Wednesday, July 22, 2015

Hollywood Time Machine -- The Outer Limits

Hollywood Time Machine – The Outer Limits

Time travel has been a staple of Science Fiction from the very beginning, and indeed from even before there was Science Fiction (Mark Twain’s A Connecticut Yankee In King Arthur’s Court).  As with many other themes in Science Fiction, it was H.G. Wells who first set the pattern that has been followed by writers and filmmakers alike ever since.  (War Of The Worlds for alien invasions, The Time Machine for time travel, and The Island Of Dr. Moreau for science gone horribly wrong.)

Rod Taylor as H.G. Wells in the 1960 film The Time Machine

Hollywood has embraced time travel with gusto and even a cursory examination of IMDB reveals several hundred feature films and TV series, or episodes, that deal in some way with time travel or time manipulation.  Sometimes time travel takes center stage and is the focus of the story, while in other films it is simply a plot device to get “the fish out of water” and set the plot into motion. 

Often, the struggle in a time travel story is to avoid changing the time line or, having done so inadvertently, trying to put time back onto the original trajectory.  H.G. Wells avoided this issue by sending his protagonist far into the future, however most films delight in going back in time and upsetting the time line.  In some films the hero is trying to stop the villain who is attempting to change the past for his own nefarious ends, though more often than not the hero has taken a seemingly innocuous action that has significant, even disastrous, ramifications.  The most famous of this latter story arc is the Back To The Future film trilogy. 

Marty McFly, in an act of understandable human nature, saves his future father from being hit by an automobile.  However, in saving his father he altered the time line.  That alteration becomes worse in the sequel when the villain, Biff Tannen, discovers the time machine and decides to improve his unhappy lot in life by altering his past.  Once again Marty and Doc Brown work to correct the time line, but it is not until they go even further back in time that they can finally set things to right, almost…

Although Doc Brown and Marty try their best to restore the time line to its original course, their corrections carry with them more distortions.  Back To The Future I-III


There is a theory that views time as a river, and while you might, through your time travel adventures or misadventures, cause ripples in the flow of time, like tossing pebbles or even large rocks into the river, the time current is so strong that it will correct itself and continue to flow on the path is has always followed.  You cannot, in fact, change the time line. 

Perhaps the most humorous take on changing the time line, both by accident and on purpose, was the Simpsons episode, Time And Punishment.  After trying desperately, and failing miserably, to avoid changing the time line, Homer begins changing it with abandon until he returns to a future, much like Marty McFly, that while not exactly the one he left, is close enough for him.

Another theme, sometimes coupled with time travel, is the teleportation of matter.  This concept is perhaps best know from the Star Trek TV series where the Transporter was used because the producers needed to get their characters to/from a planet but did not have the special effects budget necessary for landing the ship every episode.  Occasionally, having a limited budget can result in very imaginative solutions.

Although the new 3D scanners/printers are demonstrating a very simple and rudimentary form of matter transmission, they are a far cry from the transporters used on Star Trek.  They are actually more akin to the Tesla transporter, used to great effect, in the film The Prestige, where the original was not transported at all, but an exact duplicate was created at another location. 

David Bowie, as Nikola Tesla, invents a device which can teleport matter to any location, but at a cost, in The Prestige.

Not surprisingly, both time travel and matter teleportation are themes that were explored on the seminal TV series, The Outer Limits.

The Outer Limits – 1963 – 1965   Two Seasons, 49 Episodes

Seven episodes deal either with Time Travel or Time Manipulation.

Season 1
Ep1     The Sixth Finger
Ep2     The Man Who Was Never Born
Ep16   Controlled Experiment
Ep32   The Form Of Things Unknown

Season 2
Ep1     Soldier
Ep5     Demon With A Glass Hand
Ep16   The Premonition

One episode from Season 1 (Ep15 The Mice) deals with the teleportation of matter, the original goal of the students in Geeks In Time, while another (Season 2 Ep3 Behold Eck!) features a tear in the space-time continuum.

 It is indicative of Hollywood’s love affair with time travel that of the 49 episodes of this very influential series, more than 10% of them involve time travel in one form or another.  Two of episodes star David McCallum as the time traveler while another two were written by Harlan Ellison. These two episodes in particular, Soldier and Demon With A Glass Hand directly inspired the film Terminator, so much so in fact that when Ellison pointed out these similarities he received a monetary settlement from the filmmakers and a title card, giving Ellison story credit, was added to the film.

