Saturday, June 20, 2015

Saturday Morning Cult-TV Blogging: Valley of the Dinosaurs: "Top Cave, Please" (November 2, 1974)


In “Top Cave, Please,” a hunting party’s mascot -- an elderly stegosaurus named Rokar -- is mysteriously freed from the corral, a forecast of bad luck. 

Lok is accused of releasing the animal, and held for trial. He is found guilty of the crime, and banished to the Cave of the Winds, where a giant spider spins its webs.

In truth, the real culprit is a devious hunter named Bork, who hates the stegosaurus and feels that Rokar brings him only bad luck.

Now the Butlers and Lok’s family must prove his innocence, and establish that “luck” is the purview 
of the superstitious, not the rational.



“Top Cave, Please,” is an intriguing episode of CBS’s Valley of the Dinosaurs (1974) in part because it reveals a bit more about Gorak’s people. 

The Villagers, who have cooperated with the Butlers only grudgingly in the past, here accuse Lok of violating a tradition and custom involving a mascot.  We see Lok stand trial, in the village and stoically accept his sentence even though he is innocent. 

But this series is always about the strength of family (or two families together), and so naturally Gorak and the others fight to prove that Lok has been wrongfully accused

The episode’s final point, that Rokar is not a “magic spirit,” just an animal, is perfectly in keeping with the series’ pro-science, anti-mysticism bent. Rokar does not make good or bad luck, that’s just how people interpret things, and the final scene of the episode shows the Villagers coming to understand that fact.



Gorak’s friendship with the Butlers is also nicely established once more in this episode, as the modern family doesn’t hesitate to help the beloved Lok.  As Katie says, “everyone’s in on the caper!”  And indeed, they are. 

Katie and Greg investigate the creepy Bork, while Mrs. Butler and Gorak’s wife attempt to retrieve and capture the now free-ranging Rokar.


Next week, one of the best episodes of Valley of the Dinosaurs: “S.O.S.” 

Saturday Morning Cult-TV Blogging: ElectraWoman and DynaGirl (1976) Series Primer


The next Saturday morning live-action series I will cover here on the blog is Sid and Marty Krofft’s ElectraWoman and DynaGirl (1976).

The series ran on ABC in the year 1976 as part of the omnibus program The Krofft Supershow. Like Secrets of Isis (from Filmation), ElectraWoman and DynaGirl is a female driven superhero program.  

Unlike, Isis (a series which adopts the format, essentially, of the 1950s Adventures of Superman), it is clear that the inspiration for the Sid and Marty Krofft series is the 1960s Adam West Batman (1966 – 1968).

In particular, ElectraWoman and DynaGirl involves crime fighting partners, costumed super-villains, and a campy tone. 


The series follows Lori (Deirdre Hall), and Judy (Judy Strangis), reporters for Newsmaker Magazine.  

They are also, secretly, ElectraWoman and DynaGirl.  These colorfully-dressed superheroes operate from the Electra-Base, an installation deep under the suburban house they share.  They reach the base by elevator, and from surface to Electra-Base done their costumes via the wonder of instantaneous “Electra Change.”

In the Electra-Base, their friend (and Alfred stand-in), Frank Heflin (Norman Alden) tires endlessly to aid their cause.

He watches their highly-advanced Crime Scope computer for signs of criminal activities, and is constantly updating their most valuable piece of equipment with new applications.  This equipment is the wrist-watch like device called an “Electra-Comp.” 



In various episodes, the Electra-Comps are up-fitted with “Electra Vibe” applications, which can shatter matter, and the “Electra Split” function, an unstable “decoy” weapon that can double or duplicate non-living matter.  The two superheroes can also fly using their Electra-Comps, thanks to the function “Electra De-Gravitate” (seen in the segment “The Empress of Evil.”)

In terms of aping Batman, ElectraWoman and DynaGirl also possess a signature vehicle, the Electra-Car, which can also transform into the Electra-Plane.


And DynaGirl, like the Boy Wonder, is given to enthusiastic exhortations. Instead of prefacing those exhortations with the word “Holy,” however, she uses the word “Electra.” In other words, she says things like “Electra Wild!” or “Electra-Fantastic” or Electra Wow!”

Similarly, ElectraWoman and DynaGirl features a sort of spinning wheel scene transition, much like the spinning bat-wheel transition on the West series.

Unlike Batman and Robin, however, ElectraWoman and DynaGirl don’t even wear masks when changing from civilian to superhero gear, making it difficult to understand how people don’t recognize them.  On the other hand, Lori and Judy aren’t the city’s most prominent citizen, like Bruce Wayne, either.  Instead, they are journalists in the immediate Post-Watergate Scandal age, digging deep into their stories, but not drawing attention to themselves as “hero journalists.”

Despite the fact that ElectraWoman and DynaGirl lased for just sixteen fifteen minute segments (comprising eight episodes in all), the series has nonetheless become a lasting part of the pop culture firmament.  A pilot was made for a follow-up series in 2001, and in 2016, we can expect a web-series re-boot starring Grace Hellbig and Hannah Hart.  It will be interesting to see how the property is updated, and what tone it strikes.

The villains of the series are mostly bizarre, costumed freaks, who always have one and only one sidekick.  Some of these villains include the Sorcerer (Michael Constantine) with sidekick Miss Dazzle (Susan Lanier), Glitter Rock (John Mark Robison) with minion “Side-Man, Ali Bab (Malachi Throne), The Pharaoh (Peter Mark Richman), the Spider Lade (Tiffany Bolling) and The Emress of Evil (Claudette Nevins).

