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.

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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)

Happy 20th Anniversary, Armageddon!

This is the Earth, at a time when the dinosaurs roamed a lush and fertile planet. A piece of rock just 6 miles wide changed all that.

It hit with the force of 10,000 nuclear weapons. A trillion tons of dirt and rock hurtled into the atmosphere, creating a suffocating blanket of dust the sun was powerless to penetrate for a thousand years.

It happened before. It will happen again.

It’s just a question of when.

DAMN, Charlton Heston. Way to be a buzzkill.

Released on July 1st, 1998, Armageddon is basically Die Hard 3.5, or A Rock and A Die Hard Place In Space, with John McClane….sorry, “Harry Stamper” fighting the most Hans Gruberest of Hans Gruber asteroids that’s bearing down on Earth and looking to ruin everybody’s day.

Let’s get a few things out of the way up front:

1 – Armageddon has one of the most ridiculous premises ever committed to film, even for disaster movies, and we’re talking about a reality that includes The CoreThe Day After Tomorrow, and Sharknado.

2 – If all of the scenes presented in slow motion were instead run at regular speed, the movie would be over in 35 minutes, give or take.

3 – Bruce Willis chews scenery with the absolute best scenery chewers ever to grace the silver screen.

4. I will shamelessly and unapologetically watch this flick Every. Single. Time. I find it.

That’s right, I said it.

The United States government just asked us to save the world. Anybody want to say no?

For those of you who’ve somehow missed out on seeing this thing in all its slo-mo, uber jingoistic glory, it’s like this: a giant asteroid is on a collision course with Earth. If it hits, the rock is large enough and moving with such velocity that it spells doom for every living thing calling this place home. The finest scientific minds on the planet, in the form of the always likable Billy Bob Thornton and a very pre-Harry Potter and Star Trek: Discovery Jason Isaacs, determine the best course of action is to drill to the center of the asteroid, drop a nuclear bomb, and detonate it in the hopes of splitting the giant rock with enough force to send the two halves careening around Earth rather than ass-hammering it.

In the finest disaster movie tradition, enter everyman Bruce Willis as Harry Stamper and an all-star cast of oil drillers – Ben Affleck, Will Patton, Steve Buscemi, Owen Wilson, Michael Clarke Duncan, and Ken Hudson Campbell. These blue-collar astronauts are the only ones capable of undertaking the desperate mission in the very limited time available. They’re assisted by actual astronauts portrayed by the always underrated William Fichtner and Jessica Steen, and with Liv Tyler as Harry’s daughter helping Harry to keep it real all through the hyper-accelerated training and preparation phase of the crazy mission. Favorite character actor Keith David is on hand as General Kimsey, the man with the president’s ear and his finger on the nuclear button, ready to step in the instant he thinks Harry and his crew are about to screw the pooch.

After a very rushed mission prep and a launch of not one but two super top secret Air Force space shuttles (a precursor, perhaps, to President Trump’s Spaaaaaaaaaaaace Forrrrrrrrrrrrrrce?), a brief visit to the “Russian space station” which may or not be Mir, which they end up destroying because of course they did, Harry and his merry band race out to meet the asteroid, pulling something like forty bazillion Gs when they slingshot around the Moon and try to sneak up on the rock from behind. And **that’s** when things finally start to get weird.

Directed by Michael Bay from a script by Jonathan Hensleigh and J.J. Abrams (yes, that J.J. Abrams), Armageddon is utterly, unquestionably over the top in pretty much every way. I thought it was hard to make a movie like 1978’s Meteor seem smart in comparison, but here we are. But, where Meteor failed to entertain us or grip us with anything resembling suspense despite its story and roster of top-shelf Hollywood talent, you just can’t say you’re bored with a movie like Armageddon. It starts with a literal bang and doesn’t let up for most of its two and a half hour running time.

All right, let’s set aside the characters and the plot and talk for a minute about the science fueling this story.

Sorry, I almost got all of that out with a straight face.

Eighteen days from the point of detection to launching a daring mission to save the Earth? The Air Force just happens to have not one but two top secret bad-ass military space shuttles with armor like Captain America’s shield, but which conveniently turns to the consistency of toilet paper when it’s crunch time? Rover vehicles that are part ATV and part tank, to include packing their own Vulcan machine guns? A space station that’s part gas station?

