SF & Fantasy films

DÉJÀ VU. Touchstone Pictures, 2006. Denzel Washington, Paula Patton, Val Kilmer, Jim Caviezel, Adam Goldberg, Elden Henson, Erika Alexander, Bruce Greenwood. Director: Tony Scott.

   This is a movie that begins with a bang, no doubt about it, with a ferry filled with enlisted naval men and their families being blown up and destroyed by a terrorist in New Orleans. Asked by the FBI for his assistance on the case is a crack ATF agent named Doug Carlin (Denzell Washington). What strikes him as strange is that when he finds the partially burned body of a young woman who has floated ashore is that she died before the explosion.

   Intrigued, he also learns that the team he is working with has access to a new satellite surveillance capability of tracking anyone almost anywhere. The catch is that what can be seen is limited to viewing events that have already taken place, an always consistent four days ago. Carlin suggests that they not spend their time looking at the ferry in the past, but focus instead on the young woman’s life.

   What he does not known, and as it turns out [SEMI-SPOILER ALERT] that what they are viewing is the actual past (abruptly switching gears and making this a science fiction movie rather than the run-of-he-mill action thriller it has been up to this point) and soon enough all kinds of time-travel paradoxes come into play, enough, I would imagine, to make an ordinary viewer’s head spin.

   I’ve been reading this kind of stuff for over 60 years, and while some of what happens goes down very, very well, there are two gaps in the continuity of things that — and I hate to say it — pretty much spoiled the final thirty minutes or so for me. As I understand it, and this may be entirely hearsay, the screenwriters spent several years making sure that all of the bugs were out, and the director decided to skip some of their work in favor of a large car chase somewhere close to the end of the movie instead.

   If so, it’s too bad. Denzell Washington is as good as he always is, but if this movie isn’t as good as it could have been, and it isn’t, it’s not through any fault of his.


BEAUTY AND THE DEVIL. Franco London Films / Les Films Corona, France, 1950. Original title: La beauté du diable. Michel Simon, Gerard Philipe, Nicole Besnard. Written and directed by Rene Clair.

   It’s not often a genuine masterpiece sneaks up on me anymore. I mean, with all that’s written about movies these days, the fame of any good film — and that of lesser ones as well — generally precedes it, and a really great movie these days carries about as much surprise as sunrise at dawn.

   I can’t even say now what prompted me to pick up this little treasure (on an old VHS with slightly-faded subtitles) but I was only a few minutes into it when I saw this was a work of what academics refer to as “lotsa class.”

   It’s an easier film to watch than to describe. Michel Simon starts out playing Faust, and Gerard Philipe is Mephistopheles, dressed as a young student who mockingly follows the old Professor Faust. He tries to bargain for Faust’s soul, but rebuffed, he makes a counter-offer: he gives him Youth free of charge and departs, telling the handsome young man (now named Henri, and played by Philipe) that if he wants to do any traffic in souls, just ask.

   And Henri quickly discovers that with youth comes health, vigor, love… and poverty. Well at least it’s so with Henri, and now that I look back on it, so it was for me and my friends in college. His education of no use, Henri fails at common work and finds himself ground down and down… and Mephistopheles, now in the form of Faust, played by Michel Simon, keeps dangling temptation….

   And from here on the plot takes dizzying twists and turns that kept me surprised and delighted, every move highlighted with engaging, often hilarious antics from Simon as Faust/Mephistopheles as the tale careens to a final audacious and immensely satisfying flourish.

   To jog your memory (if needed) Michel Simon was a big star of early French Cinema and an exceptional actor; a plump but graceful performer in the W.C. Fields style, which lend his performance a depth and lightness that must be seen to appreciate — my words just won’t do . Simon’s fortunes declined after a stroke and he ended up in the title role of The Head (critics described his performance as “detached”) but he rebounded as the gruff engineer in The Train and in The Two of Us.

