Monday, July 29, 2013
MYTHICITY: (1) *fair,* (2) *poor*
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *drama*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTIONS: *psychological*
Following the surprise box-office success of FRIDAY THE 13TH, the film's producers had to come up with some way to make a sequel. Their problem was in essence solved by the end sequence of the original film. I noted in my review that the "final girl's" dream-sequence, wherein she was attacked by the corpse of the drowned boy Jason, was almost certainly just the filmmakers' imitation of CARRIE; a last jolt on the thrill-ride.
Since Mrs. Voorhees was definitively decapitated while the audience never actually saw Jason die, a recrudescent Jason was the logical choice. The idea that Jason somehow survived his drowning and became a "wild man" surviving in the woods around Crystal Lake doesn't line up well with Mrs. Voorhees' rock-solid certainty that her son is dead. Further, for Part 2 to work, one must presume that not only is Jason alive, he also happens to be watching when his mom gets wacked in Part 1, since he picks up her head, carries it to his isolated shack and makes a shrine of it.
A similar inconsistency appears early in the film, when two counselors in the forest come across the body of a dog that's been torn apart, implicitly because Jason fed on it. A sheriff shows up right behind them-- and somehow doesn't see the dog's remains. Later the two counselors conceal the truth from their peers, while the sheriff continues to act as if he never saw the dead dog.
Those points made, consistency is far less important to me than mythopoesis, so I quite enjoy the sight of Jason worshipping at this shrine to maternity while killing off the new arrivals at Camp Crystal Lake. Part 2 flirts, as did the first film, with the Oedipal currents best articulated in PSYCHO. Similarly, Part 2's teenage victims-- a new group of camp counselors sent in by some over-optimisitc owner not too concerned by the massacre's bad publicity-- are still relatively realistic despite their simplicity. However, in order to build up the audience's anticipation of the new menace, the new camp counselors suddenly start talking up the legend of Jason's survival, how he still lives in the forest-- a legend never heard anywhere in FRIDAY PART 1.
To respond to the usual imputations of a "sex vs. death" theme in the FRIDAY series, it's still not as clear here as some critics have insisted. Indeed, Jason's first two victims are not teens at all. One is the creepy looking old bike-rider from the first film, and the other is the aforementioned sheriff, who's brought in to establish a suggestion of authority overthrown by Jason's savagery. Since Jason has no ability to speak-- though he may or may not be a mongoloid idiot as in the first script-- one can't tell if he's entertaining some "repetition-compulsion" involving his failure to save his mother, or if he's just killing randomly, along the line of Michael Myers in HALLOWEEN.
There's definitely a greater attention here than in the first film to supplying set-pieces of slaughter. It's long been suspected that some or all of the filmmakers had some exposure to translated Italian giallo films, and FRIDAY 2 seems to confirm that, since Jason's most famous kill here-- impaling two lovers with a long spear-- resembles a murder-scene in Mario Bava's 1971 BAY OF BLOOD. The most interesting psychological angle is that heroine Ginny ruminates over what Jason would be like had he survived his drowning and witnessed his mother's death. Later, when she invades Jason's maternal shrine and Jason overtakes her, Ginny speaks to the killer by speaking as if she were Jason's mother, confusing him long enough that she and one of her friends can retaliate. This identification between Ginny and Mrs. Voorhees resonates well with the first film's end scene, where heroine Alice imagines Jason as still alive, just as Mrs. Voorhees had.
So Part 2 is relatively coherent in terms of launching a new psycho-franchise. What about Part 3?
FRIDAY III (available in 3D, though I only watched the 2D version) is the start of the franchise's long descent into mediocrity.
True, it's in this film that the filmmakers lucked onto the perfect iconic rendition of Jason. In the previous film he hid his deformed features beneath a cloth bag, but here he hits upon the much more memorable hockey mask, which became his signature image from then on. At the same time, Part 3 also loses whatever formal interest the other films showed in the psychology of the psychos involved. Jason becomes a killing machine, and the teens start getting dumber and hornier. One of the "teen types" who makes his first appearance in this franchise is that of the "prankster," a character who allows filmmakers to indulge in all manner of "false scares" as a counterpoint to the real perils. There is also much more talk about sex, and it's tempting to believe that after the filmmakers listened to the distortions of the film's critics, they decided to ratchet up the horniness to greater levels in order to fulfill audience expectations.
Only Chris Higgins, the "final girl" here, has much in the way of backstory. Since she doesn't have any connection with the bloody camp where both Jason and Mrs. Voorhees conducted their reigns of terror, and since the events of Part 3 take place just a few days after Part 2, the scripters posit that Chris encountered "wild man Jason" in a forest two years previous to the timeline of Part 3. During that encounter, Jason attacked Chris and tried to carry her away. But here too the spectre of inconsistency looms, for earlier-Chris loses consciousness and then simply wakes up at home, with no idea how she survived the ordeal. Presumably the scripters didn't worrry too much about that little detail.
Though the victims and their killings become more routinized, the growing conflict between Chris and her monstrous antagonist-- some might say "alter ego"-- remains viscerally strong. A couple of times Jason comes very close to emulating the feats of his later superhuman persona, particularly when he squeezes a man's skull so hard that the guy's eyes pop out! Yet, in a conclusion designed to suggest that he really dies this time, Chris finally plants an axe in his skull. In the movie's final shot he's seen well and truly dead on the ground, suggesting that the filmmakers were ready to call it quits with the franchise at that point. To be sure, Chris hallucinates that he's still alive, and dreams that she's in a boat being attacked by Mrs. Voorhees, but this time these dream-devices seem forced, as if the writers were already running out of ideas.
Sunday, July 28, 2013
MYTHICITY: (1) *poor,* (2) *good*
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *adventure*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTIONS: *psychological, sociological*
SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS
I didn't have much to write about IRON MAN 3 when it first came out, since it was easily the least impressive of the Armored Avenger's three outings. But this weekend's viewing of THE WOLVERINE gives me a new take on the "wrong way" and "right way" of current Hollywood's rendering of franchise superheroes.
From the POV of a longtime comics-reader, Hollywood has improved mightily since the days of such dubious gems as the 1977 SPIDER-MAN teleseries. In earlier decades most live-action film and television adaptations of comics properties showed a cheery indifference to the original stories.
The success of the 1989 BATMAN, freewheeling as it was, validated the eclectic approach of its scriptwriters, borrowing what worked in the original stories and crossbreeding those elements with the standard Hollywood format of the "big loud action picture."
That said, it's not hard to find examples where Hollywood scripters made only token efforts toward adapting original comics-stories. For instance, both FANTASTIC FOUR films reduce the stories they adapt into a dumb-show of meaningless plot-points. The 2008 IRON MAN pumped new life into the genre, finding a clever way to update the themes implicit in Iron Man's origin-story for the internet generation. The second film was considerably less insightful, but some of its best moments stemmed from the script's take on the "Tony Stark, alcoholic" storyline.
Though some of the early publicity for IRON MAN 3 touted the presence of the Mandarin as the film's villain, the scripters of IRON MAN 3 probably congratulated themselves on producing a witty "deconstruction" of Iron Man's Asiatic antagonist. To justify the SPOILERS above: there is no real Mandarin; he's an actor hired to project a phony, Osama-like presence as a superterrorist. I have not read the 2005-06 IRON MAN "Extrenus" story-arc, so I can't say how closely the film hews to that original, but in this film the villain behind the phony Mandarin proves to be little more than "Wolverine crossed with the Human Torch." It might be impossible to render a "yellow peril" menace like the original Mandarin for modern audiences, but the poor excuse for a major villain here shows contempt not just for the original stories, but for the superhero genre as well.
Similarly, IRON MAN 3 is the first film in which the hero perfects a new and showy ability to have parts of his armor automatically fit themselves upon his body from afar. Call me old-fashioned, but I like a hero who presents a somewhat stable appearance and set of powers when he takes arm against a sea of troubles. As if to mirror this disintegration of the iconic status of Iron Man, Tony Stark has yet another twitchy mental breakdown. He also whips up a small army of robotic Iron Men and in a pinch causes his flying armor-sections to engirdle fiancee Pepper for purposes of protection, rather than following the tried-and-true "heroic rescue."
I might approve these assaults on iconicity if IRON MAN 3 was a satire on superheroes. But in a film that's selling the excitements of superhero action, they add up to nothing more than Hollywood hackwork.
WOLVERINE, however, is more like the original IRON MAN than either of the armored sequels, in that it chooses eclectically from assorted "Wolverine" and "X-Men" stories, but rearranges their elements to produce a vivid new story. Characters like Viper, the Silver Samurai, Yukio and Mariko Yashida are all altered radically from their comic-book versions, but thanks to the script's sensitive treatment they acquire as much or more symbolic resonance as they had in the comic books.
One major alteration is that whereas the comics-Wolverine was, in the course of his evolution, given an extensive acquaintance with the culture of Japan, Hugh Jackman's Wolverine's first (and superficial) encounter takes place in World War II, where he saves Japanese soldier Yashida from the atomic blast of Nagasaki. Many years later, Wolverine is summoned to Japan by the same man, now old and dying of cancer. Though the hero is still suffering bouts of survivor guilt due to being forced to kill the berserk Jean Grey/Phoenix, he agrees to follow the gamine-like Japanese psychic Yukio to Japan.
I won't give away further elements of the plot, but suffice to say that Wolverine is drawn into the expected conflict involving both a plot to kidnap (or kill) Mariko Yashida, heir to the Yashida fortune, and a plot to drain Wolverine of his "healing factor" and the concomitant-but-unwanted immortality it confers upon the hero.
