Saturday, June 26, 2010

The Magic of Ray Harryhausen

Before the days of CGI animation, if a director needed a monster, he was left with two choices: Either dress someone (or something) up in a suit or use 3-D stop motion animation. In many cases, like when the monster has lots of moving parts, the first option is not workable, and for a generation no one had mastered the second option better than Ray Harryhausen. Anyone who loves vintage sci-fi will recognize the contribution he made to the field and so he really needs a write-up here.

Ray got his inspiration from watching the original King Kong in 1933, which featured the animated ape himself along with several prehistoric creatures. The stop motion animation scenes were done by Willis O'Brien. Harryhausen eventually met O'Brien who became his mentor and friend, launching him into the film business by working several films together in the 1950's. He then carried the torch for a few decades more.

My first look at his work was trailers for the Sinbad movies in the 70's and I was hooked. I later saw Jason and the Argonauts on TV (thanks to my Dad) and it became for me the one film I always associated with Ray's work. Talos, Harpies, the Hydra, etc. It didn't matter that the stop motion animation was obvious - the look of the characters themselves (which Ray created himself) combined with the way they interacted with the live action was quite enough to leave an impression on my memory. The skeleton army battle is, I believe, still unparalleled. Add to that the rich story lines of Greek mythology and you have the making of a classic.

Below is a list of some films that Ray Harryhausen contributed to that have at least some connection to science fiction. I'm only including the ones that I've seen so far so I can say a few words on each film, but I will also try to include video of some of the stop motion scenes. I think most of these would be considered "B" material today.

20 Million Miles to Earth (1957) - There's not much to this story. A kid finds a space egg (from a crashed rocket returning from Venus) that hatches a monster which rapidly grows into a giant and terrorizes the town. Actually, it's more a monster film than science fiction. (With blogger's new video policy I could only get this sample clip)

First Men in the Moon (1964) - This one was based on an H.G. Wells story and it has a real science fiction feel to it. In fact, Nigel Kneale was involved in the screenplay. It has a playful side as we watch the typical trio (scientist, hero, and lady) travel to the moon with some anti-gravity device and find a giant bug-like civilization living underground. When I watched it in recent years, I knew I had seen it with my father as a kid because I remembered the animated characters. I would actually recommend this one to fans. It begins in a kind of lighthearted fashion and then gets downright scary (at least that's the intent). I think the trailer says it all:

One Million Years B.C. (1966) - This one is famous first for showing hours of Rachel Welch in a toga. It's supposed to depict life in cave man times, but it is quite comical because the cave people act like modern actors who want to say their lines but just can't talk. But I had to include it because it has some of the best Harryhausen dinosaur fights on film. The one below is a classic example. The shots from the perspective of the humans watching from below probably inspired Steven Spielberg during the making of Jurassic Park.

The Valley of Gwangi (1969) - I discovered this one late and I think it has some merit. In some ways it parallels the King Kong story. There is a valley in Mexico known to be forbidden by the locals although they don't know why. An expedition group finds it is a lost dinosaur haven and go in to bring back an Allosaur. They succeed but, as the locals had warned, it comes back to bite them literally as the dinosaur escapes into the city. A neat aspect of the film is it represents a crossing of two eras. It runs like an old Mexican Western with cow ranchers, horses, and rodeos, while at the same time being a traditional monster film. A great illustration of this is the landmark scene of the ranchers roping the Allosaurus like it was a wild bull! Ray later said the matching of the real ropes to the animated ones was difficult to achieve. The film also has a neat scene of the dino roaming it's way through an old Cathedral. (With blogger's new video policy I can only show the trailer below).

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Logan's Run

Of all the sci-fi films I watched with my Dad growing up, I remember he had a particular fondness for Logan's Run. That is not uncommon as many consider it a classic of the genre. Although it was loosely based on a book written in the 60's, it departs dramatically from it, and from what I've read, it appears this is a rare case where the film is better than the novel that inspired it. Some of the most powerful story elements were created just for the film.

