Throwback Thursday: “Movie Monsters From Outer Space,” 1983

This was another book during my grade-school days that really fed my excitement about monsters — Jerry A. Young’s 1983 children’s book, “Movie Monsters From Outer Space.”  (Why does the author’s name sound so much like a pseudonym to me?)

I’m sure it’s obscure by now.  If memory serves, this was another title I ordered from those classroom bulletins put out by Scholastic Book Clubs.  (I was in the third grade, I think.)  It gave kids a brief, fun run-down of a bunch of space-based baddies — those are the Cylons from the original “Battlestar Galactica” (1978) on the cover.

It featured a bunch of older B-movies too.  I remember really wanting to see “Forbidden Planet” (1956) after seeing a picture of its monster there.

I also seem to remember reading about Ridley Scott’s original “Alien” (1979), although I suppose that I could be recalling another book.  (It would be odd if Scott’s masterpiece were described here, because it was … kinda not for kids.)

 

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Neill Blomkamp’s free new sci-fi short films are goddam nightmare-inducing.

Writer-director Neill Blomkamp (who brought us 2009’s “District 9” and who wanted to bring us a fifth “Alien” installment) is currently releasing a series of sci-fi short films via his “Oats Studios” channel on Youtube.  There have been four released so far, with a fifth, “ZYGOTE,” scheduled for release today.

The two to which I’ve linked below, “Firebase” and “Rakka,” are fantastic.  They’re both military science fiction, they’ve both got lots of gore and great special effects, and they both show Blomkamp’s trademark predilection for body horror.

They’re both incredibly dark stories, too.  “Firebase” is disturbing; “Rakka” is downright horrifying.  (The Eiffel Tower scene … yeesh.)  It might make you smile, though, to see none other than Sigourney Weaver fighting alien invaders.

If “Firebase” doesn’t make much sense to you, try not to let it hamper your enjoyment of it.  (The short’s reveal shows us that many of these disparate story elements actually aren’t supposed to make much logical sense, considering their cause.)  And you should know ahead of time that both of these short films should serve as prologues for sequels or longer tales.  (Maybe Blomkamp is planning their denouements in subsequent shorts?)

I was so befuddled by “Firebase” at first that I wound up turning it off and then returning to it later.  I still think that its writing could be cleaned up a bit.  It’s definitely out there, and strays from science fiction into fantasy and … maybe even theology.  It was “Firebase,” however, that stayed with me and really got under my skin — much more than the more straightforward invasion horror story, “Rakka.”

 

 

“Alien: Covenant” (2017) is a first-rate sci-fi horror show with lots of monstery goodness.

I am part of a happy minority where “Alien Covenant” (2017) is concerned — I keep hearing about “meh” or negative reactions from my friends, but I quite enjoyed it.  I’d rate it a 9 out of 10.

No, this second installment in the “Alien” prequel trilogy doesn’t bring much new to the table.  It often seems like a collection of common tropes, and borrows a bit from previous films in the franchise — especially the first movie in 1979.  Some aspects of it — like a predictable and slightly gimmicky development late in the story — even feel like horror movie cliches.  (I am doing everything I can to avoid spoilers, so forgive how vague I’m being here.)  “Alien: Covenant” isn’t groundbreaking, and it isn’t destined to be called a “classic.”

Here’s the thing, though — all of the movie’s common tropes are exactly what make fans happy.  Think about it … if you had to name two “Alien” movies as unique or the most divergent, they might be the heady, ambitious “Prometheus” (2012) and the baroquely experimental “Alien: Resurrection” (1997).  Whatever their failings, both of those movies deserve points for creativity.  And they are among the three films that fans hated the most.  (The third here is the smartest and most underappreciated installment, 1993’s brilliant “Alien 3.”)

With “Alien: Covenant,” Ridley Scott gives fans exactly what they were clamoring for — a frightening, gory, space-based horror film with creatively designed monsters and some nasty surprises.  It very much returns to the tone of the first film.  It is even jarringly darker than “Prometheus,” which was defined partly by its moments of cautious optimism.  And, more than any other sequel, it seems directly inspired by the grotesquerie of H. R. Giger’s original, nightmarish monster designs.  I feel certain this movie would have received the late artist’s blessing.  (I could name a certain scene and an excellent surprise story development, but I won’t.)

