Avengers: Infinity War – A Science Fiction and Fantasy Movie Review

Spoiler alert.  If you don’t want to know how this movie ends don’t read this.  But just know that I don’t recommend this movie.

Last week was a birthday party for one of my grandsons.  I was talking to my two older grandsons (13 and 10 years old) and told them I’d seen a commercial for The Incredibles Part 2.  They told me it was already out so I told them I’d take them to see it Saturday. (May 19th).  Well I checked the theater listings on Friday and it turns out The Incredibles doesn’t start playing until June.  Not wanting to disappoint the kids I asked them if there was anything else out they wanted to see.  Well, they said The Avengers.  I’d brought them to see the first two and they were pretty good.  But I’d heard that the third one (Civil War) was starting to get lefty preachy so I skipped it.  So, I went to Infinity War with some trepidation.  And I had good cause.

This movie is a hot mess.  They threw everything and the kitchen sink into it.  There’s all the Avenger characters, then they added in the Guardians of the Galaxy crew for good measure.  Then there was someone called Doctor Strange and some stray characters with him.  He seemed to be some kind of imitation Dr. Who – Time Lord character.  Then they threw in the Black Panther characters.  And just in case there was anyone who wanted more, they threw in Spiderman.  All these various characters are working together to defeat Thanos.  He’s collecting the Infinity Stones and if he gets all six of them he’ll be able to perform his plan which is to kill half of all the intelligent beings in the Universe.  There’s all kinds of battles and fights and at the end Thanos wins and his power kills half of the world.  You see half of the Avengers and the other super heroes evaporating into dust.

Now, what the hell kind of Super Hero movie is that to bring kids to?  The good guys lose and half of everyone in the world dies.  Of course, in the next movie they’ll bring them all back to life but what a depressing stupid mess!  Thanks Marvel.  Well I sure hope they don’t ruin the Incredibles too.  Honestly, I’m starting to wonder if the only movies worth watching are from a generation ago.  I’m going to start making a list of the movies that we watched as kids and renting or buying them so the grandkids have stuff worth watching.

Majipoor Chronicles by Robert Silverberg – A Science Fiction Review

Previously I reviewed the first book of this series Lord Valentine’s Castle.  And since I liked that volume I went ahead and bought the other two volumes.  Majipoor Chronicles is constructed as a bridge between the first and third volumes and also serves to fill in as much of the backstory of Majipoor as it can.  One of the minor characters from the first book uses a machine that can record and replay the experiences of a person’s life so that another can virtually relive them as if it were his own life unfolding.  Using this plot device, we are served up a series of short stories varying between twenty and fifty pages in length.  Themes and characters vary.  Some are personal accounts of ordinary people living through the history of this planet.  All the primary characters are humans but the stories sometimes are primarily concerning human/non-human interaction.  Some of the stories involve characters who are major historical figures in the Majipoor world.  And some of the stories shed a light on the unusual place that dreams play in Majipoor life.  And finally, the last story is directly about the hero of the first book, Lord Valentine.

My first comment on the book is that it absolutely cannot be read with first reading Lord Valentine’s Castle.  Without first walking through Majipoor with Valentine on his journey of discovery I think the details and logic of Majipoor life would seem random and confusing.  Without some grounding in the structure of their ruling system and the relations between the sentient species some of the stories would be especially confusing.

The second thing that I want to discuss is the vintage of these books.  They were written at the end of the nineteen seventies and into the nineteen eighties.  During that period science fiction authors were heavily invested in introducing sex as a major component of their stories.  Silverberg was no exception.  So, in addition to normal sexual matters he highlights the oddity of the male protagonist who experiences these mind recordings experiencing sex from the point of view of one of his female subjects.  And in one story at an all woman’s school the fact that two of the women were in an intimate setting has one character wondering if it was an attempted sexual advance.  I think the character more or less says the “Seinfeldian” line, “not that there’s anything wrong with that.”  And later on, there is a sex scene involving a woman and two brothers.  Of course, by today’s standards these are extremely tame but at the time these were boundary testing.  The more bizarre sexual situation involves two human characters in separate stories that engage in sex with non-humans.  In fact, the really odd one has a young woman actually initiating sex with an unemotional, fairly uninterested but polite lizard man who the female character is nursing back to health from a leg injury.  This one was a bit much for me.  I have to admit that my tolerance human woman / lizard man sex is extremely limited.  So that facet of the stories is not entirely to my satisfaction.  As far as his description of normal male female sexuality I thought that was fairly done.  And of course, the adult nature of the books would exclude recommending them to very young people.

