#TBT Classic Movie: The Iron Giant

For the return of #TBT Classic Movie reviews, we’re really going with more of a tossback, that fashions itself to be a throwback.  But even though it is relatively recent (1999), it was an instant classic.

Many of the best stories are ones that you want to hear again and again.  The Iron Giant doesn’t explore much new ground, but the story it tells is done better than most predecessors and imitators alike.  There’s a weird, lonely boy, raised by a single, hard-working mother.  He looks for friends everywhere, bringing home stray animals, until one night, he brings home a giant robot from outer-space.  Intrepid (and annoying) government man investigates reports of strange goings-on in the boy’s small town, eventually discovering the secret – and bringing the full power of the military down on an alien that poses no threat until cornered.  Climatic finish when the big government men find out they were wrong about the nature of the alien.

It has its wrinkles, but that’s the basic story.  From my own childhood, it’s E.T., or Pete’s Dragon.  It’s countless other movies that I can’t name because they don’t resonate like The Iron Giant.

The setting for the oft-told tale is Rockwell (as in Norman), Maine – as wholesome a place as you could hope to find, where you can get your apple pie at the diner where Hogarth’s mom earns her living.  The time is the 1950’s, shortly after the Sputnik launch, when American’s are leery of foreign powers.  A fisherman with a reputation for drunkenness is the first to see the Giant; he’s ridiculed while telling his story; only Dean, the town’s resident beatnik/artist/junkyard operator, stands up for the man, which cements the “crackpot” assessment.  The outcasts are one of the major themes of the movie, as Dean, Hogarth, and the Giant all struggle to find acceptance – and in that struggle, they find each other.

There’s a none-too-subtle critique of the (once and future) arms race that pops up midway through the movie.  While the Giant’s origin is never revealed, he is clearly some kind of defensive weapon – whenever he identifies a potentially threatening weapon, his robotic mood changes, and he attempts to destroy the threat.  You can imagine how well this goes over with the army and the intrepid (and annoying) government man; being all-too-human, they fail to appreciate their own threatening stance, and take the Giant’s defensive actions as an inherent threat – one which must be eliminated.

It’s in relation to this last point that the film makes its most endearing point.  Hogarth and the Giant both struggle with the Giant’s power, especially since neither appears aware of his origin; the struggle intensifies once the Giant becomes aggressive in his programmed defensive mode.  Midway through the film, as the relationship starts to turn from wonder to friendship, Hogarth and the Giant are together in the barn at Hogarth’s home, with Hogarth sharing his comic books with the robot.  Hogarth and the Giant both notice the resemblance of the Giant’s appearance to Atomo, a villain; but Hogarth believes the Giant is more like Superman, who uses his immense powers for good.  The Giant himself prefers to identify with Superman, even when Hogarth and the Giant are playing a form of Heroes and Villains in Dean’s junkyard.  In the film’s defining moments, the resounding message is that we draw our power to change the world by our ability to define ourselves, rather than allowing others to define us.

The Iron Giant is a rare movie that just does everything right.  Its classic appeal no doubt comes from its 1970’s style animation with a 1950’s setting – the heyday of animation for those of us who grew up on Ralph Bakshi and Rankin & Bass, set in the golden-era of science fiction.  The Cold War paranoia is deftly handled, both satirizing our unfounded fears of the time, but moralizing that we still rush to judgment in seeing threats where we have incomplete information.  But the messages and the moralizing just support a strong story, rather than overwhelm it.  This is a family movie that could have been made 25 years earlier but will still be relevant 25 years from now, and one that’s just so much fun to watch that you’ll enjoy it whether you’re watching it with your kids, your parents, your significant other – or just on your own.


Fantastic Friday Film Review: Fantastic 4 (2015)

I was actually excited about this movie when I first saw the trailer, but then . . . didn’t watch it. I was in a busy time in my life, both in work and personal matters. I was also swayed by reviews, one of which included the phrase “worst film of 2015”; well, I certainly wasn’t going to spend my hard-earned cash on that, was I? Wasn’t going to blow my money on buying it, and when it finally debuted on Showtime a couple months ago, it just never seemed urgent enough to figure out when it was on, then schedule my time around it. (I’ve been told about the wonders of DVR – and for some reason, I refuse to use it. I like streamining – Netflix, Hulu, Amazon Prime – but recording to watch when it’s convenient to me? If I can’t watch something when it’s on, I don’t need to watch it . . .)

