Saturday, March 28, 2015

Stubs – Mystery Science Theater 3000: The Movie

Mystery Science Theater 3000: The Movie (1996) Starring: Michael J. Nelson, Trace Beaulieu, Kevin Murphy, Jim Mallon Directed by Jim Mallon. Screenplay by Jim Mallon, Michael J. Nelson, Trace Beaulieu, Kevin Murphy, Mary Jo Pehl, Paul Chapin, Bridget Jones. Based on Mystery Science Theater 3000 created by Joel Hodgson. Produced by Jim Mallon.  Run time: 75 minutes. US. Color. Comedy, Science Fiction

On Thanksgiving night, November 24, 1988, KTMA (now WUCW) channel 22 in Minneapolis, Minnesota began airing Mystery Science Theater 3000; a show created by Joel Hodgson that made fun of bad films, by talking over them and making jokes about the plot, the actors, the direction and the production values. Wrapped around the riffs were live action segments, featuring Joel Robinson (Hodgson), an affable man who worked at the Gizmonic Institute, before being kidnapped and imprisoned in space aboard a dog-bone shaped Satellite of Love by mad scientist Dr. Clayton Forrester (Trace Beaulieu). Joel is forced to watch bad movies as some sort of psychological experiment at the hands of his captor. Joel built several robot friends, Crow T. Robot (voiced by Trace Beaulieu), Tom Servo (voiced mostly by Kevin Murphy) and Gypsy (voiced mostly by Jim Mallon).

Joel Hodgson originated Mystery Science Theater 3000 on KTMA, Minneapolis.

Initially signed for a 13 week run, the show was picked up by Comedy Central, where it ran from 1989 until 1996 and then later on the Sci-Fi channel (now Syfy) from 1997 until 1999. In the middle of season 5 on Comedy Central, Joel left the show and was replaced by Mike Nelson (Michael J. Nelson) as the main tortured protagonist. Hodgson's departure was due to a growing rift with his producing partner, Jim Mallon.

Some (me included) would say that the change was not for the best. It wasn’t so much the parody sections of the show, those were still funny, but the live wrap-arounds, which changed tone and Joel’s more gentle humor was replaced by Nelson’s more brash personality. But the show within a show really seemed to suffer the most in the move to the Sci-Fi channel, when Trace Beaulieu left the show and Dr. Forrester was replaced by mad scientist Pearl Forrester (Mary Jo Pehl), talking chimp Professor Bobo (Kevin Murphy) and Observer (Bill Corbett).

Much of the humor of the show, besides the live action sequences, came from parodying really bad movies. There was always a careful balance that had to be struck between how bad the movie could be and how funny the commentary had to be to keep the viewer interested. If the movie was too bad, then no amount of humor could save the viewing experience.

When the idea to take this concept to the big screen occurred to everyone, the selection of movie was crucial. In this case they chose This Island Earth (1955), directed by Joseph M. Newman and starring Jeff Morrow (Exeter), Faith Domergue (Ruth Adams), Rex Reason (Cal Meacham), Lance Fuller (Brack), Robert Nichols (Joe Wilson) and Russell “and the rest” Johnson (Steve Carlson). This Island Earth, while campy in places, is still considered a classic of its time and genre. And reviewing the film as part of reviewing Mystery Science Theater 3000 is unfair to that film. The movie's running time of 87 minutes had to be cut by 20 minutes to accommodate the MST3K’s run time and several scenes important to the movie were jettisoned. So mention of This Island Earth will be limited here to riffing and a review of that film appears here.

MST3K: The Movie opens with a modified version of the show’s opening. Mad scientist Dr. Clayton Forrester (Trace Beaulieu), working from an underground laboratory, explains the premise of the film, which is he’s forcing them to watch the film, This Island Earth, in an effort to break their wills and then take over the world (he is a mad scientist after all and that’s what they do.)

Evil Dr. Forrester (Trace Beaulieu) explains the premise of the movie.

Up onboard the Satellite of Love, we’re treated to an homage to 2001, A Space Odyssey (1968) as Mike Nelson (Michael J. Nelson) runs in a gravity wheel, which is really more like an exercise wheel you’d find in a guinea pig cage, complete with water dispenser. All seems normal onboard, Gypsy (Jim Mallon) provides Mike with a printout to review. Tom Servo (Kevin Murphy) shows up and asks Mike if he’s interested in finding out what’s making a rhythmic noise, knowing full well that Crow T. Robot (Trace Beaulieu) is behind it.

In the lower decks of the ship, they find Crow, dressed in a World War I army helmet, attempting to dig his way out and even though he does breach the hull, Mike manages to stop further damage by using the helmet to fill the gap.

There is nothing about This Island Earth that avoids getting riffed, as it starts with the opening credits and continues all the way through the film. The production company is Universal-International (“Doesn't the fact that it's universal make it international?”), the starry background (“Who sneezed on the credits?”) and so on. The humor is a mixture of political references, as an example when a jet plane takes off: “John Sununu gets a haircut”; to inside jokes: against the background of stars one of the bots remarks “Look, Orion’s bankrupt” referring to the now defunct movie studio; sexual innuendo about the relationship in the movie between Dr. Cal Meacham and his assistant Joe Wilson; bathroom humor and just plain funny comments and responses.

Nothing is out of line for the MSTK 3000 crew to riff on.

One of the better riffs is in an early scene in Meacham’s lab:

Through a viewport, we see a rectangular metal slab suspended above a squat, boxy metal coil.

Mike: Oh, yeah. This is when science didn't have to have any specific purpose.
Dr. Meacham: Lowering the cylinder.
Servo [as Meacham]: Inserting the breakfast pastry.
Crow [as Narrator]: [darkly] The secret government Eggo project.
Servo [as Meacham]: Contact Dr. Jemima!
Mike [as Meacham]: God, I love the blueberry ones best.

Meacham flips a switch. The toaster-like coil starts to red with heat, and we hear a pinging sound.

Dr. Meacham: Increase the rate of reaction.
Servo [as Meacham]: Start warming the syrup!
Mike [as Meacham]: Yum!

