“The Reincarnation of Peter Proud” (1975)
What is it about extrasensory activity in movies that makes you want to run the other way? If a character is blessed with precognitive visions, it is an inevitable curse leading to a great deal of hand-wringing, near or actual descents into madness and usually a serial killer turning his sights on that gifted/unlucky individual. On the other hand, if it’s visions of past life experiences we’re talking about, what seems like a miracle of the mind cataloging the consciousness of several lifetimes generally indicates that character (and the viewer) will be stuck in several dreary plots within the same cheap B movie. Such is the case with J. Lee Thompson’s 1975 film “The Reincarnation of Peter Proud”, a movie which manages the too frequent accomplishment of making the preternatural mundane and the mundane even more so (“The Serpent and the Rainbow” anyone?).
Peter Proud (Michael Sarrazin) is a college professor who is having trouble sleeping, or rather it’s what going on while he is sleeping that’s troubling. Recurring visions of a man swimming in a dark lake and meeting with a violent fate are haunting his REM cycles, and after consultations with sleep specialist Dr. Sam Goodman (Paul Hecht) prove unsatisfactory, Peter- armed with the rigorous skepticism of an academic – takes the next logical diagnostic step with a trip to the local occult shop where neither a Satanic mass or the usual oddball movie background extras dissuade him from pursuing an unlikely course of supernatural investigation based solely on reading a book by Edgar Cayce. Thus engaged, the film- rather than easily conceding to the lure of supernatural horror film excesses briefly popularized in the wake of the success of “The Exorcist” -essentially becomes an earnest detective story with a major disadvantage in that the audience already knows the nature of Peter’s psychic condition; with the very title of the piece being a less than subtle hint.
However, this foreknowledge does not prevent the film from stretching out his search for answers with needlessly arduous deliberation. Having, by chance, viewed some of the same images from his nocturnal visions featured on a television documentary, Peter is convinced he has stumbled upon a critical clue as to his visions having a genuine foundation in reality and hastily travels to New England, accompanied by his patient but skeptical girlfriend Nora (Cornelia Sharpe). And so begins an interminable road trip through the towns of western Massachusetts, in search of identifying the corroborating fragmented architectural images from the television broadcast; which, unbelievably are used as archival documentary footage without identification of source nor of location. Just as Peter believes he has cracked the first major hurdle of the mystery, he is abandoned by the increasingly fidgety (whose own psychic empathy must be mirroring the audience’s growing impatience) Nora; blessedly so, as Sharpe’s sadly typical vacant performance defuses the immediacy of every scene in which she appears. Nora’s absence in the film, and her role as both romantic and sexual companion to Peter, is awkwardly filled when he meets Ann Curtis (Jennifer O’Neill), who happens to be the daughter of Jeff Curtis and- in a metempsychotic edition of Twister that the film proves ill-equipped (or unwilling) to address -Peter’s, as it is Jeff whose violent death in a lake is the subject of Peter’s visions, and who, the film asserts, was Peter’s prior mortal incarnation. This preternatural source of unnatural attraction is not lost on Ann’s mother (and Jeff’s widow), Marcia (Margot Kidder in grotesquely overdone fright makeup resembling a visiting relative on The Addams Family) who seems to be the most sensitive to what is actually going on than anyone else, despite the fact that she spends the entire film in a depressed alcoholic stupor.
The film shifts gears once Peter’s relationship with Ann takes root; at first, he puts the brakes on any sign of intimacy toward her- for obvious reasons -but later, inexplicably, enthusiastically pursues a romantic relationship, with little regard to the tenuous paternal linkage (“Alright, maybe she was my daughter in a previous life, but she isn’t now. I’m going to marry her.”) that, up to this point, has formed the basis of his obsession. Sam protests Peter’s sudden desire for anonymity. rather than revealing that he is the world’s first demonstrable case of reincarnation (this despite the fact that no documentation has been collected which would corroborate such a claim), on which Peter insists so that he might enjoy a normal life and to protect Ann, though it is not a stretch to imagine that a great deal of the romantic spark might extinguish upon Ann discovering that the man in her life comes with an uncomfortable amount of psychologically incestuous baggage. The film doesn’t pause to consider the philosophical nor moral implications of the situation, as the sudden rush of melodramatic developments- heavily dependent on an absurd level of conspicuous coincidence -are designed, not to elevate the metaphysical underpinnings of the subject, but to exploit a hurried path to push all of the underdeveloped characters onto a fateful collision that suggests that everyone is subject to a fateful predestination, especially if your life is being written with lazy, unadventurous screenwriting.
In adapting his novel to the screen, Max Ehrlich ignores a fundamental rule of movie authorship: don’t promise what you have no intention of delivering. Too often in the film we are informed of the unprecedented nature of Peter’s condition, and more explicitly, a later argument by Dr. Goodman presupposes the colossal effect on the entire human civilization when his secret is revealed. Yet, what we are left with are a few desperate plot twists which disengage the last fifteen minutes of the film from what has previously unfolded. Instead of the continuation of a flawed, but sober and methodical drama which seems to maturely resist the seduction of tasteless forays into the increasingly vulgar diminishing standards of films flirting with horror and the supernatural, “The Reincarnation of Peter Proud” falls prey to the demands of its subject imponderables (the mousetrap of every film attempting a serious cinematic gaze into the heart of the metaphysical) and, instead of imaginatively tackling the subject of reincarnation with profundity, the film surrenders its initial elegiac undercurrent for a gratuitous tabloid garishness; how else to explain the inclusion of Marcia’s eleventh hour bathtub masturbation? Add to this an overt surrender to incestuous expressions (a narrative thread which would have exposed a provocative nerve no matter how discreetly handled, but the mercenary dishonesty with which Peter acts only to satisfy his own appetites rather than to sincerely “protect” Ann is disingenuously included only as a momentary source of inconvenient consideration), and a frenzied attempt to tack on a “twist” ending (Even Jerry Goldsmith’s spare musical scoring, one of the film’s best features, is affected at this point by the sudden shift into high gear, when his elegantly creepy compositions suddenly blare out of control as if his cues were meant to underscore a major action set piece in “Capricorn One”.) that is not only predictable but stretches the limits of incredulity by involving a character who has not been to a certain location for twenty nine years suddenly appearing to reenact an act of violence on someone she could not possibly know would be there.
J. Lee Thompson’s direction, for the first three quarters of the film, is both a laudable demonstration of refinement and unfortunately, entirely unimaginative. There are two mildly effective moments in the film that a gentle touch of artistry could have been truly haunting: the first occurring with Peter’s discovery of Jeff’s tombstone and the second involving a trip to a nursing home and a visit with Jeff’s mother. Ironically, for a film about reincarnation, what “Peter Proud” is lacking is soul.
“The Cassandra Crossing” (1977)
Spoiler notice: The following review contains revealing details of the film’s narrative.
Defining what was labelled as a “disaster movie” in the 1970’s is an imprecise science as those films to which the moniker is attributable are somewhat disparate in their identifiable genre markers, and even, curiously enough, in their intended function as popular entertainment.
The genre is generally considered to have kicked off in popularity with the unexpected financial success of the 1970 film “Airport”; itself a somewhat bastard offspring of the seminal 1954 “peril in the sky” drama “The High and the Mighty”, which anticipated many of what would become standard operating procedure genre tropes, including the “all-star” cast comprised of A-list stars (or a number of fading A-listers whose volume would supposedly compensate for their slip in appeal), with a smattering of veteran stars (those to whom still enjoy name recognition though little to no headliner box-office clout), veteran characters actors and a few relatively fresh faces, most of whom seemed doomed to a scarily quick march to relative obscurity.
