Thursday, March 3, 2011

Genres: 1980s Science Fiction

It is interesting to use InstantWatcher to search and filter titles in the Netflix Watch Instantly collection.  Once you click on Sci Fi & Fantasy, a total of only 192 titles come up.  Filter that with the Rotten Tomatoes "Fresh" filter, and you're already down to 31 titles.  Filter by Netflix User Ratings, and you won't get anything with a 4.5, and you only will get four titles with a 4.0 (Aliens, Blade Runner, Star Trek, and Serenity).  So it might be a while before I return to Sci Fi in any depth here.

Meanwhile, I decided to come at the Sci Fi topic from the perspective of someone who was 10 to 19 years old between 1980 and 1989.  Some of these films I have not seen since seeing them in the theater the year they came out, or shortly afterward when they came out on VHS, or shortly after that when they made it to cable.  In other cases, I caught up with them much later than their original release when I became more of a film buff in high school.

Mad Max (George Miller, Australia, 1979, 93 minutes)
Netflix: In a postapocalyptic future, jaded motorcycle cop Max Rockatansky (Mel Gibson) is ready to retire. But his world is shattered when a malicious gang murders his family as an act of retaliation, forcing a devastated Max to hit the open road seeking vengeance. As he travels the Australian outback's empty stretches of highway, he tours the bloodstained battlegrounds ruled by marauding bikers who feed on violence. Netflix link.

The Road Warrior (George Miller, Australia, 1981, 95 minutes)
Netflix: In this sequel to the dystopian action-adventure Mad Max, Mel Gibson returns as the heroic loner who drives the dusty roads of a postapocalyptic Australian Outback in an unending search for gasoline. Arrayed against him and the other scraggly defendants of a fuel-depot encampment are the bizarre warriors commanded by the charismatic Lord Humungus (Kjell Nilsson), a violent leader whose scruples are as barren as the surrounding landscape. Netflix link.
Okay, I know Mad Max is 1979, but it never really got any attention in America until after the release of The Road Warrior (originally titled Mad Max 2, but changed in America for just that reason).  These films don't really need an introduction since they are so firmly established in American pop cultural memory.  But it is worth going back and looking at both of them.  For the most part, it is The Road Warrior that generated the iconography that we associate with the series (and most parodies actually reference it, rather than the original).  Because of that, the original Mad Max might seem even weirder today than it might have seemed when first released.  One might even argue with calling the original science fiction, even though the sequels are more fantastic in they're portrayal of the dystopian future.  I had to wait until later in the decade to catch up with these since they were pretty firm R ratings, which leads me to a brief diversion into a brief discussion of the PG-13 rating with the next two titles.

Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome (George Miller, USA/Australia, 1985, 107 minutes)
Neflix: While the final Mad Max film can't outrun the first two, director George Miller delivers an awesome depiction of order amid chaos. Max (Mel Gibson) becomes embroiled in the internal tensions of Bartertown, ruled by the imperious Aunty Entity (Tina Turner). Will ex-cop Max turn into an assassin? Featuring the inventive Thunderdome fight sequence, this installment offers plenty of action. Adam Cockburn and Bruce Spence co-star. Netflix link.

Dreamscape (Joseph Ruben, USA, 1984, 99 minutes)
Netflix: Two research scientists (Max von Sydow and Kate Capshaw) operate a government-funded clinic specializing in the study of dreams. Seeking help with an experiment, the doctors hire gifted psychic Alex Gardner (Dennis Quaid) to enter the subconscious minds of patients troubled by ominous nighttime illusions. But shady politico Bob Blair (Christopher Plummer) has more sinister plans for Gardner's paranormal abilities. Netflix link.

The PG-13 rating debuted in 1984, so it was highly relevant to me since it seemed that I was the exact age that it was meant to protect.  This is all a distant memory now, but there was a time when people worried about whether I should have been able to see Indana Jones and the Temple of Doom as a 13-year old.  The main consequence of this was the years in which Hollywood didn't seem to know what to do with this rating.  Perhaps it has never really figured it out; see Live Free or Die Hard or The King's Speech controversies.  Clearly the PG-13 rating benefited the box office for Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome, but it should have been designed as an R-rated film as with the first two in the series.  That said, I was the demographic that the filmmakers were going after by making that change, and I got to see the film in the theater. I enjoyed it at the time, but I'm going to re-visit it and see what I think.

I'm including Dreamscape here because I only have a foggy memory of seeing it on video right when it came out, and not being sure whether I should be watching it or not for some scenes, not necessarily because I couldn't handle it, but because I wasn't sure if I wanted the parents to see what I was watching.  I'm going to revisit it and see what prompted that feeling at the time.  My memory is that it is a good movie (I wouldn't mention it otherwise) and that it had a great creepy performance by David Patrick Kelly, who seemed to be creepy in a lot of 1980s movies (he played Luther in 48 Hrs.)  Just keep in mind that this is a review from a 14-year old.

Time Bandits (Terry Gilliam, UK, 1981, 116 minutes)
Netflix: In Terry Gilliam's fantastic voyage through time and space, a boy escapes from his gadget-obsessed parents to join a band of time-traveling dwarves. On their journey, they visit Napoleon (Ian Holm), Robin Hood (John Cleese) and King Agamemnon (Sean Connery), among other popular figures. It's a giddy, visually outrageous fairy tale, a revisionist history lesson and a satire on technology gone awry -- all wrapped into one adventure. Netflix link.

I remember being very excited about the possibility of seeing Time Bandits, and asking my parents well in advance of its local release whether I could go and see it. Surprisingly as I think about it now, I was somewhat disappointed by it.  I was 11-years old, and I think I was expecting a constantly goofy movie.  While the film has many great comic moments, it also had a wider range of emotional tones, and at the time I simply wasn't interested in all of that. Now as a 40-year old I appreciate the film in a much different way, especially since I'm more familiar with Gilliam's other work.  This may be an example of a film that is about childhood that doesn't necessarily resonate with children, much like the response to Spike Jonze's Where the Wild Things Are.  Now that I think of it, a nephew of mine is the same age that I was when I saw this, so I will try to get him to watch it and get back to you with his response.

From Beyond (Stewart Gordon, USA, 1986, 85 minutes)
Netflix: After inventing a way for creatures from the fourth dimension to come into his own world, Dr. Edward Pretorious (Ted Sorel) suffers a gruesome decapitation at the hands of those he brought "from beyond." But authorities suspect his assistant (Jeffrey Combs) is to blame. Barbara Crampton co-stars as a beautiful psychiatrist brought in to help police solve the case in this classic 1980s thriller based on a short story by H.P. Lovecraft. Netflix link.

On the other end of the spectrum, here's the kind of movie that teenage home video was made for.  While Gordon's Re-Animator is a far better film, his second H.P. Lovecraft adaptation still delivered the goods for teenage boys looking for gross-out scenes and nudity.  While Watch Instantly has other more recent examples of this particular sub-genre, it's hard find the good ones to recommend.  (If only they had Tobe Hooper's Lifeforce, which is available on DVD.)  Based upon user reviews, your best bet for a genuine B-movie along these lines from this period might be legendary Fred Olen Ray's Star Slammer.

I look forward to your feedback and comments, and any other recommendations you might find.  --JLK

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