The Unsung Legacy of Dan O’Bannon and DARK STAR

|Zach Jansen|

During his thirty-five-year career, screenwriter (and sometimes director) Dan O’Bannon (1943-2009) had fewer than a dozen screenplays produced. But a quick check of his IMDb page shows more than thirty writing credits to his name, mostly due to one script: Alien (1979).  Director Ridley Scott and creature designer H.R. Giger get the bulk of the credit for the Alien franchise’s success, but O’Bannon’s screenplay remains the basis for every Alien film, video game, comic book, or toy. He is the connective tissue that binds more than forty years of genre cinema, from the 1979 film to the upcoming third Alien prequel.

O’Bannon launched into filmmaking alongside iconoclastic director John Carpenter, with 1974’s Dark Star. Dark Star started as a 45-minute student film, budgeted at $65,000 (about $312,000 in 2019). In addition to writing Dark Star, O’Bannon also designed the special effects, edited the film, and appeared in front of the camera as Sergeant Pinback. In addition to directing, Carpenter scored and co-wrote the project. When shopping for distribution, the novice filmmakers faced an obstacle: the movie was too long for a festival short and too short to release as a feature. Instead of shelving the project, the duo decided to increase its runtime, adding a subplot about an alien creature pursuing Pinback.

After brainstorming how to depict the alien without putting someone in a rubber suit, O’Bannon and Carpenter landed on the idea of painting a beach ball red and affixing a pair of rubber reptilian feet to it. O’Bannon loved the design because it fit with the mundane absurdity of the film’s plot. Carpenter embraced it because it discouraged viewers from psychoanalyzing the creature.[1] The id-based alien does what it does because that’s what it was made to do.

This approach to Dark Star’s alien also put it in line with the film’s themes. The crewmembers of the scout ship Dark Star have traveled the galaxy destroying planets for twenty years. They carry out their mission because, at this point, it’s all they know. Then there’s Bomb 20, a thermostellar device that realizes it only exists to explode. On screen, these elements could easily have come across as disconnected, even arbitrary. Instead, they come together to create a [wry, sometimes hilarious] film about accepting one’s purpose in life.

In O’Bannon’s next film, he fully developed the concept of an id-driven being. Writing about Dark Star, he remarked

This movie is a comedy. I wanted to be sure and clarify that right up front, because when the film was first released to the paying public they didn’t seem to realize it was supposed to be funny.… My second film—Alien—was basically Dark Star made scary. I figured, “If I can’t make them laugh, maybe I can make them scream.”

There would not be Alien (or its numerous imitators) were it not for Dan O’Bannon. But first, his bizarre sense of humor resulted in Dark Star and its unknowable, unstoppable, laughable “monster”: a beach ball with claws.


[1] Jason Zinoman, Shock Value: How a Few Eccentric Outsiders Gave Us Nightmares, Conquered Hollywood, and Invented Modern Horror (New York: Penguin Books, 2012) 58.

Edited by Greg Hunter

Dark Star screens as part of Trash Film Debauchery on Wednesday, August 21. Get tickets and learn more on the Trylon’s website.

IT!, ALIEN, and Genre Conventions

|Zach Jansen|

Let the following description unspool in your mind’s eye: A spacecraft from Earth is boarded by an unknown alien. Before you know it, the alien begins attacking and killing off the crew members one by one. The surviving crew does its best to fight the creature but discovers that the alien is seemingly super powered and near indestructible. As the crew dwindles in number, the situation becomes more desperate. When all seems lost, the remaining crew members devise a plan to send the alien into the vacuum of space.

While the above summary could describe any number of films, two in particular have been selected as a part of the Trylon’s August screening schedule: the B-grade It! The Terror from Beyond Space (Edward L. Cahn, 1958) and Ridley Scott’s classic Alien (1979). The films differ beyond measure in terms of acting, production design, story, and suspense, but both are great reference points for the “alien on the ship” subgenre of science fiction movies. Even though they’re separated by about 20 years their respective adherence to genre conventions is timeless and worth exploration.           

The late film historian Robert Osbourne aptly summed up It! when introducing it for Turner Classic Movies: “It’s what fans of sci-fi of the 50s loved best about the genre. It has low-budget sets and effects, wild predictions of what our future will look like, and a menace that only a drive-in crowd could truly love.” But that lack of quality can be overlooked when examining how It! turns those budgetary disadvantages into powerful interpretations about our world. The first thing to note is that the main set is redressed to represent different levels of the ship. This can be explained away from a budgetary standpoint, but from a thematic angle the recycled set indicates that changes to our environment, however slight, do not eradicate the threats of the present. Colonel Carruthers (Marshall Thompson) is accused of murdering his colleagues on the first mission to Mars and he returns to Earth for a court-martial. He denies the allegations, but without proof he doesn’t stand a chance. When “It” sneaks onto the ship, it’s as if the creature stands in for Carruthers’s terrible ordeal on Mars, one that follows him back home. He can’t escape the death and horror found on Mars, even as he and the crew move from one level of the ship to the next, and even as they race closer to Earth. In the film, Mars seems to represent the future, but like the film’s sets, this future only changes in appearance rather than content or purpose. As the final line of the film states, “Another name for Mars is Death,” which suggests that death cannot be escaped, even on a distant planet. The theme of death is emphasized by the film’s use of light and shadow. Cinematographer Kenneth Peach—who would later lens 25 episodes of The Outer Limits (1963-1965)—employs a pseudo-noir lighting scheme, especially whenever Carruthers talks about Mars. When this technique is paired with the shadowed shots of “It” lurking through the ship, the connection between Mars and death becomes clear to the viewer.

