Archive for Robert Wise

Boldly Gone

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , on December 4, 2020 by dcairns

So, I’m working on this really exciting project, and it’s going well, but it has become a nocturnal project, which is wrecking my brain slightly. And as a result The Late Show: The Late Films Blogathon just hasn’t happened. It hasn’t happened even more than it usually doesn’t happen (because I don’t chase contributors in a personal and assiduous way). BUT!

Peter Winkler has sent a lovely piece — a vintage review he wrote in 1979 for STAR TREK: THE MOTION PICTURE (late Robert Wise, last Gene Roddenberry, more or less), bracketed by his contemporary observations. It brought back my memories of seeing the film with my mum at the time (and liking it, though she suggested it might be a wee bit long, a judgement I would now support).

Hope you enjoy.

Star Trek: The Motion Picture (1979)

Produced by Gene Roddenberry. Written by Harold Livingston (and Roddenberry without credit)., based on the story “Robot’s Return” by Alan Dean Foster. Directed by Robert Wise. Cast: William Shatner, Leonard Nimoy, DeForest Kelley, Stephen Collins and Persis Khambatta. 132 minutes. Released by Paramount Pictures on December 7, 1979.

Originally Reviewed by Peter L. Winkler in December 1979 for CineFan Magazine.

I wrote this and several other reviews of sf films released at the end of 1979 while on my Christmas break from law school. I had no expectation that I would end up writing two books and numerous articles decades later. I wanted to see my name in print. At the time, I was still avidly interested in print sf, Star Trek, and sf films. I thought CineFan was worth writing for, and that the editorial barrier to entry was probably fairly easy to overcome.

Star Trek : The Motion Picture succumbs to the disease endemic to the major sf. films of the 70s: a poor story. A strong story can be about a mystery being resolved, a goal being achieved, or diverse characters in conflict. ST: TMP has little of this.

The film is structured as a mystery. Something incredibly powerful has devastated a flotilla of Klingon battle cruisers, and a Federation starbase, and is headed toward Earth. The only available starship is the Enterprise, still undergoing refitting in drydock and not yet finished. With it’s crew reunited, it sets out to meet the impending threat. Unfortunately, the mystery of the alien entity is not worth the two hours it takes to encounter and resolve.

The plot of the film is essentially that of the television series episode “The Changeling.” It’s disappointing enough to see a television episode recycled for the big screen, but if one had to choose a Star Trek tv episode on which to base a major motion picture, “The Changeling” would most certainly not be the one.

ST: TMP’s story, by Alan Dean Foster, is inexcusable. It borrows the plot of the old tv episode whole, amplifies its weaknesses, and pads it to feature length. If you’ve seen “The Changeling” and can figure out what “V ‘GER” is a contraction for, you’ll be able to decipher the feeble plot of ST:TMP in nothing flat. But even if you don’t, the story simply is not interesting or exciting enough to hold you for the time it takes to unfold.

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Alas, ST: TMP also lacks what was one of the strong suits of the best of the television episodes: character conflict. The very manner in which ST:TMP begins, reuniting the old crew, as well as introducing two new characters, is an open invitation for human drama. Some promising starts are made—between Kirk and McCoy, Spock and the crew, and between Kirk and Decker (Stephen Collins) (which short-lived conflict is lifted whole from director Robert Wise’s Run Silent, Run Deep [1958])—but are just as quickly abandoned.

If the film lacks substance, its execution is spotty as well. The special effects are hardly state of the art. While the miniatures are impressive, the optical effects are frequently obvious. Almost uniformly disappointing are the interior sets, hand props, and costumes. Though they have a slick, updated look, they lack the invention of their predecessors.

Despite its poor story and uneven production values, ST:TMP is not entirely without merit. The first half hour has a sustained sense of wonder which is rare in recent sf films. William Shatner, for the first time, gives a controlled performance that helps give the film some dramatic weight. Robert Wise, given a difficult task, gives coherency to an obviously thrown together film. The greatest praise should be reserved for Jerry Goldsmith. His score is simply superb, It saves much of the film, but can stand alone as one of the finest scores for an sf  film, or any film, that I’ve had the pleasure of hearing.

Though not a groaner, ST: TMP is at best a pleasant, sentimental reunion. It could, and should, have been more than that.

