Saturday, July 03, 2010


I won't say much about the Harvard Film Archive's SF-1970 series, because I didn't get to nearly as much of it as I'd like. Last week I had Red Sox tickets, my friend Justin was in town to hang out and play a gig with Girls, Guns, and Glory; this week I had plans to spend a day at NYAFF 2010, and the scant amount of sleep that night combined with a full day of work left me skeptical on my ability to stay awake through Quintet, so I stayed home and crashed.

The 1970s are an interesting decade for sci-fi; much like the rest of Hollywood was doing a lot of experimenting, the people making science fiction during that decade were telling stories with a more adult sensibility. Cronenberg's body horror started in that period, and films became more overtly satirical. And then, just as with the rest of the industry, George Lucas changed everything with Star Wars. I say "changed", while others would say "ruined"; after Star Wars, visual effects started pushing forward by leaps and bounds in a continuous cycle that hasn't stopped yet, but by popularizing fantasy, the studios started pitching it to a more mainstream audience. Filmmakers would become able create anything that they could imagine, but funding was only available for the most conventional fantasies, and the quirky 1970s-style sci-fi stories now looked cheap and tacky in comparison, at least at a superficial glance.

I don't necessarily think of the 1970s as a golden age, although it always gets a strong argument when the folks at the Boston Sci-Fi Marathon are hashing out what's playing this year and what should. I'm wary as a rule about putting golden ages in the past, and I like the visuals and world-building that the technology of today and tomorrow allows. A lot of neat stuff was made, though, and I regret that I didn't even get to see a quarter of what I hoped to during this program.

Death Race 2000

* * * (out of four)
Seen 25 June 2010 at the Harvard Film Archive (SF-1970)

Death Race 2000 was remade a couple years ago, and the end result was slick, but bland, almost completely unmemorable (aside from a line you wouldn't expect to come out of Joan Allen's mouth). The 1975 original, on the other hand, is the exact opposite: Tacky, with production quality straddling the border between B- and C-grade, but so utterly loopy as to be unforgettable.

It is twenty-five years in the future, in the year two thousand. The "United Provinces of America" have a President for Life, who keeps the masses amused with a cross-country road race where the participants not only score points for making it to checkpoints quickly, but for any pedestrians they run down on the way. This year's five participants are wild girl Calamity Jane (Mary Woronov), swastika-sporting Matilda the Hun (Roberta Collins), classically-themed but dumb Nero the Hero (Martin Kove), would-be thirties gangster Machine Gun Joe Viterbo (Sylvester Stallone), and the object of Joe's envy, the cybernetically enhanced and scarred Frankenstein (David Carradine). Of course, some in the land find this spectacle horrifying, and led by Thomasina Paine (Harriet Medin), they have arranged for one of their own, Annie Smith (Simone Griffeth), to be Frankenstein's navigator.

Death Race 2000 is a Roger Corman production, with all that implies. The budget is minuscule. It's filled with automotive mayhem, gratuitous nudity, guys looking for a fresh start - David Carradine had just walked off the set of Kung Fu - and people who would become a big deal later. Not just Sylvester Stallone (in one of his earliest roles), but cinematographer Tak Fujimoto would go on to a steady career shooting some pretty notable movies. You can't necessarily see the talent in a Roger Corman picture as you're watching it, but it's clear that he has always had the knack for putting enough quality people together that his movies are more entertaining than they should be.

Full review at EFC.

Phase IV

* * * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 25 June 2010 at the Harvard Film Archive (SF-1970)

Here's an interesting question: If Phase IV were not a curiosity for being the only feature-length film directed by someone deservedly renowned for other contributions to the industry (assume that Saul Bass used a pseudonym that nobody caught on to the next thirty-five years, so it was the exact same film), would anybody remember it today? I say yes; it stands on its own as a genuinely creepy bit of sci-fi horror.

There's been a blast of radiation from space. Its effects aren't obvious, but in the Arizona desert, the ants are acting peculiarly - different species are not fighting each other over territory, and their natural predators are disappearing. Dr. Ernest Hubbs (Nigel Davenport) thinks that they are evolving, and he gets his government employers to assign him a mathematician, James Lesko (Michael Murphy), to help decode what appears to be communication among the ants. His suspicions appear to be well-founded - the local ants have developed a much more powerful hive mind than they had before. And they're on the outside of Hubbs's research station, while the scientists and Kendra Eldridge (Lynne Frederick), a local girl whose farm home has been overrun, are trapped within.

Ants can be unnerving enough as it is - they are already more organized than many groups of people, they've got weird angular shapes, and we don't have enough of an instinctive grasp of the square-cube law to look at one carrying a stick many times its size and understand that such strength wouldn't scale up. Bass and writer Mayo Simon are therefore pretty clever in that they don't do a whole lot to exaggerate what these mutant ants are capable of. They don't grow enormous, or suddenly start talking in a language we can easily understand. Bass and Simon refuse to humanize them, which makes them a more implacable foe.

Full review at EFC.

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