However, it is in nature of the disaster film’s “disaster” where some truly interesting distinctions emerge, suggesting an evolution from the destructive power of natural disaster in the 1930s (“The Last Days of Pompeii”, “San Francisco”, “In Old Chicago”, “Hurricane”, “The Rains Came”) with their cathartic crescendos acting as convenient retributive housecleaning in which all of the loose moral threads complicating Production Code era dramaturgy are quickly solved by the expedient elimination of rather problematically corrupted characters; to the 1950s (“The High and the Mighty”, “Titanic”, “A Night to Remember”) where mayhem erupts less from uncontrolled natural causes than by human frailty, specifically poor judgment fueled by hubris (The decade also played host to a rich abundance of cataclysms unleased in both SF dramas and epics with a distinctly biblical bent which are excused from the current discussion as their “disaster” elements are fueled by elemental genre tropes.); to the more cynical 1970s where “Airport” proffered a “disaster” film as an anticipatory event in which the destructive factor may or may not be introduced by the whims of an aberrant criminal intention. The age of film terrorism (but couched in the soggy dress of soap opera melodrama) had arrived in full widescreen glory. Though subsequent efforts in the brief 70’s disaster film explosion were to drink from the entirety of influences, from natural to man-made imperilments, in “The Poseidon Adventure”, Earthquake”, “Avalanche” and”The Towering Inferno” (not to mention the entirety of the three “sequels” to “Airport” itself), the one film which intelligently capitalized on this newly honed element of criminal intention with great style and an additional caustic foundation in pointed editorial expression, was Richard Lester’s crackerjack 1974 thriller “Juggernaut”, a film distinguished by the introduction of biting allegorical references to the political and economic instability suffered in England during the closing days of the leadership of Prime Minister Edward Heath; in other words, a surface thriller conceit fortified by a none too subtle kick in the pants to the then-current British government, giving the film the added attraction of timeliness; of actually being about something other than the sadistic construct of a questionable madman. For once, the so-called disaster film (and it’s questionable as to whether this film qualifies in its unfortunate general inclusion as primarily a disaster film) had reached a maturity that its hoary formulaic underpinnings would have virtually assured was impossible. It also featured smashing mid-career performances by Richard Harris and David Hemmings.
George Pan Cosmatos’ “The Cassandra Crossing” also stars Harris and the filmmakers do attempt to create their own sense of timeliness, but unfortunately that time is the 1930s and 40s, with the film, in essence, becoming the first Shoah disaster film; a wobbly and questionably tasteless allegorical quest to invest the remembered deaths of millions as a suitably cloaked excuse to grant a rather preposterous story with historical significance through a callous referencing of real suffering to give a hint of credibility to a shockingly stupid plot concerning a plague infected terrorist imperiling a train filled with the aforementioned calculated roster of paycheck grabbing actors (Ava Gardner, Martin Sheen, O.J. Simpson), if not (though this possibility is given scant attention) the entire civilized world. Three terrorists enter the International Health Organization (substituting for the, one might presume, more image-conscious World Health Organization) headquarters in Geneva, with the intention of setting off a bomb, for reasons that are neither explained or questioned. They fail in their mission as one is immediately killed by U.S. Marine guards (Why they are stationed in the building as if it were an annex of the U.S. embassy, is never addressed.), and the remaining pair infected with the shattering of a large (and too conveniently accessible) container of a deadly pneumonic plague. The remaining two are infected, though one manages to escape and find refuge of a passenger train where he will unwittingly (he doesn’t realize he’s infected) but deliberately (as demanded by the dictates of strained screenwriting) infect a good number of his fellow travelers by either direct physical contact (though the disease is later said to be subject solely to respiratory transmission, which makes Jerry Goldsmith’s annoyingly overstated rattlesnake music, italicizing every incidence of physical contact, fairly ridiculous) or by indulging in a vicious bout of heaving over a dinner service bowl of cooked rice.
Subsequent efforts of military intelligence officer Col. Mackenzie (Burt Lancaster) are directed at devising a method of concealing all evidence of the unlawfully stored contagion, rather than finding a curative for the afflicted passengers; though curiously enough, those who might have been infected in between the IHO headquarters and the railway station aren’t even regarded as factoring into any plans for containment. Giving voice to the more morally responsible nature of authority is Dr, Elena Strafner (Ingrid Thulin), whose function is to exhort ideals of decency and common sense, while impotent in terms of practical action except the casting of withering glances while MacKenzie formulates his most preposterous of solutions to the crisis.
Fortunately for all concerned, especially the screenwriters who truly relax into the undemanding character development of disaster films (those in which it is sufficient to identify principle roles as “The Wife” or “The Gigolo”), there is onboard, “The Doctor”; though not just any doctor, but Dr. Jonathan Chamberlain (Harris), a celebrated neurosurgeon, whose specialty won’t prove particularly useful in dealing with the plague (his ministrations amount to little more than feeling foreheads), but he nonetheless is granted leadership status by way of generic celebrity; emphasized with his countenance on the cover of Paris Match (granting him the Euro version of an impractical eminence similar to that of Leif Garrett being featured on the cover of Tiger Beat). His stature in the story beyond is further (though uselessly) emphasized by his being shadowed by his ex-wife Jennifer, embodied by no one less than Sophia Loren, whose stature as the most important person in the production is gratuitously exhibited by cloaking her in the most impenetrable layers of gauzy, youth affirming filtering over the camera lens during her every close-up; sufficient to make one believe that her scenes were shot on location on a foggy moor. Her presence, which has no bearing on the plot beyond Ms. Loren’s potential draw at the box-office, grinds the already moribund plot to a virtual standstill (Cosmatos continually attempts to suggest momentum in the narrative by randomly inserting frenzied shots of the train whizzing along the tracks) with the insertion of a romantic subplot that is dead on arrival, with there being zero chemistry between Loren and Harris; although it leans to the most unintentionally funny moment in the film, when during an emergency evacuation, the remaining panicked passengers are blocked from escape while the two stars pause and block the exit to make goo goo eyes at each other.
The introduction of Herman Kaplan, a stereotypical figure of a twinkled-eyed, elderly Jewish huckster, a role which somehow attracted the participation of the legendary Lee Strasberg, lays the foundation for “The Cassandra Crossing” to transmute from a dull, innocuous thriller into an offensively callous exercise in the use of historical atrocity as a contextual model for a cheap melodrama. Mackenzie’s plan involves the rerouting of the Stockholm-bound train to a former concentration camp in Poland, where the passengers of the train will presumably be held in quarantine, a camp in which Kaplan was imprisoned and his family murdered during World War II. The camp can only be approached by crossing the abandoned and unsafe Cassandra Crossing, a decrepit arch bridge which is certain to collapse with the weight of the train.
This, of course, is the precise point of the rerouting the train in the process of eliminating all evidence of the covert development of germ warfare: to reassure hundreds of people, being unwittingly led to their deaths, that forcibly being sealed shut in what are essentially transformed into human cattle cars hurtling toward a concentration camp, under the armed guard, is for their benefit, being as they are under the aegis of supposedly responsible higher authorities. Despite the evidence suggesting the contagion can be easily neutralized, Mackenzie stubbornly proceeds with his deadly plan merely for the convenience of political expediency: he is, after all, only following orders.
If the inclusion of the character Herman Kaplan were not sufficient to bring attention to the film’s more craven allegorical intentions (as if his incessantly repeated caveats concerning his own recognition of repeating history, or his fiery fate by way of a leaking gas oven weren’t enough of an indictment of the cynical form of referencing), then certainly the sledgehammer presentation of the material, with its parallels of historical ignominy, is too subtle only for the most cognizance challenged of audience members; Cosmatos returns again and again to foolishly overproduced shots of BioHazard suited armed guards welding steel plates over the windows (Is this really intended as a secret operation? And just how did an American Colonel wield sufficient influence to covertly redirect railway systems in several different nations?), more than a little suggestive of the Holocaust trains; with the film becoming an unsavory amalgam of George Romero’s “The Crazies” and an Irwin Allen version of “The Towering Sophie’s Choice”.
Even as boldly repugnant a creation as “Ilsa, She Wolf of the S.S.” has the courage of its sexploitative convictions to boldly announce that it is a product of the cinema sewer (that is its unashamed drawing card), whereas “The Cassandra Crossing” expresses delusional rationalizations that its allegorical offenses are in the service of a higher moral purpose. This is true exploitation masquerading as popular entertainment. Cosmatos’ despairingly cynical film disregards human life (during the climax, it barely registers the victims of Mackenzie’s machinations as they are not among the A-listers) in the service of blood sport. “The Cassandra Crossing”may not clarify any argument concerning the use of historic atrocity as a pretext for callous commercialism, but the film may serve a lesser purpose: it surely exhausts any further appetite for bad movies.