In retrospect, I think I may have been a little too hard on Star Trek: The Motion Picture (1979). In his review, Roger Ebert wrote, ”There is, I suspect, a sense in which you can be too sophisticated for your own good when you see a movie like this.” With some exceptions, it’s slick, impressively executed in spots, moderately engaging and fairly intelligent, a hallmark of the original TV series. Unfortunately, it shares the same flaw as Apocalypse Now (1979): Both films begin with their most exciting scenes. Only Mr. Spock’s spacewalk to penetrate V’Ger’s interior, a sequence devised by some of the film’s effects team, gives the film some much-needed kinetic excitement late in the game. What ST: TMP isn’t is the human adventure the film’s end title promises; the sequel delivered on that adventure. On the other hand, I’m hard-pressed to retract any specific judgement I made in 1979, and a least one other critic, The Cleveland Press’s Tony Mastroiani hit some of the same points as I did. “For all of its length it has about as much plot as one of the original one-hour TV shows, maybe a little less than many of them had,” he wrote. “There isn’t much anybody can do about this except peer at the approaching cluster of light and vapor through TV monitors and cope with occasional malfunctions that threaten to destroy the ship. The film’s chief virtue for fans of the series is its reunion of the original cast after a decade, picking up the old relationships and rivalries, repeating lines of dialog that have become permanently associated with some of the characters.” (“Star Trek –– Motion Picture is bigger, not better,” Cleveland Press December 22, 1979.)
ST: TMP’s troubled production poses the question “What went wrong and who was to blame?” In 1969, NBC unceremoniously cancelled Star Trek. The series became a surprising success in syndication, especially in markets where it was shown in the after-school time slot, where it found its natural audience. Then the Star Trek conventions became a successful phenomenon. Paramount planned a moderately budgeted feature to be directed by Philip Kaufman, but it failed to go into production. Paramount decided to launch a fourth network of syndicated programming. The bait for local stations was to be Star Trek: Phase II, reviving the original series with the original cast. Scripts were commissioned while costumes and sets were being constructed. Then something phenomenal suddenly happened: Star Wars (1977) and Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977) demonstrated that science fiction could be more than just moderately profitable, but shatter box office records.
Paramount quickly cancelled Star Trek: Phase II and announced a Star Trek feature to be directed by Robert Wise, who had a proven affinity for science fiction, having directed the classic The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951) and The Andromeda Strain (1971). What Paramount didn’t have was a screenplay but was committed to deliver the film to theaters in early December 1974. Gene Roddenberry’s screenplay was rejected. Harold Livingston, who had never written for the TV series and was not an sf writer, was hired to turn Alan Dean Foster’s Phase II teleplay “Robot’s Return” into a screenplay. Roddenberry couldn’t keep his hands off of Livingston’s screenplay and rewrote it on a daily, sometimes hourly basis.
Serious trouble arose when the original effects firm, responsible for some award-winning animated TV commercials, produced very little useful. Paramount had to scramble, assembling two parallel effects teams, one run by Douglas Trumbull, the other by John Dykstra. Robert Wise was editing until the last minute available. The prints shipped to theaters were barely dry. Wise was later invited to produce a director’s cut more to his liking. It added a few minutes of running time but simply feels distended. Wise made two more films after Star Trek before retiring.
ST: TMP cost 44 million dollars but proved profitable enough to justify a sequel. By giving himself a writing credit on the screenplay, producer Roddenberry triggered an automatic arbitration over credits conducted by the Writer’s Guild of America. Roddenberry rejected a story credit and received no screen credit. He was blamed for the film’s production difficulties and budget overruns. He was booted from his own brainchild when it came time to produce a sequel: he received an executive producer credit and an undisclosed sum to keep the fans happy. Paramount hired TV producer Harve Bennett to make Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (1982) more efficiently through Paramount’s television division. Nicholas Meyer, with no previous association with Star Trek, wrote and directed what would prove to be the best Star Trek film so far. George Lucas’ Industrial Light and Magic produced Star Trek II’s impressive effects.
Copyright 1979, 2020 by Peter L. Winkler.

