Friday, May 21, 2010

Now Available on DVD: Strange New World (1975)

My friend Fred alerted me this week to the fact that this, the third "Genesis II"-style pilot from Great Bird of the Galaxy, Gene Roddenberry, called -- Strange New World -- is now available on DVD, via the Warner Archive.

From the press release:

Cult icon John Saxon (Enter the Dragon) battles clones, barbarians, beasts and more in this startling sci-fi adventure based on concepts developed by Gene Roddenberry, the visionary creator of Star Trek. After 180 years in a cryogenic freeze, a trio of astronauts returns to Earth, only to find giant asteroids have devastated the planet. Roaming across America's vast wastelands, they encounter weird new cities, strange civilizations and bizarre descendants of Earth's distant past. Co-written by Academy Award winner Walon Green (The Wild Bunch), Strange New World features foxy film femmes Martine Beswick (Thunderball), Catherine Bach (The Dukes of Hazzard) and 1974 Playmate of the Year Cynthia Wood (Apocalypse Now) in an otherworldly thriller where Earth itself is the final frontier.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Sci-Fi Wisdom of the Week

"'re going to find that many of the truths we cling to depend greatly on our own point of view."

- Obi Wan Kenobi, Return of the Jedi (1983

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

May the Force Be With You: The Star Wars Blogathon

The Star Wars blogathon at Sci-Fi Drive begins today.

My good friend and brilliant film blogger, J.D. at Radiator Heaven, has already fired the opening salvo here, with his remembrance of the landmark 1977 film by creator George Lucas. He opens his retrospective with feelings I share:

"For many of my generation, the first Star Wars film (1977) was a defining moment of our childhood and so I always look back at it in a nostalgic way."

I agree with J.D. I'm part of "the Star Wars generation" (I first saw it when I was seven years old...) and the first three movies form part of my psychic gestalt in ways so deep that I probably can't consciously process or fathom them.

Here on the blog, starting in 2005, I began to look back at the Star Wars films with my "Star Wars Blogging" project. I watched all six films in storyline sequence (Episode I to Episode VI). Ultimately, I dropped the project after reviewing Episode IV: A New Hope, in part because I felt stymied by The Empire Strikes Back (1980). It's such a great, classic film, and whenever I set out to review it, I felt I wasn't doing it justice. But I know that some day, I'll get there (And then, finally, I'll get to Return of the Jedi.)

To celebrate the occasion today, here's some of what I wrote about the 1977 film back in 2008:

I'm old enough to remember when this film (or this "episode") was titled simply...Star Wars.

Yep, I was in the second grade when I first saw Star Wars in May of 1977 and it was -- without exaggeration -- a film that changed my life. It is easy to be disdainful or dismissive of such claims, I suppose, if you weren't there, or didn't live through that time. How can any movie -- especially a "fantasy" about a "galaxy far far away" change someone's life? Well, part of what I hope to blog about today is the manner in which Star Wars got so many details right. George Lucas's film was so carefully crafted, so intelligently conceived, it opened up a new universe of possibilities in terms of cinema science fiction and in that way, it inspired a generation (maybe two).

First of all, I'd like to begin the discussion with the idea of Star Wars' antecedents and the considerable creativity it draws from them. In making his spectacular film, creator George Lucas gazed back to the space adventures of yesteryear. In simple terms, this means primarily the 1930s adventures of Buck Rogers and Flash Gordon. In fact, Lucas had sought to option the Flash Gordon property first...before deciding on creating his own original universe.

In 1987, Lucas also noted (on stage with Gene Roddenberry) that he had watched Star Trek reruns while writing Star Wars. You can also point to many important similarities between Star Wars and other literary and film epics. In broad strokes, C3PO physically resembles the robot from Metropolis (1927). Luke's home world of Tatooine is not that different conceptually (down to the giant critters...) from Frank Herbert's description of Arrakis in Dune. Much of the space combat (deliberately...) evokes memories of the aerial battles in 1949's Twelve O'Clock High. And as Roger Ebert once pointed out, the characters of R2-D2 and C3PO pay tribute - after a fashion - to characters and situations appearing in Kurosawa's The Hidden Fortress (1958).