Cal and Joe play with some knobs and dials. The "toaster" emits loud grinding noises.

Dr. Meacham: Check rate of radioactive decay.
Crow [as Meacham]: Increase the Flash Gordon noises and put more science stuff around.

Meachem (Rex Reason) and his assistant watch an experiment go to ruin.

At the end of the experiment, the toaster object blows up.

Mike [as Meacham/Morrison]: Oh, my God! My waffle! Oh, the humanity!

A loud beeping noise follows post-explosion.

Mike: Fries are up!

Mike (Michael Nelson) riffs on This Planet Earth with his
robot friends Crow (Trace Beaulieu) and Servo (Kevin Murphy). 

Like the TV show, there are breaks in the film, including once when the film catches on fire. During one such break, Mike decides to show Crow and Tom that he is a pilot and takes over navigation of the Satellite of Love from Gypsy. The result, Mike flies into the Hubble telescope. His attempt to save the Hubble goes awry as well. Using the satellite’s manipulator arms, called Manos after the series' best known spoof, Mike dislodges the telescope and sets it free to fly like a bird. Instead, it falls from space and burns up in Earth’s atmosphere, leading Crow to chide “You killed the Hubble!”

Mike flies the Satellite of Love (pictured above) into the Hubble telescope.

In another sequence, Tom reveals that he has an interocitor, an alien instrument used in This Island Earth, and the gang goes into his quarters to search for it, hoping it will get them back to Earth. Instead, they make contact with a Matelunan (John Brady), the alien race in the film, who happens to be taking a shower. He tries to help, but no matter what he does, the interocitor sends a red laser beam into Tom. Dr. Forrester intercedes, using his own interocitor, and uses the laser to corral the group back into the movie theater.

When This Island Earth ends, rather than broken by the experience, Mike, Crow, and Tom celebrate with a Metalunan-themed party. Mad at his failure, Dr. Forrester attempts to use his own interocitor to inflict harm on Mike and the others, but only succeeds in transporting himself into the shower with the Metalunan from earlier. Mike and the robots briefly celebrate Dr. Forrester's disappearance, but quickly realize without him they no longer have a way back to Earth. Following this epiphany, Mike says "Hey, wait a minute!" and the crew head back to the theater in time for the movie's ending credits, which they also skewer:

Crow: [talking about the Puppet Wrangler credit for Mystery Science Theater 3000] "Puppet Wrangler"? There weren't any puppets in this movie!

The film, like the TV show, had a niche following and did not do very well at the box-office, bringing in a little over a million dollars during its theatrical run. However, that does not mean the film isn’t very funny. There is really no way to describe the film. Like Airplane! (1980), the jokes come rapid fire and so many hit their mark, that Mystery Science Theater 3000: The Movie is one of the funniest films I’ve ever seen. While some of the jokes, like the swipe at the over indulgences of President George H.W. Bush’s White House Chief of State, might seem dated, the vast majority are still laugh out loud funny after multiple viewings.

If you need a laugh, then you should see Mystery Science Theater 3000: The Movie.

Saturday, March 21, 2015

Stubs – This Island, Earth

This Island, Earth (1955) Starring: Jeff Morrow, Faith Domergue, Rex Reason, Lance Fuller, Russell Johnson, Douglas Spencer, Robert Nichols, Karl L. Lindt, Regis Parton Directed by Joseph Newman.  Screenplay by Franklin Coen,  Edward G. O'Callaghan. Based on the novel This Island, Earth by Raymond F. Jones (Chicago, 1952). Produced by William Alland. Run Time: 88 minutes. U.S.  Color, Horror, Science Fiction

For the sake of full disclosure, before I discuss This Island, Earth, I want to go on record as saying I had not seen this film prior to seeing Mystery Science Theater 3000: The Movie (1996), which I think is one of the funniest movies I’ve ever seen. MST3K: The Movie spends a good portion riffing on this film. However, seeing MST3K prompted me to want to see This Island, Earth for myself in its entirety. I promise I will refrain from making references to the riffing and concentrate on this film, as it deserves to be reviewed on its own. But we do have a separate review of Mystery Science Theater 3000: The Movie coming soon.

As we’ve discussed previously on Trophy Unlocked, the 1950s seemed to be the heyday for a certain type of film genre, Science Fiction. Blame it on the A-bomb, the Red scare, the public’s interest in space travel or what have you, but there seemed to be a steady stream of classic sci-fi films, including The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951), The Thing from Another World (1951), When Worlds Collide (1951), The War of the Worlds (1952), 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (1954), Forbidden Planet (1956), Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956), The Curse of Frankenstein (1957), Journey to the Center of the Earth (1959) and On the Beach (1959).

With the popularity of these movies, it should come as little surprise that Universal Pictures, then called Universal – International, would be interested in the book property, This Island, Earth, written by Raymond F.Jones, which dealt with aliens, Earth and intergalactic war. Originally serialized in Thrilling Wonder Stories magazine in 1949-50, it was published as a book by Shasta Publishers in 1952. Joseph Newman bought the rights to the book in 1953 and, upon becoming the president of Sabre Productions, transferred the rights to the company. In December 1953, Variety reported that Sabre had sold the script to Universal, with Newman attached as director.

The film opens with, Dr. Cal Meacham (Rex Reason), a noted scientist and electronics expert, who is on his way home from a nuclear power conference in Washington D.C. Before he leaves, in his own fighter jet, a group of reporters quiz him about the pseudoscience he practices. This is a case where if you say enough big-sounding scientific words it will make it sound important, though even the reporter (Olan Soule) can’t understand what Cal’s talking about.

Dr. Cal Meacham (Rex Reason) converses with reporters before flying home.

Back in California, on approach, Cal’s plane flames out and he is about to crash, when he is saved by a bright green light (and a high-pitched hum) that guides him safely down to earth. Cal is met by his overly eager assistant, Joe Wilson (Robert Nichols) who has seen the light and heard the hum, but happy Cal is all right.

In the lab, they jump into an experiment, which seemingly fails, though we’re never sure what it was supposed to accomplish in the first place. Joe then tells Cal about some odd electronic condensers he ordered from the normal supplier via teletype (this is the 1950’s) and received from an unknown company called Direct Electronic Services, which he assumed was a subsidiary of their supplier. Instead of being the size of a telephone transformer, these condensers are smaller than a pen.

