Tag Archives: fantastic cinema

Starcrash (1979)

There are exactly two reasons anybody ever needs to watch Starcrash. Either they’re under ten and want to see laser swords and Vader villains and exploding spaceships, or they’re over ten and want to ogle Caroline Munro while she’s wearing several ridiculous, skimpy costumes.

Well, alternately, a person could be stuck trapped on a sofa between these audiences. Poor Mommy.

Starcrash is arguably one of those projects that began its long development before Star Wars, but nobody outside the producers’ immediate families is going to defend its originality. It even opens with a shot that’s been stripped right from Wars, only while the ships in that movie looked like actual spaceships, these look like toys. All of the miniatures here look like toys with the little leftover bits from model kits glued on them and given solid white or gold spray jobs.

No, what money there was in this movie, after securing the services of Christopher Plummer, Caroline Munro, David Hasselhoff, and a bunch of other people who look like they were on a two-week furlough from the steel mill, went into the location filming. Munro plays Stella Star, a pilot and smuggler who’s been pardoned by the Emperor of the Universe and commissioned to find his missing son. The search takes her and her crew to a beach planet, an ice planet, and a volcano planet, where they get into battles with space amazons and space cavemen, before confronting the evil Count Zarth Arn, which might be the best and silliest name for any of the screen’s Vader clones.

Speaking of best and silliest actually, and you won’t believe me, but my favorite part of this movie wasn’t actually Caroline Munro in her leather space bikini and boots, but the laser guns used by Zarth Arn’s troops. They have these absurd and delightful little red crosshairs printed on the barrels of their rifles and I chuckled every time I saw them.

For our six year-old, this was serious business and he adored this film. He liked it just fine until the climactic space shootout, and told us that his favorite part was “the end, when everything went boom boom boom. I liked everything else, but I really liked it when everything went boom boom boom!” There are lots of explosions as all the extras and stuntmen shoot at each other in a set that looks about the size of our apartment, but which nevertheless somehow holds about a dozen of these little torpedo ships which crash through the living room windows of the Death Sta– I mean whatever Zarth Arn calls his space station — but that wasn’t the really big explosion.

Our son also really enjoyed this movie’s obligatory robot. This sort of movie just wouldn’t be complete without one. It’s a police robot called Elle, voiced by Hamilton Camp in a possibly Texan accent. Like C-3PO, he worries and complains about everything from water to flying a floating city, but he also guns down amazons and cavemen.

With the battle almost lost, Emperor Christopher Plummer realizes that there’s no alternative but to execute the dangerous plan of Starcrash. The other really great thing about this movie is the wonderful way that David Hasselhoff replies “Fourth dimensional attack!” You’d think that something called a fourth dimensional attack would be a little more impressive than two model kits bumping into each other, though.

Starcrash was released in America by Roger Corman’s New World Pictures after the original producers, AIP, judged it too poor a movie to bother. It’s been a cult classic for almost forty years of mocking – some friends have been shouting “Fourth dimensional attack!” at inappropriate moments since the early nineties – and it finally made its way to Mystery Science Theater 3000 three months ago. I very much doubt my wife will ever sit through this film ever again, even with Jonah, Tom Servo, and Crow to help us through it.

Incidentally, the unmistakable miniature work and silly Christmas light star systems in this film would, you’d think, be unique enough that nobody would think about using them anywhere else, but two years later, the visual effects all turned up again in a really dopey movie called Escape From Galaxy 3. It was apparently marketed in some countries as a sequel to Starcrash, but it certainly isn’t!

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Battlestar Galactica (1978)

And so, inevitably, there’s Battlestar Galactica. I had wondered whether that original three-hour opening “epic for television” might be available without having to buy the entire show; no look into all the Star Wars cash-ins would be complete without it. We were in luck: what we saw on TV as “Saga of a Star World” had actually already been shown in theaters in several other countries as a stand-alone film, and as an added bonus, it’s twenty minutes shorter.

I’m sure you caught the connotations there: I think Galactica is the most tedious program ever. It doesn’t even have the decency to be downright stupid. It’s just boring.

The weird thing at the time was that nobody in my second grade class was interested in it either. Obviously that wasn’t the case nationwide; Galactica had a legion of young fans who grew up to be a legion of adult fans, and they grew up to write and champion the even more boring 2004 remake. But somehow it didn’t click with the kids at my playground and get that lunchroom buzz that Star Wars had, and that Buck Rogers in the 25th Century would have the following season. Everybody watched “Saga of a Star World,” but people only talked about that in the past tense. I honestly don’t remember even being aware that a weekly show had been on at all. We all talked incessantly about Star Blazers and The Space Giants, but Galactica really seemed, to us, as a one-time thing as I recall it.

