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Friday, July 25, 2014

Mad Max

This Australian indie film is the ancestor to a sub-genre of a post-apocalyptic narrative that lives on today, some 35 years later. It is also the first “sci-fi” of 1979. The story, as told, is more of an automotive recast of a Western, and not particularly sci-fi. But the post-apocalyptic-world genre is, by tradition, a sci-fi realm. George Miller wrote and directed Mad Max (MM). A very young Mel Gibson stars as Max Rockatansky — an anti-hero type that would prove popular. In fact, popular enough that there were two direct sequels and scores of knock-off copies over several decades. Miller was on to something.

Quick Plot Synopsis
The film opens to a pursuit by MFP (Main Force Patrol) police cars, of a criminal fugitive who calls himself The Nightrider. Through some car chase action footage, the comic relief team is put out of action. The straight-man pair are also disabled. Only Max remains, and begins his masterful pursuit. Nightrider becomes un-nevered and eventually dies in a fiery crash. Max returns to his cozy private life of pretty wife, Jesse and their baby boy. Max wants to quit the MFP, but his boss, Fifi tries to bribe him to stay with a black suped-up V8 interceptor. Max still wants out. Meanwhile a motorcycle gang, led by Toecutter, roar into a country town to collect the body of Nightrider, which arrived via train. The gang terrorize the town awhile. A young couple flee (in a highly customized red 1959 Bel Air), nearly running over Toecutter in the process. He summons his gang to pursue them. The gang catches up, disables the car, demolishes the car and terrorizes the pretty young woman. Later, Max’s co-worker friend, “Goose” is called to the scene. He comforts the girl, and apprehends one of the gang — Johnny the Boy — because he was stuck there with a malfunctioning bike. Goose vents his outrage on Johnny, but lawyers get him off because no one would press charges. Toecutter’s gang decide to get even with Goose. They stage an ambush, causing him to crash the little truck he was driving. He is trapped inside. Toecutter insists that Johnny kill Goose to prove he is worthy to be in the gang. Johnny reluctantly complies. Goose lives, but only a disfigured vegetable. Max is upset and tries to quit. Fifi tells him to take a two-week vacation instead and think about it. Max, Jesse and son take a vacation grandma’s farm, near the coast. This inadvertently puts them in close proximity to where the gang was camping. Toecutter tries to score on Jesse, but she knees him in tender regions. The gang pursue, eventually finding her and running her (and her son) down. Both die. Max goes ‘mad’ at the loss. He dons his black leather MLF attire and fires up the black interceptor. He kills a couple of the gang, but they stage an ambush. Max is shot in the knee, but shoots one attacking biker. He hobbles back to his car to pursue Toecutter, who dies in a head-on with a semi. Max later finds the only gang member remaining, Johnny, looting a dead pickup driver. Max handcuffs Johnny to the wreck with a lit lighter, a container filling with dripping gasoline, and a hacksaw so Johnny can escape by saw off his own ankle. Max drives off, the pickup explodes. Max drives off into the forbidden out-lands. Fade to black. The End.

Why is this movie fun?
There is a lot of fast road-based action in MM. Fans of things automotive will see that George Miller is a kindred spirit. The driving stunts are fairly impressive for a modest-budgeted film. The scenery of the vast Australian countryside has stark beauty to it too.

Cultural Connection
Fearing Societal Collapse — MM touched a cultural chord in its portrayal of a society in mid-collapse. The usual authorities — courts, law enforcement — cannot cope with the rise of lawlessness. Cruel and sadistic gangs of criminals terrorize the helpless civilians. This comes to the screen just as President Carter is describing a “crisis in confidence” in his famous Malaise Speech. Gone are the 50s when the government and army would rush in to save the populace from the monsters. Also gone are the late-60s-early-70s days when the government was seen as an all-powerful all-controlling tyrant. The new era of the 80s would see government as fundamentally powerless and society itself as crumbling into anarchy. Note the decay in the “Hall of Justice” sets. Disrepair, decay, clutter. “Justice” was crumbling away. Later MM movies, and many of its clones, would weave in punk culture as symbolic of the anarchy of the collapse.

