Classic Review: Earth Vs. The Flying Saucers

Stars: ★★☆☆

Summary:  Silly, heedless, jingoistic and naïve, this classic invasion flick is great throwback fun.

Review:  I grew up on the B’s.  I adored — and still do — the mostly unintentional laughs and geeky excitement conjured up by the sci-fi kitsch of yore, those pictures which defied common sense and budgetary limits with heedless abandon.  My special love was for Toho Ltd.’s ‘Godzilla’ series, but I’d devour anything else.  Recently I’ve had a bit of a B-movie reawakening.  In pursuit of my next cheesy sci-fi meal, I queued up ‘Earth Vs. The Flying Saucers‘ in Netflix on DVD, having admired a creepy edit of the trailer on an overplayed VHS tape in my youth.

Made at the height of UFO hysteria with the substantial plus of effects wizard Ray Harryhausen’s iconic touch, the film arrived at just the right time, capitalizing on public fears while affirming the official faith in the U.S. Military and science at large.  This was the era when space travel was a wild, exciting frontier that most people didn’t know a lick about and promised variants of the sort of phantom dangers that had terrified explorers sailing off the map centuries before.  Nowadays, it seems the American public has grown terribly cynical about the enterprise, and there isn’t that juvenile mix of fear and enthusiasm that accompanied those tentative steps beyond our sphere.

‘Earth Vs. The Flying Saucers’ totally lacks the cynicism and self-awareness that marks today’s cream-of-the-crop science fiction, in part due to its exploitive nature and otherwise attributable to naiveté.  The film’s attitude, in essence, is: “Gee, aren’t rockets cool?  And America, too, God bless her?  And her fine fighting men and those brilliant scientists!  Why, even the flying saucers are cool, and I kind of pity those poor aliens and their burned-out world.  It’s a shame we have to quickly abandon diplomacy and annihilate the last of their race without visible remorse… Gee, isn’t Joan Taylor pretty?  And those American monuments, too?  But I sure did like seeing them built in miniature and blown up!  Hurray for Hollywood!”  You can see why I love this stuff.

Its many humorous philosophical, narrative, and cinematographical flaws aside, ‘Earth Vs. The Flying Saucers’ has lots of great little moments.  Harryhausen’s effects are wonderful and fun, setting the standard for Hollywood spaceships and aliens for years to come, and some of his shots are so nice, they show them twice.  The leads do their best with a silly script and, despite not being terribly memorable on their own, keep the movie watchable when there isn’t an expensive effect or stock footage on-screen.  The most hilarious aspect of the film is the black comedy inherit in how the script treats the aliens, who are actually pretty reasonable and sympathetic before they start trying to destroy the world, which, by the way, they promised not to do and explained in detail why it would be monumentally stupid.  The aliens are just there to get blown up, however, and to prove how damned resourceful America is.  The rest of the world doesn’t visibly contribute at all to the effort to, you know, save the world.  They just trust the States, I guess.  Anyway, the aliens are refugees, and sure they try to take the planet, but at least they want to talk about it first.   When they are soundly defeated, Joan Taylor’s character hilariously wonders if they will ever return, even though the aliens made it quite clear they were the last of their entire species.  So despite the massive loss for humanity’s collective conscience (not to mention science), the nameless aliens die en masse, everybody shrugs and goes to the beach.

‘Earth Vs. The Flying Saucers’ is among the very best in B-movie buttered popcorn guilty pleasures.  For the classic sci-fi fan, this is essential viewing.  Bring your savvy friends.

NR: Cultural Inception

James here with Wednesday’s News Reflections.

The subject today is the role film plays in changing popular perceptions and cultural norms, piggy-backing off an article in the LA Times about the evolving portrayals of women in cinema.  It’s a fascinating piece and I suggest you read it.