A mysterious catalog with metal pages arrives in the lab.

Soon they receive a catalog from Direct Electronics Service printed on a paper-like metal. Cal flips through, amazed at what the company is promising, some of which he doesn’t really understand himself. One of the items the catalog promotes is something called an interocitor and for which he has Joe order the parts via teletype.

Together, Cal and Joe assemble the parts according to the diagram. The result is a large machine with a triangular video screen. Not sure what to do next, a voice calls out to Cal from the machine telling him how to turn it on. When the screen turns on, a man with a large forehead and snow-white hair appears, calling himself Exeter (Jeff Morrow). He is familiar with Cal’s work and congratulates him on being able to build an interocitor. Exeter invites Cal to join an elite team of scientists he says is working on a peaceful use of nuclear energy. Intrigued, Cal agrees to meet the plane that will take him to Exeter's headquarters the next evening. But before he signs off, Exeter uses beams emitting from the interocitor to destroy the catalog and the blueprint Cal and Joe had followed.

Cal and Joe successfully build an interocitor and are congratulated by Exeter (Jeff Morrow).

Although the night is thick with fog, the pilot-less and window-less Douglas DC-3 aircraft arrives easily. Cal climbs aboard the empty jet even though Joe begs him to get off. The next morning, Cal wakes up just before the plane touches down at a remote airstrip in Georgia. As soon as he gets off the plane, Cal is greeted by fellow scientist Ruth Adams (Faith Domergue). Cal remembers Ruth from a summer seminar years earlier, hinting at a romance, but she pretends not to recognize him.

Cal gets aboard a pilot-less Douglas DC-3.

She drives Cal to the southern mansion Exeter is using for his research project. Ruth appears nervous and has a brief, coded exchange with physicist Steve Carlson (Russell Johnson). Exeter explains to Cal that he has assembled the planet's best scientific minds to find a quick way to produce nuclear power and that Cal and Ruth are working down the same line of research.

While they are in his office, Exeter receives a message from his superior called The Monitor (Douglas Spencer). He ushers Cal and Ruth out so he can have the conversation in private. The Monitor insists Exeter finish his task immediately.

After dinner, Steve Carlson (Russell Johnson) and Ruth Adams
(Faith Domergue) fill Cal in on what they know about Exeter.

After dinner with other scientists on the project, Ruth and Steve take Cal on a tour of the labs, where Cal confronts them about what is going on. Attempting to block the interocitor screen with a sheet of lead, he asks why they are so nervous about talking. Ruth and Steve reveal they are the only scientists who have not been brainwashed by Exeter. Meanwhile, Exeter's assistant, Brack (Lance Fuller), who also has a large forehead and white hair, is still able to spy on them. He urges Exeter to brainwash them, but Exeter replies that the machine takes away its subjects' initiative and they need that quality to complete their research project.

Exeter and his assistant Brack (Lance Fuller) observe the humans. Brack is more of a hardliner than Exeter.

The next day, Exeter demonstrates a "neutrino" ray to Cal that blows a hole in the lead sheet in his lab. Exeter asks Cal not to meet again with Ruth and Steve. But even though Call agrees, later that week, the three make an escape attempt in a station wagon, just as The Monitor instructs Exeter to shut down the project and bring Ruth and Cal with him back to their planet, Metaluna.

Exeter boards his spaceship while Brack attacks the station wagon with neutrino rays. Steve stops the car to let Cal and Ruth run to safety, but then drives away and is quickly killed by the ray. Another scientist, Dr. Adolph Engelborg (Karl L. Lindt) shows up on foot and is, too, disintegrated by the ray.

Cal and Ruth's plane is pulled onto the spaceship by a tractor beam.

As they take off in a propeller plane, Cal and Ruth watch as the facility and all its inhabitants are incinerated. Their plane is drawn by a bright green tractor beam (similar to the one that saved Cal earlier) into the belly of the saucer. Onboard, they learn that Exeter and his group are from the planet Metaluna, having come to Earth seeking nuclear energy they could use to defend their planet in a war against the Zaghons. He tells them that the shield around Metaluna is powered by atomic energy, but they are running out of fuel and must find a replacement process immediately. Cal and Ruth must don space travel silver suits and stand in a tube that will condition them for atmospheric pressure changes. They are reluctant to trust Exeter, but the procedure works as he has promised.  

Approaching Metaluna, the spaceship is attacked by the same Zaghonian guided meteors that are currently pummeling Exeter's planet. While the ship avoids danger, they can see on the ship's screen that Metaluna is sustaining great damage. They land on the war-ravaged planet, who's inhabitants have moved underground to avoid the attack.  But that doesn’t work anymore. On the way to The Monitor’s headquarters, Exeter points out the destroyed schools and recreation centers.

The planet Metaluna is under attack by the Zaghonian guided meteors.

At his headquarters, The Monitor reveals to Cal and Ruth that the Metalunans are planning to relocate to the Earth. While Exeter speaks of a peaceful co-existence, The Monitor talks about the Metalunan’s superiority. When Cal blanches at his claim to be superior in intelligence, The Monitor scorns his arrogant belief that Earthlings must be the most advanced peoples of the universe, and Cal replies that Earth's true size is the size of its God. The Monitor insists Exeter take Cal and Ruth immediately to the Thought Transference Chamber in order to subjugate their free will so they cannot object. But Exeter believes this is immoral and misguided since it impedes their ability to help the Metalunans and defies his superior’s orders.

Before they can escape, a Mutant (Eddie Parker and Regis Parton) arrives to stop them. Mutants, Exeter tells them are not unlike insects on earth, only they are bigger with more intelligence, bred to do menial tasks. But Cal won’t take any chances and strikes Exeter and outmaneuvers the Mutant. But there is another one blocking their way onboard the saucer. Exeter arrives and tries to command the Mutant to leave them alone, but the Mutant attacks and badly injures Exeter.