Galactica 1980, though, that one everybody did watch. Kids, eh? And in 1981 or 1982, HBO showed a movie made from the two-part episode “The Living Legend” several times, and I sat down to watch it as often as possible, but not when it was originally shown.

Anyway, in late 1977, Universal and producer Glen A. Larson started working on what was planned to be a series of occasional big-budget TV movies, only to have ABC decide to do it as a weekly show instead at just about the last possible minute. So the theatrical cut of the first story – it’s still long at 125 minutes – wasn’t just released ahead of the show, it was released before anybody at Universal even knew there was going to be a show. There are apparently several small narrative differences to the later TV version. In the film, John Colicos’s character, the treacherous Baltar, is actually killed, but in the show, he survived to become the regular antagonist. Colicos was probably a more interesting character than a barely-animated puppet, voiced by Patrick Macnee, would have been.

Our son enjoyed this much more than I ever did, although the endless – okay, maybe five minutes, total – scenes of old men in pajamas debating the next course of action almost put him to sleep. Among the old men: Lorne Greene, Terry Carter, Ray Milland, Wilfrid Hyde-White, and Lew Ayres. The movie sensibly focuses on the younger and much more attractive cast. I like the way Glen A. Larson wrote his two male leads. Richard Hatch is the dream catch for any single moms in the TV audience, the reliable super-boyfriend to a young widow played by Jane Seymour, and Dirk Benedict, with his freewheeling attitude and silver tongue, is the bad boy, caught in an endless love triangle between Maren Jensen and Laurette Spang.

Our favorite six year-old critic is mostly quiet during TV and movies and avoids interjections beyond cheers, whoops, and laughs, but he occasionally can’t help himself and it’s often amusing. Today, when we first see the heroes’ Colonial Viper fighter ships, he immediately said “Hey! Those pods look like X-Wing pods!” “Noticed that, did you?” I asked. Of all the Star Wars cash-ins, Galactica was probably the most egregious, prompting 20th Century Fox to briefly pursue a lawsuit over 37 alleged infringements. Most of these were pretty darn spurious, but lawsuits, like criminal charges, are often shotgun blasts hoping something will stick.

My favorite interjection came during the climax, as Cylon ships are attacking the supposedly defenseless fleet and Maren Jansen shouts “There’s nothing to stop them!” The next shot is all the Vipers leaving the planet’s surface and our son said “Nothing except those!” He really got into the spirit of things. He enjoyed all the space battles, reused footage and all, although he was really confused when the Death Sta – I mean Cylon Base Star – was destroyed. They’d explained the imminent destruction of the planet by way of some lines dropped in, overdubbed atop a laser gun shootout, and of course a six year-old isn’t going to pay attention to the dialogue when our heroes and Cylons are shooting at each other.

As for me, I wasn’t quite as bored as I feared. It’s always nice to watch Ray Milland chew up the scenery with that “I really do hate my agent” look in his eyes. I got a good chuckle when the words “MADE IN USA” showed up on a computer screen when Jensen was trying to diagnose a problem with Benedict’s ship. It’s certainly not bad for what it is, but any life in this movie vanishes when Dirk Benedict isn’t on screen.

I remember always being disappointed that the insect aliens, the Ovions, had so little to do, and this still seems like a missed opportunity. Of course, when I was a kid and had an Ovion action figure to hang out in my Sears Creature Cantina with Walrus Man, Greedo, Hammerhead, and the tall Snaggletooth with the silver boots, I just wanted more four-armed Ovions attacking people, but now I want to know whether they were running a big counterfeit cubit operation in their casino to keep the winnings going. How did they target their advertising to get the high rollers to book vacations without anybody in the rag-tag fugitive fleet, even Ray Milland’s decadent greedheads, ever having heard of them?

I honestly would have preferred more screen time devoted to these incredibly pressing questions than on Jane Seymour’s kid and his new robot dog, but my six year-old liked the robot dog and gave it his “pretty cool” seal of approval, which I doubt he’d have done with an in-depth investigation into Ovion casino marketing. Reckon Glen A. Larson knew what he was doing.

