The Day The Earth Stood Still (1951)
Director Robert Wise’s 1951 Science-Fiction opus The Day The Earth Stood Still has always been the granddaddy of the friendly alien invasion genre. While the more popular “mean alien” genre dominated Sci-Fi in the decade (The War of the Worlds, The Thing From Another World, Invasion of the Body Snatchers), the peaceful alien is usually less exciting and harder to pull off. It wasn’t really for another 20-something years that it was done as well again (Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Starman, E.T: The Extra-Terrestrial and even the ’78 version of Superman). Like the best of Sci-Fi, The Day The Earth Stood Still reflects the paranoia of the period (the Cold War, the atomic bomb). What makes it so much more than the usual hokum of the '50s is the high caliber talent behind it. It has a groundbreaking and influential score by the brilliant Bernard Herrmann. Director Wise (after editing Citizen Kane) helped invent the Noir Horror genre with The Curse of the Cat People (1944) and The Body Snatcher (1945). Afterward he did straight Noirs with films like The Set-Up (1949) and The House on Telegraph Hill (1951). Though The Day The Earth Stood Still has a black and white gloss to it, it also has shadows, lies, and typical Noir pessimism, making it maybe the first Noir Sci-Fi flick.
When a big flying saucer lands in Washington, DC, the handsome alien pilot Klaatu (Michael Rennie) emerges from it in peace but is shot by a jumpy soldier. In response, his big robot buddy Gort emerges and destroys all the weapons present with his head laser. After a debriefing by the military, Klaatu tells a White House official he has an important message for the leaders of the world. Instead he is pooh-poohed and locked up. He escapes and goes undercover as “Mr. Carpenter,” a dim-witted Earth nerd, taking a room in a boarding house to learn more about these strange Earth people. He hangs out with a science loving kid there named Bobby (Billy Gray) who gives him a walking tour of DC and a quickie lesson in Americanism. Bobby’s mom, Helen (the great Patricia Neal), works for Professor Jacob Barnhardt (played by Sam Jaffe), a math wiz, whom Klaatu eventually befriends and to whom he explains his intentions: Earth’s love of war and newly acquired atomic weapons have endangered the universe, and unless the powers that be dump their nukes, he will be forced to destroy the planet.Continue Reading
No Blade of Grass
For hardcore moviephiles the Warners Archive Collection has been a godsend. Instead of mass producing everything the company owns, many titles have been released as VOD (Video On Demand) and, because of the lower demand, these are titles that may not have otherwise ever seen the light of day. These are DVDs that include no extras and usually haven’t been remastered, but are still very watchable and often have never been available in any form in the home viewing marketplace. Titles range from Hollywood classics (Tea and Sympathy) to both live action (Sheena) and animated television series (Pac Man the TV show!). But where they have really excelled is in films from the golden period of the '60s and '70s that have never had much home viewing distribution, ranging from the great (Dark of the Sun), the bad (Doc Savage: The Man of Bronze), and the weird (Brewster McCloud) to the culty (You’re a Big Boy Now), the gritty (The Outfit), and the forgotten hits (Freebie and the Bean, The Fish that Saved Pittsburg). Many of these have been films I saw and even obsessed over as a kid (I was dreaming for the Dark Of The Sun release). Most excitingly I’ve finally been given a chance to catch up with a post-apocalypse flick I vaguely remember from an old grainy bootleg VHS copy I saw many years ago. (My memories of No Blade of Grass have haunted me). This most recent viewing reconfirmed the scary power this movie still carries.
Hungarian born Cornel Wilde was a long time pretty boy jock actor. He got an Oscar nomination early in his career for playing Frederic Chopin in A Song to Remember in 1945, but besides a nice supporting turn in The Greatest Show On Earth most of his career was awash in B-swashbuckling adventure flicks. He had dabbled in directing throughout the '50s but it wasn’t until 1965 when he fully connected the dots with his survival action masterpiece, The Naked Prey (a film that has gotten the full bells and whistles treatment from the high-end DVD distributors Criterion). Five years later No Blade of Grass, continues on much of those same themes of man vs. his savage impulses, going even further with the violence and throwing in deeper groovy environmental paranoia.Continue Reading
In a bleak, warless future society that stylistically looks a lot like the 1970s, corporations have taken over for governments. But without war the people are still bloodthirsty so they get their kicks from a sport called rollerball, a male version of roller derby, but way more violent and even deadly. Besides guys zipping around a track on roller skates, punching each other out, there are motorcycles too. Worrying that a player can get too popular, corporate head honcho Bartholomew (John Houseman) informs Houston’s star player, the he-man Jonathan E. (played by he-man actor James Caan, a couple years after The Godfather made him a big star), that he needs to retire, but Jonathan E. plays by his own rules and will do what it takes to not be a lackey for the man.