The three escape from Metaluna, just before it is destroyed and turned into a sun. Unbeknownst to them, as they get into the chambers to re-pressurize themselves, a Mutant has boarded the spaceship. He attacks Ruth, who is the first out of the tubes, but the Mutant dies as a result of the pressure change.

The Mutant gets onboard the space ship and threatens Ruth.

Soon, they reach the Earth's atmosphere and Exeter sends Cal and Ruth on their way in the small plane still on board. He, himself is dying and the ship's energy is nearly depleted. With no other options, Exeter flies out to sea and crashes and, we assume, dies.

Returning to Earth.

It is interesting that when looking up the cast, this film is usually mentioned as their best-known film. None of the main stars are really household names (and I’m not counting Russell Johnson who was the professor on Gilligan’s Island, since he was only a supporting actor in this film).

Jeff Morrow, who plays Exeter, was a stage and radio actor before he was cast in 1953’s The Robe, but on film, he is best remembered for a string of science fiction monster films he made in the mid-1950’s: This Island, Earth, The Creature Walks Among Us (1957), The Giant Claw (1957), and Kronos (1957). He would later turn to television, making guest appearances in Bonanza, My Friend Flicka, The Deputy, Daniel Boone, Perry Mason, Police Story and the second incarnation of The Twilight Zone. His last acting job was as the voice of Palmy in the 1994 VeggieTales film, God Wants Me to Forgive Them?!.

Faith Domergue was a Howard Hughes discovery who never quite made it big in Hollywood. While still attending high school, she was signed by Warner Bros. and appeared in Blues in the Night (1941), but a near-fatal accident put her acting career on hold. While still recuperating, she met Hughes at a party on his yacht. Taken by her, Hughes bought out her contract with Warner Bros. and signed her to a three-picture deal at RKO. After she discovered Hughes was also seeing Ava Gardner, Rita Hayworth, and Lana Turner, the couple broke up.

Faith Domergue was a Howard Hughes discovery.

She next appeared in third-billing in the Jane Russell film Young Widow (1946). Prior to This Island, Earth, Faith’s best-known film may have been the film noir Where Danger Lives (1950) opposite Robert Mitchum. Like Morrow, Faith made a series of sci-fi monster films in the 50’s: It Came from Beneath the Sea (1955), This Island, Earth and Cult of the Cobra (1955). She appeared only sparingly in films in the 1960s and ’70s. She also appeared on television, guesting on such shows as Sugarfoot (1959), Cheyenne (1959), 77 Sunset Strip (1961), Perry Mason, Bonanza, Have Gun - Will Travel , and Garrison’s Gorillas.

Rex Reason definitely had leading man looks and a baritone voice, but if this film is any indication, he’s not very expressive. Like Morrow and Domergue, Reason made his share of monster Sci-fi films, This Island, Earth and The Creature Walks Among Us, the third and final installment of the Creature from the Black Lagoon series from Universal Pictures. He also did his fair share of television starring in a couple of series, the syndicated western Man Without a Gun (1957 - 1959) and in the drama The Roaring Twenties (1960 – 1962). On the subject of what might have been, Reason was once considered for the role played by Laurence Harvey in The Manchurian Candidate (1962).

Director, Joseph Newman was originally an Assistant Director, twice nominated for Academy Awards for that role in David Copperfield (1935) and San Francisco (1936). As a director, Newman worked in the sub-genre of film noir, including such films as Abandoned (1949) and Dangerous Crossing (1953). This Island, Earth, however, would turn out to be his best-known film.

While the film has been generally well thought of since its release, This Island, Earth is not without its own problems. The pacing is slow, dragging in places, the acting is wooden, especially by lead actor, Rex Reason, and the story seems to be without a point. The film’s ending differs from the book’s in that in the book the American scientists are enslaved to build arms for Metaluna, and Cal is forced to convince an interplanetary peacekeeping coalition that the Earthlings are intelligent beings and should be freed. This ending is much meatier than what we’re left with. In our ending, Meacham and Adams appear to make it back to earth without suffering the fate of their colleagues.

When first released, the film was highly praised by critics and is recognized by many as one of the more morally complex and structurally sound science-fiction films of the 1950s. According to an article in the November 1954 issue of Popular Science, special effects cinematographer David S. Horsley said he watched films of atomic blasts and consulted with Mt. Wilson astronomers before creating the film's effects. The article also cites that the Metaluna-Zaghon war, which took up only 16 minutes of screen time, took 26 days to shoot, using miniatures and matte paintings to create the planet of Metaluna. Newman also shot the Metalunan scenes with a muted color palette instead of Technicolor, to differentiate it from Earth. Sadly, though, the effects have not aged well. The film’s green lights, red death rays, white wigs, prosthetic foreheads and mutants now come across as campy. But I’m not as concerned about the special effects as I am the story.

High concept: extra-terrestrials working with humans to develop cheap nuclear energy for both to use. This was before we were all aware of radiation and the half-life of plutonium. Science fiction and actual science don’t have a lot to do with each other in the 1950s. Somewhere the plot gets muddled and in the end nothing gets resolved. Exeter’s project never comes to fruition, Metaluna is lost and several of the world’s greatest minds die needlessly. For that matter, we’re not even one hundred percent sure Cal and Ruth get home safely. There is a lot of potential that I don’t think gets fully realized.

Still, this is supposed to be one of the great sci-fi films of its time and if you’re inclined to see it, as part of your own survey of the genre, then by all means do. And if you decide to watch This Island, Earth, I would highly recommend seeing it before seeing Mystery Science Theater 3000: The Movie (which I would also encourage you to watch if you like to laugh.) You’ll probably enjoy both movies better if you do watch them in that order.

Saturday, March 14, 2015

Stubs – Queen of Outer Space

Queen of Outer Space (1958) Starring: Zsa Zsa Gabor, Laurie Mitchell, Eric Fleming Directed by Edward Bernds. Screenplay by Charles Beaumont. Based on a story by Ben Hecht. Produced by Ben Schwalb. Run time 80 minutes. US. Color. Science Fiction, Adventure

I will admit that I was only interested in watching this film because of the title and because of its star, Zsa Zsa Gabor. I was hoping for camp, which meant my expectations were about as low as the budget was for this film. As we’ve written before, the 1950’s are a rich era for science fiction, either we were going into space and battling space aliens or else those space aliens were coming to Earth. The fact that I had never heard anyone speak highly of this film was a sign not to expect much and the film delivered on that front.

