Tag Archives: science fiction

Sphere (1987) by Michael Crichton

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One of the fun things about reading is coming across echoes of other books you’ve read. I recently finished After Worlds Collide, and in one scene, a couple of characters discover a kind of plaque or road marker left by an alien civilization. On it is a design; not words or any real picture, just a design. In some inexplicable way, that design seems somehow un-human. And now, in Sphere, etched upon the titular object, is another strange design, one which, again, the hero finds to be un-human. Now, these are basically two-dimensional abstract patterns. Humans, of course, are very familiar with both these dimensions, which have been well explored not just by artists but by billions of doodlers throughout history. I kind of figure just about any design imaginable has been rendered by someone at some time in history. And I sure can’t get my mind around such a drawing being so odd that it is essentially inconceivable, and therefore un-human. Nope, with all due respect to the authors, I’m just not buying it.

Happily, this being a Michael Crichton novel, that’s about the only thing that isn’t, on some level, believable. The guy was a master of milieu, whether the setting was a large corporation, a dinosaur theme park, or a deep sea Navy habitat.

That’s where we find ourselves here, a thousand feet down in the Pacific ocean, where the Navy is investigating a very large, very strange vessel at least 300 years old. But it isn’t any boat; it’s a spacecraft.

Though the Navy is in charge of the overall mission, the primary investigators are a group of civilian scientists — a mathematician, an astrophysicist, a zoologist, and a psychologist. This allows Crichton to attack the problem of the ship, and the mysterious sphere found inside, on a number of different fronts. But Norman, the psychologist, is the hero. He’s there to keep everyone working together smoothly, a decidedly difficult job under the best of circumstances, given the egos and insecurities of the other scientists.

But these are hardly ideal circumstances. First of all, there’s all that crushing water above them. Farther up still, a cyclone blows in and sends the support vessels running for safe haven. Meanwhile, down below, strange things begin happening. And then the monsters attack.

In broad outline, that might sound like any number of other books you’ve read or movies you’ve seen, and it is. The difference is that Crichton handles it all ridiculously well. In an early scene, Norman discovers that Harry, the mathematician, tried to make out his will shortly after arriving in the habitat. It’s a small detail, but one that pays off not once, but twice during the course of the story, in two different ways. A Crichton thriller is anything but ham-handed  (State of Fear being, perhaps, the exception that proves the rule).

In fact, it’s Crichton’s subtlety that can make him difficult to synopsize: everything connects and whatever you might mention comes off sounding like a spoiler. The truth is, beneath the outline, the details of the story aren’t the typical blend of science fiction and horror. There’s the ship, for example, and the sphere, and the monsters…but I’ll just have to leave it at that.

This is one of Crichton’s best books, and Crichton at his best is exciting, suspenseful, funny, and perfectly plausible.

The Man From Planet X (1951), directed by Edgar G. Ulmer

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Sally Fields’ mom (Margaret Field) sees an alien on the Scottish moors and is told by her astronomer father to have a hot drink and go to bed.  The pasty-faced alien — yes, dad, there really is an alien and I really did see it — turns out to be a spotter for a race of beings whose world, swiftly approaching Earth, is dying.  The nearby townspeople scurry off to lock their doors and the Constable admits that even if the men wanted to help defeat the alien, their “lasses wouldn’t let them.”  So it’s up to an intrepid American reporter to win the day for humanity.  With lots of fog and absolutely no atmosphere.  Bland.

Lucy (2014), directed by Luc Besson

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Based on an idea that amuses neuroscientists — that human beings use only ten percent of their brain — this violent fantasy follows Scarlett Johansson as Lucy, a student forced by a Korean drug lord (Choi Min-sik) to carry a new narcotic in her abdomen that, when it is accidentally released into her system, begins to awaken the supposedly dormant 90% of her gray matter.  Along with her ever-increasing powers of the mind comes the knowledge that she will soon die if she doesn’t get more of the drug, a mission the drug lord is determined to thwart.  Besson includes a few funny metaphorical asides by way of cuts to the animal kingdom, which, along with the gun-play and car crashes, are meant to divert us from the absurdity of the characters and story.  Morgan Freeman, for instance, plays a scientist whose childish daydreams of expanded brain-use are treated as respectable scientific theories; meanwhile, Lucy’s incredible new intelligence includes a convenient black hole in the area of her battle with the drug lord.  Lucy’s self-absorption is understandable, but her amoral anarchism is not.  For mavens of mayhem only.

