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A History of Robot Design in Film
"The Automation" from The Master Mystery, 1920. Perhaps the first robot on film even though it turns out to be a madman in a suit. Starred Harry Houdini.
(Above) The Phantom Empire, 1935.
(Right) The Undersea Kingdom, 1936.
The Phantom Creeps, 1939. Like the two above, Phantom Creeps was a serial of twelve weekly chapters. Bela Lugosi controlled his robot by way of a remote strapped to his arm. Mad scientist liked heavy handed robots and audiences too so the robot from Undersea became a bigger smash when it reappeard in The Mysterious Dr Satan, 1940.
The Robot Monster from Robot Monster, 1953. Yes, it's a gorilla suit with a TV for a head.
Tobor from Tobor the Great, 1954, had a way with kids.
But Robbie the Robot from Forbidden Planet, 1956, had a way with the ladies.
And Robbie remains the quintessential movie robot to this day. Say bye Robbie.
(End of Part One)
Things to Come (1930)
The Wizard of Oz (1939)
Portrait of Jennie (1948)
This Island Earth (1955)
Logan's Run (1976)
The Empire Strikes Back (1980)
Ghost in the Shell (1995)
The Fifth Element (1997)
A.I. - Artificial Intelligence (2001)
Ghost in the Shell 2: Innocence (2004)
Telephoneme by MK12 (2010) 2:44mins
A Complete History Of The Soviet Union Through The Eyes Of A Humble Worker, Arranged To The Melody Of Tetris by Chris Lince (2010) 6:48mins
Quimby the Mouse by Chris Ware (2009) 3:30mins
(About) Robots by Alex Davis (2007?) 6:35mins
Reno by Cory McAbee (2008) 3:52mins
Outer Space by Peter Tscherkassky (1999) 10:02mins
Fast Film by Virgil Widrich (2003) 13:39mins
The news of Patricia Neal's passing is a newsworthy event in the fields of arts, entertainment and celebrity. Hers was a long and interesting career of major cinema works and a truckload of accolades, an academy award among them. She had an astonishing life full of tragedy and scandal. And she overcame incredible physical and emotional adversity (as portrayed in one successful movie). She was married to Roald Dahl for 30 years and grandmother to Sophie Dahl.
All this with great detail is covered in many places as is fitting Patricia Neal's standing. But they don't talk much about the things that rate her here. And that's two particular films of huge culty worthiness.
The first film is the cinematic version of the Ayn Rand treatise on why assholdom is good for America. Fountainhead (1949) is an adaptation by Rand herself of that anti-altruism propaganda tome packaged around the crapiest of melodramas.
The movie is so outrageously straight, so sincere in its ultra-self interest philosophies, with lunging chests and flowing misogyny (yes, Ayn Rand seemed to hate all other women), that it becomes almost unbearably camp. The dialogue is so forced you wonder if the actors would crack up before finishing their line. I have a dream of a theatre company that performs word for word movies being simultaneously shown above them. The idea being that when you hear such dire dialogue being performed live in front of you it becomes a truly surreal experience. My first project would be Devil Girl From Mars, but my next would be Fountainhead.
Watch this brief excerpt and I think you'll understand.
Her other work that draws the favour of this blog is one of the great films of all time, though oddly, most mainstream critics give it little thought. Such is a cinematic crime for The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951) is such a strong and solid work of philosophical science fiction that not even the shittiest of Keanu remakes can smudge the original's immaculate surface. It is a true classic because though the film is almost 60 it and its message hold up remarkably well. It's not a film that has dated but matured.
And Patricia Neal's role in it, though very important all up, is significant in particular for one seemingly small thing. She quotes, and in doing so, makes famous what would become one of the most cultish, most in-joked phrases of popular culture history. The line is only of four words, though the myth retains three, and these words have been in turn quoted in a number of films and TV shows, printed on t-shirts, put in song lyrics, sprayed on walls and, in my opinion, should be etched into a monument erected in a Washington DC park somewhere.
And so, Patricia Neal, we thank you and we especially thank you for these twenty seconds of groovy cinema history.