Queen of Outer Space opens in 1985, the not too distant future in 1958, and astronauts Capt. Neil Patterson (Eric Fleming), Lt. Larry Turner (Patrick Waltz) and Lt. Michael Cruze (Dave Willock) are assigned to escort Professor Konrad (Paul Birch) to the outer space way station that he fought for and designed years earlier. The crew, which we’re told was the first to circle the moon, is disappointed by their seemingly unimportant mission, but the men comply and conduct an uneventful (and overlong) launch.

Science was so much simpler in the 1950s.

As the spaceship approaches the station, beams coming from all different directions, and whose origins the men cannot discern, fire repeatedly at the space station. There are several misses and one beam even bounces off of it, before the beam finally hits and destroys the station.

Next the beam turns on the ship and Patterson attempts to outrun it, but the spaceship is hit, causing it to spin out of control, accelerating at a speed the onboard systems can track and the ship finally crashes into a snow and ice covered and unidentified planet.

Crashing landing on Venus.

The men are only mildly shaken up, except for Patterson, who has a cut on his head from falling debris. He isn’t hurt bad enough for it to qualify as a plot point. After determining the gravity outside is near Earth’s, Konrad declares that the air should be breathable (as if gravity and oxygen levels are somehow related.)

The men, without the need of space suits (convenient and saves money on costumes) venture out of the ship and are soon in a lush jungle-like environment, as if the tropics and the polar caps are close together. Konrad, based on the fauna, declares that they have landed on Venus. Contrary to all earlier hypotheses, some of which he came up with, Konrad now decides the planet supports life. But there is no one else or other animals around. They do set off some sort of electronic alarm, but no one approaches. They set up camp and take turns on watch, rather than return to the relative safety of their ship.

Professor Konrad (Paul Birch): "Yep, this is Venus."

The next morning, they are startled by the appearance of several armed women, dressed in bright dresses and high heels, who naturally speak English and inform the men that they are under arrest. The women take the men to a large city, populated entirely by women, many of whom deride the men as they are led into the palace. The men are brought before the masked Queen Yllana (Laurie Mitchell) and her council (also masked), who demand to know why the men have come to their planet.

Armed Venusians capture the Earthling crew.

Patterson describes the destruction of the space station by the strange beam and then requests assistance in repairing their damaged ship so they can depart. Yllana informs them that her people have been monitoring Earth for many years, enabling them to become familiar with earth forms of communication (explaining the English, I guess) as well as the planet’s penchant for extreme violence. Suspicious of the men’s explanations and believing they have come to destroy Venus, the queen announces that she and the council will meet to decide their fate.

Queen Yllana (Laurie Mitchell) and her council don't believe Patterson's story.

But unknown to Yllana, another member of the court, top scientist Talleah (Zsa Zsa Gabor), receives a secret report of the interrogation from her aid, Motiya (Lisa Davis).

Talleah (Zsa Zsa Gabor) is a top scientist on Venus. It's a formal planet.

Yllana meets privately with each member of the crew and is skeptical of Konrad’s assertion that no one on Earth believed Venus was habitable and that Earth would have no reason to attack the planet. When Turner and Cruze observe that the planet needs the stability of men, Yllana orders them all put to death.

While imprisoned in a bare room that serves as their cell, the men suspect that the space station may have been destroyed by the Venusians (duh), although Cruze cannot accept that women are capable of building sophisticated equipment. (This is really a very sexist movie, but more on that later.)

That evening, Talleah brings the men their dinner as an excuse to talk with them. She introduces herself as part of a growing group of women who have become disenchanted by Yllana’s dictatorial leadership. She explains that a decade earlier there were men on their planet who engaged in war with a neighboring planet that very nearly destroyed them. Disgusted by the violence, Yllana led the women in a revolt and all the men are kept on a small prison satellite in space. After Talleah’s departure, the astronauts decide to overpower Yllana and the other women by seducing them. (I guess you can’t hit a Venusian girl.)

Yllana grants Patterson an audience and they meet in her private quarters. Although Yllana initially admits to the loneliness of leadership, she soon presses to know the real reason for the Earth men’s arrival, insisting that the space station was an attack post. Patterson maintains the men’s innocence and demands to know why she does not respond to him as a man.

Queen Yllana makes a pass at Capt. Patterson (Eric Fleming).

Curious about her mask, Patterson snatches it off and discovers, to his horror (a la Phantom of the Opera), that Yllana’s face is horribly disfigured. She tells him they are radiation burns, the result of men’s wars. When Patterson recoils in revulsion at her face, Yllana orders him to be removed and immediately put to death. (That seems to be her solution to everything.)

The Queen unmasked. Not a pretty sight.

Learning of their punishment, Talleah arranges for the men to be smuggled to her laboratory. There she informs them she has learned that Yllana has also ordered the destruction of Earth with the same beta-disintegrator that destroyed the space station. Talleah and her sympathizers offer to help the men escape if they will assist them in destroying the disintegrator.

After narrowly avoiding capture by Yllana’s guards, the group flees outside, where they seek refuge in underground caves. When Konrad realizes the walls of the caves are made of gold, Talleah says the mineral has no value on Venus. The three astronauts end up in a make out session with their three Venusian companions, leaving Professor Konrad as odd man out. Bored, he wanders outside and quickly discovers that they are surrounded by the Queen’s guards, Patterson devises a plan to have Talleah, and her accomplices Motiya and Kaeel (Barbara Darrow), who have not been linked with their escape, to turn the men in. Once back inside, they can attempt to destroy the disintegrator.

On the run from Yllana's guards. Three Venusian women: Talleah, Motiya (Lisa Davis)
and Kaeel (Barbara Darrow). Four Earthlings: Capt Patterson, Lt. Larry Turner
 (Patrick Waltz) , Lt. Michael Cruze (Dave Willock) and Professor Konrad.