Anyway, I was picking up a few things the Saturday after Thanksgiving, and saw the remnants of Walmart’s Black Friday super cheap movie deal – which included Fantastic 4, appropriately priced at the $4 tier (okay, $3.96). I was still procrastinating on my writing that day (or was I just setting myself up for a dramatic finish to NaNoWriMo?), so the movie I had never made time for got watched right away.

And I’m writing a review of a movie that’s not a throwback, not a classic – because while it is neither throwback nor classic, I feel like the “professionals” steered me wrong. And I know that 2015 was not such an amazing year for movies that this might have been considered the “worst” by comparison.

But I think comparison is the place to start – and where Fantastic 4 may have suffered, unfairly. Marvel has become a brand unto itself since the first Iron Man film came out – you can easily find sites which will help you figure out how the characters and stories weave in and out of almost all films since Iron Man, and we all know that we have to stay through the entire list of credits to see some 30-60 second teaser of what is to come in the Marvel-verse.

Fantastic 4 doesn’t play that game.

When I’ve read the Fantastic Four, there’s always something a little different about them from your regular superhero titles. They manner in which they got their super powers is part of the key to the whole “Fantastic Four” story – first and foremost, this is a group of adventurers. In the ill-fated first adventure, the group is genetically altered, giving them their super powers – those in the case of Ben Grimm, being labeled as “The Thing” is often as much curse as his super strength and near invulnerability are fantastic powers. But if their genetic alterations/mutations give them “fantastic” physical abilities, their true “powers” have nothing to do with their accident: Reed Richards/Mr. Fantastic is one of the world’s smartest people; Johnny Storm/Human Torch is fearless and bold, almost to the point of recklessness; Sue Storm/Invisible Woman is the emotional core of the group, keeping them all grounded; Ben Grimm/The Thing is unmatched in his loyalty to his friends, and his stone hard exterior protects a tender soul.

The 2005 version of the super family featured big stars, witty dialogue, spandex costumes – everything you would want in a standard superhero movie. It was pure entertainment, and while Jessica Alba would have had male audiences drooling as much in 1961 as she did in 2005, the story itself comes right out of the comic’s origin. The 2007 sequel, Rise of the Silver Surfer, felt a little more contemporary in its issues, but the characters stick with the standard, Silver Age camp. Good stuff, fun for the whole family, watch it comfortably with your kids – or your mom.

The 2015 reboot is a different animal. It’s grittier, an attempt to place people with super powers in our very real world. While the Baxter Foundation is clearly well funded (and run by a stereotypically creepy board of directors), the characters themselves are middle class geniuses, and even Franklin Storm’s children, Sue and Johnny, are there because of their abilities; even Victor von Doom, traditionally an Eastern European despot, is portrayed more as an underground hacker/scientist than any kind of aristocrat. Just “going into space” no longer excites the imagination as it must have in 1961, so the group is instead working on teleportation, and the group gains their super abilities in an accident on their return from another world.

What I liked about the story so much was that it wasn’t what we’ve come to expect from superhero movies – this is the Fantastic Four presented as a sci-fi story. Because of licensing, it doesn’t play with the ever-expanding Marvel Cinematic Universe; had Disney been in control of the production rather than 20th Century Fox, we would have certainly seen Tony Stark (or at least had some kind of congratulatory note from him), or Dr. Bruce Banner may have been consulted on some technical issue. Fantastic 4 doesn’t even feature the gratuitous cameo by Stan Lee (which is a little sad, since the group is one of his finest creations). You can’t do the Fantastic Four without getting into their physical powers, but this story puts the focus on the science: putting together the project team, building the project, adapting to the accident, trying to return to the alternate planet in hopes of reversing (or recreating) the conditions when the powers were obtained.