Attack of the Puppet People (1958), directed by Bert I. Gordon

Attack_of_the_Puppet_People_Poster♦♦♦½

Lonely doll-maker (John Hoyt) uses his own invention to shrink people he likes to doll-size so that, unlike his wife, they can never leave him.  His latest victims — his pretty secretary (June Kenney) and her salesman fiance (John Agar) — have other plans.  Exemplary B-movie that earns a suspension of disbelief with unexpected moments, humor, and a creepy theme.  Underrated, but with an appreciative cult following.

The Running Man (1987), directed by Paul Michael Glaser

Running_Man_Theatrical_Poster♦♦♦½

The Running Man earns the right to switch on the No Thinking sign with Richard Dawson’s performance. Dawson, not Arnold Schwarznegger, holds the movie together, and he does it so pitch-perfectly that nit-picking seems like an exercise in masochism.

In fact, there’s less to complain about here than in Stephen King’s novel. King’s undefined and contradictory society becomes a police state; his self-destructively angry hero becomes a man falsely accused; and his game, in which innocent bystanders and policeman are targets, becomes a death-match between “criminals” and hired guns, played out in a derelict and empty part of the city. I won’t say it makes sense, exactly, but it makes a lot more sense than the book — just enough for us to be able to ignore it as we grab another handful of popcorn.

Schwarzenegger is Ben Richards, former cop and fall-guy for the government’s murder of scores of civilians during a food riot. His subsequent escape from prison is national news, bringing him to the attention of Damon Killian (Dawson), the host of “The Running Man,” a popular and sadistic television show. When recaptured, Ben is coerced into appearing as a contestant on the show.

Schwarzenegger has complained that director Paul Micheal Glaser “shot the movie like it was a television show, losing all the deeper themes.” That makes Glaser a hero in my book. “Deeper themes”? Give me a break. This movie doesn’t get any deeper than Ben’s double entendres just before or after he kills someone (“He had to split,” he says of a man he’s cut partially in half with a chainsaw).

As for the rest, it’s the television show that makes this movie fun. Dawson, whose 10-year run as host of The Family Feud had only recently ended, plays his evil twin with a fidelity no one else could have matched. Off-air, he’s an egotistical martinet, but on-air, he’s an affable master of audience manipulation. It would have been so easy to inject a smarminess in his portrayal as a wink to the audience that, really, game show hosts are beneath us, but Dawson plays Killian straight, and the movie is better for it. I think it succeeds because of it: if we questioned Killian, we’d question everything else.

Then it would have been no better than the book.

The Beast With a Million Eyes (1955), directed by David Kramarsky

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The exciting potential in the non-literal title (the alien “beast” usurps weak minds and exploits hate) is entirely squandered in a meandering, poorly paced story of a small date-farming family in the desert struggling against isolation and interstellar menace.  Lorna Thayer belittles her husband and admits she sometimes hates her daughter.  Teenager Dona Cole isn’t too happy when mom hacks up her (possessed) dog with an axe.  Husband Paul Birch figures out what’s going on seemingly by reading the screenwriter’s mind.  Well, at least the creepy mute handyman plasters his walls with girlie pictures.  Awful on every level.

The Running Man (1982) by Stephen King

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Stephen King has said that he wrote The Running Man in a week. He didn’t mention whether it was during his sleep.

I’ve only read two of his Richard Bachman books (the other was Rage) and neither is good. This one, at least, isn’t as offensively bad as his first. It’s just silly, pointlessly angry, and full of cardboard.

