Category Archives: Sci-Fi

Repo Man (1984)

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 7 out of 10

4-Word Review: Alien in the trunk.

Otto (Emilio Estevez) has trouble accepting authority, which causes him to get fired from many of his jobs. He eventually gets courted into the car repossession business, which he at first resists, but then, especially with its lure of quick cash, he grows into. This then leads him in pursuit of a Chevrolet Malibu with a $20,000 bounty on it driven by a very strange man (Fox Harris) who harbors a glowing radioactive substance in its trunk that kills anyone who comes into contact with it.

The film’s best selling points is that it gives one a gritty feel of what being stuck in society’s poor underbelly is really like as it traps the viewer inside the inner-city of Los Angeles with its almost non-stop capture of its rundown buildings, which becomes like a dominant third character. The viewer then begins to share the same anxiety, anger and frustrations of the people in a place they don’t really want to be, but with no idea of how to get out of it. The only time the film shows the more vibrant area of L.A. is during a brief shot of the skyline from a distance making it come off like a far away place that’s out-of-reach.

The rebel mystique gets better explored and examined here than in other 80’s films where the term ‘rebel’ seemed to apply exclusively to mouthy suburban teens who didn’t like their parent’s rules and would wear punk attire because it was ‘trendy’. Here you get a much more authentic feeling of being an outsider and the unglamorous, desperate qualities that comes with it.

Writer/director Alex Cox also examines the thin, merging line between being a conformist and non-conformist and the ironic/contradictory results that can occur. This gets best captured with the character of Duke (played with gusto by Dick Rude) who is an in-your-face-I-don’t-like-any-rules street punk one minute only to turn around and tell his girlfriend at another moment that he wants to get married and have kids because ‘everybody else is doing it’.

Estevez gives his signature performance here though his excessive cockiness becomes a bit of strain, which fortunately gets tempered in the scene where he gets shot at and panics showing that even a streetwise brash kid like himself has  his limits, which makes it all worth it. Harry Dean Stanton as his partner is terrific and the vast 40 year age difference between the two isn’t apparent at all. Olivia Barash is quite good too without even trying. Her likable unrehearsed quality makes for a refreshing contrast to all the rest who are more compelled to put on a facade and for the this reason I wished she had been in it more.

Honorable mention should also go to Fox Harris who plays Parnell the driver of the much sought after car even though in real-life he couldn’t drive and he got the vehicle in a few accidents and even damaged other props on the set in the process. Normally this would’ve gotten him fired, but because he had been the only actor who was nice to Alex Cox when he worked as a lowly security guard at the Actor’s Studio and before he became a director, he choose to stick with him despite the problems, which shows that if your nice to everybody even those that have very little social standing it can come back in rewarding ways in the long term.

My Rating: 7 out of 10

Released: March 2, 1984

Runtime: 1 Hour 32 Minutes

Rated R

Director: Alex Cox

Studio: Universal

Available: DVD, Blu-ray (Criterion Collection), Amazon Video, YouTube

Embryo (1976)

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 6 out of 10

4-Word Review: Accelerating the growth cycle.

Late one night while driving home in raging thunderstorm Dr. Paul Holliston (Rock Hudson) accidentally hits a pregnant dog with his car. He takes the dog home to his lab and is able to save one of the embryos by placing it in an artificial uterus and then injecting it with an experimental hormone that speeds up its growth cycle. Paul is so excited about the results that he gets one of his colleagues (Jack Colvin) to agree to give him an unborn human baby from a mother who had committed suicide. Paul uses the drug on the fetus and finds that it grows at an even more accelerated rate, which leads to many unforeseen and horrifying scenarios.

For a grainy looking, low budget production (the DVD transfer is horrible) the plot isn’t too bad and had me guessing all the way up to the end at how it was going to turn out. The story has a lot of holes and most likely won’t be plausible to a science purist, but Ralph Nelson’s competent direction keeps the drama moving at a brisk pace, so you never dwell on the absurdities for too long and for the undemanding viewer it may come off as believable enough. The film also has a unintentionally funny moment that may not have floored audiences back in the 70’s as it did with me and features Barbra Carrera reading the Bible, which she finds ‘illogical’ only to have Hudson a supposed scientist tell her that it’s an ‘accurate account of how life began’, which blew me away as I’m sure there are few scientists who would say that today.