That’s not to say that this is a great movie – I just don’t think the “worst of the year” ratings are justified. The sci-fi focus makes it interesting, and it had the potential to be one of the better Marvel movies out there – but it wasn’t. The plot almost is forgetten in the attempt to set up the scene; by the time Victor comes back as “Doom,” there’s little time left to set up tension, and the film goes right into “final battle” mode. The film begins with the charming, if somewhat cheesy, young Reed Richards building a teleporter in his garage; it might have been a little better had they put a few more years between that opening scene and the main events of the story, as it felt a little forced to have a group of late teens working on teleportation (with Reed presumably learning it . . . how? The indictment of the public school science department makes it clear he learned little there); Miles Teller would have worked just as well in his mid- to late-20’s, and the story may have been a little more authentic – and could have developed a more mature relationship between Reed and Sue, which is hinted at, but like most of the “plot,” is unexplored. The creepy government exploitation angle at this point has almost become cliché, and pulled what plot there was away from the science fiction, and into the B-movie realm.

Fox had initially intended to do at least one more film in this series; based on this film, I would definitely be interested in seeing it, and with the “origin” out of the way, developing the plot in the sequel could actually redeem this movie. Another possibility – but an unlikely one, since it would be a “business” issue – would be to throw this into the Netflix realm. The gritty feel of this film matches what Netflix has done with Daredevil and Luke Cage, and with a limited season – 7-10 episodes – there would be plenty of room to explore the relationships between the characters, build tension with villains who might appear more grey than black and white. That kind of story telling might have saved this film from its fate – instead of the forced ending on “Planet X,” Victor could have escaped the government facility, and the tension could have been built up with Doom being a more tragic villain, and a finale that would do justice to one of Marvel’s flagship franchises.

Flashback Friday Classic Movie: Mars Attacks!

In my month long trek through the varieties of space visitors, we’ve seen visitors just visiting (Close Encounters of the Third Kind), visitors silently taking over (Invasion of the Body Snatchers), and visitors coming to save a humankind bent on its own destruction (The Day the Earth Stood Still). But for the finale, I just figured I’d go with the most classic scenario – the flat out assault on the Earth.

I considered Independence Day (the original, I can’t figure out who thought it was necessary to make the new one, and have avoided it successfully thus far). It captures everything that’s typical about an alien invasion blockbuster: the aliens suddenly appear, larger than life, humanity can’t figure out if this is an opportunity or a threat – until it is all too clear that the threat is present, and beings that can travel across the galaxy in ships the size of cities naturally have technology that the human race simply can’t match.

And that’s all well and good, but if I’m taking a “classic” from the 1990’s, it’s got to be Mars Attacks!

Mars Attacks! is technically an adaption – of a trading card set released by Topps in 1962. The look and feel of the movie is true to the cards, especially with the design of the aliens, as well as the aliens’ single-minded (or should that be mindless?) destruction of the Earth. From the little I know about the Comics Code Authority (CCA), I have to wonder if releasing the “story” as a card set sheltered Mars Attacks from the censorship more common in comic stories of the time; even without the censorship, some card designs were considered too gory – or too sexy – to be sold to kids, and the whole set was eventually pulled from the shelves. Today, the easiest way to get your hands on the set is to buy the commemorative book published by the Topps Company celebrating the 50th anniversary of the original set, which features the front and back of each card, including the censored cards, and later additions to the set.

Who but Tim Burton could turn a trading card set into a classic movie? I was unaware of the card set when I first saw the film, but I was aware of Tim Burton’s biopic of cult director Ed Wood, best known for producing what some (many?) consider the “worst movie of all-time,” Plan 9 from Outer Space. With that as a reference, my assumption was that Mars Attacks! was a sort of Ed Wood film perfectly realized, with the fleet of flying saucers converging on the Earth during the film’s opening credits, the “little green men” aliens who seem to have a complex language based on single syllable words, most resembling “aaakk!” in a sort of verbal Morse Code.

The story also progresses as a 1950’s sci-fi B-movie perfectly realized: scientists spot the alien fleet approaching the Earth, and the scientists and military men disagree on whether the aliens are opportunity or threat. The scientists (led by the chief White House science advisor, played by Pierce Brosnan) reason that a society would have to be highly advanced to engage in interplanetary travel, and an advanced civilization is certain to be a peaceful civilization. President Dale (Jack Nicholson) chooses the optimistic view of the scientists over the aggressive view of his military advisors.

