Thursday, March 19, 2015

"What is this turning into? A goddamned movie blog?"

No, not at all.  But watching Star Trek: The Motion Picture led me to check out a few other sci-fi films of the late 70s/early 80s, and I'm writing about one of those today.  I've got to justify my monthly expenditure on Netflix somehow. Allow me to briefly draw you attention to the slightly obscure Saturn 3.

The opening shot is once again,  big ass spaceship.

Released in early 1980, a mere three months after ST:TMP, Saturn 3 boasts a ridiculous amount of talent on board; much more talent than you'd need for a low budget film designed to ride on the coattails of Star Wars. The director was Stanley Donen, a true Hollywood legend from the glory days of MGM's Technicolor musicals.  His past credits included On the Town, Singing in the Rain, Funny Face and Charade. The principal roles are filled by Kirk Douglas, in one of this last theatrical starring performances; Farrah Fawcett, who was one of the most famous women in the world in 1980; and none other than Harvey Keitel, hot off a series of amazing performances in Taxi Driver, The Duelists and Fingers. On top of this, the script was written by frickin' Martin Amis, who'd achieve literary fame a few years later with his novel Money. Throw in Oscar-winning cinematographer Billy Williams and an Elmer Bernstein score, and you've got one overqualified cast and crew.

Saturn 3 feels like a typical early/mid 70s Hollywood sci-fi movie being forced into a Star Wars-shaped box. The small cast and claustrophobic sets give it a Silent Running* feel. The slightly dystopian theme brings to mind Logan's Run and Soylent Green. The movie is often thought to be influenced by Alien (which it resembles in some ways, but Alien reached theaters only 9 months earlier, and Saturn 3 had been in development since 1975.) The film was conceived by John Barry, a production designer on Clockwork Orange, Phase IV, and Superman. Barry was the original director, but dropped out a couple weeks into filming, leading to Donen, the film's producer, to finish shooting the movie. Barry immediately went on to do second unit directing for The Empire Strikes Back. While working on Empire, he contracted meningitis and suddenly died.

Fawcett got involved when British film mogul Lew Grade, whose company ITC was producing Saturn 3, got seated next to her on an airplane flight.  With Fawcett on board, the movie suddenly became a more important project. Needing a big name male lead, the producers considered Sean Connery and Micheal Caine. They weren't available at that time, and Douglas ended up with the role. Despite the top tier names on the marquee, Saturn 3 wasn't really a big budget special effects orgy ala ST:TMP.  Upon release, it was widely mocked for it's cheap looking miniatures and matte paintings. A couple shots were simply borrowed from ITC's TV show Space: 1999. Thankfully, these sequences are confined to a short sequence near the beginning, when Keitel flies a small space ship to the third moon of Saturn. Once he lands, the rest of the running time is spent inside the confines of Douglas and Fawcett's research station. This set is, quite frankly, pretty damned cool looking, so after the first 15 minutes, it's all smooth sailing, visually.

Goofy looking miniatures sank Saturn 3's  chances to be the next Star Wars.

Despite the sci-fi setting, Saturn 3 basically uses the old "trapped in a house with a killer" psychological horror format. The movie opens in a space station. Keitel's character kills one of his fellow officers in order to impersonate him. He does this by opening a hatch, causing his victim to be sucked into the vacuum of space, hitting some wires on the way out which literally tear him into bloody shreds. This shocking opening bit grabs your attention. Regrettably, nothing else in the movie has the same visceral impact as this scene. Taking the place of the captain he murdered, Keitel travels to the remote Saturn 3 research lab, carrying with him a new type of robot, powered by cloned human brain cells. The lab is manned solely by Kirk Douglas and his assistant/girlfriend Farrah Fawcett. The physically imposing, humanoid "Demigod" model robot is programmed by connecting directly to Keitel's brain. Unfortunately, since Keitel is a homicidal maniac who killed the robot's intended trainer, things go quickly awry. The robot murders Keitel and attempts to hunt down Douglas and Fawcett. I think the parallels with Frankenstein will be obvious.