The influence of the 60's pop culture is certainly there. Here was a society run by machines where sex and drugs were always available and no one was allowed to live past the age of 30. That last inconvenient detail was enforced by promoting a belief in reincarnation and executing people publicly in circus ring ceremonies called carousel while the crowd cries "Renew! Renew!". It had been designed as a means of population control, a problem which had contributed to the earth's demise. The whole concept both fascinated and gave me the creeps as a kid, which was kind of the point I guess.

In any society that depends on faith, there will be unbelievers. Such people would try to escape carousel and were therefore called runners. They were policed by Sandmen who would basically hunt them down and kill them (or put them to "sleep", thus the name). A crystal of sorts was embedded into a person's hand at birth which would start blinking on your 30th birthday. Logan was a Sandman whose crystal, due to a malfunction, starts blinking 4 years ahead of schedule, so he decides to be the first Sandman to run. His Sandman buddies now have to chase him. He meets up with a woman named Jessica who helps him connect up with a group of underground rebels seeking a place called Sanctuary, and the adventure takes off from there as they make discoveries about their world and ultimately go back to free the inhabitants of the dome city. The way the entire story is told is somehow quite compelling.

This is one of those films that is fun to re-watch because of its visuals. The costumes and sets are very well designed and effectively transport you to another time and place. In fact, you'll probably see here a very good example of how people in the 60's envisioned the future, which because of the artistic openness at the time is quite wild. For those who remember, you will notice some similarities with the original World of Tomorrow at Disneyland which was built around that time. Many people also comment favorably on the musical score by Jerry Goldsmith, a fixture in movie land who also wrote the theme songs for Star Trek: TNG and Voyager, and the score for the original Alien (among numerous other works). I have to agree there. The score is very unique, a mixture of synthesized digital sounds and sweeping orchestrated themes.

I have to mention one of my favorite characters, the silvery robot named Box (shown right), who only appears briefly and is voiced by the rich tones of Roscoe Lee Browne - "Fish, plankton, and seagreens, and protein from the sea!". You can view that (somewhat edited) sequence here. And for anyone interested, there's an early cameo by Farrah Fawcett (she wasn't a Major then ;).

Probably its weakest part is the "truck" ending where everything blows up and everyone escapes. No mention of how the population is supposed to survive on their own after being weaned for generations. It all seemed so rushed that perhaps the editors were pressured to keep the running length reasonable. If that's true, they should have cut out much of the encounter with the silly old man and spent more time on the conclusion. But that's just my opinion. The truth is that the ending is somewhat incidental since the real story is the journey that the two main characters make as they try to reach Sanctuary.

Monday, June 21, 2010

In Memory of Michael Crichton

As an author, Michael Crichton is an interesting case study. He is often associated with science fiction, yet many of his works are in other areas such as medicine, politics, history, etc. It's probably better to characterize much of his work as modern thrillers. He'll take some topic of interest, research it, and then create a perilous yet often plausible "what-if" scenario to write about. His stories will often incorporate interesting and thoughtful expositions of the topic in question, however, he never goes too deep into it. The information is just enough to convince the reader that the postulated scenario is believable, and then he proceeds to craft a drama or thriller around it. His narrative style is quite visual, especially the later works, in a way that often reminds me of a movie script, and I've often wondered if he does this intentionally in order to promote adaptation to film. If so, it has worked as most of his novels have made it to the screen and he eventually was able to get involved in the production of both film and TV adaptations.

If someone were to ask me my opinion as to Crichton's best literary work, I would name an early novel that was, surprisingly, not science related. The Great Train Robbery (not to be confused with the classic 1903 silent film of the same name) is about how a small group of criminals accomplished an impossible train heist in Victorian England. I myself was surprised when I first ran across this work of his and I think any Crichton fan should read it. A movie was made from the book in 1979 that accurately portrayed the storyline, but what makes the book so enjoyable is all the characteristic commentary that he interjects regarding what life was like in London in the 19th century. Having done extensive research, the book is not only entertaining but colorfully enriching.