When considering the 1962 wildlife adventure “Hatari!”, it often appears as though director Howard Hawks has created the world’s first feature-length music video (discounting Disney’s “Fantasia” as having grander artistic aspirations) as throughout the structureless rambling series of incidents which vaguely suggest a plot hidden within Leigh Brackett’s screenplay there are extensive sequences which seem to exist for no other purpose than to afford an illustrative cover to Henry Mancini’s inventive percussion heavy scoring. (For instance, the lengthy ostrich scene could be excised without notice since it’s seemingly inconsequential insertion in the film is obtrusively awkward, to say the least.) Were one to remove the scoring track, it is apparent that the film is filled with an excessive amount of extraneous footage: it’s as if the production became so relaxed that on-set home movie reels were interpolated into the narrative.
“Hatari!” presents a man’s world as a true boy’s club with all of the adolescent level treehouse camaraderie that the title implies. Women are seen as a romantic prize, but less as a result of a male-driven game of direct pursuit than in the clever usurping of such the rules of such a competitive contest by women themselves. For all intents and purposes, “Hatari!” might best be enjoyed as a comedy between the sexes, not a literal war between the genders- the film is far too gentle in its relationship salvos to be accused of anything more than an extension of the familiar male/female dynamic of the screwball comedy of which Hawks’s films in the genre were instrumental in laying the elemental behavioral foundations. In Hawks’ film universe, men have often been portrayed as boobs and nitwits when it comes to a competent campaign for a woman’s attention (a far less dire- and more playful -arena than that as often portrayed in director John Huston’s cinema in which the men are often undone by their weakness for women) and there is little difference in the men of “Hatari!” who may be expert in capturing the most dangerous and elusive of wildlife, but not women, who always seem to have the advantage over their male counterparts by virtue of a certain crafty patience in waiting out their “prey”, similar to the demonstrated method of wearing down a rhino before capture. If, indeed, there is in Hawks’ film a depicted war between men and women, it is far more identifiable as a prolonged bout of mental foreplay; the men are appreciably notable as being the clueless animal on the veldt, while the women are highly conscious of their siren-like lure over the male breed. “Hatari!” is notable as a consciously balanced fusion of Hawks’ action/adventure sensibility and that of the great screwball director (which in its own genre definition implies a similarly precarious sense of sexual adventurism), whose own examples featured innumerable “hunts” and entrapments, though more along romantically biological lines than zoological. (Though the result is amusingly similar, the captured in both cases looking dumbfounded.) Much of the same tone and playful sexual balance was also apparent in his overrated “Rio Bravo”, but the mechanics of the ramshackle plot tended to continuously intrude upon the interesting interplay between John Wayne’s Sheriff John T. Chance and Angie Dickinson’s saloon girl Feathers insofar that in that film the narrative balance was founded along an exploration of more overtly traditional exhibitions of impregnable movie masculinity (reportedly a belated and misguided answer to Hawks’ and Wayne’s violently negative reaction to “High Noon”, whose Marshal they found both cowardly and un-Anerican, though the resultant 1959 film cheats on a number of points in its own confrontational schism by arming the film’s Sheriff with a band of skilled confederates), whereas in “Hatari!” the focus leans more to the side of the slight immaturity commensurate with competitive fraternal bonding; in as much as “Hatari!” engages the characters in a constant (though, significantly, occassionally prompted by the female) pursuit of women, the rougher side of the drinking, brawling end of machismo scale (as seen John Ford’s comparatively lesser “Donovan’s Reef”) is surprisingly modulated with a shyly disarming sense of innocent sentimentality.
The film opens mid-action, with the group in hot pursuit of a rhino until one known as The Indian (Bruce Cabot) is seriously gored. During this entire sequence we know nothing about any of the characters- Sean (John Wayne), Kurt (Hardy Kruger), Pockets (Red Buttons) or Luis (Valentin de Vargas), nor is there any particular immediacy directed toward the imparting of exposition: the film seems to embrace the startlingly foreign concept (in American commercial cinema) of divesting itself of narrative structural concerns; even more so than some of Hawks’ previous excursions in narrative sidetracking. Never is there a hint as to where the starting point of the actual plot begins (the story is bookeneded naturally by the duration of the capture season): there is no plot, merely a succession of episodes in which an assortment of animals are captured, punctuated by extremely lackadaisical scenes of skirt and pants chasing. Taking place during one hunting season, the emphasis placed throughout the film (bordering though never eclipsing the superstitious) on the perils of the rhino would lead one to believe the action will be elliptical: beginning and climaxing with the elusive rhino, though this would be a misconception as the film is clearly an extension of Hawks’ more favored pursuit: that between the sexes (notably, one of the earliest lines in the film comments on a rhino with the chauvinistic quip- “she must be a female, she can’t decide which way to run” -a harmless gag which would never see the light of day in the presence of the film’s pair of females, who, if not venerated, are gently handled by the men as if molded of unstable dynamite, though not so surprisingly- we are in Howard Hawks territory, after all -both Brandy and Dallas are good sports), though the expression of such a conflict finds its greatest source of humor in the outright courtliness in which it is expressed.
The African setting (filmed on location in the former Tanganyika- now Tanzania) might suggest a continuation of Hollywood’s infatuation with exotically localed demonstrations of competitively masculine jousting, as there is an expectation- based upon a heavy cinematic precedents of the Edgar Rice Burroughs/H. Rider Haggard variety of adventuresome swagger in which the male protagonist is portrayed as equal parts recklessly self-assured adventurer and protectorate of the weak (especially in regard to the female gender which is usually depicted as a- necessary only to commercial considerations -fragile appendage to the group dynamic) -of an unrelenting exhibition of testosterone fueled bravura in which every action is imported with a significant step on a continuous (certainly there are significant exceptions, the most obvious being John Ford’s “Mogambo” [see: Tumble in the Jungle: “Mogambo” (1953)] in which the female is strong enough to break down the self-preserving defenses of machismo) journey ensuring the survival of the colonial ideal (at least in the guise of allegorical demonstrations of two-fisted acts of manhood).
However, “Hatari!” presents a male dominated (as far as action consistent with their profession) but female controlled (as far as the personal sexual dynamics) setting in which the traditional power structure is unseated through a suspension in the depiction of the traditional female jungle heroine as a “prize” and modernized into an equal player in whom the rules of sexual gamesmanship are not merely liberatingly balanced but swung in favor of the women merely by the sharing of an equal sexual appetite; this is especially true of Dallas who brings with her a particularly gender democratic European aggressiveness toward sexual politics (as forwardly expressed, at the time, in the European Nouvelle Vague) which is amusingly contrasted against Sean’s confusion over the subversion of his assumed romantic protagonist role, which compared to Dallas’ more overtly expressed romantic overtures seems almost quaintly parochial by comparison, especially when Sean is played by America’s iconic image of imperturbable masculinity for the previous two decades. This reversal gender formula is hardly new, as it is one of the essential building blocks of the screwball aesthetic wholly nurtured by Hawks himself in “Twentieth Century” and “Ball of Fire”. “, “Bringing Up Baby”,”His Girl Friday (no doubt Capra enthusiasts would balk, mistakenly claiming such prospecting rights to the vastly overrated “It Happened One Night”) and certainly emblematic of the dialogue exchanges by Brackett in “The Big Sleep” and the aforementioned”Rio Bravo”
In “Hatari!”, the action of the seasonal hunt is interrupted at great lengths with sessions of romantic strategizing, either among the men themselves, or often, charmingly, between Pockets and Dallas, whose platonic friendship is the most appealing, revealing and unforced relationship in the film (the actual romantic hook ups, when they occur, are far less convincing). It is during these scenes- in which relationship strategies are discussed but in an earnest and heartfelt way -that the film achieves its most relaxed comfort level between the genders. There is a noticeable absence of sexual tension between Pockets and Dallas, after an early scene involving a bathtub and a leopard (shades of “Bringing Up Baby”), where a charming platonic relationship emerges in which cleverly disguised dialogue reviewing the status of emerging (Brackett could have been a whiz at writing television soap operas, where almost every line of dialogue is actually a plot synopsis) status of The whole thing is so congenial, has there ever been a film about love with less romantic tension than in “Hatari!”? Even the eventual romantic rivalry for Brandy’s affections between Kurt and Chips, in which we might well expect a competitive escalation of seductive scheming, pales next to their initial salvos of masculine one-upmanship which are undertaken with far more earnest intensity.
