Category Archives: Movies

TV seasons: new, old and Did Not Finish

MOTHERLAND: FORT SALEM‘s second season (S1 review here) has our three cadets (Abigail, daughter of a proud military family; Tally, more innocent and very good-hearted; and Raelle, the rebel) come back from last season’s battle with the witch-hating Camarilla changed: Raelle’s tapped new powers she doesn’t understand and Tally’s having flashes of what turn out to be the origin of the anti-military terrorist group the Spree. General Adler is playing hardball, Raelle’s ex-girlfriend Scylla and her mother are waging war on the Camarilla but the Camarilla has plans of its own …

Set in a world where witchcraft is part of military service, this kept up the quality of the first season, though Scylla’s murderous past gets kind of hand-waved. I’m kind of glad next season will wrap things up, rather than going until they run out of steam or getting cut off before resolution like so many shows. “He’s a safety school with a penis.”

I didn’t watch the entire first season of THE X-FILES for Alien Visitors as only the ET episodes are relevant to the book (and I simply don’t have time to watch the whole thing). The story of brilliant profiler Fox “Spooky” Mulder and equally brilliant physicist/MD Dr. Dana Scully (David Duchovny, Gillian Anderson) investigating everything from mutant serial killers to alien abductions is probably just as familiar to y’all as it is to me. Even so, it’s a shock to realize just how much of a game-changer this series was.

As I’ve discussed elsewhere, X-Files injects the political cynicism of the Watergate era into TV and gives us a world where government can’t be trusted. Key players in the FBI are actively working to cover up the government’s knowledge of UFOs and aliens on Earth (the Cigarette Smoking Man played by William B. Davis is the face of the conspiracy). Mulder has a contact, Deep Throat (Jerry Hardin) — see the Watergate influence? — but is he on the level or just playing some game with Mulder?

More than that, the concept of a show with an elaborate mythology that develops over time and mysteries that takes months or years to unravel makes this show the godfather to 24, Lost and Manifest. Which is part of why I never really cottoned to it; when Mulder rants to Deep Throat about playing games — only throwing him little pieces of information and holding most of the truth back — it’s almost a metacommentary on X-Files and LostThough obviously I’m in a minority in not being into the show, and that’s okay — it wasn’t for me but I don’t begrudge it it’s success (though if it had run shorter, my work on the book would be easier).

And I should note that Scully remains a groundbreaking character. Even though she’s usually wrong about what they’re going up against she remains as smart and competent as Mulder and doesn’t back down on her skepticism. As Foz Meadows says, the show let Gillian Anderson dress in unremarkable jackets and blazers rather than looking fashionable because that’s the kind of woman Scully is. The Scully/Mulder dynamic had its influence on later shows too, for example the leads of The 4400. “How can I deny things that are stamped with an official seal?”

The second season of PEOPLE OF EARTH wrapped up in 2017 on a cliffhanger and wasn’t renewed, but up until that point it was as fun as the first season. The realization they were all abducted together brings the Starcrossed therapy group back together but now they have special agent Foster (Nasim Pedrad) breathing down their neck to find Jonathan. Meanwhile, an AI takes over the ship leaving Jeff, Don and Jonathan all hating him and having second thoughts about this whole invasion business. I am a little puzzled why they wrote Ozzie (Wyatt Cenac) out mid-season but as it’s clearly positioned for him to return, I guess it was a schedule conflict, health issue or the like. Streaming on Hulu if you get the itch to check it out. “Don’t you dare use my favorite musical against me!”

TV producer Aaron Spelling was, as many critics have pointed out, not an artist, just a guy who turned out tons of glossy soap opera for entertainment. It’s true, but watching the new revival of FANTASY ISLAND just reminds me how very, very good at glossy soap opera Spelling was. Where Mr. Roarke ruled a world-class luxury resort, the island his niece and heir Elena (Roselyn Sånchez) ran in the first episode feels closer to a chain motel. Nor do the creators have Spelling’s way with a slick storyline. That said, I may pick it up once all that X-Files viewing is done … but more likely not. “I’m offering an opportunity to be brave.”

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Superman and James Spader, in love (no, not with each other).

Despite his success directing Superman, Richard Donner locked horns with producers Alex and Ilya Salkind often enough that they ditched him with Superman II unfinished (they were saving money by shooting both at the same time, as the Salkinds had done with Three and Four Musketeers). Donner shot enough footage, however, that Warners eventually assembled SUPERMAN II: The Donner Cut (2006) by combining his work, some of the Richard Lester film, and some screen test material. The result is a bit of a mess (continuity is all over the place) but it works well enough I wish Donner had completed the theatrical version.

