Wednesday, April 01, 2015
Tuesday, March 31, 2015
In “Attack of the Monster Plants,” Dr. Smith (Jonathan Harris) deliberately withholds help from Professor Robinson (Guy Williams) when he is attacked by carnivorous plants and dragged into quick sand.
Robinson survives the experience and angrily banishes Smith from the settlement camp…again. But Smith tries to work his way back into the good graces of the family by offering to duplicate the very fuel the Jupiter 2 needs, called Deutronium.
To do so, Smith uses a plant that he has discovered that can duplicate matter. These plants, however, thrive on Deutronium, and want the fuel for themselves.
Before long, Judy (Marta Kristen) is replicated by the plants, and seeks to get her hands on the Robinsons’ remaining supply of the fuel…
“Attack of the Monster Plants” is a strange and sometimes entrancing episode of Lost in Space (1965 – 1968). The episode actually works best on a kind of surreal, dream level. The visuals are sometimes remarkable. At the very least, they are memorable and strange.
For example, Judy Robinson takes a night-time stroll through a grove of giant flowers, goes to sleep inside one, and then a plant duplicate -- mimicking her appearance in every way -- sleepwalks through the remainder of the episode.
For some reason, the night-time stroll, the amorphous menace, and the sense of strangeness all reminded me of I Walked with a Zombie (1943).
Also, there's a weird subtext here worth mentioning. Judy goes to sleep one night normal, but wakes up strange and "alien." Don West tries to approach her, but she is unapproachable in the extreme, remote and monstrous.
There’s some weird Gothic undertone here, a kind of strange Rappaccini’ Daughter angle to the whole thing. Judy, like that literary character is a beautiful being, physically, but a monster in another sense, someone dangerous and not what she seems.
Watching "Attack of the Monster Plants," I felt that the agreeable, happy Judy had been put to sleep, and that a subconscious Judy, one who questions everything (her feelings for Don; her acceptance, even, of the group's dinner ritual...) replaces her. That isn't exactly the substance of the story, but it is one possible interpretation or reading of it.
On a literal level, alas, the episode is no great shakes. For instance, “Attack of the Monster Plants” never explains, at all, why Judy goes to the grove and falls asleep in the giant plant to begin with.
She seems to be hypnotized or under the spell of some force. But we never learn what that force is, or how it is influencing her. Do the cyclamen plants have telepathy? Why is Judy drawn to the plant grove?
And then, adding insult to injury, in the last act, we never learn what becomes of the duplicate Judy.
Do the Robinsons kill her, an intruder in their midst?
Does she shrivel up and die, like the rest of the plants?
This is a huge plot thread to leave hanging, but “Attack of the Monster Plants” provides no resolution. How would Maureen react, seeing her daughter dry up and wither before her eyes? Or, contrarily, how would John feel, having to take a laser to the interloper?
A chance to really explore the characters and their relationships is lost.
And yet, I can't lie, this lack of answers also adds, in some weird way, to the commendable dream-quality of the episode. Everything here is surreal and unexplained, like a nightmare half-remembered.
Even the cyclamen plants -- these giant, weird plants -- are dream-like. They make disturbing, inhuman sounds, and the thought of being surrounded by them (or enveloped by them, as Judy is…) is unnerving in the extreme.
Once more, Smith is handled poorly by series writers. Here, he has the opportunity to save John Robinson, but instead leaves him to die. He then returns to camp, and instead of telling the others that John is danger, pretends that everything is okay. This is evil, and unforgivable. Smith actually goes and makes small-talk with Will (Bill Mumy) while Will’s father is dying!
Then, once Smith has discovered that the plants can duplicate matter, he blackmails the family. He decides that only he and West (Mark Goddard) will return home to Earth, and that the Robinsons will be stranded. Again, his actions are not shaded by nuance. There aren’t two ways to interpret his behavior. He is selfish to the point that he would put his life above the lives of the Robinsons.
After the events of this episode, how can the Robinsons continue to trust him?
