Tag Archives: Science Fiction

CAPSULE: MYSTERY SCIENCE THEATER 3000: THE MOVIE (1996)

DIRECTED BY: Jim Mallon

FEATURING: Mike Nelson, Trace Beaulieu, Kevin Murphy

PLOT:  In this feature film from the cult TV show, a man and his two robot companions are trapped in space, forced by mad scientist Dr. Forrester to watch some of the worst movies of all time with only their own witty comments to distract them from the onslaught of ineptitude; in this experiment, they tackle the not-so-bad sci-fi film This Island Earth, in which aliens with bulging craniums kidnap Earth scientists in hopes of rescuing their home planet.

mystery_science_theater_3000_the_movie

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST:  “Mystery Science Theater 3000” (MST3K for short) was a fun, hip little cable TV show that ran from 1988 to 1999 wherein a man and his robots provided a humorous running commentary on old B-movies (many, like Horrors of Spider Island, of the so-bad-it’s-weird variety).  Although the concept sounds strange, the smart and often very obscure pop-culture and other references that became the show’s comic staple made it more nerdy (in the complimentary sense) than weird in execution.  Most of the movies featured were dull and incompetent rather than bizarre, and when they got their hands on something truly deranged (like The Wild World of Batwoman) the derision heaped on it by the commentators brought the absurdity to the surface and defused it.  Not that this was a bad thing; it’s a devilishly funny exercise, if you’re tuned into the show’s arch sense of humor, but it’s not weird.

COMMENTSMystery Science Theater: The Movie is essentially “MST3K for Dummies.”  It’s a nice lightweight litmus test for neophytes to see if they enjoy the style of humor on display and wish to penetrate deeper into the MST3K corpus (many original episodes are currently released on DVD; the double-disc The Essentials, featuring Manos: The Hands of Fate and Santa Claus Versus the Martians, is probably the best place to start). Distributors Gramercy Pictures were concerned that the “riffing” style of the TV show, which was filled with esoterica and in-jokes, might alienate newcomers to the series.  Therefore, no references to Kierkegard, Bud Powell or “The Courtship of Eddie’s Father” make it into The Movie.  For the most part, Mike, Crow and Tom confine their wisecracks to literal commentary about what’s onscreen: when a mutant hoves into frame, Mike astutely observes that he appears to be wearing slacks, while Tom and Crow quip that the matte painting depicting the alien landscape looks like the planet was designed either by Dr. Seuss or by someone painting a Yes album cover.  The wisecracks come at the show’s typical breakneck pace, averaging perhaps three or four a minute, so there’s probably something here to tickle everyone’s funnybone. Still, the writers seem slightly out of their element in this outing: some of the bits seem too carefully scripted, and they grind out a couple of sex jokes and four letter words just to keep the film from getting a dreaded “G” rating.  After test audiences unfamiliar with the show squirmed a bit at its length, the entire movie (“host sequences” and all) was cut to a mere 75 minutes at Gramercy’s insistence: by comparison, an average episode of the TV series averaged 90 minutes and the unedited (and more coherent) version of This Island Earth ran 86 minutes! [UPDATE 9/3/2013: Shout! Factory’s 2013 release includes the deleted scenes as extras, along with an alternate ending]..

