June 25, 2018
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Today’s review of 1977’s The War In Space (Wakusei Daisensō: Za uō in Supēsu) is the result of two upcoming events that I’ll be attending soon. The first is Star Wars: A New Hope in Concert, a screening of George Lucas’s 1977 classic accompanied by a live rendition of John Williams’s incredible score conducted by Richard Kaufman and performed by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. The second event is G-FEST XXV, a fan convention with a focus on the Godzilla films produced by the prolific Japanese production company Toho, along with many other tokusatsu franchises (by the way, last year’s G-FEST was a blast). Toho’s War in Space may be one of the earliest space opera films released in a post-Star Wars world but it also draws some of its inspiration from the studio’s own body of work.
Searching for a distant star/Heading off to Iscandar
The film’s centerpiece, the massive, drill-bearing starship Gohten, shares a design with the Gotengo, the warship that’s prominently featured in Toho’s 1963 sci-fi adventure Atragon, a movie that War in Space shares a few plot points with as well, including an evil invading empire that can only be stopped by a large and powerful vessel constructed in secret by a scientist who’s reluctant to use the vessel’s full strength out of fear of the damage it could cause. The movie even features several Toho veterans, most notably director Jun Fukuda (Godzilla vs. Mechagodzilla), Ryo Ikebe (Battle in Outer Space), and Akihito Hirata, best known as the most notable human character in the original Godzilla, Dr. Serizawa. The film wisely moves at a steady clip and utilizes a more grounded approach to its story by taking the time to establish its archetypal characters, especially Professor Takigawa who’s portrayed with an almost tragic authority by Ikebe, which helps to give a recognizably human side to a conflict involving aliens led by an intergalactic warlord who’s escorted by a horned, axe-wielding Wookiee facsimile and goes by the outrageous moniker of Commander Hell.
The War in Space may not have the manic energy of Toho’s Godzilla films or the deeper introspection of the Akira Kurosawa films they produced but I think it’s one of their most underrated genre films. For fans of tokusatsu, this is an enjoyable ride that has a bit more to offer than simple thrills.
Credit: Media Graveyard
May 18, 2018
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The Star Wars universe is a setting that’s ripe with comedic potential. From the strange visuals to the quirky dialogue, there’s a lot of material to work with. Luckily, most fans respond to the weirdness with a lot of good-natured ribbing. The cult status of Mel Brooks’ full-blown parody of Star Wars, 1987’s Spaceballs, is only one example of the numerous riffs on the franchise. The Ice Pirates, released in 1984, represents a somewhat unique way to cash in on the popularity of Star Wars: instead of a straightforward quest, this would be a more self-aware and comedic adventure, akin to a Guardians of the Galaxy prototype. The results of this bold experiment are mixed to say the least.
You know the Emperor’s evil because he wrote the Star Wars Holiday Special!
Directed by Stewart Raffill (who also helmed the infamous E.T. imitation, Mac and Me) and written by Raffill and Krull scribe Stanford Sherman, the film’s self-evident premise of ice smuggling sounds like the setup to a variety show skit. It even looks like some kind of sketch with the cryogenic corsairs in question, looking like denizens of a post-apocalyptic Age of Sail, battling a band of space knights who look like they wandered in from a Renaissance fair. Ice Pirates may look cheap but when it comes to its sense of humor, it hits more than it misses. Despite a few awkward gags that feel like they’re filthy for the sake of being filthy, most of the jokes make very clever use of its setting, especially in its imaginative final battle in the middle of a time storm where machines fight the rapidly aging pirate crew.
Overall, Ice Pirates is a strange beast of a movie that might be better appreciated now in the days of constant Star Wars riffs and memes than when it was released for giving viewers a much weirder approach to the space opera genre. It plays things somewhat cynically but it has all the right ingredients that make a cult classic.