None of this matters, however, in the long term, because George Lucas made a derivative film in an inspired, utterly genius fashion. He re-combined diverse elements in Trek, Flash Gordon, Twelve O'Clock High, Metropolis etc. into something daring, original. swashbuckling and new. He did what the best artists always do: he took the best and left the rest. Lucas didn't steal "the essence" of those earlier (popular) productions and books, but instead captured their spirit, the things that people enjoyed about them. He thus emerged with something creative and different.

Contrast for just a minute that approach with the one might have taken, had he re-made Flash Gordon. We are now living in the Remake Age, and know what that's all about, don't we? I see artists today remaking the things they loved as kids (as Lucas picked up on things he loved in various productions), but despite co-opting the property name, failing to capitalize on the spirit and essence of the subject matter. I must admit, I was highly disappointed in George Lucas when he sued Universal over Battlestar Galactica, because he was claiming that series "stole" his ideas in Star Wars when they really weren't his ideas to begin with. No, he took the ingredients from other productions, mixed them together...and emerged with utter joy and genius. Lucas shouldn't have attempted to deny others the same creative process. But that's a discussion for another day.

So one thing that Star Wars got very right in the final analysis, was its re-shaping and synthesizing of old influences into a new and creative original. Lucas picked remarkably well, if you think about it. He found a model for his space battles that made them seem realistic (from World War II aerial combat) rather than confusing; he granted his inhuman characters (droids) human characteristics thanks to Kurosawa's film, and so forth. Again, I'm not saying he stole anything. I'm saying he used familiar ingredients but mixed them in an original and creative way.

But Star Wars also got so many other things right. Foremost among these was his decision to create a "lived in" universe. Go back to 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) or Space:1999 (1975-1977) -- two productions I love, by the way -- and you see a marvelous view of man's technological future. It is white-on-white, minimalist and also remarkably sterile. While I groove on that vision, it is not difficult to see how Lucas went in the opposite direction, imagining a messy universe where spaceships don't always operate right, where there are items stored in every corner, and where robots have carbon scoring and dings on their mechanical bodies. The brilliance of this is that the universe does not look like it was created in a day by a production designer; but rather that it has been there all along...aging, gathering dust, falling apart. That viewpoint adds tremendously to the "realism" factor of Star Wars. Make no mistake, Star Wars represents a huge shift in the cinema's visual paradigm. The next step (after Star Wars) was represented by Alien (1979) and Blade Runner (1982).

Go back and study the interior of the Jawa's Sand Crawler for a moment to see evidence of what I'm talking about here. This cramped, dark locale is almost anti-futuristic in conception. It is home for droids of every possible variety and so looks like the greatest yard sale, flea market or thrift store in the galaxy. The level of detail is amazing, but more to the point, Lucas's approach to photographing this setting is amazing: he doesn't linger. He doesn't explain. He doesn't provide background, exposition or detail on who these droids are, where they were made, or how they got here. What's important is that they are here, and speak to the "history" of the Sand Crawler's journey. Each droid has a story, no doubt, but we are not privy to it. (Sequel?)

What I'm writing about here is the confident and dedicated manner in which Lucas creates in one film - from whole cloth - a universe that boasts a history and therefore resonates with viewers. Again and again, this is the case, and I find it rather amazing. For instance, look at the Dianoga (the creature in the trash compactor): it's somebody's pet alligator that got flushed down the toilet, right? How did it get there? When did it get there? Who, specifically put it there? Those questions are left unasked and truly unimportant. But from the setting (a trash compactor), we get the idea, and the monster itself is just another shade of this highly-detailed universe.

Also, I love the shape and cadence of the dialogue preceding the final confrontation between Ben Kenobi and Darth Vader in A New Hope, because it's all about history. History that - the first time you saw this film -- you had no knowledge of. "You should not have come back," says Vader [italics mine]. "The circle is complete." "When last we met I was but the learner. Now I am the Master." Etc. These characters constantly reference situations which we, as audience members, know absolutely nothing about. This is the end of Ben Kenobi's journey and yet this first film in the Star Wars cycle (though fourth in the chronology). We are spoon-fed nothing. In fact, we're asked to keep up, really...