Putting aside this second point, which is restricted to a small part of the overall book, I enjoyed the writing and I found several of the stories very original.  Silverberg has a fertile imagination and writes his characters in an interesting and sympathetic manner.  I especially liked the stories that advanced the historical knowledge of Majipoor.  My favorite was the war story, “The Time of the Burning.”  It directly addresses the human colonization of Majipoor and the impact this had on the aboriginal population.  But overall I see Majipoor Chronicles as an interlude between Lord Valentine’s Castle and Valentine Pontifex, the third book of the series.  It’s merely a snack between the main courses.  If you’re reading the series then you must read it because there are a few plot points that would be missed with out it but overall it is more of a background enhancer for the Majipoor world building effort.  Now on to Valentine Pontifex!

Heinlein – What Was He?

I’m a Heinlein fan.  That’s not to say I like everything he wrote.  I believe “I Will Fear No Evil” is remarkably bad.  I know of several other of his books that I don’t think very highly of.  But a lot of what he wrote, especially during his heyday was very good.  And comparing him to those writing at the time when he came on the scene it is striking how much better he was.

So why was that?  What made him so good?  First of all, I think Heinlein happened to be a very intelligent man.  Secondly, he was well educated and this included the fact that he had an upper middle-class upbringing that included good literature.  Thirdly, he had a decent work ethic.  Between these things he probably brought much more to the table than most of his peers.  And finally, I think he modelled his stories not on other science fiction authors but rather on successful authors in the wider literary world.  And I think this has been recognized for a long time.  Many years ago, I read some literary criticism that posited that Heinlein had taken Kipling’s British Raj and mapped it onto the Solar System or some such thing.  Another critic said that Heinlein created America as Science Fiction.  While I don’t think either of these premises are completely true I think they hint at the fact that Heinlein wanted to take science fiction out of its ghetto and make it interesting to the grown-ups.

And to a great extent, he succeeded.  Especially in his early future history stories, the feel is very much of a mid-twentieth-century American dynamism.  It combines wit, enthusiasm and confidence.  It belongs with such other products of the time as John Houston’s motion pictures The Maltese Falcon and Treasure of the Sierra Madre.  He has turned the American Century into the source for his characters and their ethos.  And in some of his stories like Citizen of the Galaxy and Double Star, Heinlein did borrow some of the flavor of Kipling’s British Empire.

But really all this shows is that Heinlein wanted his stories to belong to the Anglo-American tradition of storytelling.  He recognized good work and he incorporated the spirit of the best works from his time and of the literary past that he enjoyed and projected them on the future.

Some might say that he thereby lacked originality.  This may be somewhat true.  But it is also universal.  Even James Joyce when he wrote his stream of consciousness in Ulysses is using Homer for his plot basis.  And to the extent that Ulysses is original it is also a failure as literature.  Every writer borrows from the past.  He has to.  As Solomon said, there is nothing new under the sun.  The trick is making it new and making it your own.  I think Heinlein was well within fair usage.

Coming back to the question of what Heinlein was, I believe he was the right man at the right time.  He was an intelligent, literate American at just the moment in the American Century when science fiction was becoming mainstream and relevant to the culture.  Atomic bombs and space craft were crossing over from science fiction to front page headlines.  Science fiction readers were seeing their stories become respectable and even literary.  Legitimate periodicals included some of the more refined writers between the glossy covers.