Set in 2025, when white men are still called “honkeys” and people still ask if you can “dig it,” the story follows Ben Richards, an out of work revolutionary whose wife is a prostitute and whose 18-month-old baby is dying from pneumonia. Desperately needing money to buy medicine for the little tyke, Richards applies as a contestant for a popular game show called “The Running Man.” The show is a way of ridding society of some of its more undesirable elements. Contestants are given a 12-hour head start (if they live long enough, they can go anywhere in the world), then pursued by merciless Hunters. Every hour they stay alive nets them a hundred bucks, which in this society is a lot of dough. But the game, as Richards discovers, is rigged. Each contestant must record two 10-minute video clips a day and post them to the Games office, where the postmarks are used to locate the runner.

It’s unclear how or why “The Running Man” is a popular show. Though frowned upon, it isn’t against the rules for the runner to take out innocent bystanders. In our present age of reality shows, a stray anti-homosexual comment by a reality star can start a firestorm of controversy — let alone the murder of a cop or a civilian. Here, killing a cop is worth another hundred bucks. King, mired in the late sixties/early seventies, takes the hippie hatred of cops to a new level: everyone hates them, deriving entertainment from their deaths. Why anyone would want to be a cop in this society is another matter. The whole milieu is contradictory and self-serving.

One funny segment has Ben helped out by what passes for the book’s only really sympathetic character, Bradley, a young black man and gang-member who tells him how the upper classes are systematically polluting the poor workforce with toxic air which they themselves are able to filter out with nose-plugs. No mouth-breathers over the poverty line, I suppose. And no one smart enough to realize that murdering your workforce is probably a bad idea, unless you want to do the work yourself. I don’t think King ever tells us the name of Bradley’s gang, but we can figure it out from the way they get all their information: they’re the dreaded and feared Library Gang. (Bradley’s mom is a hoot. She has no trouble pronouncing “carcinogens,” but “pooberty” gives her fits.)

This is a race for Ben’s life (and the life of his daughter); it should be exciting. Like Rage, though, King substitutes an amorphous anger for anything truly stirring. That might work for teenagers, but adults can see through it all too easily. Ben’s own anger is so self-defeating, for example, that he tends to get himself fired for insubordination rather than sucking it up to (a) keep his wife off the streets and (b) provide for his daughter. We’re not supposed to hold him accountable for this, though, because he’s a “righteous” man (another favorite word of King’s that actually doesn’t appear here so far as I can remember). He fights for justice, if not the American way.

It all leads to a comic book ending, with lots of blood and wet, hanging entrails. If that’s your thing, you may get a kick out of it.

To paraphrase King himself, two examples of the humorless thudding tract school of horror writing are his own Rage and The Running Man.

After Worlds Collide (1934) by Philip Wylie and Edwin Balmer

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Perhaps because this novel originally appeared as a magazine serial, it is more of a page-turner than its predecessor. Then, too, cliffhangers were harder to come by in a book that assured us of the end of the world practically from page one. Here, the story is all about the survivors of Earth trying to make a new planet their home.

That planet is Bronson Beta, once the Earth-sized moon of Bronson Alpha. Bronson Alpha, if you recall, was a planet about the size of Neptune that smashed into Earth, utterly destroying it. The collision nudged Bronson Beta out of its orbit, but it was captured by the Sun in an elliptical orbit that, according to the best calculations, would take it nearly as far out in space as Mars and nearly as close to the sun as Venus. That means very cold winters and scorching summers. When the little band from Earth lands, Beta is on its way out.

But the coming cold isn’t their only worry. For one thing, their leader, Dr. Hendron, is showing the strain of his frenzied work to save at least a small portion of humanity. For another, Bronson Beta was previously inhabited, and its domed cities — still powered by some unknown energy — hint at the possibility of surviving natives, who might not take to human interlopers. Most worrisome of all, though, is that theirs was not the only ship from Earth to make it to Bronson Beta. At least one other made it, filled with “Asiatics” mostly (Russians and Japanese), with a few Germans thrown in for good measure, whose intent is to make Bronson Beta their own.