First, the President decides to interrupt all television broadcast to address the nation about the Martian visitors; the President’s address is interrupted by the leader of the Martian fleet. A contact point is established in the Nevada desert; after an auspicious first contact, a spectator releases a dove – which appears to anger the Martians, who proceed to (ray) gun down the military and much of the media present to record first contact. Despite the carnage inflicted by the Martians, the President opts to view the incident as a cultural misunderstanding – and invites the Martian ambassador to address a joint session of Congress. After the Martians take out Congress, the President delivers my favorite line from the movie: “I want the people to know that they still have two out of three branches of the government working for them, and that ain’t bad!” Given the destruction that was to follow, he was right.

Humanity is outgunned by the Martians, but they underestimated our determination to defend our home planet. With our technology no match for the Martian ray guns, Byron Williams (Jim Brown), former heavyweight champ and current casino greeter, takes on the Martians mano-a-Martian. The Topps card series had no ending for the story, so Tim Burton (and writer Jonathan Gems) came up with a solution so bizarre, no one else could have come up with it.

The film works for me because it walks the fine line between tribute and parody. In some ways, it may have “worked” better without all the big stars – seeing Jack Black and Natalie Portman in early roles is fun because at that time, they would have just been actors to play their parts, unlike much of the rest of the movie, which has you constantly thinking, “It’s Jack Nicholson/Danny DeVito/Glenn Close/Pierce Brosnan/Jim Brown/Michael J. Fox/Sarah Jessica Parker/Pam Grier/Annette Benning!” (I’m leaving Tom Jones off the list, because if part of the movie is taking place in Las Vegas, of course Tom Jones should be there.) The stars have small roles, but not cameos; it may be the most impressive ensemble cast ever assembled. Incorporating that many stars sometimes distracts from the story, but it also makes the film feel like Hollywood’s love letter to the films of the 1950’s that paved the way for the blockbuster sci-fi special effects bonanzas we are treated to every summer.

Sunday Sci-Fi Cinema Classic: The Day the Earth Stood Still

As I continue my tour of alien visitation, I’m switching gears for the second part of my double feature, and looking at aliens who aren’t looking to invade the Earth, but instead hope to save the Earth. 1951’s The Day the Earth Stood Still is one of the early classics of the genre, a film that stood out from the B-movie classics we all love from that era, and had a larger message.

The Day the Earth Stood Still features many elements that would become cliché in the genre, but that doesn’t take away from the film at all; perhaps its early date makes the cliché more acceptable. The movie starts with a flying saucer descending on Washington D.C.; the alien, Klaatu, emerges from the interplanetary ship, declares that he comes in peace, produces a goodwill offering, and is promptly shot when the offering is mistaken for a weapon. Gort, Klaatu’s eight foot tall robot bodyguard, quickly disintegrates the guns, cannons, and tanks brought to greet the saucer – but does no harm to the soldiers.

Man’s aggression toward the alien actually fits the theme of the film: Klaatu is an ambassador to Earth to warn us that our aggressive nature is our own undoing – but our own affair – so long as it is limited to Earth, but as we gain the ability to travel to other planets, such aggression will not be tolerated in the interplanetary community. Since Klaatu lands in Washington, D.C., he is first taken to a naval hospital after he is shot, and visited by a secretary to the President; Klaatu requests to meet with “all world leaders” at once, which is resisted not only be the secretary (who prefers that Klaatu share his message with the American head of state), but also by the other world leaders, who can’t even agree on where a meeting would take place. (When Klaatu describes our international bickering as “childish,” it is hard to argue with his point.)

Realizing that talking to world leaders will not be the answer, he decides to try to the scientific/intellectual community, in hope that they will return to their leaders to urge them to change course. Klaatu “leaves his calling card” with Professor Barnhardt, a Nobel laureate and the smartest man in the world (at least, when Klaatu isn’t around): Klaatu easily leaves solutions on the professor’s chalkboard while he is out to a problem the professor has been working on “for weeks,” according to his housekeeper. Klaatu’s solution indeed gets the professor’s attention, and Klaatu (as “Mr. Carpenter,” his Earth alias) is taken to Professor Barnhardt later that night. Klaatu is able to convince the professor of the gravity of his mission, and his desire to help Earth; Professor Barnhardt agrees to summon the top intellectuals from around the world to meet with Klaatu.