Thirty years later, Alien’s similar use of cinematic techniques—especially lighting and cinematography––brought this subgenre to a pinnacle of suspense through scares, designs, and effects. With a background in commercials, director Ridley Scott came to the film knowing how to manipulate and persuade an audience. He brings this skill to Alien in the scene when Kane is attacked by the facehugger. In almost complete silence, alternating between medium close-ups of Kane and shots from Kane’s point-of-view, the suspense builds to unbearable levels. This pattern of shots situates Kane as a point of identification for the viewer––we watch and experience the tension mounting in the character onscreen. Then, through a series of five point-of-view shots occurring in less than a second and an otherworldly squeal, the facehugger launches from the egg and latches on to Kane’s/our face. This shock is followed by a quiet and empty wide shot of the forsaken planet, giving us a moment to both grasp what has happened and realize how alone the Nostromo is.

Throughout the film, Scott keeps the camera around eye level and employs point-of-view shots, which makes the viewer feel like an eighth (or ninth, depending upon one’s thoughts about Jonesy the cat) member of the crew. This technique becomes more powerful as the crew splits up to find the chest-burster. The camera floats down the dark, dank corridors, and with it, so do we. Like the crew, we know to expect anything after everything that’s happened to Kane, and the first time one watches Alien, there’s no way anyone could expect the creature that the crew finally encounters.

Alien’s use of light is similar to It! in that the shadows and low-key lighting also seem to represent death, or the possibility of it. The planet the Nostromo lands on, LV-426, is lifeless and unforgiving. Despite Mother, the computer, stating that the sun is rising, a light-blocking wind storm whips across the landscape. The relic in the antechamber is large, grey, and foreboding, and the xenomorph is sleek and black. Moreover, at the end of the film, when Ripley blasts the alien from the ship, it disappears into the endless darkness of space. In contrast to the overwhelming darkness in the film, the lighting in the final moments of the Alien––a blast of bright, blinding white light as Ripley activates the shuttle’s thrusters and leaves the intruder behind––highlights the connection between light and life, because her will to live wins over the seemingly unstoppable force of death, personified by the xenomorph.

Looking at the two films together, we see the cinematic growth of the genre from the low-grade, no-budget quickies that rolled out at drive-ins to the big-budget special effects films made by visionary directors. Like all genres, the beginnings are humbler than the matured form; but like all things in life, we should never forget those that came before. While no one expected It! to be a box-office success or even a genre classic, it reminds us that films are historical products, inspired by the world from which they’re created.

Bibliography

Doherty, Thomas. “Genre, Gender, and Aliens Trilogy.” The Dread of Difference: Gender and the Horror Film, edited by Barry Keith Grant, University of Texas Press, 1996, pp. 181-199.

Luckhurst, Roger. Alien. Palgrave Macmillan, 2014.

Edited by Michelle Baroody

Catch It! The Terror from Beyond Space from Friday, August 16 to Sunday, August 18 at the Trylon Cinema. Tickets and more information available here. Make it a space-horror double feature and stay for Event Horizon.

EVENT HORIZON: Hell is only a word. Reality is much, much worse.

|Matthew Tchepikova-Treon|

Artwork by Joe Midthun

I. Diabolus Ex Machina

Year 2047: A haunted recording travels through space. The sound of women and men screaming. A demonic voice familiar to the Satanic-Panic parents who feared their teenagers’ vinyl LPs played in reverse. The distress signal belongs to the Event Horizon. Seven-years-lost and long thought destroyed, this serpentine Notre Dame of deep space research vessels—at the core of which churns a gravity drive designed to bend spacetime for the purposes of intergalactic and inter-dimensional travel—has suddenly reappeared in orbit around Neptune. Onscreen text during the film’s opening catches us up to speed: In 2015, humans established the first permanent colony on the Moon, while commercial mining began on Mars in 2032. We don’t know the conditions of Earth, but clearly a galactic rehearsal of imperialist history is underway (in a U.S./U.K. co-produced film released one month after the United Kingdom ceded the territory of Hong Kong to the People’s Republic of China, effectively marking the end of the British Empire, no less). Enter the U.S.S. Lewis & Clark. A rescue crew filters the haunted distress signal and isolates a single voice speaking in Latin: “Liberate me [Save me].” Onboard, the Event Horizon’s video log shows its original crew in the throes of an orgiastic slaughter. Traveling through an artificial wormhole at superluminal speed, the ship inexplicably left the known physical universe; it brought something back. Shortly after a rescue crew member realizes the voice on the recording actually says, “Libera tutemet, ex infernis [Save yourself, from Hell],” we find him hanging in body suspension fashion, skin threaded and stretched to the ceiling, vivisected with the sentient spacecraft—diabolus ex machina.

