An imaginary Arizona locale and desert town is the eerie setting for science-fiction author Ray Bradbury’s story of alien visitors from another world who, on their mission to a different part of the galaxy, accidentally crash land on planet Earth.
Writer and amateur astronomer John Putnam (sci-fi stalwart Richard Carlson), a recent resident of the aptly named Sand Rock, is sharing a cozy, romantic evening with local girl Ellen Fields (beautiful Barbara Rush), a grade-school teacher by profession. Suddenly, the couple witnesses a fiery meteor (or something close to it) streak across the nighttime sky.
Wasting no time, the curious pair drives out to the nearby crash site. As Putnam approaches what he believes to be a spacecraft of some kind, an unexpected landslide buries the contents within — but not before he (and the viewer, ostensibly) get a glimpse of what lies inside.
Hideous and horrible, the aliens are not your garden variety space invaders, but are instead intelligent and, it is later learned, benign beings with expansive minds and souls of their own. Unfortunately, they also have single bulbous eyes, amorphous, gelatinous bodies and the ability to assume the identity and appearance of the local populace.
Even worse, not everyone shares Putnam’s interest and curiosity about the alien visitors, especially after several of the town’s citizens mysteriously disappear and the only hardware store in sight is robbed of its electrical supplies. Hmm… what could those pesky aliens want with electrical supplies? Maybe, repair their damaged ship? Or get going with their interrupted mission?
Fear and paranoia soon grip the dusty abode, which is patrolled by chain-smoking Sheriff Matt Warren (Charles Drake). An old boyfriend of Ellen’s, Matt is overly protective of her and skeptical of Putnam’s crackpot theories about aliens. He’s not too keen on strangers either, benign or otherwise.
“Why don’t they come out into the open? Matt asks Putnam.
“Because they don’t trust us,” Putnam replies. “Because what we don’t understand we want to destroy.”
“I kill only what tries to kill me,” Matt fires back.
Putnam tries to talk some sense into the highly strung lawman. He points to an approaching arachnid.
“That spider. Why are you afraid of it? Because it has eight legs? Because its mouth moves from side to side instead of up and down? If it came at you, what would you do?”
“This,” as the sheriff crushes the spider under his boot. Point taken, point made!
Despite this seeming setback, Putnam is able to convince Matt to give him and the alien visitors more time to repair their ship. The aliens eventually release their captives and, returning to their original disgusting forms, leave the Earth in the same manner in which they approached, spewing forth a fiery trail in the sky.
A true classic of the genre, It Came from Outer Space tries to live down that egregious title and live up to its well-deserved reputation as one of the few soberly-minded and intelligently conceived sci-fi flicks of the 1950s.
Originally filmed in the 3-D process (though always shown flat in its television screenings), It Came from Outer Space was Universal-International’s first foray into the science-fiction field. In fact, the 3-D effects are rather subdued and less “in-your-face” than other examples from the period. For pure shock value, a creepy film score (credited to Irving Gertz, Henry Mancini, and Herman Stein) penetrates the soundtrack whenever the aliens are caught looming about. You may remember this theme from the old Saturday night Creature Features showcase from the 1960s and ’70s.
One of the unfortunate aspects of this and other similar releases was the studio’s bowing to Fifties convention, whereby the men are given the decisive, upright role as defenders of the realm — true movers and shakers, for good or for bad (see Howard Hawks’ The Thing from Another World).
This attitude relegated most of the women’s parts to pure window dressing or easily excitable observers. The scene in which Barbara Rush, as Ellen, answers the doorbell and screams her fool head off as she spots a boy decked out in a space invader’s outfit (with toy ray-gun in hand), is a good example of old-fashioned female hysterics.
Curiously, in another scene, the behavior of a sobbing Mrs. Frank Daylon (Virginia Mullen), the wife of one of the missing telephone linemen, contrasts sharply with that of the other missing lineman’s floozy girlfriend, Jane Dean (Kathleen Hughes). While Mrs. Daylon expresses spousal concern that Frank (Joe Sawyer) had skipped his meal and hasn’t been “himself” of late, Jane is more flippant about Frank’s partner, George (Russell Johnson):
“His landlady told me he skipped dinner. That ain’t like George, not with his appetite.” I’ll bet!
At 81 minutes, the film is compact and concise. The special effects (done via mirrors, split-screens, double exposures, swirling mists, and such) are state-of-the-art, for its time. And despite the description of the scene with Ellen, the acting is relatively low key. Subtlety and nuance, an inescapable feeling of being watched and an atmosphere of impending dread are underscored in the thoughtfully developed dialogue, courtesy of screenwriter Harry Essex. The black-and-white cinematography (by Clifford Stine) stresses the silvery noir elements. The picture was partially filmed on location in the surrounding Mojave Desert area of California, which lent a good deal of authenticity.
The movie also boosted the career of veteran documentary-maker and director Jack Arnold. Arnold went on to lend credibility to the burgeoning sci-fi arena with his subsequent outings, The Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954), with Carlson again in the lead, Revenge of the Creature and Tarantula (both from 1955 and both starring John Agar), The Incredible Shrinking Man (1957), a classic of classics, and the underrated The Space Children (1958).
In many ways, It Came from Outer Space is as rich and timely today as it ever was. Its lessons about reaching out to those in need, who may be as different from us as night is from day; to extend a helping hand and grasp the thing we’re most repelled by — by learning to overcome our basest fears and extinct for survival, while trying to understand the abnormal ways of others — continue to fascinate as well as entertain.
As the bulbous creatures fly off into the night, Putnam looks back at them in wonder and awe:
“It wasn’t the right time for us to meet,” he contemplates solemnly. “But there’ll be other nights, other stars to watch. They’ll be back.”
Indeed they will — and quite a different message from the earlier The Thing, where audiences were issued a dire warning to keep watching the skies for trouble, or the one delivered by the cultivated Klaatu in The Day the Earth Stood Still, about our bringing violence to other planets.
We need only examine another “alien invasion” feature in French-Canadian director Denis Villeneuve’s Oscar-nominated Arrival (2016), which starred Amy Adams in a glowing performance as a linguist charged with translating an indecipherable alien language that could save the world from unintended destruction.
Copyright © 2017 by Josmar F. Lopes
The eerie sound of the theremin (two of them, in fact) begins this early fifties feature. The instruments are accompanied by two groaning Hammond organs and bass-pedal notes in the lower strings. Next, the brass section takes over with a muffled fanfare, suspiciously reminiscent of the opening theme to Richard Strauss’ tone poem Also Sprach Zarathustra, famously used in Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey from 1968.
The sensation we get is of being taken for a ride through the vast regions of space. Slowly approaching what appears to be the Earth, the soundtrack starts to fade away, leaving behind a staccato accompaniment for piano. The music now follows the trajectory of a mysterious craft hurtling itself toward our atmosphere at tremendous speed.
All the while, the spacecraft is being tracked by military intelligence and radar. Foreign countries are also monitoring the ship’s progress, as its final destination is revealed: the city of Washington, D.C., capital of the United States of America — the bedrock of freedom and democracy in a troubled world.
Almost immediately, newspapers and radio and television commentators from around the globe broadcast the event in cautious but barely controlled concern for what this might mean. One radio personality boasts of the lovely spring weather amid the burgeoning tourist season.
Without warning, the brightly lit form of the spacecraft hovers into view. It flies directly above the Capitol Building, the Washington Monument, and the castle-like structures of the Smithsonian Institution. This startles the gathering crowd who follows the ship as it lands softly on a grassy lawn.
Army and military personnel, as well as tanks, jeeps, guns, and soldiers, have been dispatched to the scene. They assemble and surround the craft in nervous anticipation of what is to come. After a few tense moments, a walkway juts out from the body of the craft. An invisible door slides opens and out pops what looks like a male figure in silvery spacesuit and bubble helmet.
The visitor is an alien emissary from space who has come to Earth bearing only peace and goodwill. His sign of friendship and understanding, however, are taken for aggression when he draws what may be a weapon from inside his suit. An anxious soldier opens fire, hitting the helpless visitor in the shoulder, who instantly falls to the ground. The other soldiers approach the wounded visitor reticently, but just as suddenly Gort, a metallic eight-foot tall robot, comes into view. The soldiers and crowd are aghast at this incredible sight. The robot’s visor slowly opens and a powerful, laser-like beam is thrust upon the military’s tanks and weapons, immediately disintegrating them.
Struggling to take control of the situation, the visitor halts the onslaught with a few carefully chosen words to the gigantic being. Recovering from the fall, he rises to his feet and retrieves the damaged “weapon.” The visitor then tells an uncomprehending soldier that it was a gift for the U.S. president. “With it, he could have studied life on the other planets.” So much for friendly greetings!