While I'm not of the critical persuasion that believes that stories must be essentially "realistic" to be good, it's something of a plus that one can imagine some elements of the story transpiring without the fantastic devices, much as if someone had tried to make a modern version of Samuel Fuller's 1955 Japanese noir HOUSE OF BAMBOO. And that's not to say that there aren't a few dubious plot-points in WOLVERINE. However, whereas IRON MAN 3 simply lets its plot-holes flap in the wind with lofty indifference, director James Mangold and his scripters paper over the (minor) cracks with a studious attention to character interactions-- particularly those between Wolverine and his destined paramour Mariko. The contrast between the raffishness of Wolverine (Mariko calls the shaggy-looking hero a "caveman" when she first sees him) and the elaborate customs of Japan is one that Mangold plays to good effect. In addition, the action set-pieces-- at least one of which is clearly borrowed from the Claremont/Miller WOLVERINE graphic novel series-- are fluidly realized. WOLVERINE is one of the few films I've seen that manages to use "shakicam" techniques to convey thrills rather than to call attention to the "artiness" of the diegesis.
In contrast to the overblown X-MEN ORIGINS: WOLVERINE, this movie deserves to be regarded as the definitive Logan film to which any further entries in the franchise should aspire. That said, the closing "teaser" suggests a future project that will allow for a more X-tensive X-pansion of mutant heroics.
Thursday, July 25, 2013
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *drama*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTIONS: *metaphysical, sociological*
Continuing my attempts to suss out the multifarous ways in which the works of Philip K. Dick have been adapted to film, I arrive next at PAYCHECK, scripted by Dean Georgaris and directed by John Woo. Woo and Georgaris choose to channel Dick through Alfred Hitchcock, albeit a Hitchcock beefed with a lot more car-chases and physical fights. The results are not totally unpleasing, since both Dick and Hitchcock were masters of anxiety, but the script unfortunately fails to deliver on its potential.
Without dwelling too long on the 1953 Dick short story of the same name, it's actually one of Philip Dick's least anxiety-filled short stories. Central character "Jennings" is an engineer who takes an assignment to work on a secret project: in return for a fabulous paycheck, he agrees to have his memory wiped clean of everything that happened during his employment by the project. To his surprise, Jennings' paycheck is an envelope full of various value-less items. However, over time Jennings finds that these items all place a vital role in his survival. He eventually deduces that he has had recourse to a time-piercing device, allowing him to send his to his past self the very items he would need to survive. The conclusion is more upbeat than a majority of Dick stories, in that Jennings's reward for his investigations takes him from being a simple employee, a cog in a corporate machine, to partnership in the secret project and marriage to the boss's daughter.
Whereas the Dick story deals in part with a time-device that can literally "scoop" objects from one period to another, in the movie the device only allows individuals to see their futures. But it isn't just one company that pays the protagonist-- given the full name "Michael Jennings" here-- to have his memory erased after his work for them. Rather, in Jennings's era it's standard practice for many companies when dealing with outside talents. The viewer sees Jennings go through the mind-wiping procedure once on a minor job before he even signs up for the assignment vital to the main plot.
While the character of the short story is largely a cipher, Georgaris makes a partial attempt to give this Jennings (Ben Affleck) a consistent character. This Jennings is something of a "player." He wants a big paycheck to pay for his expensive tastes, and is willing to sacrifice his memories because he believes that only life's "highlights" are important. When he meets female lead Rachel Porter (Uma Thurman) at a party, and feels a genuine erotic spark between them, he invites her, in all sincerity, simply to have quickie sex with him, since he considers the game of courtship a waste of time. Rachel demurs, and shortly later, Jennings agrees to an engineering assignment lasting three years. However, thanks to the mind-wipe he loses those years, and on top of that, is rewarded not with the sizeable paycheck he expected, but an envelope full of seemingly useless items.
As in the short story, Jennings is then pursued by the law, who want more information about the secret project, and who are none too gentle in trying to probe his wiped memory. Since this film portrays the future cops shows them as having no restraints on their inquiries, one may wonder if the writer had the 2001 Patriot Act in mind when he wrote this scene-- though, in contrast to the Dick story, the cops are shown as redeemable at the end of the Woo film. After Jennings escapes from the cops through the use of some of his "value-less" items, he begins to seek answers. And one of the people who ends up helping him is Rachel, who just happens to be a biologist working for the same company.
The strongest gimmick in the film is its borrowing from Dick: though Georgaris changes the particular items in the protagonist's "paycheck" in order with a very different route to the truth, the film is most challenging in providing the context for all of these foreordained items. However, the addition of the action-heavy "set-pieces" detracts from the mystery this time. I won't say, like the more elitist critics, that the addition of heavy action is automatically a minus. Frankly, I like the 1990 TOTAL RECALL better than the rather dull Dick story on which it's based. But this time, the set-pieces seem de rigeur, as if John Woo felt that he had to serve up a certain number of them to please "the John Woo audience."
Georgaris' early script is set up to show early Jennings the error of his ways: to reveal to him the importance of love. He experiences with Rachel during his employment at the project, but though he loses that memory, he recovers the emotion through his re-alliance with her. He also comes to realize that the time-device which he reverse-engineered into working status is morally wrong; that it leeches away humankind's ability to regard the future with fresh eyes. These are interesting themes not present in the Dick short story. Unfortunately, Georgaris doesn't manage to sell Jennings's transformation. In contrast to the example of Hitchcock's films, whose writers could suggest a multifaceted background through a few well-chosen sentences, Jennings is too flat in the beginning to create any conviction in a personality capable of such transformation, and Rachel is no better.
The action-elements also create another disharmony. It's just barely believable that this version of Jennings, despite his engineer background, can prove competent running around doing action-stunts, since an early scene depicts him practicing martial arts with a bo-staff. But the film also shows biologist Rachel doing stunts almost as outrageous, and makes no attempt to provide an explanation, unless one should think it's "the power of love" at work.
Since the film does have a strong protagonist and a strong villain, I considered that it might be deemed an adventure. But on consideration, I found that the conflict between these two characters was of less significance than the dramatic love-affair between Jennings and Rachel; ergo, I rate PAYCHECK as a combative drama.
Tuesday, July 23, 2013
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *adventure*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTIONS: *psychological, metaphysical*
In my review of the 2010 CLASH OF THE TITANS, I said that the 1981 CLASH, the last cinematic work of Ray Harryhausen, was "my least favorite of Harryhausen's otherworldly-fantasy films." I also stated that it didn't have as strong a theme as the earlier JASON AND THE ARGONAUTS, which as it happens was also written by the scripter of CLASH, Beverley Cross. But thanks to my most recent re-viewing of the 1981 film, I've changed my mind.
I still don't think the theme of CLASH is as well organized as that of JASON (reviewed here). However, I do see vivid symbolic elements in CLASH that I didn't appreciate the first time around, and which raise the film far above, say, Harryhausen's final "Sinbad" film. Other flaws are present: the scenes with the two-headed dog Dioskilos and the giant scorpions slow down the film's pace without contributing to the dominant sense of wonder. Romantic leads Harry Hamlin and Judi Bowker lack charisma, and the writer did himself no favors by emulating the popularity of the STAR WARS character "R2-D2" with the use of the mechanical owl Bubo. But where these may have annoyed me a lot more back in 1981, they seem like minor problems now, and I now find CLASH to be a fitting conclusion to Harryhausen's wonder-working career.
The essential change scripter Cross made to the original Perseus myth was to make it a sexual conflict between Perseus and his enemy Calibos for the hand of the heroine Andromeda. In some versions of the Perseus story, the hero has a brief contest with an Andromeda-suitor named Phineas, but it's a very short-lived conflict; Perseus simply unveils the head of Medusa and turns the bellicose suitor to stone. This minor conflict becomes the center of the 1981 film, whereas the two "father vs. son" conflicts most important to the original myth-- the prophecy that Perseus will slay his grandfather Acrisius, and the attempt of the hero's adoptive uncle to send the young hero to his death-- are minimized in the first case and elided in the second.
Acrisius-- who will be made into a god-hating tyrant in the 2010 remake-- is much like Pelias in JASON; a violent man who tries to use religion to justify his acts. Acrisius, angry that his daughter Danae slept with Zeus and bore from him the infant Perseus, sets both of them adrift at sea, claiming to be justified by godly law. However, the Zeus of CLASH condemns the mortal's murderous act much as the Zeus in JASON condemned the deadly deeds of Pelias, though in the former case there's more personal interest on Zeus' part. Indeed, later in the story one of the goddesses will remark that while Zeus barely remembers Danae-- who disappears from the film early on-- he has a fatherly pride in Perseus, which explains his constant supervision of the young hero. In any case, Zeus rewards Acrisius by telling Poseidon to "unleash the kraken." The beast is not seen, being saved for the film's conclusion, but its stormy fury destroys the city of Argos and kills Perseus' grandfather.
About twenty years pass, and Zeus' justice strikes again. The god becomes enraged at Calibos, the mortal son of the sea-goddess Thetis, because Calibos has been overly brutal in his profession of hunting, to the extent of wiping out all but one of Zeus' sacred winged horses. Calibos at that point has been engaged to marry Andromeda, princess of the city of Joppa. Zeus strikes him with a curse, so that Calibos becomes an ugly horned demon-creature, making him completely unmarriageable.
Thetis, whose worship is strong in Joppa, becomes angry at Zeus for having exalted his own son while punishing hers. For no clear reason Thetis magically transports Perseus to an amphitheatre in Joppa. This is one of the movie's weakest points, since this action doesn't directly place Perseus in danger, and Thetis' reasons for doing so are explained with a lot of piffle about "making him see the real world." Since putting Perseus in Joppa eventually leads to his conflict with Calibos, it would have been far more logical had Zeus placed his son on this road to destiny. I strongly suspect that writer Cross chose to give this action to Thetis out of personal reasons, given that he was married to the actress portraying her-- Maggie Smith-- and so used this scene as a chance to beef up Smith's lines.
