The Philadelphia Experiment

November 28, 2011

The Philadelphia Experiment is a low-budget bit of nonsense that explores a well-trod sector of that vast region known as the Twilight Zone: time travel.

In fact, this film conjures up visions of long-gone supernatural TV shows: not just “Twilight Zone” but also “The Outer Limits,” and a particular favorite of mine during Cub Scout years, “The Time Tunnel.”

Like the “Time Tunnel” shows, the heroes of The Philadelphia Experiment are flipped around in the time warp thanks to a government experiment that goes wrong. In this case, a couple of sailors (Michael Paré and Bobby Di Cicco) are serving aboard a destroyer in Philadelphia Bay in 1943. Some hotshot scientists claim to have a device that will cloak U.S. ships from enemy radar, and they test it out on the ship with a full crew.

Levers are pushed, and soon everybody on board is shaking and rattling and turning different shades of orange. The ship disappears from radar contact, all right—it also disappears from view. Yipes! The next thing we know, Paré and Di Cicco are tumbling through a tear in the space-time continuum (I don’t really know what that means, but it always sounds good when they say it in these movies—and they always do).

They end up in the Nevada desert in 1984, where they are deposited because the government is once again trying the same test—won’t they ever learn?—and Paré and Di Cicco drop through a hole in the sky. They spend the next couple of days trying to go back, with the help of a woman (Nancy Allen) who doesn’t mind a little adventure.

That hole in the sky is, of course, not the only hole in this plot. But, while this film is ragged and adolescent, it also has a sense of humor about itself. When Paré and Di Cicco wander about the desert, they pick up a bottle of beer: Lowenbrau. Good heavens—could the Germans have won the war? There are also humorous, if predictable, jokes about first encounters with television, punk rockers, and video games.

The director, Stewart Raffill, bumps things along quite adroitly—and at times, with some delicacy. For instance, there’s a prologue in which we’re introduced to Di Cicco’s 1943 wife. Later, Paré shows up at her door—in 1984. He hasn’t changed—people who travel through time never do, as everyone knows—but she’s much older. Interesting situation, and poignantly handled.

Raffill isn’t quite as sure with his actors. Paré, the chef-turned-star who was in Streets of Fire, still communicates almost nothing but lunkheadedness, but this is his best outing yet. Everyone else is logging time. Sometimes they look slightly embarrassed at the silly dialogue they have to mouth, but the tone is mostly earnest.

John Carpenter, the director Halloween and other stylish suspense flicks, is executive producer. It’s always hard to know what that title means, but Carpenter is well-known as a lover of B-movies, those modest entertainments that used to fill out the bottom halves of double bills and sometimes upstage the nominal A-movie.

With the decline of first-run double-billing, the B-movie has all but disappeared. Its value as a cheap breeding ground for new talent is missed. I find it comforting that Carpenter, Raffill, and cohorts have not yet given up the ship.

First published in the Herald, August 27, 1984

This should have been a better, pulpier movie. That cast list is certainly of the Eighties, people who were on the way up and apparently destined to be stars, but yeah, never mind. Stewart Raffill had also done The Ice Pirates in ’84, a spoofy thing, and would turn to Mac and Me, which I do not forgive. Will find both reviews as soon as possible.


Black Moon Rising

April 4, 2011

Black Moon Rising is another movie in which a nameless government agency has hired a specialist to do its dirty work. If you believed every suspense movie that came along, that government agency must be full of thieves, spies and ex-cons by now. Which, come to think of it, may not be too far off the mark, considering the rash of espionage cases lately.

Be that as it may, at this point you can almost write this kind of movie yourself. The hero will be craggy-faced and silent, and he never makes mistakes at his specialty. Most important of all, he’ll be indestructible, which is key, since the bad guys will be shooting at him throughout.

His dialogue will go like this: “Just stay out of my way,” and “Don’t cross me,” and “The last time somebody tried that, they wound up (fill in the blank: dead, sorry, needing a new pair of hands, whatever).”

Well, Black Moon Rising takes this guy and makes him a bit more human. This is partly because the hero is played by Tommy Lee Jones, who lends a slightly off-center presence, and also because the film lets him be fallible.

