Happy 25th anniversary, Star Trek Generations!

Captain of the Enterprise, huh?

That’s right.

Close to retirement?

I’m not planning on it.

Let me tell you something: Don’t. Don’t let them promote you. Don’t let them transfer you. Don’t let them do anything that takes you off the bridge of that ship, because while you’re there, you can make a difference.

generations-poster

Released on November 18th, 1994, just six months after Star Trek: The Next Generation completed its seven-year television run and proved to naysayers lightning could be captured twice–albeit in a slicker and shinier bottle–Star Trek Generations launched Captain Jean-Luc Picard and the crew of his starship Enterprise to the silver screen. With the cast of the original series having taken their final bow three years earlier in Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country, the time had come to pass the baton so another crew might boldly go on to successful cinematic adventures.

However, and perhaps due to concerns Picard and company might not entice enough viewers to follow them from their televisions to theaters and while also hoping to attract that larger mainstream audience films need to thrive, the decision was made to stack the deck, so to speak. Therefore, this “next generation” of Star Trek films (see what I did there?) would be given a sendoff by none other than the legendary James T. Kirk himself.

It actually wasn’t a bad idea, in and of itself. Besides, the idea of a character from a previous series helping to launch a new one had already been done twice before (McCoy appears in the TNG pilot, “Encounter at Farpoint,” and Picard himself appears in the first episode of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, “Emissary”) and had become something of a Star Trek tradition that would later be observed in the first episodes of Star Trek: Voyager and Enterprise, to say nothing of “original Spock” being on hand for the 2009 reboot film.

Generations opens in the 23rd century, nearly 80 years prior to the events of TNG, with Kirk, Scotty, and Chekov on hand to celebrate the launch of the U.S.S. Enterprise, NCC-1701-B, the successor to the starship said to be retired after the events of Star Trek VI. When “Stuff Happens” as it always does, the trusty trio is on hand to help save the day and the lives of a number of refugees from a disabled spaceship that’s been caught in a mysterious “energy ribbon.” However, that comes at a steep price: the death of Captain Kirk…or so we’re led to believe.

Flash forward 78 years to Picard’s Enterprise (NCC-1701-D on your scorecards), where they encounter Dr. Tolian Soran, a dude who’s hellbent on finding his way back to that aforementioned energy ribbon. Oh, and did we mention he was one of those refugees Kirk and the gang saved all those years ago? Oh, and did we also mention Guinan, the Enterprise‘s enigmatic bartender, is also a refugee? Remember this…it’ll be on the test later.

Hijinks ensue, eventually leading to a confrontation between Picard and Soran on the surface of an uninhabited planet, where Soran has developed a means of changing the ribbon’s course through space. This is done by blowing up key stars and sending gravimetric shockwaves that alter its trajectory, and he’s been hop-scotching through the quadrant in order to move the ribbon close enough for him to get into it. Why? Because when he and Guinan and the others were transported from their doomed ship decades earlier, they were in the ribbon’s grip; phasing in and out of our space-time continuum, and part of each of them is still in there, somewhere, so they feel a constant yearning to return to “that place.” It’s sort of like longing for Taco Bell even though you get there too late for FourthMeal.

Of course, this whole “blowing up stars” bit also has the effect of destroying any nearby planets, including inhabited ones. As that’s pretty much a huge buzzkill for anyone living on said worlds, Picard has to stop Soran before he can blow up this planet’s sun and wipe out the civilization living on an adjacent world. That doesn’t work out so well for Picard, who’s helpless to watch as Soran launches a rocket into the star, destroying it and bringing the ribbon to him. As the Enterprise, in orbit above the planet and getting its ass kicked by a Klingon ship, crashes on the surface, the planet is destroyed by the shock wave from the exploding star just as Soran and Picard are swept up in the ribbon’s effects.

And that’s when shit gets weird. Why? Well, let’s just say once he’s in the ribbon, Picard should probably have a sit down with astronauts Bowman and Cooper and discuss bizarre trips through spatial phenomena, amirite? And that’s before he runs into the aforementioned James T. Kirk chopping wood outside a remote mountain cabin.


1994 was a fantastic time for Star Trek. Two successful television series were in first-run syndication and the original series cast had bid their fond farewells. Star Trek: The Next Generation had wrapped, but Star Trek: Deep Space Nine had just started its third season and Star Trek: Voyager was waiting in the wings, and the TNG crew of course was now transitioning to the big screen. Merchandising was cooking with gas, and Star Trek was even embracing the still-minty fresh World Wide Web. Did you know that Star Trek Generations was the first film to get its own promotional website?

the_more_you_know

Though not a perfect film and not my favorite of the bunch, I still have a soft spot for Generations. In many ways, it really was the “passing of the torch” so far as Star Trek in the mainstream went. After saying goodbye (so we thought) to Kirk and his crew in the previous film, the events in Generations serve to cement the transition, figuratively and literally, and tell old-school Trekkies our Star Trek, the one we’d grown up with, was over. All good things, and all that, right?

