Destroy All Monsters (1968)

When I was in middle school, I found a series of six little orange-spined books about monster movies in some library or other, each focusing on a classic: Dracula, Wolf Man, Frankenstein, the Creature from the Black Lagoon, one I don’t remember, and of course Godzilla. I read that in the middle of the original series – the ninth of fifteen films – was one I’d never heard of, but it sure sounded like the reason movies were invented. I’ve no idea why I must have always missed Destroy All Monsters when channel 36 or 46 showed a Godzilla film. Even without the main character’s name in the title, I read the TV listings with a fine-toothed comb looking for anything that sounded promising, and I’m pretty sure that at any time between the ages of eight and twelve, had I seen a movie called Destroy All Monsters in the Sunday TV Week, I would have been shouting about it.

So I got an external Blu-ray drive, which means that I can read the 15,000-plus pages of PDF material on the Doctor Who Blu-rays, and I can get screencaps from Blu-rays like the Criterion Godzilla set. It comes with an unbelievably pretty transfer of the movie and, tragically, the English language dub, which my son asked to watch. Oh, it’s painful. It’s the worst dub on the prettiest visuals. The kid didn’t care. He just wanted mass destruction, which this movie delivers.

In the far-flung future of 1999, the monsters of Earth have been baited and relocated to some islands near Japan called Monsterland. They’re hemmed in by defense screens and have ample food, and since they’re all in one place, it makes it easy for some smug space ladies called the Kilaaks to take over the control center, brainwash the staff with devices that are not hearing aids – that’s Susumu Kurobe, who played Hayata in Ultraman a couple of years previously, in a small role as one of their new agents – and put transmitters all around the planet to drive the monsters to attack Earth’s major cities. If I counted right, nine of the Toho movie monsters get a good bit of screen time. A couple of others, Baragon and Varan, were reduced to cameos, apparently because the costumes were too damaged.

I finally saw this film when I was a little too old to love a Godzilla movie, and it sure wasn’t pretty like this print. (Did you watch Bad American Dubbing like I suggested last month? The hearing aid scene was from the same nth-gen copy that Dave from Let’s Anime landed back then.) But I was old enough to start recognizing actors, like Kurobe, and also Kenji Sahara as the commander of the moonbase. I knew then that he’d been in a couple of previous Godzilla movies, but now I know him better as the star of the tremendously entertaining Ultra Q.

But when you’re nine, the stars of the movie all have big teeth. Destroy All Monsters was made to blow the minds of elementary school-aged kids out their ears, and it succeeds mightily. Our son says this was by far his favorite of the ones we’ve watched, and as soon as it was over, he was waiting for me to get my silly pictures from the disc so he could rewatch Godzilla, Rodan, Manda, and Mothra destroy Tokyo, and the big see-it-to-believe it climax, where eight of the monsters all team up to fight Ghidorah. They were doing these wrestling matches more for laughs than anything else at this point, but they work on two levels. When you’re a kid, just seeing all these titans mobbed up to kick Ghidorah’s space monster ass is something you can only dream about, and when you’re an adult, you marvel at the choreography necessary for any of this to work.

That’s the last of these movies I plan to blog about, but our kid’s enjoying the rest of the movies without me yammering about them. He’s watching Ebirah, Horror of the Deep, which I know better as Godzilla vs. the Sea Monster, as I’m typing this, and I’m trying real hard not to be distracted by Kumi Mizuno. And the great big shrimp-crab monster, of course.

Flash Gordon (1980)

Is nine years old perfect Flash Gordon age or what? It struck me that I must have been nine or ten the first time I saw it on HBO. Of course I loved it to pieces then – I must have seen it twenty times – and I was pleased to see our son having a blast with it. It’s a stupid, silly, predictable movie, but between the crazy costumes and set design and all the actors having such a ball, it’s just so darn fun.

I haven’t actually watched this movie in decades. No kidding, the last time I saw this movie, I didn’t know who any of the actors were. But I saw it so often that every line was carved in my memory, and for many years, every performer in it was defined later on as having been in this film. Isn’t it funny how the mind works that way? I bet for years and years to come, so many of the actors in the Harry Potter movies will have their wizarding roles be the first to come to mind for half the planet. Mention Rickman, you think Snape. Mention Max von Sydow, I think Ming. A few of the performers escaped their Gordon roles for me – Dalton, Wyngarde – but I don’t care how many Bergman movies I’ve watched, he’s still Ming.