Michael Crichton passed away a few years ago in November 2008. I thought it would be nice to dedicate an entry here to record the books of his that I've read with a short description of the most poignant aspect of each one. These represent only the novels, as they contain so much more than what eventually gets to the theaters, but the links take you to the films.

(It's a short list for now...)

The Great Train Robbery - See decription above.

The Andromeda Strain - See link.

Jurassic Park - Although the main concept was cloning of ancient DNA, what many do not know is that the book weaves in a strong connection with chaos theory. This is only hinted at in the film via the mathemetician Ian Malcolm. There's even a fractal construction at the start of each chapter that is thrown in to symbolize the progression of complexity in the story.

Sphere - This is an odd little story that involves mysterious mental capacities encountered in a deep sea lab while studying a mysterious sunken spacecraft. Not one of his best works, I was surprised to see it later turned into a film with some big name stars in it. I think he was channeling Forbidden Planet a bit, making a connection between the deep sea and the depths of the human subconscious.

Friday, June 18, 2010

The Andromeda Strain

If you were to ask me my opinion on Michael Crichton's best science fiction work, that would have to be his first major novel, The Andromeda Strain. I watched the original 1971 film adaptation with my father in grade school. It was a decent telling of the story in a day when Hollywood was less afraid to portray scientific research as it truly is - days of tedium puctuated by occasional bouts of discovery. This made it difficult for me sit through at that age, and yet it seemed intriguing. I later read the novel as an adult and found, like most of Crichton's books, that it was much more interesting on paper than on film. His style is to do real research on a topic and then interweave these interesting side bars into the story, almost like short lectures.

The movie is now part of my collection and it is still a classic even without the commentary from the novel. This story stands out among others as one almost completely free of sensationalism and pseudo-science. If we were ever to encounter extra-terrestrial life, the most probable form it would take would be the simplist possible life form. On earth, the simplest life consists of all the little microscopic things that quite often make us get sick and sometimes die. How well could our immune systems, that have been trained to recognize terrestrial microbes, be prepared to deal with one from outer space? Perhaps a life form so different from our biology that it might take years to figure out how to fight it? This is exactly the situation posited by the story. If anything comes across as far-fetched it is that the government had actually thought through this scenario in such detail that an entire underground lab was already ready to go. But when you consider the book was written at the height of the American space program, when not much was known about space, we can be forgiving because NASA had lots of funding at that time and would throw all the best scientists into a problem or project with great resources at their disposal. This makes the underground facility at least plausible for the time period. One highlight of the book is the explanations of all the quite reasonable thinking that went into the design and planning of the research center. It's chock full of background story with details that at first seem counter-intuitive but turn out to make complete logical sense, even today. It's wonderful reading.

Probably the biggest weakness in the book is some clumsiness in the climax, which centers around the expected "outbreak" situation where the lab is contaminated and the entire thing is rigged to nuke itself into oblivion in such a scenario. The conclusion contains a nice anti-climactic twist, so I think the nukes were added in to give the story some added drama. On that count, the film actually handles it better, and maybe that's just because high drama and tension work better in real time. But it is so predictable that it doesn't seem to add much to the story.

Here is a link to the original trailer which provides a good window into the film:

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

We Are Not Alone

Steven Spielberg has directed a lot of films, including several of the science fiction persuasion, but the only sci-fi film that he both directed and wrote himself turned out to be arguably his best of the genre. Close Encounters of the Third Kind was released shortly after Star Wars in 1977. Although they were both about aliens and space, the two films could not have been more different. While Star Wars was a traditional heroes and villians adventure story set in another place and time, Encounters was a real life drama set squarely on present day planet earth. Star Wars was fun, Encounters was mysterious and awe-inspiring. Each film sought to achieve very different ends.

