Invaders from Mars (1986)

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When a spacecraft lands in the hill behind the house where David Gardner (Hunter Carson) lives, his parents don’t believe his story. And then they start behaving strangely – and it’s not just them, it’s his ghastly teacher Mrs McKeitch (Louise Fletcher) and horrible little classmate Heather (Virginia Keehne). And as for the police … This remake of the striking and iconic Cold War classic (directed by William Cameron Menzies) falls between the stools of sci fi and horror, in other words right into the lap of auteur Tobe Hooper who was working for the Go-Go boys. David enlists the help of the school nurse (Karen Black, Carson’s real-life mother) who believes his bizarre story. It turns out aliens have landed in order to mine copper and the military are starting to figure out something odd is going on. If this isn’t the classic it might have been, Dan O’Bannon (& Don Jakoby) make a good attempt to scythe fears about parental weirdness, Cold War paranoia and school bullying into this genre piece – which also has something to say about dumb scientists who think they know what aliens are really up to… It all ends in a conflagration. Or does it?! Remember:  never trust a teacher who eats the lab experiments while they’re still alive and watch out for people with Band-Aids on their necks! Based on the original screenplay by Richard Blake with an appearance by the original little boy, Jimmy Hunt, as the police chief.

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The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951)

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Aka Farewell to the Master and Journey to the World. Must I take drastic action in order to get a hearing? When humanoid alien Klaatu (Michael Rennie) arrives on a flying saucer in Washington DC the military takes action and the world takes notice. He’s accompanied by an eight-foot robot called Gort. When Klaatu speaks about world peace a nervous soldier opens fire and he disappears from Walter Reed Hospital where he cures himself. Meanwhile Gort is in front of the spaceship, unmoving. Klaatu hides in plain sight in a boarding house (wearing a suit from a dry cleaner’s bearing the tag ‘Mr Carpenter’) where he is befriended by Bobby (the great child actor Billy Gray) whose widowed mother Helen (Patricia Neal) is a secretary engaged to Tom Stephens (Hugh Marlowe). Bobby goes to Arlington National Cemetery with Klaatu and the alien expresses a desire to meet someone of the calibre of Lincoln. Bobby suggests Professor Barnhardt (Sam Jaffe) but when Klaatu visits he’s out so he writes a solution to a mathematical problem left unfinished on the blackboard with instructions on how to be reached. Klaatu returns with government escort and the men discuss the dangerous nature of atomic power:  Klaatu warns that Earth will be eliminated. Bobby follows him and sees him enter the spaceship. He reports the incident to Helen and Tom and Klaatu visits Helen at work and they enter an elevator that stops – he stops all electricity worldwide for a half hour, demonstrating the incapacity of governments to deal with true power… it all comes to a head when he returns with Helen to Professor Barnhardt and the trigger-happy military shoot him dead after being forewarned by Tom. Until … Klaatu stages a resurrection. This Christ analogy was smothered in censor-friendly form, its pacifist message a radical intervention into Cold War paranoia with superb production design (Frank Lloyd Wright contributed to the UFO!) and a suitably strange soundtrack by Bernard Herrmann. Tightly written by Edmund H. North from a story by Harry Bates and superbly directed documentary-style by Robert Wise, this has many great scenes with some of the best in the boarding house between Rennie and Gray. There’s a reason this is a classic and it’s very resonant today. Remember – Klaatu barada nikito!

When Worlds Collide (1951)

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I’m a sucker for a 50s sci-fi and this is a beauty – gorgeous to look at and filled with everything you expect from the era:  great design (although crucial mattes had to be replaced by less expensive sketches), daft romance, a madman in a wheelchair, a sense of jeopardy – extinction! – and a winning optimism about life outside Earth. Producer George Pal could be considered an auteur in this area and the source material is a couple of novels from the 1930s by Philip Wylie and Edwin Balmer adapted by Sydney Boehm. Pilot David Randall (Richard Derr) has top secret photographs which he brings from South African astronomer Dr Emery Bronson (Hayden Rorke) to American scientist Dr Cole Hendron (Larry Keating) confirming that the planet is in the path of rogue star Bellus. The world is going to end in 8 months and Hendron goes to the United Nations to let everyone know and pleads for space arks to transport a limited number of humans to the passing planet Zyra which orbits Bellus, realising it is humanity’s only hope. He’s not believed and has to get money from wealthy and disabled industrialist Sydney Stanton (John Hoyt) to build the vehicles but Stanton wants to choose the people instead of just being allocated a seat. Meanwhile Joyce Hendron (Barbara Rush – wahey!) falls for Randall, forgetting about her boyfriend.  Everyone is building rocketships, people are being evacuated and the world is about to end:   who will survive the impact of Zyra as it first approaches Earth and causes volcanoes and crashing buildings?  And who will make it onto the arks in this lottery for survival? Soon as anything, there’s a riot going on. Great fun. Directed by Rudolph Mate.