May 11, 2018
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Imagine a world where, instead of purchasing Lucasfilm in 2012 and acquiring the highly valuable Star Wars brand, Disney decided to revamp 1979’s The Black Hole, their previous attempt to capture the burgeoning space opera film market. Perhaps it would be a modernized retelling of the USS Palomino‘s discovery of the USS Cygnus, inhabited by the deranged Dr. Reinhardt and drifting toward an ominous wormhole. Perhaps it would be a continuation of the adventures of Captain Holland, Dr. McCrae and the charming little robot V.I.N.CENT (with a new voice actor to replace the late, great Roddy McDowell, of course). Maybe this hypothetical revamp would improve the film’s rotten reputation among sci-fi fans. However, one has to wonder if The Black Hole even deserves its status as “movieland’s equivalent to the Hindenburg“. The answer to that is…only slightly.
The Starship Eiffel Tower embarks on a fateful mission.
Sure, the script is a little clunky and Gary Nelson’s somewhat bland direction robs certain moments of their needed impact (getting a boring performance out of Ernest frickin’ Borgnine should be impossible), but Black Hole does have some admirable elements. For instance, Maximilian Schell brings a very chilling madness to his portrayal of Dr. Reinhardt, the Nemo-esque scientist who plans to travel through the titular vortex with a crew of drones who are more than what they seem. At times, the film looks beautiful yet fearsome, especially its main showpiece, the Cygnus, with its eerie glow and a design that’s more evocative of a flying haunted castle than a space shuttle or Star Destroyer. In fact, Black Hole is at its strongest when it feels like an old-school haunted house movie filtered through a space opera lens, complete with an appropriately creepy score by John Barry (who scored not one but two Star Wars imitators prior to this) and a menacing monster in the form of Maximilian, Reinhardt’s sadistic robot bodyguard.
While it may play things a little too bluntly, I feel that The Black Hole gets a bad rap. The film has a decent grasp of the terrifying beauty of the cosmos that gets an occasional chance to shine when it isn’t going for its obligatory, whiz-bang space heroics.
The modern blockbuster, as typified by Jaws and Star Wars, is the B-movie writ large. The current mainstream cinema landscape is driven by concepts and stories that, in the past, would have been considered the domain of schlocky exploitation films and low-budget film serials. One of the earliest filmmakers to bridge the somewhat tenuous gap between two eras of popular cinema is independent filmmaking trendsetter Roger Corman, producer of over 300 films and mentor of many influential filmmakers, including Francis Ford Coppola, Martin Scorsese, Joe Dante and Ron Howard. The key to Corman’s longevity is his eye for talent and his keen understanding of the kinds of movies people want to see. Case in point: consider 1980’s Battle Beyond the Stars.
The untold adventures of Han Solo’s father, Napoleon.
Released a few months after the premiere of The Empire Strikes Back, this shoestring science fantasy, helmed by animator Jimmy T. Murakami and written by Oscar nominee John Sayles, comes closer than most Star Wars imitators to realizing that one of the things that made A New Hope work was its atmosphere. The attention to detail in Battle’s art direction, overseen by a pre-Terminator James Cameron, gives the movie a substance that outshines its roots as a shameless, word-for-word Seven Samurai retelling. The other aspect that elevates Battle above other Star Wars clones is the relatively naturalistic direction. Some of the acting is refreshingly subtle compared to campier space opera fare. In particular, Robert Vaughn providing a somewhat moving performance as the wealthy, solitary assassin Gelt. Granted, he’s portraying the same character he played in The Magnificent Seven, but it’s worth it just to see his moody introductory scene.
For an opportunistic cash grab made to capitalize on Star Wars mania, Battle Beyond the Stars has a surprising amount of sincerity and craft, which gives it a good amount of rewatch value. Overall, Battle feels like the cinematic equivalent of a good cover band: it may not deliver the full experience but it’ll most certainly try.
February 15, 2018
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With the premiere of Marvel’s promising Afrofuturist adventure Black Panther closing in, interest in black superheroism has reached a fever pitch. However, instead of a retrospective on the impact of Blade, a reflection on what went so very wrong with Steel, or a discussion of the hidden charms of M.A.N.T.I.S., I’m going to take a look at 1977’s Abar, the First Black Superman, an offbeat offering in the rare subgenre of blaxploitation science fiction.