Did I say this movie is ridiculous? Yes, perhaps unabashedly so, reveling in its brutal reviews while racking up a $550 million dollar box office take in the summer of 1998, which was pretty dang good for any movie not named Titanic at that point in time. And yet, it’s this delightful absurdity that I think is one of the things that makes it so damned entertaining, at least to me.

For those precious few moments when things aren’t being launched, blown up, crashed, or blown up again, there are jokes and “drama” galore. After all, Ben Affleck’s A.J. is in love with Harry’s daughter and wants to marry her, and naturally Harry would rather shove an oil drill up his own ass rather than let that happen. Good times for all involved, and that’s before the shooting starts. This movie already seems to have it all, and just when you think there can’t possibly be enough characters and wise guys in this film for us to juggle, Harry and the gang pull a Russian cosmonaut from the ill-fated space station. Played by Peter Stormare, I kept waiting for him to stuff Buscemi’s character into an airlock in lieu of a wood chipper.

Everybody get that who’s gonna get it? Okay, then, moving on.

I’m not a movie snob. I like all kinds of films, including crazy and completely bonzo action movies, and Armageddon is right there in the mix. Further, it absolutely cracks my ass up that this film has a Criterion Collection edition, which is the only way to watch the director’s extended cut. That’s right, there’s a version of this flick that’s even longer than the one you point and laugh at. Suck it, haters.

“Come on, God, just a little help. It’s all I’m asking.”

“I think we’re close enough, He might have heard ya.”

Happy 35th Anniversary, Blue Thunder!

“This ship is equipped with a forward-mounted, twenty-millimeter electric cannon. Its six barrels are capable of firing four thousand rounds of ammunition per minute. And that, gentlemen, is one hell of a shit-storm in anybody’s language!”

BlueThunder

Frank Murphy, helicopter pilot for the LAPD and former Army chopper pilot during the Vietnam War (and whom we see suffers from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder as a result of his service during that conflict), is selected as a test pilot for a brand new helicopter packed to the gills with state of the art armaments and quasi-futuristic stealth and surveillance technology. It’s supposedly intended for use during large scale civil disobedience operations, but that doesn’t ring right with Murphy, particularly after the helicopter, nicknamed “Blue Thunder,” blows the shit out of a simulated city street setting with mocked-up vehicles and human-sized targets. That a former rival of his from the war, Colonel “Catch ya later” Cochrane, is in on the whole thing doesn’t sit well with him, either.

Murphy, along with his rookie partner, Richard Lymangood (aka “JAFO,” or “Just Another Fucking Observer”), uses Blue Thunder’s sooper seekrit peeping tech to follow Cochrane to a clandestine meeting, and collects evidence that the colonel and a group of government douche nozzles are behind the death of a prominent city councilwoman. Her murder is part of a larger conspiracy put into motion by this wannabe cabal, who plan to use the helicopter to assassinate political enemies. After Lymangood is killed, Murphy steals Blue Thunder and it’s a race for him to get the evidence to someone who can expose the conspiracy before the bad guys get to him, culminating in a helicopter chase between Murphy and Cochrane in the skies above Los Angeles.

Released on May 13th, 1983, Blue Thunder made a point of letting potential audiences know that all of the surveillance and weapons technology stuffed into the helicopter was real, if not used in this particular configuration. Of course, we look at it today and think, “Pffft. That’s all he’s got? Drones, dude. Drones.” Thirty years ago, however, Blue Thunder was bad-ass.

Personally, I still think the helicopter looks pretty slick.

The plot of Blue Thunder is so thin that it makes Smokey and the Bandit seem like Inception, but a lot of what makes the movie work can be credited to actor Roy Scheider, who offers up yet another of his “every man” performances which served him so well throughout his career. Malcolm McDowell chews every scene with relish as the dick antagonist, Cochrane, and a young Daniel Stern provides much of the film’s early humor (both as instigator and target) as Lymangood the JAFO. Obviously, the hardware and the flying stunts take center stage, especially in the movie’s latter half, but Scheider is there to anchor things and keep them from going too far into the realm of absurdity.