Naturally, human nature gets in the way. Klaatu has befriended Bobby, son of Helen Benson, who live at the boarding house where Klaatu is staying; Helen’s boyfriend, Tom, initially motivated by jealousy, is distrustful of “Mr. Carpenter,” and feels his suspicions confirmed when Bobby tells his tales of trailing “Mr. Carpenter” on an evening excursion to the saucer. Tom further investigates the following day, as Klaatu explains his mission to Helen; Helen grasps the import of Klaatu’s mission, but Tom only can imagine the rewards and fame that would come to him by turning over Klaatu to the authorities.

“Shoot first” continues to be the official response, and Klaatu is gunned down in the street attempting to reach Professor Barnhardt; of course, you can’t assume that “death” is the same to an alien as to a human, and Gort rescues Klaatu from government custody so Klaatu can finally deliver his message before he leaves the planet. Klaatu artfully combines aspiration with ultimatum: in the person of Professor Barnhardt, Klaatu has seen reason in humanity, but he has had ample examples of man’s aggressive nature; if we choose not to deal with our own nature, we will be dealt with.

The original film is delightfully dated: my favorite moment would have to been when it’s reported that scientists believe the visitor is most likely from Mars or Venus, as those are the planets most capable of supporting life; I also love that the intrepid newscaster appears on screen wearing his fedora, the timeless badge of the determined male. For most of the actors involved, The Day the Earth Stood Still was the career highlight; Patricia Neal did later win an Oscar for Best Actress for her role in Paul Newman’s Hud, and director Robert Wise would later win Best Director/Best Picture Academy Awards for West Side Story and The Sound of Music, and made another significant contribution to the sci-fi genre as director of Star Trek: The Motion Picture. The film also features an excellent score by Hollywood legend Bernard Hermann.

While the original film is rightly regarded as one of the early sci-fi masterpieces, the 2008 remake probably is unjustly regarded as a disaster. It did bring in some bigger stars (Keanu Reeves as Klaatu, and Jennifer Connelly as Helen Benson, even John Cleese as Professor Barnhardt), and it did some revisions that will probably look as dated in 50 years as the original does today. But while I’m not a huge fan of remaking the same story time and again, I felt it worked in this case; and though the original is critically regarded as a classic, I doubt that it is sought out by any but the hardest core younger sci-fi fans. And the message is one that, sadly, needed to be updated and is worth trying to reach audiences today.

While there is still plenty of aggression in the world, director Scott Derrickson shifted the destructive theme to the environment, and does so in a poignant way: Klaatu’s message this time is that if man continues unchecked, he will destroy himself and all life on Earth; but if man is removed from the equation, the Earth may be saved. Gort’s role is also different: instead of acting as Klaatu’s bodyguard on a mission to warn the Earth, Gort is here to carry out the directive to destroy all traces of humanity once Klaatu confirms that humanity is beyond hope. While Barnhardt again starts to change Klaatu’s mind about humanity’s potential (“It is only when we are at the brink that we begin to change”), it is his evolving relationship with Helen and Jacob Benson (replacing Bobby, and played most annoyingly by Jaden Smith) that finally convinces him to call off the destruction of humankind.

Between the two, the remake has nothing on the original – but it’s a high bar trying to remake one of the most significant science fiction films made. I actually watched the remake first in preparing this review, and my first reaction to Keanu Reeves was that his manner seemed wooden and flat (which is sometimes his range), but after watching the original, I realized that this manner is appropriate for the “other” coming to observe and judge the people of a planet. Both versions are worth your time; The Day the Earth Stood Still is essential viewing, as it shows aliens coming to save the Earth, rather than conquer it.

Saturday Sci-Fi Cinema Classic: Invasion of the Body Snatchers

Sorry it’s been a couple weeks since my last review; last week I was under the weather, and this week, my old job demanded some attention.  To make it up, this weekend will feature a Double Feature, starting right now, and I’ll be back on Thursday to wrap up the September alien invasion . . .