Notes
Missing Backstory — Miller chose to start telling his story in the middle, instead of from the beginning. This disconcerts some people. Without the backstory, the characters, scenes and events can appear disjointed and random. The more attentive viewer is given hints throughout the film as to that backstory, but it is never stated overtly. Miller must have felt the criticism for this, as he starts his second Mad Max film, The Road Warrior (’81) with a preamble that both recaps MM, the first film, and provides the overt backstory that he left subtle (too subtle?) in MM.
Before MM opens, there was WWIII. Nuclear exchanges wiped out much of the “old” civilization. Australia misses the brunt of it (ala On The Beach), but the remaining “authorities” were too few to control the vast expanse of the world. As such, outlaws ruled the hinterlands. The MFP is what little is left of a highway patrol, in a losing-game battle against the lawless forces of evil. In MM, society has not completely collapsed (as in RW). Instead, there is the shell of old-world normalcy as people try to carry on as they always had, despite the shortages, privations and growing lawlessness. THIS is the world MM opens to.

People Need Heroes — At one point, Max’s boss tries to talk him into staying on the MFP with a pep talk about people needing heroes. Max scoffs, and Fifi wasn’t too sincere, but his comment resonated, nonetheless. Movie audiences in 1979 did want a hero — an individual hero. The old days of the government saving people, or the army, were past. The mid 70s were a dour period of gloom about oppressive, corrupt government (think Andromeda Strain, Soylent Green, Z.P.G. in which there were no happy endings. Amid the Malaise, the notion of a single hero (not a government agency) seemed like a good idea. This new hero could be a bit rough (think Dirty Harry), but would deal harshly with a cruel (new) world. That is one of Max’s appeals.

Car Nuts — The three multi-colored MFP cars in the opening chase scene, as well as Max’s suped-up black interceptor, were all Ford Falcons — Australian. When Ford/Australia introduced their Falcon in 1960, it was made on identical tooling as the American version. Viewers can spot a few of those old-style Falcons in the film too. But, in 1972, Ford/Australia introduced an all new design (and unique to Australia), but kept the traditional nameplate. Max’s interceptor was a modified 1973 XB coupe. Miller doted on scenes to show of the coupe’s supercharger in action — a real car-nut sort of thing to dote on. Max’s black coupe captivated audiences almost as much as Max did himself, so it returned with Max to start the sequel. The team might have also been an inspiration for American television’s “Knight Rider.”

Bottom line? MM has its strong points and weak points. It’s a low-budget production, and Miller’s first feature film, so some “roughness” should be expected. MM has its fans and detractors. The more outlandish sequel proved more to audiences’ liking, making the first film feel a bit dowdy in comparison. There is little sci-fi to MM. This linkage comes from the post-apocalyptic future angle. For people new to the MM franchise, watch the intro to the first few minutes of the second film (The Road Warrior) to get the backstory, then watch MM. Mad Max has become a cultural icon, so his first film is worth seeing, if only to understand that icon better.

Sunday, July 20, 2014

Beyond Reason

Next up is an obscure indie film from Australia. Beyond Reason (BR) was released in 1970 and probably did not see theatrical release beyond Australia. Yet, it’s nuclear-apocalypse topic has a lot in common with mainstream sci-fi films of the era, so it seemed a fun digression. BR was written, produced and directed by the same man, Giorgio Mangiamele. One-man-band projects usually suffer from lack of outside input, and BR is no exception. The cast is made up of local Australians. Some had television acting experience. A few had been in Mangiamele’s prior one-man-project, a film named Clay. Most of the cast were simply extras to fill out the crowd. BR is a basic bunker tale, told on a very tight budget.

Quick Plot Synopsis
At a large mental hospital institution, alarms sound. A nuclear strike is immanent. Staff and patients stream down stairs into a waiting bunker. Dr. White goes back up to fetch more people. He tells Rita (one of his higher-functioning patients) to close the bunker door if things look bad. She knows the combination. The earth shakes from explosions. Rita pushes the buttons and the big round metal door closes. Everyone is sealed in. More explosions buffet the bunker. Pounding and screaming is heard on the other side of the door. Under pressure from the others, Rita cannot remember the combination. Phone lines to the surface are dead. The closed circuit television shows only interference. Dr. Sullivan, Dr. DeGroot and nurse Marion are the only staff, with roughly 20 or so patients. For awhile, the tranquilizers hold out, and a relative (tense) calm is maintained. Richard, one of the patients, makes fixing the television his project. Eventually, the pills run out and tempers flare. Lydia is highly libidinous and prone to taking her shirt off. Marion goes libidinous too, and takes a romantic shine to Richard, who is becoming a somewhat sullen leader type. When Dr. DeGroot goes out to stop a brawl, Richard gets the pistol away from him and shoots him dead. Dr. Sullivan tries to maintain order, but the inmates are running the asylum. They try to tug the door open with a rope, but fail. Richard has the television fixed and says he’s seen the sun. Richard gives a monologue about the new world sweeping away all the unnatural things of the old world (laws, courts, rules) In another brawl, Rita taunts Charles, who then vows to kill her. When he has her trapped against the door, she remembers the combination. The door opens. They all go up to find rubble and ruins. Richard and another man hit Dr. Sullivan with bricks. The others (even Marion) join in stoning the doctor to death. They all then file out of the ruins into a bleak landscape. Fade in ballad. The End.