Don’t get me wrong: I dig this film. It’s one that’s an easy candidate for a rewatch on a rainy day, and it’s interesting to see how some of the ideas it proposes stack up against our pervasive “conspiracy theory culture” and our “surveillance society” with cameras everywhere, expanded police powers, and even those drones we mentioned earlier.  How much of the stuff that seemed “far out” in 1983 is now at the disposal of law enforcement, or even has been surpassed by current technology?

Things that make you go, “Hmmm….”

The movie was successful, both critically and financially. A spin-off series aired on ABC the following year, which wasn’t a sequel but rather a reworking of the premise, in which the helicopter is used by a special unit to hunt down the baddest of bad guys, and so on and so forth. The show was cancelled after eleven episodes, ceding the helicopter action show bragging rights to the other 80s AwesomeChopper, Airwolf, which premiered that same year.

(So far as the helicopters go, I’ve always preferred Blue Thunder to Airwolf, even though I think Airwolf would win in a head-to-head contest. Yes, I’m a geek, and I put some thought into that particular battle royale.)

Blue Thunder seems like the perfect choice for a remake, doesn’t it? I’m sure someone’s thought about it, or is thinking about it, and they’ll eventually get on with dicking it up. Meanwhile, we still have the original. I may have to spin it up tonight.

“Catch ya later.”

Time Lords and the Truce: Doctor Who at the National World War I Museum!

wwimuseum-entranceThose of you who follow my irregularly recurring blatherings here or on Facebook might recall that I volunteer here and there at the National World War I Museum and Memorial here in Kansas City. It’s one of those things I decided to do last year as part of my “Dayton, Chapter 2” bit upon hitting my 50th birthday.

In addition to possessing what has been called the world’s most comprehensive collection of artifacts from the First World War, the museum is also home to a number of, exhibits, events, and activities designed to heed its mission statement of “remembering, interpreting and understanding the Great War and its enduring impact on the global community.”

I’m really rather proud to be associated with it, even in this small way.

I also like that the museum continues to try new and different things in its ongoing quest to further engage the community. Sometimes that means thinking a bit outside the box, or mixing a bit of entertainment with our history. The museum has its own auditorium which plays host to concerts, lectures and symposiums, films, and other performances with some connection to the war. All Quiet on the Western Front, Doctor Zhivago, Paths of Glory, and other films set during the war have screened at the museum.

However, this is the first time I can recall something like this happening there:

timelords-wwi

Awwwwww, yeah. From the museum’s website:


Thursday, Feb. 15, 6:30 p.m.

The 1914 Christmas Truce is cleverly intertwined with Doctor Who – but we don’t want to give spoilers. Come with your favorite companion and discover new WWI facts and how clever that madman in the blue box can be with a viewing of the last episode in the 2017 season.


So, here I am, a student of the war and a fan of the Doctor. What to do, what to do?

I know! Ima gonna hafta go to this thing.

Those of you living in the Kansas City area (or willing to haul buns to this part of the country) who might also be fans of the Doctor while also having a free evening on Thursday, February 15th at 6pm, should think about heading to the museum to check out this special screening of “Twice Upon A Time,” the last episode to star Peter Capaldi as the 12th Doctor, and featuring the introduction of Jodie Whittaker as Doctor #13.

As the website says, the event is free. All you have to do is RSVP at the event’s page (click on “Free with RSVP”).

Maybe I’ll see you there!

Yes, Die Hard is a Christmas movie.

die-hard-posterIt’s only November 25th, but apparently we’re already getting on with the “Is Die Hard a Christmas movie” debate. It’s been “raging” on Twitter, with a few people on both sides getting more than a tad wrapped around the axle.

Damn it, I hate being late to these things.

Look, it’s really quite simple: Die Hard, that 1980s action classic, is indeed “a Christmas movie.” Hell yeah, it is. In fact, it’s quite possibly the best Christmas movie ever. Check it out:

Die Hard is more of a Christmas movie than other films that actually try to pass themselves off as Christmas movies. Heck…it’s even got its own official Christmas book, and everything! The film showcases many of the familiar “Christmas movie tropes” without much of the pretentious, saccharine goobledygook that I think of when I consider the typical “Christmas movie.”

The story is set on Christmas Eve, at a Christmas party and the film’s soundtrack is littered with Christmas-themed music, while Christmas decorations and other related paraphernalia and sentiment contribute to pushing the story forward. John McClane has arrived there, quelling personal feelings of hurt and betrayal in order to be with his family during what’s supposed to be this most festive of seasons.

