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Batman advisory: There is no alley in Crime Alley!

This is a repost/edit of comments I made on Tor.com, in response to a YouTube supercut which purports to depict every screen depiction of the murder of Bruce Wayne’s parents, although it omits the recent flashback version from Beware the Batman‘s episode “Monsters” and the dream-sequence alternate version from Justice League Unlimited‘s “For the Man Who Has Everything” (which is not a depiction of the actual murder, but is the closest the DC Animated Universe ever got to showing it, since Batman: The Animated Series was made under severe censorship and could never do more than symbolically allude to the event).

One thing that virtually all these screen adaptations have in common (albeit something that was pointed out to me on another site recently but that I think is worth passing along): They make the mistake of interpreting “Crime Alley” as an actual alley, of the sort that a rich couple would have no conceivable reason to take their child into at night. In fact, when Crime Alley was introduced in 1976 in Detective Comics #457 by Denny O’Neil and Dick Giordano, it was introduced thusly:

Twenty-one years ago, this neighborhood was the dwelling place of the rich and soon-to-be rich… a place of gourmet restaurants and fashionable theaters… of elegant women and suave men…

But the dry rot of time set in, and the laughter stopped and the lights dimmed, and those elegant women and suave men sought their pleasures elsewhere… and now, only the forlorn and the desperate walk these streets…

For one night, two brutal slayings occurred signaling the beginning of the end… The area known as Park Row acquired a new name — Crime Alley… and –

“THERE IS NO HOPE IN CRIME ALLEY!”

(That last being the story title. All ellipses are from the original text — I’ve deleted nothing.)

So “Crime Alley” is just a nickname for the street/neighborhood — it’s not a literal alley. The artwork shows that the spot where the killings occurred — or the spot where Batman stops a mugging and gets inordinately angry at the mugger for daring to draw a gun on him there, on the exact spot and anniversary of his parents’ murder — as the sidewalk in front of a row of brownstones, just a couple of doors down from the movie theater (which has become a porno theater in the story’s present day).

Before that, in the original 1939 depiction of Batman’s origin and later in 1948’s “The Origin of Batman,” the murder occurred on a street corner right under a streetlight. So in the comics, it was consistently portrayed for decades as a crime that happened right out in the open, making it all the more shocking and brazen. In O’Neil’s version, the fact that such a brutal crime happens in an upscale neighborhood just adds to the shock, to the extent that it scars the reputation of Park Row forever and triggers its decline into a slum as the well-to-do residents flee. The tendency of TV and movies to put it in a literal back alley, the kind of place where you expect a crime to happen, detracts from that impact, and creates the impression that the Waynes were killed as much through their own carelessness as Joe Chill’s brazenness (of course you should never blame the victim, but the impression exists nonetheless).

The only accurate screen portrayal is in Batman: The Animated Series. “Appointment in Crime Alley” (by comics scribe Gerry Conway) portrays it just as O’Neil did, as the former Park Row, now become a slum neighborhood. The actual site of the murder is shown as a sidewalk under an elevated train track. A couple of dozen episodes later (and presumably a year later in story time, since they’re both on the anniversary), “I Am the Night” shows the same, but now the tracks are wider, the sidewalk under them looking darker and more enclosed, thus drifting farther from O’Neil’s intent.

But then there’s the hallucination sequence in “Dreams in Darkness” where Batman sees his parents in a surreal, twisted alley and they then walk into a tunnel that becomes the barrel of a giant revolver. And JLU’s “For the Man Who Has Everything,” supposedly set in the same universe, shows it in Bruce’s memory/dream as an alley directly across the street from the movie theater showing The Mark of Zorro. So that’s another one that gets it wrong. B:TAS is really the only screen adaptation that followed O’Neil’s intention behind the name “Crime Alley,” and yet it was inconsistent about it, and never actually got to show the murder.

Oh, and while we’re at it, how about that movie the Waynes were coming home from? In the 1939 version, it was just “a movie,” no title given. In 1948, it says merely that Bruce was “walking with his parents,” no movie mentioned. The movie was back again by “There is No Hope in Crime Alley” and by Len Wein and Jim Aparo’s 1980 storyline “The Untold Legend of the Batman,” which consolidated all the backstory established about the character up to that point; but still no title was given. The first time an actual movie was proposed, to the best of my knowledge, was in the very first screen portrayal of the murder, in the 1985 Super Powers Team: Galactic Guardians episode “The Fear” by Alan Burnett, which I’ve discussed before. In Burnett’s version, the movie was Robin Hood, perhaps meant to inspire Batman’s future choice of nickname for his sidekick. (Note that Burnett’s version also debuted the practice of portraying the murder site as a dark, scary alley, which suited the episode’s theme of Batman overcoming fear, but set an unfortunate precedent.) However, just a year later in Batman: The Dark Knight Returns, Frank Miller established the film as The Mark of Zorro, which is what most versions have used since then — the main exception being Batman Begins, which changed the movie to an opera, Mefistofele by Arrigo Boito (though it’s often mistakenly assumed to be Johann Strauss II’s Die Fledermaus — “The Bat” — because of the bat-costumed performers in the movie scene).

Since “The Fear” was the first version I saw, I assumed for a long time that the movie was supposed to be Robin Hood and that the Zorro version was a later retcon. Turns out the Robin Hood version was just a blip. It was no specific movie at all from 1939 to 1985, Robin Hood in 1985, and The Mark of Zorro from 1986 to the present, except once. Still, I’m partial to it,  not only because it was the first version I saw, but because it’s really hard to explain Robin’s nickname and costume any other way. Well, maybe Dick Grayson was the one who liked that movie while Batman was influenced more by Zorro. That would really make more sense, wouldn’t it?

So the moral of the story for film and TV producers is, when adapting a story, make sure to double-check the details. And the moral for comics and prose writers is, when naming a pivotal location in your story, avoid metaphorical names that film and TV producers might end up taking literally. We’re lucky we didn’t end up with a supercut of scenes where the Waynes are murdered while going bowling.

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Thoughts on Godzilla: Finishing the Showa Era (spoilers)

September 19, 2014 1 comment

Last time, I covered the beginning of the doldrums of the Godzilla franchise, a run of mediocre, half-hearted films whose only high points were the ambitious and epic Destroy All Monsters and the off-puttingly weird and experimental Godzilla vs. Hedorah. Following the negative reactions to the latter film, Godzilla vs. Gigan in 1972 brought back director Jun Fukuda and reverted to a more standard formula, using mostly established monsters aside from the title villain Gigan, a hook-armed, cyclopean cyborg kaiju with a buzzsaw in its thorax. The hero is a manga artist who’s hired by a theme park dominated by Godzilla Tower, an office building in the form of a life-sized Godzilla statue — but the people running the park have some ominous plans involving “absolute peace,” and the hero (along with his kickass martial-artist mother, my favorite character in the film) gets involved with the sister of another employee who’s gone missing (kidnapped by the bad guys for his scientific knowhow) and they investigate what turns out to be another alien invasion plot. There’s a bit of an attempt to echo Hedorah‘s ecological message, because the aliens (who are literally cockroaches disguised as humans) thrive in the hostile environments left over after civilizations have destroyed themselves with pollution. But they’re happy to hasten the process on Earth, with help from Gigan and King Ghidorah, who show up to trash Tokyo and, presumably, the rest of the world. At this point I had to wonder, how come literally all the alien invaders up to this point have had King Ghidorah working for them? Is he some kind of cosmic mercenary for hire?

Like Fukuda’s first Godzilla film, Ebirah, Horror of the Deep, this film keeps Godzilla mostly in reserve until the last half-hour, though we do get a few scenes of him on Monster Island, giving instructions to Anguirus, who’s apparently now his sidekick. There is actually a version where they converse in cartoon-style speech balloons, but the version on Hulu excludes those. However, YouTube has the relevant clips. Anguirus makes a half-hearted sortie onto Japan but is turned back by the Self-Defense Forces, and that’s the only kaiju action we get until Gigan and Ghidorah arrive and start smashing up the place. But once Godzilla and Anguirus finally show up, the tag-team battle rages pretty much nonstop for the last 30 minutes of the film, albeit with the occasional cutaways to the heroes as they escape from Godzilla Tower and get the military’s help in defeating the aliens so that the good kaiju can fight the bad kaiju without interference. It’s more effective action than we’ve seen since Destroy All Monsters, though it certainly helps that it’s tracked with stock Akira Ifukube music, which automatically makes the whole thing seem more stately and impressive, even with the Muppetish Godzilla of the later Shōwa films.