That’s a sentence I seem to keep rewriting, in these reviews, and it’s a legitimate concern. For example, this is the third episode out of fourteen in which Smith has been banished (“The Oasis” and “Wish Upon a Star” are the earlier instances) from the camp, but then ends up back in the group.
Clearly, banishment is not a suitable or lasting answer to the problem of Dr. Smith.
I have my solution: stick Smith in the cryo-tube on the Jupiter 2and keep him frozen until the crew gets back to Earth safely. Even if that takes fifty years.
Next week: “Return from Outer Space.”
There’s a moment that feels like authentic cinematic destiny in Alien vs. Predator (2004), or rather, AVP.
From opposite corners -- left and right -- two classic movie monsters enter the same frame, and cast wary eyes on one another for the first time.
The battle is joined.
The moment may work in a manner other than that as well, and perhaps in a way not entirely intended.
A fruition of fan boy dreams and fantasy, this meeting of the monstrous minds may also represent the first time in either franchise’s history that geek or fan desires are, well, pretty much the point of the whole enterprise.
Matters such as story, character, theme and humanity are given short shrift so that two of the greatest silver screen monsters in history can duke it out.
Again and again.
In short, the movie is its title.
You get exactly what the words Alien vs. Predator promise: a wrestling match between two extra-terrestrial menaces of different characteristics, but equal power or strength.
When the film premiered, in 2004, it was advertised with the tag-line “whoever wins…we lose,” and many critics ran with that self-inflicted wound, noting the veracity of the studio advertisement. “We lose” was a symbol, in fact, of any audience unlucky enough to sit through the film.
I felt much the same way in 2004, though -- over a decade -- I’ve come to appreciate Alien vs. Predator quite a bit more.
In part, because of what came after.
If you want to see two of the greatest horror movie monsters treated in genuinely shabby fashion, just spend ninety or so minutes with Alien vs. Predator Requiem (2007). That movie illustrates by example just how much Alien vs. Predator actually gets right.
But moving beyond invidious comparisons to the worst film in either monster line, Alien vs. Predator possesses some merit on its own terms.
First, the 2004 grudge-match features some remarkable and imaginative visualizations, particularly in terms of its flashback sequences.
And secondly, two characters seen in the film manage to make the enterprise feel like more than just a by-the-number monster-on-monster contest.
AVP’s biggest deficits, by contrast, involve the nature of the action -- which is toothless -- and the depiction of the vast majority of human characters. Beyond the two I mentioned above, the majority of the characters are -- as the script describes them -- literally cattle to be manipulated by one “monster” side or the other.
Still, I'll readily admit that I can watch Alien vs. Predator anytime and get a thrill or two out of the experience.
If that’s the benchmark you require of the film of this type, it may be judged a success of sorts.
The disappointment, I suppose, is that the film possesses no ambitious sub-text or theme. Even the flawed Alien Resurrection (1997), by contrast, tried to get some message across to audiences.
Alien vs Predator feels slight or empty, somehow, and therefore not the fitting heir to two remarkable franchises.
“The enemy of my enemy…is my friend.”
In October of 2004, a satellite belonging to robotics genius Charles Bishop Weyland (Lance Henriksen) detects a heat signature 2,000 feet below the ice of Antarctica. Soon, satellite imagery makes out a subterranean pyramid of unknown origin.
Bishop quickly assembles a team, including guide Alexa Woods (Lathan), archaeologist De Rosa (Raoul Bouva), chemical engineer Grame Miller (Ewen Bremner), and mercenaries Verheiden (Tommy Flanagan), Quinn (Casten Norgaard) and Adele Rousseau (Agatha De La Boulene) to investigate the pyramid.
When the team arrives at remote Bouvetøya Island, it discovers that someone else has already drilled down to the vast pyramid. Alexa leads the way down, though she boasts reservations about Bishop, who is dying of lung cancer, participating on the mission.
In the subterranean cave far below, Bishop, Alexa and the other humans discover that they have walked into a trap; a trap sprung by beings called Predators who were once revered as Gods by primitive man.
Now, the human beings are to be "fodder" for another alien race: fierce serpents who gestate inside living human hosts.
Alexa attempts to survive, even as the two alien species go to war.
