Friday, August 29, 2014

parts: The Clonus Horror (1979) - MST3K Review

Richard (Tim Donnelly) is living the good live in a utopian society. He spends his days participating in good-natured exercise, learning about the mythical land of America and hanging out with his friends. But for all the fun and games, Richard feels like life is missing something. When he meets the lovely Lena (Paulette Breen) she feels the same way. The two begin to notice this little society has some odd elements. The guards seem to talk to no one. People disappear without a trace. Even the wise Dr. Jameson (Dick Sargent) appears to be lying to them.

When Richard does some sneaking around he discovers that the facility they all live in is called Clonus, and that he is a clone of a man named Richard Knight. Richard doesn’t quite understand everything he finds, but it is enough to get him in trouble. Soon he is on the run from Clonus security. Richard escapes the facility and makes it to the big city, but he finds the world completely alien. Can an old reporter Jake Noble (Keenan Wynn) lead Richard to find his original? Or will Clonus and all it’s powerful backers make sure the secret remains buried? Peter Graves rounds out the cast in this paranoid sci-fi thriller.

Movie Review:
"You're swell." "I like how keen you are."
So lets get the obvious out of the way. If the plot to Parts: The Clonus Horror (which I’ll just call Clonus from now on) sounds familiar, that’s because the main story elements were essentially borrowed for the Michael Bay film The Island. It caused a bit of a legal issue that got settled out of court. The two the movies are really similar, with the biggest difference being the budget.

Most of the film is comprised of location shooting around Southern California. The facility for Clonus was filmed at two colleges with some interesting architecture. It looks not quite futuristic, but is certainly a vast contrast the scenes in downtown Los Angeles and in the suburban neighborhood we see in the second half of the film.

The clones all wear variants on the same clothing, essentially shorts and a polo shirt. The guards are dressed in tracksuits with baseball caps. Then you have the doctors in their traditional lab coats. It gives everything a kind of bland conformity that fits the utopian opening of Clonus and contrasts to the late 70s fashions we see in the “real” world later.

Oh Darren, does Sam know what you're up to with Dr.
Mario over here?
While the movie is a science fiction movie, it goes light on the special effects. This is much more of an X-files variety of sci-fi, conspiracies and paranoia. We don’t see the cloning in action, because these clones are grown over a long period of time. We do get to see the preservation process for the clones, as they replace the blood of one clone with green fluid and freeze the poor guy.

The sound effects are pretty standard for this type of film. The score is mostly electronic, with some interesting vocal effects for the more sinister moments. For the low budget it works pretty well.

Clonus does feature some big names in the cast and they do most of the heavy lifting in the film. Peter Graves has a small but crucial role as Senator Jeff Knight. He is very much aware of the Clonus project. When his brother Richard (David Hooks) confronts him with evidence in the form of the clone Richard, Jeff convinces his brother of the need for the facility and the clones. How else are the chosen few supposed to get perfect organs for transplanting in their old age. Graves does the smooth talking Senator role very well, and has some good interplay with Hooks. You believe the two are brothers.

They argue a lot, but the sex is great.
Keenan Wynn as the craggy reporter and Lurene Tuttle as his wife Anna inject some humor into the grim film. They playfully bicker the entire time they are on screen together. This banter also gives us some background on the characters and gives something new for our clone hero to watch and be confused by.

Dick Sargent plays the deceptive Dr. Jameson. He’s obviously in this for the pure science aspect and doesn’t consider the clones to be humans, but treats them as experiments. He does most of his interacting with Dr. Nelson (Zale Kessler), but has a few good scenes with clone Richard.

For the most part, Clonus follows clone Richard on his quest to learn about his isolated world and then to survive the pursuit into the outside world. It isn’t an easy part, because he has to balance a child like naïveté with curiosity and fear. Unlike many of the other clones, he isn’t drugged, or lobotomized, but his education is severely limited. So while he appears to be a bit dense at times it makes sense for the character. Donnelly does a good job with this tough role, although he does seem to go a bit overboard at times, it is hard to judge how a child-like mind in a full grown man’s body would react in these situations.

"Architecture by the Sydney Opera House."
Most of the clones face this challenge in the acting department. Some play this child like simplicity a little too broad coming across as stupid or slow. I don’t want to judge to harshly because it is difficult to conceive how someone would act if they were raised in such a limited environment.