“Hatari!” is an example of what was once taken for granted as a “good time” at the movies; the kind of picture which doesn’t necessarily challenge the grey cells nor strive for Art, yet is comfortably suggestive to be worth the investment of a few hours of time, an admission price and a box of popcorn. It is the kind of film in which acting is secondary to presence. John Wayne plays Sean Mercer as congenial John Wayne, nothing more and nothing less; the same with the rest of the cast, though the good natured camaraderie which comes across on the screen indicates it must have been a jolly location shoot.
“CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND” (1977)
Steven Spielberg’s “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” is dazzling when it is showcasing the talents of special effects designer Douglas Trumbull and his crew but falls precipitously on the scale of artistic ambition when the focus in more often redirected at that peskiest of ingredients in science fiction: human beings. So just imagine the disappointment when decades of labors and countless billions of dollars have been shuttled into the exploration of space to answer the question as to whether or not we are alone, and to find the answer is no: we are sharing the universe with the patrons of an intergalactic Chuck E. Cheese whose denizens are only interested in our species as long as they can grab the most irresponsibly infantile of the bunch whose ideal of a keen sense of mature scientific curiosity finds its foundation in the lyrics of a song made famous by Jiminy Cricket. A Spielbergian wet dream if there ever was one.
The film begins by jumping around the hemisphere recording incidents most accurately identifiable as extraterrestrial j.d. pranksterism: an airliner is buzzed by a U.F.O. to the career distressed chagrin of it’s pilot; in Mexico, a squad of missing World War II fighter planes is found pristinely intact in the desert, and most importantly (at least for the purposes of the film’s inevitable focus) the city of Muncie, Indiana, for some inexplicable reason never explained, becomes the fulcrum of extraterrestrial interest, subjecting the citizens to a series of incidents including a massive power blackout, a sadistically harrowing episode of child abduction and several traffic violations, plus selectively chosen mental implants resulting in a psychic intrusion to the film’s lead character who is already more than a little childish when we first meet him; his only frame of reference when attempting to pry his sleeping kids away from their beds to join in a nocturnal chase of spaceships is that “it’s better than Goofy Golf”, one of many blatant reminders of the Land of Disney so deliberately planted in the film that it’s unclear that when the ship does arrives the departing specimens might not be a rodent named Mickey followed by an army of dancing brooms.
This character is Muncie power department employee Roy Neary (Richard Dreyfuss) whose effects from the subconscious implantation are manifesting into a manic obsession with geological protrusions while simultaneously disintegrating his obnoxious domestic situation. (If Neary is emotionally immature, then his wife is portrayed as a scattered, unsympathetic nitwit; a particularly unflattering portrait of the “average” American household as envisioned by the writer-director.) This storyline is juxtaposed with that of a globetrotting team of scientists, led by Frenchman Claude Lacombe (Francois Truffaut), who set about collecting random evidence of close encounters with extraterrestrials at evidently a moment’s notice. (It’s never explained how this group is always seemingly just minutes away from these intergalactic manifestations.) It becomes very clear early in the film that Spielberg’s interest lie more with his perverse view of everyman as everychild and so the bulk of the film’s attention centers on dreary Neary whose compulsive behavior oddly isn’t all that different from the habitually distracted character we’re introduced to (pre-encounter) and whose inability to maintain any appreciable level of cognitive thinking makes him a dubious choice at best to eventually represent the human race on an intergalactic student exchange.
On the other hand, the material on the science team’s race to put together the pieces of the necessarily cryptic clues left by the elusive cosmic travelers is interesting though the same enthusiasm does not seem to be shared by Spielberg who, as the film progresses, spends decreasing amounts of time with them until they become essentially extraneous background figurines around which Neary gets to enact his wish fulfillment fantasies to their natural conclusion. (With even John William’s briefly challenging tonal dialogues abandoned for a treacly reprise of ‘When You Wish Upon a Star’.) How disappointing that for entire portions of the film’s extended concluding meeting, the holders of the intellectual legacy of the human race, can find no way of representing our planet except to stand stiffly in place and stare in awe at whatever special effects shot will be inserted at a later time. (This has become as much a part of the tiresome Spielberg vocabulary as his overuse of shafts of diffused light, a constant reminder that the director feels insecure enough with his material as he feels compelled to visually cue the audience that something important is about to happen, and not allowing the audience to experience the scene unprovoked into a cued response.) Interestingly, though Spielberg’s emotional heart may not have the same dedication to the scientific end of the story as to Neary’s transparent Peter Pan histrionics, his formal technical instincts do, as the scenes of the global detective work are shot with a genuine sense of energy and immediacy- we really do feel the excitement in those certain moments where we share the sense of tremendous discovery right alongside Lacombe’s team -and there is almost a visceral thrill in the realization that eons of mystery are beginning to be unraveled. This leads to the best moment in the film (and a non-effects one at that, a fact which should impart some sort of lesson to filmmakers) in which throngs of “witnesses” mass in a town in India where in one ingenious and witty shot, Spielberg sums up the exhilarating nature of his cosmic chase, momentarily unaffected by clunky insertions of the increasingly bizarre behavior favored by the director’s misguided need to touch on “the average person” (had Spielberg trusted his instincts as an honest showman rather than a calculating one, the film might have really taken off), a methodology which results in the creation of limp characters whose only distinguishing features are a shared capacity for buffoonery. There are several references to “ordinary people in extraordinary circumstances”, a reference desperate to shortcut the need to explain the insoluble fit of the script’s eccentricity of “common” characters with the grander possibilities of the film’s subject; an ill-fitting symbiosis of tonally disparate elements that leads to an end product incongruous to the director’s intentions: rather than creating sympathy for the characters, the film further distances the audience from the genuine human experience.
Admirers of the film have pointed to the film’s supposed advance in treating extraterrestrials as benign, yet even a cursory search through the more intelligent examples of the SF genre (as opposed to the multitude of exploitation action programmers disguised as works of speculative fiction) would yield results contradictory to such assertions, with “The Day the Earth Stood Still”, “It Came From Outer Space” and “2001: A Space Odyssey” all featuring well-intentioned cosmic visitors whose later (if any) acts of aggression directed at Earthlings are merely defensive reactions to being welcomed with that most abundant of human properties: unchecked arrogance. In fact, in “Close Encounters” there is little actual physical interaction between species visualized- outside of random vehicular buzzings resulting in unattractively inconsistent sunburns -and those are in the closing moments of the film, in which a confusingly odd assortment of mismatched alien manifestations (it’s as if the studio were inserting the results of every test reel since the money was already spent) are presented in the rather sloppily edited visitation set piece, where amid marionettes and animatronic mimics (which not only copies Truffaut’s hand gestures but his beautific smile- a lovely moment), we are presented with the emergence of a large group of alien children (presumably) in Halloween costumes stepping out to stretch their legs; thus affording the entirety of Mankind the status of a highway rest stop, an amusing conceit, but in a film which eventually discards the need for narrative in the service of shamelessly prodded awe, it is unlikely that the filmmakers were going for a thematic fidelity closer to Douglas Adams than Arthur C. Clarke.
However, it is precisely the inconsistent tone of the film which is its own worst enemy. If we are to buy into the premise that the alien visitors are entirely peaceful then why are their antics filmed with the ferocity of a Tobe Hooper chainsaw epic? The abduction of three-year-old Barry Guiler (Cary Guffey). is staged to elicit a sadistic level of terror from his mother Jillian (Melinda Dillon)- who will later become Neary’s confederate in reaching the climactic landing site – and yet these extraterrestrials are regarded as congenial. Never once is there the slightest suggestion by anyone that perhaps these interstellar hooligans who are kidnapping Earthlings at will and creating destruction everywhere they emerge, are not visiting with our best interests at heart. This must be the only film in history where the philosophical bent of the film is (despite the inclusion of ignorantly optimistic martial law intrusions on whole communities) so insanely sunny that the military happily work in collusion with the scientists to protect the outsiders from us! And if the existence of extraterrestrials is to be kept a secret from the general public, what will eventually happen to those returned abductees who are quickly spirited away for “debriefing”?
