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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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