Meanwhile, the TNG cast does get a bit of a short-shrift here, with so much time given over to Picard’s “Brave and the Bold”-esque team-up with Kirk. It wouldn’t be until their next outing, Star Trek: First Contact in 1996, that they’d get the screen all to themselves…sorta.

The story takes a bit of heat for a few logic problems, and the more vocal critics maintain that screenwriters Ronald Moore and Brannon Braga actually did a better job with their script for the TNG series finale episode, written in two weeks, than the film, which was the result of months of work. I tend to forgive Moore and Braga on this point, as the story they were asked to write was saddled with various studio requests and directives in order for the film to be the “baton pass” from Kirk’s era to Picard’s.

The scene where Kirk tells Picard not to retire is perhaps my favorite of the film. Until that point, Picard had largely been portrayed as the leader who manages situations while sending others to the front, which of course was a completely different (and arguably more proper) approach than what we’d seen Captain Kirk do every week on the original show, when he beams down and gets into trouble episode after episode. For me, this scene is a turning point for the character not just for actor Patrick Stewart, who would see Picard’s action quotient increase in the subsequent films, but also those of us who ended up writing the character in different media. I always look to this moment between Kirk and Picard to explain or justify why Picard continues to eschew retirement or promotion in the novels set after the TNG movies.

That’s my story, anyway, and I’m sticking to it.

Generations also has special meaning for me because I used the film’s climax as a point of departure for “Reflections,” the story I submitted to the very first Star Trek: Strange New Worlds writing contest back in 1997. You know how things went down after that.

So, Happy 25th Anniversary, Star Trek Generations. That predator time seems to have been pretty good to you.

2019 Edition! Marvel Movie Tip: Stay for the credits, yo.

It seems like just a few short months ago that we were all running to the movie theater to see Avengers: Endgame, and now here we are with this week’s release of Spider-Man: Far From Home. We’ve been doing this in fits and starts since 2008 with Iron Man, the first movie in what was to become “the Marvel Cinematic Universe.”

After all these years, you’d think some of the basic protocols would be all but ingrained into our collective consciousness, but we all know someone who’s going to drop the ball on this. Because of this, it’s a warning we need to repeat often:

“Stay through the credits.”

It’s been a while since we last visited this topic…all the way back to 2016 and Captain America: Civil War, so we’re definitely due for a look at the updated picture. Since 2008, we’ve been treated to:

Iron Man
The Incredible Hulk
Iron Man 2
Thor
Captain America: The First Avenger
The Avengers
Iron Man 3
Thor: The Dark World
Captain America: The Winter Soldier
Guardians of the Galaxy
Avengers: Age of Ultron
Ant-Man
Deadpool
(yes, not an official MCU film but still here because fucking Deadpool, people)
Captain America: Civil War
Doctor Strange
Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2
Spider-Man: Homecoming

Thor: Ragnarok
Black Panther
Avengers: Infinity War
Deadpool 2
(Again…fucking Deadpool)
Ant-Man and the Wasp
Captain Marvel
Avengers: Endgame*
Spider-Man: Far From Home

What’s the one rule that applies for each of these movies? Say it with me:

“Stay for the credits.”

(* = Endgame didn’t have such scenes until…you know, it suddenly did.)

And yet, there I was today with Clan Ward, watching people leaving the theater just as the credits began to roll at the conclusion of Spider-Man: Far From Home, even though there’s not one but two–count ’em…two–extra scenes: One during the credits, and one just after.

OH, THE HUMANITY!

Forgive them, Stan Lee, for they know not what they do.

marvel_truefan

Now, it’s arguable that several of these little add-ons aren’t essential to enjoying either their respective movie or the larger story arcs laid down over the course of these films, but some of them are. Besides, dang it! They’re part of the run, amirite?

You stay for the credits, people.

Always.

Friends don’t let friends leave a Marvel movie early.

If you’re catching these flicks for the first time at home with disc or digital download, then you fast forward if you have to, but the rule is the same: “Stay for the credits.”

With that in mind, I’ve instituted a checklist of tips to help Marvel moviegoers avoid missing out on the important stuff lurking in and around a given film’s end credits. Consider this a public service, movie nerds:

1. You stay for the credits.

2. You stay after the credits.

3. You stay until the lights come up.

4. You stay until they start the slide show between screenings, and you make sure you sit through the entire slide reel at least once.

5. And look on the back of your ticket and the underside of your popcorn. Just in case. (via Bernie Kopsho on Facebook)

6. Then run across the hall and sit through the credits of the non-Marvel movie. LEAVE NOTHING TO CHANCE.

7. Then run outside and look for skywriting, because who knows? (via Bernie)

IT’S THE ONLY WAY TO BE SURE.

In summation: “Stay for the credits.”

Goose-Tesseract

Okay, now we’re done. You can go home.