You know how it is: once Hollywood finds an idea that works, it has to work again. And again. And, sometimes, yet again. Such is the tale of Invasion of the Body Snatchers (among others). It’s as if every 15-20 years, alien powers controlling Hollywood assume that a new generation of movie-goers will file into the theater and watch the same movie with different actors . . .

Invasion of the Body Snatchers was originally released in 1956, based on Jack Finney’s 1954 book The Body Snatchers (I haven’t read it); there were no enduring stars, but a few “that guy who was in that thing.” Of course, when you have a cult hit but no big stars, the appropriate thing to do is to remake it, which happened in 1978, this time starring Donald Sutherland, with Leonard Nimoy and Jeff Goldblum in supporting roles (and 1956 star Kevin McCarthy in a cameo).

Lest the public catch on that you’re repackaging the story too often, the name was shortened to simply Body Snatchers for a 1993 remake; this is the version I haven’t seen, which is not surprising given a box office under $500,000, though apparently the film received generally positive reviews. The most recent incarnation goes the opposite direction of Body Snatchers, and was simply titled The Invasion for a 2007 release featuring big stars Nicole Kidman and Daniel Craig.

Since we’re talking about a film that has been made, then remade three times, the basic plot is the same. There may be some foreshadowing incident during the opening credits that suggests (or flat out shows) how the alien infection reaches earth, but the real start of the action is when reports start coming in that a loved one “just isn’t himself.” Of course, the notion is simply dismissed by those who would have any authority to handle the problem – just acting strange is no reason for alarm, so the invasion continues to grow.

Some intrepid medical/scientific type puts together that this “not being oneself” corresponds to some kind of spore or biological pod – which is NOT OF THIS WORLD! Of course, this notion is nuts, and no one actually believes it. And, the invasion continues to grow.

The intrepid medical/scientific type continues to investigate the invasion. The onset seems to be sleep, so it is critical that the hero (or heroine) investigate without sleep, and that their faithful companion of the opposite gender do the same. They discover that the invasion is about to go world wide (or, in the most recent case – ALREADY IS!!!! BUM BUM BUUUUUMMMMM!!!!!). It all becomes very tense, as sleep deprivation combines with the growing knowledge of alien infiltration combines with the paranoia of wondering whether acquaintances and colleagues have “turned” – and whether they’ll learn that our hero (or heroine) hasn’t.

The original film – and to a large extent, the 1978 remake – is a film that has implications beyond the “mere” alien invasion. Released as the Cold War was heating up, it doesn’t take a lot of imagination to read a communist threat into the secret invasion – the threat cannot be seen, and only becomes physically threatening to those who would resist. Even then, the goal is not elimination, but assimilation. The pods replace the people, but the new “pod people” go on living their seemingly normal lives – but without emotion, without individualism. The horror of the situation isn’t aliens coming with destructive technology that can kill in an instant, but will take away the qualities, good and bad, that make us “who we are” – as we assumed was happening in Soviet Russia, or communist China. This was truly a fate worse than death.

The 2007 remake has its own messages. The premise is a little more believable – gone are the pods that mysteriously turn into the corresponding human (then somehow kills that human by draining his life force); a space shuttle crash spreads the alien spores across a wide area, and the spores, once inside the human host, act as a virus and takes over the human host. I suppose the premise makes a little more sense (though, does it really make sense that a virus would have a collective consciousness once it takes over its hosts?), but it seems to take something away from the simple sci-fi horror of the earlier films – “It’s the PODS! We have to destroy the PODS!” – and turns it into some kind of sci-fi/medical drama. Notably, it is the only of the Invasion films I watched that seems to have a definitive, “happy” ending: a few people are found who seem immune to the infection, and a vaccine is quickly developed which stops and reverses the infection. It does take away from that happy ending, though, as the news was filled with peace accords and cease-fires while the alien presence had taken over, and humanity reverts to, well, human nature once the “cure” is found. Of the three I watched, this is the one I would probably skip.