His specialty is thievery, and that nameless government agency has him on the payroll so he can steal an important cassette tape. We never know exactly why this cassette is so important—it’s got something to do with testimony—but it doesn’t matter in the slightest. The only important thing is that Jones steals the cassette, then loses it, and he must steal it back in 72 hours.

He loses it by hiding it in a sleek experimental car (a speed machine called “Black Moon,” which runs on hydrogen) he happens to encounter. He plans to retrieve the tape later, but then the car is stolen by somebody else—another professional thief (Linda Hamilton, heroine of The Terminator), who drives it into a huge Los Angeles office building—a building that appears impregnable.

So, the final two-thirds of the movie is simply this: Break into the building and get that car outta there. That’s basic enough, and director Harley Cokliss generates some fun in the final break-in sequence. But overall, Black Moon Rising presents a curiously lame exercise. It’s curious because there’s nothing particularly bad about the film; it’s just tired.

This, despite the fact that the romantic relationship between Jones and Hamilton is pleasantly drawn (she’s every bit his equal, and engages in no damsel-in-distress whimpering). The supporting cast is eccentric, too: Bubba Smith as an agency operative, Robert Vaughn doing his evil routine, and Richard Jaeckel, Dan Shor and William Sanderson (the latter, a longtime offbeat character actor, recently came to cult fame as Larry on the “Newhart” show) as the owners of the cool car.

But Black Moon Rising never quite gets its engines revved properly. This might have been corrected if John Carpenter, who wrote the original story, had stayed on as director; but Cokliss lets the film run out of gas. Or hydrogen, as the case may be.

First published in the Herald, January 1986

That’s not the car in the photo up there; it’s just a car. Cokliss at some point change the spelling of his last name to Cokeliss, according to IMDb. There might be some significance to that. I remember this film sounded great in conception: Jones and Hamilton in a car movie written by Carpenter. I don’t see how that misses. And put those five supporting actors under Tommy Lee Jones’ command, add Lee Ving and Keenan Wynn (also in this movie), and you’ve got one crazy-ass Vietnam platoon picture.


Big Trouble in Little China

March 28, 2011

Cattrall, Russell, Pai

Big Trouble in Little China reunites director John Carpenter with Kurt Russell, a collaboration that got off to a flying start with the TV-movie Elvis, in which Russell’s remarkable impersonation of Presley really launched the former Disney child star into a new career.

After Elvis, the two teamed up for Escape from New York and The Thing, a pair of unsatisfying thrillers. Now they’re back together with a much livelier outing; Big Trouble in Little China finds the two of them completely in sync. That’s lucky, because with far-out material such as this, it’s sync or swim.

Russell, who’s been steadily improving in recent years, has never been this loose or comically heroic. He plays a beefy, slightly dim-witted truck driver who delivers a regular load in San Francisco’s Chinatown one night, gets into an all-hours poker game, and somehow is drawn into the disorienting search for a missing girl in Chinatown’s netherworld.

This world is pretty outrageous. Carpenter throws in all sorts of vaulting kung fu action, a Tong war, booby-traps, a mysterious Chinese potion (which prompts an intoxicated Russell, upon drinking it, to good-naturedly observe that he feels, “Kinda—I dunno—kinda invincible”), human sacrifice, and a 2,000-year-old dude who needs the blood of a green-eyed bride to restore him.

As that grocery list might suggest, the tone of Big Trouble is largely comic. Somehow Carpenter avoids making fun of the material—that’s a big booby-trap in itself—so that the tongue-in-cheek tone has the flavor of Raiders of the Lost Ark rather than outright parody.

The kung fu fighting is blown out of proportion, but Carpenter keeps a lot of stuff honest. Near the beginning, there’s a kidnap scene at the airport that quivers with a sense of impending danger and claustrophobia, which the movie’s subsequent jokey tone can’t quite erase.

The goofiness probably keeps it from being anything great or memorable, but it certainly makes for a rowdy fun time. Carpenter and his actors establish an almost immediate audience rapport, sustained by the clever direction and the script. The screenplay bears the stamp of W.D. Richter, who wrote the keen update of Invasion of the Body Snatchers a few years ago.