The film starts off with Lois, very much in Silver Age mode, realizing Clark is Superman, then jumping out the window to prove it; he saves her, of course, but without revealing himself. The reveal comes at Niagara, and not by accident: Lois fires a gun at Clark who confesses, but points out she could have killed him. “With blanks?”

Another change is the battle at the White House, with Zod and his lackeys coming off much more violent and murderous. The really big change is after Superman flies Lois to the Fortress. At the time Lester assumed control of II, Marlon Brando was suing the Salkinds for allegedly stiffing him on his cut of the first film’s profits. They axed him from II and put in Lara instead of Jor-El. That’s a shame — as Donner says on the commentary track, using Jor and showing how his relationship with his son fractures has more punch.

Where Lara gently gives Clark advice, Jor-El is pissed: loving Lois means he’s choosing the One over the Many which is not his role on Earth (the Christ overtones are undeniable). Clark demands the right to be happy, and Jor-El reluctantly accedes. In the theatrical movie, we don’t really see how he regains his powers; here he shows up at the Fortress, sobbing and admitting he was wrong. Jor-El’s hologram materializes and sacrifices its existence to recharge Superman’s powers.

The showdown in the Fortress at the end is quicker, stripped of all the teleporting and holograms that treated Kryptonian powers like magic. Instead of the magic kiss that erases Lois’s memory, this has Superman rewinding time so none of the events (including the Phantom Zoners breaking loose) have happened. That’s a jarring repeat of the original movie’s deus ex machina; Donner says he’d always intended this as II‘s finish, but the Salkinds moved it up to the first film when nobody could think of a good ending. “There is one man here on Earth who will never bow before you.”

STARCROSSED (1985) has James Spader offering sexy defector Belinda Bauer (“Your accent suggests there’s an Iron Curtain in your past.”) shelter from what he assumes are the KGB agents trying to drag her from the land of freedom. Instead, it turns out she’s an ET refugee hunted by agents of the imperial power that conquered her peaceful world (making her entire race peaceful is the flip side of Othering alien invaders by making them all monstrous warmongers). Can they stay one jump ahead of the bad ETs? Will Spader show her how much fun human-style sex is (if you can’t guess, you ain’t watched enough TV movies)?

Although Bauer is stiff, Spader’s personal charm and talent makes this run very well until they throw in some Men in Black also hunting for Bauer; at that point the film just seems to bog down. Still, Spader does make it watchable enough. And I do like his explanation for why Bauer looks human (“God made us in his own image, right? How many images do you think God has?”). “When your people have been doing something for so long, you think of it as natural.”

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Aliens and deserts, a match made in the stars?

Keep Watching the Skies says IT CAME FROM OUTER SPACE (1953), with its poetic musing on the harsh desert environment, was a major influence on 1950s SF, prompting multiple other movies to go with a desert backdrop (it didn’t hurt that the desert was close to Hollywood and cheap to shoot in). Rewatching for Alien Visitors it strikes me as one of the few where there’s ambiguity on whether the aliens pose a threat: they’re initially presented as spooky, ominous and very alien looking, they’re kidnapping people but it turns out they’re simply as terrified of us as we’d be in the same boat. In its own right, a good film. “A thousand years of work and you’re willing to give up and let it all end here, on this strange planet?”

ALIENS AND GUFORS (2017) is a pointless comedy about a trio of aspiring UFOlogists in a small desert town with a high level of UFO encounters; can they tolerate the annoyances of small-town life long enough to get a book out of it? And when their old fart landlord claims he’s had a close encounter, is it the guys’ ticket to the big time or a hoax that will ruin them? Feels like Doc Hollywood with aliens as the heart of the film is the guys adjusting to small-town life (and like Beyond the Sky it has fake UFO sightings co-existing alongside the real deal). “I am not breastfeeding that thing!”

SEARCH FOR THE GODS (1975) is a TV movie in which a dying Native American gives Stephen McHattie part of a mystical medallion of unearthly metal — could it be a key to the truth about Gods From Outer Space? In the years since I watched this for Cyborgs, Santa Claus and Satan I’d forgotten how horribly dull it is. A big part of that is everyone being so vague about what sort of secrets we’re dealing with, as if they were afraid to say it outright — when they find a hidden chamber at the climax, it’s got nothing in it but Native artifacts, rather than lost secrets of ancient extraterrestrials. The presence of Kurt Russell (amoral drifter), Raymond St. Jacques (ruthless rival hunter) and Ralph Bellamy (archeology expert) don’t help. It was interesting to notice that while one character alludes to passing through Roswell, they attach no significance to it — as I’ve read elsewhere, Roswell’s status in ET lore didn’t really kick off until the 1980s. “It usually is a big mistake to value sentiment too highly.”

