Tag Archives: Science Fiction

1955 DRIVE-IN DOUBLE FEATURE: BRIDE OF THE MONSTER AND PHANTOM FROM 10,000 LEAGUES

Coming Attractions:

“The Picture that unmasks society’s secrets. Jail Bait: the story of boy-crazy girl and gun-crazy guy. The most feared of our modern underworld—men who hate the law and abuse even those they love. See the siren-screaming, gun-blazing thriller, Jail Bait.”

The Violent Years. See what happens behind locked doors of a pajama party! Teenage killers fearing no law! Thrill Girls of the highway! Girl gang terrorists! Untamed girls of the pack-gang! Adolescent gangsters taking their thrills unashamed! Terrifying realism clawing at your unbelieving mind! See The Violent Years.”

It’s Showtime!

Bride of the Monster was ‘s most financially successful work, which of course isn’t saying much. It’s success may lie in its attempts to meet mainstream genre expectations, and the fact that it’s Wood’s only film to actually feature a star performance from. (In Glen or Glenda, Lugosi was a bizarre narrator. Plan 9 from Outer Space infamously used a few seconds of Lugosi footage, shot mere days before his death, making it a brief, posthumous non-performance which many Lugosi filmographies don’t even list). Rather than pursuing his own twisted muse, Wood, a Lugosi fanboy, attempts to fulfill what he imagines 1955 audiences want from a film starring Bela Lugosi, and therefore Bride of the Monster doesn’t reach the levels of inspired lunacy of the pair’s other collaborations. However, Ed Wood can only be Ed Wood and, in his defense, he’s deprived of good taste—which numerous artists have rightly observed is the enemy of great art. Wood made some of the greatest naïve art of all time. Thankfully, Bride of the Monster was produced before booze, poverty, and obsessive kinkiness grabbed poor Eddie by the throat and took him down, which means it’s charming as hell. Adding to its goofy grace is Lugosi’s last starring performance (he had what amounted to a mute cameo in Reginald Le Borg’s The Black Sleep in 1956), which features a beautifully mangled speech that serves as an almost perfect swan song for the horror star.

Still from Bride of the Monster (1955)Lugosi fans (and they are legion, or at least once were) are hardly apt to admit it, but their object of adulation was one of the genre’s worst actors, due in no small part to his clear disdain for the English language and astoundingly poor career choices. With damned few exceptions (notably, Ygor in Son of Frankenstein), he was a one-note performer. Even had more range (although according to peers and biographers, both actors were a tad slow on the uptake Continue reading 1955 DRIVE-IN DOUBLE FEATURE: BRIDE OF THE MONSTER AND PHANTOM FROM 10,000 LEAGUES

CAPSULE: TAKASHI MIIKE’S “DEAD OR ALIVE” SERIES (1999, 2000, 2002)

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Riki Takeuchi,

PLOT: The original Dead or Alive, is a crime/yakuza adventure with a bizarre ending; Dead or Alive 2: Birds involves two hitmen who eventually join forces to kill for charity; and Dead or Alive 3 is set in a post-apocalyptic world.

Still from Dead or Alive 2 (2000)

WHY THEY WON’T MAKE THE LIST: The three films in this trilogy are unrelated except that they each star Riki Takeuchi and Shô Aikawa. The best, the original, is the least weird, while the sequels grow increasingly strange, but drop off in quality. They are necessary entries for Miike fans, and worthwhile ones for followers of Japanese extremity and pop-surrealism, but none of the three manage to nail the right combination of weirdness and distinction to earn spots on the List of the Best Weird Movies Ever Made.

COMMENTS: It’s only natural that the first entry in Takashi Miike’s Dead or Alive trilogy would be the best: otherwise, why try to recapture the magic twice more? Not only is it the pick of the three entries, it also starts with the series’ most memorable sequence: a scorching five-minute heavy metal montage of strippers, cocaine, noodles, blood, gunfire, sodomy, and more blood (and more noodles). This virtuoso sequence is equally thrilling and confusing; but, as it turns out, all of a piece, telling a tale of yakuza warfare between rival gangs. What follows is a relatively straightforward, though densely plotted, crime story, with a Chinese gang facing off against a Japanese gang facing off against the cops. Of course, Miike the provocateur can’t resist throwing in a gag-inducing, scatological prostitute drowning. That’s unnerving, but he ends the tale with a bewildering curve ball that abandons the shaky realism of the previous story altogether in favor of a Looney Tunes apocalypticism. There are no survivors, and the audience may feel scorched, too.

