Monday, November 9, 2020

Stealth Science Fiction Movies: SF Movies That People Don’t Think of Immediately as SF Movies Because There Aren’t Aliens or Flying Saucers or Robots or…[PART ONE of THREE]



Earthquake (1974)

Dr. No (1962)

The President’s Analyst (1967)

The China Syndrome (1979)

Seconds (1966)

A concept in film critiquing that I have not noticed as being identified, or at least labeled and codified yet, is what I call the Stealth Science Fiction Film.

If it brings to mind the Stealth fighter and bomber planes of the USAF, good: Those aircraft can sneak up on you without you ever knowing it, and seem to derive more from science fiction than plain old aerodynamics.

These are the films that when they are, say, mentioned in a conversation, don’t immediately leap to mind as science fiction (or “sci-fi” or “SF”).

And that sort of “blind spot” is accepted, and perhaps encouraged since SF is, still to this day, considered a trashy ghetto of zap guns and BEMs.

Just as recently as 2019, a tempest in a teapot was created when British author Ian McEwan (whom I’ve never read, but is supposedly one of those “new literary satraps,” or something…) made some snide remarks essentially saying that his “literature” was better than mere sci-fi—that his great literature could use SF tropes with impunity, but too bad, science fiction writers, what you create isn’t literature as is recognized by the academics!

Perhaps I’m mis-paraphrasing McEwan, but I really don’t care—I’m too filled with disgust at those authors who—and since I haven’t read him, I can’t critique McEwan, but I have read authors of the same “praised new gods of modern literature” segment, like Jonathan Lethem, Colson Whitehead, practically every National Book Award winner…

To be honest, some of these authors have written books I actually like (and have even re-read), but they have all used science fiction as a way to avoid more strenuous writing; they use it as a crutch—lazy writing. Whitehead’s Zone One is a zombie novel with no horrors, and few thrills, and often tangentializes itself into entries that read like a college sophomore’s diary. But with zombies.

I could list further literary crimes of this sort against science fiction, but I’ll instead sum up this point: I feel that these authors do not genuinely like SF, they actually consider themselves quite above it, but are willing to sully their petal-like fingers typing up something with “science fictional” elements to entertain the equally condescending intelligentsia, trick some of the hoi polloi into buying, and throw some gelt into el banco, so’s they can avoid for at least one more year having to score a gig teaching dopey undergraduates the ins-and-outs of creative writing at some middle-of-nowhere liberal arts college that gets seven feet of snow in winter and is in a dry county.

Movies do this, as well, but with much less intellectual snobbery, and for different reasons.

While the original 1977 version is a genuinely great, classic film deserving of all its praise, and as much as we love it, Star Wars being considered the ne plus ultra of science fiction does not really help the issue, either.

George Lucas’ blockbuster is really the most simplistic kind of fantasy, but set in space, and assisted by astounding world-building. But its lack of any strenuous intellectualism, and the ridiculous plotting of eventual films, keep it from being in that mystical/cosmic subsection of New Wave science fiction, like the novels Dune or Lord of Light.

But because it was monstrously successful, and thus psychotically influential, the cellular-level dopiness of Star Wars has helped keep SF in the ghetto essentially.

Perhaps I’m now being the snob, but I still do love, love, love that original film, and cherish my memories of seeing it at the age of 11, on May 28, 1977, at the now-defunct Loew’s Astor Plaza movie theater (an excellent and much-missed NYC movie house, where I also attended first-run screenings of The Man Who Would Be King, Apocalypse Now Redux, Titanic, Altered States, and many, many more).

I just want to point out that while the monstro-success of Star Wars ’77 (I will avoid calling it “A New Hope” at all costs) jumpstarted a sci-fi boom, the script’s lack of depth and over-emphasis on religious hogwash (I was disappointed that the Force wasn’t considered a form of telepathy, and don’t get me started about “Midochlorians” or whatever the fuck they are…. ) created a pernicious influence where what was being presented was more “Intergalactic Wizards” than genuine science fiction extrapolations of potential futures.

In regards to my general attitudes towards this Lucasfilm franchise—and like it or not, I’m a Star Wars geek—lemme tell ya, I breathed a huge sigh of relief when Season One of The Mandalorian concluded, and the show’s streak of awesome “Shogun Assassin Goes Space Spaghetti Western” madness was unbroken. The Mandolarian may not have always batted 1.000, but it sure played a great game. Looking forward to Season Two… (and so far, I’ve really enjoyed episodes one and two…).