I consider CE3K (as it is known in some circles) to be one of the few classic sci-fi films of my own generation. There are so many good things to say about it. First, the story is introduced with an interweaving of mini-scenes that are designed primarily to feed a sense of anticipation that something amazing is happening. This is done very skillfully and its novelty at the time is less appreciated today because it has been borrowed so much since. As I recall, it was the first time I saw the use of the subtitled time and place data at the start of each scene as a dramatic mechanism. The acting is quite good, especially the interactions among Roy Neary's family members. What is striking about that thread is its depiction of a dysfunctional American family on the brink of divorce that seems so on target that it's as if Spielberg is channeling his own childhood (his own parents divorced when he was young). You rarely see that type of honesty in a major film production, but I do believe it was more common in the 60's and 70's. There is a lot of great cinematography, both in the landscapes and the glowing space ships that are placed upon them. The special effects still hold up today. And it had a great musical score as well that accented the other-worldly feel throughout. The orchestrated main title really illustrates this. And thanks to the time period, there was also a great disco version floating around, much better than the Meco track. It was hard to find but I located it here on youtube.

Close Encounters had a much deeper effect on my young imagination than any other film. Even though I don't believe we've been visited by aliens, it certainly was meant to tap into that belief held by surprisingly many people. But I was definitely caught up in the idea of it all and the "little guy caught in a big event" feeling conveyed by the film. I still remember many vivid dreams that were inspired by scenes like the gathering of witnesses on the night highway looking out over the city lights as they blacked out, while the alien lights in the sky escaped into the clouds above and then all goes quiet.
As an L.A. resident, I'd spent many weekends admiring the city lights from the mountains so that really hit home. Or the famous abduction scene of the little boy taken in the night from a little country house in the middle of a wide open farmland, or Dillon and Dreyfuss crazily trying to scale a mountain as military helicopters search them out overhead and dusk sets in.

The film is also unique in that although the government (in this case the United Nations) is involved and trying to keep it all from the public eye, you are allowed to go on the journey of discovery with the top officials in parallel with the main characters. You realize they are trying to solve the same puzzle and reacting to it with the same sense of wonder as anyone would, just with better resources at their disposal. You are at first led to believe hints that the aliens and the governments are antagonists, when in fact they are not. The only antagonist is doubt, as the characters fight all manner of obstacles trying to keep them from following their intuitions, their "faith" so to speak. As corny as that sounds, somehow the drama plays out convincingly, and I would have to say surprisingly that the climax, which amounts to revelation, is visually stunning but nowhere near as emotionally powerful as all the anticipation that led up to it. The attraction to this film for me is not so much in the story but in the child-like wonder that it is able to evoke even in the adult mind.

Monday, June 14, 2010

Land of the Lost

I had an interest in dinosaurs way back in Kindergarten. While the teachers were having us read "Run, Spot, Run", I was reading dinosaur picture books and learning the names - Brontosaurus, Stegasaurus, Triceratops, Trachodon, Ankylosaurus, Dimetrodon, Allosaurus, and of course, Tyranosaurus Rex. In fact, I even loved looking at my Dad's natural history books that had lots of great dino pictures even though I could not read the text. Nowadays kids know these things better, but back then I was quite alone among my peers.

So I was naturally thrilled when, just before entering third grade, I heard about a new show to be aired featuring live action dinosaurs (well, claymation and puppetry actually), the first of its kind for kids. The show was called Land of the Lost about a father and his two kids who fall through a portal that lands them in a strange world. The show revolves mainly around them surviving and trying to get home. I got more than I bargained for as the show had more than just dinos, but a whole set of strange and interesting creatures and concepts. The idea was that the place collected things that were lost and dinos were there because no one knew why they went extinct. The claymation dinosaur battles were not bad for their time. One of my favorite concepts was the crystal system. The land had these obelisk structures called pylons which contained tables with an array of crystals. They were like the control centers of the place and had various mysterious properties. By touching these in various combinations, you could control various weather patterns and things. In fact, the crystals, which appeared naturally in the cave systems, had their own energy like properties. Touch a blue and a red together and get an explosion. Another combination might produce a force field, light flash, heat, electric shock, or battery power.