RELATED:Twas A Die Hard Christmas,” December 18th, 2016

That reunion is spoiled by people seeking to ruin others’ holidays for their own selfish ends. Hans Gruber is Scrooge in an Armani suit and carrying military-grade bad tidings, promising Christmas miracles for himself and his merry band of grinches.

But it’s John McClane who’s the Christmas miracle, bringing the gift of freedom and goodwill toward men (and women). He even made a list of who was naughty before handing out presents, and proceeds to show the bad people that good will always, ultimately curb-stomp the shit out of evil. Finally, he casts aside his immature, selfish feelings toward his wife and rekindles their damaged romance.

And then Vaughn Monroe sings us out. Let it snow, yo.

Suck on that, George Bailey.

TL;DR = There are two kinds of people: Those who think Die Hard is the best Christmas movie ever, and those who are wrong.

😀


Now, this post is obviously meant in jest, but a casual glance at social media shows that there are people on both sides of this goofy debate who take it way too seriously, one way or the other. Lighten up, folks. It’s a damned movie.

Even if it is the best Christmas movie. 😀

DieHard-Hans-Christmas

Happy 30th Anniversary, RoboCop!

Dead or alive, you’re coming with me.”

Take one police officer in the wrong place at the wrong time. Add a host of state-of-the art cybernetic and computerized implants, all provided by a soulless, greedy corporation looking to “modernize” an overworked,  undermanned police force while making a tidy profit for themselves as they design a “city of the future.” Give the resulting creation one gigantic mother-fucking hand cannon, and the keys to a police cruiser. What do you get?
robocop-poster

Released on this date in 1987, RoboCop is filmmaker Paul Verheoven’s dark, violent, often satirical, occasionally funny and in ways very prescient action-crime thriller doused with a liberal helping of science fiction.

The plot is pretty simple: Detroit police officer Alex Murphy (Peter Weller) is mortally wounded while attempting with his partner to apprehend a gang of nasty bad guys with absolutely no qualms about torturing and killing a cop just for something to do. Declared dead but also still the “property” of Omni Consumer Products, the private corporation that has taken over the Detroit Police Department, Murphy — what remains of him following the shootout with the bad guys — is used as the “organism” part of a “cybernetic organism” project dreamed up by opportunistic junior executive/first-class douche canoe Bob Morton (played by the late, great Miguel Ferrer). Morton’s dream project, “RoboCop,” is intended to give OCP a cheaper, more reliable alternative to the law enforcement droids championed by senior exec Dick Jones (Ronny Cox).

Murphy is to be the prototype. All memories of his past life  are (supposedly) erased, and everything but his brain, face, heart, and other vital organs is replaced by cybernetic technology, turning him into a walking, talking armored tank with the ability to tie directly to any computer database and receive instructions the way you might program your own home computer. He’s also got a pistol the size of a damned baseball bat, that shoots like a Gatling gun and is stored inside his cybernetic leg. In short order, the new cyborg is given to the Detroit Police Department and he takes to the streets, and it doesn’t take RoboCop to strike fear into the hearts of evildoers everywhere and become the hero of a city beleaguered by crime. Everybody’s happy: citizens, the police force, and OCP.

Everything’s awesome until he runs into one of the bad guys who “killed” him, and his memories start to come back.

Then, shit gets real.

Thirty years after its initial release, RoboCop is still one of the absolute best science fiction films to come out of the 1980s. Though things like technology are of course dated by today’s standards, it’s the story — including peeks at the future of news and “infotainment” programming, the relentless quest for corporate profits at the expense of everything else including the people who provide those profits,  the bitter view of the military industrial complex — that still holds up. In typical 1980s/1990s Verheoven style, the humor here is dark…I mean, dark, yo.