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Message From Space (1978)

It’s largely forgotten today, but if you want to sit down with a kid and enjoy a downright insanely entertaining movie, Message From Space will certainly do. After those last two turkeys we watched for this blog, this was both a relief and a pleasure. This is a fun, fun movie, almost tailor-made for slow Sunday mornings for kids to watch on a UHF channel while Mom and Dad are still asleep.

You know how Star Wars is really inspired by Kurosawa’s The Hidden Fortress? This is a movie that doesn’t pretend. It’s The Hidden Fortress in space, gleefully pilfering its look and set pieces from Wars and running at breakneck speed with explosions and sword fights every five minutes. Anybody who’d get bored watching this film didn’t have an attention span in the first place.

The plot goes like this: evil space villains have conquered a peace-loving planet, and the defeated people’s ageing leader sends eight seed pods into space to recruit help. The baddies follow the trail from their region of space into ours, and while the seeds collect a rag-tag group of misfits to fulfill their destiny, the villains learn about the beautiful planet Earth and decide to conquer it next. Among its international cast, it’s got Sonny Chiba and Vic Morrow, and a young American actress named Peggy Lee Brennan in a role that looks like it was written for Suzy Quatro.

Our son adored this film, of course. I mean, if you like Star Wars, here it is again, only with old-fashioned miniature effects instead of computer-controlled one, and with a climactic sword fight that is roughly a billion times better than the one Dave Prowse and Alec Guinness had. It’s got both a Vader Villain and his creepy old silver-skinned mother in a wheelchair, beat-up and dirty little one-man spaceships, cocky hotshot pilots, a musical score that sounds a whole lot like John Williams, and a Death Star trench climax that’s pilfered straight from the original, only using about a quarter of the screen time and including giant doors in the tunnels that threaten to close right in front of the quasi-X-wings.

Bizarrely, my son took exception to one little bit of design. The whole affair is ridiculously sumptuous for what could have been a cheap knock-off. According to a book by Stuart Galbraith IV, Japanese Science Fiction, Fantasy and Horror Films, it was actually the most expensive film ever made in Japan up to that time, and you can see it all onscreen. The costumes, sets, spaceships, and effects are all completely over the top and outlandish and I think they all look splendid, but for some reason he grumbled that the villains’ gigantic flying fortress – their Star Destroyer, basically – was “a hunk of junk,” and kept calling it that whenever he wasn’t whooping, laughing, or shouting “Oh my goodness, they’re killing everybody!”

So when the flying fortress meets its destructive end, he jumped off the couch in ecstasy, and bellowed “I TOLD you it was a hunk of junk!” He was happier about that than the downright amazing end for the chief Vader Villain, weirdly.

Message From Space sports a co-writing credit for Shotaro Ishinomori, a comic book artist who spent the seventies being consulted by lots of TV and movie producers in Japan, and collaborating on all sorts of shows that look incredibly fun and/or silly. This is absolutely a fun movie, one I was happy to revisit. It’s not high art, but neither’s Star Wars, and every six year-old in the galaxy should see it.

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Fugitive Alien (1978 / 1986)

In the 1970s, Tsubaraya Productions made several sci-fi television shows apart from their most popular franchise, Ultraman. I don’t think that any of these really need trouble your attention much. There was Mighty Jack, of course, and Jumborg Ace, and Time of / Army of the Apes, and the see-it-to-believe it Dinosaur War Aizenborg, in which cartoon characters save the world from live-action actors in dinosaur costumes. That would have been a silly series in the first place, but then somebody decided that these needed to be talking dinosaurs.

Recognizing that I’m not the best candidate to debate the issue, Star Wolf was probably the best of this unfortunate bunch of lousy teevee shows. The premise comes from a trio of novels by Edmond Hamilton. Centuries in the future – well, possibly, the English-language script is very, very questionable – some aliens led by Lord Halkon attack the Earth. One of their “Star Wolf” raiders, Ken, gets into a fight with his colleague about whether to murder civilians, goes rogue and joins Captain Joe and his crew to save the galaxy from his former allies.

Star Wolf ran for 24 half-hour episodes in the spring and summer of 1978. Regardless of the story’s origins in Hamilton’s novels from the late sixties, the show’s design was all Star Wars. There’s a Vader Villain, ships that look like X-Wings, other ships with the Millennium Falcon’s cockpit windows, laser guns, even a light saber in one tiny bit. It’s a derivative and silly kids’ show, but for all I know, the original series might not have been too bad. Some of the miniature work is really pretty good.