It’s hard to top Armageddon. But the really interesting thing about this sequel is that Wylie and Balmer don’t have to. When Worlds Collide focused so closely on the destructiveness of nature that they were left with an ideal “out” for this book: the destructiveness of mankind. As ludicrous as is the idea of a few hundred people on the surface of a planet the size of Earth making war on each other, it is, sadly, quite believable and, given the circumstances, all but inevitable. The circumstances being, that never will a better opportunity arise for world domination.

Like the first book, the authors mix their themes very well. Rebuilding, exploration and discovery, conflict, and romance — there’s always something going on. I could quibble. I could say the Bronson Betans aren’t as “alien” as they should have been; that the exploration of their cities isn’t nearly as intriguing as, for example, the exploration of the alien ship in Arthur C. Clarke’s Rendezvous With Rama. But that’s what it would be — quibbling. Clarke, after all, had an entire book to talk about one thing; for Wylie and Balmer, it’s but one piece of a much larger puzzle.

It’s a fun adventure and an exciting story and, if it has a flaw, it is that it isn’t, in the end, also a little scary. Without spoiling anything (I hope), let me just say that if you aren’t afraid to wipe Earth out of the cosmos in one book, you shouldn’t be afraid to make your characters work a little harder to make a home of their new planet.

This is a great companion for When Worlds Collide, with all the characters from the first book and even some of the jealousies: Tony, for instance, still wrestles with Eve’s feelings for the rugged and handsome David Ransdall. It also features a few new additions to the cast, far and away the best of whom is Marian Jackson, about whom it is said, “The girl might be mentally a moron; but morons…had their points.” Indeed they do. Hers is a small role, but one of critical importance, and the story always livens up when she’s present.

Them! (1954), directed by Gordon Douglas

Them02♦♦♦½

The first of the big bug movies, this one about giant ants. Had I looked at the poster first, I might have been on the ants’ side. “A horror horde of crawl-and-crush giants,” the poster describes them. It’s a source of satisfaction to me that I was never one of those kids who delighted in crushing ants or burning them with a magnifying glass, or pulling the wings off flies. Not that I haven’t killed a few in my life — flies might tell stories about my deadliness with a rubber band, for all I know — but I don’t enjoy it, and it’s generally a last resort. But with these babies — in Them! — the last resort is really the best. They’re eight feet long and the buggers eat children. Even the scientist wants to wipe them out.

James Whitmore plays Ben, a police trooper who finds a young girl wandering the New Mexico desert in shock, unable to tell him what happened to her. Nearby, however, he finds a car and trailer, but no inhabitants, just a huge hole ripped out of the side of the trailer. And a very strange print in the sand.

These early scenes, continuing on through the first act and the introduction of an FBI man (James Whitmore) and a father-daughter tandem of scientists (Edmund Gwenn and Joan Weldon), exude an atmosphere of mystery and menace that many movies, even today, aren’t able to achieve, despite the best efforts of the filmmakers. Evidently poorly reviewed in its original release, its rediscovery and current status as a science fiction classic must hinge, I believe, on what is accomplished early. Not that the rest of the movie isn’t any good; it simply isn’t as good.

Some of these old classics really put a dent in my theory that movies would be better if they were more realistic. War of the Worlds, Invaders from Mars, this movie, and others show (more or less) what would happen if monsters invaded. I mean, it wouldn’t be all about Dick and Jane; in fact, it would be a lot more about the cops, the FBI, the National Guard, and the military. But as I get older I find that I’m much more interested in Dick and Jane.

So, to me, one of the problems with Them! is that it squanders the romance that could have been, between Robert (the FBI guy) and Pat (the “daughter” half of the science team). The great thing — one of the great things — about The Thing (From Another World) is that it manages to have its cake and eat it, too. The romance there is between a military man and the secretary of the chief scientist. There’s all that sexual tension keeping things lively when the creature isn’t on the screen. Here, Robert gets all het up when he first sees Pat, who catches her skirt descending the steps of an airplane, and he becomes very protective of her later, but that’s about it; the relationship is never allowed to grow or contribute anything meaningful to the suspense.

