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Sci-Fi And Superheroes

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Buried Treasures, Hidden Gems: Sci-Fi And Superheroes

Movies Due For a Revisit…

Last year, 403 movies were released in the U.S.  The year before that:  329.  That’s about half of what the industry was putting out pre-COVID:  786 in 2019, 737 the year before.  So, here’s my question:  even with these reduced numbers, how many of them do you know?  That you even just heard of?

Don’t feel bad.  It’s always been like this.  Some movies come and go so fast they never register, some are small indies that barely – if at all – make a blip on the box office radar.  There are, in fact, a lot of reasons movies disappear…providing they even make much of an appearance.  And now with the torrent of content from the various streaming services, that’s quite a crowd on your TV screen, each one fighting for attention.

Anything can kill a movie, and most of the time does.  Their distribution is too limited, their marketing effort too small, they’re mis-marketed and fail quickly, they’re a bit too quirky to get much box office traction, reviewers ignore them for more high-profile releases, or may they did review them but didn’t get them, sometimes they just get lost in the big deck shuffle, not making enough noise to break through the clutter of several hundred other titles.  They get missed, passed over, steamrollered, buried.

There’s nothing new in this; it has always been thus, at least as long as I’ve been alive (which is a sight longer than most of the other contributors to this site).  But what that means is out there in the celluloid graveyard are buried and forgotten some movies that deserved better, that are worth revisiting.  Some are buried gems, some are just then-little-noticed numbers that can provide pleasant and sometimes distinctive viewing, something a little bit different from the more visible stuff that usually grabs our attention.  Think of them as the movie version of the Island of Misfit Toys.

With your indulgence, I’m going to spend a few posts looking at some movies I think deserve a second look (in some cases, they died so quickly they didn’t even get much of a first look!).  I’m going to do it by genre, and I thought, considering what tops today’s box office, we’d take a gander at the sci-fi/superhero category as our opener.

In defense of this being such a short list (so short I’m not sure it even qualifies as a list!), it’s been my experience that very few releases in the sci-fi/fantasy/superhero genres get overlooked.  I’m not saying they all get much love, but the popularity of those genres over the last two-three decades means they nearly all get some attention, and the few that don’t, well, it’s usually a deserved dismissal.

But here’s a pair I always thought deserved a better fate…

Mystery Men

Mystery Men (1999)

d.  Kinka Usher
w.  Neil Cuthbert, based on Bob Burden’s Flaming Carrot Comics

Ok, it’s overlong, and Kinka Usher, who was an award-winning commercial director, never seemed to quite get a handle on the film.  Some scenes have that awkward feel of a first-time director not knowing how to put them together.  Reports are there were arguments on the set, Usher was getting frazzled with the scope of the project, nobody could seem to figure out a consistent tone for the film and, at a certain point, it does get to feel overlong.  Certainly nobody involved with the movie has ever looked back with kind words for it, and Usher, claiming he was fed up with the “nonsense” that went with making a big budget FX-using project ($68 million; that may not seem like much in today’s Marvel Universe but figuring in inflation, that would be the equivalent today of a not-too-shabby $121 million+) went back to directing commercials and, to date, has never directed another feature.

Still…

You don’t hear much about a movie’s “likeability.”  I’m not sure it was ever something reviewers used for justifying the cost of a ticket or a couple of hours of a viewer’s time, but I just find Mystery Men – for all its flaws – nicely likeable.

The Mystery Men of the title are wannabe superheroes, the kind of aspirants the headliner supers – like Captain Amazing (wonderfully haughty Greg Kinnear) – can be condescending to and dismissive of in a kind of very-nice-kids-but-go-away-you’re-bothering-me way.  They’re people like The Shoveler (William H. Macy — his superpower:  beats the hell out of people with a deftly wielded shovel), Mr. Furious (Ben Stiller, forehead vein throbbing because his only superpower is he gets…really angry!), The Blue Raja (Hank Azaria who flings forks around the way Ninjas use their throwing stars) and more.