Leaving the desert, MONSTERS VS. ALIENS (2009) would probably be a spotlight in the comedy chapter of Alien Visitors except the parody is more 1950s SF films with the alien invasion played relatively straight. Reese Witherspoon provides the voice of Susan, transformed by a radioactive meteor into Ginormica and sealed away with fellow monsters Dr. Cockroach (Hugh Laurie), the B.O.B. and the Missing Link — until the invasion forces General W.R. Monger (Kiefer Sutherland) to set them free to fight for America. I’ll probably mention this in the Romance chapter as an example of an alien encounter disrupting the course of seemingly true love, first by blocking Susan’s engagement, then showing what a heel her fiance is. I like this one quite a bit. “Dr. Cockroach, would you mind not giving your mad scientist laugh while I’m sitting in this chair?”

Ginormica being inspired by 1958’s ATTACK OF THE 50 FOOT WOMAN, I naturally checked that one out: Allison Hayes plays a wealthy alcoholic whose mental condition isn’t improved by the way her sleazeball husband is carrying on an affair with Bad Girl Yvette Vickers; when she claims to have had a close encounter in the desert with a spaceship (which everyone refers to as a satellite — this was right after Sputnik), hubby thinks he can send her to the nuthouse, but then it turns out  Hayes’ encounter has had a few side effects (though they do not make her anywhere near as large as the spectacular poster).

This is a very bad movie with no end of dumb moments (Hayes seems perfectly comfortable in her bedroom even after she grows titanic) but it does boast some competent acting by the leads. It’s also interesting in structure — just as Predator is an action movie disrupted by an intrusion SF story, this is a B-movie drama disrupted by an alien. It later inspired a remake with Darryl Hannah and Attack of the 50-Foot Cheerleader is obviously another knockoff, if only in name.  “You’d make a wild driver Harry — with 50 million bucks.”

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Movies and TV, with aliens and without

TYG was watching IT PART 2 (2019) recently, which meant I half-watched the story of adults going back to their hometown to confront the monstrous, jeering clown and his nightmare-inducing, reality-warping powers … all of which made me feel like whoever made it was trying to knock off Nightmare on Elm Street. Freddie Krueger did it better though.

Ron Howard’s COCOON (1985) has aliens led by Brian Dennehy arrive on Earth to retrieve the life-support cocoons of their fellows, who’ve been waiting for rescue since the fall of Atlantis. The treatment to revive the cocoons has the side effect of rejuvenating some residents of a retirement community — including Don Ameche, Hume Cronyn, Jessica Tandy and Wilford Brimley — but can they keep the source of their new vigor safely secret?

This is a great showcase for all those old-timers, and genuinely sweet; on the other hand, there’s some truth that the aliens are almost absurdly nice. While the film is certainly sympathetic to the plight of the old, it lacks the underlying anger that made Twilight Zone‘s Kick the Can episode memorable. And like a number of 1980s movies, the climax is a fairly pointless chase — one of the kids of the oldsters is desperate to stop them doing whatever insanity they’re doing so we wind up with cops trying to chase them down, purely to provide suspense (I had the same problems with Tom Hanks and Daryl Hannah being chased by the military at the climax of Splash). “The way nature’s been treating us, I don’t mind cheating her a little.”

The first season of TBS’ PEOPLE OF EARTH was a surprisingly engaging spoof of alien abductions. Protagonist Ozzie (Wyatt Cenac) is a successful reporter who’s been having hallucinations ever since he hit a deer. Therapist Gina (Ana Gasteyer) convinces him that what happened was an alien abduction so he reluctantly joins her abductee support group (“We prefer the term ‘experiencers.'”). The series follows the interactions between the oddball abduction victims and also between the abductors — a Grey (Ken Hall), a White (Bjorn Gustaffson) and a Reptilian (Michael Cassidy) who in human disguise is Ozzie’s boss. By the nd of the season, interactions between the ETs and the humans have gone in unexpected directions, and the alien invasion, it appears, is about to start … Looking forward to the second and final season. “She wasn’t a circus performer Mom, she was a yoga instructor with a nose ring.”