Will we see his like again?  I would have to say no.  Not so much because he was some towering genius, but because the times have changed.  No one would mistake our present culture for 1930s America.  Even in the depths of the Great Depression there was an optimism and solidarity that just doesn’t exist anymore.  Authors today reflect that despair.  And maybe that is interesting to some, a sort of decline of the Roman Empire sensibility, but I don’t think it lends itself to good storytelling.  Even in the most realistic story I think you need something beyond fatalism and ennui.  Otherwise it feels like the story is not even worth your time to read.

But, of course, maybe a change is just around the corner and an American renaissance is on the horizon.  Well, if that’s the case, I better reread Green Hills of Earth.  Delilah and the Space Riggers?  Sure why not?

Galaxy’s Edge – Galactic Outlaws – A Science Fiction Book Review

Back in January I reviewed Legionnaire, the first volume in the Galaxy’s Edge series by Jason Anspach & Nick Cole.  That story was a straight up mil-sf story set in a future where the human race has spread into the galaxy and formed a “Republic” of worlds.  At the point in this Universe’s history that Legionnaire takes place, the Republic is beginning to devolve into an empire, ruled over by an elite that controls the rich central systems, with an underclass occupying the rest of the galaxy and the edge of the galaxy as an outlaw haven where even the powerful Legion can do little but skirmish with the rebels and pirates that abound out there.  By the end of that story it’s apparent that all the skill and valor of the remnant of faithful soldiers is being frittered away for political points by the bureaucrats that call the shots and wield the Legion as a bludgeon against the innocent inhabitants of the poorer sectors of the Republic.  As I said back in January, it is an engaging military tale.

So, what have Anspach and Cole done for an encore?  It appears that Legionnaire merely set the stage for the main event.  This is going to be a space opera of epic proportions.  And it’s easy to see what they intend to do is follow the space opera play book but dial it up to eleven.  And in doing so they are following in a long tradition.  Most recently, George Lucas mined that vein for all it would pay with his Star Wars franchise.  His rebels revolting against a republic that has turned into an evil empire is the latest iteration of a story that goes back to the actual Roman Empire and the tales of Brutus and Spartacus and Masada.

And when I say they’ve dialed it up to eleven I’m not kidding.  The text is full of little blatant references to dialog and images reflecting some scene from Star Wars or Firefly.  It was kind of fun finding them.  And whole characters are parodied.  There is a princess with the rebels named Leenah.  There is a plucky scoundrel in a freighter who rescues the princess.  There is a bot that guards a young damsel in distress.  The bot speaks with some combination of the diction of C3P0 and the Operative from Serenity.  You can literally hear the toff British accent.  And then to make sure you don’t miss any ingredients they are sometimes doubled.  So, there are two scoundrels with freighters helping damsels in distress.  There are two damsels in distress.  There are two bounty hunters.

And there’s even a cantina.  There are mob warlords with bounties on the plucky scoundrels.  There is something like a dark lord whose name is Goth Sullus.  So far there are no Jedi Knights but some of the characters seem to live forever so something’s going on there.

Suffice it to say that a lot of stuff is going on.  And by the end of the book you can see that this is just the beginning of the story.

And now, what do I think of all this?  Well, I have a theory about space opera.  I believe that space opera has the potential to be very good or very bad.  It entirely depends on the imaginative powers and writing skills of the author.  Take an E. E. Doc Smith or an Edgar Rice Burroughs and you get the Lensman stories or Barsoom, fun and excitement.  Take the likes of George Lucas and you end up with Jar Jar Binks or the latest Disney feminist trope with a light saber.

The good news is this is fun space opera.  None of the damsels in distress rescue the hero.  No one mentions race or gender studies terminology and the good guys aren’t ashamed of being good.  I’m pretty sure the authors have included the homages to Star Wars imagery to sort of point out that the story doesn’t have to be bad just because of the space opera tropes.  It just requires the story and characters to be interesting, likable and fun.  And in this case they are.  So if you like your space opera right up front without too much artistic restraint then I’d recommend Galactic Outlaws.