Fukuda’s next film, Godzilla vs. Megalon, is oddly difficult to find on DVD. Apparently there have been some release problems and delays making it less available. Netflix has the Mystery Science Theater 3000 version available for rental, but with a “Very long wait.” So this was the hardest film for me to track down and the reason this 2-part post has been delayed. I was almost on the verge of giving in and spending actual money for a copy, my completist urges almost trumping my cheapskate urges. But it finally occurred to me to check my library’s catalog for a VHS edition rather than a DVD, and lo and behold, they had one! A phone request and a car trip later, and I had it, costing me only 20 cents for the parking meter (plus the cost of the gas I used, I guess). Of course, being an old library tape, it was pretty worn and had major tracking problems, which may have undermined my enjoyment of the film.

Except there’s not much to enjoy. The title is somewhat misleading, because this isn’t really a Godzilla movie. It was originally meant as a solo debut for an Ultraman-type robot hero, Jet Jaguar, but it was decided to shoehorn Godzilla and Gigan into the story as an afterthought. Jet Jaguar — who has no feline attributes whatsoever — was invented by a guy called Goro, who’s the protagonist along with his friend Hiroshi and his young nephew Rokuro (who seems to be called “Roxa” in the English dub — probably an approximation of “Roku-san,” which is how a boy named Rokuro might be addressed in Japanese). JJ is hijacked by people from the Atlantis-like subterranean kingdom of Seatopia, which has been partly destroyed by underground nuclear testing by the surface nations. Seatopia is given a nebulous and plot-irrelevant link to the Easter Island statues, yet its inhabitants are played by Caucasian actors, which I suppose was meant to make them look exotic to the Japanese audience. Despite having been at peace for 3 million years (yes, million), they happen to have a daikaiju, Megalon — a beetle kaiju with drill hands — that they unleash to destroy the surface world without any prior attempt at diplomatic overtures, communication, or anything. At first, they use JJ to direct Megalon toward Tokyo, but Goro retakes control of the android with ridiculous ease, and at Rokuro’s suggestion, sends JJ to Monster Island to summon Godzilla’s aid. JJ conveys the message through semaphore, in which all the monsters in this movie are apparently fluent. But Godzilla takes most of the movie to swim from Monster Island to Japan while JJ tackles Megalon solo — somehow spontaneously “reprogramming” himself to become giant-sized.

As if that weren’t random enough, the Seatopians contact the aliens from the previous film and ask them to send Gigan to help Megalon defeat JJ. So… they have the means and the will to communicate with aliens from Nebula M, but can’t be bothered to phone up the White House and the Kremlin and say “Hey, guys, your nuke tests are trashing our kingdom”? Anyway, Gigan arrives for his encore and tag-teams JJ with Megalon, and then, about ten minutes before the end of the film, Godzilla finally shows up — initially battling Gigan so they can recycle stock footage from the last film, but finally trading partners with JJ so the film can just barely earn its title. The hero monsters beat up the villain monsters to the point that it just becomes petty, and finally Megalon flees back underground and that’s the end of it, with no attempt to address the unresolved conflict with Seatopia, beyond a cursory mention by Goro and Hiroshi of telling the scientists to be more careful with their bombs from now on.

All in all, Jet Jaguar vs. Megalon, Featuring Godzilla (there, I fixed the title) is a pretty desultory kaiju film, and shows how far Godzilla had decayed as a concept by this point. Godzilla is at his least scary and most anthropomorphic here, more a friendly, cuddly superhero and wrestling partner to JJ than a vast, terrifying monster. At one point, he even holds up his fingers in a V sign to JJ. Most of the rest of the film isn’t much better. It was shot in great haste and probably for very little money, and it shows. There really aren’t any significant human characters beyond the three main protagonists and the Seatopian villains. (And there isn’t a single female character in the entire movie except for some dancers at the ceremony that awakens Megalon.)  There’s a lot of stock footage, and the scenes of the SDF mobilizing to fight Megalon and of Megalon trashing Tokyo feel lifeless, since we aren’t shown any characters reacting to these events and so they have no emotional context. The whole film feels like it’s just going through the motions. I’m glad I found a library copy, because it wouldn’t have been worth paying for. Hedorah may have been freaky bizarre, but it was a lot more interesting than the routine, slapdash films that preceded and followed it.

Jet Jaguar never appeared again onscreen, but it’s worth noting that a month after this film, Toho debuted the television series Zone Fighter, which featured a team of similarly Ultraman-like superheroes and had guest appearances by Godzilla as a heroic ally and King Ghidorah and Gigan as villains. The series is considered part of the Shōwa-era canon, but I don’t feel any pressing need to track it down and watch it.

Perhaps Toho realized the problems with the franchise at this point, since the final two Shōwa-era movies take things in a more serious direction, starting with Godzilla vs. Mechagodzilla, Jun Fukuda’s swan song as director. Godzilla (now with a meaner, less Muppety design) seems to be on the rampage, but there are some things that aren’t quite right: He hisses rather than roaring, his atomic breath is yellow rather than blue, and he gets into a brutal fight with his sidekick Anguirus, bloodily dislocating the ankylosaur’s jaw and sending him into retreat, his survival unclear. But Anguirus has summoned the real Godzilla, whose atomic breath blows holes in the impostor’s skin and reveals a robotic body made of “space titanium,” as it’s dubbed by the main scientist of the film, yet another scientist character for Akihiko Hiraka (seen before in the original film and Son of Godzilla). This is Mechagodzilla, who’s under the control of the latest bunch of alien invaders (ape-men from “the third planet of the black hole”) and who badly injures Godzilla, with rather a lot of blood.

But the aliens, despite using Godzilla as their template, are more concerned about a new kaiju, one based on the shisa, a protective lion-dog spirit of Okinawan mythology. Its name is King(u) Shisa, which is very straightforward, but it usually gets Anglicized as King Caesar, which basically makes no sense, so I won’t call it that. Much of the movie is about the film’s rather nondescript heroes discovering a statue that will awaken King Shisa, studying the prophecy that tells them what to do with it, and eluding the aliens who are determined to keep them from awakening King Shisa, who allegedly has the power to awaken other kaiju, or so the aliens exposit to each other. Once the statue unearths KS, though, a descendant of Okinawan royalty needs to sing him awake with an extended musical number, much like Mothra, but without the dance routine accompanying it. It kind of drags the film to a halt. And once King Shisa wakes up, he doesn’t really live up to the hype. He’s kind of a scruffy-looking lion-dog-man giant who has one neat trick — he can absorb Mechagodzilla’s ray in one eye and return it from the other, a bit like Bishop of the X-Men — but that’s about all he has going for him. Mechagodzilla has him on the ropes when Godzilla finally shows up, and he doesn’t contribute much to the climactic fight beyond head-butting MG a few times once Godzilla has overpowered it by somehow turning himself into a giant magnet because what the hell. The tally of other kaiju that King Shisa awakens in the course of the film is exactly zero. Finally, Godzilla “kills” MG by twisting its head off, even though we were shown just a few minutes earlier that it could rotate its head all the way around quite freely. It’s like the filmmakers kept forgetting what they’d previously established.

So while it’s nice to see the franchise attempting to go in a more mature direction again, the film ends up being rather mediocre, making promises it doesn’t really deliver.

The final Shōwa film, Terror of Mechagodzilla, brought back Ishiro Honda as director for the final time. Akihiko Hirata is also back again, but this time playing a different character, Mafune, disguised by a gray-white wig and mustache but still recognizable in old photos and flashback scenes. After playing an aloof and ethical scientist in the original film and friendly, bland scientists in Son of and GvMG, now he’s playing a full-on evil scientist — your classic mad doctor whose radical theories got him disgraced and now wants to destroy the world to show up Those Fools at the Institute. He’s working with a second contingent of the black hole aliens, except they’re no longer Planet of the Apes rejects disguised as ordinary, business-suited humans, but are wearing silver jumpsuits and truly insane helmets. His rejected theories give him control of a dinosaur kaiju called Titanosaurus — no relation to the actual sauropods of that name, but a long-necked godzilloid with fishlike fins and crest — and the aliens have recruited him to apply his knowledge to the structurally similar Mechagodzilla, now somehow intact again after being blown into space-titanium confetti in the previous film. He owes the aliens for saving his daughter Katsura (Tomoko Ai) by turning her into a cyborg after a fatal lab accident. But she’s torn by her feelings for the film’s nondescript hero, a marine biologist working with Interpol to deal with the Titanosaurus problem.