Similarly puzzling is that despite our following the scientists from one end of the globe to the other, we know nothing about any of them, nor the nature of their organization nor source of their funding. We gather that they are a serious fraternity of minds- this is especially emphasized when their ties are loosened and sleeves are rolled -yet outside of Lacombe and his sidekick/interpreter David Laughlin (an entertaining Bob Balaban, who manages to sneak moments of humanity into a vaporous role) who spend a disproportionate amount of time translating unnecessarily since Lancombe breaks into complex English-language pronouncements throughout the film, they are an entirely generic bunch. (Which is why when they collectively gape in wonder at the end of the film, we fail to share their elation as we don’t even know who they are.) That being said, it is Truffaut’s presence alone (his casting is the film’s best creative decision) which provides the film with a desperately needed sense of the decency of the human species: he exudes a serene, gentle humanism that appears natural and effortless and that is all that is generally required of him, but its enough to spoil Spielberg’s ultimate intention with the film which is the unmerited rewarding of selfish, childish dreams. When Lacombe laments to Neary at the end of the film, “I envy you” it feels like a genuine cheat. It should be this man of intelligence, decency and dedicated curiosity who should be accompanying the aliens on a great adventure and representing our species, not Spielberg’s favored grizzled bratty child who never grew up. (We are reminded by Lacombe that Neary- and others like him -have been “invited” by the aliens. The inevitable result of this selection is truly puzzling as the aliens are certainly well acquainted with the human species, having spent decades snatching them away to the chagrin of their loved ones whose inevitably resultant years of despair and loss are of little concern to a writer-director whose childlike vision precludes the unsavory introduction of deeply felt emotions that don’t concern galactic shiny objects. However, what we are left with is that even if we know little else about these visitors, they demonstrate an appalling sense of judgment in people.)
Ultimately, “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” is a monumentally stupid film: sloppy in its story construction, immature in its regard to such wondrous possibilities as that of of a shared universe, or of science in general, and unusually insipid in the limitations of its goals. What is also despairingly clear is that after a decade of bristling maturity within the American film industry, a plateau of sorts is indicated by such blockbuster productions as “Close Encounters” which counter-productively emerge with a disappointing sparsity of imagination (it’s the cycle of of the 1960’s superproduction of musicals in a different form): the entire story might have been conceived by a congress of excitable six graders except that even they might have displayed some curiosity about the the aliens beyond the look of their illuminated Christmas tree ship. In “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” there is no attempt of a significant meeting of minds between contrasting life forms in any meaningful form (a token sharing of representative artifacts, an exchange of insurance information for those previous traffic incidents… something): the shiny objects are all that matter.
FOR PERSONNEL WITH PROPER SECURITY CLEARANCE ONLY: The following review may contain references which could be considered spoilers. For those who have yet to see the film- shame on you and don’t dare call yourself a cinephile until you do -approach at your own risk, but don’t later whine about the results of your own incautious behavior.
Sydney Pollack’s “Three Days of the Condor” is an exemplary example of what was known as the “cinema of paranoia” in which many film maker’s during the early to mid 1970’s (during the height of the Vietnam era, the Watergate years and the immediate aftermath) addressed the increasing corrosion of public confidence and spiraling distrust in, not only the government, but in the very solidity of the traditional values which binds our society together. Hollywood’s first overtly incursive move into the arena of growing social disaffection was defined by a wave of rebellious collegiate youth films, which succeeded neither in defining the roots of that disaffection with clarity, nor portrayed the youth movement itself as being comprised of anything but clueless and oversexed antagonists, aimless in their discontent, inarticulate in expressing those same discontents, and generally characterized as shallowly as cast members in a Beach Blanket movie, only fortified with a few hits off of a joint. (Though to be fair, there is more than a comfortable basis in reality for such a lethargic characterization: is there any more poignant moment illustrating an exposed vein of indifference than Country Joe McDonald’s exasperated plea to a stoned out crowd of almost one half of a million spectators of “socially conscious” youths to take an interest in joining in on the one overtly anti-Vietnam anthem of the entire [as filmed] three day festival in Michael Wadleigh’s interesting and revealing- though not in the way that veterans of 1960’s “enlightenment” would have you believe -“Woodstock”?)
After the failure of the bulk of the rebel youth films, Hollywood allowed its newest generation of directors an almost unprecedented free hand of expression, resulting in some of the darkest, most cynical films ever produced including Alan J Pakula’s celebrated trilogy of “Klute”, “The Parallax View” and “All the President’s Men”, Frank Perry’s “Man on a Swing”, James William Guercio’s “Electra Glide in Blue”, Karel Reisz’ “Who’ll Stop the Rain?”, Sidney Lumet’s “Network” David Miller’s “Executive Action”, Francis Ford Coppola’s “The Conversation” and Martin Scorsese’s “Taxi Driver”; all films with a jaundiced view of an establishment (both industrial and political-though the presumably permanent intertwining of the two is one of the era’s most pessimistic suppositions) out of control and dangerous to the individual. If the suspicion that fascistic web had already been cast over the country, Hollywood was offering no clear exit strategy. Bleak and unyielding films, which contrary to the traditional gymnastic contortionism Hollywood would impose on it’s films to elicit a happy denouement, the finales were often despairing if not outright nihilistic. Heroes (or the character standing in the expected sympathetic protagonist’s shoes) were dispatched, not with a fanfare or flourish celebrating noble sacrifice, but either with a violent, undeserved death or a descent into a paranoiac oblivion. A common trait of the conclusions of these films is their ambiguity in the completion of their stories (most had the uncommon characteristic of giving the impression that life, within the context of the film, continues after the closing of the theater curtains, instilling an unsettling feeling that the shadowy powers will persist unchecked in their oppressive behavior: a truly paranoiac vision.
Joseph Turner (Robert Redford) is employed by the generically named American Literary Historical Society, a front for a CIA branch which reads everything printed in the world, searching for leaks and new ideas hidden in the printed words. While Turner is out of the office picking up the daily lunch order, a team of assassins kills the entire staff, leaving the lone survivor “outside” and in imminent danger from what and from whom he does not know, a circumstance which leads him to randomly abduct Kathy Hale (Faye Dunaway), a customer in a ski shop, whose apartment he holes up in until he formulates a plan of survival and to determine what exactly is transpiring.
For a film immersed in a world of duplicity and subterfuge, there is an appreciable humanist streak in evidence, similar to that running through Pollack’s previous film, the disappointing “The Yakuza”, in which the director was never able to successfully merge the soft but underdeveloped romantic core of the film with its disparate hard-boiled American crime drama and pseudo-mythic Japanese Yakuza elements; the clashes of dramatic temperament proving as an equally insoluble mix as the criminal culture clash with a distressed screenplay by Paul Schrader and Robert Towne (from a story by Leonard Schrader) remaining a hodepodge of random film influences and references which never coalesce into a coherent narrative (Schrader’s script for the execrable “Taxi Driver” and his own later “Hardcore” finding an even greater disharmonious relationship with narrative logic). However, in “Three Days of the Condor”, the narrative is not weighed down with similarly undeveloped subtextual baggage and it features Pollack’s most assured work since “They Shoot Horses Don’t They?” with the director being particularly successful at attending to the patient accumulation of details in scenes which, at the time may seem irrelevant, but will later affix into a grand mosaic which nicely fills in useful shadings of character generally lacking in films which are plot heavy in nature and thus necessarily take an inordinate percentage of their running time on constant updated plot exposition, (after twenty three installments of the “official” series, do we know what James Bond does in his spare time?), while depth of character is sacrificed. “Three Days of the Condor” is, happily, the most densely layered spy film since Martin Ritt’s “The Spy Who Came in From the Cold” and also the most emotionally complex as befitting a film in which enriched characters are engaged in the action and not mere archetypal figures used as chess pieces. Several instances of parallel occurrences illuminate the characters in surprisingly comparative ways, for instance, in a telling juxtaposition of expression, during the attack on the reader’s branch, the lead assassin Joubert (Max von Sydow) responds to the pathetic- almost whispered -last words of Turner’s doomed co-worker Janice (Joan Chen),”I want to scream”, with a sad and quietly sympathetic “I know” (in a revealing act, Joubert turns away from the imminent bloodshed), the same response Turner gives to the Kathy as she protests “It’s not fair!” when he leaves her a bound captive in her bedroom while he temporarily leaves to follow leads, though there is no corresponding gesture of a similar regret. That a hired assassin actually expresses more sincere regret than the hero of the film is both revealing and innovative; with Joubert approaching his work deliberately and with no pretenses as to the nature of his work, whereas Turner works for the CIA yet when convenient outrage serves his own purposes, he acts as if he’s removed from direct association with the intelligence “community”, referring to members of that fraternity as “you guys” as if he were not equally imbedded. (When he insists “I just read books”, just who is he doing this for?) There’s another interesting parallel concerning an inquiry by Condor’s immediate superior, Dr. Lapp (Don McHenry), asking whether or not Turner feels like he’s a good fit in the Company with a later similar inquiry of Higgins by his superior Mr. Wabash (John Houseman); with the latter pair speaking with nostalgic fondness, while Turner is critical that he can’t reveal the nature of his work to his friends: an odd statement considering that all of his personal intimates seem to work for the same agency. Does his disgust toward the entire intelligence community extend to those people as well? It’s a contradictory attitude that adds complexity to Turner, and explains much about his ability to manhandle the captive Kathy while simultaneously acting as if he’s the only victim in the room.