Not a great idea to have the most shocking scene at the very beginning.

We don't learn much about human society outside of the lab, but hints of overpopulation of mass drug abuse are dropped. The purpose of the Saturn 3 lab is apparently to research hydroponic methods for increasing food production. Keitel arrives with a stash of pills with names like "Blue Dreamers," and it's implied that the human population on Earth is kept under control through sex and drugs. Keitel's characters speaks in an unemotional monotone and immediately informs Fawcett that he is attracted to her and requests to "use" her body for his pleasure When she reacts with digust, he informs her that such relationships are normal on Earth. The old-fashioned Douglas, a man with 20th century values and who has a monogamous romantic relationship with Fawcett, is mocked by Keitel as having no place in the world anymore.

Scenes like this make up about 30% of the movie, it feels like.

Saturn 3 spends a suprising amount of time on Douglas and Fawcett making pillow talk while longuing around in their bathrobes. They've created a mini-paradise for themselves on Saturn 3 and are counting the days until Keitel leaves. One issue: it seems like Keitel is the only one who is actually doing any real work at the lab. We are supposed to relate to this pair of lovebirds, but Keitel has a point when he yells at them for failing to produce results while people on Earth are starving. The first 2/3 of Saturn 3 consists of slowly building tension between Keitel and Douglas/Fawcett. Once the robot goes rouge, we are treated to 15 minutes Douglas and Fawcett being chased around the corridors. Eventually, Douglas, realizing that he IS a bit a relic, straps some bombs to himself and blows the robot up.

Cool set design. Cool killer robot design.

Upon release, Saturn 3 was rejected by critics and audiences and died at the box office. It received Golden Raspberry nominations for worst picture, actor and actress. 30 plus years later, it just seems like a nice, harmless sci-fi film, and currently holds a respectable 5/10 rating on IMDB. However, it does very much feel like a movie put together by some old Hollywood dudes trying to make a quick buck off of that Star Wars bullshit. At times it is very stagey looking, and feels incredibly set-bound. There are some very cool looking sets, and the killer robot is sufficiently scary looking. But somehow, Douglas and Fawcett just don't fit into Saturn 3's futuristic world very convincingly.  Kirk Douglas was simply not made for science fiction films. Also, you may get creeped out by the huge age difference between the two. Saturn 3 exists in the 1960s-70s movie tradition of romantically pairing a young woman with someone waaaay older.  (See also, George C Scott and Julie Christie in Petulia and Donen's own Funny Face with Fred Astaire and Audrey Hepburn). Douglas displays an ample amount of his naked, sagging flesh in the movie. The fact that he is biologically old enough to be Fawcett's grandfather makes their love scenes a bit icky.

An example of the stylized, artificial looking sets.

My verdict: An entertaining failure. A brief epilog: Sean Connery did end up staring in a similar sci-fi movie, Outland in 1981, which takes place on a moon of Jupiter instead of Saturn. Like Saturn 3, Outland was a joint Hollywood/UK effort, and also featured a grisly, space vacuum-themed death. I suspect I'll post my thoughts on this eventually.

*The 1972 movie directed by Douglas Trumball, special effects guy on ST:TMP. Silent Running seems to have had an influence on Star Wars and Aliens. Trumball also worked on The Andromeda Strain, directed by ST:TMP's Robert Wise. Hollywood is a small town in many ways.

Tuesday, March 10, 2015

Star Side-Tracked

Sometimes I feel like I ignore this blog, and leave it pretty much unattended between  announcements of new Chrontendo videos. So here's a quick little project I'll throw into  the works (my previous little project, reviewing all of Russian River's 'religious' beers got cut short due to the fact that those beers are now impossible to find.)

This particular project was inspired by the estimable Bill Mudron, an artist you might know from his illustration of movie reviewer Mr. Plinkett. He does all kinds of art based on videogames and other nerdy stuff. He was talking about the Star Trek movies, and I mentioned I had not seen all of them, and probably have not seen any of them since their original release. Bill let me know that all the movies were currently available on Netflix streaming, which seemed like a good excuse for me to flesh out my Star Trek knowledge and then serve up my terrible Star Trek opinions. I'll start this today with 1979's Star Trek: The Motion Picture.