But we may never know whether the original program was worth a darn, because this wasn’t released in English by a company that knew to hire Peter Fernandez and Corrine Orr to do the voices and edit out as little as possible. No, the English language rights to most of the seventies Tsubaraya shows were purchased by Sandy Frank, the source of all our pain, and if there was anything worth watching in Star Wolf, it’s not evident in what came next.

Fugitive Alien is a 100-minute compilation of the first several episodes of Star Wolf, and it is a breathtaking mess. The film was packaged and offered to UHF stations in 1986, and it is so incompetent that Mystery Science Theater 3000 did it twice, and watching it without Joel and the Bots is like a day without sunshine. The voice actors are probably Sandy Frank’s neighbors gathered around a condenser mic, the script uses “country,” “nation,” “planet,” and “constellation” interchangeably, people describe characters as not wearing space suits when they plainly are, that sort of thing.

Our son tolerated it. My wife went to the grocery store. He was attentive in the beginning, when Lord Halkon has ordered his forces to destroy all life on Earth – his forces just rob a jewelry store and steal some gold bars, so that command might have been a quirk of the Sandy Frank script – and paid attention again when Ken gets arrested on the Planet That’s the Middle East, but the forty-some minutes between them are ponderous talking scenes in office buildings. Well, Rocky tries to kill Ken with a forklift, so I guess you could say that something happens then.

Magically, you can tell from the costumes and design and cars that the original series, much like Ultraman, was set in the near-future, with technology we could imagine as right around the corner from the present day. So you’ve got average joes in 1977-78 clothes riding around in Jeeps watching slideshows and punching up information on TRS-80s talking about their centuries-old alliance with the Planet That’s the Middle East.

The film does have an actual ending, but it also says “To Be Continued.” I did not break my son’s heart when I told him I did not have a copy of Fugitive Alien 2 and that we would not be watching it.

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The Amazing Captain Nemo (1978)

I’m a nostalgic and forgiving kind of guy, and so I’m pretty certain that every single thing from my childhood that I loved as a child is something I can look at from the dull light of middle age and see what appealed to me when I was small. Then there’s The Return of Captain Nemo, which ran for three episodes on CBS in 1978. I saw the first two installments and loved that show like you wouldn’t believe.

This morning, we watched The Amazing Captain Nemo, a compilation movie made from the three TV episodes, whittled down from about 150 to 105 minutes. If I didn’t have my six year-old son hopping with excitement from the laser gun fights, underwater action, and explosions, I would have wandered away from this turkey to go play mublety-peg or something. I’d say that it’s the stupidest thing we’ve watched for this blog, were it not for the unfortunate reality that I know what we’re watching next week.

The Return of Captain Nemo seems to have come about because CBS was very much aware of bandwagons, but they were too timid to actually jump on any of them. In the spring of 1977, NBC showed a series of TV movies called Man From Atlantis. They starred Patrick Duffy as a comic book-type hero, with a former Batvillain, Victor Buono, as a recurring enemy. These were so successful that NBC ordered a weekly series, and CBS and Warner Brothers followed suit with an idea for a clone, even casting another former Batvillain, Burgess Meredith, as their show’s baddie. Captain Nemo was in the public domain, and while Irwin Allen had left weekly TV production behind for big-budget disaster movies like The Towering Inferno, he knew how to make bottom-of-the-sea television without a lot of money, so they asked him to produce it.

Then Star Wars happened. Suddenly Burgess Meredith got an alien robot henchman and a lot of golden androids. The important rooms of his submarine, the Raven, got turned into black-curtained “limbo” sets like everywhere in the third season of Batman so the set designer could spend money making all the corridors into Death Star hallways to stage laser gun shootouts.

Then Man From Atlantis died as a weekly series. CBS decided that they maybe only wanted three episodes, and called it a pilot mini-series. The mini-series flopped, and Irwin Allen and Warner Brothers got to make a little money back by turning the three hours into a film version, cropping the 4:3 picture into widescreen. The three-part version has apparently never been screened anywhere since an April 1981 broadcast in the UK; the film is the only way to see it. Only Irwin Allen completists need bother.