Leaving “a galaxy far, far away…,” and returning to our topic at hand:
If the film isn’t “space ship and monsters” science fiction, but a drama or comedy that has science fictional elements in it, the producer of that film many want to downplay the SF (no reason to put the horses off their feed, Ma…), and play up other elements, like the drama, comedy, music, or the A-list star power that will be on-screen.

Sometimes there are YouTube videos/lists of films about this topic, but usually it’s a list of underrated SF films, so I guess I’m trying to aid in the mainstreaming of SF—and it IS everywhere: Didn’t you get the memo? It won! Everything is now science fiction!

This is Part One of “Stealth Sci-Fi Movies,” and we will be covering:
—Earthquake (1974)
—Dr. No (1962)
—The President’s Analyst (1967)
—The China Syndrome (1979)
—Seconds (1966)

*[Yeah, yeah, yeah… SPOILERS, dude.]*

Earthquake (1974)
Directed and produced by Mark Robson
Screenplay by George Fox & Mario Puzo

I’ll admit that this might seem like a hard sell as SF, the flick being a supreme soap opera of Hollywood spectacle, but consider this: The movie is the step-by-step, almost scientific, extrapolation of potential geological events, set in one of the largest, most overdeveloped, overpopulated metropolitan areas anywhere in the world. Sci-fi is all about those “What if…?” questions, in this case “What if L.A. got hit by a Richter 10 earthquake—while Chuck Heston was having an affair with superfoxy Genevieve Bujold?”

By including this one, it’s almost problematic, because it could then mean all disaster movies not based on actual events could be included (Sorry, old chap, although equal to Earthquake in soap opera goofiness and cheesy-yet-awesome old school special miniature and visual effects, no Krakatoa, East of Java for you!): “What if a tidal wave hit a retiring cruise ship and capsized her on New Year’s Eve?” “What if the world’s tallest building caught fire on its gala grand opening?” “What if terrorists hijacked the Goodyear blimp and planned to kill everyone at the Superbowl?”

But not really—where’s the science? In that case, something as obnoxious as Twister with its “scientists” doing “stuff” is deffo sci-fi (you know, in as much as The Invasion of the Saucer Men is sci-fi, I suppose…), but more obviously so than in The Poseidon Adventure, The Towering Inferno, or Black Sunday (although these are all better films and actually more scientifically sound than Twister or some others that could—and probably will be—be mentioned…). In Earthquake, while you see geologists postulating, arguing, and theorizing (and getting crushed by falling debris), that’s really more of an expository subplot set in motion to develop the film’s tension (otherwise the quake that ruins the Heston-Bujold-Ava Gardner love triangle would be coming out of nowhere; while that’s what happens in real life, a deus ex machina like that in cinema is unacceptable).

Otherwise, there’s not much science per se in the movie. It’s more a question of scale, combined with location, to drive this as a SF story. It’s a 10-point super-quake, with its epicenter in Los Angeles. A movie speculating about a seismic event of this magnitude in the middle of an empty desert might be interesting as SF, I guess, but would really be more fitting for a PBS science special.

The trio of non-SF disaster movies listed above respectively have things only happening in one localized event: a capsized ship, a burning building, a doomed sporting event. They’re thrillers, and technology is utilized, but not in the genuinely new way that would classify them as SF.

The interesting thing about disaster movies is how many are totally obviously sci-fi, and don’t try and hide it, sometimes reveling in the insane spectacle, like Roland Emmerich’s double whammy of exceedingly questionable science and spectacular, world-scale destruction, The Day After Tomorrow (2004; what if North America was frozen by a climate change theory that makes less sense than Dr. Freeze’s Freeze-Ray?) and 2012 (2009; this movie is SICK in how much it gleefully carouses in its total destruction, and yet is actually quite subversive amidst all the falling rubble of centuries of civilization’s treasures—this movie comes straight out and says that if you are FILTHY FUCKIN’ RICH, no matter how infirm, old, or absolutely useless you may be, you have a place on the Ark and will survive the apocalypse—the greatest surgeons, artists, and engineers can all go fuck themselves, as long as the senile Queen of England or a morbidly obese Russian oligarch survives…. The only thing 2012 needed was a postscript where we see the “unders” literally roast and devour the plutocrats).

