One of the things Hollywood is good at, when it comes to SF/F, is tarting up a good book until it’s nearly unrecognizable. And they’ve been at it for a while, too. Back in 1956 or so, Frank M. Robinson (Figure 1) took an SF trope—telekinesis—and married it to a thriller, giving us The Power. This novel dealt with the superman—not a “strange visitor from another planet,” but a home-grown, more evolved human. (“Yeah,” I hear you mutter, “Not exactly a new idea, is it? I mean, we’ve got ‘evos’ in Heroes: Reborn and a dozen other shows and movies.” Well, back in ’56 they weren’t as common; SF writers were just beginning their explorations of ESP and the like. Another one that stands out in my mind from that time is Jack of Eagles, by James Blish in 1952). But anyway, first (according to Macmillan’s website) they took The Power and made it into a TV movie with Theodore Bikel (I’d like to see that!) in the lead; then it became a George Pal movie in 1968. If you haven’t seen it, it’s available from Amazon; you can also see the trailer on YouTube (and the titles and credits, as well). Although this movie only scores about 6.1 on IMDB, I think that—despite George Hamilton being the lead—it’s a pretty good SF film!
We’ll examine the movie instead of the book, although I have a comment to make about movie vs. book. Those of you who are “classic” SF movie buffs will recognize the team behind the film: it was a George Pal production (he produced such SF classics as The Conquest of Space, The Time Machine, The Seven Faces of Dr. Lao, The War of the Worlds, and directed several as well. (As a director, his “Puppetoons” were well known for their imaginative stop-motion effects.) This movie, however, was directed by Byron Haskin, also a genre giant—Haskin is well known for directing The War of the Worlds and Robinson Crusoe on Mars, to name two. The cast includes the aforementioned Hamilton (who has since had other genre credits in both TV and movies, like Love at First Bite); Suzanne Pleshette (genre credits include Hitchcock’s The Birds and Miyazaki’s Spirited Away [voice acting]); Richard Carlson (It Came from Outer Space, Creature From the Black Lagoon, and many more); Yvonne De Carlo (possibly best known as Lily Munster from The Munsters); Earl Holliman (“Cookie” from Forbidden Planet); Gary Merrill (Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea, Time Tunnel, Earth II and many more); Arthur O’Connell (7 Faces of Dr. Lao, Fantastic Voyage); and Michael Rennie (possibly best known in genre as Klaatu, in the original The Day the Earth Stood Still). Oh, and the music is by Miklos Rozsa, whose screen credits are too many to mention, but who goes back to the 1940 Thief of Baghdad! Almost a Who’s Who of genre!
The screenplay, by “mainstream” screenwriter John Gay (Run Silent, Run Deep and How the West Was Won), concerns a professor named Jim Tanner (Hamilton), working on a project to test human endurance for the US government. He’s working with other scientists, namely Pleshett’s Dr. Margery Lansing (also Tanner’s girlfriend), O’Connell’s Professor Hallson, and Holliman’s “Scotty,” Prof. Talbot Scott, overseen by Rennie’s government agent Arthur Nordlund. During the trials, Hallson becomes convinced that there is a person with telekinetic powers interfering with their work, and ends up dying under circumstances that suggest he’s right. Soon, others are dying and Tanner ends up on the hot seat, being pursued by an unseeable threat: the “superhuman” Adam Hart. Who is Hart? The closer Tanner gets to an answer, the more danger he is in. He barely escapes trap after trap, until the movie’s final revelation. (Alert SF fans will have figured the secret out long before the end, but that doesn’t detract from the film’s effectiveness.) Hamilton, who is better known for his tan these days than his acting, which has never really been better than mediocre, does a pretty good job here. The film manages to maintain a high tension most of the way through. The special effects, highlighted by Pal’s stop-motion, are good for their time, although today a high-school student can do better with CGI (Figure 3). My main complaint with the movie is that they changed the book’s ending. I can’t say more than that, really, without giving something away. I found the book to be much more effective and well thought out, though, than the film.
I’m going to attempt to review the second film without being too disparaging, although I must confess I was terribly disappointed in it. It’s not really SF, though it kind of masquerades as SF; it’s more a fantasy along the lines of H.G. Wells’s “The Man Who Could Work Miracles,” and the director and co-writer, Terry Jones, has said he was influenced by that story. Jones himself has much “cred” with genre fans, as he was one of the original “Monty Python’s Flying Circus,” along with Graham Chapman, John Cleese, Terry Gilliam, Eric Idle and Michael Palin. The movie stars Simon Pegg, well known to genre fans from the movies Shaun of the Dead and Paul, to name two; and Kate Beckinsale, who here does not wear tight leather clothing as she did in several vampire (Underworld, Underworld Evolution, for example) movies. The movie also stars Robin Williams as the voice of Dennis the dog (and the surviving Pythons, sans Jones, also lend their voice talents); in fact, this was Williams’s last movie, although it was not released until nearly a year after he died. So with all that talent, how could this be a bad movie? Read on, dear reader; read on….
