Tag Archives: Sci-Fi

Escape From New York (1981)

Escape From New York Poster

Release Date: July 10, 1981

Starring Kurt Russell, Lee Van Cleef, Ernest Borgnine, Harry Dean Stanton, Adrienne Barbeau, Donald Pleasence, Isaac Hayes

Directed by John Carpenter; Written by John Carpenter and Nick Castle

John Carpenter’s Escape From New York is a film that I’ve been looking forward to revisiting for awhile now.  It’s an old favorite of mine that I have vivid memories of watching on cable back in the 80’s, sometimes followed by a screening of The Warriors.

The film takes place in 1997, nine years after the entire island of Manhattan had been walled off and turned into a maximum security prison.  Prisoners are only given life sentences, but are offered the option of immediate death and cremation prior to departure.  Decorated war hero Snake Plissken (Kurt Russell) has been sentenced to life in New York for robbing a federal reserve.  As Plissken waits for the shuttle to Manhattan, prison warden Hauk (played by Lee van Cleef) receives a distress signal from a hijacked Air Force One.  The President (played by Donald Pleasence) is ejected in an escape pod as Air Force One crashes into downtown Manhattan.  Hauk scrambles a rescue team, but by the time they find the abandoned escape pod, the President has been taken hostage by The Duke of New York (Isaac Hayes), the island’s leader.  They’re given 30 seconds to leave the island or the president will be killed.

Back at prison headquarters, Hauk offers Plissken a deal: bring the president back alive and he’ll be granted a full pardon, but equally important is the cassette in the President’s possession containing information on cold fusion.  The President must be returned in time for the Hartford Summit with China and Russia in order to share the formula for cold fusion in a show of good faith for world peace.  Plissken agrees, but any thought he had of using it as an opportunity to escape is quickly diffused when the warden implants two explosives in his neck that are timed to detonate in 23 hours unless Plissken succeeds in his mission.

Plissken lands a glider on the top of the World Trade Center and avoids rogue packs of prisoners as he makes his way through downtown Manhattan guided by a tracking device linked to the President.  The beacon leads him to the basement of an old theater (complete with a musical act, proving the lights never never will go out on Broadway even if it becomes part of a maximum security prison) but quickly finds out he’s been on the wrong trail and the President is now prisoner of The Duke.  An old cab driver named Cabbie (played by Ernest Borgnine) recognizes Plissken and offers to take him to The Brain (Harry Dean Stanton), who can in turn lead Plissken to the Duke.  Plissken and the Brain have a history that Plissken hasn’t forgiven or forgotten, but have to work together to get the President out of New York.

Escape From New York is almost exactly how I remembered it when I watched in the 80’s.  Kurt Russell is the star of the film as Snake Plissken, but the supporting cast of Isaac Hayes, Ernest Borgnine, Harry Dean Stanton, Adrienne Barbeau and led by the amazing Lee Van Cleef (The Good, the Bad and the Ugly) is top notch.  The special effects, particularly the models, miniatures and matte paintings that recreated Manhattan, weren’t as dated as I thought they would look 33 years later.  Ironically the film was shot primarily on location in East St. Louis, Missouri (the true New York locations were Liberty Island and New York Harbor), but cinematographer Dean Cundey and production designer Joe Alves did a great job turning it into the decaying, deadly Manhattan in Carpenter’s dystopian representation of 1997 New York.

Most films I revisit after 30 odd years tend to feel slower paced the second time around, but from the moment Snake lands in Manhattan and the clock winds down, the film plays out at a fast, action packed pace though sometimes at the expense of the characters.  Carpenter takes the time at the beginning of the film to present Snake’s qualifications for the mission, but neglects to reveal his motives for committing the crime that got him a life sentence to New York.  I also thought the script tended to take the easy way out on a couple of occasions by having several characters in the film, prisoners with very little in terms of electricity and communication with the outside world, instantly recognize Snake Plissken as if he was a celebrity.  Unfortunately there are moments when the script only gives the bare minimum of character information when slowing down the pace to answer these questions would have added that one additional layer the story needs.

Overall Escape From New York is a great film that still holds up.  It may not have the visual effects of Blade Runner, but the premise, cast and production design make for a great ride.  It’s been at least 25 year since I’ve seen Escape From New York and revisiting this film didn’t disappoint.

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The Summer of ’83: Krull

Fante’s Inferno celebrates summer movie-going by revisiting the films of the Summer of 1983.

Krull

Krull Movie Poster

Release Date: July 26, 1983

Directed by Peter Yates; Screenplay by Stanford Sherman

Starring: Ken Marshall, Lysette Anthony, Freddie Jones, Alun Armstrong, John Welsh, Liam Neeson, Robbie Coltrane

This is a review that I’ve been looking forward to since I began this retrospective on the films of the Summer of ’83, but not for the reasons you would expect.  Most of my reviews involve revisiting films I enjoyed or may have missed in the theaters upon their initial release 30+ years ago to see if they still hold up, but back when Krull first hit theaters on July 26, 1983 I distinctly remember not enjoying  it.