He also brings with him a dire warning which he intends to deliver at a proposed mass meeting of Earth’s leaders. But his intentions are misunderstood by a paranoid society unwilling to listen or to compromise. Impatient with the usual authority figures, including the president’s cynical secretary Mr. Harley, the gentlemanly alien named Klaatu escapes Walter Reade Hospital and his Washington, D.C., confines to learn for himself what makes these mysterious Earth creatures tick.
Michael Rennie is the cultivated, intellectually superior (and veddy British) Klaatu. He’s joined by sympathetic office worker Patricia Neal as Helen Benson — not exactly a love interest, but someone to play off of; Billy Gray (before his Father Knows Best period) as her inquisitive son Bobby; and soon-to-be popular sci-fi staple Hugh Marlowe (Earth vs. the Flying Saucers) as Tom Stevens, who later fingers the alien for capture by the U.S. Army (darn those pesky diamonds!).
This is science fiction film noir at its finest, and one of the very best of its kind. Twentieth Century-Fox’s The Day the Earth Stood Still became an instant movie classic upon its release, which, despite the Cold War origins, has not aged a single day since its premiere.
Compare this flick to RKO’s The Thing from Another World, also from 1951, which took a more skeptical view of science by giving the “grunts” the last word. Here, military might bows to sheer brainpower in the person of the seemingly benign Klaatu. The central section has Klaatu rendering the Earth helpless by literally stopping it dead in its tracks — everyone and everything, that is, except planes in flight and ships at sea, along with hospitals, emergency wards, and the like.
The film gathers strength when Klaatu, after calling upon the friendly but eccentric Professor Barnhardt (the “smartest man in the world,” according to young Bobby), becomes a hunted fugitive. Gunned down while trying to make his escape, Klaatu charges Helen Benson with the survival of mankind. The fate of the world rests on her remembering three words: Klaatu barada nikto.
Veteran character actor Sam Jaffe plays the scholarly Professor Barnhardt in a proto-Einstein hairdo. His initial meeting with the alien, as well as Klaatu’s growing (but unrealized) friendship with Mrs. Benson and especially her son Bobby, are the movie’s closest encounters. However, jealousy and suspicion permeate the ethos where Mrs. Benson’s self-centered boyfriend Tom is concerned. Tom is representative of humankind as a whole, i.e., always in a hurry to move on and get ahead, but failing to look at the damage being done to those who fall behind. Sadly, this movie’s tenets are as true today as they were over six decades ago.
Others in the cast include Frank Conroy as Mr. Harley, Frances Bavier (Aunt Bee in the Andy of Mayberry series), Olan Soulé, Carleton Young, Fay Roope, Freeman Luske, and real-life news personalities Elmer Davis, Drew Pearson, and H.V. Kaltenborn. The role of the menacing robot Gort (a truly awesome creation) is played by seven-foot-four-inch Lock Martin, who was an usher at Grauman’s Chinese Theater. He had to wear two different metallic costumes, one for the front view and one for the back, due to a conspicuous, non-photogenic zipper running down the length of each costume.
Former movie editor Robert Wise directed in clinical, almost documentary-style fashion, while film composer Bernard Herrmann (Citizen Kane, The Ghost and Mrs. Muir) provided the spare music score. As indicated above, his and fellow colleagues Miklos Rozsa and Dimitri Tiomkin’s use of the theremin gained widespread exposure for this exotic-sounding instrument.
Keep alert to the many Christian and allegorical references spread throughout the script — for example, Klaatu’s untimely death and miraculous “resurrection” near the end, and his earthly alias (“Mr. Carpenter,” get it?). The original short story, “Farewell to the Master,” by Harry Bates, was considerably altered for this movie adaptation, which is credited to screenwriter Edmund H. North (Flamingo Road, Young Man with a Horn).
The basic plot was semi-reworked for the excellent 1999 animated picture The Iron Giant, directed by Brad Bird and released by Warner Bros. Do stay away from the hopelessly inept 2008 Keanu Reeves/Scott Derrikson remake, or face obliteration! Late in his career, Michael Rennie made a well-received 1966 comeback in the two-part “The Keeper” episode for the Irwin Allen-created Lost in Space. Prior to that, Rennie starred as Harry Lime in the Anglo-American series The Third Man (1959-1965).
The film dares to ask: What is man’s place in the universe? And how can his destructive nature be contained? At this stage in our development, Klaatu’s apocryphal sendoff is worth repeating: “Should you extend your violence, this Earth of yours will be reduced to a burned-out cinder. We will be waiting for your answer.”
Copyright © 2017 by Josmar F. Lopes
One is an old Cold War relic, the other a modern-esque tale of paranoia run rampant. Which is “better”? And which is the more “relevant,” in terms of translating the original source material into a viable shocker for present-day movie audiences?
These are good points to ponder, but do we have an answer? No, but it’s worth spending a little time on the relative merits of these two equally effective science-fiction classics: RKO Radio Pictures’ The Thing From Another World released in 1951, and Universal’s The Thing from 1982. Both pictures address the theme of overly-aggressive visitors from outer space; both attribute their themes to issues prevalent at the time of their release; and both require their ensembles casts to come up with ingenious solutions to the problems presented by unfriendly aliens.
In addition to the above criteria, there is the presumption throughout that science, for all the sanity and wisdom it has imparted to explaining the unexplainable, is simply incapable of overcoming the complexities that humanity will face when confronted by factors beyond their knowledge or control.
The Thing From Another World (1951)
The premise: A flying saucer is found frozen in the Arctic Polar Region. Alerted to its presence, a salvage team of American research scientists, along with various military types, head out to the icy tundra in order to intercept and retrieve it.
In attempting to free the saucer from the permafrost, the military accidentally destroy the ship, only to discover that the alien passenger onboard has been flung into the ice. Instantly frozen by the subzero temperatures, the alien is rescued, in a manner of speaking, and brought to the scientists’ compound, with an around-the-clock guard keeping close tabs on the block of ice.
Unfortunately for the guard on duty, he places an electric blanket over the block so as not to gaze at the loathsome visitor’s creepy eyes, not realizing that the blanket’s warmth melts the surrounding ice. Within hours, the creature escapes the compound and goes on a violent rampage in order to preserve its kind.
A quintessential fifties sci-fi thriller, The Thing From Another World eerily mirrors the gathering Communist storm — and existential threat of that era — by echoing the American response to it. In addition to which, it took into account the increasingly frequent UFO sightings made after 1947. The film is in director Howard Hawk’s inimitable “chatty” style, i.e., abounding in overlapping dialogue with staccato delivery, spoken by a predominantly male cast and the lone wise-cracking female scientist (now there’s a modern angle to boast of). Although the direction is credited to Hawks’ assistant, Christian Nyby, the style is unmistakably that of the veteran of such classic pictures as The Big Sleep, His Girl Friday, and Red River.
The film provides a fair amount of suspense — the creature’s nighttime attack, and its being doused with flame throwers and gasoline buckets, as well as the claustrophobic surroundings, are major assets —but it’s too timid in its execution to furnish more than casual thrills.
Certainly the Frankenstein-monster getup for the alien invader is an egregious faux pas. The Thing, played by six foot seven inch James Arness (Them, Gunsmoke) in his salad days, is nowhere near as frightening or repugnant as it ought to be, considering the source material, John W. Campbell’s 1938 short story, “Who Goes There?” and how it’s described on the screen. Apparently, the less one sees of The Thing, the scarier and more intense things get (no pun intended).
The camaraderie and forced bravado of the military men, for example, along with their testosterone-fueled tendencies toward combating the wily creature, are, quite naturally, understandable, in view of the times in which the film was made: science takes a back seat to sheer bluster and Yankee gung-ho ingenuity in addressing the impending peril. Just the thought of a blood-sucking alien vampire on the prowl, turning humans and sled dogs into lifeless carcasses in order to sustain a growing brood of “super carrots,” was enough to send movie audiences into a tailspin.
Carlos Clarens, in his An Illustrated History of Horror and Science Fiction Films, came up with a novel theory regarding his interpretation of The Thing from Another World: with reference to the creature’s intellectual superiority over his human counterparts, Clarens postulated that “omniscience does not mean human feelings, generosity, or understanding. In this respect, the film is something of a parable: superior science unencumbered by moral scruples will bleed us to death” (Clarens, p. 124).
He cites the example of chief scientist, Dr. Carrington (he’s very “caring,” if you know I mean), who argues for opening up communications with the alien being, only to be brushed aside not only by his fellow scientists and those itchy-trigger-fingered military men, but by the creature itself (violently so). As a matter of fact, the military treat Dr. Carrington a helluva lot better than The Thing does, which only proves the point.
