Alien Nation

November 29, 2012

Question: Which nation was not invited to the just-completed Olympic Games?

Answer: Alien Nation.

That’s the joke of a recent coming-attractions trailer for the new sci-fi thriller, which suggests the sense of humor this movie has about itself. The film isn’t as clever as the trailer.

But Alien Nation does present an intriguing new future. It’s set a few years from now, after a lost space ship has unloaded its passengers in Los Angeles. The humanoid creatures, known as “newcomers” (but unofficially called “slags”), have in many ways assimilated themselves into society; they’ve learned English, gotten jobs.

But most of them live in the ghetto, and are discriminated against. “Slag town” is a hotbed of violence; cop James Caan, a slag-basher to begin with, loses his partner in a dispute among the newcomers.

Caan is assigned a new partner, and of course it’s the first newcomer (Mandy Patinkin) in the L.A. detective force. With their testy relationship, the film slides into the buddy-cop movie formula, and delivers the expected banter and eventual grudging friendship. There’s nothing new about this angle of the movie, although both actors are watchable (the resourceful Patinkin is encased in the newcomers’ makeup, which includes a distended skull flecked with giraffe-like spots).

The underlying theme of Alien Nation is bigotry; like much science fiction, it deals with a social issue, in this case racial discrimination, in an oblique way. The rest of the plot revolves around drugs, a blue goo that drives the newcomers crazy. (Maybe the aliens belonged at the Olympics after all.) But the best thing about Rockne O’Bannon’s original screenplay is the newcomer culture that it describes.

The newcomers, for instance, have no interest in booze. But sour milk—a coupla belts of that stuff, and they’re blotto. Also, they can’t touch sea water, or they disintegrate. But they can breathe methane and not be affected, which is why they get jobs at refineries. And in their language, the name of James Caan’s character means “excrement cranium,” or… well, you can translate that one.

First published in the Herald, October 13, 1988

It became a TV series for a while, and O’Bannon went on to create Farscape for TV.


Innerspace

November 28, 2012

Remember Fantastic Voyage? It’s the semi-legendary ’60s film in which a seacraft was miniaturized and injected into the bloodstream of a human being. The movie featured that immortal scene in which Raquel Welch strayed outside the capsule and was attacked by phagocytes. At which point her lucky crewmates got to peel the sticky things from her skin-tight bodysuit.

See? You do remember. That poker-faced film became a camp classic almost immediately; now Innerspace comes along to play the premise for out-and-out laughs.

The basic concept is, shall we way, in a similar vein. This time the capsule contains only one man, a daredevil pilot (Dennis Quaid). The miniaturization experiment is supposed to put him inside the body of a rabbit. Instead, he’s injected via hypodermic needle into the body of a part-time grocery store clerk and full-time nerd (Martin Short).

How this happens is, well, complicated. There’s a scheme that involves a madman (Kevin McCarthy) who wants the secret of miniaturization so he can—dare we say it?—rule the world. Eventually, he’ll mainline his own quasi-bionic hit man (Vernon Wells) into Short’s bloodstream to do battle with the little Quaid.

Like Fantastic Voyage, there’s a time limit on Quaid’s tenancy, which lends some suspense. Also a lot of imaginative human interiors. Quaid’s journey is realized by George Lucas’s Industrial Light and Magic special effects company; they create some neat internal landscapes, such as Short’s ulcerous stomach and his rushing red blood cells (which look suspiciously like cherry Fruit Loops).

Unlike Fantastic Voyage, the emphasis is on the comedy, and the slapstick opportunities for the gifted Martin Short, who used to do hilarious work on “SCTV” and “Saturday Night Live.” His high point is a frug in the manner of Ed Grimley (his pointy-haired “SNL” character) while Quaid plays tunes inside his body.

Since Quaid can talk to Short from inside, Short gets to do some amusing monologues, particularly one in a public men’s room. But somehow this idea seems warmed-over from All of Me, in which Steve Martin conducted a conversation with the internalized Lily Tomlin.

In fact, much of the film has a warmed-over quality. You’d think the best director for this kind of comedy-action blend would be Joe Dante, who lit the anarchic fire under Gremlins. But here Dante can’t get the overall machinery cooking, and I miss his usual feel for off-the-wall details.