The second installment, subtitled Birds, again moves in an unexpected direction. Rather than rivals on opposite sides of the law, Takeuchi and Aikawa are now hit men who, through incredible coincidence, grew up as childhood friends before independently finding their way into the assassination biz and being assigned to take out the same target. Unexpectedly, Birds almost plays like an art-house drama for the first two acts, striking a nostalgic tone as the two killers return to the island orphanage where they were raised and reconnect with each other and the community. Miike always zigs when expected to zag, so it’ s almost natural that he would follow the adrenaline rush of Dead or Alive with the reflectiveness of Birds. The second film morphs, too, with an impressionistic third act that sees the assassins sprout wings and go on a proceeds-to-charity killing spree that includes a Mexican standoff with a dwarf.

Dead or Alive 3: Final is in many ways the weirdest of the series, but unfortunately suffers from lower production values. On Arrow’s DVD, a note appear before the movie explaining that there are no HD masters of the film in existence and they used the best materials available (which include burnt-in Japanese subtitles for scenes in which characters speak untranslated Chinese and English). Most of the video has a jaundiced yellow-green cast to it, which may have been intentional, but does not make for an attractive visual milieu. The plot is inspired by (to the point where you’re tempted to say “rips off”) Blade Runner, but with Miike twists. In this dystopia, an evil mayor with a skinny sax-playing boytoy enforces homosexuality by the use of medication, and procreation is a crime punishable by death. Aikiwa uses his replicant superpowers smoke cigarettes to the filter in a single inhale and to snatch bullets in midair or redirect them with u-shaped tubing that’s lying around post-apocalyptic Japan. The final battle between Takeuchi and Aikawa is a wire-fu spectacle in an abandoned warehouse which ends in a typically nonsensical, out-of-nowhere fashion with the two molded together into a penile mecha.

“What is this?,” Takeuchi asks of the characters’ predicament at the end of Final. “I don’t know,” Aikiwa responds. “It’s this.” That’s probably as good a description of Miike’s whacked-out movies as you’re going to get. In the supplemental material, the director says, “the films I want to make are ones where I can say, ‘I don’t know how I feel about it as a film, but I like it anyway.'” There’s a punkish “take it or leave it” attitude in the Dead or Alive films, which experiment with logic and narrative from within the most formulaic genres, making Miike something of a grindhouse . The series spans the director’s most fertile and febrile period, from 1999-2002, when he was making up to eight films a year. It’s the period that also brought us such singular atrocities as Audition, Visitor Q, The Happiness of the Katakuris, and Ichi the Killer. I wouldn’t count any of the Dead or Alive films as top-rank masterpieces in the Miike universe, although the first comes close. But they are all expressions of the director’s vision: uncompromising unexpectedness, with one brow held high and the other low.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“… for someone on Miike’s wild and amazingly dexterous wavelength, these films represent nirvana: a hit of pure aesthetic cocaine.”–Chuck Bowen, Slant (DVD series release)

287. L’INHUMAINE [THE INHUMAN WOMAN] (1924)

“At each screening, spectators insulted each other, and there were as many frenzied partisans of the film as there were furious opponents. It was amid genuine uproar that, at every performance, there passed across the screen the multicoloured and syncopated images with which the film ends. Women, with hats askew, demanded their money back; men, with their faces screwed up, tumbled out on to the pavement where sometimes fist-fights continued.”–Jaque Catelain, in his biography of Maurice L’Herbier

Recommended

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Georgette Leblanc, Jaque Catelain, Philippe Hériat

PLOT: Claire Lescot, a celebrity opera singer, hosts a soirée at her modernist mansion for her many male admirers and suitors. Among these is the young engineer Einar, whom she toys with and eventually scorns. When Einar commits suicide, it causes a scandal and Claire is castigated for her callousness; but is there more to his mysterious death than meets the eye?