Happy 35th Anniversary, Star Trek III: The Search for Spock!

The death of Spock is like an open wound. It seems that I have left the noblest part of myself back there …on that newborn planet…..”

June 1st, 1984: Spock was dead, but he was about to get better.

search-for-spock-poster

Celebrating 35 years since its release to movie screens far and wide, Star Trek III: The Search for Spock, as its title explains, was the third theatrical film featuring Captain (nay, “Admiral”) Kirk and his merry band of senior officers from the U.S.S. Enterprise. Picking up soon after the chaotic and tragic events of the prior movie, Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, the film opens with the Enterprise, still wounded from its encounter with the maniacal Khan Noonien Singh, on its way back to Earth. Once there, Kirk and his gang learn that all of that business with the Genesis planet and torpedoes which can create entire planets–and destroy them, too–has become something of a political hot potato.

That might well have been the end of it, making for a pretty short movie and all that, except that Spock’s father, Sarek, shows up at Kirk’s apartment and basically tells the admiral that he done gone and dicked up, big time. He shouldn’t have left Spock’s body in a burial tube on Genesis, you see. Also, Kirk and Sarek learn that Spock, prior to his untimely demise, mind-melded with Doctor McCoy and transferred his katra–sort of like a flashdrive backup of his living spirit–from himself to the doctor.

This, of course, explains why McCoy has been acting like three flavors of crazy since the Enterprise‘s return to Earth. Now armed with a mission to retrieve their friend’s body and return it and his katra to Vulcan, Kirk and his posse steal the Enterprise and make for the Genesis planet. And, as they often do in these sorts of movies, things get seriously weird and Kirk’s plan goes right out the window when it’s discovered that Spock is alive. You know…again.

Huh.

Directed by the OG Spock himself, Leonard Nimoy, and working from a script by the great Harve Bennett, Star Trek III is a tight little flick. While not the best the franchise has offered us over the years, it’s definitely not the worst, either. Its modest budget betrays the production in a few spots, particularly in the scenes spent on the “Genesis planet” (in reality a studio soundstage), and the cringe-worthiness of a few wardrobe choices only worsens with the passage of time (lookin’ at you, Chekov).

While unspooling their story as Kirk and company race to Genesis to retrieve their friend, Nimoy and Bennett do a nice job lacing the film with nods, callbacks and affectionate hat tips to various bits and bobs from the original Star Trek series. Like Star Trek II and very much unlike Star Trek: The Motion Picture, the script features a healthy dose of humor to balance out the otherwise heavy story, and the onscreen chemistry between the actors is as good as the best of the original series episodes. The movie’s ending leaves Kirk and his crew at something of a crossroads, of course, and fans would have to wait more than two years until lingering questions were answered by the next film in the series, Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home.

Mark Lenard’s brief appearance as Sarek is a highlight, with the actor reprising the role he helped create 17 years earlier in the original series episode “Journey to Babel.” It’s the second of six occasions Lenard would return to the role, after providing the voice for his cartoon doppelganger in the animated Star Trek episode “Yesteryear.” Fans know to look for him in Star Trek IV and Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country as well as guest turns on the Star Trek: The Next Generation episodes “Sarek” and “Unification, Part I.” He also provided an oh-so short voice snippet for a younger version of the character in Star Trek V: The Final Frontier.

Christopher Lloyd seems an odd choice to play the Klingon captain, Kruge, and there are times when you’re sure he’s channeling Reverend Jim from Taxi but he manages to pull it off, especially in some of the higher-tension scenes. He also gives William Shatner a run for his money in the scenery-chewing department when the two finally face off as the Genesis planet comes apart around them.

Wrapping up everything in a neat little package is another solid score from composer James Horner. For years, it was criticized as being little more than a knock-off of his previous work for Star Trek II. It’s a perception strengthened by the release of a truncated soundtrack which, for reasons surpassing understanding, was limited largely to those pieces which evoked the previous movie. However, I think his efforts were more than redeemed upon the 2010 release of the complete score from Screen Archives Entertainment.

So, with all that, I guess I’ll spin this up and let it run today as I work. Join the search, y’all, and celebrate. Happy Anniversary, Star Trek III.

Happy 40th Anniversary, Alien.

SPECIAL ORDER 937:

PRIORITY ONE
INSURE RETURN OF ORGANISM FOR ANALYSIS
ALL OTHER CONSIDERATIONS SECONDARY
CREW EXPENDABLE

Today we set the Wayback Machine for 1979, and the release of a modestly budgeted, almost B-level film sent without much fanfare to movie screens, where it then proceeded to scare the shit out of everybody.

alien-poster

I was closing in on my 12th birthday when the original Alien was released 40 years ago today. My uncle took me to see it…almost certainly, I’m sure, over the objections of his sister (aka, my mother), and while it did indeed scare the hell out of me, I also remember just thinking how cool this movie looked, sounded, and felt.