By the Summer of 1983, I had been raised on a steady diet of fantasy films like Excalibur and Dragonslayer (both of which still hold up in my book) and Krull didn’t measure up to those films when I first saw it at age 11.  But since then, other nostalgic fantasy/sci-fi fans I encounter always talk about how much they loved Krull as kids.  Was there something I missed?  So I went into this week’s screening with an open mind to see if it indeed was a good film on par with its cinematic peers of the early 80’s.

The film begins with a mountain-like vessel traveling through space and landing on the planet Krull.  “The Beast” leads his army of Slayers in conquering the planet.  Prince Colwyn (Ken Marshall) and Princess Lyssa (Lysette Anthony) are about to be married, merging their fathers kingdoms in order to fight The Beast’s army, but the ceremony is broken up by the Slayers, their armies killed and Lyssa is kidnapped.  Left for dead, Colwyn is healed by Ynyr (Freddie Jones) and retrieves a weapon known as the Glaive before he can attempt to rescue Lyssa.  Colwyn recruits a group of escaped convicts on his journey to find the Black Fortress and Princess Lyssa.

The opening credits of the film had me impressed with the level of talent that collaborated on Krull, particularly director Peter Yates and composer James Horner, but the excitement I felt during the opening credits slowly turned into disappointment once the opening line of the film was delivered, and continued as the film progressed.  The main source of disappointment for me was with Krull’s script, which is a pastiche of elements from successful fantasy/scifi films that came before it.  Prior to Krull, screenwriter Stanford Sherman wrote for the 60’s classic television series Batman and The Man From U.N.C.L.E. and later one of my favorite movies as a kid, Any Which Way You Can starring Clint Eastwood.  Unfortunately Krull’s weak story has a ripple effect on the rest of the talent involved with the production beginning with director Peter Yates.

Yates’s drama The Dresser (also released in 1983) is a film I enjoyed particularly for actor Tom Courtenay’s performance in the title role.  Going into Krull, I had expected Yates to bring out impressive performances in the cast as he had with Albert Finney and Courtenay in The Dresser, but Sherman gives the characters little in terms of depth, and his uninspiring dialogue gives the actors little to work with.  Yates’s use of the camera for the location shots is surprisingly static, and the imposing  mountains of Cortina in Italy fall flat with shot compositions containing little action.

I was very happy to see James Horner’s name as the composer of the film.  His distinguished career includes the incredible score for Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, and his score for 1991’s The Rocketeer is one that I break out on occasion when I need a burst of inspiration.  Beginning with the opening credits, his score for Krull is powerful and heroic but unfortunately it keeps that same tone throughout most of the film and there are moments the audience needs a breather.

And so, 30 years later I now realize why I didn’t enjoy Krull back in 1983: in my opinion every line of dialogue, every effect, fight scene, etc. overachieved and subsequently fell flat in the attempt to create an epic fantasy film.  The individual parts just didn’t gel, and instead of an epic story Krull plays out as more of an introductory level Dungeons & Dragons module.

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The Summer of ’82: E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial

Fante’s Inferno revisits the films of the Summer of 1982, considered the greatest movie summer for fantasy and sci-fi fans.

E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial

Release date: June 11, 1982

Directed by Steven Spielberg; Screenplay by Melissa Mathison

Starring: Henry Thomas, Drew Barrymore, Dee Wallace, Peter Coyote, Robert McNaughton

See the original trailer here.

How is it Labor Day already?  Seems like just last week I was writing my first post on the Summer of ’82 and screening Conan the Barbarian!

I’ve been putting off writing this post for as long as possible this past week.  Over the last two months I’ve had such a great time revisiting the films of the Summer of ’82, that (like summer vacation) I didn’t want it to end.  This retrospective has brought me back to one of the most memorable summers of my youth, almost as if I’ve been living the summers of 1982 and 2012 in parallel.

Looking back at the lineup of movie releases that summer was mind boggling.  It’s only fitting that I wrap up my personal journey through the films of the Summer of ’82 with that summer’s mega-blockbuster: Steven Spielberg’s E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial. 

E.T. was one of the only films I had to stand in line halfway down the block for during its opening weekend.  The buzz in the lobby really made it feel like an event, and if I remember correctly our local theater booked E.T. into two of its four screens, a rarity back then.  The crowd was an mix of kids, teenagers and adults, which was a testament to how Steven Spielberg was able to make E.T. accessible across generations.  A couple of posts back I compared Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan to the cleanup hitter on a baseball team.  Even though Khan is my favorite film from the Summer of ’82, Spielberg’s record breaking E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial would be the League MVP based on its phenomenal box office  that year ($359 million in North America, $619 million worldwide).