Why is this movie fun?
BR is another glimpse into how people of the Cold War era viewed the expected nuclear apocalypse. The bunker-view and all the metaphors are amusing food for thought.

Cold War Angle
The same sort of End Of The World As We Know It mindset that pervades many Cold War era stories is also at the core of BR. The premise that there would be a safe underground bunker stocked with a year’s worth of supplies was very much the Cold War way. The destruction when the patients emerge, is the total destruction people imagined.

Notes
Double Meaning — The title, “Beyond Reason”, gets mentioned literally when Dr. De Groot talks of the madness of everyone fighting a nuclear WWIII. Such mutually shared destruction was, in his words, “beyond reason.” Then, there is the “new world” in which the survivors are all mental patients following their instincts, not that old-world notion of reason.

Organ Rejection — The score in BR is like that old joke about the man hitting himself in the head with a hammer. Why are you doing that? his friend asks. Because if feels so good when I stop. The best part of the score in BR is when it’s not there. The warbley electronic keyboard (organ) is jarring and loud -- a migraine set to "music".

Natural Law — Even though writer/producer/director Mangiamele was born in the 1920s, so was of the “Greatest Generation”, he has the Richard character utter a rebelious-youth monologue about throwing off the old civilization and starting over with himself as the leader. Marion asks him what he could do for them. “Your world, your society, your imposed organization of all kinds. Laws and courts, and set ways of behavior. Nothing was natural. In the new world, it will be different. They’ll be free. I can give them freedom. They’ll obey their natural instincts.” Such was the common counter-culture philosophy. If it feels good, do it.

Anti-Establishment — Clearly symbolizing authority and structure, Dr. Sullivan tries to maintain order in the bunker. He berates Marion a couple times for having her nurse’s uniform unbuttoned. He breaks up fights. When the patients are lounging around lazily eating, Dr. Sullivan moves among them, taking away their dirty plates. When the door is finally opened, he leads them out. But when he finds a new supply of the tranquilizers he used to maintain order, he is quickly stoned and killed by the mob. Following Richard’s manifesto, the old order was to be swept aside.

Bottom line? BR is a very obscure film, so probably difficult to find any copies. Unless you happen to be a big fan of low-budget Australian indie films, bunker themes, or harsh electronic keyboard, BR might not be worth the effort to locate. But if, for some odd reason, BR were to be playing on television, fits in with films like Chosen Survivors and Twilgiht Zone’s “The Shelter” episode.

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Blood Beast from Outer Space

Shepperton Studios produced a modest sci-fi film in 1965 called The Night Caller. or Night Caller from Outer Space. When released in the USA, it was retitled Blood Beast from Outer Space (BBOS). The American distributors must have thought the British title was too subtle. John Saxon stars as Dr. Jack Costain. Maurice Denham plays Dr. Morley. Patricia Haines plays Ann Barlow. It is the somewhat typical story of an alien who comes to earth for “our” resources (women) and to warn us of the dangers of a nuclear future.