I’m assuming some of the intricacies must have been lost in the editing, because the speed with which the kind and patient Nemo works out a deal with naval intelligence to be their go-to man to battle the evil Professor Cunningham is really the most amazing thing about this movie. We never learn anything about Cunningham’s alien buddies or weird technology, Lynda Day George is present only because if she wasn’t, there would not be a single female character in this movie at all, and Atlantis itself is treated as a mild curiosity and depicted with a no-budget-at-all white set with two Greek columns. All of the dialogue is hilariously macho – “I’m going alone,” “no time for explanations,” etc. – and the two action man leads, played by Tom Hallick and Burr DeBenning, look like they were cast because there weren’t any cop shows that needed them that month.

But holy anna, our six year-old loved it. He was hopping up and down and shouted “This is AMAZING!” at one point. He liked the underwater gunfights so much that he’ll probably pass out when he sees Thunderball one of these days. He did creep behind the sofa at one point when Captain Nemo was captured and Cunningham uses one of those mind probes you see in sci-fi shows to get the equations and blueprints for the Nautilus and its laser(!) from his brain. We’ve seen Captain Nemo in four films now, and this is the most ridiculous thing to happen to him in any of them.

And it was always thus. In the seventies, my parents were good friends with a fellow named J.D. Faulkner, who always confused me by being unmarried. My folks knew nine thousand people and I swear J.D. was the only bachelor among them. He always arrived unannounced, and one terrible Wednesday – March 22, 1978 – he showed up raving about this restaurant in Marietta, insisting that Mom and Dad drop plans and join him there. It is perhaps amazing that I grew up loving food and restaurants as I do after what happened next. This insidious trip to whatever that restaurant was – my parents never admitted its name under interrogation – cost me the third episode of the show, but I guarantee I ruined their meal by whining about it. I started crying because the second part had a cliffhanger ending. I mean, it said on the screen “TO BE CONTINUED,” so that meant my parents were obliged to let me see what happened next.

Somehow, in that strange logic of six year-olds, I concluded that the cost for missing part three of The Return of Captain Nemo was twenty-four dollars. My father agreed to pay it to shut me up, and I ate my spaghetti in silence. It wasn’t even good spaghetti. Mom made better spaghetti than this. Mom made, and continues to make, better spaghetti than anybody else on the planet. I don’t know why I ordered it.

Then my dad refused to pay the twenty-four dollars. Then there wasn’t an episode four of The Return of Captain Nemo. Somehow I didn’t become a serial killer.

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The $tar War$ Ca$h-Ins: Introduction

Star Wars was first screened on May 25, 1977, although, as was common in those days, it was many, many months before everybody got to see it. I turned six that December. I still hadn’t seen it, though of course I’d heard about it. Everybody at school claimed to have seen it, or to have a cousin who had seen it, but got all the details of the plot wrong. We had bubble gum cards and coloring books and other legitimate merchandising long before anybody in the suburbs of Atlanta really saw the movie.

The reason I know I hadn’t seen it by my birthday was simple: I got my first three Star Wars toys at my birthday party and none of my friends had any idea who the characters were. But rest assured that the Sand Person and the Death Squad Commander had all kinds of exciting adventures in their Land Speeder on the den floor until I got some action dolls of characters with names for Christmas.

Knockoff toys showed up by the truckload almost instantly. Old Captain Action figures were repurposed, swords were made from glow-in-the-dark plastic, and there were wind-up cute robots on every desk in every school. As far as cash-ins go, the space age had begun. The movies weren’t far behind.

Regular readers know that most Sunday mornings, we watch a movie together. Beginning June 11, we’ll be watching eight of the most blatant of the $tar War$ Ca$h-Ins, in what I believe is the order they were released. This won’t quite be a comprehensive study of the form, but I think we’ll have a lot of fun. Here’s a short introduction detailing a few high points, or low, about what we have already seen, won’t be seeing, or will watch a little later down the road.

September 1977: Space Academy
We’ve already watched this series. Filmation’s Saturday morning show Space Academy was already in pre-production with a number of plot elements and archetypes that predated Star Wars. It’s more like Trek than Wars, but the visuals, corridors, and space combat scenes are clearly influenced by Wars, and then there’s Peepo, television’s first cute R2-D2 rip-off.