I’ll be reviewing each episode of ElectraWoman and DynaGirl here for the next eight weeks. Instead of breaking the segments up into part I/part II -- cliffhanger/cliffhanger resolved -- pieces (another way that the series apes Batman’s storytelling structure), I’ll be treating each 25 minute story as an entire episode.

Next Saturday we begin our "electra" journey with: “The Sorcerer.”

Friday, June 19, 2015

Found Footage Friday: Digging up the Marrow (2014)


Adam Green’s Digging up the Marrow (2014), is a mock-documentary, found-footage horror film. The work-of-art takes a creative leaping-off point from the premises of Nightbreed (1990) and Tod Browning’s Freaks (1933), and concerns a possibly unstable man, William Dekker (Ray Wise) who believes he has encountered a society of real-life monsters. 

Dekker calls that world not Midian, but “The Marrow.”

Historically speaking, I’ve found Green’s work to be, well, variable. 

Hatchet (2008) was atrocious, and made even worse by its over-hyping in some corners. But I cherished Frozen (2010) and would unreservedly count it as a masterpiece of nihilistic horror. 

Digging up the Marrow falls somewhere between those extreme poles. 

It is no disaster, and at times even feels like it could rise to the level of cult classic.  Most of this success has to do with Ray Wise’s extremely powerful and memorable performance. But credit Green’s choices as director, too. He makes a good-humored horror film here with some real jump scares, not to mention one of the most sinister, disturbing endings I’ve seen in some time (even though nobody actually dies). 

At other times, however, Digging up the Marrow feels more like 90 minutes of self-promotion than it does a legitimate, internally-consistent narrative.

Why?

Green is essentially the movie’s main character, and as such is constantly seen discussing his TV series, Holliston, wearing shirts that promote his movies, or discussing collectibles that do the same.  As viewers, we also visit his house and meet his beautiful wife (at the time of production). 

Somehow, there’s an uncomfortable undertone here. It’s almost like Green is saying in some of these moments: “look at me, I made it! I’m a big-time Hollywood director!” 

The film might have worked more successfully with an unknown in Adam’s role, and it would definitely have worked better with an experienced actor in that role. I realize that Woody Allen and Kenneth Branagh cast themselves in starring roles in their movies all the time, but they were on-screen performers who graduated to direction.  Green is kind of taking a reverse trajectory, and the experiment is not entirely successful.

Still, Digging up the Marrow features some big laughs, some big scares, and some great character moments.  It features a distinctive tone, and is worth seeing.  At some points, the budgetary limitations hamper the film, and you’ll ask why the camera never actually takes a trip into the Marrow.

But overall Digging up the Marrow is a lot of fun, especially if you enjoy the found footage format.



“Haven’t you always wished that something like this was real?”

Director Adam Green (himself) is contacted by a fan, William Dekker (Ray Wise), who believes that he has uncovered a world of monsters. 

In fact, he claims to have found an entrance to this world, the Marrow, in a nearby cemetery, and recruits Adam to make a film about his beliefs

Adam is impressed by Dekker’s story, and the artwork he has created to diagram the various monster personalities he has encountered. 

Still, Adam and his cameraman are shocked after one long night of surveillance when a monster appears before their camera, and then darts away.  Adam orders more cameras (and a light) set up in the cemetery, but Dekker is concerned about scaring away the monsters.

One in particular, it seems.

At a horror convention, Adam meets up with horror directors Tom Holland and Mck Garris, and they reveal that Dekker also contacted them regarding his crazy story of a monster world called “The Marrow.” Now Adam feels like Dekker may be hoaxing him, and sets out to learn about his past, including a period in which he worked on the Boston Police force.

One dark night, Adam returns to the cemetery to see what’s out there for himself, without Dekker’s interference. 

He gets more, perhaps, than he could have bargained for…


“It’s crucial we just observe, and don’t interact.”

Digging up the Marrow obsesses on the idea of “monsters,” and a constant refrain in the film involves Adam’s love of such characters. 

All his life, he has wanted to prove that monsters could be real. On one hand, this interest proves Green’s love of horror, certainly. On the other hand, if Green loves the horror genre that much, he should know that monsters don’t want to be found, let alone filmed. They want to be left alone.

Adam makes the same mistake, then, as so many horror movie characters have in the past: he wants evidence of something supernatural -- or least different -- that he can take back to society.  Dekker warns him that the monsters just want to be free, and that they exist in their own world, going about their normal business.  They will respond negatively if forced into unwanted contact, but Adam proceeds anyway…at his own peril.


Adam’s dual nature as both a horror movie lover and a horror film businessman represents a crucial aspect of the film, and one not always navigated entirely successfully.  Adam keeps repeating that he loves monsters -- probably too many times -- but at the same time, one suspects that he is most intrigued about capturing something new on film; something that none have seen before.  Look at the narcissism and resentment Adam displays when he finds out that Dekker went to John Carpenter, Mick Garris and other film directors before he went to him.

That pique is vanity, to be certain, but also an economics-based fear that his story may already be “out there” and therefore not get the reception he would like it to get when he screens his film.

In sharp contrast to Adam, Dekker clearly possesses a unique personal interest in the Marrow and its denizens.  We learn some details of his back-story, and his family, in particular, but I steadfastly admire Digging up the Marrow for not spoon-feeding us every last detail.  It’s far better for some aspects of Dekker’s “madness” and back-story to remain ambiguous, and Green shows nice restraint in allowing mysteries to be raised, and then slow-boil for the duration of the film.