In an early episode, the family tries to escape by rafting down a perilous river, only to find that the river is an endless circular flow that never leaves the place. The series is filled with wonderful story ideas written by several authors. In fact, I recently discovered that the introduction of Enik, one of the more popular characters and a personal favorite, was in an episode (the only such one) written by Walter Koenig, the actor who plays Chekov in Star Trek. These stories were probably my first exposure to sci-fi as a kid.

One of the more surprising things about Land of the Lost is that it was created by Sid and Marty Krofft, a pair of guys who produced numerous popular live action puppetry kid shows at that time. All of their other offerings were modeled like sitcoms for kids, complete with goofy jokes, laugh tracks, and people dressed up in all sorts of silly costumes. These included Sigmund and the Sea Monsters, Lidsville, and H.R. Pufnstuf. Land of the Lost was their only project meant to be dead serious - no laugh tracks, no silly jokes. These characters were in real peril just about every episode.

Thanks to the internet, I am now the proud owner of the DVD set. After 35 years, I watched the entire first two seasons with glee (in the third season they replaced Spencer Milligan with an Uncle figure and it didn't quite measure up). Even though it was only my second viewing, I remembered the episodes vividly. Of course, my wife thought I was crazy. I never realized as a kid how bad the acting was and all that, so it's not something I would recommend to my friends, but I reckon it might still work for young kids today. And the silly movie spoof by Will Ferrell and company is probably only fully appreciated by those of us who knew it back then.

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Aeon Flux

Aeon Flux started its life as an animated series by Peter Chung that first aired on MTV. What it became as a film bears only superficial resemblance to that series, and for that I am grateful. In the series, Aeon dies at the end of each episode whereas the film has a happier ending. The series has an ambiguous and dreamlike narrative whereas the film has a coherent and original storyline. Normally those things would be liabilities, but read on. The most striking contrast is that the visual style of Chung's animation is morbid and grotesque, while the film is absolutely beautiful. The animated series has its own merits as a work of art, but the film, while borrowing concepts from the series, stands on its own for me as one of the more memorable recent sci-fi offerings.
There is a lot of creativity in Aeon Flux, and much of it is visual (hence, the numerous images shown). The movements of the assassins are choreographed like a ballet. The technology is organic in nature, making for some interesting and very original devices, weapons, and means of communication. I completely forgot to ask myself if any of it was believable or not because it was just so interesting and looked so good. Even the building architecture was chosen for its uniqueness. I have to admit I am a sucker for visuals. The only other film that gave me this sense of watching artwork was The Fountain. For me, it makes a movie highly re-watchable.

============= Spoilers Below =================

The story takes place in the future after most of mankind has been wiped out by a virus, and the only cure renders people infertile. The remaining population survives by a program, kept secret by the leadership, of successive cloning. This provides a great backdrop for the story which involves a power stuggle between those that are trying to get man back to making babies again and those that want to keep the status quo because they do not want to give up their power - and supposed immortality. To make matters worse, the cloning technology is degrading the DNA with each generation so time is running out. Then there is some added intrigue regarding Aeon's own past that leads to some nice love-hate interaction. It's a good story that naturally flows from the setting within which it is placed. Add to that the eye candy and neat technology ideas and you can understand its inclusion in my collection.

There was one nagging detail that got past my efforts at belief suspension, which was the idea that a clone could retain the memories of its original host. That's just silly. I also didn't think Frances McDormand with the frizzy hair worked well as the rebellion leader, but it was a treat to see Sophie Okonedo as an assassin right after her riveting dramatic performance in Hotel Ruwanda. Also, the final gun battle is gratuitous at best, but what a cool idea to place it in the middle of a cherry blossom orchard - like the old Japanese Samurai fights. Then again, the director Karen Kusama is Japanese.

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Planet of the Apes

One nice thing about films made in the 1960's is that they weren't afraid to tackle deep questions about the meaning of life and existence. It's even more remarkable to see this coming from a major film production. In 1968, Planet of the Apes was such a film. Although it had the usual action, adventure, and even romance you'd expect from a blockbuster, it also contained a heavy dose of philosophy about the nature of man, God, and evolution, and most of it came from the mouths of intelligent apes.