As far as the direction and story construction, Clonus actually works really well. It has decent pacing, and sets up some solid thrills and tension. Because Richard has no clue about our world (or his world for that matter) he makes for a good protagonist. The odds are obviously against him, but we keep hoping that he can escape his horror before it is too late. But this movie was made in the 1970s and that pretty much guarantees that it will all end badly with the government and Clonus winning out. I also love how all the big backers we see are old white men. I’d be curious to see what the women who invested in Clonus are like.

They just started to watch  Manos: The Hand of Fate.
I get the feeling that this movie had been released before 1977 it would be better remembered. But Star Wars came along and changed everything. From that moment on, sci-fi meant space opera and space adventures. Movies dealing with sci-fi concepts in our real world were just not as appealing to audiences.

Yes, Clonus has budget limitations. Sometimes the acting isn’t that great. Sometimes the dialogue is hard to make out because of poor sound work. Sometimes the seams show just a little to clearly. But the movie works as well as you could hope. No it isn’t Logan’s Run, and some elements certainly seem inspired by THX-1138, but the final result is a solid sci-fi thriller that aims high, but ends up a little short. That doesn’t mean that Mike and bots didn’t have much to work with, because there are plenty of odd moments that make Clonus a great target for the Mystery Science Theater 3000 treatment.

Episode Review:

"If I'm elected, Biography for everybody!"
I’ll admit that Parts: The Clonus Horror is a favorite around our house. Not only because it is a really funny riffing session, and a solid movie on top of it. No, we really love this episode because the two colleges that serve as the  Clonus facility are the two colleges my wife and I attended. The first time we saw this episode when it aired in 1998, we were stunned. It couldn’t be, but there they were: both college campuses, shown through a funky 70s filter. It was odd to see what changed and what remained exactly the same nearly twenty years later. I admit we spent most of the film attempting to figure out where they filmed the keys scenes. Because of that little bit of trivia, I freely admit a  bit of bias toward this episode.

Mike and bots have a lot of fun with Clonus, even if I think they end up coming down a little too hard on it. For me, this is similar to the way they ended up approaching TimeChasers, Overdrawn at the MemoryBank or even Soul Taker. All of these are good solid movies with low budgets. The stories make sense, are paced well and provide some entertainment. They are certainly superior to films like Werewolf, Hobgoblins and Horrors ofSpider Island. But the crew treated these films all about the same, which I never thought was fair.

"She really was on top of old smokey."
So you get some pretty harsh slams on Clonus. They go to town on how unattractive our lead character is. They claim the movie makes no sense (something I never understood, because I always thought it was very clear).  They continually say how bad the movie is, and well, I just don’t buy it. I suppose when you have a basis for comparison that includes something like The Incredibly Strange Creatures Who Stopped Living and Became Mixed up Zombies, well something like Clonus is fine art.

So if you ignore the pretty harsh attacks on the film (a syndrome of the Sci-fi channel years), you get some really fun riffing. The clones make for some of the best jokes in the first half. The happy go lucky community, with the constant smiles and shirtless wrestling opens up lots of riffing opportunities. As Richard and his pal participate in a topless pushup competition (surrounded by clone onlookers) Tom declares it “The longtime companion Olympics.” Later we see two clones wrestling (again without shirts) and Mike advices, “Gentlemen you are doing this on your own, this is not sanctioned.”

Clone Richard is perpetually confused by everything.
The clones are told that at some point they will go to America, and live a life of pure joy. Of course the clones that do end up “going to America” are spirited away to be preserved and stored. But the doctors and clones constantly use the phrase, “Going to America” to which Tom will belt out in his best Niel Diamond “TODAY!” Crow is offended by the films message that “we kill and bag people in America”.

Richard’s nearly constant confusion provides a ton of riffing opportunities. When he finds a can of Old Milwaukee in the river he contemplates it for a long time. Mike references The Gods Must be Crazy when he says, “The little Bushman doesn’t know what to make the can.” When clone Richard goes to a “confessional” to ask about the can, he enters what looks like a phone booth and puts on headphones. Crow declares him “Charles Van Dorkin”, and if you saw the film Quiz Show that line will crack you up. Later Richard is snooping around the facility and finds a map with Milwaukee on it. This revelation is punctuated by Mike declaring, “This is the most interest anyone has ever paid to Milwaukee, EVER.”