Two things make the world of the monsters tantalizing in Digging up the Marrow

The first is Ray Wise’s off-kilter, off-balance, award-worthy performance.  He plays a man of great feeling, great emotion, but also a man who absolutely lacks a sense of humor about himself or his subject. Much of Wise’s dialogue could thus play as either straight, or as wickedly funny. The trick, of course, is that Dekker never realizes his words might be seen as funny.  He believes every word, and Wise invests him with pathos and humanity in a fascinating way.

Secondly, we get Alex Pardee’s colorful, creepy art work, and his unforgettable monstrous creations like Brella (a monster with an umbrella over her head), and Vance, to name just two. These creatures, at least on paper, possess distinctive identities.  They are beguiling and fantastic.




The cameos in the film from horror icons like Tony Todd, Kane Hodder, Mick Garris and Tom Holland contribute to the fun in two ways. 

First, they help to humanize the genre, and its practitioners’ long-held desire to find “real” monsters.  Monsters are, and always have been -- at least in horror movies -- deliberate symbols of the outsider.  Generations of children have grown up loving the Creature from the Black Lagoon, or the Frankenstein Monster, or the Wolfman because there is some sense that they are misunderstood, or shunned simply for being different.  Tony Todd, Lloyd Kaufman, and others talk meaningfully about this idea, and when they speak, they speak from the heart.

But Kane Hodder gets some of the best moments in the film, playing an unenthusiastic but agreeable straight man. Hodder sits in on an editing session with Adam, and sees the footage featuring a monster.  Even though he is told it is real, Hodder steadfastly refuses to believe it is so, and keeps asking how it was created. 

The discussion descends into a discussion, and then critique of found footage movies – “nobody wants that anymore” says one character -- and it’s really quite amusing.  But the scene also explains something significant about found footage movies. 

In one way or another they are all about our desire to see something we have never seen before, whether it be Sasquatch, UFOs, or the Loch Ness Monster.  Yet the irony is that if we were to see a “real” iteration of such a creature on YouTube, or even the Nightly News, we would likely do precisely what Hodder does in Digging up the Marrow.  We would rationalize the footage as a hoax, or as Hollywood wizardry.  Found footage movies, regardless of their drawbacks, are about the desire to see, and, simultaneously, the inability to accept what is seen.

Digging up the Marrow critiques the form in other ways too, noting, for example, that green night vision -- a staple of found-footage films -- has a way of making everything look like “shit.”

Such moments are self-reflexive and funny, and they embrace a great quality of the horror genre:  it is never afraid to look at itself and laugh.  The slasher format got roasted in Scream (1996), of course, and Digging up the Marrow offers some nice little roasts of found footage throughout.


I also credit Digging up the Marrow with some genuine creativity in its last act.  So many found footage movies are about the inescapable nature of death. 

In these films, the camera need be the only survivor, right? 

The final scenes in Digging up the Marrow -- a masterfully lensed exploration of anticipatory anxiety – couldn’t show us Adam Green being killed by monsters, right?  He’s a real guy. He’s going to survive.

Instead, the final scene of the film amounts to what might be termed an explicit visual threat against Adam Green’s continued survival, and it is, indeed, terrifying in its implications. 

The monsters may live in the Marrow, but they can get to you or me at any time, this ending observes.


That “universality” is the key to good horror, and the key to a troubled slumber too.  Digging up the Marrow is more amusing than scary, perhaps, but it ends on a high note of horror. If much of the movie is about discussing the pitfalls of a genre that “nobody wants” anymore, and that “looks like shit,” the film’s denouement escapes the clichés of the form. It thinks outside the found-footage chest of tropes.

My biggest problem with Digging up the Marrow -- and it doesn’t prevent me from noting that it is a worthwhile and enjoyable horror film -- is that the inside-baseball Hollywood stuff gets dull after a while.  It is so pervasive that viewers may feel Adam Green is telling the truth when he keeps telling everyone who will listen that the movie is “just a side project.” 

In the meantime, he’ll keep hawking Holliston and selling T-shirts and toys from his films…

If the film had adopted a more caustic attitude towards Green’s relentless self-promotion, it might have mitigated this concern to a greater degree.  As it stands, Digging up the Marrow will be remembered, certainly, as an intriguing film, but also one that shows off, once more, Ray Wise’s incredible talents.  He is riveting and amazing in this horror film, walking a tightrope between madness and perfect sanity that is impossible to turn away from, or to forget.

Movie Trailer: Digging up the Marrow (2015)

Thursday, June 18, 2015

Cult-Movie Review: The Lazarus Effect (2015)


One of the key reasons that I love the horror genre is that it often explores the (permeable?) barrier between life and death. 

Some of the best horror films ever made -- and best horror novels ever written, to boot -- explore the boundaries of death, poke at them, and imagine answers about what may (or may not) exist on “the Other Side.”   

Accordingly, I find stories such as Shelley’s Frankenstein and Stoker’s Dracula endlessly fascinating because they obsess on issues such as the creation of life, forms of life beyond human, the existence of the soul, the pitfalls of immortality, and so on. 

And movies such as Flatliners (1990), of course, chart similar territory, asking what may happen when we visit the realm of death and return to the land of the living.  Similarly, films such as Soultaker (1990) ask us to believe there is "no stairway to Heaven," while efforts such as Brainstorm (1983) take us on an "ultimate trip" of the soul, following the death experience.

What might we bring back from the other side with us if we are lucky enough to return to this mortal coil? 

What might we see on that ultimate journey?

I write all this as prologue to my review of The Lazarus Effect (2015), a new horror film that, by rights, should be right up my alley.