The great ensemble cast mentioned earlier features many familiar faces, among them the reliable Kenneth Tobey as Captain Pat Hendry, Margaret Sheridan as Nikki, Dewey Martin as Crew Chief Bob, Robert Cornthwaite as Dr. Carrington, George Fenneman as Dr. Redding, James Young as Lt. Dykes, John Dierkes as Dr. Chapman, William Self as Corporal Barnes, Eduard Franz as Dr. Stern, Paul Frees as Dr. Voorhees, and Douglas Spencer as “Scotty” the jocular newspaper man, whose final call to “Keep watching the skies” is a none-too-subtle alert against future Red menaces.
The eerie theremin-based film score is by Dimitri Tiomkin, and is in a category all its own. Although in our opinion it’s not the “classic of classics” some critics have made it out to be, I regard it as being very much like Puccini’s opera Tosca: it’s a “shabby little shocker” that still packs a tremendous wallop — when the titular Thing is out of plain sight, that is. And remember this, folks: Keep watching those not-so-friendly skies…!
The Thing (1982)
With Ridley Scott’s Alien (1979) having rejuvenated the vogue for chest-bursting monsters, doomed crew members, and outer-space horror flicks, director John Carpenter (Halloween, Escape from New York) undertook to remake that old fifties staple The Thing — this time with modern cinematic elements.
Carpenter returned to the original idea (the script was written by Bill Lancaster, actor Burt Lancaster’s son) of a shape-shifting alien being, suggested by sci-fi writer John W. Campbell’s short story, “Who Goes There?” (written under the pseudonym of Don A. Stuart). It told a terrifying tale of paranoia and loss of identity, long before the threat of Communism and invaders from Mars would “bug” us out.
However, after the real-life horrors of the Vietnam War, the ensuing Watergate scandals, and the revved up military spending spree vis-à-vis the Soviet Union, the 1982 remake of The Thing spoke solemnly to audiences of the mistrust inherent when individuals, charged with the responsibility of working together as a functioning unit, drop all semblance of so-called “civilized” society (see William Golding’s novel Lord of the Flies for a similar viewpoint) to let mindless fear, panic, and isolation seep into their existence.
The story takes place at an Antarctic research facility (scene of the original tale, by the way), where American scientists are investigating the strange deaths at a nearby abandoned Norwegian installation. An Alaskan malamute appears to be the only survivor. Taking the dog back to their compound, one of the scientists, Clark, pens it up with the other sled dogs — but they sense this is not one of their own. Before long, the Thing they have brought back gets loose and starts to take over the minds (and bodies) of the individual researchers. In no time, the researchers turn on one another until in the film’s final frame only two “survivors” are left to toast their troubles away.
While faithful to the original work in cast and story line, and besides possessing top-notch special FX by the talented team of Rob Bottin and Stan Winston (using stop-motion techniques and animatronics), the film is so enamored of gore and viscera that it forgets to keep its mind on the main plot. The elements of fear and suspicion are present throughout, but there’s so little insight into the characters (and little if any background to them) that they serve as mere backdrops for the real showcase, i.e., those amazing transformation sequences.
Indeed, the creature that erupts all over the screen is without a doubt the vilest, most repulsive-looking Thing imaginable. It reminds one of a giant Venus flytrap. After a while, though, it even starts to take on the comic mannerisms of Audrey II, the “mean green mother from outer space,” in the hit musical The Little Shop of Horrors, which robs it of its ferocity.
Despite this mild handicap, in recent years the film has taken on the status of a cult favorite. At the time of its release, The Thing was in direct competition with the more benign E.T. the Extraterrestrial and Blade Runner. Movie critics eviscerated the work, which while tailored to mature audiences, is really an FX connoisseur’s dream come true (more like a nightmare).
The rugged, all-male cast is headed by Kurt Russell, at his swaggering best, as R.J. MacReady, Wilford Brimley sans his walrus mustache as the paranoid Blair, Richard Dysart as Dr. Cooper, Donald Moffat as Garry, Keith David as Childs, David Clennon as Palmer, Richard Masur as Clark, T.K. Carter as Nauls, Charles Hallahan as Norris, and Peter Maloney as Bennings. Gut-wrenching scenes, along with a dynamic, pulsating electronic score by composer Ennio Morricone, are the main pluses. The final confrontation between MacReady and Childs leaves it up to the viewer whether this Thing has been vanquished or not. It’s one of those truly nihilistic endings.
Strictly for lovers of elaborate effects, the Howard Hawks-produced version was much more fun than this deadly-straight, coldly distant, starkly dark rendition. But be warned: do not, by any means, let your kids see this alone (heck, I wouldn’t see it alone, either).
Copyright © 2017 by Josmar F. Lopes
What’s the best superhero movie ever made? Give up? Why, it’s Superman: The Movie, of course. You can bet your loose chunk of Kryptonite it is! And a benchmark for all subsequent flyboy features in that most challenging of fantasy genres, the superhero action flick.
In the manner of Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man (2001) whose tag line was “With great power comes great responsibility,” a deeply distraught Clark Kent (played by Jeff East — excellent, despite that ill-fitting wig) spills his guts to his beloved, gray-haired foster mother (a sympathetic Phyllis Thaxter) after the sudden death of foster père, Jonathan Kent (dependable old Glenn Ford):
“All those things I can do, all those powers … And I couldn’t even save him.”
It’s a heartbreaking moment for the troubled youth, especially after his dad had, in the previous scene, given the lad a morale-boosting pep talk. But Clark’s words come back to haunt him later on when the now mature Mr. Kent (a beefed up Christopher Reeve, in a star-making turn), in his normal form as Superman, confronts an even more personal loss.
Will the Man of Steel be able to overcome a major setback involving one of his closest companions? And will Superman be able to reconcile the warning his scientist father, the apocryphal Jor-El, gave him not to interfere in Earth’s history?
Is the pope Catholic? Do bears hibernate?
Superman’s dilemma is eventually resolved in one of the many fantastic special FX sequences that permeate the drama — done the old-fashioned way, of course, with optical, photographic, and manual techniques, including miniatures, wires, cranes, matte paintings, composites, and the like — in what surely was a head-on challenge for director Richard Donner (Lethal Weapon, Ladyhawke) and his talented crew.
What struck most viewers the most about Superman: The Movie was the overwhelming sense of joy prevalent throughout the production, credit for which must go to Mr. Donner for keeping everyone’s spirits up in what proved to be a terribly long and tedious shoot.
In addition to which, one must also pay proper respect to newcomer Christopher Reeve, who became an overnight sensation, and an idol to millions the world over, for his admirable — no, stupendous! — acting assignment as the Kryptonian native and his mild-mannered alter ego, reporter Clark Kent. Reeve defied the odds by perfectly capturing, and delineating, the differing attitudes and temperaments of both Clark and Supie in what must have been a supremely exhausting endeavor.
The film divides the superhero’s tale into three distinct sections, the first of which takes place on the distant planet Krypton. It is there that we meet the brilliant scientist Jor-El, who tries to convince the skeptical ruling counsel their planet is in danger of being destroyed by Krypton’s giant red sun. Ignoring his pleas and branding Jor-El an alarmist, the counsel cautions him to keep silent. Despite his seeming acquiescence, Jor-El intends to save his son, Kal-El, from their fate by launching him into space — and on a direct course for a tiny blue planet called Earth.
After Krypton is destroyed (convincingly, despite being shot entirely in a studio), we then follow the young Kal-El (now christened “Clark Kent” by the husband and wife who discovered and raised him) as he grows up in the sleepy Midwestern town of Smallville. This most lyrical of the three sections can be termed the adagio movement of the feature. Bullied and abused by his fellow classmates, Clark senses his own uniqueness, but continues to be disturbed by his inability to reveal his incredible abilities. Upon the death of his foster father, Clark learns of his true nature and otherworldly origin.
With little choice left, he tells his elderly mother that a neighbor has volunteered to watch over the family farm. Torn by his decision, he resolves to leave mom behind (in a highly emotional farewell sequence, buoyed by John Williams’ powerful score) to take up a career as a reporter for The Daily Planet (!) in the teeming capital of Metropolis, a stand-in for the Big Apple (filmed on the streets of New York City). This leads to the third and final section, which unites the other two portions in a resounding and, ultimately, satisfying climax.
Scrappy as a badger Margot Kidder is perfectly cast as the paper’s ace news hound, Lois Lane, who feels a rivalry brewing with the bashful but talented Mr. Kent. Although it was rumored that Reeve and Kidder clashed constantly over their respective roles, she and Chris hit it off like brother and sister, or so we are told.