E.T. is one of those movies that had each element hit the right note to create a flawless film.  Screenwriter Melissa Mathison used elements from Spielberg’s unproduced project Night Skies in her screenplay, and wove together the themes of isolation, loneliness and friendship to create a story filled with characters that are more than just caricatures to support the cute little alien.  Spielberg brought out fantastic performances in the young cast led by Henry Thomas as Elliot and supported by Robert MacNaughton and Drew Barrymore as his siblings Michael and Gertie.  And who could forget John Williams’ incredible and inspiring score?

As much as I enjoyed E.T. when it was originally released, I thought that I was a bit too old for it at the time, which is strange when you consider Henry Thomas was also 10 when he played Elliot.  At that young age I was on a steady diet of science fiction films like 2001: A Space Odyssey, Alien, and Outland.  I chuckled when I watched the scene of Elliot’s brother and his friends playing a game that looked similar to Dungeons & Dragons at the beginning of the film.  My first thought was “Looks like those guys are playing Basic D&D.  Hmmmph, we play Advanced D&D!”

When E.T. was re-released in theaters in 2002, several of my friends who were also in their 30’s at that time had planned on seeing it as a group after work one night.  I thought about joining them, but at the time I had a feeling that I wouldn’t have been able to enjoy the film with the same enthusiasm at age 30.  Even though I now disagree with that original sentiment, I’m glad I didn’t watch E.T. ten years ago because it may have tainted my opinion of it during this retrospective on the Summer of ’82.  And so at age 40 I watched E.T. in the spirit of my ten year old self and enjoyed it even more.

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The Summer of ’82: Star Trek II The Wrath of Khan

Fante’s Inferno revisits the films of the Summer of 1982, considered the greatest movie summer for fantasy and sci-fi fans.

Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan

Release Date: June 4, 1982

See the trailer here.

Starring: William Shatner, Leonard Nimoy, Ricardo Montalban, DeForest Kelley, James Doohan, George Takei, Nichelle Nichols, Walter Koenig

Directed by: Nicholas Meyer; Screenplay by Jack B. Sower and Nicholas Meyer (uncredited)

Where do I begin with Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan?

When I started this retrospective on the Summer of ’82, I found myself revisiting a number of films I haven’t seen in 20 to 30 years.  The Wrath of Khan is one that I own on DVD and have watched many times.  Despite thirty years of technological advances in filmmaking and special effects, some films are just timeless.  The Wrath of Khan falls into that category.  If the films of the Summer of ’82 were the lineup for a baseball team, Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan would be batting cleanup.

I remember when Star Trek: The Motion Picture was released in 1979 I couldn’t get enough of that film (trailer here).  The marketing campaign included a promotion with McDonalds that placed Star Trek: TMP related toys in Happy Meals, highlighted by a commercial with a Klingon speaking Klingon-ese (I probably ate three or four Happy Meals a week en route to collecting the entire set).  When I watched the film recently, I realized why some folks have nicknamed it Star Trek: The Motionless Picture.  But for someone who had never seen an episode of Star Trek prior to taking on the film, director Nicholas Meyer (Time After Time, Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home) hit this one out of the park and gave Star Trek fans (and sci-fi fans in general) a film that revitalized the franchise.

Watching Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan in 1982 was a real treat (and still is today!).  The battle scenes were heightened by Khan’s lust for vengeance and Kirk’s propensity for trickery.  Kirk’s feelings of guilt and loss resulting from his failed relationship with Carol Marcus (played by Bibi Besch) brought out elements of Kirk’s personality that I was able to appreciate more as an adult.  Watching it again this week, I was impressed with how little dialogue was needed to convey their situation.  One thing that was lost on me at the time was the connection Khan (played by the great Ricardo Montalban) had to the original series.  I must have missed that episode when it aired in reruns, but it didn’t take away from my enjoyment of the film.  I do remember that WPIX re-ran the episode Space Seed around the time of Wrath of Khan’s release, and ran a crawl to announce it at the bottom of the TV screen during other shows leading up to that airing in order to drum up viewership.

SPOILER ALERT

I remember walking out of The Wrath of Khan feeling an incredible amount of sadness when Spock died.  When I was a kid and my brother and I played Star Trek with the neighborhood kids, I was always Spock.  I even had a Spock style bowl-cut at the time (that was coincidental).  When Spock sacrificed his life to save the crew, as much as I appreciated the scene I couldn’t fathom at the time why they would kill off such an important character.  I wish I could remember the fan response to this at the time.  When you consider how quickly a fan uproar can spread online when even an unsubstantiated rumor of a plot detail deviating one iota from the original canon in a film based on a beloved property, I wondered if Spock’s death had the same impact among fans in 1982.  Apparently his death was to take place earlier in the film, but the negative response led to the change.  Even so, Nimoy and Meyer thought Spock’s death would be permanent.

