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Posts Tagged ‘Science Fiction’

The Day The Earth Caught Fire (1961)

Monday, October 20th, 2014

The British Film Institute has just released Val Guest’s The Day Earth Caught Fire on DVD; click here to see the trailer.

The BFI, which has always been way ahead of American archival efforts, has just announced the release in DVD and Blu-ray format of Val Guest’s classic science fiction film The Day The Earth Caught Fire. This was an “A” level science fiction film, in which atomic testing knocks the earth off its axis, and sends it hurtling towards the sun. The film’s ending is unresolved; while scientists scramble to set off yet another atomic blast to correct the tilt, there’s no assurance that it will succeed. Shot in near documentary style, with real newspaper writers and editors in the cast, including one Fleet Street editor in a major speaking role in the film, the Day The Earth Caught Fire is not only effective filmmaking; it’s also a trenchant commentary on how science can lead us astray when we start things, but can’t really know the what the consequences will be.

I was lucky enough to interview Guest at length in 2003, an interview which is collected in my book Film Talk: Directors at Work (Rutgers UP, 2007), and shortly after our interview, to attend a 35mm CinemaScope screening of the film at The Egyptian Theater in Los Angeles, with Guest in attendance. For that screening, the theater used a print which has been out of circulation since the film’s initial release, with a color opening, and ending, with the rest of the film framed as a flashback. Guest was shocked that the print had been found; in his opening remarks, he lamented the fact that this original version had been his intent all along, but that we were about to see yet another straight black and white print. When the opening section came up in red-hued color, the entire theater could hear Guest’s shout of delight – and I’m sure the BFI version will use this cut of the film.

Here’s a detailed look at the making of this excellent film; the BFI has once again performed a real public service with the release of this film.

Mr. B.I.G.

Monday, April 15th, 2013

Orson Welles and director Bert I. Gordon on the set of Gordon’s film Necromancy (1972).

He never made any big budget films, and never really made any truly successful films, but Bert I. Gordon’s threadbare special effects extravaganzas, if that’s the right word for them, have a place in the affections of many film goers from the 1950s and 1960s. With such titles as The Cyclops, The Amazing Colossal Man, Beginning of the End (all 1957), Earth vs. the Spider, War of the Colossal Beast, and Attack of the Puppet People (all 1958), along with many other films to his credit, Gordon seemed obsessed with films that employed bargain basement trick photography (which Gordon himself was responsible for) to create images of enormous animals, insects, and/or humans wreaking havoc on society, shot in matter-of-fact black and white, and presented with ruthless economy in every department.

For sheer absurdity, they’re hard to top; perhaps my favorite moment in any of his films comes in Earth vs. The Spider, in which a group of teenagers accidentally discover a truly enormous and seemingly lifeless arachnid in a local cavern. The spider is subsequently transported to the local high school gymnasium (of course) for further study. Naturally, the students decide that this would be an excellent time for a rock and roll dance party, which awakens the spider, allowing it to embark on yet another murderous rampage. It’s all junk, but it’s pop art junk, and a real part of the American cinema experience in the 1950s, and for 75 minutes or so, worth the time to view as an authentic talisman of a vanished era. Still alive as of this writing, Gordon is in retirement, but his films are shown all the time on television, and many are available on DVD.

To see a brief video interview from 2010 with Bert I. Gordon, click here or on the image above.

Frame by Frame Video: Science Fiction Films

Wednesday, May 9th, 2012

Here’s the latest video in my Frame by Frame series, edited and directed by Curt Bright. This is the subtitled version; here’s a transcript of my text:

“Hi. I’m Wheeler Winston Dixon, James Ryan professor of Film Studies at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, and this is Frame By Frame. Science fiction films first came about in the beginning of cinema with Georges Méliès’ Trip to the Moon, but they’ve come in sporadic waves of interest.

I’m thinking, for example, of Things to Come, the fantastic British film, and Fritz Lang’s Metropolis in 1927. But a vogue for science fiction didn’t really hit till the 1950s in America, 
with things like When Worlds Collide, The Thing, which was one of the first great science fiction films, 
The Day the Earth Stood Still, Earth vs. the Flying Saucers, when science fiction reflected a kind of Cold War paranoia.

The other thing about science fiction is that it’s tied curiously to the Western. As the westerns sort of became moribund, and now people don’t make too many westerns these days, science fiction became ‘the final frontier.’ As manifest destiny was more or less explored, space became the new frontier that had to be explored. And this, of course, led to the success of the Star Trek and Star Wars series, and of course, the dystopian science fiction films like Alien.