Billed as the “first black science fiction film”, Abar is the sole directorial effort by Frank Packard, based on a story written by James Smalley and co-star J. Walter Smith, who portrays Dr. Kinkade, a black scientist who hires ass-kicking activist John Abar (Tobar Mayo) to protect his family from neighborhood bigots. After drinking a superpowered serum concocted by Kinkade, Abar uses his newly developed mental and physical abilities to clean up the hood.
Abar is a tonally strange film, which is both its biggest boon and flaw. The movie’s a lot of fun to watch, even when it struggles to balance the multiple identities that it establishes for itself, which include a fantastical morality tale, a politically charged sermon on the African-American experience, and an action-packed slugfest in the vein of the Jim Kelly vehicle Black Belt Jones. The acting is similarly erratic, with Mayo and Smith carrying the film while the other performances range from unremarkable to cartoonishly exaggerated.
While it probably won’t be lauded for any skillful storytelling or filmmaking, I appreciate Abar for representing an early attempt to tell a bigger, weirder and more inspiring story in the realm of black cinema.
Credit: Paul Kazee
December 13, 2017
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This year marks the 40th anniversary of both the original Star Wars film and Steven Spielberg’s mind-bending UFO tale Close Encounters of the Third Kind, two highly successful and influential works in the science fiction genre. Obviously, the next best thing would be a movie that combines the most prominent elements of both films. That’s probably what director/writer Ed Hunt (Plague) was thinking when he attempted to cash in on the space opera craze with the 1977 flying saucer thriller Starship Invasions.
I’m doing my part by reviewing this movie. Are you?
UFO conspiracies and alien abduction stories were all the rage in the 70s and the premise of Invasions deftly taps into the extraterrestrial paranoia of the period with a story involving a band of telepathic renegades from another world, led by Captain Rameses (Christopher Lee, who would go on to star in actual Star Wars movies), using a device that forces its victims to commit suicide. Robert Vaughn (who would soon play a major role in Roger Corman’s infamous Star Wars imitation Battle Beyond the Stars) portrays a UFO specialist who becomes a reluctant hero when he’s recruited by a group of intrepid aliens to stop Rameses. Without a doubt, the performances of Vaughn and Lee, as well as the horror-infused direction from Hunt, carry this film, giving the story an air of dignity that transcends the drab sets and chintzy visual effects.
All in all, Starship Invasions is an intriguing idea in search of a movie that would take full advantage of its themes of acceptance and conspiracy. It feels like two separate movies glued together but Invasions radiates with the potential to tell a truly distinctive story.
December 6, 2017
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Much has been discussed about the various novels, short stories and comics that have influenced George Lucas’s vision of the Star Wars saga. Many iconic concepts from the films have their roots in the works of a diverse array of authors, including J. R. R. Tolkien (The Lord of the Rings), Frank Herbert (Dune), E. E. “Doc” Smith (the Lensman series), Isaac Asimov (Foundation), and Jack Kirby (The New Gods). During the Star Wars mania of the late 70’s, it seemed that the best way to differentiate your space opera from all the others would be to film an adaptation of a story from the Golden Age of Science Fiction. The result of that sort of thinking would be 1979’s H. G. Wells’ The Shape of Things to Come.
That robot should watch what it eats next time.
Directed by George McCowan (The Magnificent Seven Ride), Things to Come is an incredibly loose adaptation (and the second one after the 1936 version) of Wells’s prescient 1933 novel of the same name, with its only common thread being the mention of some sort of devastating war. The fascinating premise of the film is somewhat undermined by its zippy pulp serial structure. In terms of tone, Things to Come wants to evoke a combination of the thrills of Star Wars with the philosophy of Star Trek but the result calls to mind a compilation of Space: 1999 episodes. Speaking of which, Barry Morse, as Dr. Caball, gives the most genuine performance of the film, rising above his undistinctive co-stars with a commanding aura and tempering the serpentine exaggerations of the dictator Omus, played with vicious glee by Jack Palance.