Michael Fassbender shined in his two roles here.  (He not only reprises his role as the android, “David,” but also portrays a newer model, “Walter.”)  The rest of the acting was roundly good too.

I also found the movie nice and scary.  I, for one, don’t think Scott’s direction of action scenes here is perfect.  (They are harder to follow here, for example, than his beautiful arena melees in 2000’s “Gladiator.”) But they were still effective.

So this return to form made me pretty happy.  I didn’t want another muddled attempt at profundity like “Prometheus.”  Nor did I want a winding, bizarre, arthouse-horror tale like “Resurrection” — that movie was like a poorly written, drug-fueled comic book.  I wanted a first-rate sci-fi horror show with lots of monstery goodness, and that’s what I got.

If I had to pick a criticism of “Alien: Covenant,” I’m surprised to have to point to some less-than-stellar CGI.  This was something I noticed from early trailers for the film, and I’m surprised I haven’t heard another reviewer mention in it yet.  One scene rendered a title baddie about as well as a modern video game, albeit a good one.  Another’s depiction of an upright “neomorph” seemed … fairly bad.  (Fans of decent creature features shouldn’t despair, however — there are still some outstanding monster moments, and no small amount of accompanying gore and goo.)  Have I just become spoiled by the amazing dinosaur effects of 2015’s “Jurassic World?”  I don’t think so … I suggest that the otherwise lamentable “Alien: Resurrection,” with its combination of CGI and practical effects, had far better creature effects than this newest outing.

Of course I recommend this movie.  Maybe I should only do so with the caveat that I am (obviously) a huge fan of the series.  It has been said that I’m easy to please, too — I actually gave a glowing review to “Prometheus” shortly after its release, before wiser minds pointed out to me its sometimes egregious flaws.  (A friend of mine shared with me one of those “Everything Wrong With” videos that CinemaSins produces … it’s a hilarious webseries, but it sure will dull the shine of some of your favorite movies, lemme tell ya.)  Your mileage may vary, especially depending on how much you enjoy horror movies, as opposed to more general science fiction.

Oh!  There is a mostly non-sequitur postscript that I can’t help but add here … yet another one of my movie prognostications was flat out wrong.  It isn’t a spoiler if it’s a far-out prediction that didn’t happen, so I’ll go ahead and share it here … during one of the ads for “Alien: Covenant,” I could swear I heard a character call out the name “ASH!!!!”  (I’ve evidently started hallucinating at the start of mid-life.)  I predicted that the new and robotic Walter would turn evil, and actually become the android named Ash in the 1979 original.  (And why not?  Androids do not age, and a web-based prologue for “Alien Covenant” suggests their faces can be easily swapped out.)  I further predicted that the more human David would be pitted against him in order to save humanity somehow from alienkind.  (These things do not happen.)

I still think that’s a pretty clever idea, though, even if I only accidentally arrived at it.  It would be great if that happened somehow in the planned “Alien: Awakening.”

 

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“Life’s” a bitch.

Or at least it is to the astronauts who make an abortive attempt to escort it back to Earth.  (They realize that bringing a Martian organism home is a bad idea in this year’s surprisingly satisfying science fiction-thriller.)

I actually had more fun with this than I expected; the movie is much faster paced and scarier than the trailer made it look.  There are some real surprises and moments of genuine horror here, following a requisite plot setup that is relatively brief.  It’s a really nice monster movie that should please fans of the genre.

I actually didn’t prefer its ending, which is something for which other reviewers are praising it a lot.   I’m disinclined to say more, for fear of spoilers.  The movie’s marketing already spoiled enough.  (The ads infuriatingly show the fate of a main character.)

I will say what the movie is not, however.

One, it’s not a stealth prequel for Sony’s planned 2018 “Spider-Man” spinoff, “Venom” (though that’s such a clever idea, I wish I’d thought of it).