Carrera does surprisingly well in a difficult role, but her ability to retain knowledge and learn things happens a little too quickly and isn’t interesting. I realize she’s supposed to be super smart, which is fine, but even a smart person needs to be taught how to read and the meaning of words to communicate, which is something that the film just glosses right over.

I was glad that there was a big age difference between the two stars and that a romantic angle wasn’t forced into the proceedings that would’ve just bogged everything down, but having the two end up going to bed together was almost as bad. Hudson had taken a very paternal approach to Carrera almost like she were his daughter, so when she asks him to have sex with her, so she can feel what it’s like, I would’ve thought it would be too uncomfortable and too awkward a situation for him to go through with.

Roddy McDowall has a great cameo as an arrogant chauvinistic chess player. There’s also an interesting car chase, a neat twist ending, and some good aging make-up effects, but Carrera’s dilemma of suddenly going from being healthy and vibrant to on the brink of death is jarring. It’s almost like the writers wrote themselves into a hole and couldn’t think of any way out of it except to insert having the character die from some mysterious illness even though the dog, who went through the same treatment, is not affected, which is a shame as the premise is intriguing and works for most of the way.

My Rating: 6 out of 10

Released: May 21, 1976

Runtime: 1 Hour 44 Minutes

Rated PG

Director: Ralph Nelson

Studio: Cine Artists Pictures

Available: DVD-R, Amazon Video

Time After Time (1979)

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 3 out of 10

4-Word Review: From 1893 to 1979.

In 1893  writer H.G. Wells (Malcolm McDowell) constructs a time machine and introduces it to his skeptical guests at a dinner party that he is hosting unaware that Dr. Stevenson (David Warner) who is also attending the party is the notorious Jack the Ripper. When the police surround the home looking for Ripper he jumps into the time machine and escapes to the year 1979. Wells then quickly follows him to modern day San Francisco and tries chasing him down, but along the way he meets Amy Robbins (Mary Steenburgen) who he fall in love with.

Initially I enjoyed seeing Wells’ confusion at dealing with modern society and the technology and had the film stayed at this level the whole way it could’ve been quite entertaining, but Wells ends up adapting too quickly. I was willing to accept that he was just a smart guy who could figure things out by being very observant, but Jack ends being the same way. Jack even attends a discotheque wearing a John Travolta-like white leisure suit, until it seemed like he was always a part of the modern world, and the original time traveling spin gets unfortunately phased out.

The romantic relationship that forms between Wells and Mary comes off as forced. Having her ask him out on a date while she’s working at her job and after only talking to him for a few minutes seemed too forward and unprofessional. Does she do this to all of her customers and if so how can she hold down a job if she’s coming on to all the men that she meets and if not then why would she ask out Wells so quickly after having just met him? Having the two end up going to bed together makes Wells seem too contemporary and not like a person from the Victorian era from which he came where sexual relations outside of marriage were much more taboo.

The script is full of a lot of loose ends too. For example: Wells goes to a jeweler to trade in his jewels for US currency, but the jeweler won’t accept them unless Wells shows a valid driver’s license, which he doesn’t have. The next day he goes to a different jeweler who gives him the money without asking for the ID, but why? In between Wells goes to a church where he speaks out loud in an awkward prayer, so are we then to presume that the second jeweler gave Wells the money without requesting the ID because of divine intervention?

There’s also a moment when Jack runs out into the street and gets struck by a car and is sent away to a nearby hospital, but then returns later showing no visible bruises or scratches. There’s also no explanation for how he was able to fool the nursing staff into thinking he had died as when Wells goes to the hospital that’s the explanation he’s given.

Spoiler Alert!

The ending is equally screwy. It has Wells and Mary going a few days into the future only to read a newspaper article reporting Mary getting killed inside her apartment by Jack, so they return to the present and then back to the apartment where Mary then takes a nap, which seemed hard to believe knowing that Jack was coming to kill her there and she’d be too tense and nervous to ever relax enough to go to sleep. Why even go anywhere near the apartment anyways and instead just find a room at a nearby hotel? There isn’t much tension to her potential death either since all Wells would need to do is go back a few days in his time machine and she’d be as good as new.

The explanation that Mary never got killed, but instead it was really her friend, who she had invited over to dinner is problematic too because even though there wasn’t DNA testing at that time they could still identify the victim through their dental records.