 

Wise Boxes Clever

Posted in FILM, literature with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on July 19, 2018 by dcairns

Our viewing of THE DAY THE EARTH STOOD STILL of course demands a follow-up screening of something or other… I felt in a way less need to investigate this time, as I’ve already seen plenty of Robert Wise films, and even a few movies involving screenwriter Edmund H. North (IN A LONELY PLACE, SINK THE BISMARCK!, DAMN THE DEFIANT! and, ahem, METEOR). I’ve even covered STRANGER FROM VENUS. But THE SET-UP, directed by Wise in 1949, was overdue for a watch…

This one’s scripted by Art Cohn, from a poem (!) by Joseph Moncure March.

It’s alright… Percy’s here…

Really terrific filmmaking — I’m on record saying that Wise’s best cinematic effects usually hinge on editing, his métier, but this one has a lot of gorgeous push-in shots, moving deeper into the urban landscape of the film. The sweaty, shadowy feel of the movie is its best feature, aided by great noir faces — Robert Ryan, Alan Baxter, Percy Helton. Even Darryl Hickman, his fresh-faced appeal like a flower in hell, by which the surrounding inferno appears all the grimmer.

The big gimmick, that the story unfolds in real time, was a cause of frustration for the filmmakers since the audience turned out to be serenely oblivious to this. All those big clocks were for naught. But the excellent sound mix — there’s no score — does have great value, with the cross-cutting between Ryan and Audrey Totter tied together by devices like a streetcar blasting past, close-up for her, distant when we cut to him. The Aristotelian Unities may be quietly helping the film along, even if most of us don’t notice. After all, Hollywood style prided itself on invisibility. Why shouldn’t we consider this, and Wellman’s TRACK OF THE CAT, with its black-and-white-in-colour aesthetic, be regarded as roaring successes precisely because nobody at the time noticed?

Totter’s walk through town seems to very clearly prefigure what Welles wanted for his opening shot of TOUCH OF EVIL, in terms of sound design.

I was genuinely puzzled about how the movie would end, though I had a feeling it couldn’t be good. For a while, it looks to be as bleak as you can get. Bleaker. Audrey Totter has a near-impossible task, spinning the tragic denouement as a triumph, and she pulls all the stops out and then breaks them off and throws them in the air. A little too much, Audrey.

But it’s impressive how RKO got away with a crime story in which the guilty go completely unpunished, and indeed the law is entirely absent.

Twomorrowland #4: Warning from Space

Posted in Comics, Fashion, FILM, literature, MUSIC, Mythology, Politics with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on July 17, 2018 by dcairns

THE DAY THE EARTH STOOD STILL is another example of classy, big-budget sci-fi, though less luridly fun than FORBIDDEN PLANET. Its casting does suggest that the slightly flat acting of previous entries in this series was a deliberate choice, as if character quirks would be too much for an audience to take in a movie whose whole premise is quirky. This is the A-picture version of bad B-movie acting, so it’s not actually inept, just kind of flat. Except Patricia Neal, we can agree about that.

Michael Rennie arrives from space to deliver a warning to all of Earth, but all of Earth can’t agree on a meeting place to listen to him. It’s a film about stupidity. Rennie’s Klaatu has a high-handed, “What fools these mortals be” attitude, a loftier version of George Reeves’ Superman, characterised by tiny ironic smiles whenever any of us says anything stupid, which is most of the time.

This is, arguably, mainly a film about stupidity. This makes sense of Snub Pollard appearing as a cab driver. Planet Keystone. There’s potentially a good comedy to be made about an alien visitor thwarted by our dumbness, but somehow I don’t think VISIT TO A SMALL PLANET is going to be it.

I think as a kid I was riveted by the opening of this one, and I still am — it has very good FX work but it’s primarily an achievement of editing — Robert Wise shows his cutting-room origins in all his best sequences, whether the film is WEST SIDE STORY or THE HAUNTING or CURSE OF THE CAT PEOPLE. Though the three speeded-up shots of fleeing crowds are TERRIBLE. I think I was a little bored by some of the talkie bits, and some of the running around backlot streets, but perked up for anything involving the UFO and the robot. I still feel the same way. It’s a lovely flying saucer, especially the interior (motion-sensitive controls!) and Bernard Herrmann’s throbbing, electronically-enhanced score feels literally part of the control room’s feng shui. Maybe because a theremin, like this saucer, can be operated without touch. Also at times the score sounds exactly like CITIZEN KANE’s approach to Xanadu but with added electro. I want to bathe in it.