Two, it’s not a ripoff of Ridley Scott’s “Alien” (1979).  Yes, it’s got the same MacGuffin, and some story parallels that I noticed early on.  But I like to think of this as a more grounded contemporary thriller, where “Alien” was a futuristic fantasy creature feature.  Besides, if we criticize every “haunted-house-in-space” movie as an “Alien” imitator, we won’t get more of them.

I’d give this an 8 out of 10, and I’d recommend it.

 

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Throwback Thursday: one ugly 80’s kid!!!

This picture was taken at homecoming game, I think, at Longwood High School in Suffolk County, New York, in the very early 1980’s.  This would have been the site of the “old” high school, at the end of Smith Road on Longwood Road, and not the “new” school building to which we moved in the late 80’s.

The furry fella is our school mascot, the Longwood Lion; that off-putting lily-white waif you see is me.  (God does not equally bless all children with pleasing appearances.)  I think I still remember that gray sweatshirt, and the oversized black digital watch.  (In the age before home computers, those cheap little doodads were considered a bit fancy.)

It’s a good thing I wasn’t smiling here.  Roughly half my body weight at the time resulted from my oversized teeth and gums, and that was not a pretty thing to look at.  My school picture could have redefined the term “Gummi” in a categorically horrible fashion.  I looked like somebody had cross-bred a “‘Nilla Wafer” with Ridley Scott’s “Alien.”  Or maybe crossbred John Carpenter’s “Village of the Damned” with David Cronenberg’s “The Fly.”  I’m serious.

 

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Throwback Thursday: “Star Trek,” the Original Series

I really missed the boat with last week’s Throwback Thursday — it was the 50th anniversary of the entire “Star Trek” franchise, with the first episode of the original series airing on September 8, 1966.  (And even the term “franchise” seems way too narrow to describe “Star Trek” in all of its incarnations — it’s really more like a permanent part of western popular culture.)  I’m not old enough to remember the show’s original run, which was a surprisingly scant three years.  But I remember it in syndication when I was not much more than a baby in the mid- to late 1970’s.

“Star Trek” was something that my older brother and maybe my father watched.  (I was fixated on programming that was more comprehensible for young kids, like “Land of the Lost” and reruns of “The Lone Ranger.”  Seriously, the original black-and-white serial western was still in reruns back then.)

But “Star Trek” was definitely something I was attracted to as a tot, doubtlessly resulting, in part, from the contagious ardor for it that I saw in my older brother.  (He might not admit it today, but he was a bit of a hard-core science fiction fan long before I was.)  The show was on at our tiny house in Woodhaven, Queens, quite a lot.  He also had toys and posters connected with it.  (And anything my older brother owned was something I endeavored to play with when he wasn’t looking.)

He had that Captain Kirk toy among the figures produced by Mego that you see in the bottom photo.  (Again, 1970’s “action figures” were often pretty much indistinguishable from dolls.)  In the early 1980’s, he had a totally sweet giant poster depicting diagrammed schematics for The Enterprise in surprising detail.  I’ve Google-searched for it, but found only similar pinups.  The one hanging in the room we shared was blue.

I remember him annoyedly correcting me because I called it “Star Track.”  (I did not yet know the word “trek.”  I myself was confused by my own mistake; I knew that there could be no “train tracks” in space, even if I studied the opening credits one time just to make sure.)

I was precisely the sort of pain-in-the-ass kid who fired off an incessant barrage of questions when I saw something on TV that I didn’t understand.  My father was patient to a fault when I punctuated his World War II movies with inane questions.  (I’m willing to bet I eventually acquired more knowledge of the war’s European theater than the average six-year-old.)  My brother was not always so forbearing.  I actually remember him changing the channel away from shows he was watching, like “Star Trek” or “MASH,” if I joined him at the little black-and-white television we had in our room.  (The poor guy needed me to lose interest and go away, so that he could at least hear the damn show.)

