Monday, March 24, 2014

Fugitive Alien (1987) – MST3K Review


Summary:
The fearsome Wolf Raiders are attacking earth and making a real mess of things. The most fearsome is Ken (Tatsuya Azuma), who can toss humans around like they are sock monkeys and manages to scowl pretty good even with this goofy clown wig/helmet on. But it all goes wrong when a little human boy named Ken appears and Ken (the Starwolf) can’t shoot him. His fellow Starwolf mocks him and then takes aim a little Ken. Big Ken tries to stop him and blammo Ken has killed one of his own.

The supreme leader of the Raiders won’t stand for this and declares Ken a fugitive. After a daring escape from the raiders Ken is adrift in space. He is rescued by the crew of the Bacchus III. Captain Joe (Jo Shishido) sees that Ken may be able to help them in more ways then one, but the untrusting Rocky (Choei Takahashi) is just waiting for Ken to screw up. What adventures and excitement will our Fugitive Alien experience this week… I mean, this time, because this is not, I repeat, is not a movie made up of a bunch of episodes from a Japanese weekly series.

Movie Review:
Fugitive Alien is a “movie” made up of a bunch of episodes from a Japanese weekly series called Star Wolf (Sutaurufu). Star Wolf was made back in 1978, which should tell you just what the series was going for – Star Wars. The opening scenes with the Raiders attacking earth, the ships look suspiciously like the X-wing fighter Luke Skywalker uses to blow up the Death Star. And while the show was obviously inspired by the recent success of Mr. Lucas’ opus, there are a lot of other inspirations going around.

Bacchus III, the booziest ship
in the cosmos.
Anime like Space Battleship Yamato (aka Star Blazers) had been providing Japanese viewers with space opera adventures since 1974. So it makes sense that Star Wolf feels a lot like a live action anime series, more often than not. Captain Joe is typical of the rough and ready commander type. Ken is typical of the misunderstood, but brave and strong hero type. Even Tammy (Miyuki Tanigawa) is cheerful and perky and plays the token girl in the all male crew.

The acting and the camerawork in Fugitive Alien  follow suit. Most of the parts are played pretty broadly, with the exception being the evil leader of the wolf raiders who shows no emotions when he orders the death of hundreds. But everyone else is over the top and having a good time. The camera work uses bursts of quick editing, as well as multiple zooms so you can see every pore on a persons’ face – a technique very popular in anime in the late ‘70s and ‘80s.

But some of the adventures reminded me strongly of the original series of Star Trek, especially the story arc on the alien world where negotiations are taking place between Captain Joe and a miniature leader dressed like a Mongol warlord. But most of the space battles, Ken’s daring escapes and the crew’s ability to work together reminds me strongly of space opera anime series like Macross (or Robotech if you prefer) or Outlaw Star.

Don't let the red clown wig fool
you, Ken will shoot first.
I’ve made this sound pretty good so far, but just like anime, there are some amazingly bizarre and goofy touches in this series that make it ripe for riffing. The first thing you see is the Wolf Raiders, supposedly fearsome invaders, except for the small fact that they are wearing helmet with bright read clown wigs attached to the inside of them. I don’t care how much destruction and carnage you create, if you’re dressed like that people are going to laugh. Then you get odd things like Ken’s explosive buttons on his jumpsuit, or the whole scene with Rocky and the forklift. You can’t help but ask questions. Why is the leader of the Wolf Raiders made up like a kabuki actor? Why does Ken’s old fiancĂ© have long blonde hair, even though she’s obviously Japanese? What is hidden inside Captain Joe’s huge, huge cheeks?

But the real culprit here is whoever decided to make a buck off of this series, because it was old by the time 1987 rolled around. Star Wars was long over and considered un-cool (although Star Trek had a pretty solid following thanks to the success of The Next Generation series). They took a dozen episodes or so, edited them down in a bare bones fashion and slapped a ridiculous dub track to create Fugitive Alien.

As you may have guessed the final product makes very little sense. Some scenes flow better than others, and the whole opening with Ken actually establishes him pretty well. But the horrible editing, the amazing lame voice acting pretty much turns what could have been a fun television series into one of the most astoundingly bizarre sci-fi “movies” out there. It’s little wonder that Joel and the bots tackled this movie, not just once, but twice!

