level, TSW serves as a feminist indictment of male-dominated society. There is talk of male chauvinism, burning bras, equality and mean-old-men forcing women into domestic roles. Yet these are more of a red herring. Beneath that veneer lurks the darker story of men willing to live a lie. Diz rationalizes the scheme to Joanna. “Wouldn’t you do the same thing? Wouldn’t you like some perfect stud waiting on you around the house? Praising you. Servicing you. Whispering that your sagging flesh was beautiful, no matter how you looked?” That was, after all, what the men of Stepford were doing. They wanted trophy wives, or at least the appearance of them, to lie to them, even though they knew it was pre-programmed lies. Why would a tape recording of a woman saying "You're the best!" have any value to the man? In this, Levin and Forbes make a commentary about that darker side of mankind’s heart. To paraphrase the bible verses, They refused to accept the truth, instead believing the lie. TSW is also about there being something wrong with the men.
Bottom line? TSW is not to be missed. One need not be a fan of sci-fi to benefit from watching it. TSW is a cultural touchstone. There is the usual 70s technophobia, but there are some many tangental social commentaries to muse over too. The banality of suburban life. An urban-dweller’s fears of un-hip suburbia. The subtle Frankenstein: Adam trying to fabricate his own idealized Eve. Science and technology doing the immoral “Because we can.” There are more than a few cup-of-coffee conversations to be mined from TSW. The film spawned several sequels and an unfortunate remake in 2004. The original is best. Watch it.