Quick Plot Synopsis
Radar detects an incoming asteroid that lands near London. When scientists and the army search, they find a beachball-sized translucent sphere. They take it back for testing, but it is obviously not of this world. While Ann stays late to type up notes, she feels sick and notices a glow in the store room. When she opens the door, a clawed hand grabs hers. She runs and sets off the alarm. No one is found, but a big clawed footprint is found in the dirt outside. Dr. Morley, Ann and Jack are certain the sphere is a transporter portal, sent from the 3rd moon around Jupiter: Ganymede. Dr. Morley wants to see the mysterious stranger, but gets killed by it. The stranger drives off the base in a nice Jaguar. Fast forward three weeks. 21 young women have disappeared mysteriously. Slowly, Scotland Yard and the scientists piece together that a mysterious stranger has placed an ad in Bikini Girl magazine, recruiting models. They disappear the day after their interviews. Scotland Yard sets up a trap for the stranger, now named Medra. Ann volunteers to be bait. She goes in, confronts Medra. They chat about about him wanting women for his planet. He then strangles Ann for knowing too much. Medra arranges one more abduction of a pretty girl. Police give chase to the Jaguar. They find it at a farm. Standing in front of a fire (for no apparent reason), Medra exposits about how his people are a thousand years advanced. They also discovered nuclear power and it all went bad for them. Most were wiped out. The survivors were mutants. Medra has one normal human hand, and one claw-hand - half a normal face and half deformed face. They want the pretty english girls as fresh breeding stock to clean up their gene pool. There’s nothing the army can do. Medra disappears. His portal ball shoots up into the sky as a fireball. The End.

Why is this movie fun?
British sci-fi of the 60s had a subtly to it that gave it a very different feel from American B-grade sci-fi. The director does a good job of keeping the alien hidden in the shadows. The fact that the “monster” amounts to just one rubber claw-glove, is nicely hidden.

Cold War Angle
Don’t Let This Happen To You — A common theme in 50s sci-fi was the cautionary tale. Sci-fi let audiences “see” the horrors of an unchecked nuclear future. This was the moral of the story in Rocketship XM (1950), in which the astronauts see the ruins of martian civilization, high radiation, and mutant survivors (as cavemen). BBOS repeats all these traditional Cold War tropes. Medra’s people suffered their apocalypse. They mutated into monsters. Medra tells the earthmen that it will happen to them too. Add in Medra’s mission, and his warning amounts to: Keep messing with nukes and you’ll wind up mutant monsters (like me) and you won’t have enough women.

Notes
Based on the Book — Frank Crisp wrote the novel in 1960, “The Night Callers.” The plot is essentially the same: an alien civilization is kidnapping young women, one by one. Crisp’s novel (and the ’65 film) have a very 50s feel to them, as they were a product of those times.

Klaatu The Abductor — Medra delivers a monologue at the end, which amounts to Klaatu’s warning from The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951). “A thousand years ago, we made our first stumbling steps into space. We visited the earth, only to find we could not survive its atmosphere. But we from Ganymede knew were were superior beings and had nothing to learn from you. We had knowledge that could lead to eternal peace and progress, but also embodying the darker powers of universal destruction, so our civilization ended, just as yours will.” Like Klaatu, Medra delivers his warning message and leaves. But this time, he took a bunch of earth girls with him. Medra wasn’t on a mission to warn Earth, so much as he was gathering breeding stock and got a little chatty before departure.

They ARE After Our Women — This old trope is sci-fi is sometimes hinted at, or danced around with visual metaphors. In BBOS, it is the essence of the plot. The aliens on Ganymede need earth women (with chromosomes free from nuclear-war mutations). Unlike in most films with this trope, the Earth men do not thwart the abductions by the “outsider” tribe. The aliens win. They get the girls. Still, the earthly parallel would be angst over “our” young women being stolen by immorality. Note how the ad is placed in Bikini Girl magazine and the bait of “modeling.” Note too, the glimpses of the seamy side of Soho and the greasy bookstore owner, Thorburn. Medra fits as metaphor for the dark side of society that “steals” the innocence of young women.

Transporter Device — An interesting tidbit to the story, is the sphere itself. Medra did not travel inside the sphere. Instead, it is a matter transporter that was launched at the Earth. Once landed, Medra could beam himself in and beam the girls out. In this, his sphere is reminiscent to Mr. Johnson’s closet in Not of this Earth (’57). But, instead of the vampire angle in NotE — beaming back people for food — Medra is wants his beam-back-ees to remain intact as women.

Advanced Killer? — In Medra’s monologue at the end, he boasts about how advanced their people are, and how they learned their lesson from their destructive nuclear past. However, Medra was pretty quick to kill earthlings who got in his way. This is what advanced looks like?

The Price of Equality — Rare for sci-fi films, the lead female is killed by the monster. He complements her as having “a mind nearly equal to my own.” Presuming Medra had an advanced mind, that meant Ann was actually the brightest of the scientists. However, as an equal, she was a threat to the abduction plans, so he kills her. No fancy ray guns. He just strangles her. It’s a bit grim.