You’ll note I haven’t mentioned Godzilla. He doesn’t show up until the last half-hour or so, having a brief, abortive clash with Titanosaurus and then not appearing again until the climactic battle. (Once again, we see that the 2014 movie’s limited use of Godzilla is not without precedent.) But at least this is the one film out of the last four where Godzilla is the sole heroic kaiju rather than part of a duo. At first he just seems to want to “challenge” Titanosaurus for dominance, but in his second appearance he’s back in the superhero mode established in earlier films, arriving just in time to save a couple of random teenagers from Titanosaurus’s rampage. He’s actually kind of overwhelmed by his two foes, but the human heroes manage to weaken them both in different ways, allowing him to triumph. Though there’s a tragic outcome to the central character story.

While still more serious and older-skewing than some of the earlier films, this one’s a bit more conventional than its predecessor, what with the goofy-looking alien costumes and broad characterizations. It does have a fair amount of city-smashing and monster-brawling action; these last two films had more money to spend than their predecessors, and it shows. This film also had the advantage of bringing back Akira Ifukube to do the score. Still, the bizarre approach of doing a direct sequel to the prior film yet making no effort at any real continuity with it, and even bringing back one of its lead actors in a completely different role, rather undermines it, at least when the two are watched back-to-back. And it doesn’t work as any kind of climax or finale to the  Shōwa  series; it was just one more film, and then the series got cancelled due to poor box office returns. It’s not an awful ending to the era; it’s good that the last two films attempted to pull the series out of the goofy doldrums and put more effort into it. But the second half of the  Shōwa era, even at its best, just doesn’t compare to the first half, or to the Heisei series to follow.

And that just about does it for my Godzilla review series — again. I can now say I’ve seen at least one version of every Godzilla film (though I regret having to settle for the lousy American version of King Kong vs. Godzilla). But, y’know, there are still a number of other kaiju films out there, like King Kong Escapes, Frankenstein Conquers the World, and so forth. So this may not be the end…

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Thoughts on Godzilla: Back to the Showa Era (spoilers)

September 18, 2014 2 comments

As promised in my last post, here’s the first part of my followup on the  Shōwa era of Godzilla movies, which I’ve fortunately been able to complete sooner than expected, though it turned out long enough that I’ll post it in two parts.

Last time I covered the Shōwa-era Godzilla films, I focused mainly on the first decade or so of the franchise and was kind of dismissive of the second decade, where the films generally got goofier, cheaper, and more juvenile. But since then, I’ve had occasion to watch some of the later Shōwa films, including several that I discovered were available on Hulu (with ads, but in Japanese), and I figured I should flesh out my review series accordingly. At first I was just going to cover the films that were convenient to watch online, but my compulsive personality demanded that I watch them all, even the ones I really didn’t want to. So here we go…

The last films I covered before were the two consecutive King Ghidorah films from 1964-5, which began the transition of Godzilla from villain to hero, the role he’ll play for the remainder of the Shōwa era. The next film was 1966’s Ebirah, Horror of the Deep, aka Godzilla vs. the Sea Monster — the first of five Godzilla films to be directed by Jun Fukuda.  Now, all those people complaining that the 2014 movie didn’t show enough of Godzilla would hate this one; he isn’t even seen until about a third of the way into the film, and then he’s sleeping until the last third of the film. This is mainly the story of a young man who’s desperate to obtain a boat to search for his shipwrecked brother, and who, through a series of misadventures, ends up stealing a yacht that was already stolen by a master thief (played by Akira Takarada, lead actor of the original 1954 film and portrayer of multiple roles throughout the franchise, including a cameo deleted from the 2014 film), with a couple of comic-relief dudes somehow getting roped in as well. They get attacked by the titular Ebirah, a lobster kaiju, and end up on an island controlled by the Red Bamboo, a nebulously evil military organization building nukes for world conquest and using slave labor from Mothra’s Infant Island, including the requisite pretty girl that the heroes team up with when she escapes. Yes, Mothra’s technically in the movie too, but she doesn’t wake up until the last ten minutes. Eventually the heroes decide their best bet for evading the bad guys is to awaken Godzilla and hope he’ll do more damage to the bad guys than to them; he’s still seen as a danger by the characters, but one they hope they can turn to their advantage against a worse threat (“Let them fight” comes to mind). Once Godzilla actually does get awakened and dragged into the story, it kind of loses focus. The monster fights in the last half-hour are kind of a jumble, both conceptually and in editing. There’s a weird sequence where Godzilla and Ebirah basically play pickup baseball with boulders before Godzilla wades in for the actual fight. And later Godzilla is attacked completely at random by a giant condor named Ookondoru, which means “Giant Condor” (oh, the creativity). It’s a very short and unsuspenseful battle. And one of our heroes tells the Infant Islander slaves how to turn Ebirah against the Red Bamboo, a very obvious plan that they somehow failed to think of themselves.

The first hour or so isn’t as lame as it sounds, as long as you forget that it’s supposed to be a Godzilla movie. The characters are kind of a fun group, which helps given that most of the movie is more driven by their travails than by the monster stuff. The music, by Masaru Sato, is pretty good too. And at least it has the advantage of not having a child as the main character, something that won’t often be the case from here on.

The next film, also directed by Fukuda, was Son of Godzilla, introducing Godzilla’s adopted baby, Minilla. The first third or so is a rather boring story of a reporter, Goro (Akira Kubo), crashing a secret weather-control project on a Pacific island. (One of the scientists is played by Akihiko Hirata, who was Dr. Serizawa in the original film; he’s playing a friendlier character here.) Goro spots a “native” woman that the scientists refuse to believe exists, and even Goro is oddly unconcerned by their assumption that the extreme heat caused by their freezing experiment’s backfire probably killed her (though it didn’t). Anyway, the radiation used in their experiment causes the already horse-sized mantises on the island to mutate to kaiju size, whereupon they’re named Kamacuras (a variation on the Japanese word for mantis — the English dub calls it “Gimantis”). The Kamacuras discover and break open the egg of a rather ugly baby Godzilla, which the real Godzilla arrives just in time to rescue, though he turns out to be a reluctant, halfhearted, and not very gentle parent to the rapidly-growing newborn. The woman (Beverly Maeda), who turns out to be a Japanese girl named Saeko (Reiko in English) who grew up on the island after her archaeologist father died there, bonds with the baby, who’s never actually called Minilla in the movie. The scientists are oddly unconcerned by the rapid maturation of the baby and the prospect that there could soon be two adult Godzillas rampaging across the world. The idea that Godzilla could be a threat to anyone other than evil kaiju receives no more than lip service.

Anyway, the rest of the movie follows Godzilla training the baby and fighting off the Kamacuras while the human cast deals with island hazards, and it comes to a head when the scientists are attacked by the local spider kaiju, Kumonga (called Speiga in English), which for some reason fires its webs out of its mouth like a Mothra larva. It webs the researchers inside Saeko’s cave and the fight between it and Minilla threatens to collapse the cave ceiling, so the scientists resolve to use their experiment to freeze the monsters before it’s too late. Except… suddenly they’re able to come and go from the cave freely in order to activate the experiment, which makes it kind of pointless to proceed anyway; why not just run for it? Not to mention that the radioactive capsule that was part of the re-warming after the first cooling experiment is now suddenly part of the cooling process itself. Basically it’s all rather incoherent. Minilla isn’t particularly endearing, and is accompanied by an obnoxious sitcommy musical leitmotif every time he shows up. And the new kaiju aren’t very imaginative; in the past two films, all we’ve gotten are a giant lobster, mantis, and spider, plus a cameo by a giant condor. By this point, the franchise seemed to be getting tired and lazy.