Artists have long conjured the netherworld through infernal noise. The name for Milton’s capital city of Hell in Paradise Lost, Pandæmonium, still denotes noisy chaos and disorder in casual language. Additionally, beginning in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, sound recordings themselves became inextricably associated with death when phonograph companies began to market their new technologies as a way to hear “the voices of the dead.” Further still, as Sound Studies scholar Jonathan Sterne writes in his book The Audible Past, because these technologies, capable of transubstantiating disembodied voices, developed concurrently with new embalming techniques for the preservation of human corpses, “sound reproduction itself became a distinctive way of relating to, understanding, and experiencing death, history, and culture.” And sound haunts all those on board the Event Horizon. Its emits a grotesque electric hum, arouses violent auditory hallucinations, and preserves the voices of its dismembered crew. To borrow a phrase from Sterne, the ship becomes a “resonant tomb.” Roger Ebert perhaps described the film’s sound design best as “those barely audible, squeaky, chattering, voice-like noises that we remember from 2001: A Space Odyssey, which give you the creepy feeling that little aliens are talking about you.” Only, Event Horizon exchanges extraterrestrials for a perils-of-technology story set inside a haunted house. This medieval space vessel is The Overlook Hotel downloaded to HAL 9000. Paramount Pictures even promoted Event Horizon as The Shining in space (with metal orthodontic cheek retractors).

II. Techno-gothic Soundscapes

Premium Nineties schlock, Event Horizon lacked both the subcultural capital of low-budget genre fare and the prestige of industry-advancing spectacles like the decade’s sci-fi titans Jurassic Park, Apollo 13, or The Matrix. However, Event Horizon’s postmodern circuitry does yield intertextual communication with all three of these films. At the start of the decade, Sam Neill showed us the dystopian limits of high-finance scientism inside Jurassic Park, but aboard the Event Horizon, his eyeless Dr. Weir (the ship’s creator) becomes the literal embodiment of government-funded Promethean hubris. By the end of the decade, Laurence Fishburne’s Captain Miller goes on to command the Nebuchadnezzar as Morpheus. And back in 1995, we watched Kathleen Quinlan as Marilyn Lovell, wife of Jim Lovell, suffer a vivid and foreboding nightmare about her husband being ripped from the Apollo 13 spacecraft. On the Event Horizon, rather than a premonition, her character’s nightmares are idiosyncratic visions of regret. Because, as with all good ghost stories, contrition becomes an implement of psychological torture that ultimately manifests itself in corporeal quietus, and the Event Horizon wields human guilt with surgical precision.

When Dr. Weir hears the voice of his dead wife, we wonder if she’s on the spacecraft or merely in his head. Each time a crew member experiences an auditory hallucination, we’re left wondering if the violence that follows is actually happening. But by the time a merciless banging sound sends Quinlan’s character running down a corridor, to an enclosed space with the others, just before the noise catches up to her and bends the room’s metal door in half, the distinction between real and imagined, or even hearing and seeing, ceases to exist. “Have you heard it?” one crew member asks the others, “It shows you things.” And his odd conflation of visual and aural stimuli quite succinctly diagnoses the psychotechnical effects of sound in horror cinema.

As a young child, I remember walking into my father’s living room one night and seeing a deranged axe-wielding Jack Torrence lumbering around on TV. My father encouraged me to look at him instead of the screen, but the sound continued. When I asked what the movie flickering in the darkened room behind me was about, his answer couldn’t have been more perfect: “It’s about a dad who has ghosts in his head.” That’s one hell of a thought to put in the mind of a five-year-old.

Soundtrack-wise, Event Horizon’s musical pairing of film composer Michael Kamen and British electronica duo Orbital—think Max Steiner run through an E-mu sampler with an 808—falls well short of The Shining’s Wendy Carlos and Penderecki (et al.). Still, the film’s mashup of S&M kink and high-voltage spiritualism conjures a slate of dread-inducing artists—from 12th-century nun Herrad of Landsberg, to Dante, Bosch, and Coleridge, all the way through H. R. Giger, Clive Barker, and Floria Sigismondi—such that Event Horizon became somewhat of a techno-gothic prototype, its style showing up in a number of subsequent Nineties movies—e.g., Stigmata (with a Billy Corgan-produced soundtrack) or End of Days (containing the first song released by a newly Chinese Democratized Guns ’n’ Roses)—where archaic languages, industrial guitar riffs, Carl Orff-infused synthesizers, rosary beads, and drum machines swirl around in a Hot Topic-noir aesthetic. Then, in 2007, Danny Boyle’s more refined scion, Sunshine, even again paired a film composer (John Murphy) with a British electronica duo (Underworld) for its soundtrack. All the while, Event Horizon’s closing song—“Funky Shit” by The Prodigy—has remained a testament to a late-Nineties regime of globally popular electronic dance music, for better or worse. And just this week, Variety reported that Amazon and Paramount are developing an Event Horizon series for TV. This relatively forgotten cult film casts a long shadow indeed.