Peter just got that feeling that someone is watching
him... on Biography!
Peter Graves opens up a whole host of other jokes. I figured they would go for some Mission: Impossible lines, or even callbacks to other episodes featuring Graves in the Mystery Science Theater 3000 catalogue (such as The Beginning of the End or It Conquered the World). But Clonus is best remember by MST3K fans for the running gags based on Graves hosting the television series Biography. This running joke is hit or miss. Sometimes I find the whole thing terribly funny, other times it feels like they just beat it into the ground. They pretty much riff the entire end credits as Peter Graves providing voice over for a Biography episode about various cast and crew involved in Clonus. If this starts to rub you the wrong way, it is a saving grace that Graves isn’t in the movie very long.

You know... for kids.
You’ve got some fun host segments in this episode. Things start off a bit fuzzy, when Mike shows off his new 70s mustache. The bots mock him mercilessly, so he shaves it off. Then they mock his bare lip. Meanwhile Pearl, Brain Guy and Professor Bobo encounter the horror of the Space Children. Not to be confused with the movie of the same name, these little brats remind me more of the super powerful kids from the old Star Trek  episode. They proceed to torment Pearl and her posse. At the first break a game of Candyland causes Brain Guy to cheat! Meanwhile Bobo gets hit in his area by a baseball. At the next beak Candyland has gone horribly wrong, so Pearl begs Mike and bots to recreate an education television program for the kids to watch. Crow and Tom are you puppet hosts and Mike shows off the letter and number of the day. It goes pretty well until the boys switch in a Spanish language version with loud music, horrible outfits and ridiculous camerawork. The space children burst into tears, and Bobo gets hit in his crotch again. When we return to the space children they are asking Pearl and Co about the birds and the bees. It doesn’t go well and Bobo takes one to the junk again (see a pattern here)? After the movie ends, Crow shows off his new nose and Tom shows off his new lullaby, guaranteed to lull children to sleep. It sounds like a polka on crack and that wakes up the space children. Pearl is less then pleased.

For me the riffing on Clonus is a bit stronger in the first half, when clone Richard is interacting with his fellow clones and wandering around the facility. But my bias at seeing my old university back in 1979 might have something to do with it. The Graves Biography riffing kicks into high gear in the second half, so that keeps it from being a top notch episode. Still this episode is one I have no problem recommending.

Richard finally arrives in America... TODAY!

I give it four confused clones out of five.

This episode is available on The Mystery Science Theater 3000 Collection: Volume 12.

When Candyland goes horribly wrong.

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

The Spy Who Loved Me (1977)

James Bond needed a boost. While audiences seemed to be agreeable to Roger Moore in the role, the first two films of his tenure were not well regarded. The creative forces behind the franchise knew something needed to be done, and quickly. It became an all or nothing gamble. 1977 was going to showcase the biggest James Bond film yet. If it didn’t work with audiences, than it was time to throw in the towel. But if it did work… well James Bond would return.

British Secret Agent James Bond (Roger Moore) is put on his most vital case yet. A British submarine literally vanished. MI6 discovers that someone has figured out a way to track submarines, and is willing sell the technology to the highest bidder. Bond makes his way to Cairo, Egypt to find out more. When he gets there he meets the lovely Anya Amasova (Barbara Bach), a Soviet secret agent who is also in Cairo to buy the plans for this technology. You see the Russians have lost a sub too.

There is a third party involved in this, a super-rich eccentric named Karl Stromberg (Curt Jurgens). He dreams of a world without war and torment: a world completely under the oceans. To accomplish this, he will use the nuclear submarines to start World War III, while he sits in his underwater laboratory of Atlantis and watching the world burn. Of course he can’t have Bond or Anya messing up his plans so he dispatches his deadly henchman, a hulking brute with metal teeth called Jaws (Richard Kiel). The hunt is on, as Bond and Anya put together the sinister plot, battle Jaws among the ruins of Egypt, drive a car that turns into a submarine and face the villain in not one, but two huge lairs! But things take a final turn for the worse, when Anya discovers that Bond killed her lover. Once the mission is over, she will save one bullet – for Bond… James Bond.