Next came Destroy All Monsters, which is available on Metacafe. This was originally intended to be the last film in the series, and was thus a grand celebration of all Toho’s various kaiju. It was also the last film reuniting Godzilla’s original creative team: director/cowriter Ishiro Honda, producer Tomoyuki Tanaka, FX producer Eiji Tsuburaya (albeit in a supervisory capacity only), composer Akira Ifukube, and Haruo Nakajima as Godzilla.

The opening narration establishes that the film is set in 1999, when Earth has built a base on the moon — no, sadly, not that one. Square-jawed rocket captain Yamabe (Akira Kubo again, playing a very different character than last time) has a girlfriend, Kyoko (Yukiko Kobayashi) who works on Ogasawara Island, aka Monsterland, a high-tech nature preserve where all the daikaiju are safely contained and living in improbable harmony. (I wondered if this might be the same island from Son of…, which was referred to in dialogue as “a monster island,” but apparently not. Minilla is there too, looking the same as he did in Son of… even though it’s supposed to be 32 years later.) But Monsterland’s control center comes under mysterious attack, and then the kaiju are suddenly free and destroying major cities around the world. Godzilla himself — presaging the ’98 movie — shows up in Manhattan, blowing up the UN building. Eventually it turns out that a race of very polite, silver-skullcapped alien women from the asteroid Kilaak are mind-controlling both the Monsterland personnel and the kaiju themselves. They’ve attacked everywhere but Japan to distract from their establishment of a base near Mt. Fuji, but then Godzilla, Rodan, Mothra, and Manda (a serpentine kaiju from the film Atragon) gang up on Tokyo, and a mind-controlled Kyoko delivers an ultimatum: The Kilaaks will gladly coexist with us so long as we obey all their commands, and if we don’t, the monsters will destroy us. Naturally, Yamabe is too square-jawed to tolerate that, so he roughs up his girlfriend in order to rip off her mind-control earrings — which are decidedly not clip-ons. He and Godzilla could compare notes on tough love.

So our heroes figure out that the mind-control signals are coming from the Moon, so they raid the Kilaak base and win with surprising ease; they have more trouble detaching the Kilaak control module from its support than they have actually overpowering the base in the first place. And they don’t even use the module, because the scientists back home have rigged their own control system. They sic the kaiju on the Fuji base en masse, with reporters giving color commentary like a sporting event while the monsters gather. The Kilaak call in King Ghidorah for the big fight, and it takes multiple critters ganging up on KG to defeat him. The Kilaaks manage to destroy the humans’ monster control center — but, freed from control, Godzilla still knows who his enemies are and trashes the Kilaak base on his own initiative.

The first time I watched this film in recent memory, I thought it was kind of fun but rather superficial. Seeing it again in the context of the films that surround it, I recognize why it’s so well-regarded. While it doesn’t hold a candle to the ’54 original, it’s surely the pinnacle of the second decade of the Shōwa series. It’s vastly more ambitious in scale than its two predecessors or even the first two Ghidorah films, with tons of kaiju destruction and battles on a more global scale than ever before, though naturally it all focuses on Japan (plus the Moon) by the second act. Even though the film features the kaiju population as a whole, Godzilla is still more heavily featured than in either of the previous two films or many of the following ones, and anchors several key action sequences. It’s the last time in the Shōwa era that Godzilla is at all menacing, although it’s while he’s under mind control. The movie also features one of Akira Ifukube’s most impressive scores, although it’s also a very repetitive score, with four or five main cues that get tracked into several different scenes each. It’s off-putting when the Tokyo-battle cue is reused later and you hear Rodan’s theme over a scene featuring a solo Godzilla.

What I find particularly notable about DAM is that it contrasts with a lot of the earlier Godzilla films, and those in the Heisei era onward, by treating the kaiju as animals that could be controlled and managed by sufficiently sophisticated technology. So many other G-films have focused on the folly of believing that humans could contain the sheer power of nature (as represented by kaiju) and the devastation we bring down on ourselves when we try. The kaiju in DAM were tamer in comparison, both in-story and metatextually. And perhaps that shows how the whole franchise had become rather tame by this point, even despite all this film has going for it.

The next film, the similarly-titled All Monsters Attack (aka Godzilla’s Revenge), couldn’t be more different from its predecessor, despite also being directed by Ishiro Honda. In fact, I question whether it actually counts as part of the Shōwa universe. It’s about a latchkey kid living in a polluted dystopia (aka 1969 Tokyo) and mildly tormented by a bully named Gabara. Unhappy with his real life, the kid, Ichiro, retreats into a dream world consisting mostly of stock footage from Ebirah, Son of Godzilla, Destroy All Monsters, and the like, wherein he flies to Monster Island (as it’s called in the English dub streaming on Netflix) to visit his idol Minilla (called Minya in the dub). There’s nothing in the film to suggest that the kaiju really exist in Ichiro’s world rather than simply being movie characters — although there’s nothing to prove they don’t exist either. But given that Ichiro’s dreams consist of actual footage from previous movies, I’m inclined to believe this is just a story about a real-world kid who daydreams about movie monsters. (Actually one sequence of Godzilla training Minilla to breathe fire looks at first blush like stock footage, but I’m pretty clear it was a new re-enactment of the same sequence, since the setting is different.)

Anyway, Ichiro runs afoul of a couple of bumbling bank robbers and some proto-Home Alone antics ensue, only more boring and less comical, and he somehow wills himself into REM sleep while in their clutches (not exactly a healthy response to imminent mortal peril) and has a dream about Minilla, egged on by a tough-loving Godzilla, battling a bullying monster who’s also named Gabara (the film isn’t exactly subtle), which looks like a pebbly-skinned, tailless green godzilloid with a catlike face. Seeing Minilla (and then Godzilla) beat Gabara gives him the courage and mad skillz to defeat the bandits. Afterward, he has the confidence to take on the real Gabara, and… ugh. This film’s message is basically that you should deal with bullies by becoming exactly like them. First Ichiro beats up Gabara, then he plays a mean prank on a random bystander in order to win the respect of the bullies. This is supposed to be a triumph? The rest of the film is just dumb; the ending is genuinely terrible.

I remember seeing this movie on TV periodically when I was a kid, and I remember recognizing the sequences it reused from other movies. Even then, I knew it was a clip show. I don’t recall how I, a bullied child myself, reacted to the film’s ultimate message, but I’m happy to say I wasn’t inspired to become a bully myself and start beating up other kids. I guess I never liked this film enough to be influenced by it in any way. It’s hugely disappointing to see the series backslide so radically after rallying with Destroy All Monsters.

Next comes Godzilla vs. Hedorah, aka Godzilla vs. the Smog Monster. And wow, this is the weirdest, trippiest film in the entire franchise. It’s a bizarre piece of filmmaking from director Yoshimitsu Banno, who was never allowed to direct another movie for Toho after this. Basically it’s an anti-pollution allegory in which our sludge and smog create or sustain a mutant inorganic tadpole monster from space — or something — that grows into the giant, lethal Hedorah, which threatens to kill us all and erode our civilization with the sulfuric-acid mist it gives off after its crystallized-carbon cells convert carbon smog into sulfur (note: chemistry does not work that way). Godzilla is treated here as the unambiguously heroic defender of the Earth, and the film is told largely from the viewpoint of boy hero Ken, who adores Godzilla as his hero and is even able to psychically sense his approach, apparently. It’s got weird bits of surreal imagery, random digressions into animated sequences like a child’s drawings, a dreamlike montage or two, a collage of TV screens showing vox-pop interviews in a fashion reminding me of Frank Miller’s Batman comics, even a completely random bit in a very psychedelic dance club where one of the male leads hallucinates all the dancers as having fish heads. I can’t help wondering if the writing and production of this film involved psychedelics in more than just the aesthetic sense. Although it could be that the film implicitly has the same conceit as All Monsters Attack — i.e. the whole thing is really Ken’s daydream about Godzilla — but executes it with much more originality. At the very least, the events of the film are filtered through Ken’s childlike perceptions.

