Thursday, August 11, 2005

They Came, They Saw, We Kicked Their @$$...Sort Of...
What else would Martians wanna do...other than invade us...?

No, it's not War of the Worlds that I'm going to be talking about today.

You see, I go through phases of genre cinema. It's not all Spaghetti Westerns all the time. That merely happens to be my favorite genre, and the one I default to most often. Also, keep in mind, that I don't mean genre as in Drama, Comedy, Sci-fi, etc. When I say genre it's more like: Blaxploitation, Shaw Bros. Kung Fu, Giant Monster movies, 50's Sci-Fi, etc. I look at movies kind of like zoologists break down animals into kingdom, phyla, class, order, family, genus, and species (Did I get them all?). Currently, I'm on a 50's alien invasion run (check out my last post on the Japanese film, The Mysterians).

Now the film I'm reviewing this time around sort of shames me into admitting that I had never seen it until now, especially considering all the garbage I have seen (like the Tracy Lords vehicle Shock 'Em Dead (1991) or Decampitated (1998) [which was low even for Troma]).

Nevertheless, I must forge ahead.

Hell, there's good odds you've never seen this "classic" either.

Invaders From Mars (1953, d. William Cameron Menzies)

The Plot: Junior Astronomer David Maclean spots a saucer land in the sand dunes across from his house, but no one believes him as the locals are snatched up one by one by the invaders. Finally with the help of the local observatory scientist and a local doctor, David is able to turn the tide and dispatch the aliens.

The Review: I had a momentary debate over whether to include the wry twist at the end of the movie as part of the plot. If you've never seen the movie, well I'm going to ruin it for you right now, but only because I don't feel I can review it without it. Fair enough? First though, I'm going to ramble for a bit.

Invaders clearly fits into the category of quasi-anti-Communist science fiction films such as The Thing From Another World (1951) and Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956). All three of these films feature alien invaders who end up taking over or impersonating the forms of captured or killed humans. Much of the fear factor rested within the idea that one couldn't tell who the invaders were. Even if their secret identity were exposed, no one would believe that someone they knew and trusted could be evil. The end result being that a town would fall without anyone being able to know or stop it. Ahh, the plucky days of the RED MENACE...or was it THREAT...I don't remember, but a nation full of paranoids is so much more polite.

That's assuming you manage to not be ousted as a suspected Commie and have to face the rosy-cheeked terror of Roy Cohn.


In many ways, what made Invaders more interesting to me than many of these films was the stress that it placed on the alienation (no pun) of the little boy David. His father and mother are some of the first victims of the aliens "re-programming." Within a matter of moments, David loses almost everyone he can turn to. For the most part, the first third of the movie is by far the most terrifying. Much of this can also be chalked up to director Menzies whose primary occupation was set design. Each space that David moves through looks at once familiar, but each contains little oddities. The world gets more and more skewed until we reach the police station which is nearly as stark and creepy as the alien craft at the end of the film. What's more is that it's a situation most of us can identify with: that first time in our lives when something happened and no one would believe our explanation of it.

The first third of this movie had me nearly completely hypnotized...which of course means that it couldn't hold it up exactly. As I mentioned in the plot summary, David does eventually find aid which leads to one of the most hilarious exposition scenes in movie history. David's astronomer buddy expounds at length about "commonly held" theories about life on Mars. Now the bits about their society being underground are passable, but when he gets into the stuff about them making humanoid mutants to serve them...I suppose you could say it gets far-fetched. I'm kidding. What it really feels like is the excuse is a cheap set up to have monsters later on. Also, there's some decidedly flimsy stuff that the Martians are after a new prototype spaceship. Why a race who can build interplanery ships that can phase though solid earth would be all that concerned with the fledgling outer space efforts of another race are beyond me? I'm probably thinking about it too hard. The attempt to expose the alien plot takes up much of the second third.

The final third of the film is a general mixed bag. On one end, there is a strong amount of menace as the remote-controlled humans (including David's parents) begin to carry out assasinations and general mayhem. The rest of the action involves the military trying to find and uproot the aliens. Naturally, David and his Lady Doctor friend get kidnapped by the aliens, excuse me, the mutant servants of the aliens. (Mutants who, I now feeled compelled to point out like every reviewer of this flick, have large obvious zippers running up their green costumes.) From there on out, it plays like nearly every alien or monster movie, until we get to the end and my point from the start of this review. (So if I haven't ruined enough comes the rest.)

The alien ship is blown up sending David and the solidiers running for cover. The camera settles on David who begins to have hazy flashbacks of all the terrors he's experienced, and soon enough he wakes up in bed. It was all a dream. Now in some ways, that's been a hokey ending since the dawn of hokey endings. At the same time, when put into the perspective of a coming-of-age film instead of an alien invasion moive, it works for me. Like I said, I found the first third of the film the strongest, and much of that was because of the isolation and the education for an otherwise sheltered young boy (ie. sometimes you can't trust a police man, etc.). Taken from that angle, the movie makes an Alice in Wonderland-like commentary on moving from childhood to adulthood.

However, that isn't where the movie ends.

Granted, in 1953, this wasn't as cliché as it is now, but the movie ends with David, relieved that it was all a dream, getting out of bed only to see the alien ship arriving for real this time. I don't get in, I don't get why this was the way the movied ended. I've thought of it a hundred different ways. After working in the movies myself, I've quickly realized that often putting any thought to these kind of questions is automatically too much thought by default. Maybe it was just that, a last minute: "Hey, wouldn't it be scary if we then....SHOW IT HAPPENING FOR REAL! That'd be great!" On the other hand, as meticulous about many things as Menzies seemed to be about his movie, I can't imagine that being his attitude. Ultimately I can't tell if it works or if it completely undermines all of the stuff I found really interesting about the movie.