The story, which was based on a 55-page treatment written by Karl Alexander, who later expanded it to a novel, which was released at the same time as the movie, has a lot of potentially interesting ideas, but it ends up taking on too much. A decision should’ve been made to focus on either the romance or Wells’s pursuit of Jack, but not both. Trying to cram two plot-lines together results in a script that’s too rushed and poorly thought out.

My Rating: 3 out of 10

Released: September 28, 1979

Runtime: 1 Hour 52 Minutes

Rated PG

Director: Nicholas Meyer

Studio: Warner Brothers

Available: DVD, Blu-ray, Amazon Video, YouTube

Empire of the Ants (1977)

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 3 out of 10

4-Word Review: Giant ants terrorize island.

A group of prospective home buyers are taken on a tour of a small island off the coast of Florida that supposedly has ‘prime beach front property’, but in reality it’s worthless. Marilyn (Joan Collins) is the realtor touring the others around, which quickly gets cut short when ants, who have feed off of toxic chemicals that were illegally dumped there and have now grown to giant size, begin attacking the people.

This film marks yet another tacky production by director Bert I. Gordon who enjoyed making movies filled with special effects dealing with giant animal life much like he did just two years earlier in Food of the Gods. The effects are predictably laughable where process shots showing close-ups of ants get combined with shots of the actors on the set, but you can tell that the quality of the film stock is different making the ants look completely out-of-place in the setting. When the actors get directly attacked by the ants large rubber mock-ups were used, but this gets combined with a shaking camera and quick edits making the action hard to follow.

It might’ve worked a bit better had it not given away right up front the cause for why the ants got so big and thus allowed for some mystery. Having the toxic waste be the cause just adds more questions than answers anyways. For instance: why were these chemicals being dumped to begin with and why did they choose this island? How were the ants able to get so big so fast? Did they just feed on the chemicals and then ‘poof’ they were big, or how fast or slow did the process work? Why were just the ants the ones that got big? Supposedly other insects, spiders and birds might’ve ingested the chemicals too, so why don’t they grow to a giant size as well?

The cast of characters are predictably stale and taking a full 30-minutes introducing them to the audience before the action even kicks-in just makes the movie even more boring. Having more eccentric characters would’ve helped like having the ants attack a clown convention that was meeting there, which would’ve given the film a humorous/offbeat edge that is otherwise lacking.

For the record I did enjoy Robert Pine who plays this coward who makes no attempt to save his wife when she’s attacked and then obsesses afterwards that everyone believe his story that he ‘couldn’t find her’ and there was ‘nothing he could do’. Collins is quite attractive, most will remember her for her appearance on the TV-show ‘Dynasty’, which was her career peak, but done when she was already well into her 50’s and no longer had a youthful appeal, but here she looks youngish and easy-on-the-eyes, which helps during the film’s slow moments.

The film states during the opening credits that it’s ‘inspired’ by the H.G.Wells story, but that short story, which was published in 1905, was way different. For one thing it didn’t involve ants growing to a giant size, so trying to connect the two as the producers here do, is outrageous. Had the filmmakers stuck more closely to that story, the film would’ve been much more interesting.

My Rating: 3 out of 10

Released: July 29, 1977

Runtime: 1 Hour 29 Minutes

Rated PG

Director: Bert I. Gordon

Studio: American International Pictures

Available: DVD, Amazon Video

Phase IV (1974)

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 7 out of 10

4-Word Review: The ants take over.

Ants in a small isolated community in Arizona begin to behave strangely by building large towers and geometric designs in the crops. Dr. Hubbs (Nigel Davenport) and James Lesko (Michael Murphy) are two scientists hired to come-in and find out why the ants are behaving the way they are and try to put a stop to it. They construct a computerized lab in the middle of the desert and begin they’re research only to find that they’ve walked into the ant’s trap.

This was the first feature length movie directed by Saul Bass who was an award winning graphic designer who did title sequences and film posters for many famous movies from the 1950’s through the 1980’s. His great attention to detail pays off here in a film that is full of many intricate and stunning imagery including incredible micro photography of the insect life, but unfortunately the movie bombed badly at the box office, which never allowed him to direct another film again.