The film’s narrative involves a team of dedicated scientists hoping to create a serum that can stimulate brain function in the recently-dead, thereby bringing them back to life. The obvious and relevant question in any such experiment is: what happens in the interval between death and resuscitation? 

If we possess a soul, where does it go while the body is quiescent, and furthermore, does it return to the body upon awakening?

I find such ideas tantalizing, and yet, to my extreme disappointment, The Lazarus Effect does almost nothing with such intriguing material.  

The story takes an attractive young scientist, Zoe (Olivia Wilde) to the frontier of death and beyond, but returns her as a tiresome, stock horror movie villain; one who can kill by thought and is evil through and through. Her eyes turn black like oil, and she terrorizes her former friends and colleagues relentlessly.

No significant thought is given as to why Zoe takes this menacing shape, or why acts in this murderous fashion -- like the latest coming of Freddy Krueger, right down to the entrapment of her scientist friends in an un-ending nightmare. 

Thus, the film is really an excuse for carnage and chaos, but the deeper ideas -- the ones about the frontiers of death -- are never explored at all.

Also, The Lazarus Effect looks to have been heavily tampered with in post-production. A major character, played by Donald Glover, is murdered, and his body is never found by the other would-be victims.  In fact, if memory serves, the character he plays, Niko, isn’t even mentioned after he dies.  Does everyone just forget he was ever there?

And the great Ray Wise, so powerful in Digging up the Marrow (which I review tomorrow for Found Footage Friday) appears for one short scene in the film, never to be seen or heard from again, either.  

The whole movie looks like it has been terminally re-jiggered with, so that it consists, simply, of story set-up and then a series of brutal, but not terribly original murder scenes.

Accordingly, The Lazarus Effect is the worst new horror movie I’ve seen since The Pyramid (2014), one of remarkable promise and utterly terrible, scattershot execution.



“When I died, I went somewhere.”

Married scientists Frank (Mark Duplass) and Zoe (Olivia Wilde) work with associates Niko (Glover) and Clay (Evan Peters) to develop a serum that can resuscitate those who recently died.

A documentary filmmaker, Eva (Sarah Bolger) joins the team, as it prepares to test the serum -- known as Lazarus -- on a deceased dog named Rocky.

Rocky is successfully revived, but has no appetite, and shows no interest in life. There is some fear that the canine may turn aggressive, but Frank and Zoe nonetheless take it home to their apartment, to observe it more closely. 

Meanwhile, Zoe is haunted by nightmares of an incident from her childhood.  She was in an apartment building fire as a little girl, and saw people clawing (under a locked door…) to escape the inferno.  

This traumatic incident has colored Zoe’s thinking, and she debates life after death with her husband.  

Frank believes that NDEs (Near Death Experiences) are simply chemical reactions in the brain. By contrast, Zoe believes that NDEs are portals opening to other dimensions or realities. She reminds Frank that energy never really dies; it only changes form.  

The question is: what form does our life transition to in the after-life?  

After the successful test of the serum with Rocky, the university shuts down the experiment, and a corporate overlord (Ray Wise) takes all the research into his possession.  Frank, Zoe and the others attempt to continue their work in the lab illicitly, but an accident involving electricity kills Zoe.

Desperate, Frank uses the Lazarus serum to revive his wife. But the Zoe who comes back isn’t precisely the Zoe who left this world…


“This is crossing a line.”

Horror movies have traditionally counseled patience and wisdom in the face of extreme scientific advances.  This is why we have so many mad scientist, “Don’t Tamper in God’s Domain” type movies (including Jurassic World [2015]).  In this way, one might make the claim that horror movies tend to be prudent ones, expressing the need for responsibility and restraint as we move forward into uncharted waters.

The Lazarus Effect very much falls into this category or sub-genre, but in doing so, doesn’t explore enough -- at least for my taste -- the Other Side.  One of the most intriguing scenes in the film sees Zoe returned from the dead after just a few minutes. 

But by her internal clock, Zoe has been gone for years.  She has been trapped in Hell all that time, reliving again and again her nightmare about the apartment fire.  

Zoe is thunderstruck by the fact that in her life she “did everything right” and yet “still ended up in Hell.”  She describes the after-life as a never-ending loop of the very worst moment of your mortal existence.

Intriguingly, there’s no Devil or demons there to haunt her, rather Zoe's own mind (or soul) seems to have created the shape of her particular spiritual journey  It is a shocking and terrifying discovery for certain, and yet The Lazarus Effect takes a left turn by transforming the returned Zoe into some kind of monster.  

Why does she now want to kill her colleagues?  Why is she now evil?

If you had knowledge of the after-life, and new psychic powers, would you use them for evil, knowing where you might end up?  

Or would you attempt, instead, to change your destination with those powers? 

The film provides absolutely no motive why Zoe should go totally Carrie White, given what she understands of the after-life.  

It is possible that Zoe has given up, realizing she can’t change her destiny, and therefore decides to go blood simple, but there is no evidence of this decision in either the dialogue, the action, or Wilde’s performance.  Zoe just comes back, expresses terror at the after-life, and then goes on a killing spree.

Again, this is different from what happens in the far superior Pet Sematary (1989).  There, the Indian burial ground has "turned sour," and so the soul you put in the ground isn't the soul that comes back.  There's some sense that something is malfunctioning there.

Not so here.  We have several scenes with the returned Zoe, acting normally, and in character. 

And then she just goes ape-shit evil. 