A lot of the critical and fan debate at the time of release revolved around the selection of This Island Earth as the feature film to be mocked.  This Island Earth was well-reviewed on its original release, and although the special effects are far from cutting edge today, many still consider it a minor gem.  It’s neither one of the worst of all time nor any sort of real classic, but it isn’t half bad, a fact which the cast seems to acknowledge when the evil Dr. Forrester checks in at the end to see if the movie has broken Mike’s will and finds his unfazed guinea pig and the ‘bots throwing a “Metaluna mixer” instead.  Despite it’s lack of acute badness (truly taxing schlock would have really alienated test audiences), the sci-fi potboiler was a reasonable choice for this particular venture.  There’s a scientific naïveté to the film that lends itself to gentle mockery (“increase the Flash Gordon noise and put more science stuff around,” advises Crow at one point). More importantly, although the big-headed aliens, flying saucers and mutants with exposed brains look silly today, This Island Earth is still a beautiful looking Technicolor film, with its majestic, unreal pale-blue meteorite explosions and gleaming Space Age gizmos. Looking at the film today is like looking at well-crafted vintage comic book panels from the 1950s, and the visual inventiveness of the film provides a constantly pleasant backdrop to gaze at whenever neither the film’s plot nor the ‘bots quips are quite clicking. A few established critics seemed to accept the movie’s premise that This Island Earth was one of the worst films ever made.  In the context of its time, it’s no worse than the brainless sci-fi thrills of Independence Day were to 1996 audiences, and it’s easily miles above Gramercy’s other big release of the year, the Pamela Anderson misfire Barb Wire.  One wonders what the critics who thought This Island Earth was worthy of such derision would have made of some of the TV show’s more daring experiments in cinematic dreck, such as Monster a Go-Go or Manos?

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“The idea behind what must surely be among the most extreme examples of TV post-modernism is as warped as the concept of a robot made of junk parts observing bad sci-fi and critiquing his man-made relatives…  ‘This Island Earth’ is so bizarrely bad that it’s utterly remarkable. When the comments from Nelson and the robots fall flat, the movie’s own wretchedness takes over.”–Barry Walters, San Francisco Examiner (contemporaneous)

9. HELP! HELP! THE GLOBOLINKS [HILFE! HILFE! DIE GLOBOLINKS] (1969)

“Headmasters never sing!” –line sung by the headmaster in Help!  Help!  The Globolinks

DIRECTED BY:  Joachim Hess, from a production of composer/librettist Giancarlo Menotti

FEATURING:  The Hamburg State Opera

PLOT:  In this children’s opera, the world has been invaded by bizarre alien creatures named Globolinks, who are allergic to music.   A bus full of children returning to boarding school breaks down in the middle of a lonely forest, and the students are surrounded by the alien creatures.  Meanwhile, back at the school, the headmaster is infected by one of the aliens, meaning that he will soon turn into a Globolink himself.

globolinks

BACKGROUND:

  • Gian Carlo Menotti, the author of Help! Help! The Globolinks, was a well respected, Pulitzer Prize winning composer.  His most popular work is the Christmas opera Amahl and the Night Visitors, which was commissioned specifically to launch the “Hallmark Hall of Fame” television series, and which was shown annually in the United States on television during the Christmas season from 1951-1966.
  • Help!  Help!  The Globolinks, by contrast, was a flop and is rarely performed.  It is usually only mentioned in complete biographies of Menotti.
  • Menotti was a pioneer in adapting opera for telecast, and the film version of Help!  Help!  The Globolinks was originally shown on German television in 1968.

INDELIBLE IMAGE:  No doubt, it’s the Globolinks themselves (pictured above), who come in two varieties: one that looks like a wriggling rook from a chess set, and one that looks like an avant-garde ballerina dressed in a full-body dayglo bungee-jumping suit.

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD:  A children’s opera about music-loathing aliens is

3 minute clip for Help! Help! The Globolinks courtesy of Naxos (English subtitles available on DVD)

Continue reading 9. HELP! HELP! THE GLOBOLINKS [HILFE! HILFE! DIE GLOBOLINKS] (1969)

CAPSULE: CUBE ZERO (2004)

DIRECTED BY: Ernie Barbarash

FEATURING: Zachary Bennet, Stephanie Moore, Michael Riley

PLOT:  Audiences return to the cube from Cube in this prequel, only this time

cube_zero

we see the diabolical prison from the vantage point of its bureaucratic overseers as well as the poor souls trapped inside.

