SF & Fantasy films

X. American International Pictures, 1963. Also released as X: The Man with the X-Ray Eyes. Ray Milland, Diana van der Vlis, Harold J. Stone, John Hoyt, Don Rickles, Dick Miller. Screenplay: Robert Dillon and Ray Russell, based on a story by the latter. Director: Roger Corman.

   Refused an extension of a medical grant for his research on enhancing human vision, a doctor (Ray Milland) decides to carry on on his own, using himself as the first subject. Things, of course, do not go well, as per the alternative title for this rather well-done sci-fi movie.

   If you had x-ray vision, what would use it for? Go to a party, of course, where you can see all of the dancers au naturel. Or if in your haste to continue your experiments, you accidentally push a colleague out of a window to his death, what would you do then?

   Become a blindfolded swami in a carnival act, one supposes. Or if your barker (Don Rickles) sees dollar signs, open a free clinic for people to have their ailments diagnosed. Or if still on the run, head for Nevada to make a real fortune (though I don’t understand the business with a slot machines, looking inside to see a big payoff coming in two more plays).

   Don’t get me wrong. The movie is well done, and everybody plays it straight, except for maybe a short bit between Don Rickles and a heckler (Dick Miller) while Dr. Xavier is doing his carney act. There’s no big message, except perhaps scientists ought be careful how far they go, and the 80 minutes of playing time go by very quickly.


THE TERMINAL MAN. Warner Brothers, 1974). George Segal, Joan Hackett, Richard Dysart, Donald Moffat, Michael C. Gwynne, Jill Clayburgh, James Sikking. Based on the book by Michael Crichton. Producer-director-screenwriter: Mike Hodges.

   Adapted from Michael Crichton’s 1971 novel, The Terminal Man is an auteur project the likes of which could never be released by a mainstream film studio today. Written, directed, and produced by Mike Hodges, this offbeat science fiction thriller features George Segal as Harry Benson, a man suffering from a form of psychomotor epilepsy that causes him to occasionally fly into uncontrollable violent rages. A genius computer programmer, Benson was in a car accident that left him with a seizure disorder that has crippled his life. Not only does he experience auras and seizures, he also now has delusions that computers are going rise up and control humanity.

   Benson decides that he wants to volunteer for an experimental medical procedure, one in which electrodes are implanted in his brain. If his disorder makes him violent, he figures he would rather give over what is left of his free will to a computer if that will prevent his violent behavior. The irony of a man afraid of computers rising up against humanity agreeing to such a procedure is not lost on his psychiatrist, Janet Ross (Joan Hackett). A moral, humanist voice, she urges her colleagues not to go through with this procedure. But to no avail. As you might imagine, the surgery doesn’t go quite as planned and it is only a matter of time before Benson escapes from the hospital and begins a murderous rampage.

   That the movie’s plot. But this isn’t really a plot driven film. It’s a visual experience, more arthouse than grindhouse. It’s one in which symbolic imagery and set designs in stark hues of blue and gray are utilized to convey meaning. It is a stark, dehumanizing world. The essence of what it means to be fully human is explored not so much through dialogue, but through shots of bleak, empty hospital hallways, a brightly lit tunnel, and a graveyard.

   For a movie that deals with cerebral topics – both literally and metaphorically — The Terminal Man isn’t a film that was made to make viewers think so much as to feel. Perhaps that was the whole point.

IT CAME FROM OUTER SPACE. Universal International, 1953. Richard Carlson, Barbara Rush, Charles Drake, Joe Sawyer, Russell Johnson, Kathleen Hughes. Screenplay by Harry Essex, based on a story treatment by Ray Bradbury. Director: Jack Arnold.

   When an amateur astronomer named John Putnam (Richard Carlson) and his girl friend (Barbara Rush) see a giant fireball fall from the sky and land nearby, they rush to investigate. As one of the first two on the scene, Putnam goes down into the hole alone and so is the only one to see a huge metallic spaceship that has crashed deep into the earth. He then escapes before the ground crumbles around it and covers it up.

   Is he believed when he tells his story to the first responders, including the local sheriff (Charles Drake)? In a word, no. Not until a series of strange events begins to occur, including people disappearing only to return walking around as if in a daze.

   Originally filmed in 3-D, the first such for Universal, not even the unusual camera work (designed to show off the medium and no other reason), makes this movie anything more than slow-moving. It may have been extremely innovative at the time — including the fact that the aliens turn out not to be hostile — but I’m sorry to say that I found it a yawner today.


THE BOOK OF ELI. Warner Brothers, 2010. Denzel Washington, Gary Oldman, Mila Kunis, Ray Stevenson, Jennifer Beals. Directors: Albert Hughes and Allen Hughes.

