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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.

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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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A speedster, a trickster and superhero girls! Movies and TV

Wow, this season of the CW’s FLASH was really disappointing. It started off well with Team Flash wrapping up last season’s battle against the female Mirror Master despite Barry losing his speed. Then we launch into the main plot of the season and things tanked.

It turns out that in reviving the Speed Force, Barry also created the Strong, Sage and Still forces, all of which have hostile avatars. A minor flaw is that the names make no sense: the avatar Psych makes people face their worst fear, which hardly fits “sage” and “still” for a Time Force (because he can stop time and make things still, get it?) isn’t much better. A bigger problem is that the arc never really had any juice. Neither did the B-plots. Kramer (Carmen Moore), a hardline anti-meta cop, brings in Killer Frost despite her having reformed. The show makes a big deal about Frost getting a life sentence, but a couple of episodes later she performs some heroics and presto, out of jail.

The final plotline, with an army of Godspeed clones terrorizing the city, might have worked if it had space to breathe (due to the pandemic, this was a truncated season). Then again, Karan Obaroi as Godspeed simply can’t pull off megalomaniacal rants about his absolute power the way Tom Cavanaugh as Thawne can; I honestly don’t care what’s going through Godspeed’s head, as he’s a pale clone of the comics’ Savitar. The final battle with Godspeed, Thawne and Flash using light-sabers made out of Speed Force is just silly. And Cisco’s replacement Chester (Brandon McKnight) so far doesn’t have the same sparkle. “We are here to celebrate the greatest sequel since The Empire Strikes Back!”

TRICKSTER was a 2020 Canadian show about Jared (Joel Oulette), a teenage Native American living on the “Rez,” and struggling to support his shiftless, prone-to-bad-decisions Mom (Crystle Lightning). Weird things start happening, the weirdest being that Jared’s birth father turns up (Kalani Queypo) turns up, claiming they’re both Tricksters and Jared might have inherited his powers. And Dad is far from the only supernatural force moving through Jared’s life … I enjoyed this, though I wasn’t hooked on it. However the reveal the show runner had lied about having Native American ancestry seems to have made the show toxic; it ended after six episodes and nobody’s picking it up. “The purpose of life isn’t to share it with someone — the purpose of life is simply to survive.”

DC SUPERHERO GIRLS is a series of animated web shorts that has also broadened into graphic novels and some movie-length toons. In Intergalactic Games (2017), Superhero High hosts an interplanetary athletic contest against the snotty students of Sinestro’s Korugar Academy (Blackfire, Lobo and Maxima among them) only to have the Female Furies of the Apokalips Magnet School demand a seat at the table. A further complication is high school IT tech Lena Thurol’s desire to go on an anti-meta crusade (“I’ve tried everything to be one of you — radiation, chemical baths, mutation drugs — none of it worked!”). Suffers from having a bland set of voices compared to the Dini/Timm films, but still fun. “We Female Furies called earworms ‘ear snakes’ — because better you be bit by a snake than Granny catch you singing!”

Legends of Atlantis (2018) has dimensional exiles Mera and her sister Siren stealing a Mystical McGuffin from the school that Siren assures Mera will let them make a home in Atlantis — but leaves out that it will also let Siren conquer the world. As a result Wonder Woman has to face her worst fear, Supergirl and Batgirl switch powers and skill sets and Harley tries convincing new student Raven to have faith in herself. “May I be excused from class so that I can draw up a plan for keeping this book from falling into evil hands and contributing to our total destruction?”

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The shape of Things to come

For my ET monster chapter, I think I’m going to go with 1951’s THE THING FROM ANOTHER WORLD, JOHN CARPENTER’S THE THING (1982) and the 2011 prequel that mashes them both together.

The seed of them all, of course, is John W. Campbell’s 1938 short story “Who Goes There?” This opens with a crew of scientists at an Antarctic research base debating whether to defrost an alien body they’ve found in the ice (Alec Nevala-Lee later unearthed an earlier draft that starts with the discovery of the ship). They’re confident the alien can’t still be alive, but they’re wrong. Now they have a shapeshifting creature lurking among them, able to kill and replace any of their sled dogs or themselves. If it escapes, it can populate the world with itself, much as Jack Finney’s pod people). Can they find the duplicates first?