Genial Gene Hackman gets to show his comedic side with a hilarious take on that evil genius Lex Luthor, who has self-aggrandizing plans of his own, while inept cohorts Valerie Perrine as his buxom girlfriend Eve Teschmacher and Ned Beatty as the oafish Otis provide firm support. It’s great to see Jackie Cooper on screen again after so many years. Here, he plays tough-minded editor Perry White (“Don’t call me sugar, I mean chief!”), with Marc McClure as cub reporter Jimmy Olsen. There’s even a cameo by movie critic Rex Reed, as he bumps into Lois and Clark on their way out of the Daily Planet building — just prior to Clark fainting dead away in defending Lois from a typical Manhattan street mugger.
Back on planet Krypton, portly Marlon Brando makes for a most impressive Jor-El (he should, for what Warner Brothers paid him to appear in the part), as are (albeit briefly) his arch nemeses Terence Stamp as General Zod, Sarah Douglas as Ursa, and Jack O’Halloran as Non, whose stories are told in Superman II — shot simultaneously, but released two years later under Richard Lester’s direction. Others in the large cast include Maria Schell, Trevor Howard, Susannah York, Harry Andrews, Larry Hagman, and (look quick or you’ll miss ’em) Kirk Alyn and Noel Neill on board the speeding locomotive. They are credited as the first Superman and Lois to star in the original Columbia movie serial way back in 1948.
Author Mario Puzo (The Godfather) wrote the screenplay, doctored up by David and Leslie Newman, as well as Robert Benton and “creative consultant” Tom Mankiewicz. And who could forget that memorable John Williams music, from a composer who’s provided moviegoers with countless screen classics. Its driving, pulsating title theme sets the tone from the picture’s get-go. There’s even a hit song, “Can You Read My Mind?” with lyrics by songwriter Leslie Bricusse, spoken in hushed voiceover by Ms. Kidder during that incredible flying sequence with Supie, a truly magical moment:
Can you read my mind?
Do you know what it is you do to me?
Don’t know who you are
Just a friend from another star
Here I am, like a kid at the school
Holding hands with a god or a fool
Will you look at me, quivering,
Like a little girl, shivering,
You can see right through me.
Can you read my mind?
Lois Lane, as tough as nails around others and completely absorbed in her work and career, melts like a winnowed cocoa bean whenever she’s around the blue-suited adventurer. Her knees start to shake, and her heart goes all-a-flutter, at his mere presence. The Flying Sequence pictured above cements their blossoming relationship. In fact, it’s one of the most fabulously orchestrated interludes of any sci-fi fantasy picture.
Lois’ strong connection to the mighty Man of Steel is the exact opposite of the one she shares with newspaper colleague Clark. Ditto for Superman, who as the klutzy Kent is all thumbs and left feet whenever Lois approaches, but who sticks out his chest and rises to his full height the minute he reverts to his true guise. Today, we might term this type of behavior as indicative of bipolar disorder.
After almost four decades, Superman is still a tremendous piece of moviemaking. Our own favorite episodes are the overlooked ones in Smallville: simple, straightforward, and beautifully realized by East, Ford, and Thaxter. They’re a nostalgic slice of bucolic middle-American life (filmed in Alberta, Canada, by the way) depicting a kinder, gentler, and more compassionate time. Too, one must not overlook the obvious Christian parallels, hinted at by a “reconstituted” Jor-El when he reveals to young Clark, in that icy Fortress of Solitude, that he gave Earth’s human inhabitants his only son. What a nice Christmas present!
The expanded edition on DVD and Blu-ray adds little to what is already a must-see for the whole family. And it could not have come at a better time, when true heroes with a heart are so desperately needed (and in short supply).
Copyright © 2016 by Josmar F. Lopes
The familiar and faintly comforting sound of Leo the Lion — MGM’s symbol of quality and excellence in motion picture arts and science — opens what was to have been a formula-B programmer. Instead, the Hollywood studio that gave larger than life presence to such icons as Greta Garbo, Clark Gable, Joan Crawford, Gene Kelly, Judy Garland, Katharine Hepburn, Spencer Tracy, and dozens more had wisely invested its money (and know-how) in an out-of-this-world science-fiction epic.
The forerunner of 2001: A Space Odyssey, Star Wars, Star Trek, Alien, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Terminator, and other big-screen spectaculars, 1956’s Forbidden Planet (the original title was Fatal Planet) emerged head-and-shoulders above the usual bug-eyed monster movie of the fifties. Though not the first of its type to be released — 20th-Century Fox’s The Day the Earth Stood Still, RKO’s The Thing (from Another World), and Universal’s This Island Earth preceded it by several years — Forbidden Planet was certainly the most prestigious in terms of budget, size, sets and production values. It was Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer’s premier excursion into the realm of outer space.
Based on characters found in Shakespeare’s The Tempest, the story was conceived by Irving Block and Allen Adler. Novelist and scriptwriter Cyril Hume shaped the effort into a satisfying screenplay, combining elements of classical mythology, Freudian pop psychology, and author Isaac Asimov’s three laws of robotics (from his collection of I, Robot stories, first published in December 1950) in order to relate an interplanetary tale of man’s hubris in the face of forces beyond his control.
Forbidden Planet formed its core narrative around Professor Edward Morbius (Walter Pidgeon), a brainy philologist who has been “stranded” on the planet Altair-IV for the better part of two decades. Left to his own devices (and with the aid of a so-called “Big Machine” left there by its former inhabitants), Morbius has learned to harness the planet’s elemental force so as to set up a private domain for himself and his comely daughter Altaira (Anne Francis), or Alta for short.
When an investigating United Planets Space Cruiser, headed by the straight-laced Commander John J. Adams (Leslie Nielsen), invades his pet paradise and attempts to take him back to Earth against his not inconsiderable will, Morbius unleashes this planetary force in true mad scientist-gone-amok fashion.
Followers of the genre have marveled at the film’s depiction of the Krell, an advanced alien civilization that, technologically as well as intellectually, was a million years ahead of humankind. Morally and ethically, however, they were as burdened by secreted bouts of lust, power and revenge as man himself had been. Despite never being seen, viewers came away from the picture knowing as much if not more about the wonders of this incredible race of beings as they did the all-too-fallible humans.
Roar of Approval
Starting things off with the lion’s roar — a harbinger of the bellowing Id monster that will take center stage as the story progresses and unfolds— is a masterstroke of foreshadowing and anticipatory plot devices. Movie critics and industry insiders have long pointed up the similarity between these two creatures. When the film is glimpsed in one uninterrupted sitting, Leo and his Id counterpart provide a neat “bookend effect” to the inevitability of events as they begin to take shape.
The creepy “electronic tonalities” by Louis and Bebe Barron, standing in for what would have been a full-blown orchestral score, distinguish this feature from earlier low-budget entries. It may even have been the first documented instance of cinematic “white noise.” Nevertheless, the use of the exotic-sounding theremin in the soundtracks to Spellbound, The Lost Weekend, the aforementioned The Thing, and Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein no doubt cleared the path for studio head Dore Schary to green-light the Barron’s avant-garde sound project for admission into Forbidden Planet’s world.
Les Tremayne, a mainstay of many a sci-fi outing from the genre’s peak period, provides the introductory voice-over lauding the discovery of hyper-drive and light speed technology, which led to the inevitable “conquest and colonization of deep space.” This line of thought, of man extending his reach outside his current capacity and into the farthest regions of the universe, would be incorporated into visionary producer Gene Roddenberry’s idea for the TV series Star Trek and its crew of intrepid explorers.
Speaking of which, the C-57D space cruiser’s all-male crew — “eighteen competitively selected, super-perfect physical specimens with an average age of 24.6 years” — has been locked up in hyperspace for 378 days, not exactly the kind of circumstance that would be conducive to the presence of a long-legged blonde gamine, but there you have it.
Just as the cruiser enters Altair-IV’s oxygen-rich atmosphere, science officer Chief Quinn (Richard Anderson) receives a radar transmission from the cryptic Professor Morbius. As the only surviving member of the Bellerophon expedition of 20 years prior, Morbius talks in evasive circles around the insistent Commander Adams. Indignant at first with the officer’s stated purpose, Morbius grudgingly agrees to provide landing coordinates for the craft. At the same time, he washes his hands of all culpability for what might befall its crew, a vague allusion to something far more sinister.
We discussed at the outset the so-called mythological aspects of the plot, which start to make steady inroads at the mention of the name Bellerophon, the ship that brought Dr. Morbius, his future wife, and the other members of his party to Altair-IV in the first place.
In Greek mythology, Bellerophon was a mortal who had once been favored by the gods. He slew the dreaded Chimaera and even tamed the fabled winged horse Pegasus. But pride and arrogance took over his persona, so much so that he attempted to gain immortality by riding Pegasus straight up to Mount Olympus, the playground of the gods. Zeus, the head god, sent a gadfly to sting the steed, causing Bellerophon (à la Icarus) to fall ingloriously back down to Earth. He spent the rest of his days as a wandering cripple in the manner of King Lear.