   Director Rene Clair has a rep, but the only film of his I ever liked a lot (till now) was And Then There Were None. This, though, is The Goods: Brilliant writing, thoughtful & complex variation on the Faust story, and entertaining thesping from Philipe and especially Michel Simon. Catch it if you can!


THE ISLAND OF DR. MOREAU. American International Pictures, 1977. Burt Lancaster (Dr. Paul Moreau), Michael York, Nigel Davenport, Barbara Carrera, Richard Basehart. Based on the novel by H. G. Wells. Director: Don Taylor.

   Burt Lancaster puts in a superb performance as the Dr. Moreau in this 1977 cinematic adaptation of the extraordinarily influential H.G. Wells novella about a mad scientist turning animals into men on a remote Pacific island.

   Unlike Charles Laughton in the pre-code sleazefest Islands of Lost Souls (1932), who never seemed to be a comfortable fit for the role, Lancaster portrays Moreau as a vaguely sympathetic antihero who genuinely wants to do good for the work, but who gradually transforms into a bestial, hateful figure. Lancaster had a way of just using his eyes to convey emotion and he does it wonderfully here. His Moreau is a great movie villain. Why? Because he has reasons for doing what he is doing and, more importantly, deep down he thinks he’s doing the right thing.

   That’s not to say that Michael York, whose performance I absolutely loved as D’Artagnan in The Three Musketeers (1973), isn’t good in this film as well. He portrays Braddock, the shipwreck survivor who washes up on Moreau’s island, totally unaware of what he is about to encounter. But there’s something a little too innocent about the Braddock character. He’s nowhere near as formidable a figure as Moreau.

   Which leads me to the film’s plot. In many ways, if one were to view Braddock (York) as the protagonist, the movie would be a meandering mess. This is mainly because, for most of the movie, it’s not clear exactly what Braddock wants. To escape the island? Unlike in Island of Lost Souls where the shipwrecked man was truly trapped on the island, Braddock actually still has his rowboat. It’s a little worse for wear, but he’s safely hidden it on the island.

   So escaping is not what he wants. Is it that he wants to discover what Moreau is up to? Well, it doesn’t take him long to do so and Moreau is more than willing to fill in the blanks. It’s only toward the tail end of the movie that he actually wants something – to escape from Moreau’s captivity after the mad doctor performed a sick experiment on him – but that’s too little too late.

   What makes the movie work is not York’s character, but Lancaster’s. The Island of Dr. Moreau is truly the story of Dr. Moreau, about his ambitions and his downfall. In that sense, the film is as much as horror story as a tragedy. And that’s where Lancaster’s stellar performance comes in. Portraying Moreau as a man capable of great things, but who succumbs to his own bestial nature, is what makes this adaptation, despite its numerous flaws, a chilling portrait of a scientist who defies the laws of nature and pays the ultimate price for it.


YOU NEVER CAN TELL. Universal, 1951. Dick Powell, Peggy Dow, Joyce Holden, Charles Drake, Frank Nelson and Flame (the dog.) Written and directed by Lou Breslow.

   This movie-fantasy is dumb as a box of puppies, but I liked it anyway. Maybe it’s the loopy concept and the way it plays on movie conventions. After all, Dick Powell had been playing hard-boiled PIs and tough guys for so long his mere presence promised a certain hard-chiseled persona — and here he is as Private Eye Rex Shepherd, a reincarnated dog set to sniff out the guy who poisoned him (shades of D.O.A.) and romancing heiress Peggy Dow in the best Philip Marlowe tradition.

   The story takes way too long to get going, and the humor is on the level of Francis the Talking Mule (also from Universal), but the players take the stale jokes and cliché situations in easy stride, turn on their relaxed charm and rise above it — no, elevate it — to a surprising level. I particularly liked Joyce Holden as Powell’s secretary (formerly a race horse) and Frank Nelson offering one of his patented smug-polite perfs as a police detective dealing with Powell’s PI in a neat turn on the sort of thing Philip Marlowe used to go through.

   Don’t come to You Never Can Tell expecting a lot of laughs, but if you’re looking for an off-beat thing with a certain charm, this is it.

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:

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