And speaking of Potter, blink and you’ll miss him, but inside the tiny airport terminal, cast there because they needed somebody hungry in Scotland with an Equity card, there’s the future Hagrid, Robbie Coltrane. Poor fellow doesn’t get a line, but he was glad of the credit and the paycheck, I expect.

Does it hold up as an adult? It’s just a goofball adventure film with BRIAN BLESSED stealing every scene and Peter Wyngarde not getting to show his face, but boy, what a voice. There’s not a darn thing wrong with a goofball adventure movie for kids. I guess for grownups there’s the amazing silliness of “Here Comes the Bride” being played at interstellar weddings – bet Ming doesn’t pay any composer royalties either, the swine – and of course the gorgeous Ornella Muti, who’s the space babe against whom all space babes from the period are judged. But mainly it’s BRIAN BLESSED yelling a lot and the hero looking wide-eyed and incredulous while beating up all obstacles. It’s a good film full of good actors, both the headliners and a gang of character actors from the day. John Hallam, with very big hair, is one of the Hawkmen. I also spotted John Hollis and Deep Roy in scenes here and there, so people who enjoy looking for favorite actors will have a ball with this.

As for what doesn’t work in the far-flung future of forty years’ distance, it’s mainly the special effects. Some of it felt dated even in the early eighties, and the kid let out a snort over Topol’s homemade rocket looking awfully unreal as it launched, but I think the design and the strange skies of Mongo give it a unique feel. It may be artificial, but it doesn’t look like any other movie either, which is a good thing. You can complain about the one-note villainy, or the fellow named Ming with the yellow peril beard wanting to enslave white women, but these were there in the original strips and serials in the thirties. A modern Flash Gordon – there was one 13 years ago I didn’t know about before now – would probably do some things differently, but they were shooting for retro in 1980.

Best scene? For me it’s probably Sam J. Jones and Timothy Dalton having that terrific duel to the death on the tilting floor with spikes. And doesn’t Dalton just go ahead and audition for Bond when he starts taking out Ming’s red-suited thugs in the corridors below the city? For the kid, the whole climax was a blast. He even riffed Ming’s demise as Flash runs a freaking rocket into him, cracking “Well, Flash Gordon can’t land an airplane, so what do you expect?” Happily, his hole-filled memory didn’t have to sit too long to remember one little bit at the end. When we watched “Last of the Time Lords” a month ago, I told him that the end, where a mysterious stranger spirits away the Master’s ring, left behind in the dust, was a tip of the hat to a scene from an older movie, which we’d watch together soon. I’m really pleased he figured it out today.

He says that Flash Gordon is his favorite character, “of course.” Some day down the line, he’ll figure out that Prince Vultan’s really the best character in the movie. GORDON’S ALIVE?!

Godzilla vs. Monster Zero (1965)

Yeah, yeah, Invasion of Astro-Monster, I know, but screw that, it’s a stupid name.

This is such a strange experience. I had been so looking forward to Ghidorah, the Three-Headed Monster and it let me down so badly. This one I had no real fondness for at all, but I decided to watch it with our son both out of a sense of obligation for the important ones and also to see the incredibly fun scene where Nick Adams tells his space girlfriend that they’re not robots, and I enjoyed the daylights out of it. It’s really entertaining!

Of course it’s dumb in the way that monster movies are always dumb. My favorite example is one by no means limited to just the Japanese monster movies: it starts by following all the human characters that will ever matter in the movie, and keeps giving them additional reasons to be part of the narrative when it really should have left them behind for new experts. There are a few special effects letdowns this time, too. Wires are visible all through the film, and while Eiji Tsubaraya’s effects team did their usual amazing job with miniatures for the moments that matter, basic establishing shots are obvious giveaways. I chuckled at a convoy of military trucks and jeeps all following along a track with whacking great pins connecting the vehicle to the metal track underneath.

But there’s also a wonderful moment where the movie wrong-foots the audience into thinking they’re seeing an error when they’re not. If you’ve picked up Criterion’s big Godzilla set – and if you haven’t, you should – then skip to chapter 2 and you’ll see a fine little shot of a rocket flying through space. The camera follows it for a second and then cuts to a shot of the stars and the blue-blackness behind them, revealed to be fake by folds in the fabric. But the camera continues panning and the joke is on the skeptics in the audience. The cut took us out from space and to Earth. We’re not looking at a special effect, we’re looking at the starry-night backdrop of a fancy restaurant. I loved that.