Lord Valentine’s Castle by Robert Silverberg – A Science Fiction & Fantasy Book Review

A while back TomD gave me an SF&F book recommendation. He said that Silverberg’s Majipoor series was a combination of science fiction and fantasy.  At the time I couldn’t think of anything I’d read that fell into that category.  Well, my brain is old so I’ll plead that because after thinking about it awhile I remembered that Zelazny’s Lord of Light had aspects that fit both mythology and science fiction.  So I sent away to Bezos’s megamonopoly and received the three volumes in the series.  And of course it was interesting to see that on the cover of the first book (Lord Valentine’s Castle) that Zelazny had provided a positive blurb.  He said it was a picaresque tale.  And as it turned out, he was exactly right.  I’ll cut to the chase with the verdict.  I liked the story.  Now you’ll get the ponderous literary review.

So how can it be both a fantasy and science fiction? The story takes place on a planet called Majipoor.  It was a world colonized by humans via space travel more than ten thousand years before the story unfolds.  So there’s the science fiction.  And the humans seemed to have also brought along a number of sentient species to live on Majipoor from other planets.  These various species and the humans interact as good neighbors, for the most part, in a civilization of twenty to thirty billion souls that comfortably fits on the giant world of Majipoor.  Now here comes the fantasy.  This world is ruled by four beings designated, the Coronal, the Pontifex, The Lady of the Isle of Sleep and the King of Dreams.  The first two of these individuals performed much as the Augustus and Caesar of the later Roman Empire did, being a senior and junior king appointed to rule a gigantic state.  But the second two, the Lady and the King intervened in Majipoor by sending dreams to the inhabitants.  It is this dream life that lends a fantasy element to the story.  And just to lend a fantasy aspect to the surroundings most of the technology is more or less of a pre-industrial vintage.  But there are exceptions.  Beasts of burden pull the carts and wagons of the inhabitants but the wagons are actually placed on anti-gravity modules.  So, whatever power provides anti-gravity doesn’t also produce forward locomotion.  Very odd.

So this is the background. The narrative follows a very engaging fellow named Valentine who ends up on a journey to discover his past and his destiny.  He meets many interesting and amusing characters and even learns an interesting skill, juggling.  It sounds odd and doesn’t seem to have anything to do with either science fiction or fantasy but it makes for an interesting and entertaining read.  And that is the definition of a picaresque story.

Silverberg has invested a substantial amount of effort building up the background and scenery of Majipoor. He has given us the canvas.  There are several other volumes in the series and I like it enough to continue on to the next volume.  But I want to clarify a couple of things.  This isn’t the Lord of the Rings.  There is no solemn morality play underlying Majipoor.  It is a sunny world where the good guy gets the girl and the crown and juggling and wine are their own reward.  Read it for the inventiveness and the story.  No profundity impinged on my reading but it was fun.  Recommended for folks who like their fiction fun.

The Promethean – A Science Fiction Book Review

I previously read Owen Stanley’s novel “The Missionaries.”  That was a satire about primitive people running up against the insanity of United Nations social engineering.  Because I enjoyed his writing I figured I’d give “The Promethean” a whirl.  This book takes place in the same world as “The Missionaries” but since the subject involves humanoid robots and human-level artificial intelligence I’ve slightly stretched the definition by including it in science fiction.  But it also could be called a social satire or a social comedy.

The title is an echo of the full title of Mary Shelley’s novel “Frankenstein; or the Modern Prometheus.”  In our case Dr. Frankenstein is represented by Harry Hockenheimer, a depressed American billionaire approaching forty and feeling like a failure.  The mundane source of his vast wealth left him scientifically unfulfilled.  He desired to create a scientific marvel and what he decides on is a robot so advanced in mind and body that it can fool all even the most intelligent audience.

The story proceeds from his plan to secretly build his man in England to the adventures of his creation, Frank Meadows interacting with modern British society in its various facets, from a small town pub, to appearing on a day time reality television show, to a University faculty dinner, and finally to an invitation at 10 Downing Street.