Zeus sees Thetis' transgression and sends Perseus magical gifts: a magical sword, a shield, and a helmet of invisiblity. The invisibility helmet proves the most useful item when Perseus seeks out his heroic destiny in Joppa. Once there, he learns that although Calibos no longer dwells in Joppa, his mother's power still gives him control of its customs. Through Thetis' power it's been declared that Andromeda can only be married by a suitor who can answer one of her riddles. Suitors who fail the test pay with their lives. By using the helmet Perseus finds out that Andromeda is no Turandot, taking pleasure in the deaths of countless aspirants. At night Calibos sends an emissary-- a vulture, carrying a golden cage-- which carries away Andromeda's spirit to Calibos' domain. There, even though she pleads with Calibos to be released from his influence, he compels her to learn a new riddle to defeat her next suitor. Perseus, with the help of the helmet and Pegasus, last of Zeus' winged horses, learns the riddle. Calibos detects him, the two fight, and Perseus escapes after cutting off the hunter's hand. With the solution to the riddle Perseus wins his claim to Andromeda, as well as winning her heart on a personal level.
But Thetis is full of wrath for the humiliation of her son. She curses Joppa to be destroyed by the kraken just as Argos was, unless the denizens of Joppa will expose Andromeda outside the city, so that the kraken can destroy only her. Thetis is also careful to say that Andromeda must be virgin when she is destroyed. Whereas the original Andromeda myth carries the intimation that the monster will simply devour the maiden, Thetis' specification has the effect of making the exposure sounds more like a ritual of a mortal's rape by a god. Perhaps Harryhausen's beloved KING KONG informs this transformation of the original tale.
Having analyzed the intricate mythic setup, I won't devote the same attention to all of the endeavors by which Perseus seeks the head of Medusa in order to repel the invulnerable kraken. Perseus' confrontation with the Stygian Witches, who share one eye between them, is one of the strongest of these scenes, and the beheading of the Medusa is equally vivid. It's interesting that whereas Perseus has some soldiers accompanying him, in this film they're little more than cannon-fodder for the various monsters the group encounters. In the 2010 film, they're more of a retinue that indoctrinates Perseus into the male code of battle. In addition, Andromeda herself goes along part of the way, showing a certain amount of gutsiness, though by the demands of the story she's obliged to return to Joppa to play her part in the sacrificial rite. Calibos manages to overtake Perseus, and the two fight to Calibos' finish. Perseus, along with Pegasus and the clockwork owl Bubo, returns to Joppa in time to defeat the kraken and redeem Andromeda. Zeus forbids Thetis to seek vengeance again and the film ends with a happy marriage-- giving it a note of closure that even JASON can't surpass.
Beverley Cross' script has some interesting subtleties. Hera, the goddess of marriage who usually nags Zeus about his tomcat affairs with mortals, is barely a presence in the story, and this function has been essentially usurped by Thetis. In the original Andromeda story the princess is forced to be a sacrifice after her mother Cassiopeia esteems Andromeda's beauty about that of the seagoing "Nereids," thus bringing on the city the wrath of Poseidon's pet monster. With the interpolation of Calibos as Perseus' rival, Thetis doesn't need any additional motivations for cursing Joppa, though Cross does have Cassiopeia bad-mouth Thetis' looks anyway. In real Greek mythology Thetis is best remembered not for cursing cities but for being "the one that got away" from Zeus. Zeus intended to sleep with the sea-goddess, but reconsidered on being informed of a prophecy that any son Thetis bore would be greater than his father; thus, he steered her toward the mortal who fathered Achilles. This myth isn't referenced in CLASH. However, Thetis tells her fellow goddesses an amusing story about Zeus trying to sneak up on her in the form of a cuttlefish, after which she drove him off in the form of a shark.
More than most Harryhausen films, CLASH deals in images of powerful women. Even though the goddesses cannot resist some of Zeus's edicts, Thetis does defy the father-god by insisting on destroying Perseus' happiness, at least up to a point. When Perseus loses the invisibility helmet, Zeus commands Athena to send him her owl Bubo. Athena refuses to part with her beloved bird but provides a substitute by enjoining Hephaestus to make a mechanical version, who does provide some vital help during the hero's quest. As noted above, Princess Andromeda at least tries to accompany her lover into hell. The three weapons Zeus sends to Perseus are actually said to be owned by the goddesses Hera (the shield), Athena (the helmet), and the sword (Aphrodite). The association of the love-goddess with a martial weapon doesn't make much sense, but I theorize that Cross wanted this arrangement in order to reference the three goddesses who vie for Paris' approval in the story of the first Olympian beauty contest. The cannibalistic Stygian witches and the snake-bodied Medusa are also powerful figures despite their grotesquerie, and even after death, Medusa's blood spawns the scorpions who kill all of Perseus' redshirt comrades. Whereas some heroic quests are structured to pit male against female, in CLASH Perseus exists less as a representation of masculinity than as a rather neutral figure caught between positive and negative aspects of femininity.
I noted above that this film has none of the "daddy issues" suffusing the original Perseus myth, and which also appear significantly in the 2010 Louis Letterier movie. Certainly this Perseus never minds having been raised without knowing his true father; when Zeus comes along to guide his mortal progeny down the path of heroism, Perseus accepts it all quite matter-of-factly. Unlike Jason and Sinbad, Perseus feels a bit of a cipher, which may have been one reason I didn't care for the film originally. Still, I find now that this is an extremely imaginative reworking of the Perseus myth, more fertile because it incorporates motifs from modern stories like KING KONG and from fairytales (the element of the demonic suitor summoning the princess to his lair has a fairy-tale feel to it, though no specific influence springs to mind).
Saturday, July 20, 2013
PHENOMENALITY: (1) *uncanny,* (2) *marvelous*
MYTHICITY: (1)*poor* (2) *fair*
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *comedy*CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTION: *sociological, psychological*
The two JOHNNY ENGLISH films-- spawned from a series of commercials featuring British comedy-star Rowan Atkinson-- will never be lauded as the finest comedies, or even the best spoofs of the spy-genre. But they certainly give me a run for my analytic money in terms of figuring out their phenomenality and their relation to my concept of the combative mode.
The first film-- which I'll call ENGLISH for short-- features Atkinson as Johnny English, a member of the spy-organization "MI-7." Like the cinematic version of the teleseries "Get Smart," English is a daydreamer who imagines himself in James Bond-like situations but is actually a low-level agent with no experience in the field and no competence whatsoever. Unlike the GET SMART movie, which invoked the Bondian trope of "spy-gimmicks," ENGLISH barely even references the idea that MI-7's spies have such trinkets at their disposal. In addition, unlike Maxwell Smart Johnny English shows no ability in terms of fighting or shooting. Since the film lacks a hero with spectacular dynamicity, it can only rate as subcombative.
ENGLISH's villain Pascal Sauvage (John Malkovich) provides a much stronger connection to another Bond-trope: the idea of the plotter who comes up with a "bizarre crime" that goes beyond the normal limits of ordinary criminality. In the finished film Sauvage doesn't have any uncanny or marvelous resources-- just a bunch of gun-toting henchmen-- but his plot is rather clever. By stealing the Crown Jewels of England, he sets off a chain of events that will culminate in his ascension to the throne of Great Britain. Once he has absolute authority over the British Isles, he plans to turn them into a vast penal colony, to which the rest of the world can send their hardened criminals. It's a silly idea, and yet-- perhaps because Sauvage's French background is stressed-- it does carry a certain resonance. Maybe it's because England's history includes a period in which it transported a goodly number of criminals to Australia.
Malkovich makes a good smarmy villain, constantly amused by English's bumbling attempts to bring him to justice. But aside from one scene that suggests that English may have some buried fighting-ability, the would-be agent shows no ability to do anything but constantly embarass himself before huge crowds of people-- which, as it happens, was the dominant schtick Atkinson practiced in his "Mister Bean" teleseries. A little of this routine goes a long way, and ENGLISH overdoes it by more than half. Even with the clever premise of Sauvage's master plan, too much of the film seems like setups for Atkinson's antics.
A side-note: I said that "in the finished film" the villain only had henchmen at his command. However, the DVD's deleted scenes include two instances where Sauvage executes two victims in a clever manner: ushering them into an elevator whose walls are lined with flamethrowers-- flamethrowers so hot that they can reduce a man to ashes in minutes. But since I rate this as "uncanny," the device wouldn't have changed the film's phenomenality had it been included in the completed flick.
Although JOHNNY ENGLISH REBORN includes three of the four writers who worked on the first film, REBORN is a much tighter spoof on the superspy genre, without omitting Atkinson's signature screwups. The enemy this time is an organization of assassins called "Vortex," and it utilizes an outright marvelous device-- a mind-control drug that can force anyone to become a killer. In addition, English gets to use quite a few marvelous devices, such as a motorized wheelchair with a gun in its body, and a missile-launching umbrella.
But the biggest change is that in the interim between the two films, Johnny English becomes a master of armed and unarmed combat. In the first film he's an incompetent after the model of Inspector Clouseau, but in the second, he has hewed closer to Maxwell Smart-- which is not to say that he doesn't still use his skills in comic fashion. For instance, his martial training in Tibet involves building up his resistance to pain by having his genitals repeatedly smashed-- which, as it happens, does prove to be a useful talent to have at the film's climax.
Another improvement is that one of the villains is a virtual clone of James Bond, a good-looking agent named Simon. A similar figure appeared in the first film, only to be knocked off immediately, but this time the simulacrum of Bond is a direct opponent to English, who remains to some extent still a "Bond manque." Simon even has a tradition of stealing English's girlfriends, which helps to personalize the relationship when the villain's perfidy is revealed.