   I’ve become increasingly convinced that Denzel Washington is the auteur of the films that he appears in. That’s not to say that he doesn’t work with talented directors or that his co-stars aren’t often talented actors themselves. It’s just that Washington is able to portray so many different types of characters who find themselves in nearly impossible situations. In that sense, there is a common thread that runs through a lot of Washington movies. He often portrays a loner, a solitary man whose thoughts run deeper than one might expect.

   And you know what? That’s definitely true for his role as the titular character in The Book of Eli. Washington portrays Eli, a man living in post-apocalyptical America. He’s been spending his years walking through the wastelands that were once vital cities and towns, making his way to the West Coast. He’s carrying with him an extremely precious object. One that the audience learns is the last remaining copy of the King James Bible.

   As you might expect from what I just mentioned, the Christian symbolism and allegory is overt in this overall gritty feature. Eli is on a mission. One that he thinks is divinely inspired. And that mission involves his traveling on foot, through tough terrain and in the face of violent marauders, all the way to the West Coast so that he can hand over the Bible to people who will make proper use of it.

   The greatest obstacle to his completing his mission comes in the form of a would-be tyrant by the name of Carnegie (an over the top Gary Oldman) who wants the Bible in order to consolidate his control over a desperate, illiterate populace.

   Fortunately, Eli – a loner at heart – finally allows for companionship in his life, albeit of the platonic variety. Solara (Mila Kunis) is a girl held captive by Carnegie who decides she wants a better life and decides to join Eli on his quest. The two of them face down not only Carnegie and his henchmen, but also a husband and wife whose hospitality toward them may have less to do with kindness than with cannibalism.

   While I thoroughly enjoyed watching Washington’s portrayal of Eli, I ended up feeling that the story, while compelling, was just a little too straightforward. The Christian allegory was strong, and the message that the Bible could be used for good or for evil was loud and clear. But it just wasn’t enough to make me feel as though the movie would not have benefited from a greater degree of moral complexity.

   One final note: the movie, set as it is in a post-nuclear war America, is filmed in earth tones, almost sepia. Sometimes it works well. Other times, the unique color scheme only serves to draw attention away from the action on hand.


PASSENGERS. Columbia Pictures, 2016. Jennifer Lawrence, Chris Pratt, Michael Sheen, Laurence Fishburne, Andy Garcia, Vince Foster. Director: Morten Tyldum.

   Is Passengers a romance set in outer space or a science fiction movie with a strong romantic theme throughout? I tend to support the latter interpretation. Directed by Norwegian director Morten Tyldum, this extraordinarily well acted film is predominantly a thinking person’s science fiction film, albeit one with a romance unmistakably at its core.

   Many viewers will likely recognize similar themes from the 1972 film Silent Running (reviewed on this blog here ): the terrifying experience of being completely alone in space, the ingenuity needed to adapt to mechanical challenges plaguing a space ship, and the notion of creating an Earth like ecosystem aboard a vessel in outer space.

   Chris Pratt portrays Jim Preston, a mechanic who is thrust into a situation well beyond his control. He, like some 5,000 other passengers, is in a deep hibernation aboard the starship Avalon as it makes its way to Homestead II. These colonists, as well as the crew, were put into a hibernation pods for the long journey. And I do mean long. 120 years in fact.

   But when an asteroid collides with the Avalon, Jim awakes from his deep sleep. Soon enough he finds out that his revival was an accident and that he’s totally alone on the ship. But he’s not alone really, is he? There are close to 5,000 other passengers aboard, all of whom are continuing their deep sleep until they reach Homestead II. Much like Adam in the Biblical story of the Garden of Eden, Jim doesn’t want to be alone. So against his better judgment and his moral understanding of what he is doing is wrong, he decides to use his technical skills to awaken another passenger, the beautiful Aurora Lane (Jennifer Lawrence).

   Soon enough the two of them are romantically involved and settling into their strange new life together on the Avalon. As you might imagine, however, Aurora eventually learns that Jim woke her up. And let’s put it this way: She’s not happy about it. Not in the least. Romance gives way to conflict and unbearable tension as the two people awake on the ship end up completely emotionally isolated from each other. Then things take a turn for the worse. The Avalon begins to break down.

   If the plot sounds simplistic or cliché, trust me when I tell you that it isn’t saccharine or melodramatic in the slightest. The movie raises important themes about technology and about space colonization. Visually stunning, Passengers also benefits from great sound design and a soundtrack that isn’t overbearing in the slightest. For those skeptical of newer science fiction films, it’s worth putting your skepticism aside for this film. It is definitely a film that deserves at least one viewing.


