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Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo (1944)
Slow start, but revs up *** possible spoilers***
Yes, this is a very schmaltzy movie. But this was a more innocent era. Unlike today, movie portrayals of love in this era were uncomplicated. People went to the movies for simple stories so they could forget about the war. The movie really gets going once the carrier operations begin. The takeoff sequences hold up quite well and really convey the sense of danger in this never-tried operation. It is quite exciting to see actual B-25s in operation on the carrier and in the air. The model work on the bombing itself is first-rate. (I saw the film on TNT--perhaps the effects weren't as convincing on the big screen.) Although it is never explained why the Ruptured Duck had to land because it was raining, the landing sequence is harrowing. The operation scene is not so easy to watch, since as another reviewer mentioned, the person being operated most definitely felt some pain. The film has many little details, such as Robert Walker's sneer when he spots Japanese plans--it's an expression that economically describes American feelings toward the Japanese after Pearl Harbor. (If anything, this is underdone--as I understand it, people of that era were quite open about their race-based hatred of the Japanese.) Spencer Tracy, is, as always, Spencer Tracy--tough, compassionate, a rock of reliability.
Flying Leathernecks (1951)
On one level this is a standard flag-waving WW2 film--which was what audiences wanted. On another level, though, this movie says some pretty harsh things about war. Mixed in with the combat footage are several scenes of wounded soldiers covered in blood, the sort of images that were censored from pictures made during the war. Some have objected to this... but I think it adds an extra layer of realism. Yes, they are shocking images--maybe that was Ray's point. We should be shocked that men get killed like this. The interplay between Robert Ryan and John Wayne is fascinating. Ryan turns in a splendid performance and Wayne surprised me with the depth of emotion he displayed, particularly when he visits his family. The movie shows us the emotional toll of ordering men to their deaths. The movie has pacing problems, particularly in the final battle, and Jay C. Flippen's scrounging sergeant wears a little thin. Still, this is a well-done war film.
Star Trek fans are the world's most forgiving. They wait ten years for a movie, then get this mediocre mess. Harlan Ellison called it Star Trek: The Motionless Picture, and he was right on target. (Bear in mind I am talking about the theatrical release--haven't seen any other versions). It starts off on the wrong foot with this somber music over the titles. Then the first scene, with a Big Space Thing attacking a space station. The actress in this scene, who mercifully does not appear again, gives one of the worst line readings ever. Later we see Kirk flying around the new Enterprise. He looks at every square inch of it for what seems like hours. (I am told the studio insisted on getting in as many shots as possible of their expensive new set.) Kirk replaces Stephen Collins as captain, which is a good move--Shatner is not exactly stretching himself in this role, but Collins is severely charisma-challenged. Tho he is a better actor than Persis Khambatta who is bald and beautiful and nothing else. The Big Space Thing finally arrives, and the camera flies over it at tricycle speed while the crew Stares In Awe. Somewhere along the line, the producers and writers lost touch with a simple truth. The TV show was so much fun because it had real villains--you know, nasty folks with attitudes and zap guns, who spoke lines of threatening dialogue instead of hovering menacingly. If this film has arrived in theatres without the legend of the show and the years of fan-mania, it wouldn't have lasted two weekends. We should all thank our lucky stars that Star Trek II had all the humor and action that made the TV show a classic.
Battlestar Galactica (2004)
When I heard BG was being remade, I groaned, because I thought the first version was a mishmash of weak scripts and indifferent acting. I am glad to say I was wrong. (I should mention here that I have not seen the entire series, but only the pilot and the first two and three out of the last four of the 2004-05 season.) Excellent on every level--the space scenes are very exciting and three dimensional. The cast is for the most part outstanding...
I sure how Edward James Olmos has a contract for the second season--the show would just not be the same without him. However, James Callis as Baltar almost steals the show. Watching Tricia Helfer put him through the wringer is the best fun I have had in years. The only cast member who seems simply adequate is Grace Park as the various incarnations of Boomer. Reminds me of Dorothy Parker's line about an actress having a range from A to B. But then, her character is there to suffer three times over. Mary McConnell is outstanding as Laura Roslin. The minor characters are all fine, too, and have good lines, one hallmark of a superior show.