Pollack’s film manages a nice balancing act of developing his central relationship between Turner and Kathy (a relationship that was- to be charitable -problematic in the novel, with its kidnapped paralegal Wendy a poor substitute for Kathy, as the original was too easily convinced into an alliance with Condor as he happily satisfied her nymphomaniacal urges) without ever descending into a formula romantic situation, but her character remains the film’s greatest divergence from the realm of plausibility, in that it assumes an intelligent, independent, modern woman’s most convenient attribute is a willingness to happily surrender to the sexual advances of man brandishing a gun as long as he is possessed of movie star looks. (This is touched upon when Kathy accuses Turner of “roughing” her up, at which the incredulous Condor openly asks whether he has really abused her- as if commandeering her at gunpoint, threatening her life and binding her up are a normal part of a courting process!) The eventual pseudo-romantic turn their relationship takes is actually quite modern in terms of its depiction of the male-female dynamic, but as that as seen through the eyes of Hollywood blarney (the way Pussy Galore’s lesbianism is cured by a literal roll in the hay in “Goldfinger”), which has yet to ever fully recover from the years of social primitivism imposed by the Production Code, which advanced repressive patterns of acceptable gender roles: most importantly, the erasure of women’s equality as figures of independent thought and action clearly always subservient to the tried and tried model of masculinity. Kathy’s acquiescence to sexual longings for her captive is less an example of Stockholm Syndrome than fulfilling the expectations of a symbiotic tradition of spies and sex in the Hollywood imagination.
However, what prevents Pollack’s film from collapsing under the weight of this antiquated gender dynamic is the brightness and intelligence which the screenwriters have instilled in Kathy as a formidable character, and the intuitive performance of Dunaway, who manages to seize upon those facets that humanize her role beyond the restrictions of the inevitable plot devices. Kathy becomes the most admirable character in the film- perhaps not a stretch in a plot filled with soulless bureaucrats and nerveless killers -but prominently enough for even Turner’s antagonists to take note of his luck in finding a tentative partnership with a woman of such qualities; a fact seemingly lost on the more self-absorbed Turner. The one truly emotionally open moment of the film comes when Turner asks Kathy to postpone notifying anyone as to what has transpired, the resulting look of betrayal on her face speaking volumes as to his misreading of those around him, and this fleeting intrusion of honest humanity in the shadowy realm of movie espionage is brutal, finally exposing the raw nerve existent in the genre between the movie image of spy as walking phallus and the women they bed and leave behind.
Interestingly, it also exposes another interesting quality in the film’s conception: that Redford’s Condor is not a very likeable fellow, and if Kathy provides the emotional core of the film, Turner is intended to represent the idealistic center: the figure with whom, despite his employment and association with the intelligence community, is meant to rise on his occasional soapbox and dress down the providers of his paychecks. (Turner’s self-denial is doubly interesting in that we’re reminded several times of his unimpeachable knowledge of things, since it’s his job to read everything, though even a passing familiarity with the spy novels he analyzes would reveal a covert world filled with treachery and duplicitous action.) However, the contradictory (and annoying) qualities of the film’s titular hero also make him the most shadowy; of all the major characters in the film, we know almost nothing of Turner by the end of the film. We do, however, get telling glimpses into those about him, and the most interesting reinvention of the film is that of the assassin Joubert, who- in a series of quick, surprising but logical twists -reveals himself to be an entirely more practical and humane figure than Turner himself, a revelatory turn from the standard one-note inhumanly efficient killing machine that is far too prevalent in substandard crime and spy novels of which the film’s source novel is an example. Without concessions to his capabilities as an efficient and deadly adversary, Joubert is portrayed as a man eminently more worldly than either Turner or his CIA counterparts as instead of reading books or files (a perplexed Mr. Wabash, reacts to unforeseen developments by commenting “this Condor may not be the man his file says he is”), he reads people; thus in a climactic confrontation, he is able to explain to Turner: “they [the CIA] didn’t know you’d be here, I knew you’d be here.”
James Grady’s source novel Six Days of the Condor is a rather uninspired work, but the basic outline provides sufficient material for a good jumping off point that would yield rewarding results if translated with an insightful eye that would maintain fidelity to the essential plotting, but intelligently adapt the finer details, including the reconception of several characters to relieve them of their more formulaic molds. Many of the changes in Lorenzo Semple Jr. and David Rayfiel’s expert adaptation may seem unimportant but his changes carry enormous weight: for instance, the compression of the time frame from six to three days both intensifies the immediacy of the action and allows a great deal of dead weight in the novel’s plotting to be jettisoned, including an entire major portion of the book where the main character is laid up with a cold (is this the makings of the modern American hero?) and is essentially eliminated from active participation in the narrative! This also allows for a judicious pruning of the three narrative threads that run through the entire book and dilutes the importance of each: too often the reader is playing catch up with a quick synopsis as to what has transpired while the novel’s attention was aimed elsewhere. The use of Manhattan and Brooklyn Heights as the film’s major backdrop as opposed to the novel’s Washington D.C. setting is a major plus, placing the action amid more familiar and usually nonthreatening climes as opposed to the harrowing austerity of monolithic gloom which comprises the bulk of the the District’s architectural design. Moving the story to more residentially friendly environs creates a sense of ominous prepossession by shadowy agencies moving though the world in which the average citizen lives and works, unaware of the
The “MacGuffin” of the film- the reason for the hit and the subsequent pursuit of “Condor” and his concurrent personal investigation through labyrinthine levels of agency subterfuge -turns out not to be particularly compelling in terms of spy movie conspiracies (no SPECTRE holding the world ransom against nuclear annihilation here) but in terms of real world geopolitics, it is both plausible and perhaps (dare we say) possible. There is a brief but insightful discussion between Turner and Higgins that nails home the practicality of so-called “dirty” covert operational planning against the rather vacant posturing of promoting abstract idealism in an honor compromised global arena, which grounds the complex machinations of uncomfortable political expediency in the comfortably familiar.
The performances are uniformly skilled. Robert Redford is an intelligent is sometimes ungenerous actor (not in his working habits but in withholding the vulnerabilities of his characters) and this quality works wonders for him as Turner (as it did for his subsequent role as Bob Woodward in “All the President’s Men”), while Faye Dunaway, an actress who has a dangerous capacity to slide into neurotic affectation- at her worst she becomes a tolerable version of Sandy Dennis -is more relaxed here than in any film of her career. Cliff Robertson brings unusually variable shadings to what could have been a stock role, while Max von Sydow makes the role of a cold-blooded assassin almost immorally appealing.
“DAMNATION ALLEY” (1977)
Hollywood loves a good apocalypse. The cinema has been rife with visions of Man’s inevitable (according to filmmakers) plunge into the doomsday abyss, whether through atomic obliteration (“On the Beach”, “The World, the Flesh and the Devil”, “Five”, “Panic in the Year Zero”), biological nightmares (“No Blade of Grass”, “Children of Men”, “The Omega Man”), natural catastrophe (“Meteor”, “The Day After Tomorrow”) or a combination of the above (“The Day the Earth Caught Fire”, “Quintet”), with a seemingly inexhaustible appetite for finding new and bigger ways to not only destroy civilization, but to obliterate the homo sapien from the surface of the Earth. Presumably the hunger for The Final Curtain is merely a cynically infantile fantasy of crash-bang-boom that will last as long as there’s a special effects lab willing to flatten any urban center indiscriminately, and not an industry-wide wish fulfillment fantasy, as if the human race were extinct, who would pay to see the next summer’s cinematic doom fest?