Along the way we meet several interesting characters who represent various facets of society and various philosophical bents including the scourge of our age, the Social Justice Warriors.  But from my point of view, the most interesting character is a Scotsman academic, Dr. Habakkuk McWrath, Reader in Extreme Celtic Studies.  His pugnacious and colorful speech inspires Frank to assert his humanity even in the face of the Three Laws of Robotics.

And the book concludes at its absurd climax.  And what is the lesson of this social satire?  I really don’t know.  Perhaps it is just that humanity has reached a point where a rational appraisal of modern life can no longer find a reason to continue.  The absurdity of what we do and why we do it has finally reached a point where scrapping the whole enterprise and starting over is the best way forward.  But that is just my guess.  Let’s just say it is a tale questioning the definition of intelligent life.  It’s a moderate length story, about 170 pages and moves right along.  I liked it but I will caution that it is a mild tale and cannot be mistaken for an adventure story.  More of a droll cautionary tale of the world we now inhabit.

 

Attack of the Fifty Foot Woman – A Science Fiction Movie Review

(Reviewer’s Note:  I watched this movie almost three weeks ago and put it aside without finishing it because much better things were going on.  Now that I’ve decided to finish it, I find that I’ve forgotten some of the details.  Please forgive any vagueness or inaccuracies.  Merciful forgetfulness has shielded me from a vivid memory of this dreck.  But believe me when I say that this movie is as bad or worse than I represent it.  Enjoy.)

As a worthy successor to a recent review (One Million B.C.) I have another TCM .  Here is a movie that cries out for mockery.  It has a plot so weak that I believe the writer must have been either a heroin addict, a congenital idiot or a democrat.  This was a year after sputnik launched so the UFO is a big silver ball.  The alien is a giant and he more or less fills up the whole ball.  He’s a big bald-headed guy wearing a short dress that looks like it was stolen from the costume closet of the movie Spartacus.  For some reason that probably didn’t even make sense to the writer, the giant is searching for diamonds.  Alright, so much for the science fiction, such as it is.  Now for the human interest.  Harry and Nancy are a married couple with problems.  Nancy is rich and has problems involving drinking and mental instability and Harry has a wandering eye for the ladies.  When first we see him he’s at what looks like a diner with a blonde vixen named Honey wrapped around him complaining about how his rich wife won’t give him more money to spend on booze and trashy women.  Honey is sympathetic.  He has a plan to get Nancy’s money by having her committed to a mental institution.  Honey is sympathetic again.

Switch scenes to Nancy driving along the roads of some southwestern landscape, cactus, sage brush and sand in all directions.  She seems sad and drunk.  And as she sadly, drunkenly drives along she sees giant sputnik flying around in the sky in a completely unconvincing imitation of anything moving through the air.  Eventually it lands on the road in front of her.  Nancy brakes into the shoulder and witnesses a truly unconvincing special effects portrayal of a fifty-foot alien coming out of a forty-foot sputnik.  Most of the scene centers on Nancy screeching uncontrollably and trying to avoid the giant as he tries to paw her with his six-foot-long giant hand.  Later on, we’ll learn that he somehow knew she was wearing a big diamond on a necklace.  So, after a short encounter Nancy runs off leaving her car and stumbles into town.  Telling the sheriff about the giant increases her reputation for being nuts.  The sheriff tells his deputy to find Harry and tell him to bring Nancy home for a rest and a visit to the head shrinker.

Meanwhile Harry is now ensconced with Honey and bribes the deputy to say he couldn’t find him.  Hearing Nancy’s story from the deputy gets Harry and Honey thinking that their big chance to have Nancy permanently locked up in a rubber room is at hand.  They celebrate by going to Honey’s hotel room.

Eventually Harry goes to claim Nancy at the sheriff’s office.  She nags at him until he agrees to go back for her car and see if her story is true.  They find her car but the alien comes back.  Harry fires a few rounds at the alien then bolts in fear.  The alien catches Nancy and Harry drives off without her.  Harry returns home and discovers that the alien has returned Nancy.  She is lying unconscious on the roof of the pool house.  She has scratches around her neck and her diamond is gone.  Later on a doctor tells us that there are obvious signs of radioactivity.  Science!