On average, the charm of Things to Come lies in its honest attempt to tell a bigger and more thoughtful story compared to other Star Wars knockoffs of the time. Although it’s a little muddled by the execution, its major theme, the effects of war on a variety of people, shines through.
November 29, 2017
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As one of the biggest breakout characters in the original Star Wars trilogy, the mischievous smuggler Han Solo has been widely imitated in many works inspired by (or plagiarizing) the films. With 1983’s Spacehunter: Adventures in the Forbidden Zone, Columbia Pictures and director Lamont Johnson (The Twilight Zone) reached what they felt was the logical conclusion: make an incredible simulation of the Millennium Falcon’s captain into the hero of the movie.
Forbidden Zone? Say hello to George Taylor for me.
The results are mixed, to say the least. As the interstellar bounty hunter Wolff, Peter Strauss (The Jericho Mile) does his best Harrison Ford impression but he’s not given the chance to show the vulnerability that made Ford’s portrayal of Captain Solo work. It doesn’t help that the performances from the rest of the cast are all over the place. On one hand, Ernie Hudson (Ghostbusters) gives a surprisingly natural turn as Wolff’s old rival and Michael Ironside (Total Recall) is fairly menacing as the cybernetic heavy, Overdog. On the other hand, Niki, the young scavenger played by Molly Ringwald (The Breakfast Club), comes across like every stereotypical annoying teenager ever known. These eclectic performances seem to obscure what Strauss is going for and, as a result, Wolff is lost in the shuffle. On a more positive note, the film is visually appealing, if derivative. Of particular interest are some of Overdog’s mutant henchmen, with unearthly designs that wouldn’t look out of place in your average 80’s horror flick.
Overall, Spacehunter’s willingness to throw as many bizarre concepts at the audience as possible is both its greatest strength and flaw. Though the film’s short run-time hampers its potential to fully realize its numerous settings and characters, it never drags out or complicates the exciting story it wants to tell.
Credit: Mondo Digital
November 15, 2017
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We’re a month away from a new Star Wars film that’s apparently so incredible, Lucasfilm is giving director Rian Johnson his own personal Star Wars trilogy to play around with. With hype for the eighth installment of the Skywalker saga at a fever pitch, whet your space opera appetite with a series featuring some of the strangest films inspired by George Lucas’s opus. First on deck is the 1985 animated feature Starchaser: The Legend of Orin.
Directed by Steven Hahn and written by Jeffrey Scott (Superfriends, Muppet Babies), Starchaser is essentially the store-brand equivalent of the original Star Wars trilogy, the Sam’s Choice to the OT’s Pepsi. To wit, here’s a tale of a brave but reckless young worker who discovers a magical sword that once belonged to a band of warriors. With the aid of an arrogant outlaw, the courageous daughter of a ruler, and a pair of bickering machines, the young man comes of age and fights a cybernetic warlord. It’s not just the basic story either. Certain shots, set-pieces and even sound effects have been pilfered, almost verbatim, from the classic trilogy (pay close attention to the sounds of the titular starship’s engines as it flies by the camera).
On the plus side, the movie looks good. The animation is fluid and highly expressive in a Rock & Rule/Heavy Metal sort of way and the overall art design, though conventional, shows a good deal of skill and pulp sci-fi influence. By far, the most intriguing designs belong to the flesh-harvesting Man-Droids, who look appropriately nightmarish in their only appearance in the film. For that matter, there are times where Starchaser feels more like a family friendly Heavy Metal, especially in scenes involving Dagg Dibrimi (Carmen Argenziano), the amoral space pirate who could give Captain Sternn a run for his money in the sleaze department. The film seems to find its real voice when it drifts away from its routine nature-versus-technology plot and into these crasser moments.
On balance, Starchaser holds up fairly well. It’s incredibly simple but its infectious zeal and breathless momentum keep it from getting boring. Don’t let the somewhat derivative story keep you away from checking out this visually appealing animated space opera.
Credit: The Popcorn Drop