Star Gazing — Beyond the more obvious John Saxon, watch for Aubrey Morris as the flagrant bookshop owner. He would later the equally questionable probation officer in A Clockwork Orange (’71). Fans of Fawlty Towers will see “The Major”, Ballard Berkeley, in a very Major-like role, but a pre-Fawlty serious one.

Bottom line? BBOS is a very British sci-fi, and fairly typical of the vintage. It is not an action-packed film, nor replete with special effects. It can be a bit talky at times. The expository ending feels like the writer ran out of time to tell the story, so just summed it up via the alien’s monologue. Still, BBOS has a mild and somewhat cerebral quality to it. The themes are the usual fare, but delivered without gore, or scary monsters, explosions or random nudity. Only the strangling of Ann and Medra’s mutant-half face would keep BBOS from being suitable for children.

Thursday, July 10, 2014

Invasion of the Body Snatchers

Phillip Kaufman directs this 1978 remake of the original, Invasion of the Body Snatchers (IBS78). Donald Sutherland plays the lead character, also named Bennell. Brooke Adams plays his love interest. Jeff Goldblum and Veronica Cartwright play the “other couple”, the Bellicecs. W.D. Richter’s screenplay follows the ’56 story fairly closely (good for fans of IBS56), but adds some 70s flavor and fills a few plot holes from the original. The setting is downtown San Francisco and the Haight-Ashbury suburb, not the small town of Santa Mira.

Quick Plot Synopsis
From a distant planet, transparent balloon-like “spores” rise up into space. A “solar wind” blows them past several planets until they come to Earth. They fall with the rain and take root on plants around San Francisco. Elizabeth picks on of the odd little pods with a pink flower and brings it home. When she wakes up, her boyfriend has changed. She follows him as he meets with many strangers. She tells her boss, Matthew. He suggests she talk to a friend, Dr. Kibner, a pop-psychologist. En route to a book signing party, a man runs up to the car raving about how “they” are coming to get them. He runs away and his hit by a car. The police have no record of the event. At the party, Kibner poo-poohs reports of people changing. At Jack and Nancy’s mud bath spa, they find a partially developed pod person. It begins to resemble Jack. There is much freaking out. When the police come, there is no body. Kibner, who is a pod-person by now, tells them all to go to Matthew’s and get some rest. They all nod off. Pods disgorge copies of the four. Nancy wakes everyone on in time. They flee, after Matthew hacks up his pod-copy. As the crowd and authorities gain on them, Jack and Nancy split off to draw them away. Matthew and Elizabeth sneak up to his office. From there, they can see lines of people getting pods from trucks, and pods being loaded onto trucks. They realize that they must stay awake, so take several “speed” pills. They evade some searches, but are found by Kibner, pod-Jack and Geoffrey. Kibner gives them injections of a sedative to make them sleep. After a bit of monologuing about spores coming from a dying world and how being a pod is a good thing, Matthew fights back. He and Elizabeth escape and pretend to be pod-people. A dog with a man’s face makes Elizabeth scream, so the crowd shriek the awful pod shriek and purse them. They escape in the back of a truck. The truck brings them to a pod-growing factory. They hide in the tall grass outside. Elizabeth cannot stay awake any longer. While Matthew holds her close to him, her body crumbles away. Naked pod-Elizabeth stands up in the grass. Matthew runs into the factory and starts chopping down light fixtures. This starts fires on the pod-growing floor. Pod-Liz spots him, points and pod-shrieks. A chase ensues. Fade to black. Fade in to Matthew and Elizabeth working in the office in stoic fashion. At quitting time, all the pod-employees walk out. While Matthew walks in a bleak courtyard of city hall. Nancy calls to him. She has evaded pod-ification all this time. Matthew points at her and shrieks the awful pod-shriek. Zoom in to black. Roll silent credits. The End.

Why is this movie fun?
The script of IBS78 follows that of IBS56, so much of the original tension and suspense of the original still works. The pod-shriek is effective (and chilling). The actors do a fine job with their roles. Sutherland and Adams make a sympathetic couple. Veronica Cartwright’s Nancy is a fun character and very 70s. The many little visual touches add to the experience.