The Wasp Woman (1959)

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Aka Bee Girl and Insect Woman. I’d stay away from wasps, if I were you, Mrs Starlin.  Socially the queen wasp is on the level with a Black Widow spider.  They’re both carnivorous, they paralyze their victims and then take their time devouring them alive.  And they kill their mates in the same way too.  Strictly a one-sided romance! Mad scientist Eric Zinthrop (Michael Mark) has been messing with wasps on a honey farm so he gets fired. Janice Starlin (Susan Cabot) is losing business at her cosmetics company because she’s starting to look old. She funds Zinthrop to extract enzymes from the  royal jelly of a queen wasp provided she is the human subject. But when the wasps start to exhibit violent behaviour Zinthrop doesn’t get to warn Janice before he’s rendered incapacitated in a car crash and while she loses 20 years off her appearance over the weekend she becomes extremely violent without those buzzy injections … Ah, the price you pay for anti-ageing products. One of those great corny Corman mini-classics with cult star Cabot showing exactly why she’s so beloved (even if not by her own son, who murdered her). Some priceless scenes and the transformation is to die for (!). Written by the wonderful actor, screenwriter and novelist, Leo Gordon, whose screen persona belied a great dramatic ability. He was Brooklyn born and reared and after serving in WW2 got shot in an armed robbery which earned him 5 years in San Quentin. He read voraciously in prison and entered the movie business afterwards following training at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts with Grace Kelly. We are duly grateful. The prologue was shot by Jack Hill while producer/director Corman has an uncredited role as a doctor and Barboura Morris has a nice supporting part as Cabot’s secretary, Mary Dennison. Released in a double bill with Beast from Haunted Cave.

Back to the Future (1985)

 

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Are you telling me you made a time machine out of a DeLorean?! Simply great storytelling here in a knotty, brilliantly constructed time travel-adventure-comedy that has a great big throbbing heart bursting with love at its centre. When you consider it came from the wickedly funny minds of Roberts Gale and Zemeckis – remember the amazing Used Cars?! – it seems an even bigger achievement. Marty McFly (Michael J. Fox) is an average teenager in Twin Pines, a small town with a nice square boasting a clock that hasn’t worked since 1955, a cinema running soft porn, and screwed up parents with an alkie mom (Lea Thompson), a meek dad (Crispin Glover), loser sister and a thirty year old brother in a MacJob. He has a cute girlfriend, a skateboard and an eccentric friend called Doc (Christopher Lloyd) a scientist who has wasted his family’s fortune making a ‘flux capacitor’ fuelled by plutonium. Just when the nutty professor manages to prove he can travel back in time with an Eighties sports car (to die for!) the Libyans come calling and when Doc is mown down in a hail of gunfire Marty guns the engines of the DeLorean and at 88mph is catapulted back to the week the town clock stopped working in a lightning storm. He’s initially mistaken for a spaceman and finds that his housing estate is only just being constructed.  He needs to ensure that his parents get together in high school or the future will look very different as he and his siblings’ images begin to disappear from the family photo back in 1985 and Marty’s mom begins to fall for him in one of the more brilliant takes on incest in film history!  Plus he has to get back to 1985 to save Doc’s life in what is literally a race against time! … Fast, sharp-witted and brilliantly inventive, this has the kind of gleaming detail (skateboards, digital watches, Diet Pepsi, puffa jackets for 1985;  Davy Crockett, sci-fi comics, a classic diner, a Barbara Stanwyck oater at the movie theatre for 1955) that makes it almost documentary-like in resonance and relatability. The organisation of the narrative is mind-boggling when you consider the complexity of the story elements. Add in hugely likeable stars, great one-liners, and a genuine sense of fun,  this is proof that you can rewrite history and even get some very subtle revenge on the school bully!  One of the cinema’s evergreen classics, this is tonally perfect:  it just sings with joy. Brilliant.