The plan succeeds and, while Talleah organizes more support, Yllana prepares to destroy Earth. Yllana takes the men to the beta-disintegrator to observe their planet’s demise, unaware that Motiya and Kaeel have successfully sabotaged the machine. When the disintegrator fails, Yllana is killed and Talleah leads a successful attack on her supporters.

The Queen is killed when the disintergrator fails.

Weeks later, under the auspices of the new Queen Talleah, the men’s ship has been repaired. But as they are making their sad goodbyes, the men receive a message from earth ordering them to remain until a rescue ship comes, even if it takes more than a year.

Zsa Zsa Gabor is an actress better known for her beauty and her antics, including marrying nine husbands and slapping an LAPD traffic officer, than for her acting chops. She was in the news so much that she is arguably the first reality star, but unlike today’s lot, she actually did something before becoming a “bad” celebrity.

Born in Budapest Austria Hungary during WWI, she was crowned Miss Hungary in 1936 at the age of 19. She came to the U.S. in 1941, but didn’t appear in films until Lovely to Look At (1952). She did a lot of her acting during the 50’s. It is interesting to note that in 1958 she appeared in this film as well as Orson Welles’ Touch of Evil. Her more current roles in film and on television seemed to have been mostly playing herself. In Queen of Outer Space, Gabor is sort of wooden and gives the appearance that she is making the movie between parties, since her character is never dressed appropriately for anything other than a soirĂ©e.

Eric Fleming would have a much shorter career than Gabor. He appeared mostly in low budget films, but also co-starred with Clint Eastwood in the television series Rawhide from 1958 until he left the show in 1965. He would be killed the next year while filming High Jungle for MGM, when the boat he was in overturned and he was drowned.

Eric Fleming, Dave Willock and Patrick Waltz in Queen of Outer Space.

Dave Willock is worth mentioning, because outside of Zsa Zsa he’s probably the most recognizable actor in the cast. A character actor, Willock appeared in over 181 films and television shows in a fifty year career from 1939 to 1989. His first appearance was in Three Texas Steers (1939) and he appeared in Golden Boy (1939), Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939), Yankee Doodle Dandy (1942), Action in the North Atlantic (1943), Spellbound (1945), Pat and Mike (1952), The Geisha Boy (1958) and Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? (1962) to name a few. He also appeared on plenty of TV shows, including the Lone Ranger, Mister Ed, Gunsmoke, Bonanza, The Alfred Hitchcock Show, Perry Mason, The Muntsters, My Three Sons, Gomer Pyle: USMC, Petticoat Junction, Dragnet 1967, The Beverly Hillbillies, Adam-12, Green Acres, That Girl, Police Story, The Streets of San Francisco and Lou Grant. If you’re of a certain age or watch a lot of old TV shows, then you’ve probably seen him before.

One cast member who doesn’t get a credit is Joi Lansing, a pin-up model and B-movie actress. She is seen kissing Larry before he goes on board the space ship and she stays next to the launch pad, during and after lift-off without her hair even getting mussed. She is obviously eye candy, but her character doesn’t get a name and she doesn’t get screen credit. Lansing’s career is full of uncredited parts, including appearances in Singin’ In the Rain (1952) and Touch of Evil. In the latter, she’s the blonde at the beginning of the film who dies in the car bomb explosion, after muttering the prophetic line "I keep hearing this ticking noise inside my head!"

Joi Lansing receives no screen credit for her small part in Queen of Outer Space.
 Like Zsa Zsa would also appear in Orson Welles' Touch of Evil.

Director Eric Bernds began his career in radio before moving to Hollywood in the 1920’s, when the talkies became the rage, to work as a sound technician at Columbia Pictures. He established himself as one of the studio’s top technicians, working on several of Frank Capra’s films in the 1930’s. But Bernds wanted to direct and Harry Cohn reluctantly let him. He worked with the Three Stooges on their short A Bird In the Head (1945) and continued to work in the Columbia Shorts department for another seven years until resigning. During that time he also worked on the Blondie series of films, based on the popular amusement page strip, at the studio.

Bernds has the distinction of receiving an Academy Award nomination in error. The Academy nominated the story for High Society (1955), which Bernda co-wrote with Elwood Ullman, another veteran of the Columbia Shorts department. In reality, they meant to nominate the story for the musical High Society,  that came out what same year and starred Frank Sinatra, Bing Crosby and Grace Kelley. The story Bernds and Ullman wrote was for a Bowery Boys movie.

This film came about after famed Stagecoach (1939) producer Walter Wanger was released from prison for shooting agent Jennings Lang in the groin for having an affair with Wanger’s wife, Joan Bennett. After prison, Wanger could only find work at Allied Artists, a post World War II outgrowth of Monogram Pictures. In 1952, Wanger bought a ten page treatment for a screenplay written by the legendary Ben Hecht, called Queen of the Universe; a satirical look at a planet run by women, but nothing came of the idea. With the popularity of sci-fi space films, the project was revived several years later, with Wanger replaced by Ben Schwalb, who was then producing the Bowery Boys films.

Screenwriter Charles Beaumont was brought in, but he didn't think much of the Hecht story treatment, but Schwalb suggested spoofing the idea and had former Three Stooges screenwriter, and Bernds’ collaborator, Ellwood Ullman touch up Beaumont's screenplay. The project was also retitled Queen of Outer Space since the original title sounded too much like a beauty pageant. Although Ben Hecht is credited, it is likely he had very little, if anything, to do with the actual production, so don’t blame him.

Despite its title, Queen of Outer Space takes a very sexist view of gender relations. Women are treated like they’re only good for kissing (this is the 1950s), as long as they’re pretty. Talleah, who is supposed to be a renowned Venusian scientist, wants nothing more than to fall in love and have babies. Anytime the crew is surrounded by women, it quickly turns into a make out session. Even tubby professor Konrad gets in on the action at the end of the film when he too is surrounded by women wanting to kiss him. The list of discriminations can go on and on, so this is not the film to show to a woman’s studies group, except as an illustration of how bad things have been.