Good Points:
  • Goes back to the huge scale and scope of the biggest Bond films
  • Balances humor and action almost perfectly
  • Anya and Jaws are two of the best characters of the Moore era

Bad Points:
  • This plot should sound awfully familiar
  • Hate disco? Then you’ll hate the disco-tastic score by Marvin Hamlisch
  • Bond is pretty much a superman in this movie

If you don’t mind your James Bond films to be filled to the brim with fun, then you’ll enjoy this film. The writers finally found the sweet spot, providing Moore with a part he can really get into. Lots of great stunts, visuals and one of the most iconic henchmen of the franchise, The Spy who Loved Me is certainly the best Bond film of the 1970s.

Scores (out of 5)
Visuals: 5
Sound: 4
Acting: 4
Script: 4
Music: 4
Direction: 5
Entertainment: 5
Total:  5

In Depth Review
Bringing a whole new meaning to detante.
One of the most amazing things about the James Bond franchise is its ability to soldier on, even when things start to get tough, or audiences seem disinterested, the creative minds come together and are able to knock one out of the park. The early 70s were something of a low point in the franchise. The movies seemed smaller, and even the injection of Roger Moore into the main role didn’t help things. The Man with the Golden Gun had some the key ingredients, like exotic locales and a villain with potential, but the final product just didn’t work. It still felt like someone attempting to make a Bond movie.

One of the largest and most complex sets ever
made for a James Bond film.
By the time they decided to work on The Spy Who Loved Me a few changes had to be made. Albert Broccoli took over as the sole producer. Guy Hamilton who had helmed Goldfinger, but also directed the previous three films was out. Instead Lewis Gilbert was brought back. He worked on one of the biggest 007 adventures of them all, You Only Live Twice. But one of the most important elements missing from the previous two films was production design by Ken Adam. When it comes to the 1960 and 1970s, Bond films, Adam defined the look for James Bond’s world. His eye for clean lines, immense scope is unmistakable, and became one of those things that an audience doesn’t even realize they are missing, until it is gone. Yep, Adam was not around for Live and Let Die or The Man with the Golden Gun.

With these new elements in place, The Spy Who Loved Me was ready to roll with an immense budget. For Broccoli, this was the big gamble and in a lot of ways this would be the turning point for James Bond. If the character and concept could become a huge hit again, then they knew the franchise was unstoppable. If it failed here, well, folks would be shaken and stirred.

Ken Adam's futuristic design is all over this set.
In a lot of way The Spy Who Loved Me takes the familiar and best loved elements of a James Bond film, gives the whole thing a new coat of disco-tastic 70s colored paint. The goal is to deliver pure entertainment. The movie is both looking backward at the legacy and cementing its place in the present. This may be the main lesson that all the James Bond films learned afterward.  When the movies worked best, it is when they were able to comment on pop culture and events of the moment, but still keep the all the “classic” elements you want in a James Bond film.

Ken Adam’s production design was a perfect example of this. Yes the scope to the film was huge, and set elements like the enormous cargo bay in the mega-tanker (that fit three submarines inside it) reminded folks of the volcano base in You Only Live Twice. But Atlantis’ extremely mod design could only have come from the 70s. The interiors of that laboratory just look like they came from the disco era, but still have that clean look we associate with 007 mega-villains.

Egypt gets a chance to show off in this film.
The Spy Who Loved Me also keeps the exotic locales as a key highlight of the film. The pre-credit sequence features snowy thrills. Then we jump into the heat of Egypt, with lots of footage taken around the pyramids and other famous ruins. Next it is off to Italy, with some lovely beachside location shooting and an exciting chase on seaside cliff. It is a great variety of real locations that gives this film a distinct feel far from the routine location drabness of Diamonds Are Forever or Live and Let Die.