This is part of a long print tradition pitting humans against a superhuman alien threat. It was a nail-biting thriller the first time I read it and would probably be again if I wasn’t thinking critically foremost. I can’t help noticing its very heavy on dialog, much more than action or even movement — like the recap of the opening discovery, it’s more people talking about what’s happening than it actually happening. It has a larger cast than the movie adaptations, but there’s logic to that; more people means Campbell can have a high body count and lots of takeovers and still end up in a better place than the end of the 1982 film. The story is also an excellent example of the Othering I’ve noticed in alien invasion movies. There’s no suggestion the alien might be reasoned with or negotiated with. Just looking at its face convinces most of the scientists it’s innately evil. All of that said, let’s move on to the movies —

THE THING FROM ANOTHER WORLD is an alien invasion movie, a horror film (it will probably go in my Monsters chapter) and a story of tough guys fighting alone and under pressure, a staple set-up for producer Howard Hawks (while Christian Nyby got the director credit, multiple accounts credit Hawks as the guiding hand). There’s constant banter and crackling dialog (I disagree with Nevala-Lee that the film is mostly “a series of images“), and a woman, Nicky (Margaret Sheridan) who can hold her own with the men. She isn’t the screamer of the poster though she doesn’t get much to do in the struggle.

USAF Captain Hendry (Kenneth Tobey) and his crew fly up from Anchorage to help out Carrington (Robert Cornthwaite) whose science team have discovered a flying saucer that recently crashed in the Arctic ice. Attempting to melt the ice with thermite destroys the metal of the ship, but it turns out the pilot ejected before the crash. Trapped in a block of ice, he gets taken into the lab — and due to an error, the ice melts. The creature is loose. Can Hendry and his men stop it? Can he and Nicky get over their really disastrous first date?

Rather than a shapeshifter, the monster is just a Frankensteinian-looking James Arness. He’s an intelligent plant (“You sound like you’re describing a super-carrot.”) who feeds on mammal blood. His plan is apparently (he never actually talks) to use blood of living creatures to grow seeds and colonize Earth. He shows little concern for humans; as Carrington puts it, he’s no more interested in a dialogue with us than we’d have a discussion with a cabbage.

Despite that insight, Carrington comes off a nasty piece of work. Like Zellerbee in Village of the Damned, he respects the alien’s superior intellect and doesn’t want it harmed. Unlike Zellerbee and similar movie scientists, he actively undercuts the fight, interfering with some of the men’s efforts and providing blood to grow new seedling Things. He’s often been interpreted as Communist figure (ruthless, emotionless, threatening the good people of the world). However, as Keep Watching the Skies points out, the military high brass take the same view that Hendry should avoid hurting the alien. The cluelessness of military higher-ups is a running gag; it’s the people on the front lines who see things clearly (a right-wing film by Peter Biskind’s standards). The film is tense, scary and deserves its rep as a classic  (I’m amazed the best DVD I could find isn’t full of special features). “I doubt the thing can die as we understand dying.”

JOHN CARPENTER’S THE THING (1982) harks back to Campbell’s original by making the monster a shapeshifter. We open with a husky fleeing a Norwegian Antarctic base, a Norwegian following, trying to kill it from a chopper, only to crash and die. By the time the American base — where staff include Kurt Russell, Donald Moffatt and Wilford Bromley — realize what they’re dealing with its too late: any one of them could have been infected and transformed. Who’s who? Can they figure it out before the monster gets away and infects civilization?

This got a resounding critical slapdown when it first appeared: gory and graphic (the transformation scenes, probably influenced by Alien, are pretty gross), the men’s casual drug use, the fact it’s an all-male cast. Forty years later, it’s become a classic; as Nevala-Lee says, it’s probably better known than the Campbell story. While I prefer the Hawks, the 1982 movie is a solid horror film though it suffers the common logic gaps of the genre. There’s no real attempt to watch each other and ensure they’re not turned, nor do they try grilling each other for memory gaps (maybe the Thing duplicates memories, but they don’t even try). That said, I think Carpenter, a big fan of the original, did a good job. “The chameleon strikes in the dark.”

THE THING (2011) is an attempt to hybridize the two films by remaking the Hawks version and setting it up as a prequel to the Carpenter. Scientist Mary Elizabeth Winstead travels to the Norwegian base where they’ve discovered a ship in the ice, and the ice-preserved body of the pilot. Once again it thaws out; once again a scientist suggests they keep it alive, even as it’s killing them, but now there’s the added possibility it could be any one of them.