The most interesting possibility is proposed when Quaid’s girlfriend, a reporter (Meg Ryan), gets swept into the intrigue, and becomes attracted to Short. Ordinarily, I’d think Dante would want to explore this unlikely threesome, but she goes back to Quaid and the movie drops it.

Innerspace delivers some good bits. Dante still has a fun touch with supporting players; he slips Henry Gibson in, and hands a juicy scene to Kathleen Freeman, who also stops the show with a similar single-scene tirade in the new Dragnet. But Dante seems underinspired, and the movie can’t run only on the rubbery legs of Martin Short.

First published in the Herald, July 1987

A fun movie, but something didn’t quite come to life. I never watched it again, but I have recently re-watched Richard Fleischer’s Fantastic Voyage, which deserves better than to be relegated to the camp classic category, although there is some of that there. It’s a well-made picture, and very imaginative. I may have been overly influenced by childhood memories of the Mad magazine parody, Fantasteeccch Voyage.


Iceman

November 5, 2012

So much of Iceman is so good that you almost knock yourself out wishing it were better. Really, it’s amazing the film is as involving as it is, given a shaky, undernourished screenplay and the claustrophobic nature of the story.

The movie hurtles through its first minutes, as a form is found in the ice and brought back to an arctic research station to be thawed. When the doctors and scientists of the station prepare to examine the body—it’s a human shape—they are astonished to discover faint life signs. When they bring the terrified iceman to consciousness, they face a new problem: what do they do with him now?

Australian director Fred Schepisi throws you right into the fray in these early scenes, and this fast-moving approach does two things: It gets you involved very quickly, and it doesn’t give you a chance to think about the admittedly wild premise.

Once the iceman (played by John Lone) is up and around, it’s time for the old science vs. humanity argument. Some of the scientists want to test and probe the iceman, so they can assemble clues and find out what gave his cells the capacity to regenerate after so many years in limbo.

One anthropologist, Stanley Shephard (Timothy Hutton), wants to place the iceman in a sympathetic environment and try to get to know him. Shephard thinks that if they learn what’s inside the iceman’s mind, rather than simply sampling his body, they’ll get an even better idea of what kept the 40,000-year-old man alive.

They install the iceman in a Vivarium, an artificial habitat that resembles the outside. Shephard lets the iceman adapt, and then goes into the Vivarium to try to make some sort of contact. His dealings with the iceman form the core of the movie, as they exchange words, share food, and even a duet on a Neil Young song.

Much of this is smartly done, but the conflicts between Shephard and the other doctors seem trumped-up, and aren’t really all that interesting. We never get to know exactly who’s pulling the strings (or threatening to pull the plug), and most of the scientists don’t seem like real people with histories. They just exist as characters who disagree with each other.

There are script problems, but the film is visually powerful. Just the sheer physical presence of the Vivarium, which exists under the arctic ice in a huge warehouse, is fabulous.

And Schepisi, who directed The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith and Barbarosa, has a terrific eye. In the landscape footage of the tundra (filmed in Canada), Schepisi has found some breathtaking vistas, and he has a knack for putting the camera in just the right spot. In the final sequence, as two people trek across the snow, there’s poetry in the shapes he finds in hills and drifts of ice.

On this particular project, Schepisi’s reach exceeds his grasp—something like the iceman, who, looking up at a helicopter flying over the Vivarium, reaches up to it, thinking it’s his god coming to take him to heaven. Iceman doesn’t quite cut it, but moments like that make it an intriguing disappointment.

First published in the Herald, April 13, 1984

The ice fields turn out to be not so far from the mystical Outback, as far as Schepisi is concerned. I recall Pauline Kael going ape over this movie, although it seems to have had no real life since then (it would be interesting to know more about what got changed in it, as online sources suggest Schepisi had a falling-out with producers and various stuff, including the ending, got tinkered with). Lone came out of nowhere (by way of Peking Opera) for this. The movie was one of the string of very curious choices made by Timothy Hutton in the years after his Oscar.


The Man with Two Brains

October 4, 2012

Steve Martin is, of course, one of the great men of our time. But the poor guy has not found his place in the cinema, not yet. Other comics are working well in movies not tailored for them as star vehicles: Robin Williams made a respectable Garp and is now acting for Paul Mazursky, and Eddie Murphy has fallen in with zippy young talents like Walter Hill and John Landis.