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST:  While the first Cube sequel (Cube 2: Hypercube) tried unsuccessfully to ratchet up the weirdness factor by throwing in more effects and a hyperbolic, reality-twisting plot, Cube Zero instead chooses to focus on a standard rescue narrative.  It also purports to answer (although unrealistically) pretty much every question one might have as to the cube’s design or purpose, thus completely exorcising the mysterious atmosphere of the original and leaving nothing left to be said or done in the Cube universe.

COMMENTS:  Unlike its predecessors, which showed b-movie influences but had higher aspirations, Cube Zero is an unapologetic action/sci-fi vehicle.  The paranoia of the previous entries only arises sporadically: once when drone Wynn asks a co-worker about his memories, and once in a highly effective scene that poses a surprisingly literal theological question.  Otherwise, the movie is more interested in the cube’s traps, imbuing them with gleefully gory capabilities (in an early scene, a victim startlingly dissolves into a pile of gooey grue before our eyes).  Add to this formula a cartoonish villain in the person of Jax, who sports not only a cane and an ironically genteel cadence but also a glittering metal implant where his eye once was, and you get an effective (if standard issue) b-movie, but a highly ineffective weird movie.

Some Cube fans (who apparently missed the major point of the movie) yearned for answers to the riddle of the Cube’s existence.  They finally got them with this installment.  Unfortunately, since these revelations destroy the fragile mystery and deliberate ambiguity that made Cube special, Cube Zero probably deals a fatal blow to the franchise.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“… if you enjoyed the last two ‘Cube’ movies, then you’ll feel right at home. True, there’s nothing overly original in ‘Cube Zero’… [although the] movie does offer a lot of answers, there’s that unshakeable sense of [deja] vu. Introducing Wynn and the other operators marks the sequel’s best decision, but adding the wacky Jax and his two black suited underlings takes away some of the film’s gloomy disposition and makes ‘Cube Zero’ something of a comedy, with a lot of ‘Brazil’-esque kooky bits and set scenery that seems to exist for the singular purpose of being kooky.” —Beyond Hollywood

CAPSULE: CUBE 2: HYPERCUBE (2002)

DIRECTED BY: Andrzej Sekula

FEATURING: Kari Matchett

PLOT: Just as in the 1997 surprise hit, eight strangers wake up stripped of

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their memories in a mysterious, deadly cube composed of indistinguishable rooms–but this second generation “hypercube” has some new tricks to play on its captives.

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LISTCube 2: Hypercube can get pretty weird, especially when the film throws in gratuitous alternate realities in an attempt to up the original Cube‘s ante.  The sequel also does a fair-to-middling job of recreating the atmosphere of paranoia and existential anxiety from the original.  The first movie is a classic, but if there is to be room for more than one Cube movie on the list of 366, Hypercube needs to take the series in a startling, original new direction.  This, it fails to do; the sequel merely attempts to provide this audience more of what they loved about the first movie.  It can’t possibly achieve this feat, however, because what people loved about the original was it’s originality: the shock and surprise of finding a low-budget independent science fiction gem that was thoughtful, exciting, and weird.

COMMENTSCube 2: Hypercube is of interest mainly to fans of the original who want to revisit the cube and hope only for a few new twists.  The CGI special effects are mildly upgraded, and the cube has a new gleaming white color scheme, which may make some happy.  One of the things that made the original so exhilarating, however, was the varying reactions of characters to the predicament of being trapped inside the bizarre structure: some fight to survive, some give up hope, some become paranoid and suspect their fellow travelers know something about the cube and are trying to deceive them, some simply go mad.  The way the trapped inmates bounced off one another made Cube at times seem more like a character-centered play rather than an effects-centered movie.  Although Cube 2 tires to recapture this interplay, wooden acting from several of the leads frustrates the attempt.