Peter Weller is perfect as Alex Murphy and his cybernetic alter ego, struggling to hang onto those few vestiges of humanity that haven’t (yet?) been stripped from him. Nancy Allen is criminally underused as Murphy’s partner, Anne Lewis, and Ronny Cox and Miguel Ferrer are ruthless as the OCP execs who want to cash in at any cost. But it’s Kurtwood Smith who steals every single damned scene he’s in, playing evil-as-fuck Clarence Boddicker with unrestrained relish. It’s Boddicker who leads the murder of Alex Murphy, including taking the kill shot, and once Murphy realizes who and what he is and how he got here, you just know these two are going to clash like Godzilla and King Kong. For my money, Smith’s portrayal cemented Boddicker as one of the all-time great screen villains.

boddicker-grenade

The idea of marrying mechanical implants to a living being was already the stuff of SF film and literature well before RoboCop, of course. One of the more recent and popular manifestations of this trope had come along 15 or so years earlier, and also featured an unwitting test subject chosen by chance or fate to be “augmented” by cybernetic technology: Steve Austin, The Six Million Dollar Man. Several themes hinted at or explored in RoboCop, particularly with respect to Murphy being a “tool of the state” and wondering if he can retain any of his humanity — if he is in fact more than the sum of his parts — are also found in early episodes of The Six Million Dollar Man as well as the novel on which that series is based, 1972’s Cyborg by Martin Caidin.

RoboCop was a critical and commercial success, spawning two feature film sequels as well as a TV series, a TV mini-series, and (incredibly enough) not one but two animated series…precisely none of which are anywhere as good as the first movie. It’s also been successful in the merchandising arena, including toys and games as well as a run of comic stories from two different publishers. 2014 brought with it an inevitable remake, which isn’t quite as bad as some people would have you believe while still coming nowhere close to holding a candle to the original. I recommend watching it at least once so you can see what they were trying to do, and how they brought some interesting twists while still (at times, anyway) somehow managing to completely miss what makes the original the enduring classic it is.

But, then you should definitely go back and watch this one, because Hell. Yeah. As Clarence Boddicker might say, this flick is “state of the art bang-bang.”

Happy 45th Anniversary, Conquest of the Planet of the Apes!

Tonight we have seen the birth of the planet of the apes!

Oh, damn. It’s on now.

In the “far off future” of 1991, people now live in what looks to be an oppresssive, militaristic society. Law enforcement (dressed in the finest stormtrooper fashions) is visible on every street corner, and endless directives and warnings are issued from faceless announcers as the civilian populace goes about its daily affairs. What’s missing? Cats and dogs, all of which have died off as the result of a mysterious disease brought back from a space probe. This little bit of misfortune, of course, was foretold by chimpanzees Cornelius and Zira in the previous film, Escape from the Planet of the Apes, though it’s happened far more quickly than they indicated. So too has mankind’s desire to replace their little lost subservient quadrupeds, and they’ve turned to domesticating primates. By 1991, simians are a subclass; a slave race. However, is the collective intelligence of the apes on the rise?

Could be.

So, what happens? Add one intelligent, speaking chimpanzee to the mix–himself the offspring of Cornelius and Zira–to stir up some shit. Before you know it, the apes are pissed and they’re not gonna take it anymore, and so that’s humanity’s ass. Cue revolt.

Whoops.

Released on this date in 1972, Conquest of the Planet of the Apes brings almost full circle the story begun in 1968’s Planet of the Apes. This third sequel to that classic film shows–at least to some degree–what’s promised in its title and tagline. As for Conquest being “the most awesome spectacle in the annals of science fiction,” I think we all can agree this was a bit of overreach from the marketing folks (and, we all know that honor goes to Barbarella, right?).

By the time production kicked into gear on this, the fourth of the Apes films, the cycle of diminishing returns was firmly in place. With each successive movie earning less at the box office, budgets for the next one were reduced accordingly. Therefore, director J. Lee Thompson faced the challenge of convincingly depicting what turns out to be the genesis of the ape uprising hinted at in the previous film, the longterm effects of which are–of course–apparent in the first movie. And, he had to do it on a budget which probably wouldn’t cover the catering bill on a Michael Bay shoot. This was prequel-izing before prequel-izing was rampant, yo!

The first half of the film isn’t the most exciting cinema you’ll ever see, but there’s a deliberate “tightening of the screws” going on as we see Caesar coming to terms with the role of apes in modern society, and deciding that he ain’t playing that game. Once he learns of the death of his friend, Armando (Montalban) at the hands of government officials, watching him slowly yet firmly begin to push the apes around him toward dissent is, oddly enough, satisfying.