BIRDS OF PREY AND THE FABULOUS EMANCIPATION OF ONE HARLEY QUINN (2020) has Margot Robie’s Harley openly break up with Mr. J, with the result everyone in Gotham on both sides of the law realize they can take her down without getting a shot of Joker venom — and Ewan MacGregor’s Black Mask and henchman Szasz (easily the least impressive incarnation of that psycho) very eager to seize the moment. Complications include teen pickpocket Cassandra Cain stealing a McGuffin, Rosie Perez’ pissed-off Montoya (“She got a major bust ten years ago — her partner stole the credit so she’s still working the detective beat.”), vengeful Helena Bertinelli (Mary Elizabeth Winstead — I seem to be seeing her a lot lately) and Jussie Smollet’s Black Canary. Much more fun than I expected. “Stop, stop — you’re going to do that thing where you open up a box of outlandish torture devices while detailing your master plan and explaining how I don’t fit into it.”

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Why yes, I do occasionally watch non-alien movies.

So I’ll lead off with WEREWOLVES ON WHEELS (1971), a biker film in what my friend Ross calls the “just enough” category — it’s 95 percent biker crap (they drive around bullying people, drinking and getting laid), but after a Satanic cult puts the whammy on them, one or the other of them periodically changes into a werewolf. It’s not good even as a biker film, but I knew that going in. “That was no accident. This is heavy — someone’s controlling the vibes.”

Speaking of vibes, VIBES (1988) stars Cyndi Lauper as a medium and Jeff Goldblum as a psychometric, recruited by Peter Falk to find his long-lost son. Except it turns out Falk’s lying — his real agenda is to find a psi-McGuffin ahead of sinister psi-researcher Julian Sands. Given the cast, this should have been really funny; instead it’s just blandly amiable. “Another man has been touching these panties!”

Speaking of blandly amiable McGuffin hunts, MEET DAVE (2008) stars Eddie Murphy as a human-shaped spaceship hunting on Earth for a lost piece of technology that will enable them to siphon off our oceans and save their dying world. Murphy also plays the ship’s captain who in the opinion of subordinate Gabrielle Union is having way too much fun letting the ship flirt with human Elizabeth Banks. While the cast is competent, “Dave’s” efforts to make sense of human behavior are stock — and why do these Vulcan-like aliens suddenly get feelings on Earth other than because that’s what aliens are supposed to do?” See how she squeezes the smaller one’s skull despite his protests? Such brutality!”

LOONEY TUNES: Back in Action (2003) is another non-ET film but I watched it because I clearly remembered Steve Martin — the evil head of Acme Industries — was an evil alien in a human mask. My memory was wrong. That said, I enjoyed his battle with Bugs, Daffy, actor/spy Timothy Dalton, stunt man Brendan Fraser and executive Jenna Elfman better than most people and a lot better than Space Jam. It does have several scenes in Area 52 (Area 51 is just a cover story — clever huh?) so it might work its way into the book anyway. The biggest weakness is the heavy-handed product placement (lampshading it doesn’t help). “If you don’t find a rabbit in lipstick amusing, we have nothing to talk about.”

Brian Yuzna’s PROGENY (1998) feels like a more graphic version of The Stranger Within, with Arnold Voosloo and Jillian McWhirter coming to realize her miracle pregnancy (his sperm ain’t what they should be) is because aliens put a bun in her oven during an alien abduction. Like Barbara Eden in Stranger, ending the pregnancy isn’t an option — when she tries, the aliens turn off medical equipment and overload ob/gyn Wilford Brimley’s pacemaker. Not as cleverly weird as the earlier film and repellently graphic — the impregnation scene is pure hentai. With Lindsay Crouse as a skeptical hypnotherapist.“Ethics? You’ve already violated every ethical and legal code in the books.”

COWBOYS VS. ALIENS (2011) has Daniel Craig wake up amnesiac in the Old West with a strange, high-tech bracelet on his wrist. Could it have something to do with the aliens carrying off folks from the nearby mining town? Could be … This is watchable, but it’s the kind of thing that provokes absolutely no deep thoughts or insight on my part; Harrison Ford plays a bad man who turns out to be better than he seems and Olivia Wilde is an alien looking for revenge. “God don’t care who you were, son — only who you are.”

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Watching the predators

PREDATOR (1987) is a surprisingly good film and an interesting one in that it’s a perfect mash-up of a 1980s action film with an alien monster SF film. Dutch (Arnold Schwarzenegger) heads a rescue team (including future governor Jesse Ventura and future director Shane Black) that Dillon (Carl Weathers) has assigned to bring back a Central American diplomat and US ally captured by guerillas. Unfortunately an alien hunter (as the later The Predator points out, it’s not really a predator) has arrived in the jungle looking for sport and look who he stumbles across!