Still from L'inhumaine (1924)

BACKGROUND:

  • Maurice L’Herbier started his career as a writer; his fascination for cinema partly developed when he was assigned to the French Army’s Cinematographic Service, where it was his job to document the horrors of WWI.
  • Star Georgette Leblanc, an opera singer, put up 50% of the production cost. L’Herbier offered her a script which she deemed too noncommercial, and he had it rewritten according to her suggestions.
  • The production design was divided among several leading international avant-garde artists, each of whom was responsible for creating a different set. These artists were all featured in the influential 1925 Exhibition of Decorative and Industrial Modern Art, for which L’Herbier was also a member of the jury.
  • Extras in the 2,000-strong audience that boos Claire included Pablo Picasso, Erik Satie, James Joyce, and Ezra Pound. To set the mood, dissonant composer George Antheil played piano as the opening act.
  • The original score by Darius Milhaud is lost, although he may have recycled some of the themes for use in later compositions.
  • As was typical for avant-garde performances of the period, fights erupted at the screening.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: There are so many crazed sets to choose from—Claire’s dining room isthmus, her spiky green “winter garden,”  Einar’s disorienting Cubist laboratory—that we were totally confounded at picking just one. Fortunately, we can go with a bizarre costuming choice instead: the masked butlers in short pants with smiles (literally) plastered on their faces.

THREE WEIRD THINGS: Perma-grin waiters; backwards television; riotous resurrection montage

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Too weird for 1924, when screenings prompted fistfights between its few admirers and its many detractors, this interbellum mashup of silent melodrama, heedlessly optimistic science fiction, and bizarre set design is even more singular when viewed through contemporary eyes. This is a case where a film’s advanced age enhances its weirdness—but when watching it you’ll think that it came from not just another time, but another planet.


Blu-ray trailer forL’Inhumaine

COMMENTS: It’s fitting that L’Inhumaine stars an opera star (playing Continue reading 287. L’INHUMAINE [THE INHUMAN WOMAN] (1924)

LIST CANDIDATE: IDAHO TRANSFER (1973)

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: , Kelly Bohanon, Kevin Hearst, Caroline Hildebrand

PLOT: A group of time-traveling teens visit the near-future and discover that an apocalypse will wipe out most of humanity.

Still from Idaho Transfer (1973)

WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: On the surface, this isn’t a very weird movie, just a plain low-budget, but imaginative, SF time-travel-thriller. But upon a deeper viewing, I had to consider what a unique little piece it is. With nothing to point to for a signature weird scene, the film still has an unmatched atmosphere that’s tense and casual at the same time. It has far too much salt to be called ordinary.

COMMENTS: Idaho Transfer is just the kind of movie that hack TV Guide reviewers used to describe as “low-budget yarn,” but at the same time it uses its budget extremely resourcefully to drive an ambitious hard science fiction story. It just misses being the Primer of its day, which is pretty impressive given that the director’s primary motive in making it was apparently to get young women to take off their pants. The sets have the barren Idaho back-country for exteriors and some anonymous office building for interiors; add thrift-store props and lukewarm young actors and stir. Yet it all works amazingly! While the film is unmistakably a product of the 1970s, the sparse details give it a timeless quality. The understated production ends up feeling realistic, while the low budget makes for some quirky choices that add character. A dentist with a Frankenstein poster on the wall? Sure, he’s a fan, wanna make something of it?

With the training of a new time travel recruit making for handy exposition, we learn that the “present” for these young people is just before an unknown apocalyptic event that seems to wipe out all humans. These researchers time travel to just after the event to try to figure out what happens. They have to be young, because it turns out time travel kills you if you do it when you’re too old, and they also have to strip off the heavy items so their clothes don’t merge with their bodies. They’re doing this research “under the table,” as their government sponsors don’t know they have time travel on their hands; students prefer to keep it that way until they find out the answers of their own. Since this technology was halfway discovered by accident, it makes sense that the time travel machine is a poor one with quirks.

At the same time, the pauper production gives the story a bleak, but wistful, tone. Two of our adventurers give a hitchhiking couple a ride. When they describe themselves as “gypsies without a care in the world,” both time travelers cringe under the burden of their knowledge of the future. Later they have a conversation about the opportunity they had to kidnap this couple and bring them into the future as breeding stock. Hopping back and forth between present and future does take its toll on this ragtag project, as even one little accident can set off a chain of events where the young people are quickly in over their heads, making difficult decisions with little preparation. When the project gets shut down by its unwitting government sponsors, the adventurers have to grab what supplies they can and escape to the future, and now they have a camp in the middle of a godforsaken wasteland with sparse supplies and even less margin for error.