In essence, the article says that the richness of the characterizations found in a new wave of female protagonists denotes a cultural shift, partially necessitated by filmmakers attempting to establish broad audiences.  I would suggest that it isn’t merely an economic consideration.  How filmmakers think about the sexes has changed due to more liberal education and the trails blazed by previous storytellers.  They’re also kicking the ball in a different direction, not merely imitating their forebears.  Although sexism and egregious hyper-sexualization continue to permeate Hollywood portrayals of women, the next generation of filmmakers have the ability to curb these problems considerably in favor of a fair, realistic norm.  They’ll do this simply by doing their jobs.

In Christopher Nolan’s phenomenal ‘Inception’, the team works together to plant an idea in a subject’s dreams, the titular process that mirrors the science of narrative cinema.  The audience, like the subject, gets carried along for an emotional journey in a world based on its own logic.  The magic trick of celluloid is in getting the audience to accept the filmmakers’ philosophical propositions without realizing the process is taking place, at least until the audience “wakes up” upon leaving the theater or turning off the video player.  Cinema is the longstanding practice of cultural inception.  The influential filmmaker chews the cud and breaks her/his ideas down into the simplest emotional concepts, then constructs a narrative out of the raw material.  The narrative itself is a meditation, the gradual awakening to a new idea vicariously experienced through characters.

Now, the trouble is, filmmakers should hold themselves responsible — and if they won’t do it, the critics should — for the ideas that they unintentionally propagate.  Unlike the film ‘Inception’, where the titular process is profoundly difficult due to the mind’s natural defenses, cultural inception via cinema is sometimes frighteningly easy.  Even in something as common and base as a simple shoot ’em up action-adventure story, the filmmaker can perform inception.  A popcorn thriller can promote sexism, knee-jerk violence, and brainless jingoism while all the filmmaker usually wants is to photograph explosions and attractive people.  Because the Hollywood system relies on the kinds of movies that maximize cashflow, the studio system will reflect the negative aspects of culture by giving people what they want.  Say a popcorn thriller with bad philosophy earns a hundred million dollars.  Then a dozen retreads will spawn and the negativity will not only remain, but spread.

This act of cultural “inception”, trying to radically change gender portrayals in cinema and thus society’s basic assumptions about the sexes, must be deliberately, intelligently handled by filmmakers in every genre.  While its true that money is Hollywood’s bread, butter, and gasoline, the opportunities to speak strongly to issues philosophic, political, and even religious are not rare.  Conscientious storytellers must seize the day and make sure that when audiences sit down, they are emotionally moved in the right direction.  Resorting to heavy-handed preaching isn’t the answer.  They must make great movies.

MMM: Desert Chase, E.T., The Dark Knight

James here with Movie Music Monday!

Three rousing pieces today as a counterpoint to last week’s subdued direction.

‘Raiders of the Lost Ark’ is one of my favorite films of all time.  John Williams, the modern-day maestro, composed a landmark score for this beauty.  This piece, which follows Indiana Jones through the Egyptian desert as he fights Nazis to retrieve the Ark of the Covenant from a truck, hits every visual beat perfectly, and I can envision almost every moment of the iconic scene in my head as it plays.  Check out that climatic brass explosion!

Yes, even more John Williams, from ‘E.T. The Extra Terrestrial’, which I have yet to review.  This end credits piece is, well, rousing.  And tear-jerking.  Pretty much perfect.

Hans Zimmer & James Newton Howard may not have the iconic, classy reputation of John Williams, but their score for ‘The Dark Knight’ has some great moments.  In particular this track, accompanying Batman’s willful, messianic transformation from hero to scapegoat.  A beautiful, cathartic piece filled with energy, angst, and hope.

Shutter Island

Stars: ★★★★

Summary: A powerful, skillfully plotted film about the dangers of self-illusion and refusing responsibility.