The scene with Spock’s final monologue still chokes me up to this day.  When I watched it again this week I felt the weight of Kirk’s loss of his true friend more than I had in previous screenings, a feeling that hit close to home having lost a close friend of mine several years back.  Spock’s final words to Kirk about the needs of the many outweighing the needs of the few always resonated with me, and even seems to pop up in conversations in my day to day life.  There was a moment on the New York City subway a few years back when a rider kept the subway doors open for a bunch of folks to get on the #2 train at the Times Square Station stop.  Despite his noble intentions, he held up the train and started to piss off the rest of us, including the engineer.  The subway engineer opened the door to his compartment, stared the guy down and calmly said “How many people are you going to keep the doors open for?  You’re holding these riders up.  The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few.”

I highly recommend Wrath of Khan director Nicholas Meyer’s autobiography A View From the Bridge for a fantastic account of his work on the Star Trek films as well as on The Seven Percent Solution, Time After Time, and The Day After.  And if you want to see Ricardo Montalban in another great film, watch the classic World War II film Battleground (starring Van Johnson).

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The Summer of ’82: The Thing

Fante’s Inferno revisits the films of the Summer of 1982, considered to be the greatest movie summer for fantasy and sci-fi fans.

The Thing

Directed by John Carpenter; Screenplay by Bill Lancaster based on the story Who Goes There? by John W. Campbell Jr.

Starring: Kurt Russell, Wilford Brimley, Keith David, Donald Moffat, Richard Dysart, T.K. Carter, David Clenn0n, Richard Mazur, Thomas G. Waites, Joel Polis

The trailer can be seen here.

I haven’t seen John Carpenter’s The Thing since the mid 80’s, and I don’t remember it having as big of an impact on me as several of the other films that were released during the Summer of ’82.  Over time I may have dismissed The Thing as an Alien-esque knockoff, but watching it again this weekend I realized how little I remembered about this film and how wrong my initial assessment was.

Back in ’82 I was too young to really appreciate this film as a psychological thriller.  As a ten year old I cared more about the special effects and gore.  This time around I was able to truly appreciate the performances of the entire cast, particularly Wilford Brimley and Donald Moffat.  The scenes of confusion, paranoia, and survival had more of an impact on me as a viewer than the gory sequences.  I thought Kurt Russell was the epitome of badass as Snake Plissken in Escape From New York, and his character of R.J. MacReady in The Thing oozes the same confidence.  Maybe a little too much at times.  Considering the fact that they’re dealing with a shape shifting alien that can easily take over their bodies, he seemed a little too much in control for me to find his character believable today.  Although Keith David did give him strong competition in the badass category when he broke out the flame thrower.

One thing I loved about The Thing was the pace of the film.  The opening shot of alien’s ship in distress as it entered Earth’s atmosphere was quick and effective.  The sequence of the Norwegians chasing a Siberian Huskie along the frozen landscape of Antarctica in an attempt to kill it adds to the sense of mystery.  The introduction of the staff at the American scientific base quickly and effectively sets up their situation in Antarctica (boredom and isolation) without wasting too much time on exposition.  Alien ship crash lands on Earth, dog chased along the frozen landscape, Norwegian gets shot.  What the heck is this group in for?

The gore and special effects were great for the time, but the autopsy scenes creeped me out more than the alien working its way through the members of the camp.  One thing that really surprised me watching it with today’s sensibilities is that these characters were way too comfortable with exposure to germs and blood (MacReady inspecting what could be contaminated clothing without gloves, and Windows simply wiping the blood off of a scalpel before cutting his own finger with it).  These little things actually got me to cringe more than the gory scenes.

Based on the short story Who Goes There? by John W. Campbell Jr. (who is considered the father of modern science fiction) The Thing was the second adaptation of his story on film (the first was The Thing From Another World in 1951).  John Carpenter had been at his A game for years by 1982, but his storytelling reached a whole new level with The Thing.  In my opinion the heightened sense of isolation, paranoia and distrust among the characters makes it hold up better today than Halloween and The Fog.  Bill Lancaster’s screenplay keeps us guessing as we try to figure out who in the group was the next one to be infected by the thing.  At one point I thought to myself that this story could have also worked as a stage play.  Prior to watching it this weekend, I expected a lot more gore and a lot less psychological drama and was pleasantly surprised when the opposite played out.  Each scene makes you wonder when and how the axe will fall on these guys.  I enjoyed it back then, but watching it again 30 years later turned out to be more enjoyable than I expected.

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