So much science fiction television is long on action and FX and short on character development and motivation. Not this one. The grim atmosphere of the series never lets up, as is appropriate for the situation.
The irony of the show is delicious. The humans are polytheists and not terribly devout. Their creations, the Cylons, are militant monotheists. Is their God human or Cylon? A fascinating question. I am very interested in seeing the backstory on that issue. Although, to be honest, the discussions of God and free will wear a little thin. Kinda got tired of the priestess, too.
One quibble: the scene where Starbuck belts Apollo. Surprisingly for a show that has so many military characters, no official consequences result from this incident, which had several witnesses. In our world, fighting between officers is a serious breach of discipline and possibly a court-martial offense.
It's also a little weird to see the presidential aide Billy pick up a very 20th-century Earth telephone receiver. Maybe telephones are part of the prophecy. :) These are minor points, though. This is a fine drama period. It deserves all the awards it receives. And it has the all-important must-have of every TV SF show: cool ships!
Things to Come (1936)
One of the great science fiction films
Things to Come is that rarity of rarities, a film about ideas. Many films present a vision of the future, but few attempt to show us how that future came about. The first part of the film, when war comes to Everytown, is short but powerful. (Ironically, film audiences in its release year laughed at reports that enemy planes were attacking England--appeasement was at its height. Wells' prediction was borne out all too soon.) The montage of endless war that follows, while marred by sub-par model work, is most effective. The explanatory titles are strongly reminiscent of German Expressionist graphic design. The art director was the great William Cameron Menzies, and his sets of the ruins of Everytown are among his best work. Margaretta Scott is very seductive as the Chief's mistress. The Everytown of the 21st century is an equally striking design. The acting in the 21st century story is not compelling--perhaps this was a misfired attempt to contrast the technocratic rationality of this time with the barbarism of 1970. Unfortunately, the model work, representing angry crowds rushing down elevated walkways, is laughably bad and could have been done much better, even with 30s technology. This is particularly galling since the scenes of the giant aircraft are very convincing. This is redeemed by Raymond Massey's magnificent speech that concludes the film--rarely has the ideal of scientific progress been expressed so well. Massey's final question is more relevant now than ever, in an era of severely curtailed manned spaceflight. The scene is aided by the stirring music of Sir Arthur Bliss, whose last name I proudly share.
Unfortunately, the VHS versions of this film are absolutely horrible, with serious technical problems. Most versions have edited out a rather interesting montage of futuristic workers and machines that takes us from 1970 to 2038. I hope a good DVD exists of the entire film.
Silent Running (1972)
Visually stunning, but...
This is a worthy film in many ways, and it has a good message behind it. It carries more of an emotional impact that most science fiction films. The irony of the drones being better "human beings" than Freeman Lowell's crewmates is exquisite, and their interaction with Lowell when he is alone is fascinating. Adding songs to the film was a nice humanistic touch... I just wish someone other than Joan Baez had been chosen. Douglas Trumbull's decision to film the interiors in the decommissioned aircraft carrier Valley Forge adds an element of realism rarely seen.
My understanding is that in "2001", the original plan was to send the astronauts to Saturn, but Trumbull's special effects team could not create a convincing Saturn with the time they had, so they went for Jupiter. I have heard that showing the world he could "do Saturn" was one motivation for making Silent Running. He did a great job... but...
*** Spoiler starts here ***
The science fiction fan in me has to ask: why were the ark ships in orbit around Saturn to begin with? Sending ships of that size to Saturn would be enormously expensive (trillions of dollars and decades for design/construction/testing and the voyage itself). It would make far more sense to keep them in Earth orbit. This ties in with the reason the forest is dying--it's too far away from the sun. (For a back-to-nature guy, it takes Bruce Dern a very long time to realize this.) But if the ark ships are in Earth orbit, you don't get to show off your Saturn special effects. And you can rotate the crews instead of stranding them two billion+ miles from Earth, which is a surefire recipe to make people crazy.
I am sure my comments strike some folks as unnecessarily picky. But this movie was advertised as science fiction, and the science in a science fiction story has to make sense. (Note the triple appearance of the word "science" in the last sentence.) A good science fiction film, of which there are very few, should have an internally logical story--the special effects should enhance the story, not drive the plot. Trumbull would have been far better off enlisting the aid of his old boss's writing partner, Arthur C. Clarke, who co-created one of the great science fiction films.