Fiona recalls being unimpressed by Gort, the titanic robot. A highly critical eight-year-old, Fiona. “I didn’t like the way his joints creased.” I would defend that by saying that if you coat your robot in a kind of flexible metallic skin, which seems to be what Gort’s got, you have to expect it to fold at the joints. But I agree there’s something not quite pleasing about the look of it. He’s a character who works great as a still image, on the poster, and indeed he spends much of his time as a menacing sentry, even immobilized in a plastic cube at one point. His first entrance is unseen — everyone looks up and he’s simply THERE, in the hatchway, like Mrs. Danvers. Wise shoots around awkward movements like picking up a fainted Neal, and pulls off effective forced-perspective illusions to make him seem bigger than he is.

   

Gort is dressed for the swimpool: shorts, goggles and wristbands — to store his locker-room keys — he needs two because he’s big. It would be interesting to see what he wears when he’s not going swimming.

Michael Rennie has a lovely broad-shouldered jumpsuit, cinched at the waist, with a helmet like a sea urchin, even though he can breathe our air fine. This is just so he can go on the run and be unrecognized later. Did he know he would need to do this? Incognito, our saucerboy goes by the name “Carpenter,” emphasising the Jesus effect — he checks into a boarding house like Conrad Veidt’s Christ-figure in THE PASSING OF THE THIRD FLOOR BACK  Later, he will rise from the dead for an unspecified interval before ascending to the heavens. On the other hand, I don’t recall Jesus having a hulking robotic sidekick who disintegrated his foes. And though Christ may have made the sun hide its face, he didn’t make the earth stand still. (Me as a seven-year-old, feeling cheated: “So it’s not REALLY standing still?”)

Crown of thorns?

I think the filmmakers may have missed a trick by not having the big outage occur at night, so you could at least have a dramatic blackout. Wise cuts to different countries around the world but it’s daylight everywhere. So all you get is stalled traffic and a stuck elevator.

Somehow the global power cut doesn’t kill anyone, but Fiona was sure some of the little animated figures in the park were directly UNDER Klaatu’s saucer when it landed — smushed to patê, the poor beggars, never to be seen again, their feet presumably curling up underneath, Witch of the East style.

Apart from Klaatu, Gort and Snub Pollard, the film features Dominique Francon and the High Lama.

Weird how other movies used this as an ur-text, even plagiarising the cast. Patricia Neal romances a space invader in the inferior STRANGER FROM VENUS (aka IMMEDIATE DISASTER, which is hilariously apt). Little Billy Gray, fifteen years later, is staunch in THE NAVY VERSUS THE NIGHT MONSTERS. Hugh Marlowe, Neal’s awful boyfriend, stars in EARTH VS THE FLYING SAUCERS, which is like the lamebrained twin of this movie — instead of visiting Washington monuments, the saucer-people disintegrate them. Despite my love of Harryhausen I’ve never really been able to love that film, it’s too much of a militaristic counter-response to TDTESS. I should also mention that this is really Gort’s second appearance in this season: Lock Martin, minus his robot costume, plays a circus giant in THE INCREDIBLE SHRINKING MAN. He’d also be a mutant in INVADERS FROM MARS.

I feel like Gort is also an important figure in terms of the whole look of Marvel Comics, somehow.

Ultimately, it transpires that Klaatu is here to deliver a blood-curdling threat, essentially treating the Earth the way the US treats other nations with regard to nuclear weapons: We’re allowed to have them because we’re civilised. You’re not, so you’re not. And then he buggers off.

The abruption of the ending is great — scifi/horrors that bring up their end titles as soon as the threat is dealt with are usually lousy — no subtext, no characterisation, hence no coda. But here, we don’t need any discussion as the climax of the film is actually a speech — it’s one of the few films outside of THE GREAT DICTATOR to go that way, and it feels like there’s a slight relationship between Chaplin’s anti-fascist film and Wise et al’s anti-nuke one. What worries me is that, having seen the way human beings think and operate in this film and in real life, we can be reasonably sure they’d immediately start trying to find loopholes in Klaatu’s unambiguous ultimatum, leading to potentially the shortest sequel in Hollywood history: THE DAY THE EARTH BLEW UP.