In the mid-sixties, Toho decided to try boosting American interest in their monster movies by hiring familiar actors. Russ Tamblyn and Cesar Romero both headlined films for them, but I think Nick Adams was the first. It didn’t work in the short run; this movie sat on the shelf and didn’t get released in the United States until 1970, under the far better name of Godzilla vs. Monster Zero. Adams is terrific fun to watch. He’s an all-fists dese-dem-dose action star, all cigarettes and sixties, capable of whatever odd demands the plot has for him.

When I last saw this film as a teenager, I was too serious to enjoy it. I was unreasonably annoyed that the people of Earth called this new planet on the other side of Jupiter “Planet X,” and then they land on it and strike me pink, that’s what the natives call it as well! But the Planet X people – they’re called Xillians, delightfully – are effortlessly cool in an only-in-the-sixties way, with their grey-and-black leather uniforms and thin sunglasses. I’d watch Nick Adams rally the people of Earth against these dudes even without Godzilla and Rodan beating up Ghidorah in the background, especially if he’s going to overact opposite the beautiful Kumi Mizuno, who was in a lot of these movies back then.

And did the kid like it? He made “Go Godzilla” signs. He got disillusioned when he thought Godzilla was going to rise up from a big lake and it turns out to be a flying saucer instead, lowering his signs with a scowl, but at one point Godzilla does a victory hop and at another point he tells Rodan to wake up by smacking the big bird in the chest with his tail and he was in heaven. A small city gets demolished and the Xillians get crippled by sound waves before they can, err, “escape into the future,” and their UFOs explode. Maybe the hilarious brilliance of Nick Adams is lost on him as yet, but there’s plenty otherwise to enjoy.

Image: Criterion

Ghidorah, the Three-Headed Monster (1964)

It’s the way of things. Sometimes a beloved old movie just doesn’t hold up. Today’s heartbreak: Ghidorah, the Three-Headed Monster, which I may have seen about twenty-five times when I was much younger and have often said is my favorite monster movie. That’s not a claim I’ll make again. I’ve also said that the human stuff is the most interesting material in these movies, and while the material here remains interesting and very watchable, the giant monster stuff is, bluntly, wretched. This is not how I remembered it, but watched just two weeks after Mothra vs. Godzilla, I can see both a far smaller budget for special effects and the intrusion of kid-friendly comedy for the first time. When Mothra shows up to convince Rodan and Godzilla to join forces against a new monster from space, the bigger beasts’ brawl has deteriorated into playing volleyball with boulders.

I still like the human stuff. It revolves around a princess from a south Pacific nation who’s been targeted by killers in a political coup. Someone who looks just like her turns up in Japan, dressed like a bum and drawing crowds with her wild predictions of imminent doom for the planet. She claims she’s from the planet Venus, but the rival faction in the missing princess’s home country wants her dead anyway. I love the leader of the gang. He never once removes his sunglasses in this movie. Instead of the usual battles between Godzilla and the military, this movie goes for a smaller scale, and has a policeman trying to protect the “Venusian” from the four killers in several shootouts. None of these guys could hit the broad side of a barn.

Even though I was underwhelmed by the monster business, our son loved it. The comedy of the squabbling monsters – Rodan in particular enjoys a good laugh – had him charmed and the action had him enthralled. King Ghidorah is, at the end of things, an absolutely amazing design, and the destruction of that city with his lightning-rays remains a pretty impressive bit of miniature effects. It’s a movie that’s pitched straight at eight year-olds, and this one says it’s his favorite of the five that he’s seen so far. We’ll see how he feels when Nick Adams shows up in the next one we watch, in April.

Image: Criterion

Mothra vs. Godzilla (1964)

When Criterion announced their Blu-ray collection of the original fifteen Godzilla movies, my inner twelve year-old smiled, but the more practical middle-aged part of me said no, because I’d honestly rate only five of them as being worth a darn, and that’s a big price to pay for five movies. Then Criterion had a flash 50% off sale and I was told I’d have a bonus coming at work and I’ve got an eight year-old kid who absolutely loved the original, which we saw at the Silver Scream Spook Show in 2018. A boy should have Godzilla movies. I figured we’d watch and blog about the other four that I enjoy over the course of the next few months, and he could enjoy the other ten at his own pace.