Bond car vs. helicopter? I think we all know who
is gonna win this one.
Then you have the visual effects. Much like You Only Live Twice, this film is certainly going for more visual wows. So there is actually a lot of model work, crazy gadgets and rear projection on display. Some of these models were enormous beasts, like the mega tanker. But the star of the show was James Bond’s new car. Yep, it was that melding of “classic” and current. Bond hadn’t had a really cool car chase in years (the one in Diamonds are Forever is really sad, in my opinion). So here, Bond gets an oh-so 70s Lotus Esprit. This little car is packed with gadgets and turns into a submarine. How frickin’ cool is that? Finally Moore felt like he was stepping out of the shadow of Connery in more than just his performance. Even the surroundings were telling audiences, this is Bond, but this Bond of today.

Jaws closes in for his final confrontation with
Let’s talk about the action. With the smaller budgets and scope of the previous three films, some of the action scenes suffered. The Spy Who Loved Me decided to correct that. The pre-credit sequence makes it very clear that action and stunts are on the menu for this film. The ski chase followed by one of the most amazing visual freefall stunts ever put on film. It makes this easily one of the top ten best pre-credit sequences of the series. It also whets the appetite for more. Most of the work in Egypt is of the cat and mouse chase and escape variety. Bond and Anya do their best to complete their mission with Jaws dogging their every move. It’s a nice switch up, to put this type of henchman in such a prominent role, and effectively executed too. Then you get the fun and exciting car chase in Italy. But the whole thing is cranked up to 11 when Bond leads the captains of three captured submarine crews against a horde of villains. This huge battle aboard the tanker is filled with stunts, gunfire, explosions and excitement. It really takes the model of Thunderball’s final battle and places it on land and gives it a bit more excitement (and is more effective to the similar battle in You Only Live Twice). The only misstep is that this is not the finale. Bond still has to face Jaws and Stromberg in a final test, and these are low key, feeling more like an epilogue then a climax.

All this action requires a lot of solid sound effect work. The sound team delivers with one of the most action packed tracks yet. But things go a bit differently on the music front. Instead of turning to John Barry, the man who provided James Bond with his signature sound and who worked on most of the previous 007 films, the producers turned to a composer with a more modern approach. Marvin Hamlisch took Monty Norman’s James Bond theme and made it boogie. You heard that right, Disco Bond, or Bond 77 fits the movie like a glove. It is a ton of kitschy fun, and certainly told moviegoers that stuffy old 60s 007 was in the rear view mirror. Hamlisch also composed some solid action and suspense music, not mention some interesting source music for the Egyptian scenes.

Bond races to the rescue.
Perhaps his most memorable contribution to the Bond musical legacy is the song Nobody Does it Better. This pretty much became Roger Moore’s tag line, and it was used going forward. The song is adapted wonderfully into the score as the love theme for Anya and Bond. But it is the opening credit performance by Carly Simon that everyone remembers. So yeah, Carly Simon, Marvin Hamlisch – it really doesn’t get much more 70s than that.

The script to The Spy Who Loved Me was really tailor made for Roger Moore, so it really isn’t a surprise that we get one of Moore’s best performances in this movie. This is the script where they finally adjusted the humor and style of Bond to fit Moore. Yes, he still gets in those one-liners, but he has this smooth charm without the blunt edges of Connery. It is this element and the dash of dry humor to his reactions to situations that just clicks. No matter how outlandish the film gets, Moore’s Bond takes it all in stride. He’s James Bond, he’s pretty much seen it all. Not to say that all the edge is gone, but it is toned way down. We do see him get a bit grim during the battle aboard the supertanker as the tide turns against his side. But all in all, Moore’s Bond is a lover with a dry wit more than a fighter.

Looks like the cold war is freezing over again.
Barbara Bach as Anya Amasova is a perfect foil/love interest for Bond. The part is one of the best written ones for a female lead in the Bond film since Domino in Thunderball. She’s got a solid back-story, she’s a capable woman and she uses her charms to thwart Bond on a number of occasions. He does end up one step ahead of her most of the time, and she does end up captured in a skimpy outfit by the end, but hey it is still more progressive a character than Goodnight from Man with the Golden Gun. Bach is adequate in the role. She does play some scenes better than others, and she certainly looks sexy in some of the outfits she wears. But the edge is missing, and that is something that we’d see portrayed a bit better with Melina in For Your Eyes Only.