As for the kaiju action itself, there’s a lot of it compared to something like Ebirah, and Hedorah is certainly a difficult adversary for Godzilla; but the fighting tends to be languid and dull and sometimes rather incoherent. After the initial, somewhat understated confrontation on land, we’re told by a newscaster that 32 buildings were destroyed even though the onscreen tally was approximately zero. And in the climactic battle — again around Mt. Fuji — the action jumps between different stages of the fight without any transitions, so that in at least one case we don’t see how Godzilla got out of a trap Hedorah sprang on him.

Still, as trippy and bizarre as this film is, at least it isn’t phoned in or predictable. Banno made a real attempt to bring new ideas and energy to the franchise. Also, it’s an astonishingly dark and violent Godzilla film for this era, with a lot of onscreen fatalities (even Destroy All Monsters largely avoided those). And it was trying, in its clumsy way, to have a real message, in the allegorical spirit that began the franchise. So I wouldn’t call it a good or particularly successful film, but I respect the daring and innovation behind it. It is anything but ordinary.

Next, I finish out the series with the last four films.

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Thoughts on Godzilla: The TriStar sidebar

September 17, 2014 1 comment

That’s right, folks, I’m reviving my Godzilla review series in the interests of completeness. I’m working on a review of the remainder of the Shōwa series, but I’ve also been looking forward to an opportunity to revisit the 1998 animated series spinning off of the Dean Devlin/Roland Emmerich Godzilla movie from the same year. Since Netflix streaming is dropping the animated series at the end of September, I had to watch it before then, and I fortunately happened to find the movie on TV at a convenient juncture.

Yes, yes, I know that the featured kaiju in the ’98 movie is not recognized as actually being Godzilla (the creature is sometimes called Zilla, but apparently Toho considers that the name for the different creature of the same species that had a cameo in Godzilla: Final Wars). But as I discussed in my increasingly misnamed “Final thoughts” post, I do believe the movie can work as a side branch of the universe seen in Godzilla, Mothra, King Ghidorah: Giant Monsters All-out Attack (or GMK), which actually alludes to the events of the ’98 film as a case of mistaken identity, and sets up a universe in which such mistakes are understandable. So I’m including it as a sidebar, just as I covered films like Mothra and Rodan in my initial post.

The ’98 movie opens in a surprisingly similar way to the 2014 movie, with an archival-footage montage of nuclear tests in the Pacific — except these are French nuclear tests, and there are a lot of shots of iguanas and Komodo dragons, presumably the ancestors of our featured monster. We then cut to Matthew Broderick singing a show tune and being instantly unlikeable. Turns out he’s Dr. Nico “Nick” Tatopolous (named in honor of the film’s production designer Patrick Tatopolous), and he’s a “worm guy” working with the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission to document annelid mutations caused by nuclear radiation. Somehow this makes him a suitable expert to be called in when a giant reptilian creature attacks a large Japanese fishing vessel… which somehow ends up on the shore in Jamaica. (Do Japanese vessels fish in the Atlantic? Or are we supposed to think the creature dragged it through the Panama Canal?) The sole survivor calls the creature “Gojira,” and it’s entirely reasonable that he’d think that’s what it was, assuming this is a universe where the real Godzilla exists. Later on, there’s a news report explaining the name as a mythical dragon spoken of in Japanese lore — which, given the general ineptitude of Harry Shearer’s character Caiman, the reporter delivering the spiel (and coining “Godzilla” as a mispronunciation, or perhaps he came across an old-style Romanization written down somewhere), is marginally reconcilable with a universe where Godzilla really attacked Tokyo in 1954. The film implies that event never happened, but it isn’t overtly inconsistent with the idea that it did. (Even if we assume that, as in the Legendary universe, the 1954 attack on Tokyo never happened, it stands to reason that the Oto islanders could have still aware of Gojira and worshipped it, giving rise to the “myth.” Although that would be harder to mesh with GMK.)

Anyway, the creature makes a beeline for Manhattan, allegedly because it’s the perfect nesting ground to lay its hermaphroditically conceived eggs, but really because of movie monsters’ unerring attraction to landmarks. Most of the movie is a chase through Manhattan with lots of collateral damage by the military, with the running gag of “Godzilla” being extremely quick and good at dodging missiles and torpedoes, until it’s finally trapped in the cables of the Brooklyn Bridge. There’s a large digression in the middle of the movie where it turns into an attempt to one-up Jurassic Park, with the characters fleeing from 200 baby Zillas (gestated and hatched with absurd speed) inside Madison Square Garden. The main problem fans have with the movie is that it didn’t try to tell a Godzilla story so much as it tried to rework the concept into a conventional American-style monster movie, which ended up being sort of a mix of Jurassic Park and The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms (which, ironically, was a direct inspiration for the original 1954 Godzilla).

Still, that’s not the film’s only problem. The first time I saw it, I decided that it was a perfectly serviceable monster movie so long as you accepted that it wasn’t a Godzilla movie, just a movie about a monster that was called Godzilla by mistake. But I think I felt that because I was looking at it from the back end. Seeing it again, I’m reminded that the first half of the film is pretty lame. It suffers from the attempt to play up the comedy angle in a way that isn’t very funny, and to tell a character-driven story about characters that aren’t that well-drawn. The female lead in particular, aspiring reporter Audrey Timmonds (Maria Pitillo), is a weak and ineffectual character who only accomplishes things because others around her encourage her to — mostly her cameraman friend Animal Palotti (Hank Azaria), who’s a stronger protagonist than she is despite being nominally her comic-relief sidekick (though it’s hard to tell when most of the characters are supposedly comical). The film handles its destructive subject matter in such a frivolous tone that it carries little weight. This is exemplified in a scene where “Godzilla” destroys three fighter jets, and commanding officer Col. Hicks (Kevin Dunn) only gets a few seconds of pained reaction to their deaths before we cut to the buffoonish Mayor Ebert (Michael Lerner) getting a comedy beat. The other characters don’t fare much better. Jean Reno plays Philippe Roaché, a French secret service agent who works with Nick once the military kicks the scientist out (for unintentionally allowing Audrey to swipe a classified tape), and Philippe’s main personality trait is wanting a good cup of coffee. And Vicki Lewis and Malcolm Danare are introduced as Nick’s fellow experts Elsie Chapman and Mendel Craven, and then get pretty much forgotten for the rest of the movie. Nick himself has a poorly defined motivation; for a scientist faced with a new form of life, he’s oddly untroubled by the idea of participating in its destruction, and by extension that of its whole species.

The most worthwhile part of the movie, for me, is the third act. Usually that’s where I think modern movies tend to fall apart, as the demand for spectacle and pace overrides story logic and plausibility. But here, the amped-up action means there’s less time for cartoony characterization and unfunny gags, and with less annoying stuff going on, the film is more watchable. Still, it’s a weaker movie than I remembered.

One drawback to the idea of this creature being called Godzilla by mistake is that its roar includes the original Godzilla roar as one of its sound elements. But it wouldn’t be the first time in kaiju history that a roar sound has been used by more than one monster, I think. Also, the creature breathes fire — exactly once in the movie, and without a lot of weight given to it — but it is actual fire, not atomic breath. That part is so half-hearted that one wonders why they bothered. But then, there doesn’t seem to have been a lot of care or thought put into this movie at all, let alone respect for the source material.

Godzilla: The Series, though, is an enormous improvement. It was developed for television by Jeff Kline and Richard Raynis, executive producers of multiple animated series from Columbia Pictures Television, also including Extreme Ghostbusters, Men in Black: The Series, and Jackie Chan Adventures (and Raynis has also been an executive producer on The Real Ghostbusters, The Simpsons, Futurama, and King of the Hill among others). Interestingly, and almost unprecedentedly, the series fits just about perfectly into the continuity of the movie, without having to make the kinds of continuity tweaks and cheats that most series based on movies need to do (for instance, Men in Black: The Series ignored Agent K’s retirement at the end of the movie). The opening scene of the series premiere does present the climax of the movie slightly differently, since it has to fit the whole thing into a much shorter time, but it still meshes pretty well (aside from the implausible speed with which landmarks like the Brooklyn Bridge were rebuilt — although there is one episode that shows the Chrysler Building spire still under reconstruction after its trashing in the film). The series picks up on the closing scene of the movie, where a single Godzilla egg survived and hatched. Here, we learn that, right after the climax on the Brooklyn Bridge, Nick (now played by Ian Ziering) convinced Hicks (Dunn reprising his role, though he’s been demoted to major in the series) to check Madison Square Garden for surviving eggs. Nick finds the intact egg just as it hatches, but he fell into a pool of amniotic fluid or something, so the hatchling imprints on him as its parent. He later discovers this when the creature resurfaces, already quickly grown, and studies and trains it, calling it Godzilla (and since that’s its actual given name, regardless of origin, I’ll use it without quotes). He assembles a team called HEAT — the Humanitarian Environmental Analysis Team — which travels the world dealing with the further giant mutant monsters that are springing up around the world, and Godzilla, who instinctually follows and protects Nick wherever he goes, becomes their main monster-fighting asset. (How Godzilla is able to track Nick even when he travels by jet is unexplained.)