The story makes absolutely no sense, once Zoe starts killing her friends.  There’s a notation, I should add, for accuracy’s sake, that perhaps Zoe was bad to begin with.  But I don't buy it.

We get a revelation late in the film about the exact nature of the fire, and Zoe’s involvement with it. But this happens, importantly, before she was even seven years old.  Are we to believe that she is “bad” to the core, somehow? 

If so, that doesn’t really track with what we know of the character, either.  She seems like the best of all the scientists. She is faithful, open, and not ambitious to the point of insanity, like Frank is.



So it’s not like Zoe was born bad (like King's Christine), and the Hell Dimension merely augments that intrinsic, evil nature.  Instead, Zoe made a terrible mistake as a child.  And yet we’re supposed to see that as evidence of some deep, sinister nature?

From the moment that Zoe discusses her visit to Hell onward to the end of the film, nothing particularly interesting happens in The Lazarus Effect. 

Eva gets sent to the Hell dimension, though how precisely, Zoe sends her there is left pretty foggy. Now she can pull people into Hell?

Nor is The Lazarus Effect particularly picturesque, or appealing from a visual standpoint.  The film never leaves the university lab facility, and we’re left with one mildly interesting psychic murder after another.  One character is crushed in a metal locker; another chokes to death on an e-cig.  It is all minor league stuff, and not terribly well-orchestrated.

The great Ray Wise shows up for that one scene, and gets to tell the scientists that “there’s always a consequence for breaking the rules,” and yet, just once, I would like to see a horror film in which a new frontier is reached, but the consequences involve something different; not the pursuit of answers, but, perhaps, our readiness to understand or control the new order (think: Forbidden Planet [1956]). 

I wish The Lazarus Effect had the imagination to really explore its premise, the twilight world between life and death, or even the idea that man manifests his own reality, based on some sense of morality and ethics.  

Instead we just get the very old story of a man creating a monster through his pursuit of progress; a monster that must then be contended with, as it kills off a handful of not very interesting characters.

The Lazarus Effect actually says it best, and offers the best criticism of the movie:  “If we’re going to be asking big questions, we have to be ready for the answers,” concludes one character.

I agree.  

And unfortunately, no good answers are forthcoming in the film. The Lazarus Effect has a great promise, and absolutely no intelligent follow-through.

Movie Trailer: The Lazarus Effect (2015)

Wednesday, June 17, 2015

Collectibles of the Week: Battle of the Planets (Gordy International)





Pop Art: Battle of the Planets (Whitman Edition)



Model Kit of the Week: Battle of the Planets (Entex)



Jigsaw Puzzle of the Week: Battle of the Planets (Whitman Frame Tray)


Lunch Box of the Week: Battle of the Planets (1979)





Board Game of the Week: Battle of the Planets (Milton Bradley)



Theme Song of the Week: Battle of the Planets (1979)

Tuesday, June 16, 2015

Lost in Space 50th Anniversary Blogging: "His Majesty Smith" (March 16, 1966)


Will (Bill Mumy), Dr. Smith (Jonathan Harris) and the Robot (Dick Tufeld) unexpectedly happen upon a crown sitting on a rock in the wilderness.  When Smith puts it atop his head, he is briefly electrocuted.  Then Will tries it on.

Almost immediately, they are approached by Nexus (Liam Sullivan) of Andronica, a human-looking alien who claims that his people require a new King.  Smith very much wants this honor, and soon Nexus is agreeable to his terms.

The Robinsons are instructed to attend Smith’s coronation as King of Andronica, and do so.  But afterwards Smith learns that the Andronicans are not human beings at all.  Nexus and his retainers are androids made to please him. The real Andronicans are brutish, hairy people who -- in observance of their “Festival of Sacrifice” -- skin their king alive and stuff him. 

Smith attempts to escape this fate by seeking help from the Robinsons, but the Andronicans make an android duplicate of Smith to take his place…one who possesses all of Smith’s good qualities but none of his bad.  “Daddy Zac,” as he is known, promptly proves his worth to the Robinsons.

Now Dr. Smith must figure out a way to escape his grim fate…



There’s no other way to write it: the first season of Lost in Space (1965 – 1968) undergoes a dire set of episodes here in its final stretch. 

The previous installment, “The Space Trader” was entertaining, but raised a lot of questions in terms of the larger series universe. (So…humanoids from other worlds have an intergalactic society with trade shows, contracts, and income taxes?)

Beyond that weirdness, that episode’s plot might be described in this fashion: Doctor Smith, attempting to gain riches and/or a trip home to Earth, gets into mortal danger and the Robinsons must save him before he is taken away to meet his maker.

“His Majesty Smith” is the same story.

Smith hopes to become a rich and powerful king, only to learn that all Andronican kings get skinned and stuffed. Now he must be extricated from his own mess.



It’s unfortunate that two Smith-centric episodes should come back-to-back, as “His Majesty Smith” might play better in a different slot, where the story-line isn’t so repetitive. 

Unfortunately, the plot-line gets re-used again in upcoming stories such as “The Space Croppers” and “All that Glitters.” 

Accordingly, there can be little doubt that Jonathan Harris and Dr. Smith are now the central personalities of Lost in Space. 

They have taken over the series, for better or worse.  

It’s true that Smith has long been a driver of the narratives, with his cowardice and buffoonery proving the catalysts for writers.  But now the Robinsons -- who represent the positive characteristics of humanity -- are sidelined quite a bit.  Smith eats up almost every minute of adventure from “The Space Trader” through “All that Glitters,” a run of four consecutive episodes.