Certain “Star Trek” episodes remain memorable to this day, even if I understood maybe 15 percent of what transpired onscreen.  The was The One With The Domino-Face Men, which the Internet now tells me was actually titled “Let That Be Your Last Battlefield.”  Then there was The One Where Kids Ruled Themselves on a Deserted World, which made a really big impression on me.  (The Internet tells me this one was “Miri.”)

As I grew up, the show faded from prominence in my child’s psyche.  It was just never my fandom of choice.  Nor was it for many other kids I knew … by the 1980’s, it was already considered “an old TV show.”  The kids on my street were always excited about the feature films; even if we were underwhelmed by the “slow” first film in 1979.  Blockbuster movies were major events back then, and fewer, and they were enigmatic in a way that is impossible after the Internet’s arrival.  (I think that Millennials will never be able to understand that, in the same way that you and I can never appreciate the vintage “serials” that our parents watched before the main feature at a Saturday matinee.)

In the 1980’s, just about every boy I knew was preoccupied with the space-fantasy of “Star Wars.”  On television, we had cheesefests like the original “Battlestar Galactica” and “V.”  As we got older, we gravitated toward the “Alien” and “Predator” film franchises.  At home, I read Orson Scott Card and Harry Harrison, and as I approached college toward the end of the decade, I’d discovered Arthur C. Clarke.  If we’d known another kid who was really into “Star Trek,” I’m not sure we would have considered it “nerdy.”  It would just have been very weird, because it we viewed it as a campy tv show from maybe two decades prior, like “Bonanza” or something.  I don’t think I ever even thought of the franchise as really relevant or popular until I was at Mary Washington College in the 1990’s.  “Star Trek: the Next Generation” would regularly draw kids out of their dorm rooms into the lobby at New Hall.

Still, it’s hard not to develop an emotional attachment to something that stimulated your sense of wonder as a tot.  I … felt pretty damn sad when Captain Kirk died in 1994’s “Star Trek: Generations.”  I saw it in a theater in Manassas, Virginia, I think, with my girlfriend at the time.  She actually felt she had to console me after seeing how doleful I was on the drive home.

 

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Throwback Thursday: Weird 1970’s “Planet of the Apes” merchandise

I lived in a time when “Star Wars”movies didn’t exist.  Seriously, young people.  The first “Star Wars” arrived in theaters in 1977, and I arrived in this world just a few years earlier.  Furthermore, enjoying that first “Star Wars” movie was sort of a one-shot deal when I was a tot; unless your parents took you to the theater for additional viewings.  (VHS tapes were a few years down the line.)  And the sequels subsequently arrived two or three years apart.

What I am leading up to here is that there was an entirely different sci-fi movie universe already firmly entrenched in popular culture long before this world first glimpsed “a galaxy far, far away.”  That universe was the one we saw in the “Planet of the Apes” films.  There were five of them between 1968 and 1973.  (Pierre Boulle’s original novel was published in 1963.)  By the time I was a little boy, they were a fairly regular staple on broadcast television (y’know – signals sent to those huge, bulky boxes with movable antennae).

If you have any expertise in film history, or if you’re just an online flick nerd like me, then you know that George Lucas redefined the term “movie merchandising” with “Star Wars” toys, shortly after Steven Spielberg redefined the term “blockbuster” with 1975’s “Jaws.”  Nevertheless, neither man invented those things.  And the “Planet of the Apes” movie franchise is maybe the best proof of that.

The 1970’s were a weird time.  (I was born then, for example.)  If you google “1970’s Planet of the Apes merchandise,” you’ll see that the products it spawned were occasionally just weird.  There were jigsaw puzzles that were sold in … cans, for example.  I guess that’s understandable.  There were a sheer plethora of cheaply made plastic or rubber piggy banks.  (Do kids even have piggy banks these days?)  There were action figures, but they were eight inches tall, and the playsets were made of … cardboard and vinyl, instead of plastic.  And of course there were the predictable lunchboxes and ultra-cheap Halloween kiddie costumes.