The film makes far more ingenious use of stuntwork, thus paralleling and sending up that aspect of the superspy genre, particularly a chase involving cars chasing the motorized wheelchair. Atkinson's physical stuntwork is improved as well, particularly in a scene toward the end where he has to "fight himself" while under control of the mind-control drug.
Both films, incidentally, are well served with glamorous female agents. Even here, ENGLISH just has one major babe, while REBORN has two.
Friday, July 19, 2013
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *adventure*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTIONS: *sociological*
THE INVISIBLE MONSTER's charms are pretty, well, invisible to me. It's a by-the-numbers serial in which a master criminal plans to conquer the world, and gets stopped by some intrepid investigators. In this case, the villain calls himself "the Phantom Ruler"-- no other name is given-- and he's perfected a way to make himself invisible, as long as he wears an outfit treated with his special "invisible paint." He plans to form an "invisible army" to conquer America, but he has limited resources. Aside from his two main henchmen, he begins to gather resources through a metaphorical "invisible army"-- that is, he brings illegal European immigrants into the U.S., and creates new identities for them, through which they can plunder the elements he needs.
The first episode creates a moderate amount of sympathy for the immigrants; they all claim that they don't want to commit crimes, but when the Ruler threatens to send them back to their homelands, they immediately fall into line. One wonders what kind of hellscape the writers thought postwar Europe was-- or was it a covert shot at the Communist parts of Europe? However, though early episodes focus on the way the immigrants perform the Ruler's tasks, they're later de-emphasized in favor of the two henchmen and their running battles with two insurance investigators, Lane Carson and Carol Richards.
I doubt that any insurance investigators ever ran around fighting crimes as these two do; it's surprising that the writers didn't just make them FBI agents or the like. Richard Webb plays Carson as a standard serial-hero, with no individual touches except that in the first episode he gets his back up a little when go-getter Richards (Aline Towne) shows off her own investigative skills. However, the gender imbalance quickly corrects itself. Though Ms. Richards shows herself able to fire a pistol, she never gets to shoot any of the villains, and Carson handles all the fights by himself. At the serial's end, when the two heroes are regarding the lamp with which the villain made himself invisible, Carson makes a weird remark about how she could have a great "nightclub act" by using the lamp. Was this his way of saying she ought to make her clothes invisible? But she does get the last word in the story, saying that she'll just stick with her regular job.
The lamp is the most risible element of the serial, though it's not used very often. Apparently the writers thought that a villain who could become invisible any time he wanted gave him too much power. Whenever the Phantom Ruler goes forth to plunder some warehouse, his henchmen have to shine a lamp on him from a waiting truck, or he won't be invisible. I'd like to say that the serial was more enjoyable for this daffy conceit, but it doesn't add anything. The best aspect of INVISIBLE MONSTER are the professionally crafted fight-scenes, though even in this regard Republic had seen better days.
Thursday, July 18, 2013
PHENOMENALITY: (1) *uncanny,* (2) *marvelous*
MYTHICITY: (1) *fair* (2) *good*
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *adventure*CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTION: *sociological*
Some reviewers of TARZAN TRIUMPHS didn't care for the ape man getting involved with the still raging events of World War II, but I say: for a pure adventure film nothing works better than kicking Nazi ass.
The arguments of Americans in favor of U.S. isolation from the war went down the tubes the moment Japan bombed Pearl Harbor. Still, scripter Carroll Young deftly casts Tarzan in the philosophical position of an isolationist so that the film can properly educate him as to the inquity of the Nazi regime. The approach works, for in the previous MGM films Tarzan's jungle was treated like a paradisical retreat from the evils of humankind. Now, with the first of the Tarzan films distributed by RKO, Tarzan becomes part of the real world, the hard way-- though to be sure, his "Africa" becomes inhabited by a species of Arab-Polynesian looking natives. At least in TRIUMPHS these exotic types inhabit another one of the fantasy-Africa's numberless "lost cities," so they're not represented as Africa's dominant ethnicity. This lost city is Palandria, to which we're introduced when Boy ventures near it, all insatiable curiosity. He almost takes a long fall but is saved by a female resident of the city, the lovely Zandra (Frances Gifford). Tarzan, returning from an errand, shows up and thanks Zandra for her help, and then the two males return home to read the latest letter from Jane. Apparently since Maureen O'Sullivan chose not to continue in the "Jane" role following the final MGM flick, the producer chose to go Jane-less for this and the next Tarzan he produced.
Unfortunately for Zandra-- whose name sounds not unlike Tarzan's-- a detachment of Nazi soldiers land their plane near Palandria, having somehow discovered that this lost city has a wealth of resources needed for the Reich's war effort. Initially the Nazis make overtures of friendship to the natives of Palandria, said to be emigrants from another land, though they're still sun-worshippers, much like the Amazons of this later Tarzan-film. Then in short order the well-armed Nazis take over and enslave the populace to harvest the resouces on the Reich's behalf. Their most visible leader Von Reichart (Stanley Ridges) proves to be as nasty a Nazi as Hollywood's best efforts, and he goes a step further by trying to force Zandra into his bed.
Zandra escapes with some friends, but the Nazis pursue, killing all but Zandra. She seeks out Tarzan, who drives off the Nazi soldiers. Then Zandra tries to enlist Tarzan to the cause, but Tarzan believes in minding his own business. Maybe he thinks he's even with Zandra, having saved her as she saved Boy. Boy himself encourages action against the new invaders. In one scene Zandra lures Tarzan into the nearby river for a sensual-looking swim. Though technically Tarzan doesn't cheat on Jane, it looks a little like she's using this aquatic activity to vamp Tarzan to her side.
Inevitably the Nazis don't leave well enough alone: they attack Tarzan's home again, carrying off Boy. "Now Tarzan make war," declares the enraged ape man to Zandra. However, though Tarzan manages to kill off some foot-soldiers, he and Zandra are captured, while Von Reichart boasts about the inevitable triumph of "the strong" (a nice interpolation of Nazi philosophy). Cheetah comes to the rescue, cutting the trio of heroes free. Tarzan arms the natives and leads a revolt that kills the Nazi scum, with Tarzan himself taking out Von Reichart in a suspenseful hunt through the jungle.
Most of Cheetah's humor throughout the film is forgettable, but the final joke here-- in which the chimp gets on the radio with the Nazi high command, who mistake his gabblings from those of Hitler-- remains priceless in spite of the corn factor.
TARZAN'S DESERT MYSTERY finally finds an excuse to avoid African blacks: most of the adventure takes place in a fictional North African community, where everyone appears to be Arabs of some sort, though purely of the "central casting" variety. This and TRIUMPHS were the only Tarzan films directed by Austrian director William Thiele, and if his mise-en-scene is a little subdued in TRIUMPHS, MYSTERY is a pulp-lover's delight.
As fast-paced as MYSTERY is, the Carroll Young script doesn't neglect some good character moments. Though Jane is still in England, she sets off the plot-action when she sends a letter via jungle-mail to Tarzan and Boy. Boy's the only one who can read, so he relates to his adoptive father Jane's message: that she wants him to secure a rare jungle-salve to help the war-effort. This requires Tarzan to venture into an isolated jungle-region bordering the Sahara and reputedly filled with many strange creatures. What Boy doesn't tell the ape man is that Jane wants him to stay behind. Boy fibs, telling Tarzan that he Boy is supposed to go along on the journey. Tarzan soon figures out the fib, but after remonstrating with the juvenile briefly, does what surely every juvenile viewer wanted and allows his surrogate son to go along.
From there, the action rarely slows down. We meet itinerant stage magican Connie Boyce (Nancy Kelly), who receives a secret message from a local shiek, a message she's supposed to relay to Prince Selim in a neighboring town. That town is currently under the dominion of clandestine Nazis Henrdicks and Straeder, who are taking a more subtle approach to exploiting the locals than we see in TRIUMPHS. They currently have Selim buffaloed, but they're anticipating knocking him off. Later Connie will become their patsy, accused of Selim's death.
I won't detail every fine point of the involved script, but I will draw attention to the way the script creates respect for all forms of life. Tarzan rescues a wild stallion from the brutal Straeder, and the grateful animal stays with Tarzan, Boy and Cheetah. Even when Tarzan's party picks up the stranded Connie, she too shows some disrespect for the stallion's dignity by mounting him casually. After she's bucked to the ground, Tarzan advises, "Next time ask horse."
The marvelous elements show up near the climax: though Tarzan helps Connie escape a public hanging, and will help deliver the news of Selim's murder to the Shiek, he insists on seeking out the weird jungle, with the Nazis in hot pursuit. The jungle is right out of Skull Island, including not only giant lizards and a giant spider, but also a big man-eating plant.
This is one of the best RKO Tarzan films, with solid action, lively dialogue-- particularly from the smart-mouthed Connie-- and some sprightly comedy, enough that even Cheetah's antics don't prove too cloying.
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *adventure*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTIONS: *sociological*
For the second-to-last Weismuller Tarzan, the series provides another sociological oscillation. Right on the heels of LEOPARD WOMAN, with its championing of civilization's benefits, TARZAN AND THE HUNTRESS offers another critique of civilization's evils.
Unfortunately, HUNTRESS is one of the more routine Tarzan entries, seemingly serving as a template for many episodes of the later "Bomba" and "Jungle Jim" serials. Titular huntress Tanya Rawlins (Patricia Morison) heads an expedition to an unnamed country ruled by one King Ferrod, whose people all have a vague "Arab-Polynesian" look to them, now standard in Tarzan films in this period. Tanya's purpose is to gather animals to sell to the zoos in the civilized world. Tarzan encounters the animal-hunters and it's hate at first sight; he wants them out of his jungle, pronto. King Ferrod isn't as much of a hard-liner: he'll allow the white hunters to trap two animals, one male and one female, to take back with them.