One wonders if the strain of production got to the creative team.  At this point, the series is twenty-four episodes into a very long season, and it must have been easy to rehash stories rather than invent new ones.  At this point, Lost in Space feels creatively exhausted.  It’s easy to write a Smith story, as opposed to a Judy story, for instance, because Smith is such a big character, and can behave badly. It’s easy to see why exhausted writers go to him for starters.

The problem that the writers did not anticipate, perhaps, is that the depiction of Smith as “the most useless creature” in the universe (to quote the Andronicans), actually makes the Robinsons look weaker. 


They continue to suffer a fool in their midst, and after a while, one loses patience with them.  It’s not only that Smith doesn’t learn his lesson from his mis-adventures.  It’s that the Robinsons don’t learn their lesson from his mis-adventures, either.  Here, John leaps to Smith’s defense. “Dr. Zachary Smith is our friend,” he tells the aliens.  “We don’t want to lose him.”

Really? The guy who used up your water supply?  The guy who tried to trade your son to extra-dimensional aliens? The guy who sabotaged your rockets while you were on a space-walk?

You don’t want to lose that guy?

With a slightly different focus, “His Majesty Smith” might have actually been a more intriguing and human story. For a while, for example, the Robinsons suffer a true nightmare “two” Doctor Smiths.  

A better story might have seen the family grappling with Daddy Zac and the original Zachary for a longer period of time, and coming to a reckoning about who is better for the family, or who is “the original.”

That idea gets a little play here, but not enough. The story about an alien race finding a sacrificial king takes center stage, and it’s not handled in any kind of substantive fashion.  One can see the same story on Gilligan’s Island, in a sense (“Gilligan, the Goddess.”)

Lost in Space starts out its run with survival on the space frontier and a lot of hard action, with many heart-warming instances of a family pulling together to weather oncoming storms. By “His Majesty Smith,” however, the series has lunged away from those values to pure fantasy silliness.  

For instance, look at Smith's dress as King of Andronica.  Does an alien king have to wear a crown that looks just like a crown from human history?  There's just no imagination here in the conveying of the narrative. There's no notion in Lost in Space that aliens may have different traditions, or differences in terms, even, of wardrobe.

Next week, an even worse episode: “The Space Croppers.”

Cult-Movie Review: Jurassic World (2015)



The very best quality of Jurassic World?

This is one blockbuster movie that bites the hand that feeds it.

Certainly -- as the fourth installment of a billion dollar big studio franchise -- the obvious path would have been to play things safe, and not feature any kind of embedded social commentary in the film at all.

Instead -- and quite delightfully -- Jurassic World attempts to speak to our time, 2015, much in the way that Jurassic Park sought to speak to its historical context, circa 1993.

The substance of the commentary is entirely different, but both films possess it, and that’s quite possibly the best way to honor the source material.

Jurassic World isn’t about the irresponsible creation of life in the Age of the Human Genome Project, but rather the easy way that our species, mankind, can grow bored by that life, unwilling to treat it as anything other than a not so-exciting attraction.

There’s an old joke about this very idea. It goes something like this:

A person sees God for the first time, and is utterly wowed.

It’s God!  Amazing! Wondrous! Blinding! Fantastic! 

Then, that person sees God on a second visit.

Yeah, God is still cool. Maybe not like before.  But still very cool.

Finally, the same person visits God a third time, and you know what?  God’s no big deal.

Yeah, it’s God.  Ho-hum.

Wait, someone’s texting me….


This is precisely the philosophical terrain that Jurassic World contends with: our constant quest, our ubiquitous desire to find something new, to see something shiny. We can get bored with anything after a short time, even the Divine.

And dinosaurs too.

Yet in Jurassic World, the so-called attractions (or “assets”) bite back, and demand attention for what they truly are: miraculous, living, individual things. They aren’t just there for our amusement. They have lives, destinies, and desires too.

It's so easy to forget that.

In the era of cookie-cutter, generic blockbusters (see: Avengers 2: Age of Ultron), Jurassic World’s dedicated attempt to focus on this facet of the human race’s genome -- let’s call it a collective “meh” in the face of the wondrous -- renders the film both unique and worthwhile. 

Perhaps not on the same gonzo, jaw-dropping scale as Mad Max: Fury Road, but certainly enough for this reviewer to state the obvious; that a lot of fresh blood has been injected into this particular franchise.

Don’t believe, either, the critics who claim that this genre film is misogynistic. You shouldn't believe that any more than you should believe the sour puss male critics who said that Mad Max: Fury Road was anti-male.

Here’s the context for Jurassic World that the “misogyny” crowd doesn’t provide. 

Every single Jurassic Park film in history has concerned adults learning to parent children in their custody (if not their actual, biological progeny). The character who undertakes that journey in Jurassic World happens to be a woman.  Her name is Claire Dearing, and she is played by Bryce Dallas Howard.

Some critics would like you to see this development as deeply sexist in nature, noting that it is biased and sexist to assume a career woman like Claire must yearn deep down to be a mother. Yet the movie features no such yearning.

Instead, Claire steps up to take responsibility -- a key philosophical touchstone of the franchise -- in a pressure cooker situation. She takes responsibility for the children she must protect, and for the park that has gotten out of control.

She undertakes her parental responsibilities, just as Dr. Alan Grant (Sam Neill), Ian Malcolm (Jeff Goldblum), and even the Kirbys (Tea Leoni, William H. Macy) all undertook the same journey in their respective dino adventures.

This is not a coincidence. This is by design.  

So why repeat the kids, parents and dinosaur mix?

Well, in the Jurassic Park franchise they all go to together in a very specific algebraic equation. 