Ten B-Lister Sci-Fi Flicks I Can't Help But Enjoy
Man From Planet X (1951)
Made on borrowed sets in just six days this modest film is basically a melodrama where a few people save humanity from a little alien guy you can't help but feel sorry for. The fog machine is turned on full to hide the wire and cardboard as heroes and villains wander around castle walls and out on the moors. It's like watching an epic as done by an amateur theatre company.
Earth VS The Flying Saucers (1956)
Few sci-fi inclined haven't seen this, but I'll remind you anyway. Ray Harryhausen put a lot of life into his saucers and into this film. The film itself is very pedestrian and predictable, but when saucers or aliens appear it just has that childhood thrill or fear you want to recall. And the faux epic climax over models of Washington buildings is always fun.
The Abominable Snowman (1957)
From the writer of the Quatermass stories comes an intelligent and philosophical adventure film. And yes, about the hunting of the Yeti. But despite the glorious visuals (impressive for the budget) this is mainly a psychological story and where much of its strength is from the characters and general atmosphere. There are striking moments to this small grand film and Peter Cushing shows why he's...well...Peter Cushing.
Fiend Without A Face (1957)
Feral brains with whiplash spinal cords! And these squirmy, leaping neck stranglers create a fairly effective climax to this modest British flick that is respectable to all concerned, even with the silly science and melodramatic plot twists. Without doubt the stars of this movie are the little brain bastards and they don't truly appear till near the end but it's a worthy payoff.
Atomic Submarine (1960)
The cheap look adds to the charm of submariners versus a flying saucer. The actors try to be likeable, the director tries to be entertaining, and the narrator keeps a stiff upper-lip. Stock footage abounds! When our heroes eventually get into the saucer the real fun begins. The big bad alien is one of my cheesiest favourites and I love his alien arrogance. Take that, you!
The Day The Earth Caught Fire (1961)
The world is about to end and no special effects to stop it! That's because this is an actor's piece and more involving for it. Through a top notch cast we see people deal with the crisis in
themselves. This is drama about our own lives as much as a scientific thriller. I think it's one of the best British SF films made.
The Last Man On Earth (1964)
When don't you enjoy Vincent Price? Never does he fail to live up to a film and this Italian mega-el-cheapo mutant zombie movie tries hard to live up to him. Admittedly, this version of Richard Matheson's I Am Legend (there have been three) virtually begins and ends with Vincent's performance, but the film still holds up enough on its own. It shows that even if the execution isn't the greatest, a good idea not betrayed goes a long way towards a good SF movie.
Death Race 2000 (1975)
I've always liked David Carradine even when he's in one of those ultra-cheapie rip-off flicks. And this is one of them, made quickly to cash in on Rollerball (1975). But it moves fast, keeps the right humour and beats Paul Verhoven to that satirical style uber-violence. It's Wacky Races for psychos. And who doesn't do pedestrian point scoring when that little old lady is taking too long to cross the road? And it has the only bad visual pun I'll let be paid.
The Hidden (1988)
Effectively a chase movie, it barrels along so fast you don't have time to realise there isn't much story. Eventually it turns into an alien and human buddy story, with all that character building stuff wanna-be writers would want to do with such a premise. But the direction and Kyle MacLaughlin's charms keep you happy to see how it all turns out. And the body-stealing alien is a nice piece of work.
Fatally flawed, but there's enough cool stuff in this Rutger Hauer low-budgeter to make you wonder why it goes so wrong. Indeed, this is a smart, sassy, stylish future cop film with quirky heroes chasing a nashy-teeth monster through a flooded London. It's going great guns till the studio, so impressed by the rough cut, thought this could go mainstream and thus rejected the original cerebral ending, forced the director to quit (he went back to commercials) and commissioned a rewrite to deliberately dumb down the last ten minutes (you can see the moment it happens). It could have been a cult classic, but instead it's another Highlander 2, except it still makes more sense than that.
Ray Harryhausen is a god among filmmakers, because he was and still is the king of movie monster makers. His Dynamation process was more than just hand animating models, which would be awesome simply by itself, but he developed film processes for this animation to work among real actors and seemingly on set. It was stunning for its time but the artistry keeps it alive even now when technically it would seem crude compared to the computer generated material of Avatar.
But I would bet you ten bucks that everyone who worked on the creatures and ships in Avatar is a proud Harryhausen fan directly inspired by his work. And I bet another ten bucks directly inspired by Jason and the Argonauts, maybe the best kids movie ever.