One caveat: I am not a Star Trek fanatic.  I think Star Trek is OK. I will only be covering the six original ST movies, since I do not give one shit about the various spin-offs such as Next Generation, Babylon 5, Enterprise, etc. I will not engage in any Star Trek geekery here and will look at these movies with the cold, clear eye of a man who has no special attachment to any of them.

Of the six Star Trek feature films, Star Trek: The Motion Picture is the weirdest, and in some ways, most interesting, of the bunch. It was also the biggest money maker of the six, based on the original theatrical runs. It's the only one directed by a renowned filmmaker, namely Robert Wise, winner of two Best Director Oscars. Wise was an editor before he became a director, and one of his editing credits was Citizen Kane. Let that sink into your skulls for a moment. The guy who made the first Star Trek movie had Citizen fucking Kane on his resume. His lengthy directorial credits included the early sci-fi movie The Day the Earth Stood Still, as well as West Side Story and The Sound of Music. Just to remind you, The Sound of Music is, to this day, the third biggest money making movie of all time. Wise mostly made big, high budget, all-star movies, so bringing him aboard was a sign of Paramount's seriousness when it came to this movie.

Classic Bob Peak artwork on the poster.
A bit of backstory: the original Star Trek series ran for three seasons, from 1966 to 1969. It was cancelled due to low ratings but quickly began a second life in syndication.  Now as a person who was born in the 70s, I can assure you that every single kid in the country was familiar with Star Trek at the time The Motion Picture was released. Star Trek was inescapable in the 70s. Syndicated reruns aired constantly. ST novels hit the shelves starting in 1970, and an animated TV series aimed at kids debuted in 1973. Mego launched a line of Star Trek action figures in 1975. Gold Key published a Star Trek comic throughout the 70s.  Star Trek fans launched a letter-writing campaign to change the name of the new space shuttle to The Enterprise. Gerald Ford agreed to the name change. So by 1976, Star Trek was such a established cultural institution that the president was cool with naming a multi-gazillion dollar aerospace project after the show.

Star Trek was hugely popular among kids in the 70s

Resurrecting Star Trek was a foregone conclusion by this point, and a protracted attempt to do so had begun around 1972. Plans to make a Star Trek film were jettisoned, but Paramount attempted to launch a new Trek TV series in 1977.  In addition to the original cast, roles for new characters were created, such as Will Decker, and Ilia, who was to be played by Indian actress/model Persis Khambatta.  The new series obviously never happened, since Paramount decided to opt for a theatrical movie instead, following the huge success of Star Wars and Close Encounters of the Third Kind. The intended first episode of the new TV series, "In Thy Image," was expanded into a film script. The new characters, Decker and Ilia were carried over. Gene Rodenberry was given the position of producer. Sets were hastily rebuilt.  Paramount felt they were in a race against time, as they assumed the post Star Wars sci-fi movie fad would soon run its course.

Persis Khambatta in a test shot for the TV show project.

Aside from Robert Wise, Paramount brought in some big names like special effects guy Douglas Trumbull, who previously worked on 2001 and Close Encounters. (Interestingly, his father worked on Star Wars.) Also Richard Yuricich from Close Encounters was hired and John Dykstra, from Star Wars, had some involvement. (Dykstra got the Star Wars job because Doug Trumball was already committed to Close Encounters.  Special FX was an incestuous scene at the time.) The point is that Paramount was dedicated to making a Close Encounters-sized hit. The resulting picture was more expensive than Star Wars and Close Encounters combined.  When it finally premiered in December 1979, it had the best opening weekend of the year. Star Trek: The Motion Picture made a nice chunk of money, but it wasn't exactly Star Wars money. It was generally considered a bit of a disappointment at the box office, since it only made $150 million, instead of $300 million. By comparison, it made more money, adjusted for inflation, than American Sniper or Guardians of the Galaxy.