On the other hand, it’s refreshing to find in Pat a no-nonsense scientist who is very good at what she does, and in her father, a man who treats her as a professional and an equal, even frequently referring to her as “doctor.”

And, as I said, it’s not as though the movie falls apart after a great beginning. Indeed, one of the best scenes occurs later. Fess Parker (later to become Daniel Boone on TV) plays a man locked up in a loony bin for telling crazy stories. The ants aren’t completely destroyed in New Mexico: a queen and a couple of winged males escape, flying east in search of a suitable place to start a new colony. That’s what they do. But the government wants to keep a lid on the story so nobody knows what transpired in the desert. Certainly not Parker, a pilot on his way to Brownsville, Texas, who encounters what he can only describe as three ant-shaped UFOs in the sky. His pleas first for someone to believe him then to be released are funny and poignant at the same time (and actually got him that TV gig).

And then there’s the ants themselves, which are very well done for their time, and which the filmmakers don’t mind showing, even in desert daylight. That’s a big plus.

I guess it comes down to this: the first part of Them! is a movie for everyone; most of the rest is a movie for science fiction fans. That’s not a bad thing at all, but it’s why I don’t love it as much as I might have.

When Worlds Collide (1951), directed by Rudolph Mate

whenworldscollide♦♦♦½

The Movie

This is another George Pal production, like The War of  the Worlds and The Time Machine; hence, it isn’t to be dismissed as just another science fiction B-movie. While it isn’t as atmospheric as War of the Worlds, it’s a whole lot more consistent. It is, on the whole, a better film, but ironically less memorable.

It begins with people and is at its best when focused on individuals. The story is too big, too majestic, for its budget and its director. I was thinking it would have been a good movie for Cecil B. DeMille, and later discovered that DeMille had considered making it. But if not him, Pal was probably the best choice.

It isn’t that the special effects are bad. Some of them are very good. One, at the end, is not, unfortunately, but if that had been the only problem, it wouldn’t be worth mentioning. No, the larger problem is that it never really convinces us that the world is ending, despite some good shots of waves and lava and the like.

But it does tell a decent story about a group of people building a spaceship, and the good special effects, like that spaceship resting on the rail that will guide it aloft, give it a real science-fictiony feel. It’s a movie undone by its scope, but drawn back together by its characters.

The Adaptation

As adaptation, it’s not too bad. The only really dumb alteration has to do with one of the two bodies approaching Earth, the one destined to collide with Earth: this time it’s a star. It’s funny, but as I read the book, I was constantly assailed by questions of science that it seemed the authors had overlooked or ignored — only to discover, later in the story, that these were addressed. Maybe not to a scientist’s satisfaction, but well enough for me. But there’s a big difference between a planet the size of Neptune and a star. If a star entered our solar system, it wouldn’t be only the Earth that was changed beyond all recognition.

A more significant departure is the one having to do with the love triangle between Eve (here named Joyce), Tony, and David. These are the three who, in the book, may have to learn the value of sharing when, if they make it to the new world, propagation of the species becomes of paramount importance. None of that propagation nonsense finds its way into this 1951 production, of course. It is supplanted by romantic love and self-sacrifice.

Which didn’t bother me nearly so much as when self-sacrifice, in the book, is supplanted by greed and selfishness in the movie. This happens late in the story so I can’t say much about it, except that an attack by marauding hordes in the book is rendered obsolete here because of internal dissension. It kind of sours the whole idea of Mankind’s continued survival.

The Upshot

Because it lacks a signature scene that lasts in the memory (like the early eerie scenes after the “meteor” crash in War of the Worlds), this movie isn’t nearly as famous as other movies from the period. Yet it’s better than many of them, from beginning to end. It’s the cinematic equivalent of one of the characters in this and a thousand other movies who demonstrate that nice guys finish last. But nice guys have something to offer, often quite a lot, and When Worlds Collide is no exception. Recommended for science fiction fans.

(I say that the movie doesn’t have a memorable scene, but I’ve remembered it for decades because of a scene near the beginning in which pilot and ladies’ man David Randall makes out with a lovely stewardess. There’s just something about her….)