The main villain is the nefarious Stromberg played by Curt Jurgens. It is actually not a very interesting part. He is basically Captain Nemo taken to further extremes, but lacking the dynamic personality. He’s obviously determined and obsessed with creating his undersea kingdom. But he doesn’t really have much screen time. Jurgens’ performance works well, but he actually pales a bit compared to the similar character of Drax in the next film Moonraker.

Jaws noire.
No, the villain who steals the show is Jaws played by Richard Kiel. As much as Oddjob became the henchman for Connery, Jaws became the henchman for Moore. He’s a great mix of hulking power, persistence and humor. During the Egyptian portion of the film he is like a juggernaut of horrors, relentless in his execution of all who come in contact with the microfilm. Time and again Anya and Bond thwart him, but he keeps coming back. And each time Kiel survives the latest debacle; he looks mildly annoyed and dusts himself off. Just another day at the office. This humor just the right touch for this villain and even though we were rooting for Bond to win, we were pleased to see Jaws get away.

Naomi makes one fine welcoming committee.
Supporting cast includes all our London regulars such as Bernard Lee as M, Louis Maxwell as Moneypenny and Desmond Llewelyn as Q. We are also introduced to Walter Gotell character of General Gogol, the equivalent of M for the Russian side.  Gogol would go on to appear in all the following James Bond films until his final appearance in The Living Daylights. Robert Brown also shows up as Admiral Hargreaves, but the actor would take over as the new M starting with Octopussy and ending with Licence to Kill. Not sure if Hargreaves is the same character, but it is interesting to see him here. Last but certainly not least is the sexy Caroline Munro as the femme fatale Naomi. She certainly steams up the screen. It’s a shame they didn’t give her more to do. But I love that wink she gives Bond as she tries to blow him up from her helicopter.

Stromberg monologues his evil plan.
When it comes to the script, it is the details that make The Spy Who Loved Me work so well. Bond is written to suite Moore. Anya is a fresh take on the Bond Girl trope. Jaws is a fresh take on the unstoppable henchman. There is a focus on scope and wow factor. But underneath all that, you can see that the basic story is essentially a rehash of You Only Live Twice. It shouldn’t come as any surprise that the original villain for the film was intended to be Bloefeld (after escaping his horribly cheesy demise at the end of Diamonds Are Forever we presume). But legal issues prevented this so Stromberg was created. Still, Bloefeld used a titanic space capsule to swallow up Soviet and American capsules to start a world wide panic in You Only Live Twice. Same essential story here with the supertanker swallowing up submarines.

Yeah, the Lotus is one cool car/sub.
Even some of the basic story beats are the same, with Bond putting together the pieces of the puzzle in Egypt and Sardinia instead of Japan. The huge finale end battle is pretty much set up and executed in a similar fashion in both films. But as I mentioned earlier, I think The Spy Who Loved Me does it a bit better. There seems to be more tension in the later film. The only other element that really comes out in this script is that James Bond is essentially a super man. He can do no wrong, never gets hit, his hair always looks great. It’s pretty darn ridiculous, but it fits right in with the film. This super-Bond version of the spy would be the default version for Moore’s Bond, and it is one of the reasons some fans of the franchise aren’t too keen on his films. The thrills are diminished as the scope increases. So the script isn’t terribly original on the surface, and yet all the details molded to fit the 1977 model of James Bond are worked really well into this plot structure.

Lewis Gilbert injects the whole movie with a fun spirit and plenty of momentum. Unlike the previous films helmed by Hamilton, this movie never feels bloated, or over-long. It slows a bit during the big battle scene, but it is nothing compared to the dreary boat chase of Live and Let Die or the dull car chase of Diamonds are Forever. Gilbert makes sure everything stays fun, humorous and engaging. In so many ways, he got to remake You Only Live Twice and improve the whole thing. When you run into fans of Roger Moore’s take on 007, this is usually the movie that made them fans. It is not hard to see why.

Naomi waves bye, and then tries to blow you away.
Such manners.

Friday, August 22, 2014

Total Recall (1990)

For about a decade director Paul Verhoeven was a wild-man of Hollywood films. When Robocop literally exploded on the screens in 1987, it introduced his satirical, blood spattered, very R rated world. And viewers loved it (well until he did Showgirls, but that’s another story). Verhoeven tackled three sci-fi flicks in that run, and Total Recall was right in the middle. The question is, did Verhoeven overreach with this film, or did he hit that over-the-top sweet spot?