Despite its relative financial success, the involvement of names like Roddenberry, Robert Wise, Doug Trumball and Syd Mead; its state of the art special effects, and fact that it succeeded in reuniting the original cast and restarting the franchise, Star Trek fans tend to really dislike The Motion Picture. As I mentioned at the top of this post, it's a weird movie, closer in some ways to Kubrick's 2001 than the rest of the Star Trek movies.  It begins much like Star Wars, with special effects shots of spaceships flying through space, in this case Klingon battleships.  Everything in this opening sequence looks expensive. The Klingons have more elaborate makeup than they did in the TV show; the interiors of the Klingon ship look great compared to the drab design and flat lighting ST fans were used to.  The Klingon ships attack some mysterious space cloud and very quickly get themselves disintegrated by the cloud's unstoppable plasma bursts. We then cut to Earth, where Kirk, now an admiral, is preparing to return to active duty and take the Enterprise out to meet the mysterious cloud, which is headed on a course straight to Earth. Simultaneously, Spock is hanging out on Vulcan with a hippie haircut, doing Vulcan things.

Vulcan looks very matte-painty in this movie.

The first third of the movie is the 'getting the old gang back together' bit. Kirk has bulldogged Starfleet command into giving him control of the Enterprise again, (this is not shown) then runs into Scotty who drives him to the recently-updated Enterprise in a little space shuttle. The scene of the shuttle approaching the enterprise it quite interesting. It lasts about 5 minutes, and mostly cuts between shorts of Kirk getting teary-eyed at the sight of his old ship, and impressive special effects shots of the Enterprise as it sits in some kind of space drydock. This sequence is all visual spectacle. There is virtually no dialog, just shots of the Enterprise from every angle, set against orchestral arrangements of TV show's theme music, as the audience gazes in wonder at this new, post-Star Wars imagining of the Enterprise.

This sequence is a tour-de-force of cutting edge, post Star Wars special effects.

Once Kirk is aboard, Uhura, Sulu, Chekhov, etc, all greet him, expressing wonderment at his unexpected appearance. A grumpy, bearded Bones is quickly brought aboard, against his will, and then a bit later, Spock somehow tracks down the Enterprise and flies in using a another little space shuttle.  Now that the original cast is completely reunited,  the Enterprise sets off to stop the giant killer cloud. The remainder of the movie mostly consists of the journey to the center of the cloud, as the crew attempts to solve the mystery of the cloud before it reaches Earth.

Fans, critics and the cast itself generally did not like The Motion Picture.  In theory, the story of an all-powerful yet unknowable alien lifeform menacing Earth could make for an exciting movie.  Yet TMP is almost completely lacking in action and excitement. The crew of the Enterprise are reduced to spectators, watching passively as they drift through the alien cloud. Unlike most episodes of the TV show, the crew remains shipbound for the entire movie. Aside from one scene where the Enterprise gets sucked into a wormhole and has to fire photon torpedoes at an asteroid, everyone mostly sits in their chairs and stares at the bridge's big monitor screen. No phasers are fired, no red shirts are killed, Kirk doesn't engage in any fisticuffs or make love to any alien ladies. The returning cast had complaints about the script not giving them much to do. Uhura, Sulu and Chekov sit at their stations and do nothing other than provide the occasional reaction shot.  Scotty remains stationed in the engine room and makes various comments about the engines not being at full power, etc. The only returning cast members who get any noteworthy dialog are Kirk, Spock, and Bones. Bones exists pretty much to squabble with Spock (which is fine) but mostly stands around on the bridge looking lost. Spock is the movie's deus ex machina, who had an unexplained psychic link to the cloud, and spends the movie telling Kirk what his next move should be.

Psychedelic effects are used for the wormhole sequence.

First time viewers of TMP may be surprised at how much time it spends on the two new characters,  Stephen Collins' Captain Decker and Persis Khambatta's Ilia.  The source of the film's main dramatic conflict is the tension between Kirk and Decker after Kick re-assumes command of the Enterprise. Ilia herself is one of TMP's central images. With her shaved head and high collared white bathrobe outfit, she cuts a striking figure, and she was featured heavily in the film's promotions. Check the movie's poster up there: her face is plastered front and center right between Kirk and Spock's.  It appears she was briefly being positioned to become a major star, with Star Trek TMP as her breakout role. She was considered for a role in an upcoming James Bond movie, but this never came to pass, and she mostly ended up in low-budget flicks after this. MST3K fans will recall her from Warrior of the Lost World, where she was upstaged by Megaweapon. 