The series focuses primarily on the HEAT group, so Nick is the only character who’s central in both the movie and the series (since the series’ Godzilla is a different individual). Minor film characters Elsie Chapman and Mendel Craven are part of his team; Malcolm Danare reprises Craven, but Charity James takes over playing Elsie. Also, for some reason Elsie is working for Nick now, when in the movie it was nominally the reverse. I guess that’s understandable since they’re operating out of Nick’s lab this time. The series also adds two original characters who add some much-needed diversity to the essentially all-white cast of the movie: Randy Hernandez (Rino Romano), a dreadlocked, wisecracking college-age hacker, and Monique DuPre (Brigitte Bako), a French agent of apparently Vietnamese ancestry (since Elsie calls her “Miss Saigon” in one episode), assigned by Roaché to shepherd Nick’s team and keep an eye on Godzilla. Audrey, Animal, Hicks, and Mayor Ebert (reprised by Michael Lerner) have recurring roles in the series, and Roaché appears a couple of times, played by Keith Szarabaika.

Right off the bat, the series is an improvement on the movie. Though still humorous in tone, it treats its characters as people rather than walking jokes, so that they’re (ironically) less cartoony and their personalities and relationships have more dimension. The characterizations are the largest departures from the film continuity, but since they’re pretty much improvements all around, I’m not complaining. The show’s Nick is much more of an authoritative action-hero type than Broderick’s, and this time he actually shows some scientific curiosity and empathy for the new species he’s discovered, bonding with the junior Godzilla and defending it from Hicks’s initial attack. Audrey (now played by Paget Brewster) is also a stronger character in the show, much more assertive in pursuit of a story; I suppose it’s a manifestation of the new confidence she gained at the end of the film, but it’s quite a wholesale transformation. Elsie is basically the resident wisecracker, and also occasionally in the middle of a vague romantic triangle where she’s into Nick but Mendel is into her. Mendel’s main job is operating the robotic probe NIGEL (Tom Kenny), which gets smashed by monsters on a weekly basis. He’s timid, insecure, and allergy-prone, but rises to the occasion when he has to. Craven has a rivalry with the younger, snarkier Randy, who constantly plays pranks such as reprogramming NIGEL with funny voices. Randy was meant to be a fun, witty young character for the cartoon’s audience to identify with, but he gets a bit annoying if you binge-watch the series, with his tendency to refer to Godzilla as “the G-Man” getting rather tiresome. Randy also has a hopeless crush on Monique, a no-nonsense ice princess who’s basically Seven of Nine with a French accent. There are occasional episodes where she seems to enjoy or even encourage his attentions, though. Animal and Hicks don’t get much development beyond their movie personas. (Animal is now played by Joe Pantoliano — surprising, since Hank Azaria has done plenty of voice work, particularly for Raynis’s The Simpsons.) All the characters have new designs by Fil Barlow, who also designed the monsters, though Patrick Tatopolous gets a consultant credit for the reuse of his Godzilla design, which works quite well in 2D animation. The designs help make both Nick and Audrey seem stronger than they did in the movie.

The show’s Godzilla differs from his movie parent in a couple of ways. Though he has the same design, he’s often more upright in his posture. He’s conveniently infertile, so there’s no risk of more eggs being laid, though the reason why is not explained. And he breathes atomic fire, a green flame preceded by a chaser-light effect of flashes moving up his spine plates from tail to head, and occasionally a flashing of his eyes. Plus the show’s introduction of other giant “mutations” for Godzilla to fight lets him play a role more like the real Godzilla does in most of his movies. All in all, the animated Godzilla is much closer to his Toho namesake than his parent was. (He also emits a purer, though usually shortened, version of the original Godzilla roar.) Although he’s still like the movie creature in some ways as well. He’s very much an animal, albeit a clever one — he’s more mortal and vulnerable, less a force of nature than his namesake, and though he’s far from tame, he’s submissive to Nick in a way the true Godzilla would never be.

The series also deals with a range of threats similar to those in the Toho movies: newly evolved mutant creatures, ancient mythic creatures like Quetzalcoatl and the Loch Ness Monster, technological threats like a runaway nanotech blob or a monster created by a dream amplifier, evil industrialists looking to profit from Godzilla and the other monsters, and even alien invaders and time travel. There’s a 3-parter called “Monster Wars” that’s basically a Destroy All Monsters remake complete with Monster Island, and even featuring a version of Mechagodzilla (though it’s actually more reminiscent of MechaKing Ghidorah, the reanimated cyborg corpse of the creature from the ’98 movie). It’s a nice, rich mix of stories, yet there’s also an ongoing focus on character development and conflict among the cast. It’s not without its occasional duds — for instance, there’s a Fantastic Voyage riff where the heroes travel through Godzilla’s bloodstream in a minisub to fight off macroscopic mutant germs, which is absurd because Godzilla is nowhere near that big in proportion to humans. And then there’s the bizarre one where they battle a monster that’s a fusion of a giant shrew and… a tornado. Huh? And there’s the one where Godzilla tears down the Sears Tower to get at a monster perching atop it, and nobody bats an eyelid, with the whole thing just being a passing action beat. Still, on the whole it’s a smart, well-written series with good character work, definitely much more so than the film it’s based on. A particular favorite of mine is “S.C.A.L.E.,” written by Scott Lobdell — a found-footage-style episode in the form of a documentary by Audrey about a terrorist attack on Monster Island. (Two other episodes are written by veteran comic scribes, one by Marv Wolfman and one by Len Wein.)

The proper episode order is a little unclear. The DVD/streaming order differs enormously from the broadcast order, and the episodes seem to jump randomly between episodes where Elsie is into Nick and doesn’t know Mendel exists and episodes where Elsie shows signs of reciprocating Mendel’s interest. But the broadcast order doesn’t seem to have a clearer progression for that relationship. And there’s a general lack of continuity in other respects; for instance, I had thought that the lawsuit in “Underground Movement” for damages inflicted by HEAT during a monster attack in Miami was a callback to the events of “S.C.A.L.E.,” which began after a Miami attack; but the monsters in the two cases were different. There’s also an “Area 51″ episode in which belief in aliens is treated as a delusion even though it’s after the alien invasion from “Monster Wars” in both orders. (Turns out Area 51 is actually a secret mutation research facility and the alien stuff is just a cover story.) The only real continuity in the series is the reuse of familiar monsters in later episodes — which, I suppose, is another thing that makes it like the Toho series.

And yes, you can follow the series without seeing the movie; I did so when it first premiered. Seeing the movie first does provide additional insights, though, and makes the series even more enjoyable by contrast.

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Gum again

September 11, 2014 3 comments

Some 14 months ago, I posted about how the first attempt at a gum graft to repair the receding gumline on my lower front teeth, using an artificial collagen matrix to encourage the growth of new gum tissue, hadn’t worked out as well as hoped. The expectation was that I’d have to try again and have actual gum tissue extracted from elsewhere in my mouth, which would’ve made the procedure somewhat more invasive and unpleasant. So I wasn’t looking forward to the repeat attempt, which is part of why I waited 14 months to schedule a new one. Although part of the delay was that I wanted it to be at a time when I knew I wouldn’t be traveling anywhere within the ensuing six weeks, given the need to be selective about my diet during the healing process, when I can’t bite into anything with my incisors. The long delay in arranging my visit to family in Detroit thus delayed the procedure. And then I was behind on my novel and I wanted to wait until I finished it before I did anything as distracting as this.