III. Murmur of Earth

In 1997, popular music in the U.K. seemed particularly interested in space travel and the potential perils of modern technology. Among others, Ladies & Gentlemen We’re Floating in Space by Spiritualized electrified the soundscapes of Brian Eno’s Apollo album, David Bowie’s Earthling (produced with Eno) incorporated drum and bass techniques into his galactic oeuvre, and Radiohead’s paradigmatic rock album Ok Computer brought us “Paranoid Android,” in all its twitchy angst and anxiety, and the waltz-swaying “Subterranean Homesick Alien,” which finds Thom Yorke awash in decussated strands of reverb-drenched guitars and keyboard tines, singing about aliens “making home movies for the folks back home” as he dreams of joining the extraterrestrials aboard their ship only to return to Earth, further alienated, unable to communicate “the stars and the meaning of life” to anyone he knows. But by 1997, music from every hemisphere on the planet was already traveling over twenty-one billion kilometers from Earth.

In 1977, NASA launched the Voyager 1 spacecraft, which today continues to transmit data from the outer edges of our solar system. Attached to this existentially doomed assemblage of dying technology is the so-called Golden Record. The most famous recordings inscribed on the V1’s gold-plated copper disk are probably Glenn Gould’s recording of Bach’s “The Well-Tempered Clavier, Book 2, Prelude and Fugue in C” and “Johnny B. Goode” by Chuck Berry, but the record also includes Delta blues music, Javanese gamelan, Zairean singing, Japanese shakuhachi tunes, raga music from India, Navajo chanting, traditional wedding songs from a number of cultures, Azerbaijan bagpipes recorded by Radio Moscow, and of course a large selection of Viennese classical music, as well as a set of field recordings taken from diverse soundscapes dubbed “Sounds of Earth.” Illustrations engraved on the disk’s cover serve as instructions for how to play the recordings, so that, should distant intelligent lifeforms ever intercept the spacecraft, sonic contact may be made.

It’s an admittedly fantastical but no less romantic idea. “We cast this message into the cosmos,” said then-president of the U.S. Jimmy Carter, in a short message also recorded for the V1 capsule. “This is a present from a small distinct world, a token of our sounds, our science, our images, our music, our thoughts, and our feelings. We are attempting to survive our time so we may live into yours. We hope someday, having solved the problems we face, to join a community of galactic civilizations.” Seven years ago this month, V1 crossed the threshold of interstellar space, becoming the first ever human-made object to exit the heliosphere. It now wanders the Milky Way traveling over one hundred kilometers-per-second, inconceivably alone.

Revisiting Event Horizon in 2019, a year when geologists in Iceland (this month, in fact) will memorialize “dead ice” with a message to future generations concerning the ravages of global climate change; Elon Musk has already launched SpaceX, in collaboration with NASA, vowing to establish the first city on Mars by 2050; and a new uncaring U.S. president boasts how he could annihilate ten million people in Afghanistan “literally in ten days” and slurs promises of a new techno-imperialist Space Force for exospheric military ops, humanity seems to be daring the Voyager 1 to become, in Jonathan Sterne’s words again, a “resonant tomb”—another sound recording adrift in space threatening to become haunted. As Event Horizon’s Dr. Weir puts it, “Hell is only a word. Reality is much, much worse.”

Edited by Olga Tchepikova-Treon

Event Horizon screens at the Trylon Cinema from Friday, August 16 to Sunday, August 18. Tickets and more information available on the Trylon’s website. Make it a space-horror double feature and check out It! The Terror from Beyond Space.

Horror History: Why It! The Terror from Beyond Space isn’t just an inspiration for Alien

|Finn Odum|

Artwork by Adam Loomis

Horror History: Why It! The Terror From Beyond Space isn’t just an inspiration for Alien

The horror genre is a lens with which we refract our realities. It’s an escape from our terrifying real world, just as much as it’s a chance to investigate what scares us and why. Today, it’s easy to spot the social issue that inspires movies like Get Out (racial conflict in the United States), It Follows (teenage sexual health), or even The Green Inferno (American exploitation of indigenous peoples). Filmmakers brazenly zero in on political issues, perhaps more overtly than they have in the past. Franchises like The Purge create universes where the political climate is so fraught that the only solution is to legalize crime and, effectively, oppress the lower classes. The last decade of mainstream horror is loud about the politicization of the genre. It creates a worst-case scenario and asks audiences to address an issue before it becomes a worldwide problem.

We forget, though, that horror has always been a political tool. Psycho came out near the end of the Red Scare, when Americans weren’t sure if they could trust their next-door neighbors. Ultra-violent exploitation movies like Cannibal Holocaust were reactions to the anti-war movements in the early 1970s, showcasing a similar brutality to what was exhibited in the Vietnam War. And, during the advent of new technology systems, the late 1990s and early 2000s brought with it a slate of Japanese horror films like Ringu that made innovation a source of fear.

What makes the 1950s horror showcase unique is the combination of scientific discovery and worldwide conflict. The Cold War wrestled up fears of the unknown in American communities, as international tensions grew between the capitalist United States and the communist Soviet Union. Years of capturing territories and reclaiming nations bred fear and hostility, often in favor of an ideology that the American people didn’t fully grasp. It was a period of competition and confusion that was packaged together in the US-USSR space race.