Of course, since I was 11 (almost 12!) at the time, I really didn’t understand why any of that shit was the way it was. It required many more viewings over the proceeding years for me to grasp and appreciate just how put-together this flick really is. When you think about it, Alien really isn’t much more than a low-budget monster movie, but damn is this a great film.

Every frame is a thing of beauty. Every syllable of dialogue and even facial expression, delivered by solid, dependable actors in a film which doesn’t really have a lot of talking to begin with, is there for the sole purpose not of showcasing the performer but instead to drive the story forward. Every note of Jerry Goldsmith’s haunting and (at times) rousing musical score is pitch perfect. And yes, the Alien as designed by famed artist H.R. Giger, scares the shit out of you.

Endlessly imitated and flat-out ripped off in the years immediately following its release, Alien set a new benchmark for science fiction and horror films which continues to inspire filmmakers to this day. 40 years, three sequels–including one of the best sequels to any movie ever, James Cameron’s Aliens–two spinoff movies and two kinda-sorta prequels later, the original Alien is still my favorite of the bunch.

Today is National Film Score Day!

Who knew?

Not me. At least, not until I read about it thanks to one of my Facebook friends. As odd days of observance go, this one isn’t too shabby at all.

What are we talking about? According to the National Day Calendar website, National Film Score Day “recognizes the musical masterpieces called “Film Scores” and, more specifically, the very talented composers who create them.”

Sweet!

Though it’s been a while since I’ve written on the subject, those of you who spend any time here likely know that I’m a huge fan of film and TV music and love listening to it apart from the production for which it was created. It’s also my habit to listen to such music when I’m writing, as it always helps to set the “right mood” for the project-in-progress.

A well-crafted film score is a thing of beauty. The first album I ever bought with my own money was the vinyl 2-record LP score for the original Star Wars in 1977.

Since then, my library has continued to grow not just with music from newer film television and productions but also “expanded” or “complete” editions of scores from days gone by which were only made available in truncated form due to the limitations of the medium (LP records, cassette tapes, 8-track tapes, and even CDs once they took over). Thanks to companies like La-La Land Records and Intrada I’ve been able to enjoy updated, expanded, and remastered versions of scores of older films, and in some cases it’s like hearing the music for the first time EVEN THOUGH I know every note by heart.

STTMP-SoundtrackCoverWhat are some of my favorites? Well, some obvious suspects are the various Star Trek films, in particular Jerry Goldsmith’s The Motion Picture, The Final Frontier, and First Contact, James Horner’s The Wrath of Khan and The Search for Spock, and Michael Giacchino’s music for all three of the reboot films. Everything John Williams has ever done for the Star Wars saga goes on the list, too, but I also must give props to Michael Giacchino for Rogue One and John Powell for Solo. 

Superman-ScoreJerry Goldsmith is well represented in my library, including personal favorites Planet of the Apes (1968), Rambo: First Blood, Part II (yes, really), Alien, Total Recall, L.A. Confidential, Outland, and 1999’s The Mummy. James Horner also had a lot going on beyond his Star Trek work, and I especially dig Aliens, Apollo 13, Sneakers, Glory, The RocketeerCommando, and Titanic (that’s right; I said it). And you can’t have a film score collection without stuff by John Williams, including stuff by John Williams that’s not Star Wars, which is good because I absolutely love the music he created for Jaws, the Indiana Jones films, Saving Private Ryan, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, and…of course…Superman.

My taste in film music runs the gamut from Pirates of the Caribbean to The American President, Die Hard, or The Incredibles, or from The Shawshank Redemption to Gladiator, The Martian, or Black Hawk Down. Bill Conti’s The Right Stuff is wondrous. Old-school offerings like The Great Escape, The Magnificent Seven or The Day the Earth Stood Still are in there, too. The truth is that I’m all over the map with this kind of thing. I hear it while watching the film and know I just have to have it without everybody yakking over it or everything blowing up around it.

TV’s the same way. Yes, Star Trek gets a lot of play around here (occupational hazard, you know), but what about Lost In Space or Mission: Impossible or Alien Nation? Battlestar Galactica? Hell, even seaQuest is in there.

I could do this all day, people.

So, Happy “National Film Score Day.” I think it’s time to stick a little of that action in my ears while I continue to write.

Happy 55th anniverary to The Last Man On Earth!

“Another day to live through. Better get started.”


LastManOnEarth-Poster.jpg

At least some of you know that I rank Richard Matheson’s 1954 novel I Am Legend among my very favorite books. I read it for the first time when I was 11 or 12 after a chance discovery at a neighborhood library and was immediately hooked.

The story of Robert Neville, who believes he’s the lone survivor after a plague sweeps over humanity in the novel’s “far off” future of 1976 and turns most if not all people into “vampires,” is considered by many to be the first “modern vampire novel.” Additionally, there are those who’ll tell you it’s also a forerunner to the modern genre of “zombie” books, comics, films, and TV series. I long ago lost count of the number of times I reread this book just during my teenage years, and to this day it’s a story I still revisit on occasion when the mood strikes.