Tanya isn't the main villain here, though: she's more like the "enabler" who allows real villainy to serve her purposes. To get around King Ferrod's ruling, Tanya's cruel trail boss Weir conspires with Ferrod's nephew. Weir and his men shoot Ferrod and his son so that the nephew can take over the throne; then the nephew allows the hunters to plunder all the animals they want. In a more politicized context it would be a pretty good metaphor for colonial relationships to the colonized: not so much "dollar diplomacy" as "death diplomacy."
Tarzan smells a rat and summons the animals away from the hunters in what is easily the film's best scene. Eventually the ape man, Cheetah and Boy steal all the guns from the hunters' camp, putting them at the mercy of the jungle they wished to despoil. Tanya tries to use her charms on Tarzan to make him relent, but it's no sale. However, that mischievious monkey Cheetah accidentally leads the villains to their guns again, and so the game begins again. Tarzan finds Ferrod's son, who has survived the assassination attempt, and eventually calls down a herd of elephants to stomp the hunters' camp. In keeping with the rules of jungle etiquette, Tanya manages to escape the chaos with only a pilot to fly her plane. A much better reprise of the essential plot appears in 1953's TARZAN AND THE SHE-DEVIL, in particular because it gives more time to Jane, who barely has anything to do in HUNTRESS. This was also the last outing for Johnny Sheffield's Boy. His character disappeared from the series when he left to do the BOMBA films, and though later Tarzan films occasionally brought in juvenile sidekicks for the ape man, none of them stuck, though a regular kid-friend did appear in the 1960s Tarzan teleseries.
Fittingly for Weismuller's final performance as the ape man, TARZAN AND THE MERMAIDS revolves around lots and lots of swimming, thanks to the "Aquaticans," who inhabit a secluded island-civilization. The females are styled "mermaids" because they swim, swim, and then swim some more; the male Aquaticans swim no less but no one bothers to call them "mermen." The former Olympic swimmer gets a chance to show off his stuff as well, though Weismuller didn't perform the memorable high dive toward the film's end. In fact, the stuntman made the dive successfully but was killed by the crashing waves.
In comparison to the previous outing, MERMAIDS displays some admirable sets and some enjoyable natural settings, filmed in the vicinity of Acapulco. Unfortunately, the script is extremely thin, revolving around the attempt of evil high priest Palanth (George Zucco) and his assistant Varga to exploit the Aquaticans. Their main purpose is to loot pearls from the naive natives, who have no understanding of the pearls' value in the outside world. But for some obscure reason the two schemers think that the only way to properly maintain their power is to demand young maidens to be married to the god Balu, who is impersonated in a fancy regalia by Varga.
As it happens, this god-routine backfires on the villains. Balu's newest bride-to-be Mara is in love with a young man of her own people, so she runs off (swims off, actually) and ends up on Tarzan's doorstep. Some Aquaticans loyal to Balu pursue Mara. Tarzan fights them but they manage to abduct Mara and return her to their hidden domain. For a change Boy is said to be off in England at school-- usually, it was Jane who got shuttled off-- so Jane actually accompanies Tarzan on his rescue mission. Unfortunately, though Jane goes along she still gets nothing to do in the story, beyond being captured and threatened by Palanth's stooges.
The sociological motif here was pretty old-hat even by 1948's standards: that of the evil high priest who can dumbfound his simple people with the most piddling deception. Mara, played by Linda Christian, is very pretty but there's never any real concern in the script for her "fate worse than death," and her male suitor is negligible. Tarzan does get one change of pace in fighting an octopus in the sea, but his final confrontation with the two villains is flat and unimpressive.
Monday, July 15, 2013
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *drama*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTIONS: *cosmological*
BEGINNING OF THE END remains one of the most famous Bert I. Gordon monster-films. I believe that it holds this reputation largely on the infamy of the special effects, in that no one past very young childhood can sustain much conviction in the use of rear projection and split-screens to place real, tiny grasshoppers in the same frames with normal-sized humans or huge buildings. Precisely because the effects are so transparently unconvincing, I speculate that END has remained popular because it's sort of an "dopey kid" of which one becomes fond. Personally I find more charm in Gordon's previous films THE AMAZING COLOSSAL MAN and THE CYCLOPS, both of which offer more developed stories than END.
The progress by which the protagonists, photojournalist Audrey (Peggie Castle) and experimental scientist Wainwright (Peter Graves), discover the presence of the giant locusts is put forth in a desultory, unexciting manner. Wainwright discovers that he is indirectly the cause of the locusts' gigantism, thanks to the insects having partaken of wheat he subjected to radioactivity, but the script gives the scientist no moments of regret about his role in the destruction. The closest the film comes to a grim moment occurs when the big bugs have invaded Chicago, and the US military considers dropping an atomic bomb on Chi-Town to exterminate the pests. But here too the drama of the situation seems weak at best. The most I can say for the script by Lester Gorn and Fred Freiberger-- the latter notorious for his production-work on teleseries like STAR TREK and SPACE:1999-- is that occasionally the writers threw in some apocalyptic-sounding phrase about the beasts inheriting the Earth, or the like. However, none of these have any cumulate effect.
Since the effects are too poor to create the quality of spectacular violence, the grasshoppers' encounters with the gyrenes result only in functional violence, so that this is merely a subcombative work despite all the shooting and the sonic-beam that plays "Pied Piper" to the bugs at the climax.
Friday, July 12, 2013
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *adventure*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTIONS: *sociological*
Coming right on the heels of the superior TARZAN AND THE AMAZONS, this outing, third-to-last in Weismuller's ape-man oeuvre, is a little disappointing. True, it's fun to see the series get away from variations on the "white-men-seek-elephant's-graveyard" schtick, and to see Tarzan pitted against more "outré" villains than usual. Indeed, High Priestess Lea (Acquanetta) and her leopard-man cult-- men who dress up in leopard skins and kill their victims with metal claws-- are the most colorful enemies Tarzan ever fights in the Weismuller years.
Still, there was some room for improvement. This is the one of the few times a Tarzan menace was based on a real phenomenon in African culture-- a leopard-cult that was active from World War I until about two years after this film debuted. Yet Black Africans are entirely elided from the film, even though there is still an ethnic conflict between the colonial whites and the slightly darker natives of fictional country "Zambesi." I have not yet catalogued the number of appearance of Black African potrayals in the Tarzan series-- I may give it a try here in future posts-- but I have the impression that many Tarzan films of the period began to avoid showing them. This may have been a response to negative press re: stereotypical portrayals, though obviously Black Africans did appear later in the Tarzan films of Gordon Scott, Mike Henry, and others.
In any case, the basic conflict is still the colonizers vs. the colonized, and there's a strong ideological bent here to showing the fruits of European civilization as entirely positive. Near the film's beginning, Tarzan, Jane and Boy visit a village in the Zambesi territory, and all ones sees are schools educating the (darkened Caucasian) kids, prosperous merchants, and exotic entertainers like snake-charmers. Even Tarzan, who usually badmouths cities and civilization generally, has nothing negative to say about village life. But there's a snake in this Eden aside from the one in the snake-charmer's basket: Doctor Lazar, a native educated in Europe who secretly wishes to drive out all colonial influences in Zambesi so that his people can return to the ways of war. To this end Lazar helps Priestess Lea-- whose name is suspiciously akin to that of villainous "Priestess La" in the Burroughs books-- establish her cult. The cult begins by attacking and wiping out a caravan, but the leopard men aren't ready to go public yet, so they make it seem as if the people were wiped out by real leopards.
The local commissioner-- played by Dennis Hoey, reprising his clueless "Inspector Lestrade" role rom the Universal Sherlock Holmes series-- is completely fooled, but Tarzan is not. "Leopard not use only claws. Use teeth too." Unable to do more, he returns to his jungle home with Jane and Boy.
As it happens, conspirators Lea and Lazar-- whose relationship may or may not be romantic-- also have a young boy in their company: Lea's young brother Kimba. Since Kimba is roughly the same age as Boy, the effect is that of the three being villainous counterparts to Tarzan and his family. Fittingly, then, Lazar's relationship to Kimba is anything but fatherly: he regards the youth as a pest. Kimba, wishing to serve his sister, sees Tarzan as a potential threat. He seeks out the family's jungle home, and, pretending to have been lost in the jungle, plays on their kindness and infiltrates them like a latter-day fifth columnist.
The leopard men become bolder, attacking another caravan in order to abduct its women for sacrifice. Boy comes across the leopard men's hidden cave and so becomes their target as well, though Tarzan arrives in time to defeat the killers. Later, Kimba exposes his true villainy to Jane, but Boy arrives to fight his negative counterpart. By the climax Tarzan, Jane and Boy are all captive in the leopard men's cave, awaiting sacrificial execution. Cheetah-- whose brand of humor is not nearly as intrusive this time-- comes to the rescue, cutting everyone's bonds so that they can escape. Tarzan ends the leopard cult in true Samsonian style, destroying the cave's supports so that the roof comes crashing down. The only villains to survive are Lazar and Kimba, and they end up finishing one another off.
This is a rousing if simplistic jungle-adventure, with above-average stuntwork in the leopard-men attacks. Considering that the film's title places the "Leopard Woman" in the forefront, though, Lea seems curiously without personality, and even Acquanetta's natural beauty doesn't receive a great deal of visual emphasis.
MYTHICITY: (1) *fair,* (2) *poor*
FRYEAN MYTHOS: (1) *drama,* (2) comedy
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTIONS: (1) * cosmological, (2)*sociological*
The SYFY Channel is the reverse of the maxim about how "one bad apple don't spoil the barrel." Even when you get a good movie out of SYFY, they've shown so many embarassingly inferior products that one hesitates to reach into the barrel again.