As film fans, we can see when the fight to be the first on the moon started in America. Even before the launch of Sputnik 1, the horror films of the 1950s were asking the audience to consider what really lay beyond outer space. In 1951, The Thing from Another World brought an alien to an Arctic research outpost, where the creature slowly murdered every living thing it came across (and yes, this film served as inspiration for John Carpenter’s The Thing). 1953 saw It Came From Outer Space, which followed a storyline similar to The Thing From Another World, but replaced the Arctic with Smalltown, USA. Even some of the more iconic horror films of the 1950s pitted their heroes against alien invaders, most prominently, Steve McQueen’s cult classic The Blob or the original Invasion of the Body Snatchers. Each film looked at the same vast, unknown universe in front of us and presented reasons why we might not want to go out there.

And then the Soviets launched Sputnik 1, the event that historians often credit as the official beginning of the space race. We were now competing to get human life into the galaxy.

Before 1957, the major horror trend brought the aliens to us. In 1958, It! The Terror from Beyond Space changed that. It! opens with a space crew retrieving a man accused of murdering his entire ship. What the new team doesn’t know is that the original crew was murdered by a terrifying alien. Unbeknownst to them, that same creature has snuck on board their ship. The titular “It” stalks the crew and exterminates them one by one, before finally being taken care of in a way that begs the question, “Huh, why didn’t they think about that earlier?”

Film buffs and casual fans alike can recognize this plot as a vague description of Alien. Indeed, Dan O’Bannon, Alien’s screenwriter, credited It! as part of his inspiration for the script. Though he also borrowed ideas from the likes of Forbidden Planet (Fred M. Wilcox, 1956) and Planet of the Vampires (Mario Bava, 1965), it’s the near beat for beat comparison that gets It! the internet credit of “the movie that inspired Alien.”

But It! deserves more credit than just the inspiration for a more famous movie. In an era when Americans weren’t sure of what was going on in space, It! inverted the space theme and put humans into space, leaving them at the mercy of the creatures beyond earth. Their impending doom wasn’t caused by an invasion. It was the quest for knowledge and understanding that got them killed. Whether it was intentional or not, this movie was released in the wake of the USSR’s innovation in space travel, and while the alleged enemy of freedom explored the cosmos, the American film industry has instilled the fear of space travel in its audience. 

Today, we can recognize that It! The Terror from Beyond Space isn’t that scary. It’s a black and white movie starring a guy in a rubber suit killing a bunch of astronauts. There’s more money in the industry now, leading to better special effects and set pieces. But during its time, It! presented a potential evil that was much more believable when we didn’t know what was out there, in space. It was a perfect storm: It! borrowed from a contemporary film trend while benefiting from the pressures of the Cold War. Even if it was just a capitalization on the alien craze, It! was an important reflection of what scared Americans in its time.

Edited by Olga Tchepikova-Treon and Michelle Baroody

From Friday, August 16-Sunday, August 18, catch It! The Terror from Beyond Space at the Trylon Cinema. Tickets and more information available here. Make it a space-horror double feature and stay for Event Horizon, also screening all weekend.

2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY: Evolution Through Technology

|Michael Lockhart|

Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey is a unique and rather abstract film that offers a variety of interpretations. In an interview from 1968, Kubrick suggested that he wanted to keep the meaning of the film open to the audience.

You’re free to speculate as you wish about the philosophical and allegorical meaning of the film—and such speculation is one indication that it has succeeded in gripping the audience at a deep level—but I don’t want to spell out a verbal road map for 2001 that every viewer will feel obligated to pursue or else fear he’s missed the point.[1]

Kubrick’s statement refers to the ambiguous ending of the film but I find that it applies to the motifs and cinematic choices throughout the film as well. In this regard, the emphasis on technology in the film has multiple meanings and I argue here that Kubrick ponders the use of technology to establish the theme of evolution.

The film is broken up into specific chapters. The first chapter, titled “The Dawn of Man,” features prolonged shots of the landscape setting of Earth. The shots fixate on the desolate and expansive emptiness of the environment which emphasizes the technologically underdeveloped setting at the beginning of the film. When the film shifts locals late in the first chapter, the landscape moves to outer space and the environment is occupied by advanced space-travel technology. This dramatic shift appears to be a direct contrast of the opening shots of the first chapter, as the outer space background suggests a technologically advanced setting as if in opposition to the primitive scene at the start of the film. The emphasis on technology and the outer space setting signals the shift in the stage in evolution through its juxtaposition with the opening scene. By fixating on the environments and technology in the different settings through prolonged landscape shots, the first chapter illustrates the theme of evolution that continues throughout the film.

The depiction of technology is a focal point throughout the different sections of the film.  The first depiction of technology is the apes use of animal bones as tools in the first chapter. The technology is depicted as a miraculous discovery amongst the apes, and the mastery of the tool allows them to hunt and fight in order to survive in their environment. As the chapter transitions to the outer space setting, a slow-motion shot of the bone flipping in the air cuts to a similar shot of a spacecraft mimicking the motion of the bone. Pairing the two scenes with a quick transition represents the evolution theme in the film. The connection of the spacecraft and the bone suggests that the human evolution in the film has reached a stage in which space travel and the subsequent technology is equivalent to the use of an animal bone as a tool. The bone is simplistic in terms of technology, but serves as a vital instrument for the ape’s survival; the spacecraft is to humans what the bone is to the apes. The bone may seem primitive in terms of its technology, but it serves a necessary purpose for ape’s survival, and thus the evolution of apes into human beings. The evolution theme in the film is illustrated through this depiction of technology and its banality in these two examples.