Pegg plays Neil Clarke, a schoolteacher who just doesn’t fit in anywhere; he teaches a bunch of unruly kids, is constantly late for work, owns a noisy dog (“Dennis”) in a pet-free apartment building, and yearns after his downstairs neighbour, Catherine, who works for a TV fashionista book reviewer, Joanna Lumley—I mean “Fenella.” Those of us who follow space news are aware that some years ago we sent a probe out into deep space (V’ger—I mean, Voyager!), along with a plaque showing two naked people and a map to where we live (dumbasses! I mean, geez: “Here we are, agressive aliens—come and get us!”). Well, at the beginning of this movie, we see V’ger—I mean Voyager—being sucked up into a giant spaceship somewhere out there. It is now in the possession of the “Council of the League of Great Galactic Beings” (or words to that effect) who are in the habit of evaluating worlds like ours to see if they meet the standards for admission into the League. (These beings are all CGI, but voiced by various Pythons.)
They have quite a collection of plaques like the one on V’g… Voyager, all showing different alien beings. (“Why do they always show their people with no clothes on?” asks one of the Council members, plaintively.) They, the Council, have a way of dealing with alien species who don’t measure up—they destroy them, planet and all. So they must evaluate Earth to see if we measure up, or will be destroyed like the other 2,000-plus alien species they’ve found. And the way they do this evaluation is to pick one member at random and give him/her/it the power to do “absolutely anything.” (Yes, I know you’ve figured it out—Neil will be the random person.)
From here it deteriorates into a series of not very funny skits, like making all the British police wear pink uniforms, and giving Dennis the dog the power of speech. And thereby hangs my complaint: with all these funny people involved, how come this movie is—if not actively boring—not very funny? I’m not sure how this film got a 6.0 rating on IMDB, actually. I won’t do spoilers, but I will say that you have been warned—even Paul, which I actively disliked—was funnier than this.
And now we come to American Hero. The main stars are Stephen Dorff and Eddie Griffin, and may I say that, for a movie that barely has any genre connection—Dorff was in the original Blade, and I think that’s about it—it’s a good genre movie. (Don’t be put off by the low IMDB rating—about 4.8—I think it’s much better than that.) The film takes place in present-day New Orleans, though you won’t see the usual shots of Bourbon Street and the French Quarter. It’s a movie about Melvin, a man with a telekinetic power. Unlike Adam Hart in The Power, Melvin keeps his power on the down-low for the most part. (By the way, the poster says “From Zero to Superhero,” but if you’re waiting for Melvin to don shiny Spandex and become a costumed crime fighter, you’ll have a long wait. This is a “superhero” movie with a difference. And maybe, just maybe, it’s a thinking person’s superhero movie.)
You see, Melvin is just an average Joe, really, and not exactly the stuff of which superheroes are made—he’s more like Hancock (Will Smith) in his drunken days, except with less power. Melvin is either divorced or separated, he has a mixed-race child named “Rex” (Jonathan Billions), and he’s been forbidden by a judge to be within 300 feet of either his ex-wife or his kid. And that’s partially because Melvin can’t hold a job—his main interests in life are sex, drugs and rock’n’roll (plus his kid), and not necessarily in that order. His best friend, Lucille (Griffin)—yes, it’s a deliberate joke—is in a wheelchair thanks to a sniper while he was serving in the US Army, and between Melvin and Lucille, it’s party-time 24/7.
Oh, yes, Melvin has this power, but he’s frittering it away doing stunts for tourists, like lifting Lucille in his wheelchair six feet off the ground; he also likes to listen to the police radio and get to “bad guys” first, causing their cars to crash and stealing their money and/or drugs before the cops get there. (He has a cop friend who, like Lucille, is trying to get him to clean up his act, but it’s not working.) He also does party tricks with this power; but he’s working with a professor friend—a college teacher—who’s trying to understand what it is and how it works. But Melvin really doesn’t take anything seriously enough to get a handle on it. Until one day he has an event—a heart attack, possibly—and decides to clean up his act.
Unfortunately, that lasts until he braces the local drug lord—to keep him away from his, Melvin’s, son and other schoolkids—and the drug lord takes it out on his friends, shooting Lucille in the arm. Lucille and his other friends blame it on Melvin and refuse to talk to him, so Melvin backslides in a big way.
Redemption (I’ll give you a little bit of a spoiler) eventually happens, and you can tell Melvin is actually on the right path for the first time in years, but there’s no Spandex here, and it’s all handled in a much more human way than, say, Hancock or Spiderman. I liked this movie, and gave it a 7 out of 10 rating on IMDB. I’d love to hear your take on it; I’m sure it will show up on Netflix soon, as it was released in mid-December.
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