Invasion of the Body Snatchers is a film every sci-fi fan should see. The original is pretty well made, and has the charm of being better than your standard 1950’s B-movie fare, and some pretty decent acting and story telling. But if you’re only going to watch one version, I’d go with the 1978 remake. It’s definitely a product of the 1970’s, but I feel it best captures the darkness and horror of the story, with believable characters and a good blend of plot and action.

#TBT Classic Movies: Close Encounters of the Third Kind

I’m trying something a little different for September – a theme. For the next four weeks, I’ll be sharing my thoughts on classics about aliens visiting the earth. While Close Encounters didn’t start the genre, it remains one of the best realized films that focuses on the most basic aspect of it: alien visitors. The aliens aren’t invading, they don’t have a message for us – they’re simply here to check things out.

Close Encounters of the Third Kind is a movie I wish I could have seen with no preconceived ideas. As the movie starts, you really don’t know what kind of movie it’s going to be – the opening scene actually looks like a time travel movie, which followed by a brief interlude in which several pilots refuse to acknowledge the unidentified flying objects they’ve observed to be UFO’s, which is followed by a scene with a child’s room full of apparently possessed toys. It’s only when Roy Neary (Richard Dreyfuss) leaves his house to go on a work call that we’re sure it’s an alien movie.

The strength of the film is that it’s not really about the aliens, it’s about humanity’s reaction to the aliens. Some are fascinated with the visitors, to the point of obsession; some are frightened; some refuse to believe. Neary and his wife, Lonnie (Teri Garr), were a dysfunctional couple before Roy’s encounter, and Roy’s obsession turns out to be more than Lonnie can support. Single mother Jillian Guiler starts out with a mother’s concern when her son Barry wanders off, then watches the visitors with awe, before experiencing terror when Barry later is taken by the alien craft. The aliens are unable to communicate with humanity, and their crude attempts look like either friendly fly-bys on country roads, or a terrifying invasion of Jillian’s lonely country home.

The government response creates the drama for the second half of the film, and I enjoy the tone used here. Of course a government conspiracy is employed to clear the area around Devil’s Tower, Wyoming, where signs point to an imminent alien convergence. Clearing civilians is the extent of the conspiracy, however, as operation staged is not about confronting the aliens, but observing and attempting to communicate with them. There is no alien language developed for the film, simply tones – music – a common language to open a dialogue. For the last 5-10 minutes of the film, dialogue as a whole is largely replaced by the amazing film score – John Freakin’ Williams, ’nuff said.

I don’t know if this movie could be made today, with the subtleties of understanding (and misunderstanding) with the visited humans, and the focus on dialogue with the visitors; military force is never discussed as an option toward the aliens, while in movies before and after Close Encounters the human military or police presence is either a necessary precaution or a typical source of misperceived human aggression toward aliens. In E.T., The Extraterrestrial, Spielberg’s other sci-fi masterpiece produced just five years later, the government actions toward the alien visitor and his youthful friends are overtly sinister, and Peter Coyote comes across as creepy even when he’s ostensibly trying to help. Even in Star Trek: The Motion Picture (the closest film that comes to mind in the tone of Close Encounters), the “other” was cautiously treated as threat until its identity as our own creation became clear at the end. (The film also contains a nice Star Trek Easter egg.)

While it’s hard to imagine this kind of film being made today, the movie stands up remarkably well. Because the story revolves around the human reaction to the alien visitors, there is little reliance on special effects or costuming for the aliens or their technology; while “flying saucers” are no longer en vogue, the types of ships aliens would fly is pure speculation, and since they only appear in the dark, their lights are very effective in giving an impression of a space ship, without giving the kinds of details that would date the movie.

I expect that Spielberg is done tinkering with the film – he’s not George Lucas, and his career has seen so many diverse successes that no one film or franchise defines him. (In the interest of full disclosure, I watched the Director’s Cut – Spielberg’s final tinkering with the film – for this review.) Still, I would expect a new release of the film in the next few months, as the film celebrates its own 40th anniversary in 2017. I don’t see any reason to wait to watch it, though – watch it now, and watch it again next year. You can celebrate one of the best examples of the genre more than once.

#TBT Classic Movie: The Fly – the original one!