Cultural Connection
Boomer Bogeyman — The original film was released amid great angst over communism and/or its opposite, McCarthyism. Loss of the “American Way of Life”, small town charm, apple pie, love, laughter, etc. were what the adults of the “Greatest Generation” and young adults of the “Silent Generation” worried about. For them, IBS56 captured their fears of losing the America they knew — the intimacy and friendliness of small town Americana. Fast forward to 1978, and communist infiltrators and loss of small-town charm were not big concerns. The audiences in 1978 were the Baby Boomers. They grew up with a more urbane mindset, hence setting IBS78 in San Francisco, Haight-Ashbury and the whole “summer of love” implications. They grew up through the 60s with the narcissism of youth. “Don’t trust anyone over 30.” Trouble was, the early Boomers were doing just that. For the flower children of free love and peace signs, the relentless march of time was turning them into middle-aged adults. For the Boomers, turning into boring adults was a terror to send them running and screaming.

Notes
Popular Pods — Finney’s 1954 novel has spawned four films directly, and influenced several. The 1956 version, starring Kevin McCarthy and Dana Winters is often considered the best. IBS78 is a very faithful remake of the ’56 version, using many of the same characters and names, though tweaked a bit. The 1993 version, Body Snatchers, uses the trope of pod-replacements, but in a new setting with new characters. The 2007 version, Invasion, uses yet other new characters and a new location. Each has its fans. Finney’s Pod People is a metaphor that resonates across several generations. Each generation (Gen X, Millenials, etc.) seems to have their own zeitgeist bogeyman.

Skewed Views — As a bit of visual art, director Phillip Kaufman gives the viewer many visuals to symbolize how “wrong” things look to the characters. Note Matthew’s broken windshield and the many views of the city through it. The world as they knew it was shattered. Note the odd “fun house” mirrors at the book signing party. The distorted reflections. People don’t look the same. Kaufman makes frequent use of the old standard tilted-camera, as well as several times people pass behind semi-transparent barriers (shower curtains, pebbled glass, etc.) such that you know someone is there, but they are undefined.

Filling Holes — IBS78 attempted to fill some of the plot holes from IBS56. How did they get there? IBS56 did not dwell much (at all) on how the pods got to earth, or what their intent was. They just were. IBS78 fixed that by more obviously showing the spores leaving a planet and coming to earth. Kibner’s small monologue about fleeing a dying world, adds a bit more, which Finney’s novel had, but IBS56 did not. What happened to the original bodies? IBS78 shows us that the originals crumble into small piles of rubble. Note the red trash trucks that appear after each pod-ification. Usually, small boxes or bundles are being tossed in. The rubble of the originals. In IBS56, the pod-ified all show up fully clothed, even though their semi-formed pod bodies are naked. That was the 50s and the Hayes Code. IBS78 “fixed” that by showing the audience a naked Elizabeth. Granted, it was also a very trendy thing in 70s film to include some frontal nudity — just because they could. But it did fill an old plot hole, AND it was far nicer to show a naked Brooke Adams than a naked Leonard Nimoy, for example.

Dour Ending — Finney’s novel had an upbeat ending. The aliens decide to abandon their invasion and leave Earth. This was in line with the 50s model — a scary fate, yet seeds of hope. Daniel Mainwaring’s script for the 1956 film changed that, such that the pods win. The studio is said to have urged that they change it to an upbeat ending. So, in the final film, Miles makes it to safety and tells his tale. Richter’s screenplay for IBS78 recreates the dour ending. The pods win. The 70s was much more comfortable wallowing in gloom and doom, so it was better accepted. And besides, all those Boomers were going to get older, no matter how much they fought it. They could not escape middle-age by running and hiding. Their youth was doomed too.

Adults Are Boring — The Geoffrey character is the most overt example of the underlying zeitgeist angst. (See Connections above) He encapsulates the “horrible” fate that the young, free-spirited characters fear — becoming a boring, responsible adult. Before being pod-ified, Geoffrey has tousled hair, likes to watch basketball games on TV, wears shorts and t-shirts, and is openly libidinous. After his change, his hair is combed neatly, he wears a 3-piece suit (trendy in the late 70s), shows no amorous interest in Elizabeth and watches clocks on television. CLOCKS. This latter part seems symbolic and telling — a kids’ view of what adults are like. Bor-ing.

Not Feelin’ the Love — Like in Orwell’s 1984, the main characters are rebels against The System, and fall in love. Both are “broken” by the system. Afterward, they see each other again, but are passionless towards each other. Kibner exposits that in the Pod People world, there is no hate, or love. People just have their jobs to do.