For the first 40 minutes or so, this is a 1980s action movie. Like the 1951 The Thing, the manliness of the leads is a given, but it’s more emphasized. For example, when Dillon and Dutch meet, they joshingly arm-wrestle and the camera lingers on their bulging biceps (a few years later, Independence Day would be much more self-conscious about having Bill Paxton and Jeff Goldblum prove their manliness). And in contrast to The Thing, where the military leaders are simply clueless, here they’re duplicitous — it turns Dillon has brought Dutch into a dirty job he’d have refused if he’d know the details. It reminds me a lot of Rambo — fake mission, and the climax has Dutch, like Rambo, forced to rely on primitive man-traps and bows and arrows rather than modern tech.

It’s also a good SF film: the alien hunter feels like an individual rather than just a monster, particularly in the climax where it goes up against Dutch one-on-one. “If it bleeds, we can kill it.”

PREDATOR 2 (1990) proves the alien hunter inserts just as well into a “copaganda” film about urban warfare as it does into the first film’s action movie tropes. It’s 1997, there’s open warfare on the LA streets (originally NYC, which is why Los Angeles has a subway in one scene), with gang-bangers and drug-dealers blowing up cop cars and laughing maniacally. Danny Glover and his team (including Maria Conchita and Reuben Blades) struggle to keep up but they’re outgunned, tied up with red tape and get no help from careerist superior Robert Davi or sensationalist reporter Morton Downey Jr. In the tradition of Dirty Harry, only the tough guy on the street can save us (in Seeing as Believing‘s analysis, this would definitely be a right-wing film). Then an invisible monster starts hacking up the crooks, and Gary Busey and Stephen Baldwin take over Glover’s investigation to catch the Predator for its advanced tech. The cliches of cop action films don’t work as well for me as the first film did, and I dislike that the Predator is using its voice-replication tech (introduced but hardly used in Predator) to snap out a one-liner here and there. “That’s right lieutenants — otherworld life-forms!”

Given the history of rebooting franchises with crossovers, it’s surprising ALIENS VS. PREDATOR (2004) took so long to come to the screen, especially given the set-up in 2 (an Alien skull in the predator’s trophy case) and the Alien vs. Predator comic books. A millionaire’s pet science team discovers a lost city under the Antarctic ice (a Lovecraft tribute? — though I’ve also read this was to explain why nobody in Alien was aware the creatures existed). It turns out it’s a Predator base from which they did the Gods From Outer Space bit, then bringing their human worshippers to the city to infest with Alien larvae, from which grow creatures it’s a real challenge to hunt. Now the humans are down there, the face-huggers are trying to implant them and the Predators have shown up (it strikes me using humans this way makes the Predators more evil than when they just hunted us). The movie is no match for the original, and I’m not one of the fans who cares about this clash of titans — still, it’s watchable. “We’re in a big-game hunt — the animals that are hunted don’t arm the hunters.”

ALIENS VS.PREDATOR: Requiem (2007) works slightly better as the clash between the races lands in a small Colorado town where a female military veteran must try to keep her family alive in the chaos. Competent monster stuff, no more; it’s another movie where the military’s willing to nuke our own cities to take out the enemy. “The military’s first choice is containment.”

THE PREDATOR (2018) feels like a soft reboot of the franchise: the Predators are now stealing DNA from us (something they do to worthy prey species) and may be plotting to colonize once global warming heats things up to the level they like. Target of their latest DNA harvesting is an autistic boy because autism is The Next Step In Evolution. Despite being directed by Shane Black of the original film’s cast, this did absolutely nothing for me — but I didn’t expect it to. That means I’ve seen everything except a 2011 take, Predators, but I can probably do without it. “That’s not a predator … what you’re describing is more like a bass fisherman.”

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TV, with aliens and without

The second season of DOOM PATROL is probably the most frustrating of the various Covid Interruptus season enders I’ve seen — while I can’t say I was that invested in the main threat, the growing problems inside Jane’s split-personality mindscape (“The Underground”) had my rapt attention. The main plot concerns the Chief’s long-lost daughter, Dorothy, whose reality-bending powers make her a ticking time bomb Niles is hoping to defuse. Paralleling their relationship we have Cliff reaching out to his daughter, Larry trying to connect with his family and Rita remembering unpleasant truths about her mother, all of which comes to a head in the final episode. Not as good overall as S1, but I’m looking forward to the third season starting next month. “You’re right, Jesus forgives — too bad for you I’m not Jesus!”