Episode Review:  
"Yes! A leatherette jumpsuit!"
Yep, you read that right. Fugitive Alien was featured on Mystery Science Theater 3000 back in the cable access season and then again on Comedy Central during season three. I’ve never seen the cable access season, and frankly I’ve heard they aren’t nearly as good as the later work. I’ll take the cast and crew’s word on it. Instead I’ll focus on their Season Three effort.

Sandy Frank was the man behind the plan of grabbing Japanese imports and repackaging them for the American market. He did this with the Gamera films as well as the turning the Gatchaman anime into Battle of the Planets in the late ‘70s. So what he’s done here with Fugitive Alien really comes as no surprise. It’s also no surprise that Joel and bots tackle it, since they were on a roll with Sandy Frank’s work in season three (tacking the Gamera films as well as a couple other television series turned into movies including Time of the Apes and Mighty Jack).

But this stuff is riffing gold! The Japanese style combined with the goofy voice acting and horrendous dubbing just keeps on delivering and delivering material for the boys to comment on.

In the opening scenes of Fugitive Alien when big Ken can’t shoot little Ken, Joel and the bots just assume everyone in the movie is named Ken. This creates a whole bunch of silly jokes and provides a running theme that pops up when you least expect it.

Tammy doubts the veracity of
Captain Joe's cheeks.
While Ken is on screen for most of the film, the character that generates the most laughs is Captain Joe. His huge cheeks, his blustery demeanor and his bizarre voice over actor just make him a perfect target. You could argue that the episode is at its best when Captain Joe is on the screen. Combined with the goofy vinyl outfits the crew wears Joel dubs them “Captain Gerbil and the Leatherettes”.

But the riffers also get a lot of mileage out of the overall style of the movie. As I mentioned there are a lot of quick edits and zooms (sometimes in combination). The boys will add all kinds of sound effects to these moments, especially the surprised gasp, or a simple “huh?” They also pick up on some of the bizarre music choices used in the film. Again I’m not sure if this is something the American distributor added in postproduction, or if this is original to the series, but you’ve got some great stuff here. 

When an oddly twanging piece kicks in as we see the majestic Bacchus III in dry doc, Tom asks if “Ma and Pa Kettle have boarded the ship.” But one of the most classic scenes from this episode is when an overtly brassy piece kicks in during infamous Forklift incident. The boys concoct a song to go along with the tune and sing it. That moment alone is worth seeking out this episode. And when the piece is used later the boys adapt their lyrics to suite the scene.

Fugitive Alien is also an episode filled with references to previous MST3K episodes. So long time viewers will get a kick out of mentions of characters, situations and even riffs from Pod People, Lost Continent, Cave Dwellers and more.

I’m going to stop here, because there are so many great moments and little humorous bits that I could comment forever on this episode. So lets just get to the host segment break down.

The episode opens with Joel pretending he’s a farmer and the bots are his animals. Has Joel lost his mind already? For the invention exchange the mad scientists create a device that delivers all your ear, nose and throat drops at once. Frank demonstrates and nearly drowns. Joel shows off his “musical chair” a lounger that doubles as a xylophone. Then Jack Perkins shows up to introduce the film (and never leaves the Mad Scientists alone for the rest of the episode). At the first break, Joel and bots are inspired by the Wolf Raiders goofy helmets to make their own. When they boys are back after the next round of movie, Joel is Captain Joe and the bots are terrified. At the next break Joel and bots attempt to break down the screenplay of the “film” using Syd Field’s screenplay technique (a book I used in University!). At the end of the film Joel shows off his explosive buttons on his jumpsuit. And back in Deep 13 the mad scientists have had enough of Jack Perkins and prepare to finish him off.

Joel channels his inner Captain
Joe. The bots look on in horror.
For me this is one of the best episodes of the entire series. The movie’s a hoot, the riffing is top notch and packed with laughs. Following this up with  Star Force: Fugitive Alien 2 or Time of the Apes and you've got a great one two punch of MST3K gold. In my opinion Season Three does not get better than this. It also earns its place in my top ten favorite episodes of all time. 

I give it five exploding jumpsuit buttons out of five.

This episode is available on Mystery Science Theater 3000 Vol. XXIV.

2 comments:

  1. This looks worth sitting down with some sushi a bottle of Kirin Ichiban.

    ReplyDelete
  2. That would certainly make it a very interesting viewing experience. I'm a Sapporo drinker myself. Goes great with sushi.

    ReplyDelete