It’s not just the fact that these wannabes’ superpowers aren’t all that super that makes them – to me – so likeable, but that in every other aspect of their lives, well, they have lives!  The Shoveler’s wife wants him to worry about bills and when he invites other wannabes to audition to be part of their not-so-superhero team, she warns him about letting them trash their backyard.  The Blue Raja, who affects an upper crust British accent, isn’t British, isn’t a raja, and is still living with his mother whom he crabs at like an angry teen for coming into his room without warning.  And so on.  There’s a kind of sweetness to it all; people who really aren’t all that exceptional wanting to emulate their heroes (who, it turns out, at least in Captain Amazing’s case, is pretty much a dick).

Mystey Men

The story, rambling and sometimes chaotic as it is, has Captain Amazing fretting that his market is drying up.  He’s put away all the city’s supervillains which doesn’t leave him with much to do.  He’s losing sponsors (Amazing’s superhero outfit carries more sponsorship labels than a field of NASCAR racers, and God forbid one of them pulls out – “We lost Pepsi?”) so he engineers the release of one of his favorite opponents, Casanova Frankenstein (Geoffrey Rush – why was this guy never a Bond villain?).  This backfires, Frankenstein captures Captain Amazing, and now our team of wannabes, under the spiritual guidance of The Sphinx (on-target deadpanning by Wes Studi issuing an endless supply of fortune cookie not-so-wise wisdom) has to rise to the occasion and save Amazing (which goes horribly wrong) and the city (typical big-budget superhero finale – but with laughs).

Mystery Men was announced during a flood of over thirty superhero movie production announcements in the late 1990s with the obvious intent of capitalizing on the swelling popularity of the genre by going the lampoon route, and scattershot as the movie is, it does come across not as an acidic skewering of the genre, but more like an affectionate parody.  In some ways, it may have more humor and charm today than it did on its release thanks to Marvel and DC superhero movies proliferating like mushrooms after a rain.  The digs are on target (a bit disturbing how superhero tropes haven’t changed much in a couple of decades), the satire at least mildly amusing, and even when the storytelling misses the cast is always fun to watch.

Is it great?  Is it the superb parody the genre – at this point – begs for?  Nah, not really.  But, as I said:  likeable!

Colossus:  The Forbin Project (1970) Aka The Forbin Project

Colossus: The Forbin Project (1970)

d.  Joseph Sargent
w.  James Bridges, based on the novel Colossus by D.F. Jones

Ok, concentrate!  Imagine a science fiction movie made on a modest budget, with almost nothing in the way of special effects, no big action scenes (in fact, no action scenes at all), and nothing in the way of star power either.  You don’t see much of that these days.  Oh, every once in a while you get something like Code 46 (2003) off the indie circuit, but rarely.  Let’s face it:  the sci-fi category is dominated by the big, the loud, and the spectacular!

In contrast, from the late 1960s and well into the 1970s there was a fairly constant line of sci-fiers that were smart, adult, and driven by drama and ideas.  Yeah, 2001:  A Space Odyssey (1969) may have set a gold standard for a generation of FX, but conceptually, it was about as different from much of today’s sci-fi as Melville’s Moby Dick is from Peter Benchley’s Jaws.  For the most part, we’re talking about movies like Fahrenheit 451 (1966), Planet of the Apes (1968), The Andromeda Strain (1971), A Clockwork Orange (1971), THX 1138 (1971), Slaughterhouse-Five (1972), Westworld (1973), The Stepford Wives (1975), Rollerball (1975)…  Well, you get the idea.

And somewhere in that lineup was Colossus:  The Forbin Project.  If that title doesn’t ring a bell while the others do, that’s because it’s a case study of what happens when a studio (Universal) has a movie they don’t understand and don’t know what to do with…even as all the reviewers are telling them, “Hey, this is pretty damned good!”

Colossus is a supercomputer designed by Dr. Forbin (Eric Braeden) to take over administering the country’s nuclear defense apparatus and thus eliminating the possibility of human error or misjudgment.  Almost as soon as Colossus is activated, it warns “There is another system” – mirroring the mutual nuclear buildup, the Russians (remember, the movie was made while there was still a Soviet Union) have developed a similar system for their defense.  Colossus and the U.S.S.R.’s Guardian link-up and become a single entity controlling the nuclear arsenals of both countries.