Still, according to Stephen King fans are intrinsically optimistic, and maybe that's what caused me to check out EYE OF THE BEAST. On the face of it, it sounds like a thousand other "giant critter" films that have dominated SYFY over the last ten years. But though EYE isn't anything more than a slightly above-average thriller, at least it doesn't feel like writer Mark Mullin and director Gary Yates simply took assorted elements from JAWS and FRIDAY THE 13TH, mixed them in a blender, and then poured them out on the heads of the unfortunate viewing audiences.
Though all of the actors are given a little more to do than in the typical monster mash-up, the only "name" actor here is James Van Der Beek as an oceanographic expert who comes to the small fishing-community of Fells Island in Canada, seeking to find out what's caused a big drop-off in the available fish. He meets attractive lady sheriff Katrina, half white and half Indian, who must constantly play referee between the white residents of the town and the local Native Americans, who are in constant competition for the dwindling resources. Since this is a giant monster flick, it will come as no surprise that there's a humongous squid in the water, eating up all the fish and occasionally grabbing the odd human for an appertif.
It doesn't take long for most viewers to get tired of the repetitive "let's-goof-on-the-silly-monsterflick" attitude seen in, say, the more typical SUPERGATOR and DINOCROC fodder, so by comparison it's fairly refreshing to see Mullin and Yates play their thriller straight. No one's reinventing the wheel here, but the oceanographer has some credible conflicts with his bosses over the alleged sighting of the squid and Katrina has a deeper conflict than her referee-role: at age seven she saw the squid kill her father, but no one believed her. Van Der Beek and Alexandra Castillo bring a strong sense of conviction to these basic roles, and in contrast to the dopey humor in most of these creature features, there's just one solid joke in the whole film, which is best entitled "The Nine Reasons Fishing is Better Than Sex." The only downside is that the big squid isn't given much screen time, but given how bad most of SYFY's CGI-colossi are, I barely noticed.
I don't know what exactly possessed me to rewatch DOUBLE, DOUBLE TOIL AND TROUBLE, given that unlike EYE I had seen this telefilm when it was first broadcast, back when the Olsen Twins were riding high as pint-sized celebrities. On occasion kid-oriented comedies may have interesting myth-motifs, but DOUBLE has nothing to offer in that regard. It's a straightforward vehicle for the Twins, so if a viewer-- most likely a juvenile viewer-- likes them, that viewer will probably like this routine fantasy in which the two adorable little girls save their parents from the poorhouse by freeing their aunt from a mystical prison. The aunt, played by Chloris Leachman, was placed in a mirror by her twin sister (also Leachman), and both are witches of some sort. Since the little-girl twins have a tiny amount of conflict about being twins, it's fair to state that the element of the adult witch-twins having a falling-out is meant to reflect back on the children's conflict. But that's all the symbolism as that this weary, simplistic plot can muster.
The appeal of the Olsen Twins eludes me, but the telefilm does feature some good performers in addition to Leachman, principally midget Phil Fondacaro of TROLL and Meschach Taylor as two adults who help the kids. But even though TV journeyman scripter Jurgen Wolff will never read this review-- and even though I consider myself one of the least politically correct persons on the web-- I still find myself saying to Wolff, "You had to nickname Taylor's character 'Mister N?' Twenty-five other letters in the English alphabet, and he just had to have a name starting with THAT letter?"
Thursday, July 11, 2013
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *drama*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTIONS: *metaphysical, sociological*
In this essay I asked the question: "what about Philip K. Dick's anxiety-filled, vaguely schizophrenic works has made them so amenable to adaptation into huge, spectacular SF-adventure thrillers?" I came to the conclusion that Dick's ability to generate narrative anxiety, usually in the form of comparatively sudbued thrillers, was the key. Big-budget films like 2002's MINORITY REPORT need anxiety to keep the plot boiling, and Dick's 1956 short story of that name certainly has anxiety, though it's a comparatively simple story for Dick.
Dick makes an odd match with famed director Steven Spielberg. The popular-- though inaccurate-- canard against Spielberg is that he is a "cheerjerker;" that he continually works on films that allow for an easy identification with staunch heroes like Indiana Jones or sentimental protagonists like Elliott of "E.T." I don't agree with this. Spielberg has certainly worked with some lightweight material, but neither "E.T." nor "Raiders of the Lost Ark" are without emotional shadings. It may be fairly argued that Spielberg tends to produce upbeat conclusions to his works. But though Dick is most often seen conjuring forth pessimistic dystopic worlds, as it happens "Minority Report" concludes on one of his more positive moments.
The short story simply puts forth a very basic idea: that of "Precrime," a futuristic law-enforcement organization devoted to using psychics to head off crimes before they happen. Precrime administrator John Anderton, despite using a trio of psychics to reveal the future, seems doomed to fall victim to time in another sense: he fears being replaced by another man in both his professional life and in his relationship with his wife because the other fellow is much younger than 50-something Anderton. Then the psychics who foretell the destined crimes then place the X-mark on Anderton himself, claiming that the administrator himself is destined to murder a man he does not know. After various exploits Anderton exposes a conspiracy to frame him, as well as learning that the three psychics are not unanimous in their forecasts: that it's possible for one of them to produce a "minority report" that differs from the others. This opens up the possibility that the future is not fixed in stone; that there may be multiple time-paths. Anderton manages to foil the conspiracy and prevent the invalidation of the Precrime unit.
In Spielberg's film Anderton is portrayed by dashing 40-year-old Tom Cruise, so the idea of the character being haunted by fears of replacement proves a non-starter. In its place Spielberg's scripters introduce a different form of "lost youth:" this Anderton mourns the loss of his elementary-school-aged son to a predator years ago. This unsolved crime strongly motivates Anderton to defend the system of Precrime, giving him a much more "heroic" reason to defend the system against a conspiracy. In addition, the Precrime system at this point is confined only to the city of Washington, D.C., though Anderton and his mentor Director Burgess wish to see Precrime become a phenomenon throughout the entire United States.
Then, as in the story, the three psychics predict that Anderton will kill a man he does not know, and Anderton tries to conceal the prediction until he can figure out what's going on. I'll pass over the particulars of the hero's peregrinations, but he comes close to committing the murder when he thinks that his victim is the man who kidnapped and killed his lost son. But this too proves to be a deception, and Anderton's only hope to save himself from imprisonment is to make public the dubiousness of Precrime's dependence on psychics who are not so infallible.
The greatest strength of MINORITY REPORT is that Spielberg does a superb job of picturing a near-future science-fiction world-- oddly enough, by drawing on the aesthetic of films noirs. Even though REPORT shows such wonders as automated cars and police who wear jet-packs, they're given a grundgy realism by Spielberg's use of a process called "bleach-bypassing," which washes out color in the film-negative. One might almost call REPORT a "film blanc," since so much of Anderton's world seems a leprous shade of white. Another innovation, attributed to Spielberg in the DVD commentary, was the concept of a computer operation working through "gestural interface" (seen above) rather than through toggles and joysticks. Six years later, IRON MAN would build on the imagistic richness of this visual approach.
For the first three-fourths of the film, REPORT is a solid thriller with strong dystopic elements. Though this Anderton is much more of a "hero" than Dick's character, REPORT is more restrained than other Dick-derived films like BLADE RUNNER and TOTAL RECALL: the hero doesn't even have a final battle with the main villain, so that REPORT does not conform to the mode I call "combative." Thus Spielberg does follow the model of the films noirs more closely, as to some extent Philip Dick may have. The one downside is that in the final fourth of the film, Anderton is captured and imprisoned by the Washington police. At this point the film loses its tension and doesn't get it back even after Anderton's wife rather improbably comes to his rescue and breaks him out. It doesn't help that the chief conspirator clumsily exposes himself, which strikes me as an "easy out" for the scriptwriters. In addition, although the script introduces a coterie of colorful characters, many of them are just "curiosities" and don't enhance the serious themes of the script. In the end, it's ironic that the prose-Anderton is willing to see Precrime destroyed, but ends up preserving it, while the film-Anderton is devoted to preserving the system but ends up by undoing it.
ADDENDA: After finishing the review it occured to me to respond to the hype that claimed that this film dealt with the conflict between "free will and determinism." Though Spielberg and his scripters play around with the concept, they don't really evoke the ontological and emotional issues that arise from the conflict. To be sure, neither does the original Philip Dick story, if only because it's too short to delve into such matters. Several Philip Dick novels, including UBIK, MARTIAN TIME-SLIP, and THE MAN IN THE HIGH CASTLE, are far better vehicles for such complexities. I've not seen any evidence that the filmmaker Spielberg cares about such issues, though. The strength of MINORITY REPORT lies not in any intellectual issues, but in its expressive rendition of a futuristic cityscape, which wonderfully recaptures the sterile glory of Lang's METROPOLIS even though the plot-action is closer to that of the far grundgier BLADE RUNNER.
Tuesday, July 9, 2013
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *adventure*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTIONS: *sociological*
BLIND FURY is an amiable enough take on the "blind samurai" subgenre initiated by 1962's ZATOICHI. Rutger Hauer portrays American Nick Parker, blinded by a mortar explosion while serving in Vietnam. He's taken in by a martial-arts master who not only teaches him how to use his remaining senses to the utmost, he also schools Parker in the ways of the samurai. Parker-- who conceals his samurai sword within a blind-man's cane-- eventually makes his way back to America and decides to look up Frank Devereaux, one of the men with whom Parker served.