Ten or so years ago I had the privilege of meeting Mr. Harryhausen at a talk he gave. That would have been cool by itself and remains a firm and fond memory. But it was made very special by what he brought with him. He had various models from his films including the Medusa from Clash of the Titans and few other beasties.
Two particular items were really special to me to see, up close too. One was a skeleton from the climatic fight from Jason & the Argonauts; he was like twenty centimetres high. The other was a saucer from Earth vs the Flying Saucers, one of the small ones from the shots where they flew along in armadas.
That moment was so exciting for me, the high moment of fanboy worship, because to actually see up close one of those saucers that Ray animated by hand and know that was the saucer I saw in the film that when I first saw it, some Saturday afternoon on the family TV, I didn't even think of it as something that existed outside the screen, was like making a personal and physical connection to my sense of cinematic awe. This should really let you know where I'm coming from. And it's where a lot of fantastic film enthusiasts come from.
And Ray Harryhausen holds a rare distinction in cinema. In the early years of film, particularly during the studio system, ownership went to the producer, a Selznick or DeMille picture, later, as independents started to arise, to the director, a Hitchcock or Scorcese film, otherwise it belong to the lead actor, a John Wayne or Audrey Hepburn movie. Ray Harryhausen is the only person who is not a producer or director or actor who is given the ownership for the films he created such dazzling effects. Ray did not write, produce or direct any of his films, from It Came from Beneath the Sea to Clash of the Titans, yet all are referred to as Harryhausen films. For in the end, there is no reason to see these movies except for the thrill of what Ray Harryhausen produced for it, often as a solo craftsman and with the most modest of budgets.
And that is why he grows in reverence and stature more and more every day. You see, the coolest thing of all about Ray Harryhausen is that he gets cooler. He is cooler now than he was ten years ago, twenty, fifty years ago. I am glad that on his 90th birthday he has that knowledge that he is one of the coolest guys in the movie world. For over time, because and not despite of all the common place CGI of contemporary fantasy films, new generations can see the artistry and the unique skill of Harryhausen's achievements. Some things don't date and some things date just in the right way to keep them alive forever.
In the world of fantastic cinema, he is a legend. He is the man.
So now, let's wrap this up with what is perhaps Ray Harryhausen's finest moment as an artist, Perseus encountering the Medusa in the 1981 film Clash of the Titans, his last feature film before retirement.
Thank you, Ray.
Alfred Hitchcock was riding high as "The Master of Suspense" when he made Vertigo in '58 and North by Northwest in '59 (two of his very best films) but he was getting some lip that he was only the master because he commanded the budgets to pull it off. Plus, there were young "maverick" directors being treated as upcoming rivals to an old schooler.
Perhaps this gave Hitchcock a reason to prove something or maybe he just wanted to try something different. Regardless, he was shown Robert Bloch's new novel Psycho (inspired by Ed Gein, arrested two years prior) and Hitchcock decided this is where he wanted to go.
The major studios, previously happy to give Hitchcock the big bucks, didn't like the idea at all and refused to support it. They wouldn't even pick up the film rights to the novel to explore it. So Hitchcock picked up the rights himself (anonymously) and self funded the project as a low budgeter using the studio and crew from his Hitchcock Presents TV series.
Upon its release it immediately became one of the most controversial films from a major studio and shook up everything to do with the cinema of horror, of the thriller and of psychological drama. And of course, Hitchcock not only had another hit, but also showed he wasn't just still on the edge but ahead of the curve on almost everybody and could do so outside the studio system.
But I don't need to heap superlatives on what is as much a work of modern art as it was entertainment. No other film has given more people doctorates in psychology. No film other than Citizen Kane has been so dissected by film scholars. The shower scene has been paid homage or parodied more than any scene in any film anywhere and remained the height of modern editing till the car chase in The French Connection ('71). And the musical score by Bernard Herrmann is still one of the best soundtracks ever put to a film.
Regardless of what I'm going on about, if you haven't seen it yet then you better get on with watching it. Or see it again, because there's something new to find in it every time. And when you do watch it remember it's 50 years old and almost all of modern thriller / horror cinema owes it big time. Oh, and the original novel by Block has been reissued as part of the 50th anniversary.
Norman hopes you enjoy the film.