In the face of cravenly irresponsible scientists, business-men, and military man, other people -- good people like the ones I tagged above -- get a first-hand lesson in the most important and immediate responsibility any of us will ever face: becoming a decent parent.  

Those who can become good, responsible parents are then ready to take on genetically-engineered dinosaurs.

The skill-sets are, in some way, one in the same.

Treat each “beast” (kid or dino…) according to its gifts or nature -- and with care -- and they won’t eat you for lunch.

Jurassic World reiterates the same theme to good effect and is absolutely not sexist “in a seventies” or 2015 way if you actually consider the context of all the Jurassic films.  

Yet I would recommend the film not the basis of how it remixes the old favorites, but rather how Jurassic World makes a trenchant point about the iPhone Era.  

This is a span in which something on our personal screens is always more interesting than what is actually in front of our noses in the real world.

The chaotic events that occur in Jurassic World are a wake-up call, then, for people to unplug -- or log-off -- and look up at the world before their eyes. In doing so, they might see things they haven’t tended to, like out-of-control children...or rampaging prehistoric animals.



“Extinct species have no rights.”

A fully functioning Jurassic World Theme Park will soon debut its new attraction: a genetically-engineered hybrid predator called Indominus Rex.

Meanwhile, a trainer, Owen Grady (Chris Pratt) has been wrangling a team of velociraptors, teaching the pack to respond to his commands. He is their “alpha.”

The park’s harried administrator, Claire Dearing (Bryce Dallas 0Howard), meanwhile, must play babysitter to her sister’s two teen boys, Zach (Nick Robinson) and Gray (Ty Simpkins), who are visiting the theme park.

When the Indominus Rex escapes from captivity, an InGen military adviser, Vic Hoskins (Vincent D’Onofrio) believes he can use the trained velociraptors to take down the predator in what amounts to a field study.  

If successful, he believes velociraptors can be utilized in combat situations.

Owen and Claire team up to save Zach and Gray when the boys are reported lost in a gyroscope.   

Meanwhile, the boys stumble upon the old park, from twenty years earlier…


“You made them and you think you own them.”

The line of dialogue excerpted above marries the two key letimotifs of Jurassic World: parenting kids, and herding dinosaurs, essentially. 

In both cases, we have made “children,” and believe it is our right to control their destinies. They (dinosaurs and human children) are extensions of us, here for our pleasure and happiness, and governed by the rules we lay down. 

But if you’ve ever met a velociraptor, or a teenager, for that matter, you understand that -- in the words of Owen Grady -- this equation is not about control, but about honoring the relationship.

As Jurassic World starts, it’s pretty clear that the relationship between man and dinosaur has not been honored, save by Grady and his cohorts.  

For example, the Indominus Rex has been raised in isolation, without socialization, and Owen points this fact out to Claire. She replies sarcastically that the dino “needs a friend” and that maybe the park should “schedule a play date.”

What we have here is a total lack of honoring important relationships.

This idea is mirrored in the Mitchell family. Gray and Zach have not been told by their parents that they are planning to get divorced. Instead, Mom and Dad have retained lawyers and are taking steps to dissolve the family, but they have not informed the ones most impacted by their decision; their own progeny.

Again, is that any way to parent?  

It is, but it's abundantly selfish.

The theme park under Claire's command, Jurassic World is similarly selfish. The park's runners care more about product placement and profits than they do about the welfare of the animals in the park. 

Those animals, as noted above, are termed “assets.”  

That sure makes them sound like things, not living creatures, doesn’t it?

And it's easier to control a thing, than a person, or an animal.

And indeed, this is why the movie is not in any way sexist.  Claire -- at the start of the movie -- is already a bad mother or parent (like Victor Frankenstein, to provide a prominent literary example). Her children, however, are not human, but dinosaurs. She treats them no better than her sister treats Zach and Gray.  She moves assets around, but she takes no responsibility for the "life" under her authority.

So one can't claim that Claire yearns to be a mother in the movie, as she undertakes her journey with her sister's kids.  On the contrary, she is a mother from the word go. 

Instead, Claire learns to be responsible in her motherhood as she undertakes her journey. See the difference, and why it is significant?


In short order, we see just how empty Claire's world is, in terms of respecting the relationships with the wards. Jurassic World shows us the Samsung Innovation Center, a Starbucks, and reveals the promise that Verizon Wireless will present the Indominus Rex.  Every business worth its salt wants a piece of the dinosaur profits.  

But when those profits falls, the dinosaurs are blamed. Claire notes, for instance, that “nobody’s impressed with a dinosaur anymore.”  

The message?  

That the children are not good enough.  That the assets have somehow failed their parents.

Only a new child, one better than the old children, can fill the void.

And so irresponsible business joins with irresponsible science to engineer a new dinosaur that will spike profits.  Even the name “Indominus Rex” has been audience-tested. And the beast has been engineered to be “cooler,” with more teeth, with more awesome abilities (like natural camouflage) and a bigger “wow” factor.  

The whole idea is that a “normal” dinosaur no longer does it for park visitors.  They're bored.

They need the next fix, the next “cool” thing that can go viral on the Internet. What's the next product? The next thing to consume?

This is a tragic impulse in the human animal, but especially so for children, who lose the love and attention of their parents to siblings, or simply to the next "big" thing.

And don't make the mistake of believing this only happens in science fiction blockbusters. 

I can tell you for a fact that there are many parents out there who believe that by having another child, a new child, they will repair all that's wrong in the family. 