On the surface it’s easy to see why it didn’t go over well as a large amount of the runtime focuses on the ants and while this photography is impressive it also makes it seem more like a nature film, but without any voice-over narration explaining what the ants are doing. It’s not like you can’t figure it out, but it does require close attention and could still be confusing to some and not something mainstream audiences are used to, or expected to sit through.

When the humans are onscreen the acting isn’t bad and surprisingly there is some character development, which a lot of other high concept Sci-fi flicks sometimes don’t have. I enjoyed Davenport and his very matter-of-fact approach to the situation in which nothing ever gets to him emotionally no matter how grisly and his never ending obsession to usurp the ants no matter how ultimately bleak it gets.

Lynne Frederick is good too as a teen-aged girl who gets taken in by the scientists when the rest of her family are killed. Initially I didn’t like her presence as I was afraid it was going to lead to some annoying, manufactured side romance, but fortunately that didn’t occur and instead becomes more of the emotional, human side of the trio especially with the way her eyes gaze at the evil ants. I also really liked the segment that shows in close-up of an ant climbing on her foot and then up through her body, even going in and out of her bellybutton until finally arriving at her head all while she sleeps.

The ending though is a disappointment as it never explains the reason for the ant’s behavior. I actually did find the story intriguing for awhile and even kind of scary, but you can’t expect a viewer to sit through a near 90-minute film and not supply them with some answers. No conclusion is given either as to who ultimately wins the battle, man or ant, which was something better explained in the original director’s cut, which had a surreal, image-laden montage showing what life on the ‘new earth’ was like, but this got cut by Paramount and never shown in the film released to theaters. In 2012 a faded print of the original ending was found and after being digitally scanned was added to a new 35mm print that was played at several select art house theaters, but this version has never been released onto DVD/Blu-ray, which is a shame as the movie comes off as incomplete without it.

For those who are interested here is a faded print of the original ending:

My Rating: 7 out of 10

Released: September 6, 1974

Runtime: 1 Hour 24 Minutes (Studio version)

Rated PG

Director: Saul Bass

Studio: Paramount

Available: DVD, Blu-ray, Amazon Video, YouTube

Z.P.G. (1972)

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 5 out of 10

4-Word Review: Having babies is forbidden.

In the future the earth has become overrun with smog that blankets everything and has killed off all plant and animal life and forces everyone to wear breathing masks when outside. In effort to control the population growth the government orders that no one can have babies and instead must visit ‘Babyland’ where childless couples will be given life-sized robotic dolls to take care of instead. Russ (Oliver Reed) and Carol (Geraldine Chaplin) are a young couple who defy this order and secretly have a baby, but when their neighbors (Don Gordon, Diane Cilento) find out and threaten to go to the authorities the couple is forced to go on the run.

This film was both a critical and commercial failure when first released, but was later turned into a novel called ‘The Edict’ that was a success and helped gain the film a bit of a cult following. The special effects though aren’t too great with an opening shot showing this flying vehicle that looks like it was connected to a crane flying over a city’s skyline that resemble miniature toy models, which to me should make it prime fodder for an episode of ‘Mystery Science Theater’. Blanketing everything with smog doesn’t help as part of the fun of watching a Sci-fi film is seeing the elaborate set design and this film has none.

I didn’t like that everyone wears the exact same black uniform either. This is not the first sci-fi film to do this, but it always comes off as phony to me. Do style and fashion trends just go out the window in the future? Every society in every time period has always had individuality and those that break away from the mainstream, so expecting that every single person in the future conforms to the norm and agrees to wear the exact same outfit as everyone else is just not believable.

The plot is skeletal and not well thought out.  The first half plods along too slowly as it’s obvious from the start that Carol wants to have a baby and watching her come to this foregone decision is too draggy and the story should’ve started out right away with her having the child and then going from there to trying to hide it. Also, if the government really wanted to prevent people from having children why didn’t they just force every female to have a tubal ligation instead of trusting that after having sex they would go to their bathroom and press a button on an ‘abortion machine’ on the wall that would apparently send radiation, via a red glowing light, into the woman’s uterus.

The acting is good and Chaplin’s performance comes off as quite sincere. It’s also good to see Oliver Reed in a rare good-guy role although the script really doesn’t give him much to do. Cilento as the intrusive neighbor is by far the scene-stealer. The segment where she must be coached via a government official talking to her on a television monitor to show love for her robot child is one of the film’s best moments as is the later scene where she eventually destroys the doll by bashing its head onto a cement sidewalk.