With this back-story in mind, the cruiser lands on a barren wasteland; its surface bereft of “cities, ports, roads, bridges, dams” — in short, any recognizable structure indicative of a thriving society. No sooner does the crew disembark when it is confronted with the sight of a distant vehicle hurtling at supersonic speed. The driver of the vehicle is none other than Robby the Robot, a paradigm of man’s impulse to manage his surroundings by creating an artificial being — a mechanical Guy (or Gal) Friday, if you will — with extraordinary intelligence and superhuman strength, as well as highly refined social skills.
Robby’s soothing voice (belonging to actor Marvin Miller) and cultivated air of sophistication give Commander Adams the impression that all will be well. Agreeing to be escorted to the doctor’s residence, Adams boards the vehicle, taking with him Lt. Jerry Farman (Jack Kelly) and Lt. “Doc” Ostrow (Warren Stevens). As the men approach the abode, they are coldly greeted by Morbius, who stands in shadows inside the doorway — an elusive, solitary figure determined to plow on with his research despite the intruders. His intention is to show how safe and secure he’s been without the aid of outside interference.
After lunch, Morbius decides to demonstrate a bit of the Robot’s abilities, including his “absolute selfless obedience” to orders — except, of course, when they clash with Robby’s built-in safety mechanism whereby he is forbidden to harm a human being.
When pressed for details as to the whereabouts of his shipmates, Morbius explains their absence: one by one, they succumbed to an interplanetary force, “some devilish thing that never once showed itself.” He and his wife, the late Julia Marsin, remained immune to its influence. The others, however, were torn limb from limb and the Bellerophon vaporized upon takeoff.
Despite Morbius’ earnest yet awkward attempts at reassurance, the men remain jumpy and ill at ease, particularly when he activates the steel shudders that loudly surround his home.
The Pause that Refreshes
It’s at this point in his remembrances of bygone times that a graceful gazelle named Alta appears. Standing motionless in the entranceway, she calls to her father in a seductive tone. Immediately, Alta commands the undivided attention of the three visitors, one of whom (Lt. Farman) stumbles over himself in offering her some refreshment. Even though story-wise we are three centuries into the future, the men’s actions around this vision of loveliness — especially that of Lt. Farman — is typical of 1950s male behavior. One should mention his over-eagerness to be of assistance.
Since this is Alta’s first (ahem) experience with others of her race, Farman’s conduct goes completely over her head, which both amuses and perturbs her parent. Morbius admits to Adams and Ostrow the need to take his daughter back to Earth for her “natural development.” Ostrow agrees: “I should say fairly soon too.” The philologist’s patriarchal realm, a virtual Mount Olympus in miniature, has been encroached upon by these three “very fine exceptions” of Homo sapiens, only one of who will get to first base with his virginal child.
Stepping away from the others, Farman tries to get a leg up on his commanding officer by convincing Alta that Adams is a notorious space wolf “known throughout seven planetary systems.” Shaking his head and wagging his finger at her, Farman warns that, “Any girl or woman who lets him get her alone, anywhere,” is asking for trouble. Alta is intrigued, but concurs with his findings by catching the fire in Adams’ eyes. No such fire in Farman’s eyes, of that she is sure. Farman takes offense at this slight and insists he’s not entirely harmless.
At that moment, Quinn checks in to view the surroundings. A wolf whistle escapes from his lips as he spots Alta’s mini-skirted form. “Knock that off,” orders Commander Adams. It’s apparent to dad (and to us) that Alta is as enchanted by these “unbelievable” specimens as they are with her. She falls especially hard for Adams, the de facto leader of the group. When the officers take their leave, Alta gives the commander a long, hard look.
Until now, the conversation has been informal and routine, albeit tense — that is, if one takes into account the commander’s quite natural suspicions about the fate of the Bellerophon’s crew. The few references to the lady of the household come from Ostrow, who inquires as to whether she’s at home today. Morbius offers a rather dry response: his wife died six months after the others, only of natural causes. Ostrow then remarks that he thought Robby evinced some “very charming feminine touches,” hence our Guy/Gal Friday designation and sci-fi’s first ever asexual/bisexual artificial being.
The introduction of Alta into this all-male equation, a transitory disruption to the status quo, changes the balance of power from Morbius to his daughter. The discussion promptly shifts from domesticity as a topic — already touched upon in Ostrow’s observation about the Robot, and in Morbius’ demonstration of the handy “dispose-all” unit (“A housewife’s dream,” in Ostrow’s words) — to playfulness and innuendo, taken one step further by Farman’s libidinous interjections.
Through visual and verbal cues, i.e., sideways glances, whispered asides, and furtive gestures, the atmosphere becomes charged with sexual tension; the temperature in the room has been elevated, too, by several notches. The sense we have of the situation is that a conflict will arise by Alta’s attendance — a conflict that will bring about a cataclysmic cost to all concerned.
Love Ain’t Such a Splendored Thing
If possession is 9/10ths of the law, as they say, then Adams may be out of luck. For, in the ensuing scene where Alta visits the cruiser’s landing site and casually wanders off with Farman behind some jagged rocks, the commander can’t take his eyes off her. He is barely able to carry on with his duties as skipper, much less pay attention to Quinn and the others.
In the meantime, the Cook (Earl Holliman) provides some comic relief with his mechanical straight man, Robby. He has the Robot sample his last bottle of bourbon, a potable token of an “advanced” culture wallowing in the most basic of human weaknesses. Robby promises to run off 60 gallons of the “stuff,” thus contributing to Cookie’s habit of imbibing while off-duty.
This sequence highlights one of the many nods to a once-acceptable social practice of the 1950s, that is, of getting smashed at all costs. Later, when Cookie is reported as having been “falling down drunk” on the hooch that Robby provided him, his excuse is that he and the Robot were together the whole time the ship was being attacked, a tidy alibi.
Returning to our couple, we find Farman locked in an embrace, trying to instruct Alta in the healthy art of kissing and hugging. “All the really high civilizations go in for it,” he insists. Just the thing to stimulate the system, and earn the envy of his commanding officer! After several attempts at getting a rise out of the girl, a frustrated Farman (I would add, a sexually frustrated Farman) turns to her and asks if she’s giving him the “treatment” — in other words, “don’t brush me off, kid.”
In Farman’s company, she’s as cold as a mackerel. That’s about to change when Commander Adams re-enters the picture and decides to pull rank on his subordinate. A flustered Lt. Farman is dismissed, leaving the commander to sharply scold the oblivious Altaira for allowing a “space wolf like Farman” (branding the lieutenant with the same pejorative label Farman had earlier used on him) to take undue advantage of the situation, especially when she’s so scantily clad. “For Pete’s sake, go home and put on something … anything.”
Poor innocent Alta has a great deal of difficulty comprehending the cause of the commander’s anger. Her wits and childlike naiveté, which served her well in the preceding episode and in the comfort of her father’s living room — surrounded, as she was, by her “friends” (two white-tail deer and a full-grown Bengal tiger!) — have abandoned her under this new set of circumstances. To add to her turmoil, she has no idea what to make of Adams’ reaction, or how to deal with the newly-discovered emotions brewing inside her.
Equally disconcerted as well, Adams sends her off in even harsher language than he used on Farman. “Get out of here before I have you run out of the area under guard,” he barks, “and then I’ll put more guards on the guards!”
Back at the house, Alta repeats the commander’s rude comments to her father, who listens calmly to her outburst. He hears about how much she dislikes him, the look he gave her, and how he raised his voice at her. “What about?” Morbius inquires. She hasn’t a clue. “I was only trying to be nice about kissing the lieutenant,” she explains. Morbius raises an eyebrow. “How did the commander react to that?” Why, he was furious, is her reply. She never wants to see him again, ever! (Famous last words, or there would be no rest of the picture.)
The best she could do now, Morbius counsels her, is to go to bed. Claiming he has some unfinished business in his study, he kisses his daughter on the brow and departs.
Alta then beams for Robby the Robot, who, as we probably know, is busy preparing those 60 gallons of booze for the soon-to-be-besotted Cook. When he finally does appear, Alta demands that he make a new dress for her, one with nothing showing. No long legs, no curvy waist, no perfect ankles, nothing but a nice, boring gown. “Radiation-proof?” Robby quizzes her. “No, just eye-proof will do.” Oh, and while you’re at it, spiff it up with some diamonds and emeralds. Gotcha!
Brimming with joy and excitement, Alta hugs the Robot as if he were TV’s Hazel, the maid with all the answers. She saunters off to bed, with nary a care in the world as to whether she’ll have a good night’s rest or not.