“Swiftian” is how a few reviews sum up the result. As more accidental discoveries pile up and more events unfold, there’s a stark question as to whether this fragile conclave of humanity can survive. On an exploration party, two of our heroes are amused to find an abandoned car with the keys inside, but when they also discover children’s toys in the back seat it hits them all over again what was lost, souring the mood. Moments like this chase the story as the grim reality of being the only surviving hope for humanity catches up to our band of explorers, until the dizzying ending. Surprisingly for its claustrophobic setting, it never stays still for very long and manages to raise some existential, grim, and even sardonic questions along the way. Whether or not humanity survives becomes a less important question than: should we?

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…Braden has developed a method of time travel physically possible only for youth: ‘Something to do with the kidneys,’ Isa explains. ‘It’s curtains for anyone much over twenty to try it.’ This Logan’s Run-esque twist is one of the stranger details (along with the necessity of removing one’s pants but not, apparently, shirt or underwear before traveling through time) in a stark, eccentric script by Thomas Matthiesen that Fonda milks for its maximum load of post-60s comedown dread.”–Evan Kindley, “Not Coming to a Theater Near You” (VHS)

Peter Fonda Idaho Transfer interview (spoilers):

ALFRED EAKER VS. THE SUMMER BLOCKBUSTERS: ALIEN: COVENANT (2017)

Forty years after his superb 1977 début with The Duelists, has proven, more often than not, to be an engaging filmmaker. At nearly 80 years of age, he remains a provocative dinosaur from the school of ambitious science fiction, a genre he excels in, but has only worked in sporadically. Along with the late , Scott does it better than anyone—arguably, even better than Kubrick. It’s often forgotten today, but upon its première, Alien (1979) was criticized by some as a jazzed-up variation of the gorilla in a haunted house. Those trappings were deceptive. If Alien were only that, it would hardly have come to be considered a science fiction/horror yardstick. The same could be said for 1982’s Blade Runner, which was initially a critical and box office flop, but became a cult phenomenon. When Scott belatedly returned to the Alien franchise, he produced the sublime and startling Prometheus. It proved to have too many unresolved mysteries, was too aesthetic, too peculiar, too cerebral, and too resourceful to be the fix that the formula craving audience desired. With Alien: Covenant, he delivers a hybrid: a sequel of sorts to Prometheus, and a vague segue into Alien. It’s a summer blockbuster that, coming from Scott, is something more. As can already be seen by its modest American opening and outraged reactions spewed by those who prefer their sci-fi unchallenging, Covenant is not going to please face-hugger followers. And unless it does well overseas, the likelihood of another Scott-helmed Alien seems a stretch. Although that is almost predictable, it’s also unfortunate.

Posyer for Alien: Covenant (2017)Paradoxically, Covenant contains some of Scott’s most assured filmmaking along with his roughest. Beautifully filmed, filled to the brim with surprises, drawn out, disheveled in sections, and sporting what, on the surface, appear to be derivative fan-appeasing choices, it, along with the 1979 original and Prometheus, make up Scott’s standout Alien trilogy. These are far superior to any of the sequels made by others, including the action-oriented Alien-Rambo crowd-pleaser from James Cameron. Although Aliens is a memorably punchy film with etched-in-stone performances by Sigourney Weaver, the shiny beast (courtesy H.R. Geiger), and Bill Paxton, Cameron unwittingly gifted Continue reading ALFRED EAKER VS. THE SUMMER BLOCKBUSTERS: ALIEN: COVENANT (2017)

285. DEAD LEAVES (2003)

“A guy with a TV for a head and a girl with a panda-like mark on her face find themselves naked on Earth with no recollection of how they got there. After attempting to violently acquire food and clothes, they get arrested and sent to the Lunar prison Dead Leaves… and things get weirder from there.”–Dead Leaves synopsis from the listicle “15 Bizarre Anime That Make You Wonder ‘Wtf Did I Just Watch?’