Either director Roland Emmerich’s heart is in the right place, but he only chooses the theories that could provide the most visually outrageous outcome; or else he’s secretly working for the oil companies trying to discredit the Green movement.

The Day the Earth Caught Fire

When it involves space stuff, like a solar flare or a meteor, it’s immediately obvious that it is Disaster SF (like 1961’s The Day the Earth Caught Fire, directed and co-written by sci-fi vet Val Guest, a blast from the past that would fit right in today, only substitute the warning about excessive nuclear testing to one of climate change), but sometimes also ends up in a sort of different category—Armageddon, Meteor, Deep Impact, The Core, and their ilk are almost more like techno-thrillers: Armageddon (mmmm… Liv Tyler: meeeeeeow!) might as well be John Wayne’s The Hellfighters (mmmm… Katherine Ross: meeeeeeow!) set in space.

The realm of the techno-thriller genre is one whose Venn diagram can intersect deeply into SF’s.

Which is a nice, but roundabout, way to introduce….

Dr. No (1962)
Directed by Terence Young
Produced by Harry Saltzman & Albert R. Broccoli
Screenplay by Richard Maibaum, Johanna Harwood, and Berkely Mather (with Wolf Mankowitz & Terence Young, uncredited)
Based on the novel by Ian Fleming

Totally stealth sci-fi. While this first entry into the iconic, never-ending, always-rejuvenating franchise (surpassed only in longevity and thematic resurrections by Gojira/Godzilla himself!) is considered groundbreaking for its then very-adult treatment of sex and violence, it starts off like your regular old Cold War spy movie, but set in the Tropics, as opposed to dreary old Eastern Europe.

An agent goes missing while on assignment in the Caribbean, and the commander at Military Intelligence sends one of their super-spy assassins (super-sexy young Sean Connery, R.I.P.) to investigate. But when Bond is captured by the so far only-hinted-at villains, that’s when things go into the stratosphere.

Thankfully, actor Joseph Wiseman underplays the titular character because it skirts dangerously close to a Yellow Peril caricature (by many accounts, Fleming’s original novel does its best to rip off Fu Manchu with the worst possible Asiatic stereotypes). A special operative for secret criminal society SPECTRE, Dr. No is himself equipped with cyborg hands, has a beautiful Ken Adams-designed nuclear lab (it was because of his work on Dr. No that Kubrick hired Adams for Dr. Strangelove), and uses super-science tech to destroy U.S. space launches, all of which qualifies as sci-fi to me.

Dr. No's awesome lab

Later Bond flicks will be even more obviously sci-fi, and many of those elements routinely show up in the subsequent movies as major plot motivators: the space hijackings (with their deliciously cheesy effects) of You Only Live Twice, the diamond-laser satellite in Diamonds Are Forever, the nuclear sub hijackings of The Spy Who Loved Me (which was a sort-of remake of YOLT), and the stolen shuttle in Moonraker (which was itself a sort-of remake of TSWLM). [Those last two Bonds had stellar effects work that was supervised and designed by ace FX wiz Derek Meddings.]

The end of Dr. No's awesome lab

For me, it’s those overt science fictional elements that make a Bond film a Bond film, that makes it stand out from simple Cold War hijinks. Ian Fleming movies are not John le Carré movies. Even the least science fictional of the 1960s Bonds—From Russia With Love, On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (the two least “gimmicky” of those old school Bonds), and Thunderball (probably the “gimmickiest” of those old school Bonds)—had “McGuffins” that were hardly mundane, everyday criminal activities: a high-tech decoder; mind control and bioterrorism; and stolen nukes, respectively.
Various spaceship effects from 
You Only Live Twice

(And the Derek Flint films, and some of the Matt Helm movies, might also qualify as super-spies-in-goofy-sci-fi, more on a level with something like
Barbarella or Danger: Diabolik, than say 2001 or Solaris.)