Review:  Let’s talk about plot.  Some movie plots are bad, being separated from logic and character, and some are good, being the same with character and organically interrelated.  A plot’s nature is its shape, a simple movement from point A to B, naturally a straight line, which can get complicated and turn in any direction at the artist’s whim.  For those films that draw their plotlines in radical shapes, often the result is a twist ending, which can shock an audience, providing the rare pleasure of surprise.  Is this preferable or superior in any way to a straight ending?  It depends primarily on the emotional content.  Catharsis is the goal, here; resolution, for better or worse.

I have heard complaints that Martin Scorsese’s adaptation of Dennis Lehane’s novel ‘Shutter Island’ did not successfully pull the wool over the audience’s eyes.  The surprise factor, for some, was lost.  But what is a temporary surprise compared to releasing buckets of suspense?  ‘Shutter Island’, thematically and structurally, is not about springing a trap, but the slow, terrifying revelation that the trap has already taken hold.  Madness, the film’s preoccupation, is not a bestial thing suddenly snapping at you from the dark, but the refusal to accept the truth that you share the nature of that bestial thing.  ‘Shutter Island’ doesn’t have a proper twist ending.  It doesn’t try for the magic act of, say, ‘The Sixth Sense’.  It’s more like Christopher Nolan’s ‘Memento’, where the truth is gradually revealed, like steam wiped off a mirror.  In Scorsese’s film and Nolan’s, we sympathize with the protagonist and stubbornly believe his version of reality, until it becomes impossible to do so anymore.  Therein lies catharsis, as we let go of our fear and indignation and reorient ourselves.  Whether the protagonist comes to terms with the truth or not, we move on, hopefully having divined the narrative’s moral purpose.

‘Shutter Island’ is the perfect companion piece to Christopher Nolan’s ‘Inception’.  Coincidentally, they share the same lead actor, but otherwise they are thematically similar, with different ideas and resolutions.  They are both concerned with tragedy, loss, guilt, dream logic and the in-movie use of stories as redemptive tools.  Pared down, ‘Shutter Island’ is a study in plot, how a story’s complexity works around the mind’s defenses and moves the primary participant — the audience, or in this case, the protagonist — according to its agenda.  ‘Inception’ focuses on the positive effects of self-revelation and abandoning illusions, while ‘Shutter Island’ does the exact opposite.  Note that both stories grow on the one tree.  They’re the same straight line from point A to B, but they take radically different directions, with ‘Shutter Island’ acting as ‘Inception’s filmic shadow.

On the surface, the film asks the question, “Is it better to live as a monster, or to die as a good man?”  In the plot below, however, it asks, “Is it better to live with painful reality, or to live in an endless nightmare of your own devising?”  The death posed in the surface is not necessarily literal.  It’s a spiritual death, the loss of an honest, ugly self in favor of an attractive façade.  When facing guilt, the soul must decide whether to abandon itself to mercy — not forgiveness, per se, but judgment — or to deny any reason to be guilty at all.  There is no other choice.  In Orthodox Christian theology, Christ’s unconditional forgiveness draws the soul to honest self-appraisal, but it still must decide whether the painful, terrifying truth is preferable to defiant fantasy.  Hell, in this theology, is God’s love perceived by the deluded mind.  ‘Shutter Island’ illustrates the dangers of illusion most beautifully.  The waking nightmare of the mad man’s hell crawls with horrors, but it provides an escape from the sanest, scariest thing of all: self-knowledge.

Martin Scorsese and company have a masterful film here.  It’s packed with spiritual insight, cinematographic genius, and genuine thrills.  I think it’s obvious… I loved it.

NR: The King of the Monsters

James here with Wednesday’s News Reflections.

There are a couple of film series that I watch purely for nonsensical gratuitous action-packed thrills.  One is the acclaimed ‘James Bond’ series, and the other is Toho Ltd.’s legendary slice of cheese, ‘Godzilla’.