DIRECTED BY: Hiroyuki Imaishi

FEATURING: Voices of Takako Honda, Kappei Yamaguchi, Amanda Winn Lee (English dub), Jason Lee (English dub)

PLOT: Pandy, a woman with mismatched eyes, and Retro, a man with a television for a head, awaken naked with no memories and immediately go on a crime spree. Quickly arrested, they are sent to Dead Leaves, a prison housed on what remained of the crumbling moon, where they have sex and then arrange a prison break. Pandy grows pregnant and comes to term in a day, and faces a giant caterpillar monster with the help of her precocious newborn son.

Still from Dead Leaves (2003)

BACKGROUND:

  • The directorial debut of Hiroyuki Imaishi, who had worked as an artist on many animes, including the TV version of “Neon Genesis Evangelion” and it’s bizarre theatrical incarnation.
  • Released as an OVA (original video animation, a common direct-to-video release strategy in Japan).
  • Dead Leaves was made with the American and European secondary markets in mind. The English dub was made contemporaneously with the Japanese version.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: Dead Leaves‘ images, while carefully painted, streak by almost too fast for the eye to register, leaving an impression of havoc rather than focusing on particular images. Since the main characters—especially monitor-faced Retro—appear most often, it’s their faces that stick most in the memory.

THREE WEIRD THINGS: TV-headed Retro-reprobate; penis drill; inexplicable psychedelic caterpillar

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Dead Leaves moves so fast and makes so little sense that it’s the equivalent of putting an ultraviolent manga in a high-speed blender and trying to read it while the pieces swirl around. The plot is nearly incomprehensible, but somehow involves mutant clones and a psychedelic caterpillar. Weird? Hell yes. Recommended? Well, definitely not to epileptics. Even for older folks with a healthy neurobiology, the breakneck pacing is as likely to induce a headache as an adrenaline rush. It’s definitely one-of-a-kind, though, and as an experiment in compressing as much berserk and illogical anime flavor as possible into as short a running time as possible, it’s worth a look.


Short clip from Dead Leaves

COMMENTS: Although the director advised the audience at Dead Continue reading 285. DEAD LEAVES (2003)

1978 EXPLOITATION TRIPLE FEATURE, PART ONE: THE BOYS FROM BRAZIL AND THE FURY

We open 1978 with a double feature of also-rans from the nunsploitation subgenre. It appears the not-so-good sisters unwittingly blessed the exploitation/horror/science fiction genres, because the year is chock-full of titles that cleaned up at the box office.

The Sins of Sister Lucia (directed by Koyu Ohara) isn’t boring with its ramped-up sleaze and nudity, but it’s also derivative of every nunspolitation feature made, without a single surprise. It was a hit in Japan where the genre was gold.

Behind Convent Walls (directed by ) manages to be a dull affair, even with bestiality thrown in.

 Zombies go to the mall in Dawn of the Dead, ‘s belated sequel to Night of the Living Dead (1968). It was a huge critical and commercial success, with the late Roger Ebert proclaiming it one of the greatest horror films ever made. Unnerving and well-crafted, it still can’t match the original, and Romero topped it this year with his masterpiece (below). remade DotD in 2004. Not surprisingly, it’s a piece of crap.

‘s Halloween became the most successful independent film up to its time, setting the mold for American slasher films, and consequently having much to answer for. It’s supremely well-crafted and still holds up far better than the bulk of its offshoots and pseudo-sequels. Doc Loomis () warns of the evil known as Michael Myers, who escapes the asylum and steals a mask, guaranteeing a visceral Halloween night for Laurie (Jamie Lee Curtis, who became the modern scream queen, as her mother, Janet Leigh had been for Psycho). Carpenter’s handling of the violence is near perfect, but the supernatural ending is a curious misstep.

The Toolbox Murders (directed by Dennis Donnelly) has a cult reputation as being one of the sleaziest and grittiest low-budget films ever made. It stars and earns its rep.

Don Siegel’s orginal Invasion of the Body Snatchers is an undisputed genre classic and one of the best films of the Fifties, which makes Philip Kauffman’s kinetic 1978 version all the more surprising, because it’s equally superb and excitingly expands on and reinvents the original. , Brooke Adams, Veronica Cartwright, , and Leonard Nimoy do exceptional work. Don Siegel, Kevin McCarthy, and Robert Duvall have memorably chilling cameos in a film that puts contemporary horror to shame. This was the second of four adaptations of Jack Finney’s novella. The Body Snatchers (1993, directed by ) is a successful further variation, but The Invasion (2007) was one visit too many.