December 1977: The War in Space
This dopey movie falls victim to this blog’s “pay for play” rule. I’ve never owned a copy, and it’s out of print and stupidly expensive, but it’s such a turkey I wouldn’t ask any of my mates, who’ve been making fun of it for twenty-five years, for a copy anyway. Nevertheless, it seems to be the first Wars cash-in to make it into theaters, even beating the original to screens in Japan. The story goes that Toho sent director Jun Fukuda and a big crew to California so they could see this allegedly game-changing movie that everybody in the special effects business was raving about. They were already at work on a sequel to the sci-fi film Atragon and changed course at breakneck speed to beat the American film into Japanese theaters. The result is a barely-coherent mess with some nice visuals, a Chewbacca clone, and a hilarious Darth Vader clone from the spherical star cluster which you Earthlings call Misty-13. That’s where they all live. Their world is far from here. They can go all over the immensity of the galactic system. It was released in America with a dub job so incompetent that it seems like an act of petty revenge. Go about eight and a half minutes into that link up above and marvel at the marbles in that guy’s mouth.

March 1978: The Return of Captain Nemo
Burgess Meredith has a strange alien henchman and silent golden robot allies to stage shootouts in the Death Star corridors of his submarine, and only Captain Nemo, freed from cryogenic slumber, can stop him! This TV series would have looked very different had its designer never seen Star Wars. Read all about it here.

April 1978: Fugitive Alien
The Japanese TV series Star Wolf had more than one influence on its look and feel, but its spaceships and bad guy came straight from the Lucas playbook. It was repackaged for American television as a compilation movie in the mid-eighties and people have giggled about it ever since. Read all about it here.

April 1978: Message From Space
This film went straight to the original source material that Star Wars cashed in on in the first place. It’s a delightful and fun take on The Hidden Fortress, only with cute robots, Vader villains, princesses, giant warships, and cocky young pilots diving through big metal trenches. Read all about it here.

July 1978: Battlestar Galactica
It was a ratings flop after the first couple of weeks, but this well-remembered adventure series was so close in look and feel to Star Wars that 20th Century Fox took its producers to court over it. A re-edited version of the original three-hour adventure actually preceded the show to screens in several countries, and you can read all about it here.

September 1978: Jason of Star Command
We’ve already watched this series. Jason was actually an incredibly egregious and blatant cash-in, but it was done with such good humor that it was hard to object or take too seriously. Plus, Sid Haig. I really enjoyed how, in response to George Lucas explaining that his film was an homage to the cliffhanging serials of the 1930s, Filmation said “Yeah, we remember those, too,” and made the first season a sixteen-chapter serial just like Flash Gordon and his ilk. Then the next season, Filmation got the rights to Flash Gordon itself and made a sixteen-chapter cartoon out of it.

March 1979: Starcrash
Caroline Munro saved the universe from the evil Count Zarth Arn by using a fourth-dimensional attack in this deeply dopey movie that also featured Christopher Plummer, David Hasselhoff, and the voice of Hamilton Camp as the obligatory robot. Read all about it here.

May 1979: Shape of Things to Come
Stay tuned for our post about this movie in July or August.

September 1979: Buck Rogers in the 25th Century
We’re going to skip over good ol’ Buck for the time being as we have lots of other shows and movies to watch, but the first season is waiting patiently on my shelf to show my son when he’s just a little bit older.

December 1979: The Black Hole
Stay tuned for our post about this movie in August.

September 1980: Battle Beyond the Stars
Stay tuned for our post about this movie in August.

There were certainly other clones and cash-ins after this Roger Corman epic, but that pretty much covers the basics, and cheesy sci-fi eventually stopped being quite so blatant. For example, December 1980’s Flash Gordon wouldn’t have been made had Star Wars not been a hit, but it’s really its own thing, with Ming the Merciless reminding audiences he was the chief cosmic baddie long before Darth Vader. Another example: In 1981, comedian Rich Little starred in a family sitcom pilot – it wasn’t picked up – called Nuts and Bolts which would have been unremarkable were it not for the co-stars. Nuts and Bolts were cute robots like R2-D2 and C-3PO.

Similarly, Star Wars‘ miniature work started influencing the BBC’s visual effects unit, most obviously in the opening shot of the Doctor Who serial “The Invasion of Time” in February 1978, and the series Blake’s 7, which was launched right around then, but we have to draw a line somewhere. In much the same way that discussing every spy movie is going to hit a wall where you’re discussing the movies that wanted to be James Bond on one side and the movies that were influenced by or were a reaction to Bond on the other, you have to stop somewhere.

One final note about cash-ins: one of my pals suggested we watch 1982’s The Man Who Saved the World – better known as “Turkish Star Wars” – and I’m tempted. Last year, Ed Glaser of Neon Harbor tracked down what is likely the last remaining 35mm print of this film and hopes to one day restore and release it. Yes, tempted is the right word. Drop us a line if you do, would you, Ed?