Donnie Darko (2001)

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This came out right after 9/11 which was its misfortune. It has a rather extraordinary plane crash and it wasn’t that that made me relate to it entirely but it was a factor – one of my most vivid and disturbing dreams concerned a crash in my neighbourhood but that was in the aftermath of the Avianca crash on Long Island in 1990 and I remember afterwards reading in a column that nobody should eat bluefish for rather obvious reasons…. I digress. This begins with one of two songs by two of my favourite bands because there are two versions of the edit. So you see Jake Gyllenhaal cycling through his suburban neighbourhood either to Echo and the Bunnymen’s Killing Moon or INXS’s Never Tear Us Apart:  both forever songs, in my book. He’s a teen who’s off his meds and talks to Frank, a man dressed as a  giant rabbit in the bathroom mirror. Problem is, the rabbit can control him and as he searches for the meaning of life and his big sister (Maggie Gyllenhaal) bugs him and his little sister pursues her dancing ambition and everyone quarrels about voting for Michael Dukakis (because it’s 1988), he starts tampering with the water main flooding his school, a plane crashes into their house and he resents the motivational speaker (Patrick Swayze) who enters the students’ lives while the inspiring Graham Greene story The Destructors is being censored by the PTA.  He burns down the man’s house and the police find a stash of kiddie porn and arrest him. Donnie’s interest in time travel leads him to the former science teacher (Patience Cleveland) aka Grandma Death but his friendship with her leads the school bullies to follow him and she is run down – by Frank. Donnie shoots him.  When he returns to his house a vortex is forming and a plane is overhead and things go into reverse … and Donnie is in bed, just as he was 28 days earlier, when the story starts … Extraordinary, complex, nostalgic, blackly funny and startlingly true to teenage behaviour and perception and life in the burbs, I know there are websites dedicated to explaining this but I don’t care about that. Just watch it. And wonder how Richard Kelly could possibly make anything this good again. Stunning.

The Omega Man (1971)

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Richard Matheson’s vampire-zombie classic I Am Legend got the germ warfare-futureshock treatment in this coolest of cool sci fis. Army doctor Charlton Heston is the last man on earth, saved by a serum, roaming a deserted Los Angeles in daylight two years after the Sino-Russian War has wiped out everyone and he spends his days robbing cars and watching old movies on a loop. Except he’s not alone, he’s trying not to get caught and killed by albino mutants known as The Family, led by former TV host Anthony Zerbe. Then he encounters Lisa (Rosalind Cash) who is in fact part of a group of survivors untouched by the plague. Let battle commence …. This extraordinarily potent thriller still works. Los Angeles looks so strange and empty (they shot on Sunday mornings) and the culture (the Manson-like Zerbe, the Black Power issues) in which it takes place make it very much of the time but somehow it occupies a place of utter plausibility. Screenwriter Joyce H. Corrington was a doctor and insisted on some of the changes to make it more modern. There’s a kiss between Heston and Cash which is pretty historic. When Heston was interviewed years later by Whoopi Goldberg she got emotional mentioning its place as one of the the first interracial kisses in cinema. Heston surprised her by kissing her then and there! The ending is a killer. As a kid I saw this and loved it and seeing it again makes me pat myself on the shoulder. I love Heston. He made such consistently interesting films when he really got his mojo going.  His memoir The Actor’s Life was the first book I ever read by a film star. When I met him at a book signing many years ago for the launch of In the Arena, its follow up, I commented to him that it was the best book on screen acting ever written. He looked at me and in that inimitable Mount Rushmore growl stated categorically:  “This one’s better.” Heston is marvellous but he’s matched every step of the way by the wonderful, interesting cast. This is just super cool, directed brilliantly by Boris Sagal (father of Katey) who died horrifically on a film set a half-dozen years later.