Spoiler Alert!

The ending was the only time that I found myself slightly intrigued. Watching the couple get trapped inside a dome where after 12-hours they were set to be gassed to death and then having them dig their way out of it and into an underground cavern where via a inflatable raft they were able to escape was mildly interesting, but having them end up on an island where old nuclear weapons were buried was not satisfying. Did they end up dying of cancer? How could they survive without any plant or animal life and was anyone else on the island besides them? The ending like the rest of the film leaves far more questions than answers.

My Rating: 5 out of 10

Released: May 25, 1972

Runtime: 1 Hour 37 Minutes

Rated PG

Director: Michael Campus

Studio: Paramount

Available: DVD, Blu-ray, Amazon Video, YouTube

Quintet (1979)

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 4 out of 10

4-Word Review: Deadly game/frozen tundra.

During a future ice age Essex (Paul Newman) and his pregnant companion Viva (Brigitte Fossey) travel north in hopes of finding his brother Francha (Thomas Hill). They come to his apartment to find him and a group of other people playing a board game called Quintet, which has become the popular form of entertainment in an otherwise frozen, barren world. While Essex goes out to buy firewood the rest of the inhabitants in the apartment are killed by a bomb and when Essex chases the perpetrator (Craig Richard Nelson) he finds a list of five names inside the man’s pocket and realizes that the board game is now being played out in real-time with the winners killing the losers, which forces Essex to become a reluctant participant.

Although director Robert Altman had started the 70’s with the blockbuster hit M*A*S*H and followed it with Nashville his star status by the end of the decade had become severely tarnished especially after he helmed a succession of box office bombs with this film being a financial failure as well, which pretty much put the nail in the coffin for his career and hampered his ability at getting top projects afterwards, but I will at least give him credit for going outside of his comfort zone. While his past films were all dramedies this one was an interesting stab at sci-fi that if anything creates a vivid atmosphere. I particularly like the opening shot that shows nothing but snowy white and the sound of a cold hollowing wind only to slowly see the formation of two human figures walking in the far distance.

Unfortunately the other elements of the film are not as inspired. The costumes worn by the characters look like something leftover by a  Shakesperian college stage production and the board game itself played by the participants sparks no interest in the viewer because it’s never clear how it’s played. Supposedly the working rules of the game were passed out to audience members as they entered the theater, but it would’ve been nice had these same rules been explained in the movie itself.

The setting, which was filmed on-location inside  the abandoned buildings leftover from Montreal’s World Expo ’67 gives off an interesting futuristic vibe, but I was confused why despite being in the future there was no modern technology. I realized it was a new ice age, but are we to believe that all the computers and gadgets from the past generations got frozen over and the only thing left were the buildings? I also didn’t like how Altman smeared the edges of the lens with a translucent substance where only the middle part of the screen is in focus while the edges are fuzzy, which was intended to give it an ice over look, but doing this in literally every shot got to be a bit much.

Watching the characters die or wondering who will be next offers no tension at all as killing them seemed almost favorable as it put them out of their misery and away from their otherwise bleak existence. The plot needed an added angle to give it more intrigue like perhaps having a warm destination that still existed that the characters would try to get to while avoiding being killed in the process. Having it play out though the way it does with everyone locked inside this icy setting is not compelling at all. Altman proves here to be completely outside his realm while it also wastes Newman’s acting talents to the point that I was surprised why he even bothered to take the part at all. Some may wish to seek this out as a curio, but outside of its icy atmosphere there’s little else to recommend.

My Rating: 4 out of 10

Released: February 9, 1979

Runtime: 1 Hour 58 Minutes

Rated R

Director: Robert Altman

Studio: 20th Century Fox

Available: DVD, Amazon Video, YouTube

The Black Hole (1979)

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 4 out of 10

4-Word Review: Area of gravitational acceleration.

On their return trip to earth a crew of 5-people (Robert Forster, Yvette Mimieux, Joseph Bottoms, Anthony Perkins, Ernest Borgnine) on board the USS Palomino spot a large spaceship and are baffled at its ability to withstand the gravitational force of the nearby black hole. They decide to investigate the ship and find that it is being run by Dr. Hans Reinhardt (Maximilian Schell) who has been for the past 20 years the sole human survivor after the rest of the crew supposedly returned to earth, the members of the Palomino though are suspicious about this explanation since the robed android drones seem to strangely have human-like qualities. They become further alarmed when they learn that Reinhardt plans on taking the ship through the black hole, which they feel will lead to a sure death to all those on board.