Fun Cameos — Just for fun, and a sense of homage to the original, Kevin McCarthy gets to be his original character, Dr. Miles Bennell in IBS78. He’s the frantic man who pounds on Matthew’s car windows telling him that “They” are coming and that “You’re next.” It's like he survived the first attempted invasion, only to be lost to the second. Also, look for Don Siegel, director of IBS56, playing the cab driver as Matthew and Elizabeth are trying to get to the airport.

Bottom line? IBS78 is a fairly faithful update/remake of the original. It keeps much of the sense of paranoia. Yes, it is ‘updated’ for a 70s audience. Some dislike this, others like it. Later re-remakes would have their detractors and fans too. Yet, even fans who prefer the ’56 original, are generally accepting of IBS78. Even people who are not fans of sci-fi should watch IBS(56 and 78). As a cultural metaphor, IBS is worth watching.

Saturday, July 5, 2014

Capricorn One

Peter Hyams wrote and directed Capricorn One (C1). It would be the big budget sci-fi movie for 1978. This, in stark contrast to the field of low-budget and marginal indie films that ’78 had seen thus far. The cast of C1 are recognized names in the 70s film world. James Brolin plays the lead as astronaut Charles Brubaker. Brenda Vaccaro plays his wife. Elliot Gould plays the persistent news reporter. Hal Holbrook plays the middle man between the astronauts and the sinister plot. C1 was a major studio effort, and did okay, but a bit “old school”. It became culturally overshadowed by Star Wars and the new-think of sci-fi.

Quick Plot Synopsis
With the usual techno-blather and ceremony, the three astronauts of Capricorn One are loaded into their capsule for man’s first manned mission to Mars. At T-minus-10 minutes, Flight Director Jim Kelloway ushers the men out of the capsule, and into a waiting Lear Jet. The rocket takes off without them. The three, Brubaker, Willis and Walker (OJ Simpson) are taken to an abandoned air base. They are told that the life support system for Capricorn One was faulty — the product of lowest-bid corporate corner cutting. They would have been dead in two weeks. But, if the mission was scrubbed, NASA would lose funding, so the mission will be faked. Jim shows them a sound state with a landing module on a fake Mars set. Jim asks them to cooperate for the good of the program, and hints that their families might die if they do not. They cooperate. They fake transmissions en route. Elliot, tech in Houston ,keeps noticing that the transmissions arrive too soon, like they’re only coming from 300 miles away, not millions of miles away. His observation is brushed aside by his bosses. Elliot starts to tell his reporter friend Robert about the odd vibes, but Elliot disappears without a trace. The landing is faked. Everyone applauds the success. In a homebound transmission, Brubaker gives his wife an insider hint by mistakenly saying they vacationed at Yosemite. Meanwhile, the re-entry is said to have failed and all three died instantly. Brubaker figures the new storyline out, and realizes that they will be killed to keep the secret. So, they escape in the Lear Jet. Trouble is, it had very little fuel. They belly land only a few dozen miles away, in the desert. Robert noticed Kay’s reaction to the Yosemite comment and asks her. She said they vacationed at Flat Rock — a western movie set, with comments about how ‘they’ can fake anything. Robert then realizes the mission was faked. Taking Elliot’s comment about 300 miles, he locates the only abandoned base in range. He finds evidence of the faking. Meanwhile, Brubaker, Willis and Walker have split up to go different directions. Jim sent a pair of killer helicopters to hunt them down. They find Walker first, then Willis. The helicopters locate Brubaker too, but Robert arrives in a crop-dusting plane her hired (Telly Savalas as the owner/pilot) They get Brubaker up on a wing and flee. The helicopters pursue. Through fancy flying, Telly evades the helicopters’ machine guns. He blinds them with crop dust. They crash into a cliff. At a grave-side memorial service for Brubaker, he and Robert drive up and run in slow motion as the astonished crowd turn to see. Freeze frame on happy Brubaker. The End.

Why is this movie fun?
Setting aside the tinfoil hat aspect, C1 is well written and well presented story. Hyams does an excellent job with the visuals. The aerial chase is quite captivating. The acting is quite good too — OJ being the exception.