THE WHISPERS was a 2015 series based on Ray Bradbury’s short story “Zero Hour.” In the story, a mother slowly begins to realize the local kids’ game with their imaginary friend Drill is actually a real game involving an alien manipulating the kids into opening a dimensional gateway (an example of the Pied Piper theme in kids-and-aliens stories). In the series’ opening episode, Drill tricks a girl into almost killing her mother. The feds ask Claire (Lily Rabe), an agent who specializes in dealing with kids, to investigate the girl, who claims she was just playing a game with her friend Drill. We know Drill’s real, but will the feds believe it? What’s Drill after? And what does the tattooed amnesiac (Milo Ventimiglia) hanging around have to do with things (his role doesn’t make much sense — I assume he’s partly an Easter Egg reflecting that “Zero Hour” appeared in The Illustrated Man).

The series worked well, and Drill’s manipulation of the kids — or parents, by threatening their kids — is effectively creepy. A lot of what he does doesn’t hold up logically (possibly an S2 would have made sense of it) and the last episode disappointed me. Gaslighting the children is creepy; having him suddenly mind-controlling them is less interesting. Good overall, but I’m not grieving we’ll never get a second season. “What if she’s turning into one of those kids — the ones you whisper about, the ones you make up excuses to keep your kids away from?”

When I wrote about the first season of the KUNG FU reboot back in June I didn’t realize it was only a pause, with the final episodes to follow. The rest of the season has  Zhilan (Gwendoline Yeo) and Nicky (Olivia Liang) racing to gather the artifacts and their mysterious power source, Nicky working out her relationship situation and sister Althea finally speaking up about her former employer raping her.

Everything comes to a head in the final episode, which wraps up everything while setting up for S2. I’m still looking forward to it. “The phrase ‘okey dokey’ means the bullies have gone away.”

Spinning off Supergirl, SUPERMAN AND LOIS has the couple relocate to Smallville with their teenage kids, Jonathan and Jordan. It turns out that corrupt media mogul Morgan Edge (Adam Rayner) is investing heavily in the town, but Lois is convinced it’s for unethical reasons. She’s right, too — Smallville sits over a buried meteorite shower of X-Kryptonite, which Edge — actually another Kryptonian — and his scientist aide Leslie Larr (Stacey Farber) can use to endow Smallville residents with superpowers to make them hosts for the dead of Krypton. And how does the mysterious Captain Luthor (Wolé Parks) fit into all this?

This started off so-so, much as I like the cast, but it picked up amazingly as the season went along. Unlike the comics, where Lois  (Elizabeth Tulloch) hasn’t done much reporting since moving to Smallville, this has her going to work for the struggling local paper (Edge bought out the Planet and eventually fired her for not toeing the corporate line). My biggest complaint is that Kryptonian villains have become generic (and they’re solidly Othered here — all of them but Superman are genocidal psychos) and Edge is also, even as a human; I actually confused him with Maxwell Lord from Supergirl because they both come off as post-Crisis Luthor knockoffs. Still, I’m (again) looking forward to more. “When I said I love you, it wasn’t just one of those things that people say because they think they’re going to die.”

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Extraterrestrials as far as the eye can see!

Writing about The Fourth Kind, one critic said one feature of found-footage films is that because they’re supposedly real, they justify a lot of boring mundane moments — it’s not bad filmmaking, that’s just what was found on the camera. I think the same is true of alien abduction/UFO encounter based-on-truth films — the long stretches of mundane everyday life are justified because they supposedly ground the movie in the real world.  Perhaps that’s why NIGHT SKIES (2007) is so incredibly dull. It’s 1998, four twentysomething friends crash their van outside Flagstaff and one of them is seriously injured. Eventually they become involved in a real-world UFO encounter but only after two thirds of the movie has passed. Unlike Fourth Kind there’s little insight I can derivce for Alien Visitors here.

I can’t say much more about VIRUS (1999), which has a tramp steamer crewed by Jamie Lee Curtis, William Baldwin and Donald Sutherland stumble across a drifting Russian derelict that looks like a fortune in salvage. Then sole survivor Joanna Pacula reveals that an electronic blast from space has infested the ship’s computers, using the equipment to assemble robots or turn humans into cyborg slaves all with a goal of exterminating homo sapiens (“You are the virus!”). Minor. “My father was an admiral.”

THE ANDROMEDA STRAIN (1971) is a much superior film, directed by Robert Wise from Michael Crichton’s career-making novel. The opening assures us this, too, is a based-on-truth story, taken from classified government files; cut to a small town in the southwest where a satellite has crashed to Earth and everyone is dead. No, wait, there’s a small baby and a senior alcoholic who are still breathing, but what could they have in common?