A Few Words to the Wise
When I was an adolescent, those silly smooching episodes would annoy me to no end. Like most kids my age and younger, I wanted the actors to get on with the show; to move past these nonsensical time-wasters and get to the good parts, i.e., the business with the mysterious Krell and, of course, the Id monster’s nighttime “visitation.”
Today, I am fortunate to have acquired a healthy dollop of patience where it concerns my movie viewing. In doing independent research for this film I learned that during the time of Forbidden Planet’s release and, afterward, when it was reissued to second-run cinemas, the “kissing scenes” were snipped for the kiddie matinees and, as luck would have it, for local television viewing where my family and I first caught it.
Had I known it at the time, I would surely have realized that these and all the early scenes, which take up the first third or so of the picture’s running time, provide the missing keys to understanding the story’s plot and theme: that of man’s inability to tame his bestial nature — his baser instincts of hate, lust, bias, greed, carnal desire, want, need, and survival at any cost; eventually, to rise above the specie’s’ intrinsically destructive nature, that of “the beast, the mindless primitive,” and one day ascend to the heights the Krell had risen, only to fall back down again (like Bellerophon) as all mortals are wont to do.
In Altair IV’s paradisiacal Garden of Eden, Commander Adams could be considered the “first man,” i.e., after his namesake Adam. He’s got a bad disposition, but that’s acceptable considering the pressures he has to face as commander. Young Alta, an offshoot of Altaira (the name itself derived from the planet on which she was born), could be the “first woman,” but one who has attained the “highest position” in the evolutionary cycle (ergo the name “Alta,” meaning the “highest”).
On the opposite end of the scale, Professor Morbius, the loving father and authority figure, is a deeply flawed individual. At this stage in the story, he seems a benign character — intelligent, yes, and by all means brilliant; but secretive and enigmatic, purposely withholding of vital information that, during the course of the picture, will be divulged to his visitors only at crucial intervals.
Later in the movie, Morbius will state his personal credo “that man is unfit to receive such knowledge, such almost limitless power.” His scholarly opposite, “Doc” Ostrow, counters this argument with one of his own: “Whereas Morbius, with his artificially expanded intellect, is now ideally suited to administer this power for the whole human race.”
That remains to be seen …
(End of Part One)
Copyright © 2016 by Josmar F. Lopes
Once More unto the Breach!
Having helped Luke Skywalker out in the Rebel Alliance’s plan to rid the universe of the evil Galactic Empire — amid the whizzing of laser-blasters from a swarm of dedicated TIE fighters — Han Solo and Chewbacca step forward with young Luke, C-3PO, and R2-D2 to receive their prize from a beaming Princess Leia in the sequence that closes Star Wars – Episode IV: A New Hope. THE END.
So that’s it? Is there nothing else? Well …. yeah!
We know from the decades of merchandising and over-exposure that George Lucas, the saga’s originator and one-track-minded filmmaker, had a sequel in mind whereby the characters and situations he originally conceived as a USC film student would continue to undergo new challenges in this fanciful sci-fi world.
Most fans are aware that the full title of the initial Star Wars story, if I may be allowed the privilege of repeating it, was The Adventures of Luke Skywalker as Taken from the Journal of the Whills: Saga One: The Star Wars. That’s a meal and a mouthful in itself! One can hear the studio heads at Twentieth-Century Fox clamoring for a shorter working title; so Star Wars it became, albeit with Episode “X” or “Y” appended in.
The first sequel, known officially as Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back, is darker in both tone and mood than its immediate predecessor. The color palette, made up primarily of grays, blues, and blacks, is maintained throughout. Indeed, this shadowy ambiance can be found in the picture’s shifting mise en scène, whether it be in caves, tunnels, corridors, storage rooms, or walkways, or the interior of a runaway asteroid.
More internalized than the earlier feature, Empire is much more preoccupied with re-familiarizing the viewer with its iconic characters than in grinding out the mechanics of the plot. At its core, Episode V is the most organically structured chapter in the entire series in that the characters develop according to the requirements of the constantly evolving story line.
As well, there is a noticeable improvement in the level of understanding between one individual and another. For instance, Han Solo, that tall and handsome rogue of a smuggler — a man who lives by his wits — is utterly taken with Leia’s feisty personality and ability to stand up for herself.
For her part, Leia is equally captivated by the “scruffy-looking” scoundrel, but is reluctant to admit her interest in him, even to herself — a typical Hollywood formula where “hate” means love at first fight. Granted, Han’s lowly station as a brigand may have been a hindrance to the development of a more permanent relationship, as if that mattered in their particular set of circumstances.
In contrast to this squabbling duo (the space-age equivalent of Ralph and Alice Kramden), our hero Luke has begun the process of realizing his full potential via the ability to move objects at will. He desires above all to become a Jedi Knight like his father, Anakin Skywalker, before him — a notion planted into his cranium by none other than Obi-Wan Kenobi.
The subsidiary cast of C-3PO and R2-D2, and, in a comparable sense, both Chewie and Han (and later Lando Calrissian), continue to play the comic relief: manservant and maid, skinny and fatty, what-have-you; an ersatz vaudeville team without the song and dance. Their verbal patter, a running joke throughout the series, is mildly suggestive of Abbott and Costello’s “Who’s On First,” yet saturated with high-pitched squeaks, garrulous techno-babble, and inarticulate snarls. In sum, they each take turns playing Laurel to the other’s Hardy (and vice versa).
Another Classic Film-Score Moment
As the picture begins, we hear the Oscar-nominated John Williams fanfare on the soundtrack. This and other motifs were based in part on themes taken from the golden age of Hollywood movie-making, among them Erich Wolfgang Korngold’s score for Kings Row, the opening “Mars” movement of Gustav Holst’s orchestral suite The Planets, Miklos Rozsa’s Entrance of the Charioteers from Ben-Hur, and Elmer Bernstein’s music for Cecil B. DeMille’s The Ten Commandments.
Words scroll above the screen, the influence of Flash Gordon and Saturday matinee movie serials: “It is a dark time for the Rebellion. Freedom fighters led by Luke Skywalker have established a secret base on the ice planet Hoth …” Lord Vader has become obsessed with finding young Skywalker who he knows to be strong with the Force. As a consequence, “Vader has dispatched thousands of remote probes into the far reaches of space” in order to uncover the boy’s whereabouts.
With that, a number of probes are launched from below the Imperial Star Cruiser. One of them crash lands on the surface of the ice planet. At that same instant, Luke appears. He’s riding a tauntaun — sort of a ram-horned camel crossed with a kangaroo, an excellent example of traditional stop-motion animation perfected by the late Ray Harryhausen (see the following tribute to the artist: https://josmarlopes.wordpress.com/2013/05/08/ray-harryhausen-the-last-voyage-of-an-fx-master/).
In the process of investigating, Luke and the tauntaun are attacked by a vicious Snow Creature who drags him inside its lair. The extended scenes in the “Special Edition” DVD/Blu-ray show the beast greedily devouring a bloody meal and, to be honest, are pure overkill. To escape the same fate, Luke uses the Force to grab hold of his lightsaber which is just out of reach. When the Snow Creature advances, Luke slices off its arm, much as Obi-Wan Kenobi did to that unruly troublemaker at the Cantina Bar in Episode IV. Incidentally, the Snow Creature is nothing more than a humongous Muppet (portrayed by Des Webb).
Baby, It’s Cold Outside
Meanwhile, Han returns to the rebel base on Hoth (in reality, the Scandinavian country of Norway). He and Leia have an obvious attraction for one another, but resist it at every turn. Han knows there is a price on his head, placed there by the loathsome Jabba the Hutt. One would think, after being handsomely rewarded for coming to the Alliance’s aid, that Han would have paid the debt off by now. But noooo!
He bids adieu to the Princess, goading her on with sarcastic asides and false deference to her authority (“Your Highnessness,” “Your Worship,” and so). She, on the other hand, is perturbed at his leaving in the middle of a revolt. They engage in the first of many quarrels. However, underneath the bickering we hear a love theme which telegraphs their true feelings for one another. It will sound again at the end of the picture in full symphonic glory.
After Han is informed there has been no communication from Luke, he resolves to look for him in the subfreezing storm. Right on cue, we see Luke running off into the icy blizzard. It’s at this point that Obi-Wan Kenobi’s spirit appears, when the boy is most in need of his services (remember that Ben was “killed” by Lord Vader in their last encounter). We expect the old geyser to go on spouting New Age advice. Instead, Ben charges Luke with a new task: he’s to go to the Dagobah system and seek out Jedi Master Yoda.
Obi-Wan’s image fades away into that of the approaching Han Solo on his tauntaun. With Luke left blinded by the snowstorm and delirious after his vision, Han slices open the frostbitten tauntaun and exposes him to the warmth of its innards. Offhandedly, Han remarks that he was under the impression tauntauns “only smelled bad on the outside.” Whew! Was he ever mistaken!