This idea of grasping for new, shiny objects, runs rampant in the film's scenes set at the theme park. For example, there’s a hologram in the Hammond Creation Center, another cool thing to ooh and aah over and draw the eye.

Or consider the stadium seating that can descend to the aquarium level.

But, once again, life finds a way, and before long, there is chaos in the theme park. The forgotten children take back by force the attention they've lost.

The only way to defeat the isolated monster child (I-Rex), in this case, is by pitting it against Grady’s velociraptors, whom he has treated with respect, and -- for the most part -- raised well.  

And -- to audience cheers -- the movie also trots out another old friend from Jurassic Park, one scarred and old, but still gorgeous as hell and ready to go to the mat against the pretender for her throne.  This creature has been forgotten, shunted aside for cooler attractions.  But as we see, she is still magnificent.

In the course of the film, Claire finally recognizes that she has not been honoring the relationships in her life.  

Not with her co-workers, not with Owen, and not even with her sister and nephews. So she makes a change.  She acts...responsibly. She sets the animal in Paddock 9 free.




By contrast, Grady is indeed wise and “a life-force” (as Joss Whedon tweeted...), but his character is monumentally uninteresting in comparison to Claire. 

It is Claire who takes on the Alan/Ian/Kirby role of parent who learns the error of his/her ways.  By comparison, Grady already knows everything he needs to know to be a good parent and a good dino wrangler in his first scene in the movie

 He doesn’t change or grow, accordingly.  He's right in his beliefs at the beginning of the movie, right at the movie's half-way point, and vindicated in his rightness at the denouement.  So, despite Pratt's efforts and inherent charms, Owen is pretty dull and stagnant as a character.

It’s Claire -- not Owen -- who does the changing and growing.  Jeff Goldblum and Sam Neill vetted this subplot too, so perhaps it is actually the opposite of sexist that this time around Bryce Dallas Howard gets to do so.

We have seen men take responsibility for their children and for the genetically-engineered dinosaurs on several previous occasions. Why can't a woman undertake the same character arc?  

And when she does, why do some insist it is sexist for her do so? If a man can take this journey (or men, accurately...), why is it wrong to send a woman on the exact same one?  Isn't that, actually, what equality is all about?


Moving on from these ridiculous social politics, the first hour of Jurassic World is pretty terrific.

It features an amusing tour of the park (including a dino petting zoo…) and plenty of scenes that help us understand how the theme park isn’t honoring the animals.  

And then, one of the best scenes in the film finds Owen and Claire encountering an injured dinosaur in the field, after the I-Rex break-out. 

Claire touches it gently, as it takes its last breaths.  She realizes that she has given too little thought to the idea that these assets are living animals -- with their own thoughts, their own purpose, and their own destinies.  

The scene represents a nice breather in the action that alludes to the original film (and a scene with a sick triceratops), but more importantly, it hammers home this movie's point. When you don’t treat life with respect and reverence, you are doing the opposite.  You are acting in a dishonorable fashion. 

That is exactly how Claire has lived. 

Her most meaningful and indeed heroic act in the last third of the film, involves the release of a dinosaur from Paddock 9, as I noted above.

Claire releases it to rescue her nephews, of course, but also as an act of honoring the animal.  She frees it and allows it to pursue its destiny as king or queen of the jungle.  It has been denied this fate its whole life; its place on the "food chain" (which Owen tags as a key element of dinosaur life).

That destiny becomes the film’s beautiful, valedictory image. The metaphor is thus clear: we can't cage our children, dinosaur or human, and chain them to our expectations . At some point, they must be free to do what they will.  The film's final image really captures that idea in a majestic, emotional way. 

I won’t lie and state that Jurassic World is a perfect film, despite its adroit handling of the franchise's ongoing  parenting/responsibility leitmotif.  It’s not. 

For example, Vincent D’Onofrio’s character is pretty two-dimensional and awful. He is handled in a less human fashion, even, than are the velociraptors…who are fully dimensional, especially Blue.  He does and says all the wrong things, and at all the wrong times.  He is a basic movie villain, and we anticipate his much-deserved death from his very first scene.


Similarly, there’s not enough suspense in the film's last act, after all the dominoes have fallen. The denouement is satisfying, and yet I walked away from a screening feeling that, at least a little, the film had not scared me sufficiently. 

I can understand not being able to repeat Jurassic Park’s sense of wonder.  It's an impossible act to follow.  

But I did hope for a bit more in terms of scares or jumps this time around.  I suspect I may feel this way because Trevorrow does not possess the neo-classicist visual approach of a director like John Carpenter or Steven Spielberg.  The film is smart and witty, but it is not patient, and the visuals don't reflect the story as meaningfully as they could, except in isolated instances (like the film's aforementioned valedictory image).

In short, the visuals simply do not feel as cinematic this time around, and I missed that element. There's not a single scene here as tense, or as meticulously constructed, for example, as the trailer-on-the-precipice scene of The Lost World (1997).


Still, Jurassic World (2015) ably incorporates all the key genetic sequences of the long-lived Steven Spielberg franchise and gives the juggernaut a solid face-lift. 

Jurassic World is better, frankly, than either of the two previous sequels, even if it’s not quite as good you might hope it to be. 

The film's leitmotif about honoring relationships -- whether with dinosaurs or children -- is powerfully-wrought, and a perfect corrective for our busy, eyes-on-iPhone-screens-at-all-times age.

In the final analysis, Jurassic World gets the job done, but without, precisely, the visual legerdemain Spielberg might have provided were he still in the director’s seat. 

It's a good sequel, but Jurassic Park (1993) still reigns in this Jurassic world.