Now, that we’re here in the 21st century, science fiction has become an absolute generic staple. Science fiction films are more popular than ever. I think they offer a sense of escape; they offer a sense of wonder, they offer a sense of exploring something beyond what we know. The world has become very small now. We’re in touch with everyone around the world, whether we like to or not. Science fiction offers us a sense that there’s frontier out there that we don’t know.

There’s civilizations out there that we don’t know, and science fiction offers us a way to escape, but also it’s a commentary on the smallness of our world right now, and also it projects into the future the possibilities of what can happen, in terms of both good, or in terms of bad… as in Blade Runner, in which the future does not work. So science fiction projects both our fear, and our hopes, on the cinema screen.”

You can view the video by clicking here, or on the image above.

Lars von Trier’s Melancholia (2011)

Thursday, November 17th, 2011

Click on the image above for the trailer for Melancholia.

I’m not a Lars von Trier cultist by any stretch of the imagination — his previous work strikes me as empty and pretentious — and I say this only because with Melancholia, easily the best film of his career, he has created one of the the most heartbreaking, elegiac, complex and accomplished films in cinema history — in short, it’s a stop at nothing masterpiece, and instantly joins the pantheon of truly remarkable films, evoking everything from Dreyer to Bresson to Resnais and all the stops in-between.

The plot of the film is no secret; Justine (Kirsten Dunst) is a deeply depressed young woman whom we meet on her wedding day, afflicted with melancholia, the disease; at the same time, a huge planet, also named Melancholia, is hurtling towards earth at terrific speed, destined to utterly destroy the planet. All of this is revealed in the first five minutes, in a super-slow-motion montage reminiscent of the video gallery pieces of Bill Viola, culminating in the moment that Melancholia collides with Earth, as seen from distant space.

But after this opening, wordless sequence, scored to the strains of Wagner’s Tristan and Isolde, the film leaves the apocalypse plot aside for a close-up examination of Justine’s disastrous and ruinously expensive wedding, during which Justine bit by bit collapses into a state of almost complete catatonia. Her sister, Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg), tries to help her through the day-long ordeal, but to no avail. By the end of the day, Claire’s husband deserts her, she’s fired from her job for telling off her obnoxious boss, and her mother, Gaby (Charlotte Rampling) stands up during a toast and tells the entire room that she hates the very idea of marriage, even as the forced festivities continue.

That’s the first half of the film, aptly entitled Justine, but when Claire takes over the eponymous second half of Melancholia, the film deepens into a doleful meditation on mortality, the worthlessness of property and money, the fickle stability of family relationships, and because the end of the film is predestined — we know from the opening moments that everyone in the film will die, as well as every other person on the earth — the tragedy becomes almost unbearably intense, as Justine pulls out of her depression, embraces the inevitability of death, and becomes, against all odds, the most courageous member of the group in the film’s final moments.

More than that I cannot and should not say; this is a film that simply must be experienced, preferably on a large screen for full visual and emotional impact. This is the sort of apocalyptic thriller that only an artist can pull off; it’s absolutely pitch-perfect for its entire two hour and fifteen minute running time, and like the rogue planet that dominates Melancholia from first frame to last, the film inexorably gathers velocity and resonance as it hurtles towards its horrific and yet transcendant climax. The entire cast is superb — Dunst gives the performance of her career in the film — and John Hurt, Kiefer Sutherland, and all the rest of the ensemble are equally brilliant.

I spend so much of my time watching junk, which is all the Hollywood makes now, so when something as good as this, or Margin Call, comes along, I want to celebrate. It’s as Ingmar Bergman said near the end of his life; you see so many bad movies, that after a while, you don’t expect anything more. Then something like this comes along. Melancholia is an astonishing, absolutely remarkable film that succeeds on every level — as human drama, as science fiction fantasy, as social parable, as purely visual filmmaking. See it at once.

About the Author

Wheeler Winston Dixon

Wheeler Winston Dixon, Ryan Professor of Film Studies at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, is an internationally recognized scholar and writer of film history, theory and criticism. He is the author of thirty books and more than 100 articles on film, and appears regularly in national media outlets discussing film and culture trends. Frame by Frame is a collection of his thoughts on a number of those topics. To contact Prof. Dixon for an interview, reach him at 402.472.6064 or wdixon1@unl.edu. Visit him at his website wheelerwinstondixon.com.

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