Richter is credited with “adaptation” among the screenwriters, but it’s a good bet he’s responsible for much of the arch, ’40s-style dialogue. Much of Russell’s delivery, in which he spouts some he-man braggadocio, only to be immediately contradicted by the turn of events, is the ’40s movie adventurer given an appropriate ’80s twist.

Russell is splendid, and Carpenter gets the best work yet from Kim Cattrall, previously wasted in Porky’s and Turk 182!, and Kate Burton, the late Richard’s daughter. Cattrall plays a headstrong lawyer, Burton a naïve reporter—yes, yes, those sound like cliché “types,” but that’s the idea.

So Big Trouble in Little China joins this summer’s weirdly crowded circle of good-summer-entertainment-but-nothing-more films. It may be the most unbelievable, but it never lets that get in the way of the overriding party atmosphere.

First published in the Herald, July 6, 1986

Ha ha—”disorienting”—I kill myself. This movie didn’t cause much of a stir at the time, but it has become a cult picture, and for good reason, I think. And I really don’t find The Thing unsatisfying anymore. Will look for my Turk 182! review. By the way, this opened in Seattle at the Oak Tree, Alderwood Mall, and Grand Cinema, if anyone cares.


The Thing

February 16, 2011

A couple of years ago, John Carpenter looked like the most exciting young director in Hollywood. His successes included the sleek suspense film, Assault on Precinct 13; the excellent TV movies, Somebody is Watching Me and Elvis; and the masterly horror films, Halloween and The Fog. Carpenter appeared to be a natural stylist who had a rare understanding of how moving pictures should move.

But it’s been a bad year for Carpenter. Last summer’s Escape from New York was one of those frustrating movies that sets up a great idea in the first few minutes and then lets the story dribble away. Halloween II (which Carpenter co-wrote and co-produced but definitely did not direct), released a few months later, managed to be more offensive than the usual Halloween rip-offs.

Then came word that Carpenter was working on a semi-remake of Howard Hawks’ 1951 science-fiction classic, The Thing. This was promising news: Not only does the original Thing seem to be one of Carpenter’s favorite movies (Jamie Lee Curtis watches it on television on that fateful Halloween night), but reportedly Carpenter was planning to stick more closely to the spooky short story (“Who Goes There?” by John W. Campbell) that served loosely as the basis for the first version of The Thing.

Unfortunately, this Thing is one of the big disappointments of the year. Somewhere on the way from an Antarctic glacier (where The Thing is set) to the massive special-effects facilities of Hollywood, Carpenter seems to have contracted a case of snow blindness.

He has returned to the short story’s frightening premise: An alien visitor, trapped and frozen in snow for many thousands of years, is thawed out and let loose among a group of research scientists. This extraterrestrial displays the terrifying ability to reproduce itself as any earthly life form—including man. Thus, despite the fact that all the men at the isolated station look, act and sound the same way they did before the creature got loose, there is no way to tell the men from the monsters.

Carpenter seems impressed by this metaphor for our paranoid and suspicious times, but that’s about all; he doesn’t deepen the idea. And he bypasses character development (though some of the men do go through pretty violent changes) even though he has selected a fine troupe of character answers.

Kurt Russell, playing the group’s eventual leader, has a smoldering quality that is interesting and watchable, but he’s such an inner-directed performer that he never illuminates anything around him. This worked perfectly when he played Elvis Presley for Carpenter, but it almost shuts off audience involvement in The Thing. He seems just as closed-off in the beginning of the movie as he does later, when he has good reason to be suspicious.

Instead of developing the characters, Carpenter has concentrated on producing some spectacular (and gory) special effects. For the most part the effects are astonishingly good, but it’s hard to care when we don’t have much interest in the person the Thing is devouring…or becoming. Carpenter also shoots two autopsies—one human, one alien—in revolting close-up.

The Thing is not without some superb touches. The first scene poses a tantalizing mystery: A lone husky dog lopes across the Antarctic wasteland followed by a helicopter that suddenly begins to shoot at the dog for no apparent reason. This sequence is tightly, crisply realized on the bleak terrain (the locations actually were shot in Alaska and British Columbia). And there’s a blackly funny scene later that involves a bunch of men tied to a bench who writhe in helpless horror when one of them begins to transform into the Thing.