Rollerball director Norman Jewison had a long and respected career moving easily between comedy (The Russians Are Coming, The Russians Are Coming), social drama (In the Heat of the Night) and even musicals (Jesus Christ Superstar), but his work usually had a liberal take to it (A Soldier's Story, ...And Justice for All) and though he was no stranger to straight entertainment (The Thomas Crown Affair) he must have looked a little miscast as a sci-fi action director. Luckily the action is well shot and the rollerball game sequences are still amazingly exciting, but there are only a couple of those games so, at over two hours long, there’s a lot of exposition in between. As a kid, all the talk was boring and confusing, but now I can appreciate what Jewison was driving at. There is definitely a rebellious anti-corporate spirit at work here and a prophetic vision of corporate dominance over sports and everyday life to come.
The Running Man
It’s fairly fascinating to read the opening title crawl at the beginning of The Running Man and learn what the state of the world is like in the not-too-distant future. Here’s a portion of it: “By 2017 the world economy has collapsed. Food, natural resources, and oil are in short supply. A police state, divided into paramilitary zones, rules with an iron hand. Television is controlled by the state and a sadistic game show called The Running Man has become the most popular program in history. All art, music, and communications are censored.” Sheesh, for something that’s supposed to happen in about 5 years, it’s not too far off!
We are then introduced to the film’s star, Arnold Schwarzenegger, who plays Ben Richards, a good police officer on a routine helicopter patrol hovering over the streets of Bakersfield where dozens of civilians are in search of food and shelter. He’s ordered by his superiors to open fire on the unarmed crowd and when he refuses, he’s knocked out by his crew and framed for the murder of hundreds of innocents and nicknamed by the press “the Butcher of Bakersfield.” 18 months have passed with Ben incarcerated and after meticulous planning, he teams up with two fellow inmates, Laughlin (Yaphet Kotto) and Weiss (Marvin McIntyre), and makes a daring daylight jailbreak. Ben doesn’t seem to care about clearing his name or Weiss’s plans to meet up with the underground resistance, who plan to take control of the satellite feed that’s been broadcasting propaganda television for years to show the world the truth about what’s been going on with our government. Instead Ben just wants to hook up with his brother and escape out of the States.
In the world of science fiction films Douglas Trumbull is quietly a hall of famer. His special photographic effects for Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey would set the standard for outer space visuals for years to come (and I, for one, still find the models more effective than CGI). As a visual effects pioneer, Trumbull would also go on to lend his expertise on films ranging from Close Encounters of the Third Kind, The Towering Inferno, Star Trek: The Motion Picture, Blade Runner, and, most recently, Tree of Life. As a director himself, he helmed two movies including Brainstorm in 1983, an interesting thriller about memory science, remembered mainly as Natalie Wood's last film, and then, most importantly, the first film he directed: Silent Running, a sorta cerebral sci-fi environmentalist saga that has been a major influence on all the subsequent films of the genre.
After all plant life has been destroyed on Earth, scientist and gardener Freeman Lowell (Bruce Dern) works aboard a giant space freighter called Valley Forge with greenhouse domes attached that hovers in space near Saturn, housing both extinct plant life and animals. The idea is that one day these space plant abodes will be able to return to Earth and repopulate its fauna. Lowell is the Adam of this wildlife Eden, aided by his three cute little robots: Huey, Dewey, and Louie, while his yahoo human shipmates (played by Ron Rifkin, Cliff Potts and Jesse Vint) get drunk and android around on their space go-carts with no sensitivity to what he is trying to cultivate.
Shockingly, Earth's powers that be give ord...
Rise of the Planet of the Apes
When the legacy of a film that you a feel deep affection for is messed with the knee-jerk reaction can be negative; every once in a while a remake can be respected (Dawn of the Dead) or a sequel can outdo the original (The Road Warrior, Aliens) but most sequels and remakes are strictly quick buck affairs. So there’s no point in getting snotty about Rise of the Planet of the Apes; it’s a big, fun, flawed but intelligent reimagining of the series. It’s the best Apes flick since the original film, Planet of the Apes in 1968, one of my all-time favorite movies. The legacy has already been contaminated; the quality of the four sequels (Beneath…, Escape from…, Conquest of…, and Battle for…) vary in quality. Both the live action and animated television series, based on the film, are amazingly boring. And Tim Burton’s ill-conceived remake was a dud. Frankly, fans of Pierre Boulle’s original book have the most to complain about as the ‘68 version’s screenwriters, Rod Serling and Michael Wilson, hit the bull’s-eye, but completely abandoned much of the novel’s concept. The rebooting of a stale series has done wonders in recent years for both Batman and James Bond; rebooting as opposed to remaking looks to be the new way to find new creative angles.