For the most part the special effects look awesome  and one gets a true feeling of the vastness of space in this one with Reinhardt’s ship getting captured in a way that makes it look large and impressive. Even the interiors give off a sort-of mansion-like feel and that the characters are inside of a large scale vessel with many rooms as opposed to simply being sets on a soundstage.

Unfortunately the script lacks imagination and becomes just another formulaic madman in space scenario that offers no new twists to the genre. The tone is extremely downbeat and despite being produced by Disney doesn’t seem to be something aimed for kids at all. The story is also devoid of action and when there finally is some it’s short and fleeting and comes off like a second-rate laser shoot-out.

The characters don’t show enough contrasting personalities either and are too old. Usually pre-teens relate better to movies with performers around their same age range, but here everyone is middle-aged and in Borgnine’s case even well past that. Bottoms is the youngest and should’ve carried the film, but his acting is so transparent you end up wishing it he hadn’t even been in it at all.

It’s also a bit ridiculous that Mimieux could communicate with the ship’s robot via ESP even though mental telepathy cannot be substantiated by the scientific community and therefore should not be introduced into a sci-fi flick that is supposedly trying to taken seriously.  I did enjoy Perkins in his part, but he should not have been the one to turn around one of the drones and unmask them to expose a shriveled face underneath, which for trivia purposes was the film’s director Gary Nelson, since it will remind viewers too much of a similar reveal scene near the end of Psycho of which he famously starred in.

Schell as the resident nutcase is a complete bore in a performance that is so pathetically cliched that it borders on camp. He reminded me of James Mason’s character from 20,000 Leagues under the Sea, which was also produced by Disney and should’ve been enough to have Mason invited back to play the part here as he would’ve been far more interesting.

The robots outshine the humans in this one particularly Roddy McDowell and Slim Pickens, who strangely go uncredited, as the voices of the  ‘good guy’ droids. However, the army of villainous androids that try to stop the crew from escaping walk too stiffly almost like mimes playing into the cliche of how people perceive robots to move, but by the year 2132, which is when this story takes place, you’d think technology would’ve improved enough to have created androids that would’ve had more fluid-like motions. They are also a bit too easy to pick-off almost like sitting ducks in a shooting gallery, which saps the shoot-outs segments of any tension.

The ending though is the biggest disappointment as it never clearly explains what happens to the crew when the go through the black hole. There’s a lot of heavy-handed imagery including a cool hell-like visual, but nothing conclusive, which makes the whole thing just one big buildup to nothing.

My Rating: 4 out of 10

Released: December 21, 1979

Runtime: 1 Hour 38 Minutes

Rated PG

Director: Gary Nelson

Studio: Buena Vista

Available: DVD, Amazon Video, YouTube

Simon (1980)

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 4 out of 10

4-Word Review: College professor becomes brainwashed.

An underground group of scientists who enjoy playing elaborate pranks decide to brainwash a college professor named Simon Mendelssohn (Alan Arkin) into believing that he is an alien from another planet. After he is successfully brainwashed he then escapes from the institution and gets in with a religious cult who have a transmitter that can block the TV airwaves and allow him the ability to be seen by the entire nation where he tries to reform American culture while also becoming a celebrity sensation.

This extremely odd comical satire  seems out of place for a studio backed film and more in tune with a independent project as it’s unclear what specific type of audience the filmmakers were hoping to attract as mainstream viewers will most likely find the humor off-putting. One could describe it as being ahead-of-its-time, but the banal potshots at such overused targets as TV and American consumerism makes it seem more dated instead.

The movie would’ve worked better had it remained focused on one intended target and then ravaged the hell out of it instead of soft jabs at various safe targets, which makes its overall message muddled and unclear. There are some funny bits including watching Austin Pendleton, who is the head of the research group, making love to a giant telephone receiver, whose voice is supplied by Louise Lasser. It’s also funny having a brainwashed person such as Simon trying to brainwash others via the airwaves, which could’ve been really hilarious had they gone farther with this idea.