STUDENT OF PRAGUE. German, 1935, as Der Student von Prag. Anton Walbrook (as Adolf Wohlbrück), Theodor Loos, Dorothea Wieck, Erich Fiedler, Edna Greyff. Adapted by Hans Kyser and Arthur Robison from the original story and screenplay by Hanns Heinz Ewers and Henrick Galeen. Directed by Arthur Robison.

   The two earlier versions of this story loom large in the history of German Silent Film — and therefore the history of film itself — but this one has been largely ignored or dismissed, a puzzle to me, since it’s a lovely little film, and perhaps a bit more enjoyable than its predecessors.

   Anton Walbrook stars as the impoverished (and rather superannuated) college boy, popular with the girls and handy with a sword but woefully underfunded when he falls under the spell of a visiting diva. The lady herself seems kindly disposed towards him, but she has a retinue that includes a wealthy baron and a sinister stranger who has some sort of mystical power over her.

   If you’re familiar with the story, you know that the stranger buys Walbrook’s soul, expressed by his reflection in a mirror. But this version executes a twist on the tale I found intriguing, and the result is an emotional impact not to be found in the earlier films. There’s a marvelous moment late in the movie where our student, now rich, with his life in shambles, keeps pulling big handfuls of money from his pockets and flinging it down in disgust, perfectly played by Walbrook and directed by Robison.

   Arthur Robison was American-born, German-raised, and a filmmaker in Germany since those halcyon silent days, best known for the expressionist Warning Shadows (1923). He directs here with a soft-focus splendor, bathing Prague in romantic candlelight and gentle shadows that somehow point up the sinister aspects of the tale more effectively than expressionism ever could. Moreover, for me at least, the overt romanticism lends a melancholy aspect to the spookiness that seems unique and enchanting.

   This Student wouldn’t scare a nervous cat, but it’s not a movie I’ll soon forget.

WARNING: This next clip is of the movie’s finale:

TERMINATOR 2: JUDGMENT DAY. TriStar Pictures, 1991. Arnold Schwarzenegger, Linda Hamilton, Edward Furlong. Director and co-screenwriter: James Cameron.

   OK, I agree, The special effects are everything everyone has said they were. But I didn’t see the first film, and I still don’t have much of an idea of what the story is about. (Two killer cyborg robots come from the future, one to protect a young boy, Linda Hamilton’s son, the other to destroy him.)

   There’s lots of shooting for the juvenile gun-freaks in the crowd, but since both Schwartzennegger and his nemesis are essentially indestructible, most of the shooting pretty pointless. If you like to see trucks smashing into everything in sight, and buildings being blown up, and people being shot, stabbed, dismembered and thrown away, this is certainly the movie for you.

— Reprinted from Nothing Accompliced #4, November 1993.

[UPDATE.]   Within the past year I’ve seen the first movie of the series, and while I now understand the story, I don’t think I’d change anything else in what I said about this second one.


THE SHIP OF MONSTERS. Producciones Sotomayor, Mexico, 1960. Columbia Pictures, US, 1961. Originally released as La Nave de los Monstruos. Eulailio González, Ana Bertha Lepe, Lorena Velázquez, Manuel Alvarado. Directed by Rogelio A. González.

   From the land of robot-fighting Aztec Mummies, and monster-battling masked wrestlers, comes their strangest contribution to cinema yet, Ship of Monsters, a UFO, alien monster invasion, Western, singing and dancing cowboy and alien, Mariachi-singing robot and computer console, kid and his robot pal, science fiction adventure.

   Let’s just say if it didn’t exist, Mystery Science Theatre 3000 would have had to invent it. There used to be a Science Fiction Western comic book from Charlton, but it was never this weird.

   It all starts when Gamma (Ana Bertha Lepe) and Beta (Lorena Velázquez) land on Earth with a ship load of monsters who escape and have to be rounded up with the help of their robot Tor. Unknown to them they are observed by Lauranio (Eulailio González) a singing and dancing, fast on the draw cowboy who no one in the local cantina will listen to about his UFO sighting. Well, he does drink a little, so they can be excused.

   So of course Lauranio goes back out and runs into Gamma and Beta, gorgeous flimsily clad redhead and blonde, and agrees to help them round up the escaped monsters, enlisting the young Rupert who soon becomes pals with Tor.

   As if that wasn’t enough, Beta becomes jealous of Gamma and Lauranio and turns evil, sending the monsters out to capture or kill Gamma and Rupert. Lauranio then has to seduce Beta, singing and dancing seductively with her in the monster’s cave, while Rupert sneaks on the ship and saves Gamma. It is easily the most awkward dance scene in the history of film with Beta resembling nothing so much as a cheap Burlesque Queen and Lauranio looking more like he is fighting a bull than seducing a beautiful blonde alien.