Now the sheriff decides he must act.  He and the deputy agree to go out to where her car was and prove that there was nothing strange going on.  Unfortunately, when they find her car they also find the space ship.  The sheriff and the deputy go inside the space ship.  Here they walk through a few rooms that seem to be sized for normal humans.  And so, we have to ask ourselves how exactly does this giant fit in this space craft?  In rough dimensions it appears that he would have to be curled into a fetal position just to fit into the diameter of the ship.  And that is supposing that it was completely hollow.  How would that allow these walls and floors to exist?  And thus, my theory that the writer was a congenital idiot.

In one room they find a bunch of diamonds.  Nancy’s diamond is there.  They theorize on the scientific reasons why the giant wants diamonds.  Science!  When the giant returns they battle him with a pistol and a shot gun.  I think I remember they blow either him or his space ship up with the shot gun.  But I’m not sure.  I think I was starting to lose interest at this point.

Doctors are summoned and Nancy is sedated.  Harry plots putting poison in her IV drip but before he has a chance to she becomes a fifty-foot woman.  Of course, all we see is her giant hand inside a room in the house.  Eventually she goes berserk and breaks through the roof of the house and goes on a rampage looking for Harry.  Now she is dressed in an impromptu fifty-foot brassiere and mini-skirt supposedly fashioned out of bed sheets.  And all things considered she looks pretty good!  At this point I reflected on the comparison between pretty and gigantic Nancy and normal sized but skanky looking Honey.  Sure, the disparity in size might lead to marital difficulties but her huge size would guarantee that Harry would be pampered by his huge wife like some kind of rag doll, probably carried in her apron pocket and fed huge crumbs that collected on her clothes as she ate her huge meals.  Well, enough of this random speculation.

Nancy goes on a rampage through town looking for Harry.  Finally she pulls the roof off of the diner and finds Harry and Honey cowering in a corner.  Nancy crushes Honey and grabs Harry in one hand and walks away.  Finally the sheriff fires his shotgun at Nancy and hits an electric substation which explodes and kills Nancy.  And Harry is dead too, although it’s uncertain if he dies from the explosion, the fall or from being crushed by a death spasm in his wife’s hand.

I ask you, is there a more ridiculous movie?  Some will point to “Plan Nine From Outer Space” as a paragon of bad movie making and there is much justice in that.  But compare the budgets of these two movies.  “Attack of the Fifty Foot Woman” had a budget of $80,000.  Looking at Plan Nine it would surprise me if $500 was expended.  Unless you can claim that Plan Nine is one hundred and sixty times worse than Attack then you must admit that pound for pound, Plan Nine is a better movie.  So, let’s hail Attack of the Fifty-Foot Woman as the movie that provided least for the money expended.

 

2001: A Space Odyssey – A Science Fiction Movie Review

(Warning, this whole review is one long spoiler.  In my defense this movie is 49 years old.)

The only good thing about The Academy Awards is that for the whole month before, TCM plays many good (and not so good) old movies.  Last night I watched 2001.  As the exit music was finishing it occurred to me that this was the first time in almost fifty years that I had watched the movie from beginning to end.  Back in 1968 I attended the film in a large theater in Manhattan as part of a class trip.  At the time I was a sci-fi fan but I distinctly remember becoming incredibly bored during the “Infinity” sequence.  And sure enough, last night I found my eyes glazing over as I waited for Keir Dullea to stop making funny faces and show up in Versailles.  And then it also occurred to me that it was actually a very, very good movie.  So, let’s talk about it.  You already know I don’t like the “Infinity” sequence.  But I find the rest of the film is excellent.  Not everybody cares for Kubrick’s style in film-making.  There is a great deal of stylization and idiosyncratic imagery that bothers many people.  And without a doubt it is highly un-naturalistic.  In fact, the ape men were the most realistic as personalities.  The other characters are decidedly wooden.