Shot in a couple of weeks, the film has that cheap feel to it. One can imagine more of the budget was spent on Gabor’s gowns than on the special effects. The sequence of the spaceship careening out of control is stock footage from another Allied Artist production, World Without End (1956). If the crew’s uniforms look familiar, it’s because they were also used in Forbidden Planet (1956).

Even with a run time of only 80 minutes the film has an inordinate amount of stock footage and scenes with little or no action, such as during the launch when all four actors lay on their backs in silence and try to emulate space travel by shaking their heads. Not great filmmaking. How MST3K missed this movie is beyond me. It is ripe for riffing.

This film is truly for the die-hard science fiction fan who feels that they have to see every film in the genre. Otherwise, this film is best left unseen.

Saturday, March 7, 2015

Stubs – Star Trek: The Motion Picture

Star Trek: The Motion Picture (1979) Starring: William Shatner, Leonard Nimoy, DeForest Kelley, James Doohan. Walter Koenig, Nichelle Nicols, George Takei, Persis Khambatta, Stephen Collins. Directed by Robert Wise. Screenplay by Harold Livingston. Story by Alan Dean Foster. Based on Star Trek by Gene Roddenberry. Produced by Gene Roddenberry. Run Time: 132 minutes. U.S.  Color. Adventure, Science Fiction

Star Trek (1966-1969) was a TV series ahead of its time. Developed by Gene Roddenberry as a western in space, the series failed to catch on and was cancelled after three seasons in 1969. But good ideas don’t completely die. Star Trek found a rabid following in syndication. While I do not consider myself to be a Trekkie, I did watch the series on the UHF channel back in Dallas that carried the re-runs. (Yes, before cable, satellite and streaming, there was this thing call broadcasting.)

Capt. Kirk (William Shatner), Mr. Spock (Leonard Nimoy) and
Dr. McCoy (DeForest Kelley) from the original Star Trek TV series.

Paramount Pictures considered Roddenberry’s idea to continue the series in a movie, but scrapped it in 1977 to instead concentrate on a new series, tentatively titled Star Trek: Phase II. The proposed series would see Shatner and Kelley return, but Nimoy had declined over financial and creative issues. The series, planned to air in 1978 on a planned Paramount TV network, was likewise scrapped.

Following the success of Star Wars (1977) and Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977), Paramount decided to resurrect the idea of a feature film. Initially, the Spock character was originally left out, since Nimoy did not plan to return. Give Robert Wise’s children credit. They convinced their father that it would not be Star Trek without Leonard Nimoy as Spock. Jeffery Katzenberg, then a production executive at the studio, was dispatched to meet with Nimoy in New York with a check in the disputed amount of royalties Nimoy was due and Spock was back. (Ironically, Nimoy, who had grown tired of the Spock character, has played Spock not just in subsequent Star Trek TV Series, but is so far the only actor/character from the series to reprise his role in the rebooted film series.)

Getting Spock back in the fold was perhaps the last great idea anyone had when it comes to Star Trek: The Motion Picture. The resultant film is a bit like watching paint dry in space. Unlike the TV series it is based on, the movie is extremely slow paced, to the point of exhaustion.

An alien force has entered the galaxy, a massive energy cloud, which Starfleet observes. Three Klingon warships move to intercept. But the mysterious force not only defeats the Klingons, it vaporizes them. The cloud moves into Federation space and likewise destroys the Starfleet space station, Epsilon Nine, on its trajectory towards Earth.

Spock (Leonard Nimoy), who has been going through Kolinahr, the ridding of all emotions, back on Vulcan. But Spock is distracted from his studies by the arrival of this new intelligence and fails to achieve Kolinahr because of it.

Spock is kept from completing Kolinahr.

Enter Capt. James T. Kirk (William Shatner), now Admiral in charge of Starfleet Operations (is he to blame for the very dull looking uniforms?). With the mysterious cloud coming towards Earth and with the “dry-docked” Enterprise, the only vehicle close enough to intercept, he convinces his superiors to give him the command of the Enterprise, usurping Captain Willard Decker (Stephen Collins), who has been in charge while the Enterprise has been refitted. Decker is not happy about being demoted to Commander and First Officer and is pretty vocal about his displeasure, almost to the point of insubordination.

Captain Kirk gets his first look at the Enterprise after being away for a few years.

One of the new officers is Ilia (Persis Khambatta), a Deltan navigator. Decker knows Ilia from having spent time on her planet. There is obviously sexual tension between the two.

New crew member Ilia (Persis Khambatta) is replaced by a robot version of herself.

Kirk is not as familiar with the Enterprise as Decker is and not everything is working as it should. The first is the transporter, which malfunctions, killing Kirk’s handpicked new Science officer, Lt. Commander Sonak (John Rashad Kamal) and another officer on their way to the Enterprise. But things must get fixed, because Dr. Leonard “Bones” McCoy (DeForest Kelley) uses that means to board the ship. McCoy, who has apparently retired, has been recalled to activity duty at Kirk’s request.

Dr. "Bones" McCoy is called out of retirement.

Kirk’s own unfamiliarity with the refitted Enterprise almost gets everyone killed as he insists on going to warp speed before the engines have been calibrated properly and the Enterprise creates a wormhole. To the rescue comes Spock, who is ready to be reinstated as a Starfleet officer and replaces Decker as the Science Officer. Spock helps Scotty (James Doohan) calibrate the engines and the Enterprise is off again.

Spocks' return further dilutes Capt. Decker (Stephen Collins) importance
 to the crew. Can you say expendable?

The Enterprise intercepts the cloud and avoids doing anything that might appear to be aggressive. Spock figures out that the alien is sending out a signal that the Enterprise isn’t able to respond at the speed the alien is expecting. When he changes their response, the alien ship sends a probe. The probe takes away Ilia and sends back a robotic doppelganger with Ilia’s memories. She informs the crew that she has been sent by V’ger to determine if the carbon-based life forms (humans) on the Enterprise need to be destroyed.

The Enterprise intercepts the alien cloud headed towards Earth.

Spock, meanwhile, takes it upon himself to take a spacewalk. Landing on the vessel’s surface, Spock does a mind meld and learns that V’ger is a living machine. The systems on the Enterprise must still not be up to snuff, because Spock is away from the ship before any sensors detect and notify the crew.