Cube 2: Hypercube also stumbles when it takes baby steps towards trying to explain why the cube exists.  In the original, although the structure exhibited signs of order that suggested a diabolical intelligence behind it, there was no unambiguous hint to its origin or purpose; this made the cube a powerful metaphor for brute existence.  While trying to recapture the ambiance of the first movie, Cube 2 deliberately takes steps towards demolishing its essence.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…Cube 2 is somewhat more gimmicky and certainly less conceptually neat than the first Cube was. There’s lot of fascinatingly weird happenings and these are all eventually given an explanation – alas not one that comes with the beautiful sense of a puzzle falling into place that we saw in the first film. The disparity can clearly be seen in comparing the story structure of the two – the first film has the logic of a detective story unfolding, whereas Cube 2 is merely a flight through a collapsing labyrinth.” –Richard Scheib, Moria: The Science Fiction, Horror and Fantasy Movie Review Site

8. DONNIE DARKO (2001)

Gretchen: “You’re weird.”

Donnie: “Sorry.”

Gretchen: “No, it was a compliment.”

Must See (Theatrical Cut)

-or-
Recommended (Director’s Cut)

DIRECTED BY: Richard Kelly

FEATURING: Jake Gyllenhaal, , Mary McDonnel, , Drew Barrymore, Kathryn Ross

PLOT:  Troubled teen Donnie sees visions of a six foot tall demonic bunny rabbit named Frank, who demands that he commit acts of vandalism in a sleepy suburban town in 1988.  Donnie narrowly escapes a freak accident when a jet engine crashes into his bedroom after Frank has awoken him and called him away.  Frank tells Donnie that the world will end in 28 days, on Halloween night, and Donnie attempts to figure out what he can do to save the world while simultaneously dealing with a new girlfriend, bullies, a motivational speaker he sees as a cult leader, and ever-escalating hallucinations.

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BACKGROUND:

  • This was the first feature film for writer/director Richard Kelly.
  • With Barrymore, Swayze and Ross attached, there was a tremendous buzz for the film going into the Sundance Festival.  The movie was not a hit at there, however, and was only picked up for limited theatrical distribution by Newmarket Films at the last moment.
  • Although Donnie Darko was initially a flop on its domestic release, a strong showing overseas helped it to nearly break even.  The film then became a cult hit on video, earning back more than double its production cost.
  • The director’s cut, containing about 20 minutes of extra footage and including pages from the fictional book “The Philosophy of Time Travel,”  was released in 2004.  It was controversial due to the added footage, which  caused some fans to complain that Kelly didn’t seem to understand his own movie.
  • Kelly created a website (now hosted at donniedarkofilm.com), which is structured like a puzzle.  Navigating the website can reveal supplemental material and backstory to the film.
  • Donnie Darko is one of the most talked about films on the Internet, with several competing fan sites and FAQ’s that attempt to clarify and explain the convoluted plot.
  • Followed by a poorly received direct-to-video sequel about Donnie’s sister called S. Darko (2009), which angered many fans.

INDELIBLE IMAGE:  Frank, the six-foot tall man dressed in a twisted, metallic bunny suit, who only Donnie can see.

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRDDonnie Darko at first appears to be a dizzying collision of genres, themes and ideas.  For the first few reels of the film, the audience can have no conception where the film is heading.  The director drops clues through these opening segments that appear at the time to be simply bizarre, but spark numerous “a-ha!” moments later, when incidents that seemed like throwaway moments or coincidences at the first glance turn out to make a sort of sense.  The identity of Frank, the demonic bunny, is the most thrillingly chilling such moment.  Donnie Darko creates a sense of wonder and mystery throughout its running time, and sparks hope and faith in the watcher that all will be made clear before the curtain drops.   It nests this expectancy inside a bed of genuine empathy for tormented Donnie and his colorful cast of supporting characters.  But perhaps the weirdest thing about Donnie Darko is that it asks us to take its plot at face value; it works very hard to try to convince us that what appear on the surface to be the hallucinations of a paranoid schizophrenic teenager are, in fact, real occurrences with a metaphysical explanation.

Original trailer for Donnie Darko

COMMENTS: Even putting the mindbending plot aside for a moment (we’ll come back to Continue reading 8. DONNIE DARKO (2001)