He surprised me yesterday by asking to watch the worst of the ten first, so we put on the infamous All Monsters Attack, aka Godzilla’s Revenge, which is a 70 minute cheapie that reuses half of its monster footage from two other movies and tells a kiddie tale about a bullied latchkey eight year-old foiling some bank robbers. He certainly liked it, but this morning, we put on something more impressive.

Mothra vs. Godzilla is the fourth to feature Godzilla, and the last where he’s unequivocally a threat and a menace. It’s a story of newshounds and scientists pitted against two greedy businessmen, and shows that things were just as crappy in the world fifty-six years ago. Newspapers have a critical need to provide information, corporations are unethical and run by monsters, nuclear radiation kills the fields of verdant islands, all that. These movies are only ever as good as the human stuff, and the human stuff in this one is great to watch. I especially like the fellow they cast as the prefecture’s alderman, who looks precisely like he stepped out of an editorial cartoon. His heart may be big, but his civic pride is wrapped in Coke-bottle glasses, buck teeth, and a stringy mustache.

But the wow factor comes with the enormous soundstages and incredible miniature work, and the bizarre spectacle of using a moth prop about the size of a Cadillac and dropping it repeatedly on the head of that poor fellow in the Godzilla suit and never once seeing a line or a wire holding the huge thing up. There are a couple of unfortunate seconds of sped-up film, and that’s the only quibble I’d make with Ishiro Honda and Eiji Tsubaraya’s amazing direction and special effects decisions. And even that makes sense because this movie depicts Godzilla as slow, tired, and clumsy as he stumbles around before the first fight. Mothra’s only advantage is speed. Overall, the special effects are completely astonishing. Sure, we’re at an age where we understand how every shot was done; it’s not a case of wondering how they did it, it’s marveling at knowing how much resources and work were required to make it all happen.

The kid agreed. He thought All Monsters Attack was great fun, but he liked this morning’s film better. “There was more Godzilla getting totally really mad and wanting to destroy stuff. Basically there was more destroying stuff.” He is at the age where the monsters are the prime attraction and the people get in the way, of course. That’s fine. More cities will be knocked over for him soon enough.

Image: Criterion

Galaxy Express 999 (1979)

Galaxy Express is a weird, strange and really entertaining film from a period of animation that I look at with a lot of nostalgia. I’ve mentioned here before that there were a heck of a lot of interesting animated movies hitting the big screen from around 1977-83, from studios in Japan, the US, and the UK, and Express is a perfect example from that period. Directed by Rintaro from a storyline by Leiji Matsumoto, the movie is a retelling of key elements from a much longer television series, itself an adaptation of a weekly comic written and drawn by Matsumoto and his studio. The theatrical version actually wrapped up its version of the narrative about two years before the TV show reached its climax in a quite different way, so there are a few versions of the story, depending on how audiences chose to view it.

In the world of Galaxy Express, most of the planets and moons have been colonized, and humans who want to live forever can trade in their humanity for mechanical bodies. These are available for free on a distant planet, and that’s where our pre-teen hero wants to go. Years before, his mother had been murdered by the villain Count Mecha, and this tough kid, named Tetsuro, wants revenge. A mechanical body might give him the upper hand, but at what cost?

Unfortunately, the body might be free, but getting to the planet is something only the wealthiest can afford: by purchasing a ticket on a space-faring ship called the Galaxy Express that looks like an old-fashioned steam engine. A mysterious and beautiful woman named Maetel helps Tetsuro get a ticket, and seems like she’s on his side, but she keeps her secrets, and Tetsuro is warned to not trust her.

I enjoy Galaxy Express for lots of reasons, but one that shined this morning is that this may sound like a science fiction story, but it’s really more of a fairy tale than anything else. Incredibly strange things happen in this movie, and they’re explained with poetry, not with science. At one point, approaching the planet Pluto, the temperature inside the train drops. This isn’t because of a problem with the heating or because it’s Pluto, and therefore cold, but because Maetel reasons that this part of space is haunted by the souls of all those who died trying to get here. It isn’t rational, but it isn’t meant to be. It’s an explanation from a bedtime story and it’s lovely. And then there’s the way that absolutely nobody knows where Count Mecha’s Time Castle will materialize next, except for the only people that Tetsuro asks about it.