Aside from the holes in the story logic, I rated this film highly, because it does pose important questions, and aspires to be something more than the usual space opera.
Idaho Transfer (1973)
It has its moments... but
I saw this in the movie theatres--it lasted an entire week. I see it as film that couldn't decide if it was telling a story or Sending A Message. On the plus side, Fonda got a lot out of a small budget and three locations. The time-travel scenes are simple but effective. Mountains of the Moon was an inspired choice. The lead actress was lovely... and little else. The acting in this film is remarkably uninspiring. But I am fairly demanding of science fiction films, and this one fails in crucial areas. For instance, the restriction of time travel to young people. Maybe this was explained in some plausible way, but I think I would have remembered it. It seems a plot add-on to Make A Statement About The Righteousness of the Youth Movement. The film drags once the time travelers get into the desert. And the ending... **Here comes the spoiler**. If food is so scarce that the future people have to resort to cannibalism, it seems mighty inconsistent to me that they still have the wherewithal to drive cars into the desert. Having cars implies a technological infrastructure, which in turn implies the presence of people smart enough to find a food source. I seriously doubt that everyone woke up one morning, realized all their food was gone, and suddenly decided to eat people. This movie is a prime example of what happens when Hollywood types think they know how to make a science fiction film.
The Monitors (1969)
Clever, could be better
I saw this on TV back in the 70s. A comic twist on a classic SF theme, made on a shoestring in Chicago. I think some of the Second City troupe was involved in it. I don't remember how it ends, so I can't spoil it. The part that tickled me the most were the constant radio ads the Monitors ran. They sounded exactly like the AM radio station ID jingles of the 60s and 70s. One went "The Monitors are here/There's nothing left to fear/The Monitors!" (I know, hard to translate into print, but it had the same saccharine harmonies that top 40 jingles had.) I don't recall exactly how they conquered the Earth--there was no bloodshed. Maybe those jingles had subliminal messages! I also remember seeing a riot in progress, and the Monitors sending a car with a PA system that said "Reason, not force. Reason, not force." It was kind of like very polite cops running the world. The Monitors were very nice folks, but a little too naive. Would love to see it again.
Murder One (1995)
Too good to last
I am glad to see that Murder One was a hit in Europe--it deserved every success. Great acting--Daniel Benzali was outstanding. I guess audiences couldn't handle a balding, smart actor. (He played a mafia boss on NYPD Blue before this show, and he damn near stole the episode.) Stanley Tucci is always good--Richard Cross was a villain you could hate and have a great time. And it had one of my favorite actresses, Barbara Bosson (Mrs. Bochco). Season two was not as good but had some fine moments. Anthony LaPaglia was clearly hired because he was younger and good looking, but he did a fine job. The peak of season two were the final six episodes, which ABC packaged as a mini-series called "Diary of a Serial Killer". The accused, Pruitt Taylor Vince, was absolutely the most compelling criminal I have ever seen on any show. Great casting is a strength of Bochco's shows, and Murder One is no exception. I cleaned house and foolishly threw out my tape of the serial killer episodes. Bad move.
Ironically, although the American public couldn't handle a season-long series that covered only one trial, a decade later it went nuts over "24", a show that took place in one day.
Space: 1999 (1975)
Can't make that leap
I grew up reading a lot of science fiction books. Unlike on television, written SF has to be scientifically plausible and as accurate as possible. This is why I saw the first episode of Space 1999 and watched only sporadically. The premise that a nuclear waste dump could explode--they can't by the way--and that the explosion would knock the Moon out of its orbit and send it flying into space is absolutely ridiculous. It's the kind of idea that someone almost completely ignorant of celestial mechanics would think is cool. The Andersons' earlier show, UFO, was better thought out than this.
But then, I am not surprised. So much of what is labelled science fiction on TV and in film is action/adventure with spaceships and rayguns. You could transfer everything to the Old West and use the same storyline. Now I have a lot of fun watching action/adventure with the trappings of space travel... but I don't consider it science fiction. Read some Heinlein or Clarke or Asimov (for starters) for the genuine article--stories that owe their existence to technological change. 2001 is a perfect example--the story could not happen without interplanetary travel and artificial intelligence.