I Am Legend
Is it possible to love a movie and recommend it but still advise to turn it off just after the half-way mark? The history of films with great Act Ones and maybe even Act Twos that then fall apart by Act Three constitutes a long list (Mulholland Dr., From Dusk Till Dawn, Full Metal Jacket, etc.). I Am Legend may be the most extreme case. It has a pretty spectacular first half that’s suspenseful, exciting, but by that last act things go terribly astray. Based on the classic novelette by the great writer Richard Matheson, it had been filmed twice earlier— first in the ‘60s as a dull low-budget Vincent Price flick called The Last Man on Earth and then the culty Charlton Heston early ‘70s vehicle re-titled The Omega Man. I don’t remember ever making it all the way through the Price version, but the beloved Heston flick had the same problem as the newest take; though the whole of the ‘70s film is so goofy that the plot twist in the second half is less abrupt and problematic than in the newer more “realistic” version, they both have great set-ups that couldn’t carry through to the end.
The new version opens with a TV broadcasting a news show; Doctor Krippin (an uncredited Emma Thompson) declares they have engineered a virus that will cure cancer. Cut: it’s three years later and an abandoned Manhattan looks straight out of the History Channel’s Life After People; nature has taken it back with plant growth covering Times Square and wild animals now living freely on the island (using both CGI and actual redressed New York locations). Robert Neville (Will Smith) seems to be the last man alive; he speeds around Manhattan with his dog Sam (or Samantha), hunting elk, losing out on his latest prey to a pack of lions. Neville was a military scientist and had worked with the team that invented the miracle drug that eventually wiped out civilization. Though he is immune, he looks for a cure by testing lab rats in the basement lab of his Washington Square brownstone, when he’s not hitting golf balls off a aircraft carrier and broadcasting his daily radio plea for any survivors to come find him.
The Day of the Triffids
Though not in the same league with John Wyndham’s brilliant sci-fi novel that it’s based on, the low budget 1962 film version of The Day of the Triffids is still a heady piece of post-apocalyptic entertainment and still one of the best and most influential end-of-the-world films ever. A more faithful to the book version was made for BBC TV in 1981 and it’s also essential “survivor movie” viewing. (A more recent TV version in 2009 was terribly disappointing.) But while this first on-screen edition may veer from the book, it was a landmark in British B-movie sci-fi and in a lot of ways it still packs a wallop.
With all of London excited about watching an astounding meteor shower outside, American merchant seaman, Bill Masen (Howard Keel) is stuck in a hospital bed with his eyes bandaged after surgery. The next day he awakens to find that the hospital staff and then the entire town are now blind (everyone who watched the sky that night at least). If having to navigate among the desperately blind isn’t apocalyptic enough, it seems a deadly plant known as a Triffid is also on the loose—these are walking shrubs that shoot a poisonous stinger at their victims and if that’s not bad enough they have the ability to verbally communicate with each other. Eventually Bill comes across a little girl (Janina Faye) who can see and the two have to fight their way out of England and make it to France. Once there they help a group of blind women, including a pretty love interest (Nicole Maurey), while trying to escape a group of violent convicts as they head for Spain.
Long before writing the novel Jurassic Park, Michael Crichton created another futuristic amusement park where everything goes wrong. Directing his first feature, Westworld, the result is much more credible than the later Spielberg directed flick. Closer to the vibe of cult-television show, The Wild, Wild West, than the Gene Autry serial Phantom Empire, Crichton’s film may be the best science-fiction / western Hollywood has ever produced.
A new high tech adult playland offers vacationers the choice between Medievalworld, Romanworld or Westworld. Vacationers get to enjoy exotic pleasures both in danger and even sexual, interacting with perfectly human looking androids. Peter Martin (Richard Benjamin) and his much cooler pal John Blane (James Brolin) opt for Westworld. It’s an Old West experience straight out of Bonanza, with saloon fights, shootouts, and robot brothels (though the guys are usually left to wonder if that was a human or a droid). The cowardly Martin has a run in with a gunfighter of few words, likely a droid, played by the famously shaved headed Russian tough guy Yul Brynner (wearing his same cool black outfit from The Magnificent Seven), killing him gives Martin some new found bravado.Continue Reading
The Omega Man
In The Omega Man, as Robert Neville, Charlton Heston drives around an abandoned Los Angeles in his convertible. He steps into a torn out department store and grabs a new track suit; he gets the generator working on an old movie theater and watches Woodstock; then he chats and plays chess against a bust of Caesar. Spotting some hooded figures in the darkness, he pulls out his machine gun and opens fire, killing them - you see, as the poster proclaimed, “The last man alive…is not alone!”
Before The Omega Man, Richard Matheson’s brilliant 1954 post-apocalyptic mini-novel, I Am Legend, was adapted into a Vincent Price snoozer called The Last Man On Earth. More recently the book was the source for a Will Smith vehicle that kept the title but went overboard with the CGI (a fantastic first half, it loses its way by the third act). Though it may be closer in spirit to Matheson’s book than The Omega Man, for pure fun the Heston version is the most entertaining of the three.Continue Reading