In addition to serving as inspiration or just flat out being ripped off for other books, comics, films, and whatnot in the decades since its publication, I Am Legend has itself been “officially” adapted for film three times: 1964’s The Last Man On Earth starring Vincent Price, 1971’s The Omega Man starring Charlton Heston, and 2007’s I Am Legend starring Will Smith. Also in 2007, The Asylum, the direct-to-home video powerhouse, released an “unauthorized” version they dubbed I Am Omega which they hoped would cash in on the hype surrounding the Will Smith movie.

But hey! Only one of those flicks is celebrating its 55th birthday today, and that’s why we’re here.

Released on this date in 1964, The Last Man On Earth is, so far as I’m concerned, the most faithful adaptation of Matheson’s novel. This, despite Matheson himself not being satisfied with the finished product even though he helped with the screenplay. Produced on a very low budget and filmed in Italy, the film does deviate from the book in several respects, such as Neville being named “Robert Morgan,” and his occupation being changed to that of a scientist. Fans of the novel know that Neville begins the book as a worker at some kind of plant, largely ignorant of things like biology or viruses and related subjects, and much of the story involves him teaching himself these things so he can understand how the plague came to be and (later) to see whether a cure can be found.

Morgan’s encounter with a seemingly uninfected woman, Ruth, is the same in the broad strokes, including her real reason for crossing his path and that she’s been sent as a spy by a group of vampires who’ve learned to live with the plague and control its effects so that they can attempt rebuilding society. The movie’s ending also amps up action of the final confrontation with Morgan/Neville and the vampires as well as how said fight ends up playing out.

These differences work well enough for the film’s version of the story, though the production’s limited budget definitely shows around the edges so far as casting and production design. What does work is thanks largely to the presence of Vincent Price, one of the great genre actors of his generation. He seems miscast here, despite providing a solid if generally subdued performance. Regardless, The Last Man On Earth still feels right at home with other favorite 1950s science fiction and horror movies.

When I was a kid, the film was one of those which would pop up on Saturday afternoons on the local UHF TV channel, which is how I discovered and came to love so many great science fiction and monster movies of the 1950s and 60s. It’s conceivable I’m the only person I know who cared enough to even buy the movie on DVD when it was released by MGM in 2006. I guess it’s because I found it during that “golden age” of childhood fandom that I’m more forgiving of it than I am The Omega Man and the 2007 I Am Legend. Maybe one of these days we’ll get a proper, honest to goodness adaptation but until then? The Last Man On Earth will have to do.

Or, we could all just go and read the book again.

Tied Up With Tie-Ins: Planet of the Apes!

Yep, it’s time for another walk down Nostalgia Lane that you didn’t ask for and probably don’t need. Since that’s the running theme of this entire blog thing of mine, we can at least agree I’m consistent.

Back at the beginning of the year, I decided that I would offer up an irregularly-recurring feature that I’d use to revisit favorite movie and TV tie-in books. After taking a fond look back at novels based on The Six Million Dollar Man and The Bionic Woman and knowing that I wanted to avoid talking too much about Star Trek novels (at least right away), it seems obvious to me that the next old-timey series deserving of some love is Planet of the Apes!

As is true of Star Trek and the “Bionic shows,” Planet of the Apes was another series (of movies and television shows, in this case) that I came to love very early on. Though I never saw any of the original five films in theaters, I did watch both of the subsequent television series as best I could during their original broadcasts in 1974-75. Just as I was learning about books based on the other two franchises around this time, so too did I discover the same was true of Apes.

First I found a copy of Pierre Boulle‘s original 1963 novel at the library, after which I found a paperback of Jerry Pournelle’s novelization of Escape from the Planet of the Apes occupying space on a department store book rack. Unlike the Star Trek novels and episode adaptations which seemed to be everywhere, tracking down the books tying into the other Apes films would prove to be much more challenging.

PotA-OriginalNovelCover1

(Left: the cover that seemed to dominate re-issues of the original novel throughout the 1970s and into the early 80s. Right: The cover on the edition I own.)

Continue reading “Tied Up With Tie-Ins: Planet of the Apes!”

Happy 40th Anniversary, Superman: The Movie!

Live as one of them, Kal-El, to discover where your strength and your power are needed, but always hold in your heart the pride of your special heritage.

They can be a great people, Kal-El. They wish to be. They only lack the light to show the way. For this reason above all–their capacity for good–I have sent them you, my only son.

December, 1978: I was eleven, and my perception of Superman was as a guy from comic books, Saturday morning cartoons, and reruns of a 25-year old television show.

Then the lights in the theater dimmed, and I got schooled.