As the film progresses, the role of technology develops as well. 2001: A Space Odyssey is renowned for its cinematography and visual effects and the depiction of technology is emphasized by the film thoughtful its cinematic choices and techniques. In fact, it often feels like the emphasis on visual effects overshadows the development of the main human characters in the film. This is prevalent in the second chapter, “Mission to Jupiter,” in which the audience is introduced to characters Dave Bowman and Frank Poole. Since they are introduced so late in the film, there is little development of these characters, like HAL. Instead, the technology around the characters is developed and emphasized through the visual effects. By drawing the audience’s attention to the technology displayed in this part of the film, it also emphasizes the stages of human evolution depicted in the film.

An example of the emphasis of technology is the role of the supercomputer HAL. It is reasonable to suggest that HAL is a more developed character than the two main human characters of the second chapter. Dave and Frank treat HAL as if it is basically another crew member. The computer is included in interviews with the media and the crewmembers converse with it as if they were talking to another human. The viewer also knows more about the origin and background of HAL than they do about Frank or Dave. In addition, the film evokes a more complex emotional response for HAL’s disconnection than it does for Frank’s death. Frank’s death happens suddenly and quickly, which produces little emotional connection for the audience. However, when Dave disconnects HAL, the event is drawn out and the audience is able to experience HAL’s expression of fear and desperation. The contrast of the two scenes illustrates HAL as a more developed and complex character than Frank or Dave, further establishing the importance of technology in the film.

HAL represents another stage of evolution in the film that is represented through the different depictions of technology. The use of the bone by the apes in the beginning of the film represents the early phase of human use of technology and the beginning of its evolution. As the film progresses to a later stage of human evolution, the technology has progressed all the way to HAL, a human-like supercomputer. The film begins with a representation of technology through early tool use––the bone––as an innate, controllable process of human development. As the human’s use of  technology progresses throughout the film, it evolves into the sentient, self-possessed and uncontrollable supercomputer HAL. This progression of technology represents the film’s theme of evolution.

The unique structure of 2001: A Space Odyssey and its stellar visual effects allows the audience to focus and absorb different elements of the film. Multiple viewings allows the spectator to comprehend, “to speculate” as Kubrick suggests, and to notice new components each time they watch the film. During my most recent viewing, it was the monotone and hypnotizing character of HAL that drew my attention to the emphasis of technology and its evolution throughout the film.

2001: A Space Odyssey screens on 70mm at the Heights Theater on Monday, July 22 (SOLD OUT) and Tuesday, July 23 at 7:30 pm. To purchase tickets or for more information, please visit our website.


[1] Norden, Eric. Interview: Stanley Kubrick. Playboy (September 1968). Reprinted in: Phillips, Gene D. (Editor). Stanley Kubrick: Interviews. University Press of Mississippi, 2001. ISBN 1-57806-297-7 pp. 47–48.

My 25-Year Voyage to IKARIE XB-1

|Michael Popham|

Back in the late 1970s I was a junior high school kid living in rural Minnesota. My dad had been lured out to the wilds of Isanti County by the promise of cheap land, but he got swindled into buying 30 acres that were mostly swamp. He moved an old house onto a relatively dry part of the property, and that’s where I grew up.

I spent my summers hanging around the house and slapping mosquitos, trying to stave off boredom. I devised pointless and obsessive projects: I once tried to rebuild an air-cooled VW engine without guidance or spare parts; on another occasion I built a miniature set for a stop-motion animated short that never happened because I had no money for 16mm film magazines.

On the warm humid nights I would sit up late, watching movies on television. This was the era before home video, and if you were stranded in the sticks all summer, as I was, you got your movies from broadcast TV or you didn’t get them at all. There were only 5 channels, but nearly all of them ran movies. In fact there was usually a movie playing on at least one channel from early afternoon until all the stations played The Star-Spangled Banner and signed off for the night, around 2 am.

Late one evening I caught a strange black-and-white sci-fi film that I had never heard of, and which never turned up on TV again. The movie was obviously dubbed, and had both robust production values and a tone that was a lot more serious than most sci-fi I’d seen up to that point.

In the film a group to travelers are on an interstellar journey in a gigantic spaceship, but the toll of the voyage is tremendous: the trip takes years, and the travelers become increasingly disheartened. They encounter a number of perils, some of which get members of the crew injured or killed. The travelers nearly succumb to exhaustion and ennui, but eventually arrive at their destination.

I thought about this somber film a lot in the months and years after I saw it, but I couldn’t find any information about it. I remembered the title as “Journey Across the Universe” but none of my friends had heard of it. I tried looking it up in film encyclopedias but couldn’t find a single reference to it.