All of this is a little strange, too, if you agree with me that “Planet of the Apes” was kinda not for young kids.  Think about it.  If you look past the high camp, the 70’s cheese, and your own nostalgia, it was dark stuff.  It was a story whose premise was sentient man’s extinction.  The first movie, early on, showed human beings getting the museum-display taxidermy treatment, after glimpses of genocide and slavery.  The second movie, in 1970, has its story helpfully resolved by a nuclear bomb that freakin’ kills everybody.   Today’s remakes (which I happen to like, by the way) didn’t go that far.  Anyway, if you’re curious about movie toys being inappropriately being marketed to young children, go ahead and read up on the toys licensed for 1979’s really violent, really Freudian “Alien.”  (Wow.)  Cracked.com has a terrific article about it.

But anyway … this meandering blog post is actually about one product in particular, so I’ll go ahead and promptly name it here, in the sixth paragraph — the plastic “Dr. Zaius” piggy bank.  It’s there, below, in the first photo.  It was maybe a foot and a half tall, if memory serves, and it was somewhat crudely fashioned out of very thick plastic.  I can find little information about it on the internet — beyond the fact that it is still purchased by collectors on sites like eBay and Etsy.  It appears to be one of four such toys produced — the others were made for the characters of Cornelius, Zira, and General Ursus.  (That’s Latin for “bear,” isn’t it?  I only know because I once saw a cheap paperback horror novel about a monster bear with that title.)  It also was manufactured in either the late 60’s or early 70’s.

Mine was unpainted — as were those in the other sparing images of this product I can find via Google image search.  (The second image shows, however, that painted versions were apparently sold at one point.)

Mine was also kind of defective in a big way — it had a slot at the top where coins were deposited, but there was no opening at the bottom to withdraw them when needed.  So a forward-thinking child could save his money, only to be confounded by the evil Dr. Zaius when his savings were needed. (It worked like banks during the Great Depression, in other words.)

I rectified this when I was … a very frustrated eight-year-old, I think, on a summer morning when I really wanted change from that bank.  I took a large kitchen knife to that thick plastic on the bottom and just sort of murdered a jagged, elliptical hole into it to get my quarters.  I don’t remember how I got a hold of such a huge knife, as I had pretty attentive parents.  Neither do I remember why I needed the money so badly.  Was it the ice cream man?  A yard sale?  “Sgt. Rock” comic books?  Cocaine again?  (This was about 1980, after all.)

Anyway, I also remember other strange “Planet of the Apes” merchandise being around when I was a very little boy.  That horse you see was a toy my older brother had.  (And when he was absent, I raided his stuff in much the same manner that the Viet Cong raided American patrols — employing stealth to avoid retaliation by a larger, stronger force.)   The horse was made by Mego to accompany the 8-inch tall movie action figures (which were really more like “dolls” than the Star Wars figures that would hit the scene later).  The handheld device and wire you see represents cutting-edge toy technology for the 70’s.  You flicked a switch to activate the horse.  It didn’t exactly gallop; instead it sort of shuffled and buzzed forward on its stiff legs like a particularly unfortunate animal with both arthritis and epilepsy.

My sister told me that I had a “Planet of the Apes” playhouse that I refused to leave when I was very young.  I absolutely can’t remember that.  Is it the product in the fourth photo?  I hope not, because that is one cheap-ass product, not worth $14.99 in today’s dollars.  It also is just basically a plain cardboard box with an undecorated interior, which would mean that, as a child, I had the same mentality as a housecat.

Finally, pictured below is a novelization of one of the movie’s sequels, “Escape From the Planet of the Apes” (1971).  I think I saw this among the disheveled paperback library that always occupied the back seat and back floor of my Dad’s car.  I saw Boulle’s source novel in that back seat once, with a weird minimalist art cover.  My Dad explained that it was “very different from the movie.”  Or I might have seen it on the floor of the closet I shared with my brother.  (That closet functioned according to trickle-down economics — the really cool stuff occasionally fell from his top shelf to the floor where I could grab it.)

I might still have that Dr. Zaius bank in the shed or in storage.  I should grab it and determine its value.  (Christ, I’m paying a lot of money for that storage unit.)  It would be nuts if that hole I cut made it less valuable as a collector’s item.

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