A larger budget might’ve allowed for more expansive scenes of turmoil once the apes lose their shit and start tearing up the joint. Still, considering what he was working with, director Thompson does a decent enough job injecting energy and tension into the scenes of ape rebellion which carry the film’s final act. Tight camera angles and deft editing manage–for the most part–to mask the production’s sparse budget, while strong performances from Ricardo Montalban, Don Murray, Severn Darden, Hari Rhodes, and Natalie Trundy (as the chimpanzee Lisa, her third different role in three consecutive Apes outings) help to elevate the material a notch or two above the previous two sequels.

Conquest-CaesarBut, again, it’s Roddy McDowall who carries the film on his stooping shoulders. Starting out as a supporting role in the original Planet of the Apes before moving to top billing in Escape (another actor, David Watson, portrayed Cornelius in the first sequel, Beneath the Planet of the Apes), he dons the ape makeup here for a third time, but for the first time as “Caesar,” the son of Cornelius. As usual, McDowall brings a warmth and–dare we say it–“humanity” to the role, which is sort of important now, as by this point in the series we’re all firmly rooting for the apes to kick humanity right in its collective taint. He would reprise the role of Caesar in the fifth and final of the original films, Battle for the Planet of the Apes, before going on to play yet another chimpanzee, Galen, in the 1974 live-action Planet of the Apes television series.

Moving past the original Planet of the Apes, which (so far as I’m concerned) stands apart from everything which came after it, Conquest of the Planet of the Apes is actually my favorite of the Apes sequels. Like a lot of folks, I’ve always wanted to see what comes next. Obviously, we know what ultimately happens, but that still leaves plenty of room for a whole assload of stories set between the events of this film and the next one. Some of that territory has been explored, mostly in comics published by three different companies in sporadic fashion over the past 40-odd years.

And, lest we forget, it’s Conquest that provided much inspiration for the recent reboot Apes films: 2011’s Rise of the Planet of the ApesDawn of the Planet of the Apes from 2014, and War for the Planet of the Apes, which opens on July 14th. Indeed, you can also see more than a bit of Battle DNA in the latter two filmsespecially War, if the trailers are to be believed.

Happy 45th, Conquest of the Planet of the Apes.

Happy 30th Anniversary, Full Metal Jacket!

If you ladies leave my island…if you survive recruit training…then you will be a weapon. You will be a Minister of Death, praying for war. But until that day, you are pukes. You are the lowest form of life on Earth. You are not even human-fucking-beings! You are nothing but unorganized grab-asstic pieces of amphibian shit!

Those were the days, eh?

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Holy dog shit, Private Joker! It’s been 30 years since the debut of Stanley Kubrick’s war epic. Based on The Short-Timers, a 1979 semi-autobiographical novel written by former Marine and Vietnam veteran Gustav Hasford, Full Metal Jacket chronicles the journey of young James Davis (later to be known as “Joker”) from Marine Corps recruit training in 1967 to his eventual posting to Vietnam. Before he can graduate boot camp, however, he has to get past hard-assed drill instructor Gunnery Sergeant Hartman. Following training and stationed in Vietnam as a combat correspondent for the Stars & Stripes newspaper, Joker comes face to face with the horrors of war as he endures the Tet Offensive, including the tumultuous, costly battle for Hue City in January 1968.

(Hasford would later pen a sequel to The Short-Timers, 1990’s The Phantom Blooper, which continued to chronicle Joker’s experiences in Vietnam. It was the second book in a planned trilogy, but Hasford died before that ever came to fruition.)

ermeyMost people’s knowledge of Full Metal Jacket comes from the oft-repeated and parodied quotes from Gunnny Hartman, played to complete, bang-on perfection by R. Lee Ermey. Originally hired by Kubrick to be the film’s military technical advisor, Ermey, himself a Vietnam vet and former drill instructor, convinced the director to hire him for the pivotal role of Hartman. His experience as a “Hat” allowed him to craft page after page of pitch-perfect dialogue, and his performance lends an authenticity to the boot camp scenes comprising the film’s first half which–for my money, anyway–have yet to be surpassed.