It wasn’t until I was in college that I learned that I’d had the title wrong. It was a 1963 Czech film called Ikarie XB-1, released in the U.S. the following year as Voyage to the End of the Universe by American -International Pictures. AIP was the cheapo distributor of Roger Corman and Bert I. Gordon flicks, and to keep product in the pipeline would buy up the rights to eastern bloc sci-fi films, strip out anything that might smack of commie propaganda, and release hacked-up, dubbed versions. To disguise their foreign origins, names of the cast and crew were anglicized  (top-billed actors Zdenek Stephanek and Franisek Smolik, for example,  magically became “Dennis Stephens” and “Frances Smollen”; director Jindrich Pollich was credited as “Jack Pollack”).

But even though I now knew the title of the film, there was no way to see it. It had never been released on video. In the early 2000s I began corresponding by email with a film collector in Poland who had an interest in Eastern bloc sci-fi. He had a particular fondness for Ikarie and said he would try to answer any questions I had about the movie. I only had one.

“How does it end?”

For me, the movie I’d seen on TV all those years ago had only been marred by its ending. The space travelers reach the mysterious “Green Planet” they had spent so many years trying to find. Through their viewscreen the clouds part and the new planet is revealed: there is a grainy stock shot of lower Manhattan, and then the Statue of Liberty. In a twist ending, the spaceship is revealed to be from another solar system, and the “Green Planet” they’ve been traveling to all this time is actually – gulp – Earth!

Even as a kid it didn’t ring true to me. It was too cheap a gimmick for such a carefully made movie. I didn’t want it to end that way.

Happily, it didn’t. My contact had never heard of AIP’s cheesy recut ending, and thought it was amazingly daffy.  In the fall of 2004 he tipped me off that a Czech company called Filmexport would be releasing the movie on DVD soon, and I ordered a copy the first day it was available. The DVD menu was in Czech, but one of the subtitle options was English. So finally, after a quarter-century of searching, I finally got to see Ikarie XB-1.

I was fully prepared for a letdown, but sometimes life is kind. The uncut Ikarie XB-1 actually exceeded my expectations. It is a rare sci-fi movie from that era that’s actually about something: the inadequacy of even the most towering human ambitions when set against the frailties of individual people and the indifference of a vast universe.

While this stylish film wasn’t widely seen in the west, it was influential. Stanley Kubrick was known to have seen it when he was preparing to shoot 2001: A Space Odyssey, and Gene Roddenberry clearly borrowed elements of his Star Trek series concept from it.

It’s very exciting for me personally that the film is coming to the Trylon as part of the summer space series. It’s screening July 14 – 16, and I want to thank Trylon programmer John Moret for booking it. Promotional support for the film is being provided by Marit Lee Kucera, Honorary Consul of the Czech Republic. Don’t miss it.

Ikarie XB-1 plays at the Trylon starting on Sunday, July 14. Visit Trylon’s website to purchase tickets or for more information.

SOLARIS in Twelve Images

|Matt Levine|

I.

Green seaweed floating in a rippling current. A green so lush only film could create it. The first shot of Solaris sets up its main tension: nature as mystical, unknowable, beyond the grasp of human control. A leaf floats across the water, fiery orange. Blades of grass shoot upward through the frame, violent and serene. Is this planet Earth?

II.

We’re at a secluded lake house, a place of memory and longing for psychologist Kris Kelvin (Donatas Banionis), whose father owns the home. A birdcage is placed next to an open window, two yellow birds chirping stupidly inside. Throughout Solaris, humans will frequently resemble these oblivious canaries, trapped in a different kind of cage.

“I don’t like innovation,” says Kris’ father (Nikolai Grinko). His son is the antithesis, a cold and logical pragmatist who believes science has replaced morality.

A downpour rages suddenly, cascading down, though it’s still bright and sunny and the raindrops are radiant. Water reappears often throughout the movie, a force beyond human control, a reminder of our weakness.  

III.

A staggering still life. A table in the rainstorm: blue-and-white china, saucer overflowing with tepid tea and rainwater, a few cherries, a half-eaten apple overrun with ants. How and why is this so beautiful? The tableau resembles one of the baroque still lifes that Tarkovsky, an art student, loved so much, but this shot epitomizes his idea that cinema is “sculpting in time.”

IV.

A film within a film within a film: we watch government bureaucrats view footage that a cosmonaut named Burton (Vladislav Dvorzhetsky) had taken of the planet Solaris. The scene with the Soviet minions is in monochrome black-and-white, overplaying the depiction of politics as mind-numbing, soul-crushing tedium.

But then we cut to the ravishing, full-color footage that Burton had filmed of the mysterious planet, all roiling clouds, sun-drenched light, and radiant, dazzling hues. It resembles the experimental cinema of Jordan Belson.

Afterwards, we cut back to the colorless world of the bureaucrats.

“Is that it?” one of the men asks. “That’s all of your film?”

“But we don’t understand,” says another. “You filmed clouds.”

We find Tarkovsky in a rare, self-reflexive mode, brushing off the censors and critics who found his work inscrutable. Maybe they weren’t meant to understand it.

V.