Superman-poster

Opening nationwide on December 15th, 1978, Superman (marketed as Superman: The Movie) was the first time a comic book character was given a serious, big-budget treatment for film or television. Until that point and beyond the comics which had featured Superman for four decades, the public’s perception of the Man of Steel largely was limited to Super Friends cartoons and the 1950s Adventures of Superman television show.

While the first two seasons of the George Reeves series attempted to tell stories aimed as much at adults as children, that faded as the show grew more popular with younger kids. Still, there are some who would argue that Superman had it better than his comics colleague, Batman, who also was a fixture of Saturday morning cartoons as well as the classic 1960s campy TV series starring Adam West.

Now, don’t get me wrong: I enjoyed the cartoons and TV shows as a kid, and in some ways George Reeves is still “the” Superman of my youth, but all of that got knocked down a notch with the arrival of this new retelling of his classic origin story, which continues to influence Superman tales in comics, television and film 40 years after its premiere. Further, it remains a benchmark by which most other superhero films are judged.

Directed by Richard Donner (The Omen, and who later would help to refine the whole “renegade cop on the ragged edge” trope with the Lethal Weapon films) and working from a story by the great Mario Puzo (The Godfather) and a screenplay by Puzo, David Newman, Leslie Newman, Robert Benton and Tom Mankiewicz, Superman is a sweeping coming of age tale in the true sense. The film takes its damned sweet time unspooling its version of how baby Kal-El, son of Jor-El and Lara, is launched in a spaceship from the doomed planet Krypton and sent to Earth.

There, he is found and adopted by Jonathan and Martha Kent. Growing up in Smallville, Kansas, it is this upbringing which will provide him with his moral and ethical foundation as he learns of his true heritage and the immense power he possesses, until one fateful night in the great city of Metropolis when he reveals himself to the world and becomes known as Superman.

(And yes, if you think you’re noticing any Christ-like parallels, go with that feeling. Dialogue spoken by Jor-El might have you reaching for your Bible. And if you think it’s overt here, try 2006’s Superman Returns or 2013’s Man of Steel. Boy, howdy.)

Superman‘s cast is big and filled to overflowing with all sorts of names you know or should have at least heard of at some point if you’re any sort of movie fan, starting with Marlon Brando as Jor-El and Gene Hackman as Lex Luthor, and including solid supporting turns from the likes of Glenn Ford, Phyllis Thaxter, Jackie Cooper, Ned Beatty, Valerie Perrine and Marc McClure just to name the first bunch. Margot Kidder is the sassy, self-made reporter Lois Lane, but the whole smash would rest on the shoulders of the man cast to portray Kal-El and his Earth alter-ego, Clark Kent. It was the selection of a relatively unknown actor that would provide future movie and comics fans the Superman against which all others are still measured: Christopher Reeve.

superman-reeve

Simply put, Reeve is Superman. More importantly, he also is Clark Kent, a wholly separate character acting as a counterbalance to the larger than life hero who is his “true identity.” Reeve infuses the perfect blend of humanity, compassion, determination and even anger into his portrayal of the Man of Steel, then offsets it with the gentler, more humble and more than slightly bumbling facade of the “mild-mannered reporter.” It is this dual performance that grounds the entire film and gives it just the right amount of realism to help the viewer “believe a man can fly.”

Costing more than $50 million dollars–an enormous sum in those days–Superman spared little expense when it came to bringing its story to life. Extravagant sets, gorgeous location shooting, all manner of model and miniature effects and, of course, the numerous flying sequences which (for the most part) really do hold up rather well when compared to modern-day CGI-stuffed FX techniques. Legendary film composer John Williams provides a wondrous score, including a main theme which I’m fairly certain just about anyone can name in three notes.

Superman would be followed by three sequels: 1981’s Superman II, Superman III in 1983, and Superman IV: The Quest for Peace in 1987. The production of the first sequel is a tale known to many a movie buff, as the film was shot largely in tandem with Superman, and that director Richard Donner was fired before the second film could be completed. A large portion of the sequel was reshot by another director, Richard Lester, who changed the film’s overall tone away from what Donner had intended. A version of the film which attempted to showcase Donner’s original vision, Superman II: The Richard Donner Cut, was released on home video in 2006.

Elsewhere, Superman also paved the way for other projects tying into at least some aspects of its mythos: 1984’s Supergirl starring Helen Slater, and the syndicated Superboy television series which ran from 1988-1992. Superman Returns, released in 2006, is a sequel as well as something of a tribute to the 1978 film and–to a much lesser degree–Superman II while discarding the events of Superman III and IV. Personally, while I think the “tribute” aspects of the film ended up working against it, there was a lot of potential in this updated version of what Donner gave us. I would’ve liked to see another film (or two) showcasing the best of what the setting had to offer without getting bogged down in sending too many valentines to the original movie. However, the Superman franchise has since been rebooted (again) with the aforementioned Man of Steel. It and the “DC Universe” movies which have followed it have charted a completely different direction for the character while leaving us to wonder what might’ve been.