Image credits: Plaid Stallions, Flickr.

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Star Wars (1977)

Star Wars celebrated its 40th anniversary this week, so we sat down to watch it this afternoon. Our son just hopped and squeaked with excitement. “My first Star Wars movie!!!” he yelled. We told him at the playground that we’d decided to watch the movie this afternoon instead of Sunday morning. He and some seven year-old immediately started swordfighting with imaginary light sabers.

It’s fascinating to watch this through the eyes of a kid and see what they know already, since its impact on culture has been so great that elements of it are simply as ubiquitous as football and pop music. My opinion on marketing might not be worth a whole lot, but I’ll say on my death bed that the absolute stupidest thing that Lucas or Disney or whoever did to this property was make Darth Vader not scary anymore. How is anybody meant to be frightened of Darth Vader when they turned him into a Mr. Potato Head? Boy, that wasn’t the case when we were kids.

But if you remember – and we’ll come back to this next week – none of us really went into Star Wars blind. The movie was released, they say, on May 25 1977, but I certainly didn’t see it until January or February the following year, and I think that’s the case for many people my age. But we had trading cards and toys. I’ve kept few of my treasures from childhood, but I’ve still got a mostly complete set of Topps cards – missing one green border and six yellows – and my classmates, friends, and I breathlessly assembled our knowledge from little pieces of ancillary information. Heaven knows the movie itself keeps its secrets. You wouldn’t know from watching these 120 minutes that Biggs Darklighter and Wedge Antilles have lives outside the cockpits of their X-Wings.

My wife and I learned today that this continues. After R2-D2 gets zapped by the Jawas, he’s carried off to a vehicle that our son recognized. “A Sandcrawler!” he shouted. He knew exactly what that was. He watches videos on YouTube that teenage Lego fans make about their constructions and Sandcrawlers, of all things, are remarkably popular.

Of course, some of it he didn’t actually understand. In some places that might be because Baby Harrison Ford and Baby Mark Hamill had not quite learned how to act yet, and their line delivery is occasionally kind of rushed and unclear. Thanks to them, our son thought that the “Jumbo Lightspeed” was a remarkably cool special effect. But my favorite of his announcements came when the flight squadrons started getting together on Yavin’s moon and he recognized an X-Wing but didn’t know what it was called. “Hey! A Star Wars ship!”

Indeed, he loved this movie to pieces. He was jumping and cheering during the final battle and would have been riveted for another hour, easy. Me, I thought it was a little odd and, especially in light of the later films and their casts of billions and hundreds of planets, small. I haven’t actually sat down to watch it in such an incredibly long time that I’d forgotten just how much stuff happens on Tattooine before they get to Mos Eisley. It’s a wonderfully busy film, and I think that in lesser circumstances, Alec Guinness and Peter Cushing would have easily dominated everybody and everything.

Imagine this movie made just five or six years before, without the set design and creatures and visual effects that keep your attention so focused on the solid reality of this incredibly unreal place. Think about how strange those mile-deep maintenance shafts are, and how for some insane reason the architects decided to stick the tractor beam controls right in the middle of a fall-to-your-death chasm. Guinness and Cushing would have stolen the movie outright if this had been a 1972 Hammer/Seven Arts film, in much the same way Cushing had walked away with At the Earth’s Core the year before. (We’ll get to that movie in a few months!) But Star Wars so masterfully presents its place that even the isolated case of overacting – really only that “ultimate power in the universe” guy that Vader Force-chokes – doesn’t take audiences out of the picture very much.

I really don’t have anything more to say than that. Star Wars, like The Wizard of Oz which we watched recently, has been written about so much already that the other things I did feel like mentioning have been done to death. Chewbacca didn’t get a medal, you know. Yeah, they’ve addressed that in at least two comic books!

So anyway, happy birthday, Star Wars. Thanks for all the memories, and we won’t make your newest fan wait three years to see what happens next.

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Logan’s Run (1976)

A case might be made that our son, who has only turned six recently, might be too young to appreciate or understand Logan’s Run, and maybe I should have held off on showing him this. However, we’ll be watching Star Wars in a couple of weeks, and I wanted him to have a little idea of what American science fiction films were like before George Lucas showed up and kiddified everything.

He’s far too young to grasp the cerebral likes of 2001, Westworld, or The Andromeda Strain, and while Planet of the Apes is on the agenda for later this year, I still worry that film’s going to scare him quite a bit. So I decided that Logan’s Run, despite the worrying premise of early death and fleeting glimpses of nudity, would serve as our example. It also led to a much more kid-friendly TV series the following year, and so I decided we’d watch that as well, so look out for that next month.