Cultural Connection
Conspiracy Theories — Two books were published, one in 1974, another in 1976, claiming that the Apollo landings on the moon had been faked. In the wake of the failure in Vietnam and the Watergate Scandal, cultural trust in government was at an epic low. Other films in the 70s, such as The Andromeda Strain and The Resurrection of Zachary Taylor, explored the government conspiracy trope. The broad tar brush assumed that if the government lied about somethings, that everything they said was a lie too. As such, Hyam’s 1978 story about a faked mission — which looked a lot like an Apollo mission — found a willing audience and added fuel to the fake moon landing theories.

Notes
Dual Villains — The double villains in the story are the government (naturally), but also the corporate-industrial-complex that depends on government funding. The two together, in a sort of dark symbiosis, perpetuate a lie in order to keep the money flowing. The problem, as explained by Jim, is that the public (the real source of the money) loses interest in programs. Public tolerance for big budgets (and therefore big taxes) wanes. So, in a mixture of Bread and Circus and The Matrix, the industrial complex and the politicians fabricate popular lies. Sensitivity to this dual-villain-hood is alive and strong, even today — 40 years later.

Mechanical Bloodhounds — An excellent touch by Hyams is how he handles the two Hughes 500 helicopters sent to track down the three escaped astronauts. Note how Hyams has them turn to “face each other” periodically, as if they were living beings consulting each other. This makes them seem almost alive themselves, like mechanical bloodhounds, rather in the way Spielberg made the greasy tanker truck become the villain in Duel, and not so much the truck driver. In reality, the two choppers are dozens of yards apart and facing in opposite directions, but with the long lens and tight shot, they appear to be looking in each others’ eyes. It’s a very effective move.

Fake vs. Reality — Hyams’ script plays with the notion of illusion vs. truth, as the broader theme of the movie, but also in many little vignettes throughout. For example, Robert is (apparently) always using lie-stories to try to seduce Judy. She always rebuffs him as a fake. “Why don’t you just be honest?” she asks. She is more attracted when he is sincere (and not just out to seduce her). “You’re less obnoxious when you’re helpless.” Note how Robert and his editor keep seeing their reality as a reflection of old movies. Reality mimics the fake. The obvious one, is the Brubaker vacation to Flat Rock where they watched a western being filmed. “How something so fake could look so real. With that kind of technology, you could convince people of almost anything.” While this applies to C1 directly, it applies to all movies. The amusing irony being that C1 is also a movie. The faked landing conspiracy in C1 is, itself, a fake — and yet so hungrily believed (by some) to be truth.

Plane Crazy — Aircraft fans can relish the co-starring effect the two Hughes 500 helicopters get. The aerial dual with Albain’s red Stearman 75 is great fun to watch. The Learjet 24 gets good coverage too. Note how the director staged the shots for the belly landing. Lots of dust is kicked up, but the foreground sagebrush conceals that the gear is down for a regular landing. The budget would not support destroying a Learjet. For that matter, the two helicopters that crash into the cliff are models. No budget for blowing up real 500s either.

Plot Holes? — C1 has its critics, many of whom feel the plot had holes that should have been filled. These may be the sentiments of “completists” who prefer to have all details explained. Many supposed holes amount to disbelieving the sinister government could successfully keep such secrets. For example, the disappearance of Elliott. Surely someone else in the bar noticed Elliott being abducted while Robert was distracted with the poor-connection phone call? Not necessarily. A plain woman comes in and asks Elliott to help her start her car. He leaves with her. The ambush outside where no one would see. A nerd leaving with a plain woman would hardly noteworthy to other bar patrons. Robert did not ask around the bar, probably because he thought Elliott simply left on his own. Yes, a lot of people would have to be “in on” the conspiracy, but they do not all have to know everything. The woman who took over Elliott’s apartment, for instance, knows she has only been there a few days. She has been told to lie, perhaps with her family similarly threatened, but need not know why she has to lie.

Rushed Ending? — Some criticize the happy slo-mo ending as too rushed. Movie audiences like happy endings. Studios give them to them. Yes, there could have been a darker ending where the government won after all — like a sniper taking out Bru and Robert with the cover story of a terrorist look-alike intent to bring anguish to the poor widow, etc. etc. But as much as the 70s were rife with distrust of the government, the people still want to imagine that they “win” in the end. Hope is hardly a plot failing.

Bottom line? C1 is a must-see. Even people who do not care for sci-fi can appreciate the conspiracy-thriller aspect. C1 is very 70s film, oozing with 70s conspiracy mythos. The action is plentiful and the writing has wit. The acting is good (if sometimes a bit too ‘colorful’). C1 is worth hunting down.