   Beta discovers, as all must, monsters can’t be controlled, leaving Lauranio, Gamma, and Rupert to stop the monsters, and the film comes to a romantic end as Gamma decides to stay on Earth with Lauranio and Rupert while Tor pilots the monsters back home singing a Mariachi duet with a mobile female computer console he has a crush on.

   I kid you not.

   You can watch it in Spanish on YouTube if you want. In its own insane way it is entertaining, however strange, but you have to wonder at the mind that came up with it and try not to boggle your mind wondering what Roy Rogers and Gene Autry would have done with this one. Compared to it Gene’s Phantom Empire serial is downright tame: none of his robots even hummed.

BOUNTY KILLER. Just Chorizo Productions-Kickstart Productions-ARC Entertainment,2013. Matthew Marsden, Kristanna Loken, Christian Pitre, Barak Hardley, Abraham Benrubi, Gary Busey,Beverly D’Angelo, Eve. Screenwriters: Jason Dodson, Colin Ebeling & Henry Saine. Director: Henry Saine.

   I’ll sum this movie as best I can right here at the beginning by calling it a “post-apocalyptic action comedy,” a phrase which I stole from Wikipedia, but what they hey, the shoe fits.

   And truth be told, I liked this one a heck of a lot more than I expected to. As long as I’m quoting or paraphrasing from Wikipedia, I’ll right ahead and tell you that movie was born as a cartoon, then adapted into a graphic novel and a short film, then after the Enron scandal and the financial crisis of 2007-2008, a full-length feature film.

   The premise: White collar corporations has forced the collapse of the United States, and bounty killers have taken it upon themselves to right the wrongs the people behind these companies have done. Two of the most famous of these killers are Drifter (Matthew Marsden) and Mary Death (Christian Pitre), she of the glamorous jumpsuit, high boots, and very deadly weaponry.

   It turns out — it is gradually revealed that — the two main characters have a past. He was her mentor; they were at one time also lovers. Now they are fierce, competitors, even to the death. The executive class aren’t going away easily, however, and thereby lies the story.

   Nor do you need to know more than that. There is a lot of gunfire in this movie, and a lot of very gory deaths. If either of the above bother you, you’d best stay away. But it’s also a comedy, very well choreographed and photographed, and even better, the people in it act like they’re having a very good time, down to the most menial stunt doubles. I didn’t expect to, but I did, too. Have a good time, that is.


  INVASION OF THE STAR CREATURES. American International Pictures, 1962. Robert Ball, Frankie Ray, Gloria Victor, Delores Reed, Trustin Howard and Mark Ferris. And who the hell are they, anyway? Written by Jonathan Haze, from his original story “Monster from Nicholson Mesa.” Directed by Bruno VeSota.

   I’m of two minds about this film. First, it’s lousy. But on the other hand, it’s cheap, witless and banal.

   So why (I kept asking myself at the time) did I watch it all the way through? Well I guess it had enough redeeming features to keep me going. Not enough to actually redeem it, you understand, but enough to keep me going.

   For those of you who never heard of this bizarre classic, it’s a low-budget farce masquerading as a 1950s monster movie, written and directed by two iconic actors in the genre who don’t act in it. Stars Ball and Ray play a couple of sub-normal Army Privates on an expedition (Led by “Colonel Rank;” that’s the level of wit here.) into a nuclear blast site (The “Nicholson Mesa” of the original title — in those days James H. Nicholson was head of AIP, the chief purveyor of this schlock) to check out a mysterious cave uncovered by the blast.

   The scene shifts to Bronson Canyon, the familiar locale of countless B-westerns, where everyone but our heroes gets captured by aliens, and only these two goofballs are left to save the world. Our trepid heroes soon come up against alien monsters that look eerily like guys wrapped in burlap, commanded by two tall, statuesque beauties (Professor Puna and Doctor Tanga, another Noel Coward touch) who knock the boys about a bit before falling madly in love with them. Ooops! I gave away the ending there, didn’t I? Sorry folks.

   Okay, so it ain’t funny. Nor is it original. Or very well done. But Invasion has a certain off-the-cuff energy to it that the general ineptitude can’t quite smother. Robert Ball and Frankie Ray put a lot of work into their parts; a little talent would have been nice, but I admired their efforts anyway. Gloria Victor and Delores Reed are easy to look at, and their acting is good enough not to distract from their beauty.

   As far as direction goes, Bruno VeSota wisely makes fun of his budget shortfalls, playing around with papier-mâché boulders and the clunkiest monsters ever to blot the screen. There’s a bit with the characters fleeing back and forth across the same set that gets repeated so often (literally a “running gag”) it actually becomes funny. And if Ve Sota and Haze let some scenes run on too long… (Well actually just about every scene runs on too long; I thought they’d never get rid of those Indians!) …well I could forgive it all in the spirit of good fun. Which is about the best way to look at this one.

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