Colossus:  The Forbin Project (1970)

But the systems are too smart.  With their mission of insuring peace, the new Colossus/Guardian system takes total control of both countries threatening to punish any acts of disobedience or rebellion with the launch of one of its nuclear missiles.  Forbin realizes he’s created a sort of computer age version of Frankenstein.

Boiled down in synopsis, the movie can sound a bit like one of those computer-run-amok episodes of the old Star Trek TV series, but director Sargent and screenwriter Bridges, working from British sci-fi writer D.F. Jones’ first novel, execute this piece as neatly as an Olympic-caliber high dive that hits the water so smoothly it hardly makes a splash.  Every aspect of the flick – the sleek cinematography by Gene Polito, practical production design, a pace that makes you forget you’re watching a movie that’s mostly people talking, an articulate, drama-driven script delivered by a solid cast of Familiar Faces – comes together in a suspenseful, often disturbing bit of not-for-the-kids sci-fi.

The technology on display may seem a bit dated but it was state of the art in its day.  What isn’t dated – and may be even more relevant today – is its grappling with the possibilities and concerns over Artificial Intelligence, especially when combined with national defense.  Colossus is, after all, fulfilling its mission of bringing peace to the world, but through an exercise of in extremis logic; Colossus, being – in Forbin’s words – “…a paragon of knowledge” – knows Man cannot be trusted to manage himself, that left to his own devices, self-destruction is probably inevitable.  In an era where the constant, underlying threat of Mutually Assured Destruction (don’t forget how close we came with the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis) was a real thing, both the fear of nuclear war as well as the fear of computers getting too far ahead of us in managing those threats (see Fail-Safe [1964]) was a relevant thing then…and, I would venture, more so now.  I’d go as far as to say there are a few questions about our relationship with technology that doesn’t resonate with Colossus.

And unlike those Star Trek episodes, there’s no human self-back-patting outthinking this gigantic thinking machine.  Bridges’ script, which streamlines Jones’ novel (BTW, Jones worked with computers in codebreaking during WW II) and takes it from the 21st Century into something that looks just a few years ahead of 1970, doesn’t leave those kinds of we’re-better-than-any-machine loopholes.  At a certain point in the movie, it’s hard not to get a sinking sense of inevitability about how this is going to go.  And, in what was almost a signature of that era of American cinema, the filmmakers feel no obligation to provide a happy ending.

Reviewers of the time were generally impressed (and still are; Colossus currently holds an 88% positive critics rating on Rotten Tomatoes and a 76% positive audience score).  So what happened? 

In Twenty All-Time Great Science Fiction Films by Kenneth Von Gunden and Stuart H. Stock, the authors suggest Universal, well, there’s no nice way to put this:  they went chickenshit.  Here’s how they put it:

…Universal held up release for about a year…According to Sargent, the studio was unsure of how to market the film:  the issues it raised weren’t understood, it had no stars, and SF films were always “chancey”…

Von Gunden/Stock go on to report how Universal kept playing with the title, didn’t put up much money for publicity, never put together much of a release with the movie consequently “…suffering) a short, anguished life at the box office before it faded away.”

So, if you’re in the mood for a sci-fier that doesn’t have Star in the title, feel like have a little more intellectual meat. and could do with less dazzle for a change, I think you’ll find this an immensely satisfying treat.

####

NEXT BURIED TREASURES, HIDDEN GEMS INSTALLMENT:  LOVEABLE LOSERS

Written By

Bill Mesce, Jr.'s books include Overkill: The Rise and Fall of Thriller Cinema, the recently published The Wild Bunch: The American Classic That Changed Westerns Forever (McFarland), and The Screenwriter's Notebook: Reflections, Analyses, and Chalk Talk on the Craft and Business of Writing for the Movies (Serving House), as well as the novel Median Gray (Willow River Press) and Inside the Rise of HBO: A Personal History of the Company That Transformed Television.

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