I'm keeping in mind that most folks wouldn't have been able to take it seriously past the zippers on the mutants costumes.

All in all, this is still a movie with a lot of serious fun, and just enough kitsch to keep it interesting. A little too much armed forces stock footage, perhaps, but still a good time. I should also confess that I've got this itch to watch Tobe Hooper's version from the 80's again, despite all the evidence to the contrary.


Tuesday, August 02, 2005

The Not So Friendly Visitors
The "wacky" quotient is riding high...

It's not easy to convince people that watching movies is research. I'll at least claim that it's half-and-half. It isn't as though I'm going to watch a movie that I won't enjoy as part of my research. Then again, that's beginning to encroach on the territory of what makes a good movie, a bad movie, and a good bad movie. I didn't come here to go over all that again. The movie I watched was supposed to be research of sorts...but, I confess, I had wanted to see it for a long time.

You see, I've sent my novel off to a friend of mine who's going to give it the old once-over. I'm hoping it takes him quite some time, as I have little interest in looking at it for a while to come. In the meantime, progress should march on. I'm particularly bent on trying to write a second one (without knowing whether the first is worth a crap) before the end of the year. Well, perhaps not finish it by then, but at least have something under way. So I've been attempting to study certain genre structures and devices.

Here's the part where we get to my review, but believe you me, you won't be able to figure out the story I want to tell based on this review.

The Mysterians (1957, d. Ishiro Honda)

The Plot: After a series of bizarre natural disasters, scientists discover that an alien race from a destroyed planet are attempting to settle on Earth. The aliens have two requests: a two mile radius tract of land, and the right to breed with Earth women. Needless to say, the human race won't stand for that and so war begins between the humans and the space age weapons of the invaders.

The Review: A few months ago, I went to see the re-release of the original Godzilla. It was a restored print with a Japanese language track and no Raymond Burr. Sure it had become more than just a little silly in places over time (like the photo of the Big G over the mountains that's obviously a painting), but it was still shocking how grim and serious it was. I doubt anyone on Earth understands how seriously to take atomic weaponry than the Japanese. Nowadays Godzilla, himself, is hard to take seriously, but early on he put an appropriate dragon face of horror on atomic nightmares that no mushroom cloud could.

I mention Godzilla for two reasons that are both connected. For one, The Mysterians and the first Godzilla film share the same director. Second, that first Godzilla film set up the formula for nearly every giant monster movie to follow as well as a lion's share of Japanese science fiction films. It breaks down like this: 1) the threat arrives and humanity's confused, 2) the first attempt is made to stop the threat which ends in humanity getting its collective @$$ handed to it, and 3) humanity figures out some new fangled kooky way of attacking and wins the day. Somewhere along the line there's a love story, and very often there's a misunderstood scientist or child who somehow figures in the finale. The formula doesn't vary much, although certainly in the chain of sequels, the title monster begins to have a hand in stopping the new threat.

Now, even though I've brought up the giant monsters and this film is often listed in that category, it only resembles them in terms of story line. Certainly, you see a couple of giant robots (who have a striking resemblance to Gonzo of Muppet fame), but not for very long. Most of the destructive attacks center around a large stationary globe that acts as the Mysterians base. A large glowing globe that doesn't move could hardly be mistaken for a giant monster like...say Guiron, who had a giant knife shaped head. Guiron is definitely a giant monster. Nonetheless, the plot of this film still does strongly resemble that of the giant monster film, except in one important area (other than the monster...sorry about that). It lacks the emotional core most of those films had.

In the original Godzilla, you got to know and care about the people trying to stop the monster's tirade. It had a hint of a love story, a love triangle in fact. In the midst of disaster, it wasn't merely a screaming faceless mob, but they took time to at least give you a touch of humanity in the crowd. For instance, in the original Gamera film, there's the moment amidst the destruction when Gamera stops and saves a boy's life. Sure it's hokey, but it puts a face to the destruction. The Mysterians, on the other hand, spends more time trying to wow it's audience. Unfortunately, that lets it down in more ways than one.

For one, if you didn't grow up with this kind of movie or haven't developed a taste for miniature efx extravaganzas, then you're likely to not care for this movie right off the bat. Then again, you may enjoy it, but likely that'll be because you'll spend the hour and a half laughing at it. To the trained eye or those who love this stuff however, the filmmakers did manage to pull off some amazing stuff. One matte shot in particular of a live action man leaping from a minature tank as it is sucked into the ground is impressively effective. Not only that, there is a lot of fun and priceless silliness to the design of the various ships and what have. The problem is that there is just too much of it all the time, but it's never fascinating enough to overshadow the fact that the story is paper thin. The eighteenth Godzilla movie can be paper thin, but not the first.

To be honest, and maybe it was just the subtitles, but I don't think I knew a single characters name by the end. Now when the one character makes the ultimate sacrifice to save everyone, it usually means more when you know what his name is. It wasn't so much the name in some ways as it was the fact that I spent more screen time with the exterior of the Mysterians base than I did with that character.

Don't get me wrong though. As usual, though I tear into the movie, I had a good time watching it. It was ok...and what bothered me is that it could've been great. It could've been the Citizen Kane of alien invasion movies. It had all the right elements. Giant Gonzo Robots. Melting Tanks. Damsels in distress. And a squadron of aliens dressed in capes and motorcycle helmets. Like I said, the miniature work was a lot of fun, and well done. I enjoyed watching it, but it got to the point where my trigger finger was getting ready to start fast forwarding through it.

This is the kind of movie I would like to remake. The problem is that most people would want to jazz it up too much and miss the point (ie. The Thunderbirds movie sans puppets), or you make it too kitschy and retro and it becomes utterly trite. So I think it's best to...I don't know...ummm...leave it alone. If only everyone would take that cue.