“It’s time to pick a side.
The idea of ancient astronauts visiting Earth and shaping human culture -- the Von Daniken Theorem -- may be absolute, total hooey in terms of history and science.
But much like Prometheus (2012), Alien vs. Predator utilizes the idea to good effect. Here, it is the hunters, the Predators, who taught man how to construct pyramids, who used us in human sacrifices, and who basically taught mankind the fundamentals of civilization.
Whatever its flaws, Alien vs. Predator’s flashback imagery -- of Predator strutting atop pyramids, hovering spaceships behind them -- remains powerful stuff. The script is clever in the way it accounts for the disappearance of Mayan culture (a hunt gone wrong, and the deployment of a Predator self-destruct mechanism) in terms of franchise history. Similarly, human sacrifices are re-purposed to involve the aliens in a way that is imaginative, and yet doesn’t seem like a stretch.
The best imagery in the film, in fact, involves the Predators and humans battling teeming aliens...defending Earth territory from the “serpents” before that apocalypse occurs. The imagery here is spectacular, and it suggests that aliens and predators have always been with us…we just didn’t know it.
In fact, a truly bold AVP film might have been set during that encounter, in that civilization, with man playing an even more peripheral role. Critics couldn't very well complain about paper-thin characters and characterizations, if no one spoke English, and the main characters were Predator "Gods" in an Aztec or Mayan city.
Another powerful image in the film involves Alexa Woods and the weapons a predator, Scar, gives to her. She receives an alien tail as a spear, and an alien head as a kind of glove/shield/armor that stretches up her arm.
This imagery reveals a lot about how the Predators regard their prey, and -- even more than that -- acts as a pointed call-back to both the flashback scenes, and the finale of Predator (1987).
In the latter case, Dutch (Arnold Schwarzenegger) had to go “primitive” and prehistoric to fight off an alien threat. In this case, Alexa does the same thing. She uses the resources available to stand in battle beside the Predator. The impression, overall, is that we are seeing a timeless partnership replayed in the present for our own eyes.
But a human wielding an alien head as a weapon is an unforgettable visual,
I wish the film had more moments like the ones mentioned above. Instead, Paul W.S. Anderson relies on clichés -- both visual and written -- for much of the film. There’s the dreadful moment that you will recognize from all action movies of the 2000s, in which Scar and Alex, for example, outrun a giant fireball. It’s such a hackneyed visual at this juncture, and could be piped in from any number of insipid buddy movies.
I should probably establish that I am not an Anderson hater, as some folks apparently are. I have written positive reviews of both Event Horizon (1997) and Soldier (1998) on this blog, as evidence of that assertion. But facts are facts. The director crafts Alien vs. Predator with absolutely no sense of suspense of tension.
There is no build-up to the action...it just happens. The film opens in Antarctica on October 10, 1904, for example, and we follow a person being pursued by something, or some things, specifically an alien and a predator. The scene is so rudimentary and by-the-numbers that it makes us feel nothing. The scene’s final jolt doesn’t even provide a good jump scare.
When one considers the level of suspense and terror in Alien (1979), or even in Predator (1987), AVP does not "feel" faithful to what has come before. The filmmakers demonstrate no patience, and do nothing to establish the setting or mood before leaping into the horror moments.
Again and again, the action scenes play out in this fashion with no real tension or suspense underlying them. Most grievously, the final battle on the surface with the Alien Queen plays out this way too. The special effects are fine -- extraordinary even -- but there’s no real sense of danger or surprise in the unfolding of the climax. The movie just hums along, oblivious to the notion that its horror isn’t sticking the landing. We never feel scared or tense; we never feel the pure terror of these warring goliaths.
It would be something if the scare-less movie could make-up for its lack of suspense and tension with a sense of the visually grotesque. Alien and Predator, after all, are both R rated franchises, noted for their violence and gore. But in an attempt to appeal to the widest possible audience, Alien vs. Predator is PG-13, meaning that almost no real, dynamic or memorable violence is depicted.
Every time there is a promise of blood or gore, or even violent impact, the film simply cuts away to another scene, or to a post-impact shot that reveals nothing in terms of damage to body parts.