After 50 years in which Toho produced 28 films, the series went into hibernation, awaiting a third reboot. Now, working with Legendary Pictures (responsible for reboots such as ‘Batman Begins’ and ‘Clash of the Titans’), Toho shall wake the king of all kaiju for a Hollywood film in 2012. The last time Toho left the series in American hands, it turned out as a drive-thru action picture, not a feast of monster mayhem. The folks at Legendary seem to understand the franchise’s essence and appeal, however, so I’m quite positive about the project.

Now, as Collider (among others) reports, Legendary has hired the reboot’s director: Gareth Edwards, a new kid on the block.  This guy just brought us an independent monster movie, appropriately titled ‘Monsters’, that I, unfortunately, missed in the preferable theater experience.  The critical reaction was mostly positive, citing it as intelligent, emotional, and effective, and Edwards’ reputation got a level up.  I wish I could say something of value about his skill set, ideas, etc., but so it goes.  There is reasonable doubt of whether Edwards is too green to handle a project the size of ‘Godzilla’.  It’s a lot on his shoulders, and I would understand if he played it safe, or went with the studio’s agenda without much resistance.  In question also is his ability to handle a larger-than-life action picture, having jumped from conservative filmmaking to a film devoted to colorful excess.  I can’t answer either question, of course, but it has me somewhat worried.

‘Godzilla’ is a B-movie icon because of the violence inherent in the premise. Still, the creature was born from legitimate fears.  It’s not only possible, it’s certainly preferable to tell the story about the apocalyptic paranoia at its heart.  This, hopefully, is why Legendary hired Gareth Edwards.  I hope that he can prove the monster’s transcendence.  He’ll also have to deliver on the fiery intensity, awesome visuals, and monster mashes the franchise is known for.  For what my wishes are worth, I wish the project luck.  Go for it, folks.  Earn my ten dollars.

2010 in review

The stats helper monkeys at WordPress.com mulled over how The Silver Mirror did in 2010, and here’s a high level summary of its overall blog health:

Healthy blog!

The Blog-Health-o-Meter™ reads Wow.

Crunchy numbers

Featured image

A Boeing 747-400 passenger jet can hold 416 passengers. This blog was viewed about 7,100 times in 2010. That’s about 17 full 747s.

In 2010, there were 93 new posts, growing the total archive of this blog to 147 posts. There were 199 pictures uploaded, taking up a total of 56mb. That’s about 4 pictures per week.

The busiest day of the year was October 20th with 266 views. The most popular post that day was Not-So-Classic Review: The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974).

Where did they come from?

The top referring sites in 2010 were stumbleupon.com, facebook.com, popdose.com, en.wordpress.com, and collider.com.

Some visitors came searching, mostly for wicked witch of the west, wizard of oz witch, wicked witch, khaaan, and danny elfman.

Attractions in 2010

These are the posts and pages that got the most views in 2010.

Not-So-Classic Review: The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974) October 2010

Patrick’s Top Five Villainesses September 2010

James’ Top Five Film Composers March 2010

Classic Review: 2001: A Space Odyssey February 2010

Classic Review: The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1919) October 2010

MMM: Mansell’s Moon, Avatar Piano, Morricone’s Harmonica

James here with Movie Music Monday!

Our customary three today lean on the meditative side.

Clint Mansell’s score for ‘Moon’ is suitably futuristic, haunting, and introspective.  A great companion to a story about lunar monasticism.

Among the many disappointments I experienced with James Cameron’s ‘Avatar’ was James Horner’s score.  Now, the man can write music, there’s no doubt of that.  The problem is that musically as well as narratively, ‘Avatar’ is mostly unoriginal and unsatisfying.  However, the main theme is actually pretty good… in instrumental. On piano, the melody doesn’t get lost as easily as it does in the film’s actual score.

Ennio Morricone is a titan among giants, and his music for Sergio Leone’s underrated ‘Once Upon A Time In The West’ stands out with the best of his work.  This string of three pieces, from the film’s sublime climax, is equal parts meditative, mournful, and terrifying.