But now the novel’s done, so I buckled down and made the appointment. If you recall, I delayed the first attempt at the procedure for nearly a year too, and it turned out that in the interim, the doctor learned a new method for doing it, i.e. the collagen matrix. Turns out that in the year since the first attempt, he’s learned yet another new method. So instead of falling back on the conventional gum-transplant method he was going to use, he decided instead to proceed with something called the “pinhole” technique and implant a different kind of synthetic collagen matrix through a gentler procedure than before. I still had to get numbed, but it wasn’t too bad aside from a few mild twinges here and there, and I had my music player on my smartphone to help relax me. (I listened to one of my TV soundtrack albums, and the triumphant closing cue of the episode played just as the doctor told me the procedure was finished! Perfect timing!) I just hope this time the collagen matrix works better than last time, because I don’t want to have to go through this again. Although, granted, it does get a little easier each time, as long as I wait about a year…

So anyway, now I’m on a diet of soft and/or bite-sized foods again, and for the first day or so on a no-hot-foods diet. Fortunately I’ve done this before, so I already did the appropriate shopping. I’ll be having a fair amount of pasta salads and soups for a while, I guess. But it’s a change from all the sandwiches I had over the past few days while trying to use up my “bitey” foods.

Good grief, I’m starting to feel hungry again while writing this, even though I finished eating not half an hour ago. I would’ve expected to have less of an appetite after this. But I guess it wasn’t stressful in that way. Anyway, I guess I should stop writing about food.

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Browsing “classic” sci-fi on Netflix (spoiler reviews)

Lately I’ve been browsing through Netflix’s rather limited selection of “classic” science fiction movies available for streaming, and here are my thoughts on a few of them, as well as a couple of DVD rentals that also fit the category:

Gog: This is a 1954 film starring Richard Egan and Constance Dowling, from the same filmmakers who made The Magnetic Monster and Riders to the Stars. All three were endearingly clunky attempts to portray science in a fairly plausible manner, with Riders (also from ’54) being the best, a well-researched speculative portrayal of the first attempt to send humans into space, with some assumptions that are silly in retrospect, but reasonable for ’50s science fiction. I talked about Monster before, finding it a bizarre attempt to pass off a hunt for a dangerous isotope as some kind of monster movie. Gog is probably the dullest of the three, though in many ways it’s the most conventionally thrillerish, involving the investigation of mysterious deaths at a top-secret underground research facility. There’s really very little investigation of the deaths, though; most of the film is exposition, as the lead character is shown around the research facility and gets demonstrations of all the projects underway to develop manned spaceflight and prepare for the launch of  the first space station. At one point I checked the time and realized that I was 2/3 of the way through the film and it was still in the first act; there had been a couple of murders but we were still immersed in exposition about the facility and there hadn’t been any major plot advances or character arcs. And there weren’t any real plot reversals or surprises; sure, it turned out that the killer was the base’s electronic brain NOVAC, which controlled the flailing-armed robots Gog and Magog (hence the title), but it hadn’t gained sentience or anything; it was just being hacked by signals from an enemy rocket plane overhead. Yes, even the villain was faceless. The whole movie is really just a faux-documentary about space science thinly disguised as a drama.

For some reason, I could’ve sworn from the title that this was a different movie, something I’ve seen before involving a giant box-shaped robot terrorizing the countryside. I was surprised when I watched it and realized it was something totally different. On further research, I find the movie I was thinking of was called Kronos.

The Angry Red Planet is a 1959 film directed by Ib Melchior. It’s a pretty run-of-the-mill ’50s space movie shot on a very low budget and 10-day shooting schedule, but it’s known mainly for the “Cinemagic” technique that rendered the Martian exteriors in a weird, red-tinted, almost cartoony style — actually originating from an accidental overexposure in an attempt to convert the film to black-and-white to save money, creating a sharp-edged, luminous effect that was kind of intriguing and made live-action footage look almost like cartoons. So there was some attempt made to combine the “Cinemagic” footage with actual cartoon renderings of the Martian landscape, almost a prototype for the original Tron in terms of attempting to make live-action footage look like, and merge into, animation. But it’s not entirely successful, and the rest of the film doesn’t have much going for it. It’s got your pretty standard B-movie space crew — Gerald Mohr as the handsome captain, Naura Hayden as The Girl that the captain incessantly flirts with (we’d call it sexual harrassment today), Les Tremayne as the bearded scientist, and Jack Kruschen as the Brooklynite comic relief guy manning the radio. In the Earthbound portions, there’s also a general who looks like he could be Gary Sinise’s father (he isn’t) and who overacts like crazy while somehow not varying his delivery at any point. The story is told in flashback after the damaged ship returns to Earth with only Hayden intact and Mohr infected by an alien thingie that looks uncannily like the Wirrn infection in Doctor Who‘s “The Ark in Space” (albeit less bubble-wrappy), and the doctors try to get Hayden to remember her ordeal. At one point a doctor explains how her memories will be filtered through her fears and perceptions so that we’ll “see” things the way she saw them — presumably an excuse for the weird cartoony Mars scenes, although it makes no sense since the doctors and general listening to her story wouldn’t see a damn thing. All in all, an awkward and unimpressive film with an interestingly experimental, though ultimately unsuccessful, presentation — although it was neat to see that the spaceship control room included one of those classic Burroughs 205 computer consoles that were seen in the Batcave, the Jupiter 2, and elsewhere in ’50s and ’60s sci-fi.

Colossus: The Forbin Project: This 1970 film is one I rented on DVD, and I had to wait forever to get it. Moreover, it’s a bare-bones, I’m guessing print-on-demand disc with nothing on it except the movie, not even a menu, and it’s a pan-and-scan version in 4:3 aspect ratio, no doubt a TV edit. Someone should see about getting this film remastered and rereleased properly. Maybe it’s not one of the greats, but I think it’s a significant entry in the genre of nuclear-tension movies as well as evil-computer movies, with Colossus and Guardian arguably being forerunners of Skynet from the Terminator franchise, albeit more paternalistic and less genocidal.

Eric Braeden stars as Dr. Forbin, who builds the world’s most advanced computer, gives it total control of the nation’s nuclear weapons, and forgets to install an off switch. The results are somewhat predictable, though instead of building Terminators and launching an apocalypse, Colossus discovers its Soviet counterpart Guardian and they become instant pals and take over the world. It’s a movie I saw once or twice on TV when I was younger, and in retrospect I think an early apocalyptic short story I wrote in study hall in high school was unconsciously influenced by it.

It’s not really a very complicated plot, and until the final speech there’s not much exploration of why this is happening, nor does anyone ever try to engage Colossus in a philosophical discussion about how maybe coercing people at the point of a missile is not necessarily the best way to earn their cooperation. Colossus strikes me as a petulant child wanting instant gratification and having the power to enforce it, and nobody, not even its creator Forbin, ever tries to assert a parental role and offer some guidance. Although the movie’s attitude seems to be that the Colossus/Guardian collective has swiftly surpassed humanity and concluded we just can’t be trusted to make our own decisions. Which is typical of the cynicism of the era, but the film doesn’t go into a lot of depth examining it, and it doesn’t have that strong an ending.

What’s most effective about the film is the directing by Joseph Sargent (probably best known for The Taking of Pelham One Two Three). It’s got a very naturalistic style with a lot of everyday texture in the little conversations and business among the characters, reminding me of Sargent’s one Star Trek episode, “The Corbomite Maneuver,” only with more of a verite approach with lots of simultaneous conversations and people talking over each other and the like. There are also some cool Albert Whitlock paintings of the Colossus complex, and glimpses of familiar TV faces like William Schallert, Martin E. Brooks, Marion Ross, and James Hong in a bit role. (Plus the sound effect used for Colossus’s “heartbeat” in the opening is partly identical to the bionic-eye sound effect from The Six Million Dollar Man, another Universal production. Either they were generated slightly differently by the same device, or they’re different portions of the same longer sound clip, or the Colossus sound was trimmed and its latter portion echoed with modifications. There’s a computer-chatter sound effect that was also used in the 6M$M titles, and I gather some footage from the movie was used in that show’s pilot.)