Our son continued his habit of being entertained and amused by the oddest things. He especially liked Count Mecha’s castle, which has room for “ten trillion games of hide and seek” and which the count decorates by leaving piles of skulls on the staircases. There are all of the trappings for an adventure movie for kids, right down to a bridge way, way above the ground that disintegrates once Tetsuro races back across it. Supporting our heroes in this story are two other Matsumoto characters from his interconnected stories: Captain Harlock and Emeraldas. They help out in the great big space battle at the end, which is the sort of billion-explosion spectacle that live action movies just couldn’t do in 1979, and our son was in seventh heaven. He said he liked the characters just fine, which is good, because he might just see ’em again a time or two.

Galaxy Express is a film that’s looked better and better to me over the years. Back in the mid-eighties, I got to know it through nth-gen bootleg copies. One of Roger Corman’s companies released an incoherently-edited dubbed copy that chopped out almost a quarter of the movie, Tetsuro was renamed something like Joey Hana-canana-be-bi-bo-fana Smith, and the guy doing Captain Harlock’s voice spoke like the talking cowboy hat in Lidsville. A little later, somebody found a subtitled copy, but the copy was so far down from the source material all that I could hear on mine was tape hiss. Viz Media put out a new dub on VHS in the mid-1990s. My own tape was sold or traded or snatched or lost years ago. I upgraded to Discotek’s DVD recently, and their Blu-ray’s said to be even better. If you’ve got anybody aged eight to thirteen in your house, I’d say this film’s a must. Grownup viewers might grumble at the strange science, but kids understand magic a little better and they’ll probably like this movie a lot.

Additional readin’: Check out Dave’s report at Let’s Anime from a few years back. You watch this film at home and you’ll wish you could’ve seen it on a big screen in Toronto with him!

The Borrowers (2011)

Several months ago, we went out to enjoy Fathom’s presentation of The Secret World of Arrietty. I read a little bit about it on Wikipedia and learned that just one year later, a live-action adaptation of the same source material was made. It’s a BBC movie made in conjunction with NBC / Universal. Was it shown on American TV, I wonder? I’m not sure how I missed this; I keep an eye on Doctor Who news when it isn’t being shown, and I’m sure I would have noticed news stories about Christopher Eccleston starring in a fantasy film like this, but I suppose it just never registered.

Anyway, this is a Christmas movie that features Eccleston as Pod Clock, one of the borrowing little people who live under the floorboards of a nice house in London. While many of the same elements from Mary Norton’s original novels are here in this version – a doll house, a sympathetic young human bean who wants to help, a grandmother who’s obsessed with the little “thieves” – this is a very different take on the adventure from what we saw in Hiromasa Yonebayashi’s animated film. The threat this time isn’t just the grandmother, it’s a lovestruck, fame-obsessed zoologist at a local university and his bloodthirsty graduate assistant.

While there’s a part of me that regrets that Stephen Fry, who plays the professor, doesn’t get much of an opportunity to share any face-off time against Eccleston, I did enjoy this much more urban take on the source material about as much as the pastoral Japanese version. Here, the Clock family is not very far from a large community of Borrowers. There’s a huge group that lives in the long-shuttered City Road Underground station, and after the family is discovered, they can make their way there for help.

They’re discovered after teenaged Arrietty, played by Aisling Loftus in full you-never-let-me-do-anything sixteen years old mode, makes the acquaintance of a Bean, setting everything in motion. Soon enough, her parents are captured, and she has to work with the Bean and another Borrower who knows more about her parents than she does, to rescue them. Our son was really pleased with the shenanigans in the climax, where poor Stephen Fry charges down university corridors chasing after a remote-controlled car. If Disney had made this in the seventies, it would have been Keenan Wynn or Harry Morgan or somebody. The special effects and the accents may change, but there is a formula to a successful kids’ movie, you know?

