Posted by Greg Ferrara on June 27, 2012
I have had many a disappointing time at the cinema in my life, usually with sci-fi or horror, probably because they’re my two favorite genres from childhood and expectations ran high. And so many a movie I was excited to see just didn’t work. Since I came of age with movies in the seventies and eighties, many come from those decades and many have no saving grace. For instance, I was quite excited to see The Hindenburg when it came out, only to be bored to tears. Problem is, there’s not much you can do there. Since the destruction of ship happened in mere seconds, most of the screen time must be filled with dull fiction. With a ship like the Titanic, you’ve got enough time to center the entire movie around the sinking if you want to, as in A Night to Remember. But other movies I saw and thought, “This is bad but it could be good, really good. They’re just doing it wrong.”
For instance, in 1979 I was excited, very excited, for one movie and one movie alone, Star Trek: The Motion Picture (coincidentally directed by the same man, Robert Wise, behind The Hindenburg). I mean I was excited because the anticipation among fans was at a fever pitch. It’s kind of funny because looking back, it wasn’t that long from series to movie. The show ended its three year run in 1969 and less than ten years later production on the movie began. To me now that seems like no time at all. A show ending in 2002 and getting the big screen treatment now would seem pretty normal. But at the time, it felt like Star Trek had ended decades before and now, finally, we were going to see it again.
My brother and I went early, as in opening weekend early. We got our tickets and settled in for a great time revisiting characters we loved. The movie began with the Klingons chasing a mysterious electrical cloud and firing into it to no avail until the cloud fired back and destroyed the Klingons. Frankly, it was a great opening and I still think it ranks as the best opening to any of the Star Trek movies. And on top of that, the Klingons looked so different! No longer were they just some skinny guys with black hair and goatees, now they were actually made up to look alien (although now it’s kind of funny because they gave them bald pates which look odd compared to the Klingons of Next Generation and later). After that, the main story began and… and… didn’t move at all. It just kind of sat there for the next two hours until the credits rolled and my brother and I got up and thought, “Eh.”
The thing is, though, I kept thinking what a cool idea it is. The idea that a probe we sent out in the 20th century, the real life Voyager, is actually discovered by an alien life that takes its message of welcome and peace to heart and charts a course for Earth. And not just a cool idea for a sci-fi film in general but a particularly cool one for Star Trek because in Star Trek they’re always “seeking out new life and new civilizations” and in this story, it’s seeking them out. What a great bit of turnabout. The problem was that Robert Wise fancied he was directing 2001, Part II and took exceptionally long takes of everything. I mean, look, it’s great to see the Enterprise again after a whopping ten years but do we have to spend seven or eight minutes of screen time while Kirk and Scotty taxi to the damn thing and fly around it? And this kind of thing repeats itself throughout the movie. Long, long takes of inaction where the viewer is supposed to admire the beautiful effects and the viewer does but at a certain point we just need Spock to communicate with the damn thing and go home.
Add to that some of the worst costume design in the history of the Star Trek universe (the security details look like football players from 1920 and Kirk and the officers are forced into powder blue jumpsuits with floating buckles at the waist) and a total lack of feeling for the interaction of the characters from the show and you’ve got a trek that feels more like a trudge.
I’m telling you, there’s a good movie there just waiting to come out. Forget the over-the-top action of the recent reboot, make the next installment a reboot of this plot but without the trudging sensibility. Streamline it, cut out the loving attention to inaction and bring the thing in in under two hours. Do that, and you’ve got a movie. Really, you do.
Leaving the high-minded Star Trek behind, there’s another movie so renowned for its sheer awfulness that to list it here may seem disingenuous but I’m here to tell you Ed Wood was onto something with Plan 9 from Outer Space. Now, on my own site and elsewhere, I’ve gone to bat for this movie many a time. No, I’m not here to tell you it ranks with the best of Ophuls but I am here to tell you this: Watch Manos: The Hands of Fate without the MST3000 crew wising it up and see how much you can get through without either running from the room or kicking in your television. Manos is awful, truly and horribly awful. Plan 9 is not awful, it’s bad and yes, there’s a difference. Plan 9 is rushed and Ed Wood wrote pretty horrible dialogue. Also, he didn’t waste film so practically every first take made it into the movie and even so, it’s got a good pace to it and, by God, it’s entertaining – on its own, I mean. It is! It’s just not written well and Wood gets performances so varied in quality that it’s literally distracting to hear some of the actors say their lines (but not Dudley Manlove, that guy had a great voice). So I acknowledge all of that but still, that story could work.