On the other hand—when there are no sci-fi elements in a Bond film, you get...
Dreadfully and hardly subtly racist (its dog-whistle: Black people are one great, big interconnected international conspiracy out to kill Whitey), Live and Let Die is really just a souped-up French Connection rip-off about international heroin trafficking (wild, out-of-control NYC car chase included); and the grim and lackluster License to Kill is a mere dope cartel flick, a Chuck Norris actioner for Cannon Films, but with a British accent and a better tailor.

The explosive end to the awesome
lab in The Man With
the Golden Gun.
James Bond hates laboratories.

(I get the feeling that the throwaway “Solar-Powered Weapon” subplot of The Man With the Golden Gun was added only so that there would be a spectacular “Big Bang” conclusion to the flick.)

So far, the Daniel Craig Bonds that I’ve seen have been the least science fictional, and really come off like an obstinately bitter and self-righteous Jason Bourne flick.

Which is the complete opposite of our next selection….

The President’s Analyst (1967)
Directed and written by Theodore J. Flicker
Produced by Stanley Rubin

The phenomenally smart The President’s Analyst is a barbed, but laugh-out-loud look at a changing world, with a message of Love is better than hate and suspicion, and may help us survive the hate and suspicion around us. This is really the only “If you haven’t seen this movie yet, stop everything and find it and watch it NOW!” film on this list, and I can’t stress enough how this flick is absolutely MUST SEE.

Led by perennially-awesome suave dude James Coburn, the cast (many veteran improvisational comedians included) is impeccable as the audience is treated to what would happen if the psychiatrist to POTUS, privy to all the Commander-in-Chief’s private thoughts and fears, starts to himself crack under the strain—there is no one the psychiatrist can tell his problems to! Coburn runs away from the White House, and first hides in suburbia, (watch Brooklyn-born character actor William Daniels, yes, the voice of KITT, and who usually plays mild-mannered types, going full Chuck Bronson-Death Wish!) then with the counterculture, all the while stalked by a cadre of international espionage agents all of whom want the President’s secrets locked in the headshrinker’s noggin, as well as by the more dangerous, and patriotically/fascistically self-righteous, FBR (a stand-in for the FBI), who want to kill Coburn to prevent those secrets from getting into the wrong hands. Supposedly, writer-director Flicker had been inspired by a Washington, D.C. cocktail party he once attended: The partygoer who looked the most miserable turned out to be a psychiatrist assigned to the Pentagon, who had to listen—and not share—the problems and neuroses of the top-clearance generals and admirals.

The President’s Analyst
is even more stealth science fiction than Dr. No because when the sci-fi elements are introduced, it seems like they are coming out of left field. However, A) the “sci-fi” choice makes brilliant sense if you’ve been analyzing the comedic structure of the film, as well as the targets The President’s Analyst has been choosing; and B) on subsequent viewings, the flick gives you plenty of visual clues: Watch it again with a good, hi-def, wide-screen version, and note how many “TPC” stickers, vehicles, and signs abound.

Among other targets, this magnificent satire throws zingers at politics, the intelligence agencies (here, the poorly dubbed-over “FBR” and “CEA”), the youth movement, pop music, spy movies, racism (Godfrey Cambridge’s moving monologue at the start is especially notable), and of course psychoanalysis. So, it would make perfect sense that the soulless, monolith, impersonal corporation that is The Phone Company (TPC) would be shown to be staffed and run by androids (and here, the flick pokes fun at Disneyland’s animatronic Presidents display). Compounding the sci-fi angle, mind control and advances in cybernetic technology are introduced: In the cutest l’il animated promo movie (animated by Pink Panther cartoon creators DePatie-Freleng, who incidentally also produced animations for Bell Telephone back in the day (!!!)), TPC demonstrates how nanobot neural transmitters will be injected into people’s cerebral cortex to provide instantaneous phone access to anyone anywhere—and TPC thinks that its listening in on all conversations and being literally plugged into people’s brains would not be a bad thing.

The FBI hated this movie ("The shit hit the fan," recalled director Flicker), influenced pressure, and had it buried on its initial release. Luckily, it was rediscovered on TV later, but writer-director Theodore Flicker was blackballed, and tragically, the only other work of note by him was creating the beloved, very humanist TV sitcom Barney Miller

It needs to be noted that the soundtrack by composer and musical god Lalo Schifrin is a neo-psychedelic delight, with angelic choruses taking us to the head-spinning heights of paranoia, like cocktail music on LSD (which isn't far off the mark...). For the longest time, it wasn't available in any format (and to put it on party tapes, I'd have to run my VCR through my tape-deck...), then it was, but now out-of-print...