Is it science fiction? Is it horror? We’ve got a monster, we’ve got Vincent Price, both of which suggest the latter. I’m writing this on a sci-fi blog though, so obviously I’m comfortable calling The Fly sci-fi, but with a horror angle. Kinda like Frankenstein, with it’s questions of the relationship between science and what it means to be human, and whether there are things that we are best off leaving unexamined.

I vaguely remember the Jeff Goldblum remake from the 1980’s, but this is the first time I’ve ever seen the original film. The movie starts as a murder mystery – a woman, Helene, calls her brother-in-law, Francois, to report that she has murdered her husband, Andre. Francois (Vincent Price) and the police inspector meet at the family’s factory, where they find a body, with the head and arm crushed in a machine press. The wife’s story is flimsy, but she basically knows how the death happened. In examining the factory, the police inspector finds evidence of experimentation, and asks Francois if Andre did any experimentation with animals or . . . insects. Naturally, Francois replies that Andre wouldn’t hurt a fly.

Helene, bedridden for her nervous condition, breaks down when the nurse swats a fly in the bedroom; when his nephew asks over dinner about the lifespan of flies, and mentions the fly his mother was looking for, Francios decides to investigate on his own. With only a little pressure, and assurance that Francois has the fly, Helene goes into flashback.

Andre was working on a matter transference machine; he works out the glitches with inanimate objects, but manages to lose the family cat in the ether when he spontaneously decides to experiment (this film was probably not PETA-approved). Andre shows Helene a working experiment with a guinea pig, and admits to losing the cat; she makes him promise not to experiment further on animals (Helene may be PETA-approved). Andre is excited about the prospects of progress, while Helene takes a more cautious view; still they decide it is time to show Francois the invention. Andre fails to appear; coincidentally, their son has caught the most interesting fly he ever caught, with a white head and a funny leg.

The thing about classics is their themes quickly become clichés, and we all know how this one turned out: Andre tried to transport himself, and a fly was in the machine with him, leaving Andre with a bug head and arm, and the fly with a white head and funny leg. Andre shows an impressive acting range using one knock for “yes,” and two knocks for “no”; Helene’s interactions with him are heart-wrenching. I’ve never thought much about how hard it must be to catch one particular fly, especially alive, but the film is a showcase of the family’s struggle. Unfortunately, Andre is falling into despair and madness, and is determined to end it all – with Helene’s help.

Still, at Helene’s insistence, Andre attempts going through the machine again, to see if his “atoms” will get sorted out – and when he emerges, Helene removes his hood . . . to find that he is still the horrifying fly. Helene screams and faints, Andre smashes all of the equipment, eliminating any chance he would have to reverse the process even if the fly was found. There is nothing to do but end Andre’s miserable existence.

Of course, the inspector does not believe the story, and is going to have Helene arrested – until he and Francois find the fly about to be eaten by a spider, now evolved with a human head and arm. The inspector kills the fly and spider, and Francois reasons that it is as much murder to kill a fly with a human head as it is to kill a human with a fly head. The two quickly develop a likely story of Andre’s suicide, and two minutes later, everyone lives happily ever after. Yep, it really is wrapped up that quickly and neatly.

Like I said, classics often end up becoming cliché, and that’s a sign of respect. The special effects, the human/fly combos, definitely reflect the state of the art of the late 1950’s – which is to say, they look pretty funny. But while my summary makes it sound like a B-movie cheese-fest, The Fly actually features some pretty compelling storytelling and plot development (for a story about a guy who accidentally combines his atoms with those of a fly). For most scenes, Andre wears a hood after his unfortunate accident, leaving the audience to imagine what’s underneath – and making the revelation all the more shocking, even if it is expected.

This was the first time I’ve seen any of The Fly movies in its entirety – I haven’t seen any of the sequels or remakes, other than a few minutes here and there flipping through channels. This doesn’t make me want to watch any of them – the remakes appear more focused on updating the special effects, and the original movie doesn’t leave an opening for a sequel. But as a self-contained story, The Fly is a classic well worth your time.

I’m planning to be on the road for the next week, so no promise of updates until after Labor Day – but I may try to check in if I come across anything interesting.  Stay safe until next time, my friends.