Devereaux, however, has been targeted by the mob, and so has his young son. Parker happens to be on hand when mobsters break into the home of Devereaux's ex-wife. Parker can't prevent the wife from being killed, but he resolves to protect the boy and find his friend once more.
FURY is a good basic action-thriller, enhanced by its clever use of "blind martial artist" stunts and a fair amount of humor-- particularly in the relationship between Parker and the young boy, which begins in an adversarial manner. Both Siskel and Ebert gave the film raves on their old teleseries, appreciating it for its attempt to do something a little more inventive. However, FURY's basic conflict is still pretty much the same as any other low-budget American-made action-movie of the period.
I do give the film points for not inserting the almost obligatory Love Interest. There are a couple of times when Parker is called upon to rescue women, but none of the women become an integral part of the story, much less functioning to reward the hero for his nobility. I don't dislike that fantasy as such, but just for a change, it's nice to see a hero who really just does the right thing for its own sake, and not for the nookie he'll get later.
Wednesday, July 3, 2013
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *adventure*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTIONS: *sociological*
TARZAN AND THE AMAZONS, Johnny Weismuller's ninth outing as Tarzan, is my favorite in the RKO Tarzan series. I'm aware that the series was recycling many familiar motifs by that time, but the script gives them solid treatment, with the only flaw being the overuse of comic-relief chimp Cheetah.
Many Tarzan films, beginning with the "elephants' graveyard" plotline of 1932's TARZAN THE APE MAN, celebrate the wonders of the jungle and attempt to keep out the blundering and/or avaricious invasions of white Americans and Europeans. AMAZONS, though, is one of the few to blend that familiar plotline with a character conflict between jungle-lord Tarzan-- the stanchest representative of jungle-isolationism-- and his wife and adopted son, both of whom lust after the fascinations of civilized life.
Tarzan and adopted son Boy are first seen enjoying the idyllic life of the jungle while Jane is away, visiting relatives in Europe. Boy is seen to have a certain adolescent curiosity about his mother's world, but Tarzan only loves the jungle. During a hunting-expedition, the two males come across a strange Caucasian woman being attacked by a panther. Tarzan saves the woman, name of "Athena," from the beast, and reveals that she is a citizen of a hidden, Amazon-ruled land called "Palmyria." Tarzan takes her back to her land, but orders Boy to stay behind. The curious juvenile follows, however, learning the hidden route by which one can reach Palmyria.
When Tarzan returns Athena to her home, the Amazon Queen chides her for having endangered her people by venturing forth. Athena pleads that the devil Curiosity made her do it. The Queen orders Athena to ask forgiveness of their sun-god. Then, though many of the other amazons seem suspicious of Tarzan's presence, the Queen vouches for his trustworthiness, and Tarzan departs.
Jane returns to meet with her husband and child, but a small party of explorers follows her. Its leader wishes to make contact with primitive tribes, while one of his subordinates is merely a ruthless treasure-hunter. The explorers come across a bracelet dropped by Athena and picked up by Cheetah (who sometimes functions to do the more egregiously foolish things not appropriate for Boy). The explorers petition Tarzan to be led to Palmyria. Tarzan refuses, but his wife and child, who have formed a liking for the expedition's leader, feel slighted because Tarzan will not oblige them. One of the explorers finds out that Boy also knows the way, and the explorers successfully enters Palmyria. However, the Amazons take them prisoner. They refuse to let the white men leave for fear of having their secrets exposed, but spare their lives, intending to keep them prisoner forever, including Boy.
Naturally, the bad white man in the group takes the lead in looting the Amazons' treasures and attempting to escape. The Amazons give pursuit, and manage to kill all but the worst two. However, Tarzan comes looking for Boy, and encounters the thieves. He backs them into quicksand but saves their loot. He returns the treasures to Palmyria in time to save Boy from a sacrificial death, and the jungle family is reunited, Boy and Jane somewhat wiser about the treachery of the civilized world-- at least, until another film needs them to do the same thing all over again.
The most interesting aspect of AMAZONS is that it's extremely tolerant of the Amazons' culture, given that it's both pagan and matriarchal. True, the film loads the deck by not saying much about the men in the matriarchal culture, who are briefly depicted as laboring in the mines. And it must be admitted that this amazon culture is not an attempt to explore what a matriarchal society would be like, Rather, it's first and foremost an excuse to show off a lot of scantily-clad babes. Only one Amazon in Palmyria-- the aged Queen, played by Maria Ouspenskaya-- is something other than a hottie-- and in keeping with most jungle-sagas about hidden cities, they're all Caucasian. Nevertheless, the film's attitude toward the Palmyrians asserts that they have the right to be whatever they wish to be, as opposed to the more reform-minded jungle-films, devoted to changing African cultures in line with European preferences.
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *comedy*CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTION: *psychological, sociological*
Advertisements for DARK SHADOWS in the summer of 2012 made it look like a "grossout" comedy after the fashion of the SCARY MOVIE franchise. I suppose it's a small blessing that the world of Collinsport isn't dragged through that sort of muck. Instead director Tim Burton and his screenwriters seem to be shooting for something in the vein of deadpan absurdity. If one must make a comic version of the 1966-71 teleseries DARK SHADOWS, this is certainly the better of the two approaches.
However, the movie's still not particularly funny. Its most enjoyable aspect is the way the script sprinkles in various references to the teleseries, probably as a means of appealing to its fans. But to those not so initiated, I'm sure that the referential bits will mean nothing. For instance, the outset of the film somewhat mimics the famous opening of the early episodes, which began with a monologue from viewpoint character Victoria Winters, governess to the Collins family. When the film's Victoria is seen on her way to Collinwood, she's seen musing to herself. At first she calls herself by the name "Maggie Evans," and then she devises the name "Victoria Winters" out of whole cloth. Insiders will know that this is an oblique reference to the exigencies of casting in the teleseries: that when the actress portraying Victoria left the show, another actress, who already played a character called Maggie Evans, stepped in. Her character then took on the functions of the Winters character.
However, such references never come to anything. Similarly, Intimations of class conflict arise when the film sets up the main conflict: that the witch Angelique falls in love with Barnabas in the 1600s, only to rejected in part because she's of the servant-class. But nothing is ever done with this sociological motif. Indeed, the film DARK SHADOWS reverses the social standing of the Collins family: instead of being a moneyed, venerable family with a thousand strange secrets, they're impoverished aristocrats at the time of the film's main story, the 1970s (just slightly later than the run of the original show). Perhaps Burton felt that this downfall in the Collins fortunes would make them more sympathetic. However, they don't remain impoverished long enough to incite any sympathy, because their ancestor Barnabas Collins-- who was changed into a vampire by the vengeful Angelique-- escapes his centuries-long imprisonment and shows up to revivify the family with his hidden wealth.
Angelique is still around too. She's remained young through her magic and, during Barnabas' long absence, she takes out her fury on the Collins family by undercutting the family business. Indeed, all other stories in DARK SHADOWS take second place to the conflict between Angelique and Barnabas, a conflict which becomes more physically violent than it ever was in the teleseries, making it an instance of a "combative comedy." This fragmentation of storylines is not far from what occured when the teleseries' producer Dan Curtis tried to adapt some of the horror-soap opera's meandering plotlines into a "reboot" in the 1970 HOUSE OF DARK SHADOWS. In my review I mentioned that "because the script for HOUSE telescopes many long-running plotlines from the teleseries, the functions of many characters become abridged." The same phenomenon transpires in this comedy retelling. The love affair of Barnabas and Victoria-- who is also the reincarnation of Barnabas' love from the 1600s-- is unconvincing, and the very involved plotline about the true nature of young David's mother is tossed in order to justify a last-minute "deus ex machina." Johnny Depp's Barnabas and Eva Green's Angelique get all the best lines, and talents like Jackie Earle Haley, Chloe Grace Moretz and even Michelle Pfeiffer get pretty much lost in the plot-fog.
If one approaches the 2012 DARK SHADOWS as lightweight, not-too-bright fun, it's pleasant enough. Just don't expect it to be particularly memorable.
Tuesday, July 2, 2013
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *drama*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTIONS: *sociological, cosmological, metaphysical, psychological*
In the few years I’ve been reviewing films on this blog, I’ve praised various films for assorted qualities. The only quality for which I provide a rating, though, is that of “mythicity,” which refers to the complexity of a story’s symbolic discourse. At present the highest rating I’ve given is that of “good.” However, there are a tiny number of films that I rate as “superior” in their mythicity, and one of them is 1956’s FORBIDDEN PLANET.
It’s difficult to say why PLANET mined the material of myth so richly. The two men who supplied the screen who supplied the original story, the screenwriter of record, and the director all have various other works on their resumes, many of which are of a metaphenomenal nature. But none of them show the high level of mythicity I find in this classic SF work. It may be that the mythic materials invoked in PLANET-- William Shakespeare’s THE TEMPEST, the Judeo-Christian story of Eden—moved the collaborators to a higher level of inspiration than, one sees in say, Fred Wilcox’s adaptation of THE SECRET GARDEN or Cyril Hume’s Tarzan movies. Then again, there have many films that reinterpreted Bible stories and Shakespeare, and many of them are at best ordinary, as with Paul Mazursky’s naturalistic take on the same Shakespeare play in 1982’s TEMPEST. Another factor may have been that the filmmakers had some sense of doing something special with both the SF-genre and with the genre of the Freudian psychodrama, both of which had been around for several years but had never been explicitly combined.
For this review I’ve avoided re-reading the Bard’s play. All of the analogues to Prospero, Ariel, Miranda and Caliban are valuable, but PLANET effectively remakes their archetypal shapes through the film’s own 1950s cultural lens. I’ll also pass lightly over the aspect of explicit Freudianism, because I believe PLANET transcends that doctrine as well. The trope of forbidden father-daughter relations—also of strong significance in TEMPEST—remains somewhat covert, probably because the filmmakers crafted a film with mainstream appeal: robots and ray-guns for the kids, and deeper symbolic meaning for any educated adult looking for it. There’s no question that there are fascinating psychological, cosmological and sociological aspects to PLANET, but its strongest function is that of the metaphysical.