I suspect George Lucas doesn't get enough credit for the "generational" aspect of the Star Wars mythos. He had no idea if his film would ever spawn a sequel (or prequels, for that matter). He could have set the story simply in the "now" of Star Wars with no sense of history, scope or scale. But instead, he seeded the mythic, generational material deeply into the film, providing the sense of both an age past (the Age of the Jedi) and the age in process (the Age of the Galactic Empire). In some senses, Lucas might have made a simpler, more straightforward (and much more manageable...) film without all the references to "ancient religions" and "ancient weapons." But instead, he had his characters reference (unfamiliar...) history, in the process making his universe all the more realistic.

This element of Star Wars occurs over and over again. Leia reports that only Darth Vader could be "so bold," to attack her ship, meaning that she knows him, or at least knows of him. The big deal here is that the story takes place in media res, with no sense of introduction or beginning, and so there is the sense that we are "swept" up in it without knowing everything. Star Wars seemed to move at a breathtaking pace when released because it throws everything at you at once, new action and historical information alike. It's a film alive with information. Not necessarily, explained information, but information nonetheless.

I think this is important because before Star Wars it was much more difficult to believe in the worlds created by Hollywood sci-fi movies. Logan's Run for all its various and sundry wonders, appeared to be set in a futuristic shopping mall, and was based on 1970s apocalyptic/futuristic thinking. Star Trek, even by 1977, looked dated to my eyes. Space:1999 appeared very realistic but like the other productions I've mentioned here, it was grounded deeply in our pre-millennial reality (spaceships were a product of the 20th century, and so were the Earth men featured on the show).

By contrast, Star Wars seemed to create an entire universe of Wookies, Droids, Jedi, Sand Crawlers, Jawas, Tusken Raiders, and Empire from whole cloth. Had any single detail or effect been wrong, had any element of the movie appeared fake or superficial, the entire endeavor would have been scuttled. In my opinion, this is why Star Wars remains a great and watershed film. There are a million little things that the film just nails, from the moment when Ben pulls a light saber out of an old trunk (filled with other mementos which garner no attention...), to the big things, like the scale and complexity of the Death Star...which is awesome.

Monday, May 17, 2010

CULT MOVIE REVIEW: Daybreakers (2010)

I don't write these words lightly, but the 2010 vampire horror film Daybreakers boasts a premise worthy of Rod Serling and his famous creation, The Twilight Zone.

This film by the Spiereg brothers involves a "new world order" of the year 2019. A global pandemic has toppled humanity, transforming people everywhere into glowing-eyed blood-suckers. The world shuts down by daylight, and civilized society thrives by night.

But ironically, it's much the same world. Except that now the coffee shops serve blood. Otherwise, there's still cable news, international warfare, and conspicuous consumption. Big corporations (and Big Pharma, specifically) are still calling the shots.

A few remaining humans have resisted assimilation into the ranks of the undead and are now being "farmed" by the hungry vampire businesses for their precious blood. Meanwhile, human blood supplies run perilously, irrevocably low. There's just enough human blood left to feed the population for a month.

And when vampires can't drink blood, they physically and mentally devolve into monstrous, mindless bat-like things called "Subsiders." A threat to national security, these Subsiders are ruthlessly put down by the U.S. Military. (And if you think about it a little, the Subsiders are not just former vampires, but former humans too!)

Many aspects of this concept struck me as impressive. The first is that it relates to George A. Romero's artistic impetus for creating his Night of the Living Dead film franchise in the first place.

Decades ago, Romero wrote an unpublished story called "Anubis." In the opening gambit (which ultimately became the 1968 film) a zombie was chased and exterminated by armed human soldiers while fleeing over a hill. Then, during the last shocking scene of the story, another solitary figure ran across that same hill. But the social order had flipped. The pursuer was now the pursued. "We see it's an army of zombies, chasing a human with an injured, bleeding leg," Romero noted in The Zombies That Ate Pittsburgh, (Paul R. Gagne, Dodd, Mead & Co., 1987, page 24).