People who were around in 1979 still think of ST:TMP as the "one with the bald lady."

Ultimately, I'd say that Star Trek TMP's strange passivity is its greatest failing.  I'll tie this in with a cinematic mini-trend that I have just now thought up: "The Cinema of Spectators." 2001 and Close Encounters of the Third Kind may be the greatest examples of this genre. In the Cinema of Spectators, characters are always staring, wide-eyed and opened mouthed, at some amazing sight unfolding before them. A character's goal may simply be to see something, rather than interact with it. Astronauts travel to the moon to look at the monolith in 2001. Later in that movie, Dave witnesses the secrets of the universe unveiling themselves, just as we viewers do. Dave acts as a stand in for the viewer. Compare Close Encounters with Spielberg's other films, which all involve some kind of spectacle, but non-passive characters. In Jaws, they want to kill the shark; Indiana Jones wants to steal the Ark, Eliot wants to help ET get back home. In contrast, Richard Dreyfus' character in Close Encounters leaves his entire life behind just to get a chance to witness the alien spacecraft again. The classic shot construction in such films is cutting back forth between the character's motionless gaze and the spectacle they are viewing.

Some moments almost feel lifted straight out of 2001.

This is exactly what happens in Star Trek: TMP.  First we have Kirk and Scotty's surprisingly long shuttle trip around the Enterprise. The cloud's attacks on the Klingon warship and a Federation space station are both witnessed by people looking at viewscreens. Once the Enterprise enters the cloud, they cannot attack it or even really communicate with it. All Kirk can do is ponder the cloud's vast and wondrous interior spaces. These special effects scenes are the meat of ST: TMP.  We are treated to countless expensive special effects shots of the enormous alien spaceship in the heart of the cloud. Deigned by Syd Mead, all this stuff is pretty amazing looking, but is treated mostly as background scenery.  Even the film's ending finds Kirk and Spock behaving in a uncharacteristically passive way. Captain Decker sacrifices himself to save the Earth, while everyone else just stands there.*

Countless scenes like this made ST:TMP cost more than Star Wars and Close Encounters combined.

Star Trek: The Motion Picture's over-reliance on spectacular visual effects over action and characterization makes it an interesting failure.  I wouldn't call it boring, per se, but it is a bit frustrating. In some ways it resembles the original series more than the later films (it was sort of a rewrite of a TV episode called "The Changeling.") Regardless, it was not the mammoth success Paramount hoped it would be. The studio reacted by shit-canning Roddenberry, hiring new production staff, and slashing the budget for the sequel by 75%. The result was a film loved by fans young and old, which we'll cover next time.

Lens flares, years before JJ Abrams.

*Spoiler alert! At the center of the gigantic space cloud is an enormous alien spacecraft piloted by a mysterious being called V'Ger, who takes over Ilia's body (sort of.) V'Ger is guiding the cloud to Earth to meet "the creator." Eventually the Kirk and the gang manage to come face to face with V'Ger, who turns out to be an old Voyager space probe (with dirt covering up the "oya" part of the logo) who went thru a black hole to the other end of the universe and somehow merged with some super-advanced race of sentient machines or something. Decker, as one of the human "creators," fuses with V'Ger, perhaps infusing him with human intelligence, and creating a new form of life. Spock stupidly muses that they may have just witnessed the next step in human evolution. Kirk, having completed his mission, decides to immediately hightail it to furthest reaches of space just like they did in the old days, despite having no orders to do so, and not taking into consideration that his crew members might have family members on Earth they might want to check on. (Earth was literally minutes from being vaporized by a super-powerful space being. I assume some crazy end-of-the-world shit went down on the surface while all this was going on.) The End.