Occasionally, someone in Hollywood actually reads a book and decides to capitalize on the idea of presenting ideas from a textual source in order to appear more literate and to ensure that the films presented aren’t simply founded in a crass enterprise to delight the idiots (industry vocabulary for “the audience”) with glossy baubles and separate that same group (industry vocabulary for “you”) from your wallet stuffing. Unfortunately, in the case of “Damnation Alley”, the effort to scan and purchase the source book was hardly worth the effort as it is a shallow work, perhaps the least interesting of Roger Zelazny’s career (A not uncommon affliction toward even far more distinguished authors, as illustrated by the exhaustively impressive literary output of Anthony Burgess who is widely recognized primarily for his A Clockwork Orange solely on the basis of inspiring the fatally flawed movie version by Stanley Kubrick, but popularly credited as being his most worthy novel entirely on the ignorant misconception that if Hollywood took an interest it must have merit.), an impression the team of director Jack Smight and screen adapters Alan Sharp and Lukas Heller have done nothing to dispel in following the artistically degrading Hollywood tradition in which even promising SF materials are usually disgracefully dumbed down in order to use the “high concept” characteristics of the work (those elements which will easily enable the production design teams and special effects crews to overcompensate for the adaptive skimming of themes, ideas and philosophies that are generally considered, by the studios, dull and confusing and only inhibitive of more distracting and therefore commercial explosive action), a strategy with which the novel’s skeletal narrative appeal is separated from any intrinsic thematic density which might interfere with the succession of noisome action sequences. However, Zelazny’s source novel is already of a thinness of content (“pre-dumbed down”, if you will), that logic dictates will only become more untenably brittle with compounded reworkings to fit into comfortably prescribed (i.e. marketable) film formulas. Disaster has a funny habit of sneaking up on productions by way of arrogant and incautious adaptation. That this campaign of evident conceptual folly isn’t addressed in a more usefully timely fashion leads one to wonder just what function is truly served by those dozens of producers, associate producers and executive producers always prominently listed in the credits?
The movie begins with a ho-hum, by-the-numbers depiction of World War Three without even bothering to take the effort to explain just why the missiles are flying except as a narrative necessity to throw the Earth off its axis to create a globally inhospitable environment (described in the book, not at all in the film), though the plot neccesitates a feature length journey through said wastelands, though through the safest corridor of travel within a hellish post-apocalyptic America, a corridor glibly nicknamed Damnation Alley: a region of storms, dust and cheap Hollywood backlots underpopulated by traces of mass death (the streets and sets give no indication that the production budget called for the expected traces of decimated urban settings, such as abundant abandoned traffic vehicles or bodies). This cross country trek through such perilous climes 0nly makes sense if there is a compelling circumstance to initiate such a journey (in the novel, it was the delivery of a needed medical serum) but in the case of “Damnation Alley”, the trip is precipitated merely by curiosity- an automated radio call emanates from Albany, NY at regular intervals -and the fact that the bulk of the budget seems to have been spent on a pair of tricked-up recreational vehicles called Landmasters, whose only function seems to be that they don’t function as intended; much time is taken up with such nonsense as opening a simple hatch, not exactly the kind of imaginative peril that might highlight and justify the cinematic destruction of civilization with the crass motivation of creating a thrilling doomsday adventure.
The journey supposedly takes a route straight through America’s heartland, but in actuality it seems to be wherever there are craggy rock outcroppings and a serious amount of dust to disturb when the blandly designed and lumbering vehicles make their way to the anticipated post-apocalyptic terrors that never seem to emerge. A decimated Las Vegas is depicted by one very brief shot of a terrible matte painting (or is it a terrible miniature?) that resembles an eroding sand castle more than a city, and Salt Lake City- for those who have never been there -disappointingly resembles nothing more than the most overused studio lot bereft of credibility enhancing art direction. A sorry excuse for making a side trip to Detroit- here depicted simply as a cramped auto salvage yard -for the sake of spare truck parts only makes sense if we buy the idea that not one abandoned vehicle is to be found in the entire length of the country.The cheap look of the film is staggering- making the most budget strangled releases by Roger Corman’s New World Pictures look lush by comparison -but even the miserly design of the production must take a backseat to the groan inducing conception of the survivors themselves, each a cliche of blandness that never rise above the placard carrying “movie type”: woman in peril whose function is to be threatened with sexual assault, young boy whose function is to wander off an be the cause of a panicked search, and most insultingly, a pack of feral mountain men who appear from nowhere to menace everyone- a callous character type emphasizing the urban paranoia that anyone from a rural area, if given the chance, will immediately revert back into primitive hirsute “Deliverance” hill folk.
The quartet who initially man the two bulked up RVs are military types, seen in an early sequence where hard-nosed Major Denton (George Peppard) and his subordinate Tanner (Jan-Michael Vincent) are seen calmly initiating the launch of several retaliatory warheads in the film’s opening nuclear salvo, as well as Keegan, a jivey NCO (played with relative ease by Paul Winfield, a talented performer whose film career became inexplicably mired in inglorious supporting roles such as this- even playing basically the same role in Robert Aldrich’s misconceived “Twilight’s Last Gleaming”) who is the one character in the film who exudes traces of humor and humanity, so its predictable that he will be made to suffer for his humanity. Rounding out the foursome is Perry, who shares Denton’s loyalty to the military and its disciplines (Tanner and Keegan have both resigned, a philosophical break telegraphed by their unruly haircuts), though since he is played by the reliably short-lived Kip Niven whose presence in 1970’s vehicles generally indicated a fate similar to the red shirted member of the landing party on “Star Trek” episodes.
The inevitable loss of travel companions is hardly a problem as one of the Landmasters is disabled almost immediately by a cluster of tornadoes visualized as blotchy smears, lots of dust and some awkwardly rapid cutting to disguise the fact that the special effects are less than convincing. Which leads to one of the most obvious failing of the film and that is its transparently low-rent effects (one can hardly call them “special” and honestly retain their critical credentials), so much so that some are lifted directly from competing disaster epics such as “Earthquake” though the geography of the landscape nor the depicted destruction have anything to do with what is going on in the story. Has there ever been such an assemblage of technical incompetence placed proudly on display in the miracle of widescreen motion pictures that more resembles a sample reel from two kids in their backyard with the assistance of Dad’s 8mm camera? Surely, if a major studio produces an expensive (the accountants- probably to be found in the Caymans -have much to answer for) with little regard for luxuries as a compelling story (never mind a script, a decent story concept would have been nice), sympathetic characters or a general point to the whole enterprise, then at least compensate the audience with Hollywood’s last line of defense: dazzling shiny objects. If you’re not going to give the audience something to think about, you’d damn well. at least, better give them something to look at. After all, with the idea of a mutated ecosystem, the possibilities for novel natural calamities might prove, if not interesting, at least distracting. If there is anything useful to take from Zelazny’s novel, it’s the promise of an “anything goes” thrill ride that the novel fudges significantly on, but leaves an opportunity for the filmmakers to indulge their worst instincts- to ignore plot and lavish on the spectacle -but after the opening (and endless) visual filler of every stock shot of hydrogen bombs going off available from government surplus, an initial original effects sequence involving live scorpions optically magnified and ineptly superimposed over mismatched footage of a pair of actors- perhaps the worst giant bug special effects sequence since the golden days of Bert I Gordon -gives a pretty fair indication that this film’s standard of thrills is as shoddy as humanly imaginable; one of the imperiled humans is later, dishonestly, revealed to be a department store dummy, though in previous shots she is clearly a live actress. (How do you put that down on your resume?)
The entire film has the cheesy feel of the worst of Irwin Allen (“The Swarm, anyone?) without any sense of campy fun that might suggest (“The Swarm”, anyone??) without the accompanying compliment of an embarrassing “all-star” roster of show biz lightweights and slumming studio-era personalities (“The Swarm”, anyone???), though the existing handful of characters are so meager in their definition, they might be equally conceived for a full compliment of mannequins. Humankind takes a real punch in the gut if the remainders of the species are represented like Dominique Sanda’s Janice, who when rescued in the traces of Las Vegas seems more concerned by leaving her extensive wardrobe behind rather than absorbing the fact she’s living in a nuclear wasteland. In fact, the glib tone of the entire film ignores any trace of remorse for the loss of almost everyone, as every character is conceived and played as an emotional vacuum; not out of any sense of post-nuclear culture shock, but simply due to appallingly lazy writing.