Fortunately, our adventure seekers are found — how could it be otherwise? There wouldn’t be a series to speak of if these two had perished so soon after the start. Luke’s scars from his encounter with the Snow Creature are clearly visible. In fact, they were the result of actor Mark Hamill experiencing a serious car accident prior to filming. Coincidentally, as a young man Lucas had been the victim of his own near fatal racing-car crash. Taking his star’s condition to heart, Lucas took advantage of the bit with the Snow Creature (he denies the script was altered in any way) in order to utilize the very real disfigurement on Hamill’s face.
We Kiss in a Shadow
While recovering in sickbay, Luke is visited by Han and Leia. To make Solo jealous, she plants a kiss on Luke’s mouth. In fairy tales, it’s usually the prince who gets to kiss the princess, not the other way around. No matter. Chewie chuckles to himself at Solo’s discomfort as Han bolts from the room in pursuit of the Princess.
Alerted to the rebels’ presence by another probe, the inhabitants of the base make final preparations to abandon their stronghold. After saying his farewells, Luke mounts one of the X-wing fighters as he and the other pilots get ready to help the rebels escape.
The battle to end all battles now takes place, with ground troops, fire arms, Imperial walkers (giant mammoth-like land rovers), and Star Destroyers participating left and right and at breakneck speed.
Back on board Vader’s flagship, General Veers (Julian Glover, a dead ringer for rocker Sting) reports they have emerged from hyperspace a tad too soon, thus tipping off the Alliance. Vader is not amused by the news. By the way, the miniature work here and in the battle on the ice is exemplary.
An interesting side note: rebel pilot Wedge replaces Biggs Darklighter, who perished after being fired upon by Darth Vader. As R2-D2 is lifted aboard Luke’s X-wing fighter, his robotic pal, C-3PO, takes the opportunity to express a little motherly concern for the droid and for Master Luke. They do care for each other, you know, but in a most “humanly” fashion, despite being preprogrammed automatons.
The battle rages on! Luke blows up one of the walkers. At the same time, General Veers blasts the power generators to smithereens. Finding themselves trapped below ground Leia, Han, Chewie, and 3PO have no choice but to board the Millennium Falcon in order to make their escape. One thing leads to another, when at last Vader makes his entrance in grand style (in pretty much the same manner as he did in Episode IV) by blasting through an impregnable door (well, not so impregnable). Storm troopers attempt to shoot it out with them, but they manage to avoid annihilation. Their world now comes crashing down around them.
On board the Millennium Falcon, the frustrated 3PO can’t seem to get a word in edgewise, or rather (from Solo and Leia’s viewpoint) he won’t shut the hell up. And that damn hyperdrive can’t seem to function at all, another running joke. To escape the pursuing TIE fighters, Han resolves to lose them in the asteroid field, to wit the chances of successfully navigating are “3,720 to 1.” Luckily for the crew, Han and Chewie are able to maneuver the fast-moving vessel into one of the many craters on the largest asteroid.
Meanwhile on Dagobah, we find Luke and R2 stepping cautiously along the moss-drenched swamp that covers the planet’s surface. This scene may remind viewers of a similar one in Ridley Scott’s Legend, which came a few years later —it certainly seems likely that both scenes were shot at Shepperton Studios in England. There’s even a swamp thing lurking just below the water’s surface that tries to swallow poor R2. He becomes a flying projectile when the creature decides to spit him out. A muddy mess!
One can’t say if this sequence refers to an earlier one in Episode IV, but it definitely calls it to mind. Luke, Leia, and Han are trapped inside a trash compactor. With the walls about to close in, Luke is abruptly sucked down into the compactor’s watery bottom by a tube-like, one-eyed serpent. Thanks to Han’s blaster, he escapes in time to contact R2, who happens to be locked on to a computer mainframe. Good work, R2!
Back at the swamp, out of the blue little Yoda decides to make his long-awaited bow. He’s a most curious and ill-tempered intruder. And he sounds suspiciously like Fozzie Bear, and why not? He happens to be voiced by master puppeteer Frank Oz, the same fellow who gave life to Fozzie, Miss Piggy, and numerous other denizens of Sesame Street.
Yoda is more comical here than elsewhere in the series, so enjoy it while you can, folks: it is only an act. You see, Master Yoda is a most studious follower of the Force. He may pretend to be cranky and irritable, but his purpose has been well defined by the screenwriters. He’s the High Lama of the Jedi Order, charged with teaching young Skywalker the ways of the Force.
Rising in the Ranks
On the opposite side of the spectrum, Lord Vader has a completely different set of priorities. He too may appear to be calmer and more resolute in this episode than he was in the previous one. Nevertheless, Vader’s displeasure at the ineptitude of the Imperial Cruiser’s crew has grown by leaps and bounds.
Having botched the surprise attack on the rebel’s base on Hoth, Vader handily disposes of the “clumsy as he is stupid” Admiral Ozzel in the same way he tried to teach Commander Motti from Episode IV a thing or two about the Force’s power: by making him choke to death.
In that earlier encounter, Governor Tarkin prevented Motti’s demise with a sharp rebuke, but not here. There is no Tarkin to restrain Vader’s wrath: he was blown to kingdom come, if you recall, along with the first Death Star. In this sequence, however, the ambitious Captain Piett is forthwith promoted to admiral in Ozzel’s stead. And, in a later scene, Captain Steeka falls to the floor to breathe his last after losing track of the Millennium Falcon. “Apology accepted,” Vader notes in a contemptuous aside.
No matter how one takes this kind of action, the dreaded Dark Lord of the Sith delivers an ultimatum to the recently promoted Piett: “Don’t fail me again,” he intones, all the while pointing a gloved finger at the admiral. Wow! How’d you like to work for a boss like that? Vader makes Donald Trump’s tossing off of his signature “You’re fired!” phrase on The Apprentice seem like child’s play.
All we can say is this: the revolving chain of command on board an Imperial Star Cruiser was plenty tough during those long ago and far away Empire days….
(To be continued…)
Transcript of dialogue from the original screenplay by Leigh Brackett, revised by Lawrence Kasdan and taken from the novel by George Lucas
Copyright © 2016 by Josmar F. Lopes
Stanley Kubrick’s timeless visionary epic, originally billed (and titled) as a “journey beyond the stars,” is a film that’s solemn and slow moving, stately and portentous to the nth degree, but a bona fide science-fiction classic nonetheless. The elegance, serenity, poetry and majesty and, above all, the mystery of outer space are preserved in all their widescreen, Cinerama-esque splendor.
Released a little over a year before NASA successfully landed two astronauts on the Moon, 2001: A Space Odyssey, while certainly not the first (nor, heaven forbid, the last) FX-laden extravaganza to depict the hazards of space travel, is considered by many followers of the form as the granddaddy of all those intergalactic sleigh rides we’ve grown accustomed to viewing throughout the years, among them the Star Trek and Star Wars series, Alien and its progeny, Outland, The Right Stuff, 2010: The Year We Make Contact, Prometheus, Gravity, Interstellar and our latest candidate for consideration, The Martian.
Now tell me: has any science-fiction feature of the last forty years or so ever been more fully realized on the screen than Kubrick’s acclaimed masterpiece? The work that went into the final product is truly breathtaking in its vastness, scale and dimension.
Filmed mostly on the soundstages of M-G-M British Studios, Ltd., in Boreham Wood, England, with an unprecedented array of special photographic elements and visual effects, the film was personally supervised by Kubrick himself, along with able assistants Wally Veevers, Douglas Trumbull, Con Pederson and Tom Howard — all of them handling such diverse aspects of the production as lighting conditions, camera movement, shutter speed, color, temperature, and so forth, with single-minded dedication and meticulous care for detail. Not surprisingly, the film took three years to complete, at a cost of almost US$12 million — and it shows.
The story: highly evolved super-beings deposit their calling card on Earth (and on the Moon), in the form of a large, rectangular-shaped black object known as the monolith. With the object’s extraordinary ability to implant suggestions into their brains, primitive man-apes are taught to use rudimentary weapons (e.g., the jawbone of a wild pig) in order to gain dominance over their foes, as well as their harsh environment. The evolution of these man-apes into Homo sapiens leads to the next phase of their development, with man literally branching out into new worlds — both physically and metaphysically — far beyond his own.
But what does it all mean? The ambiguously written screenplay by producer-writer-director Kubrick and science-fiction author Arthur C. Clarke, after his short story “The Sentinel” from 1948, and partially based on themes found in Clarke’s 1952 novel, Childhood’s End, explores cosmic questions of the specie’s origins, its ultimate purpose and, inevitably, its fate. The script, much expanded from the original story, takes up the premise that aliens of a higher order — with an advanced intelligence surpassing our capacity for comprehension — are “out there,” watching, waiting and guiding our planet’s destiny from an unseen corner of the universe.