So the techno-future of Logan’s Run is all lights and computers and travel capsules and escalators in shopping malls under a big dome. It’s a PG film of the seventies, so much of the discussion of pleasure is left understated, but this is a world where the people play with abandon and sleep together without repercussions. They’re under the thumbs of the Sandmen, who wear black and there are quite a few more of them than you’d expect standing around in the background. The Sandmen take their orders from a sultry-voiced evil supercomputer. People are promised the possibility of renewal – reincarnation, basically – after their lastday, and a garish and totally over-the-top death ceremony called Carrousel. People don’t question the system, and people don’t ask what’s outside the domed city.

The film stars Michael York as Logan 5, a Sandman who has been given a deep undercover assignment to find the secret exit to Sanctuary which Runners – people who make a bid for freedom before their lastday – have been using. He realizes that Jessica, a girl that he recently met while looking for some free evening company who is played by Jenny Agutter, wears an ankh symbol affiliated with the Sanctuary movement.

This level of detail went a little over our kid’s head. We did have to pause early on, because the first half-hour is a little talkier than our six year-old wanted to handle, and so we had to tell him to quit kicking his legs around and pay attention, and if he had questions, actually ask us instead of ignoring the movie until some shooting started. He improved, but in fairness, the action quotient did, too.

Logan is so deep undercover that the other Sandmen don’t know about his mission. He’s forced to become a Runner himself and make his way through the strangely complicated way out of the city that the underground resistance movement guards. Unfortunately, the network of Runners have made their own jobs so difficult that none of them know that they’ve been sending Runners to their deaths at the hands of a demented robot who has killed hundreds and hundreds of people. Until Logan shows up, nobody has been armed and able to defend themselves from it.

The robot, Box, is played by Roscoe Lee Browne, and I don’t mind telling you that when I first saw this movie on HBO around 1979 or so, Box really gave me the creeps. He’s not around for long – educated guessers have figured that the Box scene, and an earlier one in their run in which Logan and Jessica get separated in a steam room orgy, were both ruthlessly edited down to remove as much nudity as possible so the movie would get a PG rating – but Box is one of those creations that every kid of the seventies remembers. Until Star Wars made them safe, robots were often very menacing.

The movie is flawed in places and certainly dated, but there’s really a lot to like. I enjoyed how the music is all disco synthesizers and Jean-Michel Jarre electronics inside the city, but is played by a traditional orchestra once our heroes get outside. I like how the lasers used in the New You clinic are surgical things that cut you with solid beams of light, and not zap guns. I enjoyed Farrah Fawcett and Peter Ustinov, and I especially liked that the writers didn’t make Ustinov’s character, the old man that they meet outside the dome, the wise fellow who can explain everything. The old man is just as baffled by the world as Logan and Jessica, but he understands a tiny bit about how families can work in a society where kids aren’t born in tanks and raised by computers. And Richard Jordan, who plays the Sandman who believes Logan has betrayed the system, is an entertaining villain, but heaven knows how a guy who’s never seen the outside world before is able to track our heroes on an overnight excursion.

Actually, the real flaw in the film is its need to make Logan the savior of the story and individual cause of the city’s explosive downfall instead of the protagonist who got out and began getting the outside world ready for people leaving the dome. Things should have been set into motion by having Jordan’s character call for as much backup as possible once he found all of the bodies that Box had frozen, and then let a large company of Sandmen see the sun for themselves.

The writer seems to have painted himself into a corner by the path they took, which means there’s no real way out except for explosions and destruction literally driving the population outside. This means that the sultry-voiced evil supercomputer has to do that “Does not compute… SELF-DESTRUCT!” thing that evil supercomputers often did around the seventies. No wonder all of our generation’s parents were terrified when we gave them their first hand-me-down PCs. They spent more than a decade waiting for the darn things to blow up in movies.

I’m grousing a lot over a generally entertaining movie that has our son curious to see its retelling as a weekly show, but the ending is massively silly, and I love the way all the people fleeing the dome just show up at the top of some stairs. None of this army of extras has any urgency, none of them move like “our entire world is blowing up,” they just show up and say “check out Peter Ustinov and his old man hair.” It’s a good setup, an interesting dystopian utopia, full of good actors, and one deeply goofy ending. Maybe the show will do it better?

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