Martin has shown some adventurousness: any actor taking the role he took in that curiosity called Pennies from Heaven cannot be called cowardly. Stupid, maybe, but not cowardly. The Jerk was spottily funny, and only because of Martin’s ability to sustain his goon persona; Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid, while affectionate and mostly likable, became almost oppressive toward the end—you worried so about how they were going to get in and out of all those film clips and still tie up the loose ends, it got nerve-wracking.

The Man with Two Brains is a return to a more straightforward narrative form—that’s assuming your idea of a straightforward narrative goes something like this: conniving woman (Kathleen Turner, from Body Heat) throws herself in front of a car driven by a rich brain surgeon (Steve) as a means of snaring him. He saves her life by using his innovative “Screw-Top” technique of brain repair; but when he sews her skull back into place, he sows the seeds of his unhappiness.

He starts to fall for her even before she’s conscious, which, as it turns out, is when she’s at her sweetest. The doctor soon learns that physical beauty is only as deep as the first epidermal layer, and that true meaningfulness springs form a meeting of minds. Soon after, he goes to Vienna and meets a very nice mind, and for a while he is truly the man with two brains. Lubitsch it’s not, but Steve’s latest romp, despite trying to tie up too many loose ends in its second half, is pretty darned funny.

First published in The Informer, May 1983

This doesn’t quite convey how much of a Steve Martin fan I was back then; his TV appearances and record albums set such a high standard that his early movie stuff seemed disappointing (although many people seem to love The Jerk, especially if they caught it at a young age).


Deepstar Six

September 27, 2012

Not every movie released this January is going to be a thoughtful, serious film along the lines of Mississippi Burning or The Accidental Tourist. No, there’s also room for trash. And trash describes Deepstar Six, a dopey but curiously welcome little science-fiction contraption.

Deepstar Six is utterly without an original concept, but it does have a certain B-movie kick. It borrows from Alien, Jaws, and just about every other successful horror film of recent years, with a bit of The Poseidon Adventure thrown in.

It takes place in a high-tech research lab sitting on the bottom of the ocean, where scientists are doing whatever it is scientists are always doing in these movies, and the military is preparing an undersea base for nuclear missiles. When a cave under the ocean floor collapses, something nasty gets out. Something nasty and, apparently, hungry.

You can see Alien creeping in. Actually, this sea monster is something of a red herring (ahem) since the crew’s real problem is in leaving the lab before a nuclear detonation occurs (a boneheaded engineer mistakenly set the controls to self-destruct). So the valiant scientists must find a way to liftoff while keeping shy of the sea beast.

Okay, it’s dumb. But if you have a fondness for the conventions of funky 1950s sci-fi movies, Deepstar Six is easy to take. For instance, it is traditional in these movies that the women scientists are shapely PhD.s who like to wear tank tops. That tradition thrives in Deepstar Six.

Director Sean S. Cunningham, whose place in cinema history is assured thanks to his creation of the Friday the 13th series, takes his time about setting up the situation and then letting the good times roll. Granted, the characters are cardboard and the special effects are cheesy, but that’s part of the fun.

Even the actors are a surprisingly decent bunch. Taurean Blacque (of “Hill Street Blues”) is the captain. Greg Evigan and Nancy Everhard are the young couple in love. Cindy Pickett (“St. Elsewhere”) is the capable doctor, and Miguel Ferrer steals the show as the crew’s coward (there’s always one).

Plus, they’re not writing dialogue like this anymore: “That thing killed half our crew. I want it dead.” And: “When we get out of this, I’ll marry you in a minute.” And my favorite: “Wait a minute. There’s something in the airlock!” So who can resist?

First published in the Herald, January 12, 1989

“Dopey but curiously welcome” strikes me as a legitimate subgenre of movies. But I haven’t found this one welcome enough to view since then.


Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure

August 23, 2012

Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure is a little like the old “Rocky and Bullwinkle” show. You know the thing is aimed primarily at 11-year-olds, and the characters are all idiotic, but jokes keep whizzing past that are neither idiotic nor pre-adolescent.

In fact , this movie is pretty funny. But where “Rocky and Bullwinkle” was sly, Bill & Ted is goofy. It makes certain demands on the viewer; you’d better have a high tolerance for cretinous dialogue and vacant, glassy-eyed stares.

Bill and Ted (played with unfailing vacuousness and in perfect Valley-speak by Alex Winter and Keanu Reeves, respectively) are two high-schoolers who are flunking out of history class. When the teacher asks who Joan of Arc was, they’re stumped: “Noah’s wife?” And they wonder whether Marco Polo refers to a watersport.