We’re driving into the city, twisting highways, anonymous cars going nowhere. The footage was shot outside of Tokyo and Kyoto, and Tarkovsky probably included long chunks of it to justify the travel visas obtained for the filmmakers. The winding roads are beautiful but impersonal, dystopian; as in Godard’s Alphaville, it only took filming on contemporary streets to evoke a world of futuristic malaise.

VI.

The rocket has launched, hurtling toward Solaris. Kris is in the cockpit, a shard of light falling over his eyes; soon, the camera will swoon acrobatically, superimpositions conveying the visceral assault of space flight. We are firmly in the field of science fiction now. Inevitably, the comparison is the “Stargate” sequence in 2001: A Space Odyssey, so often seen as Solaris’ counterpart, though they’re very different movies: one about the need for human connection, the other about God and self-destruction.

Then, the space station appears to us, glimpsed amid clouds through the cockpit window. It hovers over an endless sea. It’s beautiful and terrifying.

VII.

The interior of the space station is a wonder of Soviet psychedelic futurism, gleaming metallic surfaces, curving centrifugal halls, little blinking knobs and dials, a deep crimson darker than the Russian flag. Kris wears a black leather jacket, yellow mesh shirt, harness with heavy straps and buckles, looking like he’ll reappear in Fassbinder’s Querelle a decade later. Solaris is a fascinating time capsule of the U.S.S.R in 1972; it’s timely and modish without even trying.

VIII.

On the door of one of the living quarters, there is a childlike drawing, the stuff of nightmares. Scrawled in dark marker with globs of ink: “CHELOVEK.” Human being. A monstrous drawing of a stick figure in red, its torso bloated, its fingers elongating in scarecrow-like stalks, a furious scowl on its face beneath a shock of red hair like a mohawk of needles. Something blue is tied around its neck—a scarf or, more likely, a noose. Two yellow stains to the left on the paper, a nauseating shade of yellow, like urine or vomit. Add horror to the mix of genre inflections that Tarkovsky includes in Solaris.

IX.

She is viewed in close-up, the lower half of her face—the “guest” that has been conjured by the oceans of Solaris, the manifestation of Kris’ dead wife, Hari (Natalya Bondarchuk). The side lighting accentuates the brown-red glow of her hair, and brings out the slight down on her cheeks and above her lips. Coming after a long stretch of black-and-white imagery, this shot is as striking and wounded as the reappearance of something unattainable should be.

X.

“Part Two” opens with a shot that could be straight out of Barbarella: Kris and Hari in tight white suits, entering a cavernous room on the space station. It’s at moments like these where Tarkovsky’s lofty ambitions and the sci-fi trappings work against each other in tense (and highly enjoyable) ways. The tension is made clearer with a tracking shot that stares down into a black void—the abyss of human existence? These shots of rockets perched in the darkness and smoke being sucked into a cosmic expanse may have influenced the most jaw-dropping shot in Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s Syndromes and a Century

XI.

In the posh, green-walled library on the space station, where the four characters (three human, one something else) meet, Pieter Brueghel the Elder’s painting “Hunters in the Snow” hangs. Tarkovsky uses this as an excuse to explore the images in its frame, zooming into it, panning across it, visiting the world it painstakingly evokes. The beauty and dedication of this art is presented as the film’s main conflict, between the greatness that humanity is capable of and the brutality it so often creates. It is yet another example of Tarkovsky’s indebtedness to painting, utterly transformed by the moving image—sculpting in time.

XII.

During 30 seconds of weightlessness, a candelabra with flaming candles soars toward the ceiling of the library. It passes behind a chandelier, its fiery light refracted through the glass and crystals. It’s a euphoric moment,  followed up by one of Tarkovsky’s few concessions to sentimentality: Kris and Hari floating in midair, holding hands, in love.

We cut to another abstract shot of Solaris, apparently responding to their pleasure; whirlpools and eddies flare in the bright purple ocean, a symbol for a shared, universal consciousness in which human love transforms the topography of the cosmos. 

And then the shattering aftereffect, not to be reproduced here—a devastating moment of violence and loss. Who is to blame?

Edited by Michelle Baroody

Solaris plays at the Trylon starting on Sunday, July 7. Visit Trylon’s website to purchase tickets or for more information.

BANDWAGONESQUE: Mart Crowley’s play THE BOYS IN THE BAND is 51, but Friedkin’s movie is only 49

| Collier White |

Those two years make all the difference. Turning 49 this year, The Boys in the Band is a work that has straddled Stonewall for its entire life. You might be surprised at how fresh she sounds. You’ll want to rush out and see it before it’s cancelled again, because this is a truly wonderful film, an ensemble of unforgettable performances, and a film that divides opinion and continues to pit friend against friend, just like the cruel party game at its heart.

So much has been written about the queer politics of The Boys in the Band that the discussion threatens to dessicate the film’s more universal qualities. In much of the criticism of the film, a division is imposed, pitting broad humanism against identity politics. Writer Mart Crowley boldly rejected the notion that mainstream audiences wouldn’t care about a play comprised primarily the banter of eight gay men. Some assumed that interest in this gay lifestyle play would be merely prurient. Yet in 2019, The Boys in the Band looks both more politically relevant and more universally humane than that other party that devolves into shouting, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, which Mart Crowley admits inspired him to write this very personal story.

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