Meanwhile, the family and I attended a screening of Superman here in Kansas City a couple of weeks ago, and I have to tell you: 40 years after that awesome December afternoon in 1978, I still got goosebumps when John Williams’ music blew through the speakers and that big red “S” warped onto the screen. Movies like this exist to be seen this way. All things considered, the film holds up remarkably well and remains one of my very favorite movies.

40 years old, and still looking good. Happy Anniversary, Superman.

Happy 65th Anniversary to The War of the Worlds!

In the First World War and for the first time in the history of man, nations combined to fight against nations using the crude weapons of those days.

The Second World War involved every continent on the globe and men turned to science for new devices of warfare, which reached an unparalleled peak in their capacity for destruction.

And now, fought with the terrible weapons of super science, menacing all mankind and every creature on the Earth comes…The War of the Worlds.”

Oh, it’s on now.

Released on August 26th, 1953, after premieres weeks earlier in Atlantic City and New York, The War of the Worlds was a then-contemporary updating of H.G. Wells’ classic 1898 tale of Earth’s invasion by aliens from Mars.

As was done with the infamous 1938 radio play created by Orson Welles, Howard Koch and Anne Froelick and performed by Welles’ Mercury Theater, legendary producer George Pal updated the novel’s Victorian-era trappings. Instead of the story unfolding in upstate New York as was done for the radio play, this time the action was moved from England to “present day” California. The enormous tripod walking machines from the book are replaced by floating “war machines” that emit hellish energy from ray cannons mounted atop curved, metallic necks. Rather than feeding on humans as is shown in the story, the Martians of the film simply annihilate everyone and everything in their path, carving wide swaths of destruction as they proceed with their conquest of Earth.

The film unfolds in fairly straightforward fashion, opening with a narration that subtly updates what has to rank among the greatest opening passages in the history of the written word:

No one would have believed in the middle of the twentieth century that human affairs were being watched keenly and closely by intelligences greater than Man’s. Yet, across the gulf of space on the planet Mars, intellects vast and cool and unsympathetic regarded our Earth with envious eyes, slowly and surely drawing their plans against us.

Once the aliens make their presence known, the story kicks into gear as the Martians begin their terrifying campaign, with war machines spreading out from landing sites around the world and obliterating everything they encounter. We hear frequent updates about losing contact with cities and countries across the globe, and how the Martian machines are unstoppable. In the finest tradition of 1950s science fiction films, the specter of nuclear war even rears its ugly head as American military forces attempt to destroy a trio of war machines with an atomic bomb.

Missed it by —> <— that much.

Gene Barry, a popular actor of the time, portrays Dr. Clayton Forrester, a scientist who’s among the first to realize the truth of the Martians and their deadly potential. Ann Robinson plays Sylvia van Buren, whom Forrester meets while on a fishing trip near the small town where she lives. As is typical of the films of this period, Robinson is given little to do except scream and be frightened by the Martians. Les Tremayne, already a veteran of film and radio, is the no-nonsense General Mann, the military officer responsible for devising a defense against the invading aliens.

All seems lost and the Martians are poised to wipe out humanity, until….

The Martians had no resistance to the bacteria in our atmosphere to which we have long since become immune. Once they had breathed our air, germs, which no longer affect us, began to kill them. The end came swiftly. All over the world, their machines began to stop and fall. After all that men could do had failed, the Martians were destroyed and humanity was saved by the littlest things, which God, in His wisdom, had put upon this Earth.

Yep. The Martians succumb to our planet’s bacteria and other nasty little housewarming gifts. With the aliens and their machines now inert, survivors emerge from shelter into the sunlight, faced with rebuilding the world which nearly had been taken from them.

And…scene.

The War of the Worlds is and remains one of the best of 1950s cinematic science fiction films, sticking with the relevant plot points of H.G. Wells’ original novel while successfully updating it for a “modern” audience. It’s an approach which continues to serve the material, with several adaptations (and even a few continuations) of the original book being published as recently as last year. Alien invasion stories in every medium owe something to the novel.

The film even spawned a sequel of sorts. After an aborted attempt in the 1970s to adapt the story to television, a syndicated War of the Worlds series was produced beginning in 1988. Using the 1953 film as a springboard, the series puts forth the notion that the invading aliens weren’t killed but instead forced into a state of deep hibernation that resembled death. Thirty-five years after the “1953 invasion,” all evidence of the aliens (no longer called “Martians”) and their technology has been scattered and buried by the world’s government and military powers. When a group of the aliens are accidentally revived, they begin a campaign to rescue the other surviving members of the original invasion armada and to make contact with their home world so that a renewed attack might one day commence. The series lasted for two seasons, a constant victim of thin plots, thinner budgets and mediocre production values.

And yet…I still kind of dig it. Even as it attempted to convince viewers that the entire planet somehow managed to forget an alien invasion, and the first season showed us no overt evidence of the attack, the show still managed to find ways to weave in bits of continuity and homage not just from the film but also the original novel as well as the 1938 radio broadcast. It was an interesting experiment, and I actually like the first season a bit more than the second year.