This one didn’t work for me at all. It has none of the wit and rough humor of the Hawks version, nor the horror of the Carpenter, even with louder, more graphic F/X. It doesn’t help that we know how it’s going to end, but they fudge even that — Winstead survives almost to the end but we never actually see the Thing take her down. My biggest take away is how determined Hollywood is to keep mining its intellectual property over and over (pre-pandemic, there was talk of remaking the Carpenter version). As I mentioned five years ago, it’s true Hollywood has always been into remakes, and it’s also been into series, but it’s much worse now. Strip-mining old movies is both safe (they’re a known property) and economical (why buy something new when you already have the rights to something old?). Of course the box-office flop of this film shows remakes/prequels/reboots aren’t a sure thing, but I doubt that will shatter the paradigm.  “This may be the first and only time Earth has been visited by an alien life form.”

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Battleships, Area 51 and flying saucers! Movies viewed

Much as I hated Alex Garland’s pretentious Devs, I might have liked ANNIHILATION (2018) if I weren’t watching it for Alien Visitors (which puts me in a different headspace). A team of talented female actors (notably including Natalie Portman, Jennifer Jason Leigh and Tessa Thompson) penetrate the Shimmer, a warped reality on the U.S. coast that’s ominously expanding to xenoform more territory. Then again, while the acting and personal drama are good the concept of an alien reality on Earth isn’t new and this version doesn’t rise much above a My Greatest Adventure story from the 1960s.“As a psychologist I’d say you’re confusing suicide with self-destruction.”

Much to my surprise, I thoroughly enjoyed BATTLESHIP (2012), in which humanity broadcasting a message to an Earthlike alien world gets an answer. Unfortunately the ET response is an unstoppable, ginormous warship that crashes off Pearl Harbor — the location was intentional — and when the Navy reacts, goes into attack mode, sealing off the area behind a force-field and blasting the ships in the area. As a result, slacker Naval officer Taylor Hirsch discovers he’s now the vessel’s acting captain (“You’re the ranking officer alive.”) with the help of Rihanna as another officer; outside the force-field Admiral Liam Neeson seethes in frustration while female lead Brooklyn Decker and real-life paraplegic vet Gregory D. Gadsen struggle to stop the aliens from calling home (to presumably summon more forces).

Like Battle Los Angeles this has the military win just by fighting tougher than the enemy (as opposed to the Giant Claw approach of finding a weakness); while it has one callback to the game (Rihanna having to target the enemy underwater while most of her instruments are blind), it also justifies the name by bringing the SS Missouri (a floating museum) back into action, with a WW II veteran crew plus some Japanese Naval officers who were part of the exercise (which given Pearl Harbor has symbolism of its own). Like a number of more recent movies, there’s not even an attempt to explain the ETs — unlike Earth vs. the Flying Saucers or Invisible Invaders, they just attack. One supporting character suggests just attempting to contact ETs made an attack inevitable, as if the Native Americans had invited Columbus (which seems a little unfair to the latter — for all the wrongs he did, Columbus didn’t set out as a military expedition).. “ET wants to phone home — that would be very bad.”

10 CLOVERFIELD LANE (2016) deserved closer attention than I had time to give it, even though it doesn’t qualify for my book (there’s an alien element but it’s minor). The film has Mary Elizabeth Wing wake up after a car crash to discover John Goodman has rescued her, then locked her away in an underground bunker to save her from the nuclear war raging outside. He’s creepy and abusive, but is he telling the truth? Unrelated to Cloverfield except in name, but good, though very dark. “Some people just don’t realize what’s good for them.”

After a woman witnesses someone commit suicide outside her door, she becomes obsessed with conspiracy theories and decides for no discernible reason the answer lies in Area 51 NEVADA (2018). This sets up a tedious, talky film with much discussion of conspiracy theories (“You really think the moon landing was faked?”) and UFOlogy before a confusing climax that would qualify for the appendix of Now and Then We Time Travel. “Dude, that’s some M. Night Shyamalan twisted shit.”

SHOWDOWN AT AREA 51 (2007) was, if anything, worse, a low-budget direct-to-DVD tale about a renegade federal agent and brainy girlfriend Gigi Edgley helping a good alien stop an evil alien from activating a doomsday McGuffin — but which ET is really the villain? Z-grade stuff.

AREA Q (2011) is an equally dull story about a journalist grieving the death of his son when he’s sent to investigate UFO abductions in Brazil. Every brain cell I used to pay attention to this one was wasted.

THE FLYING SAUCER (1950) assumes a)there’s only one such craft and b)it’s of human origin, which is even scarier given it can outfly anything on Earth (“How would you feel if tomorrow a flying saucer dropped an atomic bomb on every key city of the United States.”). The government recruits a playboy adventurer (or so he’s described — he comes off more like a longshoreman) to find the ship and its inventor before the Reds locate him. The result is a generic and unremarkable spy film. “Instead of furthering the imperialistic designs of America, Russia will employ it for the good of the entire human race.”

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