Faced with the possibility of a pandemic, researcher Arthur Hill puts together a team that includes cynic David Wayne and middle-aged Kate Reid (a stark and welcome contrast to the usual hotness of female film scientists). Locked away in an isolated research lab, can they figure out what’s happening before the disease spreads? While the discussion of how cool the tech is could have been trimmed (a problem I have with a lot of Crichton’s books) this still works as an effective thriller. Casting four non-name actors as the research team gives it a more realistic feel than if they’d been, say, Paul Newman and the scientific stuff is handled quite realistically. Holds up well, even all these years later. “Rash statements like that are why the president doesn’t trust scientists?”

When I started watching WITHOUT WARNING (1994) I thought it was the wrong movie — it appears to be a “jeop” with Loni Anderson — but then newscasters break in with alarmed coverage of an asteroid crashing down near Grover’s Mill, Wyoming. Yep, it’s the same trick Orson Welles pulled in his infamous War of the Worlds radio broadcast (Grover’s Mill NJ is where the Martians in Welles’ adaptation landed), faking a real news story (despite a This Is Fiction chyron across the bottom of the screen when first broadcast, people still freaked out).

It soon becomes obvious something hinky is going on. Three asteroids hit the Earth spaced at freakishly regular intervals around the world. More are coming from space. The government seems to be hiding something. Is there any truth to the claims that these asteroids are actually space ships? If so, are they coming in peace or to conquer? Is the government blowing up the next wave of asteroids actually destroying more ships — nah, that’d be crazy, wouldn’t it?

When I wrote my first book, Cyborgs, Santa Claus and Satan, I confined this one to the appendix, with other “asteroid/meteor hits earth” films. I didn’t realize there was more to it. Now that I’ve seen it, I really regret it — this works enough of a variation on other alien invasion movies I found it interesting. Like Day the Earth Caught Fire, focusing on the reporters is a good decision: they have a better perspective than the ordinary citizens watching this unfold, but they don’t know as much as the government and the military do, which keeps the mystery going. And I like that for once the aliens came in peace, and our government apparently botched the first contact.

On the downside, the mystery element feels like it’s covering up the holes in the plot. Why do the aliens smash their ships into the Earth if they’re coming in peace, for instance? What’s the government’s agenda? Still, this was enjoyable; with Harley Kaczmarak and John deLancie as reporters and Arthur C. Clarke as himself. “If you can show me aliens on those triangles, I’ll give you the second gunman on the grassy knoll.”

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UFO vs. Blue Book

The difference between the 1970s TV series Project UFO and 2019’s Project Blue Book says a lot about the way TV changed in the decades between.

The real Project Blue Book was an early 1950s USAF investigation into flying saucers: were they real? Were they a threat? It was an officer on the Blue Book team who coined the term “unidentified flying objects” as an alternative name, one that didn’t suggest anything about the nature of the sightings (it didn’t work, as UFO became just another name for the saucers). After two years the Air Force wrapped up, concluding there was no evidence of flying saucers, though many UFOlogists claim that was just a cover-up.

In 1978, veteran TV producer Jack Webb brought Project UFO to NBC. In the opening episode (the only one I’ve seen), USAF investigators Gatlin and Ryan look into a series of UFO sightings in the DC area (like most of the cases, this was based on an actual case from the 1950s). There’s much detailed discussion in the interviews with eyewitnesses, though most of the sightings are relatively simple, like a shining disc in the sky. One woman does claim she’s seen a robot in her garden and chatted with it.

We get to see the experiences as the interviewees talk about them, which is part of the problem. When the time comes to explain them away as natural phenomena or witness error, it’s not at all credible. Seeing them as it happens, they look just as real to me as the people telling the stories; simply saying they’re temperature inversions or whatever doesn’t convince. And even Gatlin and Ryan admitted that they couldn’t explain the robot sighting. This was apparently an ongoing element of the show, some loose end that might just possibly have been the real thing.

There is no doubt, though, that the investigators were on the level. Straight-arrow types, clearly devoted to finding the truth. The exact opposite of the Blue Book investigation in History Channel’s Project Blue Book. In the opening episode General Harding (Neal McDonough) recruits astronomer Allen Hynek (a real person, the guy who coined the three kinds of close encounter) to investigate UFO sightings; in reality, as Harding tells Hynek’s new partner, Captain Quinn, the job is to disprove and discredit all sightings. Harding knows better; Quinn doesn’t but he dutifully pushes back against Hynek’s theories. It’s Mulder and Scully if the latter had a hidden agenda.