I thought this was a fine little morning movie, but I did quibble a little at the end. There’s a subplot about a missing coin that’s in the Borrowers’ hands, and I’d have liked it if our one heroic Bean had done them a fair swap for some items of greater value to them – say two big 50p coins in return for the gold sovereign? Perhaps I’m just sensitive to it because our son is hitting the age where trading’s okay. He came home from school this week with an extra bag of somebody’s unwanted Valentine’s sweets in return for some fruit snacks and I’ve been worried for days that the other kid was as satisfied with the deal as he was. Two coins are always better than one when you’re not using them as government-backed legal tender, right?

The Princess Bride (1987)

I’ve told the story of how I avoided this film for almost twenty years before – but by all means, please reread it, you’ll need it for the last paragraph – but briefly, I never heard anything about it that appealed to me, and one day in 2005 somebody forced me to watch it and I spent weeks alternating between watching it again and kicking myself for missing out. Preconceived notions are sometimes terrible, terrible things. Eighteen years I could’ve known this movie was a triumph.

So anyway, I’m assuming that this is one of those movies I don’t need to describe very much to our audience or explain why I chose to show it to our son. It’s because it’s Rob Reiner’s finest moment, and every kid needs to see it! We started out with a little chat about narration. We talked about an unreliable narrator a few weeks ago, and I explained that this story doesn’t have an unreliable narrator, but it does have one who interrupts. Our son sees echoes of William Goldman’s original novel in lots of the modern entertainment that he enjoys, especially Captain Underpants. If you’ve not read the Underpants books, one of his regular devices is employing a “skip” chapter, where rather than explaining a complex part of the adventure, the writer just explains that to cut a long story short, the characters did whatever they were trying to do. The cartoon’s narrator regularly points out things that will be important later on.

And today, audiences take all that for granted. We’ve been primed by everything that’s followed in the wake of that era of postmodern literature (I’m reminded in particular of The French Lieutenant’s Woman, published four years before Bride), but it took another thirteen years before a studio was willing to sink several million dollars into making a movie of this that would be true to William Goldman’s winking-at-the-audience novel. And while the interruptions and commentary are really kept to the frame story of Peter Falk reading the book to his allegedly sick grandson, the movie adds a heck of a lot that the book couldn’t do that toys with audience’s expectations.

For starters, there’s my absolute favorite swordfight between Cary Elwes and Mandy Patinkin. That could have gone on another hour and I wouldn’t have been bored. There’s the risky humor of turning Miracle Max into a stereotype greedy Jew, which would be pretty cringeworthy today if Billy Crystal wasn’t playing him. There’s the great gag of the fellow who cleans the torture chamber rasping in a hideous gargle that our hero is in the Pit of Despair before clearing his throat and speaking normally, which seems to have come straight from Monty Python. And certainly nobody, anywhere, was expecting Peter Cook to open his mouth and yell “MAWWIAGE,” except for everybody, everywhere, who knew to sit up straight when Peter Cook shows up. So there, movies can give you things that books can’t.

If movie audiences were just about ready in 1987 for the postmodern fairy tale that they might not have been in 1973, it’s expected by pretty much everything in 2020. So our kid knew just what was going on, jumped right in, sympathizing with the grandson that he’s having to suffer through a story with kissy stuff and waiting to get to something exciting. He loved everything about this, from the now-classic lines to the rude insults, and of course the fighting. He had the biggest laugh when Patinkin’s character finally, after two decades, gets to look in the eyes of the man he’s been tracking and give his immortal line at last, only to have the guy immediately turn and flee.

But, if I may be allowed a moment to brag, I think that I got the best laugh of the morning. I can boast that I had him collapsed in laughter and begging for an encore. I told him that story linked to in the first paragraph, about how Wallace Shawn, in a parallel world, might have been given the opportunity to play Mr. Mxyzptlk on Lois & Clark. I built up to it well and reminded him of the wine scene between Shawn and Cary Elwes. In what I might humbly claim to be a passable parody of Vizzini, I bellowed “You fool, Man of Steel! Do you seriously think you could possibly trick me into saying Kltpzyxm?!” I didn’t even get as far as saying that would be inconceivable before the kid was doubled over, roaring, and begging me to do it again. No autographs, please…

Stargate (1994)

We’re going to begin watching Stargate SG-1 here at the blog fairly soon. I’ll talk about it in more detail later, but I think it’s a program that starts out godawful, turns into a mostly good show, and eventually becomes tremendously entertaining. It’s based on a 1994 MGM film directed and co-written by Roland Emmerich. A lot of Emmerich’s hallmarks are on display here. He’s kind of made an art of spending an insane amount of money and resources on movies that would be every bit as stupid with a tenth of the budget.