Take a big director, a big author (Ira Levin), and a couple of big stars, put them in a big budget Hollywood production of a popular exploitation genre () and show those indie filmmakers how to do it. The result is the laughably ludicrous The Boys from Brazil. Director Franklin J. Schaffner is wrong for the material, but he’s not as wrongheaded as playing mad Nazi Dr. Josef Mengele. At the time, the whereabouts of the Auschwitz Angel of Death was unknown, which opened a path for much paranoid speculation that went both ways. Continue reading 1978 EXPLOITATION TRIPLE FEATURE, PART ONE: THE BOYS FROM BRAZIL AND THE FURY

CAPSULE: GHOST IN THE SHELL (2017)

DIRECTED BY: Rupert Sanders

FEATURING: Scarlett Johansson, , Pilou Asbæk,

PLOT: While tracking down a terrorist, a cyborg cop discovers that her target may be connected to her own mysterious past.

Still from Ghost in the Shell (2017)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Ghost in the Shell paints a vivid and sometimes disturbing vision of a future where power is consolidated in a handful of corporations and people are in thrall to robotics and body modifications. Some of the ideas remain surprising and unusual, but many more have been disseminated far and wide, leaving the story’s innovations dated and even tedious.

COMMENTS: The problem with being an innovator is that when others use and expand upon your innovations, you end up looking like you’re late to the party. Such is the position that Ghost in the Shell finds itself in; coming years after the original manga comic and a celebrated animé adaptation (which this reviewer has neither read nor seen), the new live-action film has to prove itself in a landscape that it has already influenced extensively. The result is that Ghost in the Shell, a slick-looking dystopian film interested in the loss of identity, is in the awkward position of being derivative of itself. The ad-dominated skyline of a neo-Hong Kong megalopolis is taken directly from Blade Runner. The visualization of the world as a wilderness of code references The Matrix. The incomplete android woman seems to shout-out Ex Machina. There are images that shock and amuse: a geisha robot who assumes the pose of a spider, a pair of flip-up eyes, an elaborate assembly line for building a humanoid robot shell. But too much of the film, while spectacularly realized, has a been-there, done-that vibe.

That puts a lot of weight on the shoulders of Scarlett Johansson, and she is a strong enough actress to pull off the internalized torment of a character who is intentionally devoid of personality. Considering the collection of archetypes she’s acting opposite (the loyal partner, the duplicitous maternal figure, the absurdly cartoonish villain who actually utters the line, “that’s the problem with the human heart”), she manages to make a real person out of a  cypher who could easily have been little more than an ass-kicking sex object. However, given her previous turns as an alien attempting to decipher humanity, an operating system achieving sentience, and a party girl coming to grips with the untapped reaches of her own mind , it’s fair to argue that Johansson, like the movie she’s in, is revisiting old themes.

But it is impossible to talk about the actress without discussing the elephant in the room: based on the source material, her role is an Asian woman, which she is decidedly not. The whitewashing accusation is clearly an issue that resonates; the studio now admits that the controversy may have negatively impacted box office returns. It’s not clear-cut: Johansson’s performance does a lot to justify the studio’s trust in her, the history of race in manga is deeply complex, and fans in the story’s native Japan were completely nonplussed by the furor. Indeed, the new film itself stands as a kind of monument to the internationalization of Hollywood product. From the studios (American, Chinese) to the locations (Hong Kong, New Zealand) to the cast (American, Japanese, Danish, British, Singaporean, French, Romanian, Australian, Kurdish-Polish), Ghost in the Shell is aggressively global.

All this would be easier to dismiss if the adapters hadn’t written the controversy directly into the script. In this telling of the tale, the brain that is transferred into Johansson’s android body turns out to be that of a young Japanese woman. This makes the loss of identity palpable, in that this consciousness is transplanted with no respect to its sense of self, but that tragedy is terribly trivialized if you view the filmmakers as having done the same thing. The choice—whether through total cluelessness or extreme chutzpah—is a mortal blow to the story’s credibility.