Other film versions of The War of the Worlds have been created in various media over the years, including Steven Spielberg’s big-budget 2005 take on the story. While that’s a serviceable film, I tend to enjoy the 1953 version more. Even as I write this, the BBC is developing an all-new adaptation of the original novel, set to air later in 2018, and October 30th will mark the 80th anniversary of the Mercury Theater broadcast. I have no doubts that there will be other attempts to re-imagine the material at some point…assuming they don’t just go with another Independence Day sequel or something, but for now? I can watch this one any day.

Happy 65th Anniversary, The War of the Worlds. You don’t look a day over 50.

Happy 30th Anniversary, Die Hard!

Come out to the coast, we’ll get together, have a few laughs….

Christmas Eve: A group of terrorists seize control of a 40-story office building in downtown Los Angeles. They’ve taken hostages, they’re well-armed, and they’re dug in like ticks. The local police and even the FBI seem powerless to stop the terrorists, or even to figure out what it is they want.

The only hitch in the terrorists’ plan? One off-duty cop, in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Oh. Hell. Yeah.

Thirty years ago today, moviegoers were introduced to John McClane, a New York cop who’s in L.A. to visit his estranged wife and their kids for Christmas. Things are supposed to be low-key, right? McClane meets his wife at her office within the impressive Nakatomi Plaza, after which they’ll drive to her house and enjoy all the various yuletide traditions and so on and so forth.

Of course, everything goes completely to shit, which is why we end up having a movie.

Released on July 15th, 1988, Die Hard remains a benchmark for action movies, redefining the whole “one man against a bunch of bad guys” trope into its own subgenre of films. Masterfully directed by John McTiernan (Predator, The Hunt for Red October), the movie presents nothing less than a clinic on how to lay out a perfectly paced, well-plotted and well-acted action thriller. It has been endlessly imitated, parodied, homaged and just flat out ripped off. To this day, similar projects of every sort often are pitched as being some variation of “It’s Die Hard on/in a ________.”

Speed? “Die Hard on a bus.”

Under Siege? “Die Hard on a battleship.”

Paul Blart: Mall Cop? “Die Hard in a shopping mall, but not as funny.”

As for the actual film? It elevated its star, Bruce Willis, to A-List action hero status where he has — more or less — remained since then. Willis does a fantastic job selling us on McClane, the wise-cracking, acerbic cop who’s in way over his head, facing off against the smooth stylings of the late Alan Rickman’s delicious turn as Hans Gruber, supposed terrorist with a secret agenda. Indeed, the whole cast is superb from Willis and Rickman on down, including solid performances by Reginald VelJohnson as LAPD Sergeant Al Powell and Paul Gleason playing yet another in a string of dickhead authority figures with his singular aplomb. But it’s Willis and the very much missed Rickman who carry the load here, pitting sarcasm against sophistication in a battle of wills for all the marbles.

Thirty years after its release, Die Hard remains my very favorite Christmas movie. It even has its own holiday-themed book, so I know I’m right and the haters are wrong. Nyah.

Based on the 1979 novel Nothing Lasts Forever by Roderick Thorp, Die Hard might well have ended up being a sequel to the 1968 film The Detective, itself based on another Thorp novel and starring Frank Sinatra. When ol’ Blue Eyes declined the opportunity to reprise his role from that movie, the idea next was reworked into a possible sequel to the 1985 Arnold Schwarzenegger flick Commando. After Arnie passed, the idea then was modified again, becoming a standalone story but still retaining much of the plot from Nothing Lasts Forever.

The film did huge bank in the summer of 1988, earning nearly $150 million after a $28 million budget. A sequel was inevitable, and Hollywood didn’t disappoint, with Die Hard (so far) eventually spawning four sequels. Though each successive film has its own things going for it, all of them fail in varying degrees to match the quality and unfettered — dare I say it — fun of the original:

Die Hard 2 (Die Harder), 1990, based on the 1987 novel 58 Minutes by Walter Wager

Die Hard With A Vengeance, 1995, adapted from the unproduced screenplay Simon Says by Jonathan Hensleigh

Live Free or Die Hard, 2007, inspired by the Wired magazine article “A Farewell to Arms” by John Carlin

A Good Day to Die Hard, 2013, written by Skip Woods

Only Die Hard With A Vengeance really comes close, owed perhaps in no small part to John McTiernan once again occupying the director’s chair. Will there be another one? Hard to say. Though critics ripped the latest entry in the series without mercy, it still did major box office business. There have been rumblings about a potential sixth installment, and even the dreaded “r word*,” but so far those seem to be nothing but rumors.

In the meantime, we still have the first — and the best — Die Hard, who still looks mighty fine at 30.

“Yippee-ki-yay, Mister Falcon!”

(* = reboot, yo)