No real suspense plus no real gore makes Alien vs. Predator a dull boy, or at least a very bland, generic one.
The characters are mostly fodder, too, for poorly-executed, poorly-shot death scenes. Few characters register here in the way that Hudson does in Aliens (1986), for example, or even the way Johner (Ron Perlman) does in Alien Resurrection. There’s just nobody that distinctive or memorable, overall.
With two important exceptions.
First, what sense of humanity Alien vs. Predator possesses arises largely from Lance Henriksen.
This is his third franchise appearance, and his third variation on the Bishop role.We’ve seen the innocent child/android (in Aliens), the malevolent tempter (Alien3) and now the ambitious, determined man behind all that futuristic technology, Charles Bishop. Henriksen brings his trademark humanity to the role, and shows us Bishop the climber (willing to go anywhere to achieve his goal), and Bishop the sick man, facing his own mortality.
Henriksen gets a great scene with Sanaa Lathan in the film; one where he describes how climbing to a new summit is worth the risk, even if death is the result of the journey. The dialogue is good, but Henriksen makes it soar, and grantsthe audience a thorough understanding of this flawed but admirable human being.
I also love his death scene. Refusing to be ignored as harmless (and therefore unimportant) by the Predator, Bishop strikes the hunter with a flame, showing it his teeth. The Predator stops in its track, and gives Bishop the death he has earned, the death of a warrior. It’s a fantastic scene, and in many ways, the highlight of the film's action. Bishop didn’t get to his position of power by being ignored, by being written off as sick.
And if he has to die, he’s going to go out the same way as he lived: noticed and notable.
Secondly, Sanaa Lathan is a solid, promising lead as Alexa Woods. She’s not Ripley, and yet she displays a similar ability to survive by adaptation.
Alexa thinks on her feet, and the audience can see her thinking things through. That quality makes it easy to identify with her, especially since Alexa has to do a lot of catch-up learning about her enemies in the course of the film’s action.
Specifically, I admire Lathan’s tendency not to over-emote, or play things for melodrama. Instead, she keeps just the right amount of distance from the material. There’s one moment in which Scar takes a bloody alien stump to her face, to mark Alexa as a survivor or hunter. She endures it without complaint or drama, but you can see her in her eyes that she is girding herself.
No, she probably doesn’t want an acid scar on her face. But are you gonna stop a Predator in his tracks when he is, in his own fashion, honoring you for bravery?
In short, I feel that Lathan takes the character and material seriously, but doesn’t fall into the actor’s trap of overplaying scenes that, if exaggerated, could transmit as silly.
I have read a lot of reviews that claim the fight scenes in Alien vs. Predator are too dark, but -- having seen Requiem -- I can’t make the same observation. Basically, I could make-out the details of each fight in the film and I would be a liar if I said I didn’t enjoy the battles on some visceral level. Again, if that's all you're looking for, you will find it here, and likely enjoy the film.
My big complaint with the monsters in Alien vs. Predator is that all the Predators are squat and chunky. They look more like over-fed professional wrestlers, than the lean giant hunters we saw in Predator and Predator 2 (1990). A couple of times, I was taken out of the film’s reality by the short, steroidal stature of the Predators here. They resemble muscle-men in costumes more than ever before in franchise history.
There are qualities to admire in Alien vs. Predator, as I hope I’ve enumerated in this review.
So why don’t I like it more?
Perhaps because the pedigree of both franchises is so strong. I feel that the Alien films are mostly great. Same thing with the Predator franchise.
So you put the two monsters together and get a film that is....merely serviceable? I’m not certain how that really serves either franchise in the long run.
But I suppose it did: the film was very profitable (though not as profitable as Prometheus was). Still, the film feels more like a high-concept gimmick than a fully developed, fully coherent narrative at times.
Indeed, there are points throughout where you sense the writer and director struggling for some meaty hook that will carry the movie across the finish line. One such idea: the pyramid is like a prison! The aliens are escaped inmates, and the guards -- the Predators -- need their guns. Another idea: the enemy of my enemy is my friend.