 The Sixth Finger
Starring David McCallum, sporting make-up by Stan Chambers,
who would go on to receive an Academy Award for his work on
Planet Of The Apes.  McCallum travels forward in time genetically
while remaining physically in the present.

The Man Who Was Never Born
Featuring Martin Landau trying to change his bleak present
by altering the past.

Controlled Experiment
Written as a pilot for a proposed Sci-Fi comedy series, a pair of alien
anthropologists use their technology to manipulate time allowing
them to study more closely the human act of murder.

The Form Of Things Unknown
David McCallum, once again a time traveler, uses his discovery
to bring the dead back to life.  The results are not always as intended.

Written by Harlan Ellison, two soldiers from the distant future
are caught in a time warp and whisked back to 1960’s America
where they continue their battle.

Demon With A Glass Hand 
Also written by Harlan Ellison, alien invaders, seeking to complete
their conquest of Earth, travel into the past to capture the one man
who knows where the entire population of Earth is hiding. 

The Premonition 
An Air Force test pilot and his wife become ‘unstuck in time’ and must
find a way to not only rejoin the time line but also save the life of their daughter
who is destined to die unless the parents can alter the time line.

The Outer Limits is still considered one of the most influential television series ever broadcast.

Friday, June 27, 2014

Hollywood Romans #13 The Immortals

SEE: Titans In A Box!

Immortals (2011) 110 minutes
Directed by Tarsem Singh      Screenplay by Charles and Vlas Parlapanides
Staring: Henry Cavill, Mickey Rourke, Freida Pinto, Luke Evans and John Hurt

This film's poster should have a banner headline screaming: SEE: Titans In A Box!

The story, in brief:

The Heraklion king, Hyperion, has declared war on the Olympian Gods and all mankind.  To this end he is searching for the Epirus Bow, a divine weapon that will allow him to release the imprisoned Titans and with their help defeat the Olympians.  Why?   Well, it seems that when his wife was stricken with a fatal disease Hyperion called on the gods for help but his pleas went unanswered.  So now he has decided to destroy the Olympians and punish them for ignoring his prayers.  The gods are listening now.

Mickey Rouke as King Hyperion

Not surprisingly the Olympians are disgusted by Hyperion’s cruelty and disregard for the “accepted rules of engagement.”  They are eager to teach Hyperion a lesson or two but Zeus, in his infinite and unfathomable wisdom, has forbidden the gods from intervening directly in the affairs of man.  Zeus has instead selected Theseus as his instrument for the salvation of mankind.  In this it would seem Zeus has chosen wisely. 

The Olympian Gods, roused at last, prepare to battle the Titans

Though of humble birth, whose mother is treated as an outcast and father is unknown (it is said his mother was raped by other villagers but there is every indication that Zeus is the actual father) Theseus has grown into a mighty warrior strong of limb and stout of heart.  The problem is that Theseus is badly out numbered in every fight and is constantly in danger of being killed. 

Zeus unleashes his anger on Apollo for intervening directly to save Theseus

Luckily for him the gods are constantly breaking Zeus’ commandment (with and without his knowledge) and intervening in miraculous ways to save Theseus from certain death.  The real question is: Can the Olympians save themselves from almost certain destruction?  That will be answered in the all too obviously set up sequel.

Titans in a box!  The Titans endure their strange imprisonment

Re-working myths is fine and it often serves to avoid all of the carping about historical accuracy.  Certainly we have been treated to numerous versions of Homer's Odyssey (including the rather imaginative version by the Coen Brothers with George Clooney as Ulysses) or the Jason myth (the seminal 1962 film showcasing the stop motion work of Ray Harryhausen being the noteworthy entry here).  However ...

There is little here to recommend this latest re-working of Greek mythology, and the level of violence is not so much gratuitous as it is pornographic.  As director Val Lewton so ably demonstrated, less is often more, but here the director, Tarsem Singh, clearly believes more is not enough.

Poseidon considers the fate of Apollo for aiding Theseus

Costumes are by the famed Japanese costume designer and fashion artist Eiko Ishioka, whose signature headgear is on display here from the fanciful helmets worn by the Olympian Gods to the seemingly Time Bandits inspired travel hats worn by the Sibylline Oracles.  Ishioka-san won an Academy award for her work on Bram Stoker's Dracula, and while her designs for Immortals are imaginative, and one of the film's better aspects, they are not served well by the film itself. (For a better example of a fashion designer's costume work in a feature film see The Fifth Element with costumes by Jean-Paul Gaultier.)