It is this contrast that struck me when I first saw the original film as a kid and I'm sure that was the aim of the directors - apes acting like university professors and humans acting like primitive animals. Turning the creation vs. evolution debate around by having the apes unwilling to believe they were descended from humans. It is this aspect of the film that gives it its timeless quality and places it squarely into classic sci-fi film history. And the famous revelation at the end is probably one of the few of its kind that actually worked. This is precisely because the film's plot and content stands on its own, making the final scene a powerful commentary on it rather than a central device (a la Soylent Green). I also must hand it to the actors who managed to convey wonderfully convincing performances despite the stiff plastic over their faces.

Planet of the Apes has never been on my favorites list, and aside from the few points I just made, there's not much more that stands out. Several sequels were made due to its popular appeal at the time, and some of them had merit, but on the whole I think the original film pretty much said it all. And the modern remake in 2001 by Tim Burton is wholly forgettable. Still, any science fiction anthology would be remiss to leave it out, so consider this entry a tribute to a classic, and forgive me for including the closing scene below.

Friday, June 4, 2010

Soylent Green

The movie Soylent Green came out in 1973 and is somewhat of an enigma. On the one hand, anyone who hears a synopsis of the plot might consider it to be a bit campy and even comical. An SNL skit at one point made some fully deserved fun of the closing cry of the film "Soylent green is people!", which sums up the solution to what starts as a murder investigation and encompasses the entire plot.

On the other hand, the ideas it dealt with and the way they were portrayed were way ahead of its time. It had an all star cast, with Charlton Heston in the lead role, and excellent direction considering the number of people involved in many of the scenes. But the images it presented were powerful enough that I remembered it long after watching it with my Dad as a kid. In a genre where ideas are key, it remains a significant contributor.

The movie deals primarily with the problem of overpopulation. It postulates a world where humans have either consumed or polluted most of the earth's natural resources. Animals are all but gone and what's left of agriculture is processed into little square packets by the Soylent corporation and rationed to the public. Only the rich can afford most of the items we take for granted, like liquor, soap, running water, fresh fruits and veggies, and most of all, space. Apartments are tiny and many people just sleep in the hallways of buildings after a strictly enforced curfew. Churches look like crisis centers filled with the sick and dying. Although not all the factors involved are revealed, the way the people simply accept the dirty, crowded conditions is quite haunting, as are the large tractors that come when food riots break out to literally scoop people off the street. Even books are rare as survival is the main concern of the population. The film's richness comes from the fact that almost every scene is filled with innuendo's that provide fascinating windows into this strange future. For example, we're treated to a first hand look at assisted suicide centers that allow the elderly to choose to die on their own terms in exchange for a full Disney style surround vision show of the most beautiful aspects of the world before it was destroyed by man. This is all played out without fanfare, no horrifying musical scores (except at the end), and no narration. In fact, there is a wonderful flash-forward sequence at the beginning to provide some sense of the stretch of time between today and this bleak future. It is done completely with a picture montage of real world images and music rather than narration as most directors might choose today. Of course, there is one thing I'd like to know - are the crowd control guards wearing football helmets to indicate the general economic hardship or because the film producers ran out of money?

So for a film that gets a lot of flack over its plot line, there is a lot there to make an impression and generate some meaningful discussion. Although it was loosely based on a book, many aspects of the story including the main plot idea were created in Hollywood, believe it or not. And there are a few wonderfully prescient elements here and there, like when Sol mentions the reason everything is so hot has to do with the Greenhouse effect (1973!). Another interesting tidbit is that Ed Robinson, the actor who played Sol, whose death in the film is quite central, died in reality in January of 1973, two weeks after finishing the film. There is also a nice cameo of Dick Van Patten and Star Trek fans will recognize the heavily accented voice of Celia Lovsky, who also played the Vulcan ambassador T'Pau in the episode Amok Time.

I used to have a free link for it, but now you have to pay to watch on youtube at this link. At least you can see the trailer for free.