And finally, the script sees bound and determined to feature endless variations of the joke “you are one ugly…fill in the blank.”
So Alien vs. Predator?
Those who choose, may enter.
But you do so at your own risk.
I have taken the plunge at least a couple times, in part for the visually exciting flashback sequences and special effects, and in part because I truly enjoy the performances of Lance Henriksen and Sanaa Lathan.
And again, Alien vs. Predator is masterful, accomplished filmmaking in comparison to the follow-up effort (to be featured here on Thursday): Requiem.
Monday, March 30, 2015
In case you can’t tell from my toy collection, I had a wonderful and happy childhood in New Jersey of the 1970s.
Although my family lived in the town of Glen Ridge (between Montclair and Bloomfield), we would sometimes spend a night in Totowa, New Jersey, about forty five minutes away from our home on Clinton Road.
Well, for one thing, Totowa was the location, in the late 1970s, of the Totowa Drive-In, on Rte. 46.
It was there, in that venue, that my parents saw such films as Last House on the Left (1972), The Legend of Boggy Creek (1972), and Death Race 2000 (1975) while my sister and I were expected to go to sleep in the back of the car.
As I've written about before...we stayed up and peeked.
Of course, we also saw plenty of kid’s movies at the Totowa Drive-In too, mostly Herbie movies from Disney, if memory serves.
But on a day we were going to the Drive-In to see a movie, my Mom would pack us all sub sandwiches, potato chips and homemade blueberry muffins, and we’d all sit in the car together watching the featured movie on the big screen. I remember how twitchy the sound system was, at times, and the big, clunky speakers we'd hang on our windows so we could hear the audio.
But sometimes, when we were in Totowa for movie, we also visited a store that I possess vivid memories of to this day: Two Guys.
What was Two Guys? Well, it was a discount chain that had a hundred or so locations in New York, Pennsylvania, Connecticut, and Jersey from about 1946 to 1982.
The store sold Vornado Brand appliances and fans, but had much more to offer as well. The giant store in Totowa had a lumber department, a grocery store, a toy department, a soda/ice cream counter, and a house wares section, for instance. I know there were Two Guys locations in Middletown, East Hanover and Cherry Hill too, but I remember primarily, the Totowa store.
When you first walked in, there was a huge midway. And there, on that path, was a pre-Atari 2600, free-standing Pong game unit, at least for a while. So we would go to Two Guys, buy sodas and my parents would engage in Pong battles for a good long while.
When I discussed Two Guys (originally known as Two Guys from Harrison) with my Dad the other day, he mentioned to me that we also got our first screen tent -- for cross-country camping -- at the Two Guys located in Totowa.
In 2015, I still carry memories of at least one particular visit to Two Guys. It was late at night -- or at least dark out -- perhaps after a trip to the Drive-In, and we went inside.
In the toy department there were rows of Star Trek: The Motion Picture (1979) toys that I had never seen in Toys R Us or other toy store, and which I would never see for sale again, except in the collectible market.
For example, I remember distinctly seeing the Electronic U.S.S. Enterprise from South Bend, as well as the electronic “phaser guns” and belt buckles from the same manufacturer.
I assume, perhaps incorrectly, that Two Guys -- a discount store -- had these toys in stock because they were poor sellers. I remember wanting these toys very badly, but for seventies dollars, they were very expensive.
Not long after that visit -- in the early 1980s -- Two Guys went out of business and was replaced by a store called Bradlees, another chain that is out of business now too.
The Totowa Drive-In is no longer operating, either.
Yet all these places live on in my memories.
I haven't been to Totowa in many years (probably since the late 1980s...), but I do remember the great times I spent there with my family long, long ago, watching movies, playing Pong, and lusting for starship toys.
I told my son, Joel the other night that if I could time travel with him, I'd take him to Totowa in the late seventies to see Star Wars at the drive-in theater, and then buy him some ice cream and toys at Two Guys.
He told me, without batting an eye, that it was a bad idea, because I might run into my younger self.
And what if I bought him a toy that young JKM was supposed to own?
The whole universe would succumb to a reality-shattering paradox!
That's my boy.