The China Syndrome (1979)
Directed by James Bridges
Produced by Michael Douglas
Screenplay by Mike Gray, T. S. Cook, and James Bridges

To think that there was once a time when Michael Douglas had essentially throttled back on acting, and was concentrating on producing. He co-produced Milos Forman’s 1975 One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (once a potential project for Mike’s dad, Kirk, in the early-1960s), and won an Oscar for his efforts. As a producer, he later guided 1984’s Romancing the Stone as a vehicle for then-superstar Kathleen Turner. I think Douglas cast himself in productions like this and The China Syndrome as a way to keep costs down, keep his hand in acting, and for juicy roles that he would be otherwise overlooked for because of whatever popular perception existed about him at the time. Interestingly enough, even though his character of the broken-down adventurer in Romancing the Stone was essentially secondary, he was an action-packed, off-the-wall scene-stealer, and the role vaulted him back onto the A-list for actors. 

Before that happened, because originally-cast Richard Dreyfus had to step out, Douglas put himself in the tertiary role of an angry-hippie cameraman in The China Syndrome which was essentially a vehicle for Jane Fonda, post-Coming Home victory, supported by uber-professional and reliable drama vet, Jack Lemmon. The story of an “incident” at a nuclear power plant, and the corporate cover-up that could possibly lead to an even worse accident, when The China Syndrome was released, it was treated initially as a “journalism thriller” (a la All the President’s Men), got positive reviews, and was doing respectable business—until the events at Three Mile Island made the flick go boffo. (And I bet a lot of TV stations in the U.S. reran The China Syndrome when Chernobyl happened in 1986.…)

It’s science fiction for the simplest of reasons: it’s fiction dealing with a science topic in a genuinely technical manner (engineers and the like working on reactors). Returning to my earlier comments about the “Sci-Fi Ghetto”—it’s like what Kickboy Face says about admitting that you like Punk Rock (in the excellent documentary The Decline of Western Civilization)—no one wants to admit it because they’re “afraid of getting kicked out of the party, and no one will give you coke anymore.” Unfortunately, that means that if you want your film to be taken seriously, you cannot advertise that it’s science fiction. But watch this film again (and it is worth a second viewing if you’ve only seen it once—and personally, I think it stands up to multiple viewings), and keep these things in mind, and you will recognize The China Syndrome as science fiction.

Seconds (1966)
Directed by John Frankenheimer
Produced by Edward Lewis
Screenplay by Lewis John Carlino
Based on the novel by David Ely

Fantastically composed by director Frankenheimer (whose The Manchurian Candidate, with its super-advanced brainwashing techniques, qualifies as proto-stealth sci-fi, as well), Seconds shows us a weary, middle-aged businessman gets the chance to “start again,” and takes it—not realizing that changing the “outside” means nothing if the “inside” is still the same.

With plastic surgery so ubiquitous, this “John Cheever vs. Franz Kafka in the Twilight Zone” story is not obvious SF at first (and wealthy people hide all the time—Hi, Ghislaine!). But the surgery is actually radical, experimental super-surgery, and where the protagonist goes to live post-surgery has such a strong “controlled environment/surveillance state” vibe (a la “The Village” in the TV show The Prisoner) that you could call Seconds a “New Wave Science Fiction” film—which makes a wonderful sense since Frankenheimer used the then-groundbreaking-to-Hollywood techniques and camera tricks of the French New Wave film movement to bring this story to life.

Vastly underappreciated and almost impossible to see for a long time, it wasn’t until the AIDS-related death of star Rock Hudson that this film gained so much subtextuality that a critical reappraisal was demanded. Subtext or not, in one of his rare solely-dramatic roles, Hudson gives a great performance as the “Second,” bringing much pathos to the role of the doomed man. Creepiest opening credits, too.

Next time,

Part Two of “Stealth Sci-Fi Movies” will cover five more, including Repo Man (1984), Carrie (1976), The Man in the White Suit (1951), some surprises, and so much, much more! 
[And I'm sorry, I have not idea why the font sizes keep changing. There's something going on with blogspot...]

See you then!

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