For some reason, these two dorks are chosen by an emissary (George Carlin) from the 27th century, who lends them a time machine in the form of a telephone booth. With this, they’re able to travel around through the centuries, pick up interesting historical figures, and come back in time to present a really bodacious final report, and thus avert the most dreaded F.

That’s the concept. And there aren’t many complications along the way. The movie, written by Chris Matheson and Ed Solomon and briskly directed by Stephen Herek, touches down in a variety of historical locales but never stays long enough for anything to get stale. From the wild West, the boys take Billy the Kid; from ancient Greece, Socrates (“a most bodacious philosopher”). They grab Joan of Arc, Napoleon, Lincoln, and Sigmund Freud (who is greeted in the Vienna of 1900 with a friendly, “How’s it goin’, Frood-dude?”).

There’s also room for some low comedy when the time travelers return to the presnt and deposit the great figures in a shopping mall. Billy the Kid and Socrates try to put the make on a couple of babes (this doesn’t sound like the Socratic method), but Freud ruins things by showing up at the wrong moment, corndog in hand (though sometimes a corndog is just a corndog). “Way to go, egghead,” Billy snarls.

The movie’s characters are so moronic they become strangely endearing after a while, and it’s all over before it wears out its welcome. In short, most bodacious.

First published in the Herald, February 1989

A genuinely funny movie. I guess I couldn’t figure out a way to make the duo’s pronunciation of “Socrates” understandable, which is a shame. And just a few days ago, Reeves announced that he’d signed on for a new sequel, which might be a good idea if only to alter the memory of the DOA Bogus Journey.


Blade Runner

August 3, 2012

I don’t think I’ll ever quite get over my sense of disappointment upon walking out of the first screening of Blade Runner at the Cinerama theater in 1982. Expectations were high, of course, so maybe disappointment was understandable.

But a second viewing confirmed my feeling, and even a decade’s worth of growing cult appreciation hasn’t changed my mind. Among other things, I thought the movie was a comedown from a rather brilliant science fiction novel, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? by Philip K. Dick.

To be fair, the Blade Runner released in 1982 was a compromised film. Over the objections of director Ridley Scott and star Harrison Ford, voiceover narration was added to the movie, as well as an absurd happy ending. Those were two of the worst elements of the film. In fact, Ford spoke the narration so poorly that I always wondered whether he was deliberately tanking it.

Now the film has been recut by Scott, who has subsequently made Thelma & Louise and Black Rain and the upcoming 1492: Conquest of Paradise. Scott persuaded Warner Bros. to let him yank the narration and lop off the happy ending, as well as perform some minor tinkering. (I believe there’s a brief dream shot of a white unicorn that’s been reinstated.)

It’s a better movie. The cutting of the stupid narration makes the film seem denser and more disorienting, which was probably why the studio wanted it inserted. And the nicely ambiguous ending is a huge improvement over the tacked-on finish of the 1982 release.

Scott shows a certain grand disdain for ordinary storytelling in Blade Runner. In simplest terms, the movie is about a hired gun (Ford) who goes out to exterminate some replicants—that is, humanoid robots—who are running loose. The replicants are trying to get to the head (Joe Turkel) of the megacompany that built them, to discover how they can extend their intentionally short life spans.

The replicants are beautifully played by Rutger Hauer, Daryl Hannah, Joanna Cassidy, Brion James, and nonrenegade Sean Young. The movie teases around some basic ideas about what it is to be human, especially in Hauer’s climactic speech about the false “memories” he’s been programmed with, and how they are doomed to inevitably vanish—”like tears in the rain.”

Even in this fine new version, Blade Runner still doesn’t strike me as a masterpiece. There’s much to admire about the film’s eye-popping production design; its vision of Los Angeles circa 2019 has never been topped. And Scott’s druggy, slowed-down pacing is fascinating.

But the profound ideas that Scott is clearly searching for remain mostly untouched. Because the film aims high, it is glaringly obvious when it fails to reach. But what an intoxicating attempt.

First published in the Herald, September 18, 1992

I didn’t review Blade Runner the first time around, so it seems legit to reprint this ’92 reappraisal, even if this isn’t much as a piece of writing. See, I really don’t dislike the movie!