One of the Sibylline Oracles in her “travel” attire

Likewise the acting and fight choreography are, at best, ho-hum, though not from lack of trying.  The film is going for the look of 300 but unlike that earlier film (noteworthy for its faithful rendition of Frank Miller’s comic book stylization) Immortals is a very pale imitation. 

The production team for Immortals appears not to have understood the parameters of that style unlike, for example, the production team behind the Starz cable series Spartacus.  The violence and sex are so stylized in that cable series as to be almost cartoonish and thus more easily dealt with by the viewer.  Immortals, on the other hand, seems caught somewhere between this highly stylized look and a gritty realism (particularly with the violence) that leaves one confused, and not a little bit disgusted by the cruelty that seems plainly out of place in a fantasy film.

Theseus fights with the Minotaur

The idea that Theseus fights not a literal Minotaur but a man in a bull shaped helmet is not new but certainly works within the context of this story.  Likewise, I give the actors credit for working hard with the material they are saddled with, but therein lies the problem -- the story.

Zeus and his daughter, Athena

The story here, such as it is, does not engage the viewer on any level deeper than the most superficial.  The film's director, Tarsem Singh, has said that what he is attempting is:

"Basically, Caravaggio meets Fight Club. It's a really hardcore action film done in Renaissance painting style. I want to see how that goes; it's turned into something really cool. I'm going for a very contemporary look on top of that so I'm kind of going with, you know, Renaissance time with electricity."

All that being said, my disappointment with the film is not that it plays fast and loose with the Greek myths or mixes together art and artifacts from a dozen different eras/countries/cultures or even that the arms and armor have little to do with ancient or even mythic Greece.  This happens all the time in Science Fiction and Fantasy and often to good effect (The Lord Of The Rings comes to mind).  No, the problem here is that at its most basic level, Immortals is boring.  It fails to engage us and indeed actually repels us with its needlessly graphic splatter porn violence.

Theseus and his fellow Greeks prepare for the final battle

Immortals does achieve the impossible by making Zack Snyder's 300 seem Oscar worthy.

My humble recommendation: Save your money - Wait for Immortals to play on cable TV, and then watch something else.

Immortals is currently playing in movie theatres and should make its appearance on DVD and Blu-ray in the first half of 2012.

This review was first published on the Ancient Warfare Magazine website in November of 2011.
(c)2011 by David L Reinke

Monday, March 31, 2014

Hollywood Romans #10 The Silver Chalice

"I need no wings to fly"

The Silver Chalice
Warner Brothers 1954
142 minutes
Directed by: Victor Saville
Written by: Thomas B. Costain and Lesser Samuels
Starring: Paul Newman, Virginia Mayo, Lorene Green, Jack Palance, Pier Angeli, and Natalie Wood

Based upon the best selling novel by Thomas Costain, The Silver Chalice was Warner Brothers’ attempt to cash in on the popularity of Sword & Sandal films kicked off by the success of MGM’s 1951 box office hit, Quo Vadis.  However, almost from the opening frame it is clear that Warner Brothers and their director, Victor Saville, had no idea what they were doing.

Made for about half what Quo Vadis cost and without Peter Ustinov as Nero, The Silver Chalice nevertheless boasts a roster of talent that should have insured a good return on WB’s investment.  Many of the actors were already well established (Natile Wood, Virginia Mayo, Jack Palance) but the cast also included a couple of noteworthy debuts among them Lorne Greene and Paul Newman.  Yet even these talented actors can do little to improve a script that is both too earnest and too unfocused at the same time.

                               Loren Greene as Peter and Paul Newman as Basil

There are several competing subplots, but essentially the story concerns a Greek sculptor (Paul Newman), sold into slavery, who is set free, both physically and emotionally, by the commission given him, from Joseph of Arimathea, to create a silver chalice to hold the Holy Grail.

This commission takes Newman’s character, Basil, from Antioch to Jerusalem and then on to Rome where he finds Peter (Lorne Greene) running a small tavern, and Simon (Jack Palance) performing at Nero’s palace as the ancient world equivalent of Penn & Teller.  Newman also enjoys romantic interludes with Helena (Virginia Mayo) and Deborra (Pier Angeli).  Beyond that the story is imminently forgettable and easily interchangeable with any number of other films dealing with Romans and Christians including The Robe and its sequel, Demetrius And the Gladiators.  Generally, the Romans are corrupt pagans, and the Christians virtuous martyrs.  Oh, and as the climax is set in Rome, there is the obligatory riot by the Mob because, as Hollywood has taught us, that’s what the Roman Mob does – it riots.