The story of Plan 9 is no more or less ridiculous than any host of other sci-fi plots from the fifties. Some of the most revered sci-fi films of the decade (in fact, of all time) have men switching heads and arms with flies, giant ants attacking the southwest and an alien and his robot friend popping in to say, “make peace or we’ll kill you.” Heck, old Ed even managed to jump the gun on George Romero by several years by raising the dead, even if he didn’t know what to do with it. Now imagine a modern day director, perhaps someone with a feel for horror or sci-fi (I’ll let someone else suggest who) taking the time to tell the story of an alien race using the recently dead as a makeshift army. Given how popular zombies are in today’s horror fiction, I’m surprised someone hasn’t pounced on it sooner. The difference is, the movie would have thousands of zombies instead of, you know, three. See, that’s what Ed did wrong. He’d come up with an actual workable idea and then under-deliver to the point where you ask, “why’d you even bother?” So, yeah, three. An alien force comes down and decide to put us in our place with a dead old couple and a giant dead police detective. Okie-dokie. But with an effects budget in place, actors receiving good direction and a modern day take on the old notion of aliens hating us for our warring ways, it could work as a fun piece of sci-fi entertainment.
Now let’s go with two examples, one from horror and one from adventure, that don’t necessarily feature a single movie but rather a character that still hasn’t gotten the best he possibly could. The first is Dracula. Now, there have been a ton of movies featuring this character and some have been quite good but I still think about the book and the diary entries and the description of the count and I think, “Surely someone can make this work!” Now, like I said, there are a lot of great movies with this character and my favorite is the 1958 Hammer version, known in the states as Horror of Dracula. So I’m not saying the character has never been done well. What I’m saying is that a direct adaptation of the book, like Francis Ford Coppola’s 1992 version, has never fully succeeded cinematically.
There’s a great story there to be told but when Coppola attempted it in his version he went with an ill-advised opening “explanation” of Dracula that tied in Mina as a kind of long-lost star-crossed lover. And that’s not really the story at all. Nevertheless, Gary Oldman and Anthony Hopkins gave two magnificently big, playing-way-back-to-the-rafters, over-the-top performances that were salt-cured and honey glazed with a pineapple slice on top and thank God they did because the rest of the movie feels as undead as the lead character. Oh, and Tom Waits. Loved Tom Waits in that. But come on, surely someone can make a Dracula movie that actually works from the source book and produces something good. Right? Right? [shrugs]
Okay, now, for the last one, I nominate Tarzan as a character with a damned promising plot that keeps getting the shaft. Recently, I had to write up a Johnny Weismuller Tarzan movie for TCM’s main website and as I watched it (Tarzan and the Amazons, by the way) I was thoroughly entertained by its sheer silliness. Honestly, it was a fun watch and I thought how the Tarzan movies, after Tarzan of the Apes (both the 1918 and 1932 versions), became on the fly serial movies and how the big-budget, prestige production of Greystoke: The Legend of Tarzan, Lord of the Apes, with Hugh Hudson directing Christopher Lambert and Andi Glenn McDowell-Close was just a big bore and it struck me, “Someone needs to do this again and finally get it right.” Yes, it needs the big budget. No, it’s not Masterpiece Theatre. The idea that the 1984 version treated it as if it was a serious meditation on civilization and empire is ridiculous. This is Edgar Rice Burroughs, by gum, the man who gave us John Carter! So let’s do the novel, Tarzan of the Apes, and let’s take it seriously with a big-budget and first rate talent but let’s not forget it’s an adventure and make it an exciting and thrilling spectacle as well, something Tarzan on celluloid has always been denied. There’s a good story there, let’s do it.
When I see a movie with a good plot that doesn’t work I’m disappointed, not because it’s bad but because there was so much potential. One of the reasons I prefer not to write pans of movies (rather, I like to recommend movies I think are good) is because in most movies that don’t succeed, there’s something that could be good if it had been done just a little differently. From Star Trek: The Motion Picture to Tarzan, there are many elements that are splendid but don’t work given the dreck surrounding them. Still, you can see the promise right there in front of you. More movies than you think could be good if just a few things had been done differently, except of course Manos: the Hands of Fate. That’s just awful. Really, just awful.
Except for that twist ending. That… could work. Maybe. Right?
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