Stargate isn’t a movie that I’d ever really watched before; it’s a movie that’s been on while I’ve been in the room. And I can now say that it is every bit as lazy and stupid as I feared. Nothing surprising happens in this film; it’s an action movie by the numbers. About the only thing in the story that I really liked was a gruesome bit where the hero’s about to get the drop on the villain, and the bad guy is instantly surrounded by more than a dozen human shields; little children bred to die for their boss.

As for the actors, I liked Richard Kind’s petulant performance as a translator on the Stargate project whose work gets bulldozed immediately as soon as the new whizkid on the team, Dr. Daniel Jackson, shows up. Jackson is played by James Spader and Col. O’Neill by Kurt Russell, and it’s a testament to how little they brought to the movie that I spent the full 130 minutes saying to myself that Michael Shanks and Richard Dean Anderson are both so, so much better than these actors in the same roles.

If you’ve never seen the film, it’s an incredibly long setup to get to a faster-than-light wormhole to another galaxy. There, a small colony of humans whose ancestors were abducted from Egypt 10,000 years ago live as slaves to an alien who calls himself Ra. The Great White Saviors show up and save the day, showing the locals that their “gods” are mortal, and blowing up Ra and his pyramid ship with a failsafe nuke.

There’s a bit where Ra’s jackal-helmeted warriors sneak around and make mincemeat out of the redshirts left behind to guard the way home. Our son thought this scene was very frightening. He otherwise enjoyed the fighting and the shootouts. This is a very simple film without nuance or surprises, so it’s natural that kids would enjoy it. Everything here was done better once Brad Wright and Jonathan Glassner got involved a couple of years later and made it into a TV show.

Not a lot better, mind you. It takes a long time to find its feet. More on that soon.

Them! (1954)

I’ve told this story before, but here it is again: once upon a time, I decided that I’d love to show my older son Them! without telling him anything about it. I figured I’d get around to it one of these days, and waited so long that one day around 2005, he came back from the school library with a book about science fiction’s greatest monsters and yelled “Dad! Do you know this movie Them!? It sounds amazing!” That was a silly lesson in not putting off your plans. Culture has a way of spoiling surprises from the past.

I don’t know why I wanted him to see it without knowing what monsters the atomic bomb had brought up in New Mexico that hot summer of 1954. Surely every single person who has ever seen this movie did so knowing what it’s about. I just wondered whether the movie would be as effective if a viewer didn’t know. And I think now that the answer is yes.

I spotted a used Blu-ray of this movie a couple of days ago, snatched it up, and didn’t let our son see what I’d bought. I didn’t tell him the name of it until supper. And I got to watch him as he curled up with two blankets during the stunningly effective opening twenty or so minutes, as two New Mexico state cops come across two scenes of destruction and death in the desert. The only survivor is a small child in shock and unable to speak. Maybe it’s easy for a jaded moviegoer to dismiss all this character interplay as in the way of the special effects, but it’s so amazingly well-made. I pointed out to my wife that this film was made by Warner Brothers, and not American International or some Z-grade production company. Them! is what every monster movie of its day just wished it could be.

I wouldn’t swear that Warners didn’t spare any expense. It wears its remarkably large budget on its sleeve, but there’s still a dearth of speaking parts – I like James Whitmore and James Arness as much as the next guy, but this script honestly left the need to keep their characters involved after about fifty minutes – and they took as few people on location in the desert as was necessary. Spotted the Warner backlot just once. But otherwise, they went to town on this. There’s a lot of desert footage using two aircraft and a team of excellent actors who really sell the mystery and the horror of what’s happening, far better than everybody who appeared in the parade of B-movie imitators who followed in Them!s tracks.

And did it work? The kid was spooked out of his skull. The presence of all that formic acid in one victim’s body didn’t give it away. And when the camera finally reveals what the heck is going on, he jumped and shouted with a “Whoa!” He enjoyed everything, the frights, the explosions, the jeeps, the flamethrowers, and agreed that this is a great film. If you’ve got kids of your own, definitely show them this classic, but try to keep it under wraps before they go checking out books about monster movies.

Image credit: The Endless Swarm