What makes this film noteworthy are neither the story nor the acting, but the costumes and sets, though not for their historical accuracy, but rather just the opposite.

                               Helena led away by the Praetorians

While the Roman legionaries and Praetorian Guards wear standard Hollywood Roman armor and the Roman citizens wear non descript tunics, the costumes worn by Jack Palance are straight out of a B-grade Science Fiction film and indeed the makeup poor Virginia Mayo is saddled with makes her look like ZaaZaa Gabor from the 1950’s Sci-Fi classic, The Queen Of Outer Space.

                               Jack Palance as Simone the Magician and Virginia Mayo as Helena. 
                              As for the design on Simone’s costume, they might be snakes or perhaps …

Interestingly, although the legionaries and Praetorians have round metal shields, wear red tunics & capes, greaves, and carry spears, their helmets are not outrageously bad (like those in Gladiator) and even more remarkable – some of the soldiers are not wearing bracers!  How the costume designer got this right, and so much else wrong, is baffling particularly given the outrageous nature of the other costumes.  It is also worth noting that in this film (like so many others) the legionaries seem to enjoy lounging about at dinner while still wearing their armor!  That could not have been very comfortable, for actor or for soldier. 

Better still are the sets, which display a fine example of Abstract Minimalist Art.  Nero’s Palace looks like Las Vegas, except even Caesar’s Palace in Las Vegas displays more affinity for ancient Rome that these sets do.   The sets are more reminiscent of the original Star Trek TV series, and one expects Kirk and Spock to walk in at any moment and complain that someone has violated the Prime Directive, which, come to think of it, actually seemed to happen a lot on that series.

                               Simone and Helena at Simone’s home in Rome.  Judging from 
                               the wall d├ęcor is it any wonder that Simone was crazed?

This is not to say the sets are either cheap or un-artistic.  Far from it, and in fact the Art Director, Boris Levin and the Set Decorator, Howard Bristol, both have several great films to their credits including West Side Story, The Sound Of Music, The Andromeda Strain and Rope, to name a few.

Likewise, the story of the film is more interesting than the story told by the film.

The part of Basil, the Greek Sculptor, was first offered to James Dean, but he passed on the advice of his agent who thought the script poor.  The part was then offered to Paul Newman who had lost out to Dean for the starring role in East of Eden.  That film made Dean a star, while The Silver Chalice, nearly sank Newman’s career before it had even set sail.  One contemporary critic said of Newman’s acting, he delivers his lines with the emotional fervor of a Putnam Division conductor announcing local stops.” In fact, when the film was first shown on television in 1961, Newman took out a full-page ad in the Hollywood trade papers apologizing for his performance and asking the public not to watch the broadcast.  Predictably, the ad had the opposite effect and the film enjoyed a robust TV audience share.

                               Paul Newman and Pier Angeli – Newman’s protests
                               not withstanding, his performance is not that bad.

Filming another movie on the same lot, Dean actually came to watch Newman work and see what he had passed up.  It was on the set of The Silver Chalice that Dean met the love of his life, Pier Angeli.  Years later, upon Dean’s untimely death, Newman would replace him in the boxing film Somebody Up There Likes Me, working once again with Pier Angeli.  That film reignited Newman’s career, and he remained a top star for the rest of his life.

                               “I need no wings to fly!” Jack Palance as Simone the Magician.

Beyond the sets and the unintentional humor, there is little to recommend this film, other than perhaps Jack Palance’s scenery chewing performance.  Although he is playing the character as crazed, Palance is clearly in control.  His talent is both obvious and remarkable.  The director no doubt meant this as a serious performance, but it is now a stand out example of High Camp at its best.  In fact it now seems clear, given recent performances by Jack Nicholson, Al Pacino and Nicholas Cage, that Jack Palance had as great an influence on American actors as did Brando, Olivier, or Wells.

Sometimes even the most earnest on intentions bring about unintended results, so perhaps it is incorrect to say this film has no merit.  On the contrary, there is enough ridiculousness here to recommend this film for a hot summer night when there is nothing else on.  So pop some corn and enjoy. 

                               Jacques Aubuchon as Emperor Nero

These short scenes from the Turner Classic Movies web site should give you a good feel for the film and the remarkably strange sets:

The DVD is currently available from Amazon.

This Review first appeared on the Ancient Warfare Magazine website in July, 2011
(c)2011 David L Reinke