Carpenter’s overall conception of how to treat the story is the problem, and flashes of brilliance cannot redeem this fundamental miscalculation. (It should be noted that the press kit for The Thing reports a “tentative” running time of 127 minutes as of two months ago; the film is at least 10 minutes shorter than that. This may have some significance, but we’ll probably never know.) In choosing to emphasize technical wizardry over human conflict, Carpenter sidesteps the most intriguing challenges of the story. He seems to have forgotten—may we hope temporarily?—that man himself can be as fascinating as any thing.

First published in the Seattle Times, June 25, 1982

I understand. This movie has a large and devoted following now. I saw it again sometime after it opened and yes, it was better than my first impression. But this is a completely accurate impression of seeing it at a midnight preview screening a week before it opened, and actually the impression mostly holds up (although I should give Russell more credit for doing exactly what the character requires). I remember being puzzled by a contradiction: Carpenter’s previous films had been impeccably Hawksian , and then when he actually goes and remakes a Howard Hawks picture, it comes out like this. I’ll watch it again, and probably like it more, but I have a feeling I’m going to stick with my general sense of let-down.


They Live

December 2, 2010

Look around you. People are concerned only with status and wealth. Everyone is busy accruing material goods, but nobody thinks about the less fortunate. Television commercials constantly chirp their inane messages, while politicians tell us how great everything is.

Did you ever wonder who’s behind all this? The culprits are among us. But no, they’re not yuppies. They’re aliens.

At least, that’s what John Carpenter’s They Live explains to us. They Live is Carpenter’s wonderfully wicked blend of social satire and science fiction, an Invasion of the Body Snatchers for the Reagan era.

As the drifter hero (Roddy Piper) of They Live discovers, aliens have infiltrated Earth and assumed human form. They’re incredibly ugly, but the only way to see them in their true state is with special sunglasses. The sunglasses also expose the subliminal messages that the aliens have plastered on every billboard, magazine, and signpost, messages straight out of 1984 that encourage docility: “No Independent Thought,” “Conform,” “Obey.” (We can see through the sunglasses in a nightmare black-and-white that recalls Fritz Lang’s Metropolis.)

The aliens are responsible for the world’s bad stuff, from toxic waste to happy-talk news shows and the colorization of movies. But, as Carpenter and screenwriter Frank Armitage are quick to point out, the human population happily goes along, as long as we get out piece of the action.

Carpenter, doing his best work since Starman, gets all of this spiky commentary into the shape of a foot-stomping action movie. He lets the opening reels play out with the unhurried ease of a pro, and then he starts the fun rolling. The story takes its broad jumps, but Carpenter never stops to apologize; he’s too busy having a good time.

The set-pieces alone are outrageous: the terrific sequence in which Piper first dons the sunglasses, whereupon he promptly guns down as many of the “formaldehyde-faced” aliens as he can; the final trek through the aliens’ underground city beneath Los Angeles, to the tower where they broadcast the signal that becalms the masses; and the cartoon-like, knock-down-drag-out fistfight Piper has with his best friend (Keith David).

Roddy Piper, by the way, may be best known as “Rowdy” Roddy Piper, the professional wrestler who used to show up for his fights wearing a kilt and packing a bagpipe. Piper is no actor, but he’s got a relaxed screen presence and the pronounced musculature that serves him well in this role. As the last best hope of mankind, he’s a pretty laid-back guy.

First published in the Herald, November 4, 1988.

Now that Jonathan Lethem has written a book-length analysis of They Live, I suppose the movie will become all respectable and honored. (Just kidding—that’s never going to happen, because the film is built to circumvent any such impulse.) But it is quite a picture. It opened the weekend before a presidential election, yet did little to dent the Bush-Quayle victory. I wish Carpenter had kept making this kind of movie every year, but it didn’t work out that way. And yes, I know that Frank Armitage is a pseudonym for Carpenter himself, although I didn’t know that in 1988.