The film’s opening scene, with Hartman “introducing himself” to the platoon of terrified recruits, is an unrivaled classic, and Ermey walks away with every scene he’s in. Even Ermey himself has parodied this role in other projects, such as commercials and when he portrayed “Sergeant Major Bougus,” an instructor for the United States Marine Corps Space Aviator Cavalry in the short-lived SF series Space: Above and Beyond.

Hartman and Matthew Modine (as Joker) are joined by a stellar cast, including Vincent D’Onofrio as the troubled “Private Pyle,” Adam Baldwin, Ed O’Ross, John Terry, Dorian Harewood, Arliss Howard as “Cowboy” and Kevyn Major Howard as Joker’s travel companion, “Rafterman.”

Whereas the original novel unfolds over three distinct sections–one each for boot camp, the Tet Offensive and a later mission to Khe Sanh–Kubrick, working alongside writer Michael Herr (with input from Hasford, for which he received joint screenplay credit…and is apparently a story all its own), compresses and reworks events from the book’s latter two sections to create the film’s second half. In contrast, the “boot camp half” of the movie is expanded from what is the novel’s shortest section. There are changes to several character names, and Hartman’s role (“Gerheim” in the book) also is given more attention, likely owing to Ermey’s presence and performance.

The movie has always received mixed to positive reviews, with many praising the boot camp portion while taking issue with the Vietnam half. Personally, I’ve come to appreciate the tonal shift between the two halves while appreciating the common thread they share: dehumanization of one’s self and one’s enemy in order to conduct the nasty business of war.

Full Metal Jacket is a powerful, visceral film, easily one of the best war movies ever made. It’s not “pro” or “anti” war, though elements of both can be found. At the end of it all, it’s just “about” war…the cold, brutal, shitty reality of war, and how it transforms–on any number of levels–those who fight.

“Is that you, John Wayne? Is this me?”

Happy 35th Anniversary, Blade Runner *AND* The Thing!

That’s right, movie fans! It’s a double dose of Geek Movie Milestone Goodness!

1982 is arguably one of the best summers ever so far as awesome movie releases goes, and two reasons for that are right here. 35 years ago today, a pair of iconic entries in science fiction film debuted on the silver screen, each going a long way toward redefining the genre in their own ways….

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Blade Runner — adapted in rather liberal form from Philip K. Dick’s seminal novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? — influenced…what…the look of every other near and/or dystopian SF film since then? Yeah, pretty much. Ridley Scott, having already dabbled a bit in the genre with that little flick you might know, Alien, brought Harrison Ford out from under the shadow of the Millenium Falcon and Indiana Jones’ fedora long enough to have him play what would become yet another iconic role: Rick Deckard, the “blade runner” charged with finding and neutralizing renegade androids (“replicants”) in 2019 Los Angeles. The film’s production design established a benchmark which has yet to be surpassed, for whatever the hell my opinion’s worth. The movie was not an easy sell to American audiences, but has gone on to take its rightful place as a true classic.

Meanwhile, John Carpenter’s The Thing — less a remake of 1951’s The Thing from Another World than a new adaptation of John W. Campbell’s 1938 novella Who Goes There? — helped remind audiences that the SF film realm could definitely be one which might scare the shit out of us if it was done correctly. It was a welcome respite from the scads of Alien knock-offs to which we’d been subjected by that point.

I didn’t get to see either of these movies in the theater, for different reasons. Blade Runner, at that time, didn’t appeal to me, whereas theater ushers were being very conscientious about keeping underage delinquents like me and my friends from sneaking into screenings of The Thing (Damn, those “R” ratings.). I watched both on home video (VHS!) later, and I fell in love with Blade Runner on the spot. It’s a smart, layered film, in which you can always find something new to appreciate.

(Of course, the 57 different versions of the movie which have been released over the years help with that.)

As for The Thing, it was and remains a tight little monster movie. The 2011 prequel did little for me, besides demonstrating that Carpenter’s movie can hold its own without such skirt-hanging claptrap. That doesn’t mean we won’t see some form of sequel or reboot in the not too distant future.

Elsewhere, the world of Blade Runner has been revisited in prose, in the form of a trio of novels penned by science fiction author K.W. Jeter. Later this year, the long gestating Blade Runner 2049 will hit movie screens, starring Ryan Gosling and featuring Harrison Ford as Deckard.

For now, though? Spin up this double bill.