It’s not just the characters (there’s also an enigmatic Deep Throat type) but the whole tone of conspiracy and cover-up. In Project UFO we can trust our leaders; in Blue Book the government’s lying to us and not for our own good. What is the reason? What’s really going on? As of the end of S1, I’ve no idea. Nor do we have any clue what the UFOs’ agenda is. It’s another example of the gap across the decades: elaborate, complex, hidden mythologies are now standard. Lost. Manifest. Black List. And yes, X-Files.

Another difference from Project UFO is that there’s no ambiguity, no doubt: aliens exist. It’s a fact. The only question is how we handle that knowledge, and handle the ETs.

Neither show was good, though Project Blue Book certainly works better as drama, but they were both instructive to watch.

#SFWApro. All rights to images remain with current holder. A longer version of this post appeared over at Atomic Junkshop. last week.


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Aliens as far as the eye can see!

My friend Ross once described John Carradine as the greatest actor to appear in the most bad movies and THE COSMIC MAN (1959) is a good example. A mysterious sphere appears in a California canyon staying in place despite everything the military does to move it. Have we been visited by aliens from outer space? Scientist Bruce Bennett things we have, and that they’re friendly; the military guy on the case disagrees. A shadowy figure keeps wandering around uttering cryptic messages; meanwhile, Carradine in dark glasses and an overcoat (the same fashionable style as the space vampire of Not of this Earth) rents a room from a local widow. You don’t suppose that he’s —?This is a bad knockoff of Day the Earth Stood Still with Carradine’s alien mouthing platitudes about how humanity must grow in wisdom to take is place among the stars. It’s better than the 2008 Day remake but it’s still dreadful. “It’s like gravity but in reverse — anti-gravity!”

Theodore Sturgeon’s “Killdozer” was optioned multiple times for the movies before the KILLDOZER (1974) TV movie finally closed the deal. As in the story, an alien intelligence crashes to a isolated island in a meteor; unearthed by the bulldozer working on a construction project, the entity takes over the machine and proceeds to target the construction crew (who include Clint Walker and a very young Robert Ulrich). Sturgeon did a remarkable job on making this simple premise gripping; the movie isn’t as good, but I found it more enjoyable than when I caught it as a teen. “Maybe we should appeal to its sense of decency and fair play.”

Where Battle Los Angeles is an SF war movie, ZONE TROOPERS (1985) is a WW II movie with a stranded ET getting caught up in the plot. A US platoon in Italy headed by “iron sergeant” Tim Thomerson (I’m guessing he’s a play on DC’s Sgt. Rock) and accompanied by reporter Biff Manard discovers the Nazis have captured the alien and now want its spaceship; can one lone platoon stop them? Hardly A-list, but engaging. “Pinch me Dolan — did I just KO Hitler?”

MARTIANS GO HOME (1987) is a surprisingly entertaining adaptation of Fredric Brown’s same-name novel. Randy Quaid plays the shallow musician whose music invites the universe to drop in on Sol III. Unfortunately, the Martians are obnoxious jerks who can go anywhere, can’t be harmed and so feel free to divulge people’s personal secrets, comment on couples making love and generally drive everyone nuts. A decidedly unusual ET story. “They’re not invaders — they’re tourists!”

The Hasty Hare (1952) was the first Marvin the Martian cartoon following his cameo appearance in 1948’s Haredevil Hare. This has Marvin (unnamed as yet) assigned to drag a specimen of Earth life back to Mars and you’ll never guess who he picks — oh shoot, you guessed it was Bugs, didn’t you? Obviously cashing in on the flying sauce craze of the early 1950s, but amusing; surprisingly it’s the only one of the early Marvin appearances that has him meet Bugs on Earth rather than in space. “Everyone disembark — the ship’s hit an iceberg!”

THE ATOMIC SUBMARINE (1960) launches to investigate a series of mysterious ship disappearances around the North Pole. What they find, though, is not a Soviet plot but Cyclops, an alien underwater spaceship scoping out our planet for colonization (as others have pointed out, the ship destruction draws too much attention for a stealth mission). Can the SS Sea Devil take the enemy down? This is very reminiscent of WW II film tropes about the squabbling platoon/crew that has to learn to work together; the relationship between the sub commander and the scientist in board (son of the commander’s late BFF, but a pacifist opposed to his dad’s military work) reminded me of Sands of Iwo Jima. That film, however, is excellent; this one is astonishingly talky and dull, though the ET in the spaceship looks better than it has any right to (it’s a literal sock puppet). “I’ve seen stranger things happen to heroes in motion pictures and television.”

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