There’s signs that writer/director Marshall Brickman hadn’t fully thought through the quirky story idea to begin with. For instance why would this underground group of scientists allow a video crew in to film what they are doing as the members are seen at the beginning talking directly to the camera and answering questions by some unseen interviewer. Wouldn’t this allow their secret to get out and get them into trouble? The army that takes over the institute is too incompetent as Simon and his girlfriend Lisa (Judy Graubart) are able to escape from it too easily and their inability to locate Simon’s rogue TV transmitter even after days of searching is rather pathetic. I realize this is meant to be ‘funny’, but even a comedy should have some tension to it to make it more interesting and the army’s extreme buffoonery isn’t humorous at all, but just plain dumb instead.

Arkin is the one thing that saves it. His unusual acting style makes him hard to cast, but here he really delivers especially during the segment where he plays out the evolution of man, but without using any dialogue although it might’ve been funnier and more of an interesting contrast had his character not been so kooky to begin with, but instead some stuffy intellectual only to become zany once he was brainwashed.

Judy Graubart makes for a good anchor as the one normal person in the whole movie. She was best known for her work on the children’s TV-show ‘The Electric Company’ and this was her live-action film debut, which should’ve lead to a long line of film appearances, but instead she only had brief bits in two other movies and that was it.

There are signs of a great movie trying to break out and the overall concept has brilliant potential, but this is the type of film where you’ve got to go full-throttle and Brickman seems either unable or too timid to do that making what could’ve been sharp satire into a transparent, benign mess that offers only a few chuckles, but not much else.

My Rating: 4 out of 10

Released: February 1, 1980

Runtime: 1 Hour 37 Minutes

Rated PG

Director: Marshall Brickman

Studio: Orion Pictures

Available: DVD-R (Warner Archive) Amazon Video, YouTube

Shaker Run (1985)

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 3 out of 10

4-Word Review: Transporting a deadly virus.

Judd (Cliff Robertson) is an aging stunt driver who along with his young protege Casey (Leif Garret) is finding it increasingly difficult to make ends meet. With barely any money on hand they decide to take up an offer from a mysterious woman (Lisa Harrow) who asks them to carry inside the trunk of their car a large container with a secret substance across New Zealand for undisclosed reasons. The desperate Judd reluctantly agrees only to later find that inside the container is a deadly virus sought after by the military who will stop at nothing to get their hands on it.

The wide-eyed plot mixes the genre of a cross-country road chase with that of an end-of-the-world sci-fi flick and the result is as cheesy as it sounds. It’s also hampered by cheap production values that makes it look more on par with a TV-movie than a theatrical one.

I didn’t care for the cold climate setting either. Filmed in July of 1984, which would be wintertime for the southern hemisphere, the New Zealand landscape looks quite bleak and brown with occasional pockets of snow and the  characters are all bundled up in heavy jackets. A good road movie should elicit inside the viewer the feeling of wanting to get out onto the open highway instead of longing to stay inside by a fireplace like it does here.

Robertson manages to add some life to the otherwise sterile material, which is nice to see as his film career nosedived in 1977 when he accused Columbia studio head David Begelman of forgery and was blacklisted as a result. When he was finally offered film roles again they were of the thankless supporting kind although here he gets the star treatment and it’s great seeing a guy in his 60’s handling the action as opposed to a young 20-something hunk like in most other films.

Leif Garrett, the androgynous teen hunk from the 70’s is adequate as his loyal young side-kick and has grown to be more filled-out and masculine looking. However, the remaining cast members are dull and this includes Shane Briant in a boring caricature of a cold, calculating villain as well Harrow who tags along with the two men on their drive, but comes-off more like unnecessary dead-weight.

Spoiler Alert!

The more the chase goes on the more contrived it gets and there’s an uneasy balance between realistic crashes to slapstick comedy. The resolution, in which Harrow ties a chain dangling from an overhead helicopter piloted by the CIA onto Robertson’s car so that they are whisked into the air while the evil government agents that had been chasing them drive off over a cliff, is not satisfying because the film made clear earlier that the CIA was just as deceitful as the other bad guys and couldn’t be trusted. Yet it never bothers to explain what ultimately happens to the virus, or whether it got into the right-hands and was destroyed.

My Rating: 3 out of 10

Released: August 15, 1985

Runtime: 1 Hour 33 Minutes

Not Rated

Director: Bruce Morrison

Studio: Mirage Films

Available: DVD, Amazon Video