The tale was an allegory, Romero specifically suggested, one about shifting social orders. It was about how there was this massive change, this massive revolution. Yet in some very important ways, things remained absolutely the same. I should note too that Romero was also greatly inspired by Richard Matheson's 1954 vampire tale, I Am Legend, and Matheson's idea of a new social order and a lone human attempting to defy it.

Daybreakers represents a smart, high-tech, visually-adroit variation on this theme. It stakes out some original territory too, in part because the point of attack is different. Night involved the onset of the crisis point, the origination of a new, alien population in America and the scatter-shot, confused human response to this invasion. I Am Legend began at the end; when it was all over for mankind except the crying; when the lone human survivor, Neville, was but a Boogeyman, a night-time story used to scare vampire kiddies. But importantly, the book still adopted Neville's human perspective in his efforts to reverse the disease that turned humans into vampires.

Daybreakers doesn't begin with the pandemic that changes man into literal vampires; and it doesn't start with a human being fighting back, either. Instead, the movie opens with "the new normal," with the work-routine of a vampire hematologist, Edward (Ethan Hawke). He is working hard on a problem in his capacity as a scientist at Bromley Marks: creating a blood-substitute that can feed the starving vampire population of the world.

Interestingly, the meek Edward is depicted in the film as the equivalent of a human vegetarian. He "pities" the humans and doesn't drink their blood, believing instead that there is a synthetic alternative, so as to avoid a human holocaust. His all-business boss, Bromley (Sam Neill) isn't so certain. "There will always be those who are willing to pay a little extra for the real thing," he suggests.

The vampire dilemma in Daybreakers reflects our current situation in a clever fashion. In particular, the movie involves resources, and the way that our society uses them up without wide-spread thought of conservation, without thought of replacement. To survive the extinction of humans, the vampire culture in Daybreakers requires a paradigm shift to a new, sustainable way of life. In real life, most of us know about Peak Oil, we know our way of life is unsustainable, and yet -- like the vamps -- we don't change our behavior. The Spill Baby Spill crowd wants to keep gulping down the black blood of the Earth, certain it will last forever. And when it's mostly gone, the lucky rich folk can pay a little extra to gets what's left, and thereby maintain their affluent lifestyle, right? But what about the rest of us "Subsiders?"

Daybreakers is packed with social commentary like that. According to the back story, the vampire "revolution" occurred in 2008. Well now, America itself underwent a dramatic change in leadership in 2008 and the question we face today might be the same question raised in the film. How much, substantively, has changed? We still have talking heads arguing on cable TV, we still have war, and we still have big corporations calling the shots. Even the Subsiders, who can't afford the high-priced blood sold on the free market, seem like a metaphor for the less fortunate among us: the homeless, the poor, those who can't make it in a wealthy, technological society where real wages have been going down for a decade. When people can't get what they want and what they need, do they devolve into irrational monsters, or just Tea Baggers?

Stylistically, Daybreakers proves rather artistic and accomplished too. The world of the vampires is presented in a silvery-blue hue. This metallic color palette eschews depth, color and most importantly, warmth. That's the very quality the vampires lack too; warmth, compassion. By contrast, the human world depicted in the film is one of sun-washed gold and heat; of warmth and natural beauty. The visualizations make for a powerful and clear contrast, and reflect well the story's narrative,

Alas, as is often the case, Daybreakers can't seem to sustain itself on intriguing ideas and good visualizations for its entire running time. Eventually it devolves too, into chases, bloody vampire attacks, and action, action, action. The hackneyed ending is especially a let-down. Commendably, the movie doesn't end with typical Hollywood B.S. -- such as an absolute victory of humanity over the vampires.

But still, the film's final sequence revolves around familiar action cliches that you see coming from a mile away, and depends on pretentious "heroic" shots (in grandiose slow-motion, no less.) The film's final shot of an endless highway provides a good metaphor for the journey still not undertaken (the paradigm-shift towards sustainability just broached, perhaps) but comes after so many mock heroics, so many unbelievable moments, that it seems like too little too late.

In the age of Twilight, vampire movies require a paradigm-shift towards sustainability too, and Daybreakers nearly gets there. At the very least, it's a promising start.