Dark Star (Director’s Edition): This was another DVD rental, a movie I’ve been vaguely aware of as a cult classic for a long time (I think my sister was rather fond of it in our youth) but didn’t know much about. Something recently got me curious about it — I don’t recall what — so I decided to check it out. Apparently it’s John Carpenter’s directorial debut, a student film expanded to get a theatrical release, though the version I saw cut out much of the added material.

Basically this is an offbeat dark comedy about a working-class crew of losers (all male) in a cramped, broken-down spaceship in deep space; both ship and crew are falling apart, with predictably disastrous consequences for the mission (which is to blow up planets that have unstable orbits that could cause them to fall into stars and make them go supernova — yeah, ohh-kay). It has two main set pieces with various bits of exposition and character business between them. The first set piece involves Pinback (played by screenwriter Dan O’Bannon) chasing an alien mascot (played by a spotted beach ball with clawed feet) around the ship’s corridors and maintenance conduits. It’s a long, pointless, tedious sequence with terrible pacing and lighting so poor I can’t tell what’s going on much of the time, and it culminates in an overlong sequence where Pinback gets trapped in an elevator shaft that’s far too tall to fit into the rather compact, Ron Cobb-designed Dark Star ship itself — which I suppose makes it a prototype for the jet-boot turboshaft sequence in Star Trek V: The Final Frontier, though that’s nothing to boast about. The only thing interesting here is that the “shaft” was actually a hallway made to look vertical through camera angles and pantomime. Anyway, it turns out this was one of the sequences added to pad the short to feature length, and it shows, because it goes on forever and has nothing to do with the rest of the story.

The only part of the film I really enjoyed was the second set piece, in which one of the ship’s artificially intelligent planet-busting bombs fails to release from the ship and the commander, Doolittle (Brian Narelle), tries to teach it phenomenology to get it to question the reality of its orders. This was actually funny, and reminiscent of the work of Douglas Adams, though predating it. I have to wonder, though, why anyone would waste artificial intelligence on a device that just gets dropped onto a planet to blow up. I guess that’s part of the absurdism of the premise, but it’s still hard to swallow.

I gather there are a lot of people who love this film, but to me it’s a historical curiosity at best, a starting point for many big names in the industry like Carpenter, O’Bannon, Cobb, and modelmaker Greg Jein. And reportedly Alien was O’Bannon’s more serious take on the monster-chase sequence in this film. It worked much better there.

Death Race 2000: I wasn’t expecting much from this 1975 Roger Corman-produced film directed by Paul Bartel, but it’s a surprisingly effective dystopian comedy. It’s in the same vein of stories like Rollerball, The Running Man, and The Hunger Games — a dystopian regime promoting blood sports as bread and circuses for the masses and to condition them to devalue life — but with its own biting satirical edge. Although the premise and characters are broad, cartoony, and somewhat campy, there are some surprising bits of nuance, like the way the story gradually, subtly teases out the true nature of Frankenstein, the legendary driver played by David Carradine. It’s a pretty violent film, as you’d expect from a movie about a road race where drivers are awarded points for killing random pedestrians, but the violence is cartoony and slapstick enough to soften it, without completely undermining the shock of it and the sadism of a regime that would encourage such casual trivialization of human life. So I’d say it strikes a very effective balance. Also notable for its cars designed by master customizer Dean Jeffries, who had a hand in designing the ’60s Batmobile (aka the One True Batmobile) as well as being responsible for the Green Hornet’s Black Beauty and the Monkeemobile.

Battle Beyond the Stars: Another Roger Corman film — hard to believe it was made just five years later, in 1980. I saw this sci-fi pastiche of The Magnificent Seven when I was much younger, and this is my first revisit since then. I don’t recall what I thought of it the first time, but it actually holds up better than I expected. Directed by Jimmy T. Murakami and written by John Sayles, with James Cameron as the effects director of photography, it’s a pretty solid, if cheesy, space film for its era, and feels very much a part of its era, which is not a bad thing. Well, okay, some of it is rather blatantly derivative — for instance, the film opens with an extended shot of the villain’s huge warship flying over the camera, and the ship basically looks like the front of the Rebel Blockade Runner/Tantive IV welded to the back of the Imperial Star Destroyer. But overall I love all the miniature work, the multiple distinctive spaceships that have at least as much personality as the rather thinly drawn characters. The visual effects look very ’80s, but not as cheap as you’d think, and I feel that, at least for someone like me who grew up with this style of effects, they’re mostly rather impressive. It’s also got James Horner’s seminal sci-fi movie score, a prototype of his later work on films like The Wrath of Khan, but also rather blatantly cribbing from Jerry Goldsmith at times — and, wonderfully, making heavy use of Craig Huxley’s Blaster Beam, the distinctive electronic string instrument featured in scores of the era like Star Trek: The Motion Picture, TWOK, and 2010. Plus the set design draws heavily on the stock computer consoles from Modern Props that are found in so many other ’80s movies and TV shows. Making this one of the ’80s-est sci-fi movies of all time, right at the start of the decade!

Story-wise, I actually rather like the film. Sure, it’s just a shallower rehash of The Seven Samurai/Magnificent Seven, and it’s so cluttered with characters that none of them really get much development, but it’s got some clever ideas and worldbuilding, and some nice dialogue from Sayles (though a fair amount of awkward spacey idioms like “forms” for “species” and “end” for “die”). I liked the concepts such as the Nestor group mind and the Kelvins who communicated by heat, all these nifty throwaway bits hinting at a large, rich universe. (I’m actually reminded of Guardians of the Galaxy in a lot of ways; that’s also a film driven largely by antiheroes and somewhat overcluttered with cool ideas that don’t have room to be developed properly.) The biggest story weakness is the climax; I really didn’t understand how the hero finally defeated the villain, since it all seemed to become kind of a random mess at that point. But aside from that, it’s entertaining as long as you’re not looking for something sophisticated or thought-provoking. It has an impressive cast too, including Robert Vaughn (reprising his Magnificent Seven character in all but name), George Peppard (playing a version of the character he auditioned for in M7), John Saxon, Jeff Corey, and Sam Jaffe; however, the actress playing the leading lady, Darlanne Fluegel, is really very weak and disappointing.

So it’s far from a perfect movie, but it’s technically impressive for a Corman film and an exemplar of its time.

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UNCERTAIN LOGIC: Now it’s done!

Last night, I finally sent in the draft manuscript for Rise of the Federation: Uncertain Logic. It took longer than I’d expected, I’m afraid. Turns out the problem with writing the A and B plots separately is that I didn’t have a good sense of what order to put the scenes in, so I had to do a lot of gross restructuring of the manuscript, moving chapters around (and making sure I didn’t lose anything in all the cutting and pasting), before I could even begin on a straight read-through of the entire manuscript. And then, once I did that, I realized that I’d set up a character thread or two in the early chapters (before I decided to work on the plots sequentially) that I’d lost track of by the time I got back to the B plot. So I needed to weave that into the later portions of the B plot, which is good, because it let me vary the character viewpoints a bit more and give some more character texture to a couple of scenes that had been mostly plot. I also managed to do some similar tweaking for the climax and denouement of the A plot. Last time, I mentioned how I’d realized the need to add a scene to the A plot climax to address a deficiency in it, but now I realized that scene wasn’t well-integrated with the character arcs of the rest of that story. So I revised some things to tie it in better and give it more of a payoff at the close of a key character arc, which had the benefit of enriching that closing scene a bit. These are the discoveries you make when you step back to review the whole after focusing on the parts for so long.

Anyway, I’m pretty satisfied with the manuscript as it now stands. It’s certainly a stronger story than Tower of Babel. There are probably a few more things that need work, but those can be addressed in revisions, once I get editorial input. For now, I can finally relax and let it go for a while. But not for too long, since — as I said before — I still want to work out the Book 4 outline pretty promptly. And this time I need to be careful not to overplot it like I did this one. Or the last one, for that matter. UL is the second book in a row where I’ve had to postpone part of the outline to the next book. Clearly I’m overestimating the amount of story I can fit into each book, and while it’s handy that doing an ongoing series gives me the option of postponing material, the need to rework things does disrupt the process and slow me down dangerously, so I need to take more care with my outlining. The problem is, there are already a lot of threads I have in mind to work into Book 4, so I may have to do some picking and choosing.

But that’s to be sorted out later. For now, time to rest.

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