If anything, I would say that the Biblical Eden myth dwells at the core of PLANET, though the script also interpolates familiar Greek myths, aligning the Judeo-Christian concept of sinful excess with the Hellenic idea of hubris. The most obvious Eden-reference to appear in PLANET’s opening scenes appears in the name of protagonist John J. Adams, commander of the military starship C-57-P. However, there may a discourse of deeper consequence in the opening narration, where the audience is told that once humans obtained the secret of hyperdrive, “mankind began the conquest and colonization of deep space.” Clearly Earth itself is not represented as any kind of Eden—indeed, the character of Morbius regards his birth-planet with disdain and loathing. Yet the dissemination of humanity into space strongly resembles the manner in which the Biblical descendants of Adam and Eve become fruitful and multiply in order to take possession of a post-Edenic world, relying no longer on God’s gifts but prospering only by the sweat of their brows. It’s even interesting that the prologue speaks not of the more often-used “outer space,” but of “deep space.” This proves appropriate, for the project of PLANET is less about “going out,” but rather “going deep,” as in “deep into the chasms of the unconscious mind.”
The first thing we know about the crew of the C-57-P is that they’re all male, and all horny, because they’ve been in space for over a year. In the opening only the comic relief character “Cookie” openly speaks of frustrated sexual desires, though. Even though the prologue mentions “men and women” conquering space, this is a military vessel, and it exists to keep order, a thing apparently possible only with a gender-exclusive crew of “space-sailors.” Biblically speaking, this detachment is closer to a tribe of warriors looking for wives, though when the sailors encounter a “second Eden,” only Commander Adam will win an “Eve” to take with him
. The C-57-P seeks to discover the fate of a small expedition of scientists who attempted to colonize the uninhabited planet of Altair-4; scientists who have not made contact with Earth’s command center for 19 years—i.e., just enough time for Altair-4’s true daughter to grow to a “legal” age. None of these military men comment on the mythological name given the scientists’ ship, “the Bellerophon,” but this comprises the first of two important Greek references. Bellerophon is best known as the hero who tames the winged horse Pegasus, but his stellar career ends in a big fall when he tries to use his flying mount to conquer Olympus, only to be hurled to Earth by the angry gods.
Adams’ subordinate Lt. Farman is surprised that he can’t see from orbit any signs of civilization on the planet: he seems to expect that even a small contingent of humans will be able to transform the barren world in under 30 years. Ultimately the crewmen receive a radio transmission from one of the Bellerophon’s survivors, philologist Edward Morbius. Given that this doctor has a name reminiscent of a Latin word for death, one may not be surprised to learn that Altair-4 isn’t only a “outer space Eden.” It’s also a land of the dead, for though it’s not haunted by ghosts as such, the world is still dominated by the legacy of a dead race.
When the ship lands, the crew meets the emissary of Morbius: the winsomely named Robby the Robot. Curiously, the frustrated Cookie can’t tell if the robot is male or female. Moments later, as Robby plays chaffeur to Adams, Farman and ship’s doctor Ostrow, Farman remarks that the robot’s solicitiude makes it seem “just like a mother.”
There’s no other mother at Morbius’ place of residence: just the philologist and his budding young daughter Altaira, named after the “forbidden planet” itself. According to Morbius, Altaira’s mother—a female member of the lost expedition—perished of natural causes long ago, and was, along with Morbius, the only member of the party who truly loved this alien world. As for the other expedition-members, they all perished in what sounds like a Dionysian revel, having been “torn limb from limb” by a unseen “planetary force.” Morbius claims no knowledge of the force’s nature; only that it has never since menaced himself or his daughter. As noted earlier, Morbius is happy to live alone with his daughter, needing no further contact with Earth, and he bristles at any suggestion that the Earth-soldiers might “relieve” him of his solitude. In the terms of colonial-era fiction that preceded this period, one might say that Morbius is a colonial who has “gone native.”
Altaira shows no misanthropy or lust for alien ways: she’s immediately curious about the space-travelers, and finds them all “beautiful.” Much to the displeasure of Commander Adams, Lt. Farman begins putting the moves on the innocent girl. This Eve also maintains her own paradise-garden in the rear of the residence, and the audience sees three animals therein—two deer and a tiger—with the implication that there are more roaming free. Altaira is friendly with all the beasts, though Morbius notes that the tiger is still a deadly beast, and only becomes tame in the presence of the “beauty.” Later, Morbius will explain that the creatures’ ancestors were brought to Altair-4 by the long vanished aliens, who visited Earth centuries ago. However, the crewmen never show much surprise at seeing Earth-animals on an alien world.
Despite her roving eye, Altaira will soon prove that she is a “good girl” as well as a woman fit for future motherhood. Farman later gets her alone and demonstrates on her the Earth custom of osculation. He fails to spark her engines in any way, though to be sure, he may have sabotaged himself by trying to warn her away from Adams. Farman tells Altaira that Adams is a horrible ladykiller, but it’s possible, given that Altaira has her own “id,” that this intrigues her instead of repelling her.
Adams, however, never displays any ladykiller tendencies, certainly not with Altaira. Speaking in his official capacity, he barks at her for her scanty dresses and complains about what could happen as a result of his crew’s isolation from women for a year. Actually, most of the crew is remarkably well behaved, outside of a few wolf-whistles; they’ve done a good job of sublimating their basic instincts in the name of a higher cause. It’s Adams who may not be sure about his own control, and his possessiveness toward her mirrors the possessiveness that will later appear in Morbius’ attitude. Altaira’s initial reaction to the dressing-down is resentment. However, she intuits that his possessiveness connotes real love and commitment, and she accedes to his demands by dressing less provocatively, so as to please him. Farman somewhat resents being edged out, but later the two men make peace. Still, it’s interesting that Farman perishes in an attack by the “planetary force.” Perhaps he dies for having trifled with the mother-goddess, with the property claimed by his commander.
The mysterious “force” revives as soon as Morbius is apprised that Adams must assemble a space-radio in order to request further orders from his superiors. Morbius personally lends the sailors all the aid they could want, but the unknown force breaks in and sabotages the radio transmitter. Though as yet no one suspects that the force is obeying Morbius’ covert desires, Adams presses the scientist for more information. Finally Morbius breaks down—perhaps showing a desire to boast a little about his accomplishments—and takes Adams and Ostrow on a tour of the “deep” subterranean legacy of the long-dead Krell race.. Morbius relates that thousands of years the Krell desceneds to a near “divine” status. Possibly they became something like gods, as it’s said that they would no longer be dependent on “instrumentalites;” i.e., the tools appropriate to mere mortals. But, says Morbius, the Krell all perished in one single night, and their “sky-piercing” towers fell to dust, much as one sees in non-canonical versions of the Fall of the Tower of Babel.
Further, the only reason Morbius has been able to interpret this legacy is because he survived an encounter with a Krell mechanism called a “brain booster.” This is PLANET’s version of the Edenic “Tree of Knowledge,” but here it’s not Adam and Eve who eat of its fruit, but the Serpent, recast as the father of Eve. In a second fascinating use of Greek myth, Morbius also shows the spacemen the furnaces that power the subterranean Krell array, and advises them not to look directly into the furnace, for one “cannot look into the face of the gorgon and live.” But by surviving the brain-booser—even though the booster killed the Bellerophon captain when he attempted to use it—Morbius has indeed seen the face of Medusa, though he’s repressed the experience.
Having shown the soldiers the fruits of his labors, Morbius then states that he will not accept their authority. Again Adams tries to make contact with Earth for orders, and this time the invisible force kills the only man able to fix the radio. Adams still will not leave, and his bond with Altaira culminates in a passionate kiss between them. The formerly tame tiger attacks her, for she’s now become just another fallen human. Adams is forced to destroy the creature,
Finally, the monster makes a major attack upon the crew’s camp, killing Farman and two others. Adams and Ostrow seek out Morbius’ home again, and while Adams speaks with Altaira, Ostrow—who demonstrates some of Morbius’ own lust for knowledge—sneaks away and samples the brain-booster. The Gorgon’s gaze kills him, but not before revealing the secret: that Morbius has conjured forth the planetary force, which is a monster from his bestial Freudian Id. “We’re all part monsters in our subconscious,” says Adams, “So we have laws and religion!” At last Morbius is convinced that the Invisible Thing is his other self, and that it—and he—is capable of killing Altaira for daring to love another man. He renounces the creature, a clear parallel to Prospero in THE TEMPEST drowning his magic book, but Morbius, unlike Prospero, has bonded too strongly to the world of the alien, and he perishes by breaking contact. Alternately, another reading might say that the doctor dies because he can’t stand being separated from his daughter, his last contact with the human world.
Even in dying, Morbius gives Adams the power to destroy the legacy of the dead, and once the C-57-P takes off with Altaira aboard, the entire planetary system detonates, thus keeping any more fallible humans from trespassing upon the realm of the gods. In the final coda, Adams sooths Altaira by claiming that in death Morbius’ name will “shine,” albeit as a negative example, an example of what not to do. Adams anticipates that some day human beings may advance to the level of the Krell, and that then, they will need to know what befell the impious Serpent as a result of eating of the Fruit of Knowledge. The “beacon” of his example will “remind us that we are, after all, not God,” and so, no matter how exalted the human race becomes, it will continue to colonize by the sweat of its brow, and to sublimate its energies into group effort rather than attempting to become free of the restraints of mortality.