But without a doubt this movie is an amazing spectacle.  The matching of images to the musical soundtrack is perfect.  The sequences of space ships landing and maneuvering are shown as if they were dancers in a ballet.  The “Dawn of Man” sequence is riveting.  I could believe that the actual event was very much like the portrayal (minus the monolith of course).  It captured the essence of human ingenuity.  The desperate and sordid circumstances of that ingenuity ring true.

And then there’s HAL.  I hate HAL.  I always have.  But he is the perfect Frankenstein Monster.  And the arc of his crime and punishment is, for me, a thing of hideous beauty.  His relations with the astronauts are as creepy and dishonest as some Dickens villain, something like Uriah Heep.  Some people feel sadness when Dave lobotomizes HAL and reduces him to the level of a two-year-old singing “Daisy.”  I never shared that sadness.  I guess I’m more Old-Testament.

So, that brings us back to the “Infinity” sequence which sucks.  But following it we have what I call the “Versailles” scene where I guess Dave lives his life out as a captive of the monolith makers.  This is weird and I guess necessary to set up the conclusion.  Dave dies and is reborn as the next stage of human evolution.  And he is returned to our solar system and the picture ends with him floating above earth to the sequence of “Thus Spake Zarathustra” and “The Blue Danube Waltz” playing us out.

In sum we have a fifty year old movie that is still visually stunning, that addresses the inexplicable advance of savage animals to the brink of interplanetary travel and the frightening prospect of facing our masters in artificial intelligence.  What’s not to like?  Well he could have added a few good-looking space babes but nobody’s perfect.

One Million B.C. – A Science Fiction Movie Review

Turner Classic Movies is a mixed bag. They do play a lot of good old movies.  But then you have to endure Alec Baldwin or Tina Fey talking to the insufferable host, Ben Mankiewicz about movies or anything else.  Well anyway, they’ve been playing a lot of old bad sci-fi movies lately.  It’s been great.  I’ll give my thoughts on them.  This is usually a combination of nostalgia and shock.  I’ve seen most of these movies before but in some cases I haven’t seen them in over fifty years.  Neither they nor I have aged well and so the re-acquaintance is sometimes off-putting to say the least.  Both these movies and my younger self have lost a lot of respect in my current eyes.  But today’s movie is a treat because I actually never saw this epic before.  And first off do not mistake this masterpiece for the sound alike “One Million Years BC” re-make with Raquel Welch.

This is the 1940 masterpiece with those two towering thespians Lon Chaney Jr. and Victor Mature. Honestly this movie should get a special award for unbelievably bad special effects.  But special effects is just the tip of the iceberg.  The cheesiness of the sets, the really bad acting and the silliness of the plot combine to create a feast of cinematic awfulness.  I loved it.

One of my favorite scenes has Victor Mature as caveman Tumak poking a seven foot tall miniature Tyrannosaurus rex in the stomach with his poorly made spear.  The monster is so obviously a man in a cloth suit that it’s hard not to burst out laughing, and actually I did.  Only slightly less silly are the real animals like dogs, goats, cows and even elephants covered in fake hair to make them “prehistoric-looking.”  Especially funny is the armadillo with horns glued onto its head.  It has been magnified to be the size of an elephant.  But it doesn’t seem to be doing anything particularly dangerous.  But the cavemen do look really scared of it.  Equally frightening to the cavemen are magnified images of modern day reptiles.  There are tegus and rhinoceros iguanas and even a baby alligator with a fake sailfish sail glued to its back.  One interesting historical circumstance is the fact that several of the reptiles are noticeably harmed by each other in some fight scenes including one tegu that is obviously killed in a fight with the fake sailfish alligator.  Nowadays the Humane Society would have the film-makers drawn and quartered for so much as stressing out a mosquito on set.  Progress!