Ultimately, the casting of Johansson just another example of the filmmakers trying to have it all. Her character is divorced from humanity, yet repeatedly sexualized. (In particular, in the wake of a bomb blast, the damage all seems to located primarily at her chest and genitals, meaning we are staring in the general vicinity of Johansson’s privates as a team of 3D printers reassemble her body.) It wants to be an action thriller with a brain, but the exploration of identity is entirely surface-level, while the action is perfunctory and punctuated by one-liners that fall flat. Beyond “let’s make a live-action version of Ghost in the Shell,” there’s not much of a reason for this movie, no greater vision. Since it doesn’t know what else it wants to be, it ends up being not very much at all.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Visually, this film is stunning. The cinematography is beautiful, with some very innovative shots and framing, really making the most of this fictional future Japan’s shiny weirdness…  It could have been better if more care had been taken with the human side of things though: a bit more focus on the ghost, a bit less attention to the shell, if you like.” – Tim Martain, The Mercury (contemporaneous)

276. THE MAN WHO FELL TO EARTH (1976)

“I have no idea what that was about. Was it about alcoholism? Was it about corporate realities? Was it about sex? Was it about nothing?” –P.C. Clair

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: , Candy Clark, , Buck Henry, Bernie Casey

PLOT: In a desperate bid to mitigate a drought back on his home planet, a humanoid alien is sent to Earth: “The Planet of Water,” in his people’s language. Adopting the name Thomas Newton, he sets about establishing a technology company, World Enterprises, to fund his mission and design a vessel to allow his return. During his stay on Earth, the combined distractions of a young woman and alcohol (an even greater love) nearly break him, and he feels forced to hasten his decampment.

Still from The Man Who Fell to Earth (1976)

BACKGROUND:

  • The screenplay was based on Walter Tevis’ 1963 novel of the same name.
  • The unfortunate mix of cocaine abuse and emotional detachment that overwhelmed Bowie during and after the filming meant that the actor/singer’s planned soundtrack for the film never came into fruition. John Phillips (of The Mamas and the Papas fame) was pulled in last minute to create the soundtrack before the premier.
  • Candy Clark played both Newton’s lover, Mary-Lou, and his wife on his home world. In a small turn for a third “role”, she appeared as Thomas Newton himself during a brief scene — exiting the World Trade Center—when Bowie himself was unavailable.
  • Wanting a “big name” for the lead, the movie’s backers were pushing for Robert Redford to play Newton. Fate–and budget restrictions—fortunately got in the way.
  • The U.S. distributor cut about twenty to thirty minutes out of the film, making it more confusing than the (already challenging) director’s cut, and leading to some bad initial reviews.
  • In 1987 the same story was adapted less successfully for a television movie starring the undistinguished Lewis Smith.
  • In 2015, in one of his last creative works, Bowie co-wrote “Lazarus,” a musical based on The Man Who Fell to Earth; one theater critic wrote that “What they have created makes perilously little sense,” but “it’s nearly impossible not to be persuaded and baffled and at least a little thrilled.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: In a David Bowie 1970s cult science-fiction movie directed by Nicolas Roeg, one expects to find a lot of shots that are “indelible.” However, the most memorable (and distressing) occurs when we find Thomas Newton in his media room. Beginning with a creepy stare and a rictus smile, he gazes at a bank of televisions all wired together to a remote on his viewing throne. His mania and desperation break through the audio-visual spasms pouring from the cathode ray screens as he begins shouting, “leave me alone!”

THREE WEIRD THINGS: Never enough televisions ; glitter-helmet assassins ; I see the past and it sees me

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Without David Bowie’s presence, this movie would still make the “Certified” cut— but much less readily. The ambiguity of the narrative, boldness of the visual style, and abstruseness of the soundscape all work together to form a solidly weird experience. David Bowie acts, as it were, like the prodigious amount of frosting on this weird layer cake. Depending upon your view, Bowie was very good at acting like someone who’s an alien— or maybe didn’t need to “act” at all.


Original trailer for The Man Who Fell to Earth (1976)

COMMENTS: What would the people of Earth do with a space visitor? How would the traveler cope? When faced with an unrelenting Continue reading 276. THE MAN WHO FELL TO EARTH (1976)