Spock mind melds with V'ger.

Ilia informs Kirk that V’ger is looking for the Creator and has a message. Kirk thinks fast and tells Ilia that he has information he can only share with V’ger, not a probe. V’ger agrees and Kirk, McCoy, Spock, Decker and Ilia leave the Enterprise. V’ger turns out to be Voyager 6, (the full name covered over by a thin layer of space smudge) sent into space by NASA back in the 20th Century. Spock, through his mind meld, has learned that Voyager was damaged and found by a race of living machines who interpreted its programming as to learn all that can be learned and share that information with the creator. The aliens built a space ship to house V’ger and upgraded the spaceship to fulfill its original mission. (Apparently the alien machines couldn’t be bothered to clean off the nameplate and see the full name.)

Kirk leads a landing party that visits V'ger.

V’ger has learned so much that it has achieved consciousness. Spock informs us that V’ger sees the Enterprise as the living being and the crew as nothing more than parasites (though this doesn’t explain why the Kilngon ships and Epsilon Nine were also destroyed and not just the carbon-based forms within.)

V'ger turns out to be Voyager 6,  a space probe launched by NASA.

While Uhura (Nichelle Nichols) finds the NASA code to respond to V’ger’s request to share its data, the ship sabotage’s itself. It wants to become one with the creator and Decker volunteers for the job. He and robotic Ilia become one with V’ger. Apparently, they form a new life and move to a new dimension, saving the Enterprise and Earth in the process.

Now the Enterprise can resume its mission, but by this time, I doubted anyone in the movie theater cared. Star Trek: The Motion Picture suffers from so many maladies, I’m not sure I can count them all. The biggest offender, I would say, is pacing. The story plods along, numbing the audience into submission and boredom induced slumber. Painstakingly slow to get to the point and the film spends way too long on everything. When Scotty takes Kirk out to the ship aboard a shuttle craft at the beginning, the indirect path it takes is only so that there can be long loving shots of the starship Enterprise and we can see the loving-look in Kirk’s eyes as he sees his ship after his multi-year absence. I have distinct memories of seeing this the first time, thinking “Get on with it.

Next is the story, which is nothing but a regurgitated version of an episode from the series, “The Changeling”. In that episode, the Enterprise encounters a probe named Nomad. Originally launched from Earth to explore, the probe collided with an alien probe, reprogrammed itself to find new life, but to also sterilize imperfections (humans). Nomad is looking for its creator, Jackson Roykirk, and mistakes Captain Kirk for him. After killing several crew members, Kirk convinces the probe that it, too, is imperfect, his example being mistaking him for its creator. Nomad, true to its altered mission, destroys itself. Sound sort of familiar? Had they really already run out of original ideas that they had to so blatantly reuse one?

But to make things worse, The Motion Picture reduces series supporting characters Uhura, Scotty, Chekov (Walter Koenig), and Sulu (George Takei) into glorified cameos, instead spending way too long on new characters Decker and Ilia. Okay, they’re added to be expendable, but they still take away from what should have been a victory lap for the series supporting cast, finally getting their just big screen rewards.

And the famous “Space, the Final Frontier” narration is missing. This is like a Bond film without Monty Norman’s James Bond Theme song played at least once. It seems that someone unfamiliar with Star Trek is in charge, rather than its creator.

I hate to pick on production values, but I’m befuddled as to why they would have so changed the uniforms from the series to the movie (and of course so radically change them again in Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan). I’m not going to argue about the original series uniforms appropriateness for space travel, but the uniforms were immediately recognizable and distinctive. Why fix what isn’t broken and why change them, especially to such dull and drab colors?

Characters like Uhura (Nichelle Nichols) get reduced screen time in favor of new crew members.

You can argue that things change and military uniforms are no different. But why then wouldn’t the Enterprise label being applied to a new ship by then as well? One of the things that hampers the film from getting going are the painful tracking shots showing just how little about the Enterprise has actually changed. Why is the ship so much more important than the characters? Is the ship the reason people watched the series in the first place? I hope not.

A lot of screen time is spent admiring the Enterprise in drydock.

The special effects haven’t aged well by comparison to modern films and those used in the rebooted film franchise, but you have to remember that at the time they were done, they were pretty good. Maybe they were not as good as subsequent Star Wars films, but were probably on par with the original film, which was the standard bearer at the time.

So much about the film seems to be a miscalculation. While they certainly didn’t cow tow to the fan base, Trekkies being the first fanboys, I can’t think that the film satisfied the core audience it was aimed at. Too much time was spent on characters no one cared about portrayed by actors who make Shatner look like a Shakespearean trained thespian. And the lack of a good original story shows a certain amount of contempt from the fan base that made this filmic resurgence possible in the first place.

One of the influences of Star Wars was the development of the Klingon language, something that would take hold in Search For Spock (1984), when the language was finally fleshed out. This like the alien tongues heard in Star Wars, which gives it a certain, I would suppose, authenticity. Apparently it was James Doohan who came up with the first gibberish which would later be codified. Like nothing else in this film, Klingon as a language would be eaten up by the fan base. Perhaps as a punch line, the Klingon language has been referenced in such diverse TV series as Frasier and The Big Bang Theory.

Watching the movie, then and now, it’s hard to imagine that anyone would see a reason to continue with the exercise. While the film made money, it certainly wasn’t Star Wars money or even as much as Paramount had hoped for. But it was enough for them to see the greenlight of a sequel. Subsequent films would be made, but Roddenberry would be removed as creative director. The second film would likewise return to the original series as well, but was more of a sequel rather than a retelling and would do a much better job of using the entire crew of the Enterprise in the story telling, not just Kirk, Spock and McCoy. Wrath of Khan would pave the way for all the Star Trek (films, series and reboots) to come.

If you’re a completist, then you owe it to yourself to see Star Trek: The Motion Picture, if only to see how bad things can get. Otherwise, I would say that in the vastness of space, it would be easy to avoid this poorly executed film, which is a disservice to the original series fans, whose rabid devotion made it possible.