The film’s lack of purpose is doubly apparent in the film’s abrupt and undramatic abbreviated “climax” in which the destination is reached, a clumsily hurried scene in which Denton and Janice aren’t even present (!) that can only be explained by justifiable embarrassment finally overcoming the filmmakers after completion of a previous effects sequence- seemingly patched from several different sources -that is so incomprehensively jaw dropping in its ineptitude, all persons responsible surely must have felt a sudden flood of well deserved shame and prematurely fled the production.
Provocative science fiction presents a huge challenge to commercial cinema in that the conceptual abstractions which are often at the center of the story are a bafflement to filmmakers, who must reconfigure what are often obtuse descriptions expressed in internal monologues instead of temporal manifestations which might be easily reproduced through art direction and special effects. Metaphysical constructs are hardly the food of physical production values, and Hollywood wisdom asserts that any SF story worth its weight in fifteen year old ticket buyers is easily transmutable into a shoot-em-up western in outer space.
Imagine then the horror that must have befallen the producers of Tobe Hooper’s “Lifeforce”, when it turns out their purchased property, Colin Wilson’s novel “The Space Vampires” did not concede to the Grand Guignol teasings of its misleadingly trashy title and rather than an action packed roller coaster ride, was in actuality a rather pedantic exploration into to the origins of newly discovered extraterrestrial forms who may or may not have prefigured in, if not the very origins of Man, then certainly may have had a transmogrifying effect of the species. Hollywood’s typical employment of chimerical renderings usually limits alien life to be represented by either humanoids in prosthetic applications or by tentacled, slime dripping monsters (a concept which completely undermines the physical design of their spaceships) rather than as completely abstruse to our terrestrial conceptions, nor as any but subject to our rules of corporeal evolution (The only major films to meet the challenge of this conundrum were “Forbidden Planet” which hinted at the uncommon physiognomy of the Krell but wisely left their actual appearance to the imagination, and “2001: A Space Odyssey” which outside of a geometrical representation (assuming mathematics as the universal constant), remained an ethereal abstraction; heavily suggesting a non-corporeal existence, though whether mortal or deity was left to the same imagination. The generically entitled film “Lifeforce”shares the humanoid manifestations of the novel, though discards the incorporeal origins of the celestial travelers in exchange for simplistic bat-like creatures whose cosmic compatriots preside over an irrational, chaotic hybrid of SF and horror, which accounts for an abundance of illogical expository dialogue, empty action sequences, desperately busy special effects, gratuitous, curvaceous nudity and hysterical overacting, but not a whit of narrative coherence.
The film opens as a deep space vehicle, the impractical space shuttle Churchill, approaches Halley’s Comet and discovers an enormous alien craft hidden in the comet’s corona. Inside they discover a number of the dessicated bat-like creatures and a greater quantity of humanoid figures encased in crystalline sarcophagi, the most prominent a beauteous female who, by staggering coincidence, is the only specimen shown full frontally nude at great length. Mission Commander Tom Carlsen (Steve Railsback) orders one of the giant bats placed into a specimen bag, which noisily crinkles in the vacuum of space giving a clue as to the film’s adherence of scientific principles (it has already been explained that the Churchill enjoys artificial gravity simply for the fact it travels fast), and three of the humanoid specimens, including the female.
The three aliens are transported intact back to Earth when the Churchill is discovered orbiting unmanned, the entire crew presumably dead from a fire which has gutted the ship’s interior. While under the watchful eye of the British Space Agency (whose idea of specimen containment is to lay the aliens on gurneys, covered by sheets), the female is inadvertently revived while being fondled by a security guard, apparently quarantine conditions being unknown. The female escapes, after draining the life energy out of the would-be molester, by simply walking out of the complex while being watched by everyone, her bare derrière obviously having some sort of hypnotic effect.
The fugitive femalemakes easy sport of the human race, first by inhabiting several different people in what turn out to be meaningless acts of possession and then by exponential infection of the citizens of London, turning the population into a chaotic mass of maniacal zombies whose sole purpose seems to be running amok in the streets, arms flailing, presumably to avoid the endless stream of spectral neon wisps that are meant to represent lifeforce, but more resemble the poor optical work from “Damnation Alley”. Later, in a development that surely ranks in the history of absurd SF climaxes, The Girl is seen on an alter in St. Paul’s Cathedral using her body, now draped in a diaphanous negligee, as a conduit of all of the loose lifeforce that happens to be zipping about, and sending into a stream toward her receptive spacecraft, now orbiting the Earth; though to what end this occurs remains a mystery. To power the ship? To revive the thousands of other “vampires”? Whatever the reason, any explanation remains unexplored by the screenwriters, as does the logic of The Girl interrupting her planetary takeover by engaging in ill-timed coitus with the unhinged Carlsen.
However, the vampiric energy draining nature of the aliens is explained with remarkable comprehensive insight by death specialist Dr. Hans Fallada (Frank Finlay) who must have consulted the novel for his information, though there are additions to the original story including falling back into traditional vampire movie tropes, including the victims assuming the characteristics of the original vampire as if casual contact were tantamount to spreading a contagion, and the old stand-by of the stake through the heart (or in this case, an iron rod through the “energy center”). Fallada teams with SAS Colonel Caine seem (whose role in the movie is vastly enlarged over the novel which is fortunate as Peter Firth is one of the few actors who actually delivers a completely committed performance) and the surprise return of Commander Carlsen, who it seems had escaped the shuttle conflagration in an escape pod. The film diverges from the investigative procedural of the novel, in which the mystery of the “space vampires” is revealed to be the result of catastrophic circumstances which necessitated a mutation of an alien life form where supernal and temporal existence found an uneasy harmony. On the other hand, the film settles into an confused melange of hoary vampire and zombie clichés which have little to do with the metaphysical nature of the source material. By reducing the essential thematic threads of the novel to fragmented bits of dialogue or incident, randomly scattered amid the disconnected borrowings from several different SF/horror movie types- vampire, outer space invasion, doomsday apocalypse and zombie -whatever philosophical points found a compelling validity within the context of the novel (one of the failings of bad SF/horror/fantasy is that writers set up rules particular to their invented environments and then betray them , collapsing the delicate framework of logic in the service of lackadaisical convenience) are erased through a disorganization of thought.
Just what screenwriters Dan O’Bannon and Don Jakoby had in mind by transforming the novel into a large scale melange, sacrificing the limitless possibilities of the imagination by simply cannibalizing stereotypical monster movie film clichés (the novel attempts to place the extraterrestrials into a historic context of human history, steeped in both the theological and the superstitious, and the natural merging of the two); by relegating the aliens into overly familiar types- no matter what their supernatural origin -the script undercuts any chance for a true sense of mystery.
As a director, Tobe Hooper has continually disappointed in the expectations so excitedly raised by his debut nightmare masterwork “Texas Chainsaw Massacre”. “Lifeforce” sadly reveals the director to be running on fumes. The tone of the film is as inconsistent as the script, varying from tepid horror to strained comedy, neither of which emerges successfully, nor for a film concerning first contact with extraterrestrial life, there is no apparent sense of wonder. Hooper’s imagination seems paralyzed by the metaphysical possibilities posed by his story, instead falling back on past glories with variations of the phantasmagorical effects from the shockingly overrated “Poltergeist”; in fact, the discordant pattern of pseudo-supernatural menaces in “Lifeforce” is similar to that of that same cinematic grab bag The patchwork nature of the narrative suggests either a great deal of bridging footage left on the floor or indecision about which direction to take the film until it was too late.
This does not help the performers, most of whom seem undone by the clumsily patched nature of the story which disables most of the cast from finding consistent rhythms to their performances; the exceptions being the aforementioned Firth, an effective Michael Gothard whose role seems unnaturally truncated and Mathilda May who, as The Girl, is asked to do very little but act otherworldly and look fetching sans a stitch, both of which she manages with admirable ease. Unfortunately, the same is not true of Steve Railsback, whose acting seems stuck on a permanent level of hysteria, culminating in the laughable sequence in which he interrogates a possessed Dr. Armstrong (Patrick Stewart), through the use of appalling dialogue and a case of the shakes that would set seismic meters twitching a hemisphere away.