But where the movie really shines is the portrayal of caveman tribal dynamics. Tumak is the son of the clan leader Akhoba (played by  Lon Chaney Jr).  When Tumak accidentally attacks Akhoba for trying to steal a chunk of dino-burger.  Akhoba throws him off a cliff.  After this he wanders away and ends up being adopted by a more enlightened clan.  They’re probably from Scandinavia because they have blondes, good table manners and neutered males.  After he gets ejected from the new tribe for beating a spear maker who objected to being robbed Tumak ends up back at the old clan cave with his blonde girlfriend in tow.  Apparently she likes the bad boy type and thinks she can fix him.  While Tumak was gone Akhoba has been demoted from chief to crippled loser after being severely injured in a fight with a giant goat.  Breaking with caveman etiquette Blondie institutes women and children and crippled losers first at food distribution time.  Surprisingly, Tumak is supportive of the new arrangement.  Progress!

Well anyway there soon ensues a crisis involving a volcanic eruption and a giant iguana that ends up with both clans coming together with Tumak as the new chief. The End.

Wow. This movie must be seen by all science fiction fans.  Afterwards you’ll have a new found respect for stop action animation or even well-made monster suits.  Only recommended if you really enjoy very bad sci-fi.

Science Fiction TV Series Review – Stranger Things – First Season

Full disclosure, I am the only one I know who still uses Netflix for DVDs and doesn’t stream.  Oh, the shame of it all!  So last month the first season of Stranger Things became available to rent on Netflix (or as it’s now known DVD.com) and they sent me the two discs.  I was busy with life and the holidays so I watched it after the Christmas during some time off from work.  For anyone who hasn’t seen it but is interested or for anyone who wants my opinion here are my thoughts.

Let me start with the strongest impression the show left.  Almost everyone in the show is not particularly likeable.  Let me expand.  Many of the characters are annoying or worse.  In particular, the character who should most attract our sympathy, the mother of the missing boy, played by Winona Ryder, is hands down in the top three of the most annoying characters I’ve ever seen in a movie or tv.  Several times I was hoping the town sheriff would pull out his gun and shoot her or at least pistol whip her to make her shut up.  There was one character I liked.  He was a strong, caring, humorous, warm, responsible, regular guy who used good judgement and compassion to help a troubled runaway pre-teen.  He was shot in the head about six minutes after his first screen appearance.  After that it was annoying nerds, arrogant jocks, clueless suburban parents, alcoholic lawmen and nefarious government officials all the way down.  Eventually the hell-spawned creature makes some appearances, and interestingly, I found myself kind of rooting for him.  At least he didn’t blather on.

The season is eight episodes long and I finished them.  After reading what I just wrote, you may be wondering why I did finish them.  Well, surprisingly, I found myself sucked into the story.  Maybe this was an artifact of having all the episodes in front of me, time available to watch them and post-Christmas-Feast stupefaction.  But for some reason, at the end of each episode I wanted to see the next one.  And even after I knew how it would go I wanted to see it through to the end.

So, what’s my recommendation?  Well, guarded at best.  The plot is some kind of bastard spawn of Stephen King, Steven Spielberg and the X-Files.  The tropes are hackneyed and the characters, as mentioned, are mostly stereotypes and annoying ones at that.  Two episodes in you know how it will go and who will do what.  Honestly if someone had told me this ahead of time, there is no way I would have watched it.  But now that I have watched it I’m wondering if I should wait the year and watch Season 2.  My gut tells me that there is no way to make the next season even as mildly interesting as this first season.  And the thought of listening to Winona Ryder screeching at her unfortunate neighbors again is hard to justify.

I was starting to like how the sheriff usually settled difficult negotiations by punching people in the face.  His timing was really good.  The sheriff, played by an actor named David Harbour, is a big guy who drinks too much and sleeps around with the various lonelier ladies of the small midwestern town where the story takes place.  I found him the only character that I actually believed might exist in the real world.  But is seeing Sheriff Hopper pummel various “men in black” enough of a reason to sit through this thing again?  I doubt it, but it’ll be a whole year before I have to make that decision and pickings are so slim, so who knows.  Anyway, consider yourself warned, if a review that’s a year behind the times can be considered a warning.