Vanilla Sky (2001)

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Life is but a dream. Within a dream. Within a dream?! Since nobody concerned with this ever really knew what it was about, with 5 possible interpretations of the ending (and there is an alternative ending too…) there’s no reason why the little people should venture a suggestion. It might be that a vanity project for The Cruiser about a feckless publisher (Cruise) who inherited the business from his late papa and winds up in some sort of lucid dream courtesy of a tech company promising eternal life hit the complicated role spot. He romances Sofia (Penelope Cruz) a woman he’s met courtesy of his writer friend Brian (Jason Lee). The other woman, who leaves him disfigured in a car crash is f***buddy Julie played by Cameron Diaz, who’s very good;  while Kurt Russell is the court-appointed psychologist deployed to find out WTF is up with the man behind the mask and his weird visions. A remake of Spanish film Open Your Eyes/Abre los ojos, also starring Cruz, perhaps this was just some kind of Scientology wet dream gone wrong in another case of Let’s remake that movie because all films in other languages seem so much smarter than ours even when they’re utter nonsense. Who can tell?! Wake up, people keep telling Cruise. I know! I know! A very strange misstep for Cruise and Cameron Crowe, but it looks great thanks to John Toll and there’s a fascinating soundtrack (Nancy Wilson, well done). It certainly doesn’t help that the ending involves a skyscraper – in a film released three months after 9/11. Incomprehensible!

Alien: Covenant (2017)

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Updates, eh? Sometimes they work, sometimes they get you in the … Well between computer glitches and Shelley, the Prometheus behemoth is regenerating with this Alien retread and despite my misgivings including the dislikeable casting, I didn’t even look at my watch until ten minutes before the end. Some kind of record. Particularly given the charisma gap here. The Covenant is en route to an intergalactic colony with a coupla thousand peeps and foetuses in pods but a random electrical event causes the death of the Captain (James Franco, gone in sixty seconds) and he’s replaced by deputy Billy ‘Skeletor’ Crudup a religious zealot who sees another planet and decides to stop there instead. Bad move. Because this ain’t paradise and there is not just the pathogen ‘accidentally’ released by Prometheus to contend with, but David 8 (Michael Fassbender) the lone survivor of that ship. And his ‘brother’ Walter (Fassbender) a staple of the Covenant crew meets one of his own kind – family! – for the first time. We’re into mad scientist territory and moreso. It’s only a matter of time before the team including second in command Daniels (beady eyed Katherine Waterston, Franco’s widow) are in all kinds of danger. This can happen when you literally have to recharge your batteries:  so much for technology. This is so fast and furious you never stop to think about the fact that Danny McBride is the guy who’s left to rescue them. Wow. This is more than a human origins/Adam and Eve story:  it’s a proper riposte to the gyno-politics of the series, especially the last one when Dr Elizabeth Shaw (the great Noomi Rapace) carried out her own abortion/Caesarian – and you should see what’s left of her. This is what happens when men decide they want to take charge of reproduction, with obvious debts to more than one Shelley. Written by John Logan and Dante Harper from a story by Jack Paglen and Michael Green. I have one major issue with this. Please stop shooting all sci fis and superheroes on grayscale. I can deal with all the colour spectrum. Really. And I’m not the only one. Put on some lights, use the rainbow. This has been going on for years and I’m sick of it. I will need a coalminer’s lamp next time I go to the movies if this continues. And next time an insect flies into one of your orifices, be very scared indeed … Outer space, innerspace, vive la difference! Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair!

Starman (1984)

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You’re not from round here, are you? I hate to think how long it’s been since I first saw this. C’est la vie, une longue fleuve tranquille! Two of the most charming actors imaginable, Karen Allen and Jeff Bridges, run the gauntlet of officialdom led by the kindly Charles Martin Smith and bad cop Richard Jaeckel when he crashlands on Earth (Wisconsin, to be precise) and mutates into her late husband.  He has three days to meet up with his spaceship in Arizona or stay grounded forever …  Director John Carpenter lends his considerable heft to the mise en scene of one of the gentlest alien films while the transformation scenes are created by the great Rick Baker, Stan Winston and Dick Smith.  It’s blessed by beautifully considered performances in the best meet cute ever. The scenes in Vegas are great fun. Written by Bruce A. Evans and Raynold Gideon with an uncredited rewrite by Dean Riesner, the soundtrack is composed by the estimable Jack Nitzche. Lovely!