Perhaps the best way to come to grips with Kubrick’s overall approach to this film is to see it in terms that relate to the context of the times in which it was planned and executed. For example, the two pictures that came immediately before and after 2001: A Space Odyssey — i.e., Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964) and A Clockwork Orange (1971) — may provide the necessary clues toward understanding what the director had in mind for his central project.
In these films, civilization is depicted as being in three distinct stages of development (or disintegration, if you prefer): in Dr. Strangelove, mankind is perilously (albeit farcically) on the brink of nuclear annihilation; in 2001, it has left the Cold War mentality behind and instead appears to be poised for a miraculous rebirth; and in A Clockwork Orange, society is back to teetering on the edge in a fundamental collapse of the social order.
Dr. Strangelove, the first work in Kubrick’s film trilogy, has frequently been described as a satire, a tongue-in-cheek black comedy of the darkest order where man’s best laid plans for avoiding Armageddon are suddenly thwarted by renegade generals with sick minds; while the middle entry, 2001: A Space Odyssey is too often treated with an earnest solemnity bordering mysticism. Make no mistake, Kubrick did have a deadpan sense of humor; and indeed Dr. Strangelove offers viewers some rare relief from his more sedate tendencies. It, too, is a comedic masterpiece of Shakespearean dimensions, with characters that are akin to a Falstaff or the doggedness of Constable Dogberry from Much Ado About Nothing.
While it does take itself seriously, 2001: A Space Odyssey also offers brief glimpses into the lighter side of life’s little inconveniences. Take, for example, Dr. Heywood Floyd’s attempts to decipher the list of instructions needed to operate the space toilet; or the manner in which the super-computer HAL 9000 reverts to a song from his “childhood” (“A Bicycle Built for Two”) when faced with termination.
By contrast, A Clockwork Orange merges the two forms of black comedy and drama, along with English dance hall routines, into an overridingly pessimistic view of society, one that is both cynical and disorderly — with British society, in this instance, in desperate need of “aversion therapy” (the so-termed “Ludovico technique”) in order to purge selected subjects of their wanton aggression.
Here, the general misbehavior is caused by the prevalence of street thugs (called droogs) which has given rise to a police state. The droogs have laced their drinks with a powerful stimulant that feeds their predilection for rape and violence. After a particularly perverse night of recklessness, droog leader Alex is captured by the police and sent to prison to be “rehabilitated.” It’s at the prison that many of the wickedly humorous episodes occur, among them a coldly calculated search of Alex’s body cavities by the no-nonsense chief guard Barnes.
The madness of human behavior witnessed and unleashed in Dr. Strangelove and A Clockwork Orange and the mania in these films for all-out mayhem and destruction is contrasted with the anodyne expressions of the two human astronauts in 2001: A Space Odyssey. The men appear drained of feelings, the bulk of which have been transferred onto the personality of their HAL 9000 computer with its matter-of-fact vocal inflections and paranoid, single-minded resolve for self-preservation. It’s no accident that HAL is the most human character in the story.
The lack of an emotional response can be measured by the over-abundance of emotions present in Dr. Strangelove and A Clockwork Orange. In the earlier flick, the dialogue remains fast and furious throughout; the words pouring forth in a never-ending torrent of verbal hemorrhaging and rapid-fire delivery (most notably in George C. Scott’s over-the-top performance as the bombastic General Buck Turgidson), their meaning coming through loud and clear no matter the pace. In Clockwork, the droogs speak a type of street language, a combination of Russian tinged with Cockney slang, while the rest of the population converses in standard British English. No matter how they talk, each group gets their point across and soon, even the viewer is able to make sense of the gibberish.
Compare the above scenarios to 2001, where the dialogue has been purged of all meaning and relevance. In fact, not a word is spoken (the film’s opening sequence takes place at the Dawn of Man) until a good half hour or more has transpired. When the human characters do speak, their tone and substance is devoid of clarity and lucidity. We hear the words, but they have no connection to the action at hand, their meaning having been divested of any and all emotional impact.
One excellent example comes in Dr. Floyd’s chance meeting with his Soviet counterparts aboard the floating space station. One of the scientists, Dr. Andrei Smyslov, questions him about a possible epidemic at the moon base Clavius where Floyd is scheduled to give a briefing. Their exchange is so elliptical and circuitous that absolutely nothing is learned or divulged about the matter at hand. Even more maddening is the subsequent meeting at the base, where the participants’ conversation is so completely on the surface, so to speak, that precious little is conveyed through words. It’s as if words have lost their meaning.
Another comparison can be made with two similar sequences, both having to do with the futuristic videophone technology. Back at the space station, Dr. Floyd puts in a call to Earth to wish his young daughter a happy birthday. Floyd does most of the talking, as his little girl (played by Kubrick’s daughter Vivian) responds in shy, monosyllabic fashion. Flash forward to the spaceship Discovery, where astronaut Frank Poole is about to receive an incoming video message from his parents back on Earth. They, too, want to wish him many happy returns. Frank listens stoically to their greeting in stone-cold silence, maintaining an impassive air throughout the one-sided conversation. When he does speak, it’s to ask HAL to raise the head of his cot ever-so slightly. The impression Frank gives is of conserving his words and energy for more “important” purposes than a birthday greeting. His “humanity,” if you want to call it that, has been drained from his person in preparation for the trip.
There’s one more incident involving the use of language (or meta-language, in this case) that is certainly the most “revealing” moment in the entire picture. It’s the scene where Frank Poole and Dave Bowman are inside a sound-proof space pod, discussing the problematic issue of HAL’s mistaken prediction of a failed component. Mission Control has reported back to the pair that their super computer’s findings regarding the faulty circuit are in error. When asked his opinion, HAL reiterates the mantra that human error is no doubt to blame for the misdiagnosis.
As the two astronauts continue to engage in a deadly serious conversation about the possibility of pulling the plug on their computer, the camera moves back and forth from Dave’s mouth to Frank’s lips, and so on. Their is no sound except the constant low-level hum of super-computer HAL’s circuits. His unblinking, all-seeing red eye (and the audience’s as well) is alert to the astronaut’s thoughts, even though no words are forthcoming. At this point, not only are the sounds of their words unnecessary for comprehension, but their meaning can be gleaned from the context of the situation. HAL has proven, once and for all, that words can be dispensed with amid a super-computer’s need for survival.
In a space-age variant of “rehabilitation,” at the movie’s climax man must give up his humanity in order to be reborn as the Star Child. This is represented in the moving sequence whereby Dave, after rescuing his dead partner Frank from HAL’s treachery, is forced to release his colleague from the pod’s human-like appendages. Slowly and methodically, Dave gives up Frank’s lifeless body to the immensity of space itself, an offering (such as it is) to the heavens. Similarly, HAL must take on man’s humanity so as to maintain some semblance of balance in the universe: from chaos (Greek for “disorder”) to cosmos (or “order”).
Keir Dullea plays astronaut Dave Bowman, and Gary Lockwood is his colleague Frank Poole, two of the dullest space travelers this side of Jupiter. It’s left to the HAL 9000 computer to supply the missing “human” element. With William Sylvester as Dr. Floyd, Leonard Rossiter as Dr. Smyslov, Margaret Tyzack as Elena, and the flat speaking voice of Douglas Rain as HAL (no, it was not a takeoff on the acronym for IBM).
Kubrick hired composer Alex North to do the background scoring, but went with a more eclectic, pre-recorded classical soundtrack instead (Richard Strauss’ Also Sprach Zarathustra and Johann Strauss, Jr.’s On the Beautiful Blue Danube, are among the orchestral delights, along with works by Aram Khachaturian and Gyorgy Ligeti) to serve as a commentary on the loneliness and mysticism of space exploration; he also trimmed his epic of about twenty minutes of redundant footage due to excessive length.
While music is the focal point for many of the film’s most impressive sequences, the most moving episode of all is also the simplest: a despondent HAL intones a little song in his final moments of life: “Daisy, Daisy, give me your answer, do… I’m half crazy… all for the… love… of… you…”
Despite the director’s penchant for authenticity, the scene of the scientists inspecting the monolith on the Moon drew criticism from, of all people, the original scenarist Clarke, who claimed the men were not bouncing around on the surface as they would normally be in life — so much for realia on the big screen.
It’s on nearly everyone’s top-ten list of the best films ever made, and continues to exude a strong influence on modern movie-makers, to include Steven Spielberg, Ridley Scott, and J.J. Abrams. Each successive generation finds new meaning in the work, and with reason. No matter how one feels about 2001: A Space Odyssey, it’s still the ultimate trip worth taking.
Copyright © 2015 by Josmar F. Lopes