Douglas Quaid (Arnold Schwarzenegger) is your typical construction worker with a sexy wife, Lori (Sharon Stone). Since Quaid lives in the future, he has a dream of traveling to colonies on Mars. No seriously, he has this dream all the time. He sees a commercial for a company called Rekall that can actually implant memories in your mind. So you can remember the great vacation to Mars you’ve never actually taken. Quaid heads over to Recall, and they convince him to try the deluxe package, where they implant a fantasy version of the vacation – where you are a spy on a dangerous secret mission: essentially a futuristic James Bond. Quaid loves the idea and goes for it.

Well, there is one little problem, as Quaid undergoes the procedure, his mind snaps. His brain is flooded with memories of being a real secret agent, with a real objective. He starts to backtrack and realizes that Quaid isn’t a real person, his real name is Hauser and he is on a mission that involves a dangerous rebel leader on Mars. Meanwhile a relentless hired gun named Richter (Michael Ironside) pursues him, and a man named Cohaagen (Ronny Cox) seems to be playing both sides of the table. Hauser also meets the girl of his dreams (literally) when he runs into the sexy Melina (Rachel Ticotin) on Mars. Can she help him make sense of all these memories, or is it going to take a case of Total Recall to find a solution to this puzzle.

Good Points:
  • Some wonderfully executed action scenes
  • A propulsive and exciting score by Jerry Goldsmith
  • A fun plot that twists, turns and doubles back on itself

Bad Points:
  • The satirical undercurrent may undermine the film for some viewers
  • Not the least bit accurate in its portrayal of Mars
  • If you don’t like Arnold, then you won’t like this movie

Verhoeven takes Arnold and the viewers on quite a ride. The script always keeps you guessing with which direction it actually is heading. The violence is over the top but visceral. The sci-fi imagery is a lot of fun, and there is a lot of humor and satire in the film. It is really a well-balanced thrill ride that is still as entertaining now as it was when it came out.

Scores (out of 5)
Visuals: 5
Sound: 4
Acting: 4
Script: 4
Music: 5
Direction: 5
Entertainment: 5
Total:  4

In Depth Review
Doesn't matter if you call him Quaid or Hauser,
he's still Arnie all the way.
In recent years I’ve seen a bit of a backlash against Total Recall, with some viewers calling it cheesy, silly and just plain dumb. I’m not sure if these were people that were clamoring for a remake that we eventually got in 2012. But after that film landed with a bit of a thud, the backlash seemed to have calmed down a bit. But really my question to all those folks who declare this 1990 film “cheesy” is this: have you ever seen a Paul Verhoeven film before?

First and foremost this is a Verhoeven flick from beginning to end. Doesn’t matter if Arnold Schwarzenegger is in the film. Doesn’t matter if this is based on a story by Philip K. Dick. Doesn’t matter that you’ve got Jerry Goldsmith cranking out an awesome sci-fi score. Verhoeven was in charge and so the movie was going to have all his quirks, his satirical look at life and that crazy over-the-top ultra violence that was his hallmark. Either you can get on board with that or you’re gonna find the movie to be… well cheesy I guess.

I've got a headache this big, and it's got virtual reality
written all over it.
Total Recall has some excellent visuals going for it, especially when you consider the film was made in 1990. We hadn’t quite hit the full bore CG effect boom that would be ushered in by Jurassic Park, so most of the effects work you see in the film is practical stuff. The scenes are Mars are the visual highlights with some really cool miniatures and matte paintings adding scope to the film. The production design gives Mars a real lived in quality, especially in the slum areas Quaid ends up visiting. There is a feeling of oppression in the design and look of these areas. I especially like the use of red lighting, particularly in Cohagen’s office. Red is a key color in the film, showing up several times in various production elements (and not just in the gore being spattered about). You could take this as a visual cue that all the red is tied to fact that Quaid is not living these events but dreaming them.

Beyond the literal “red planet” motif, there is also some very interesting work for the alien technology that we see in the film. The size and geometric look of it reminds me of the giant beehive in Mysterious Island, in some ways. It is a sharp contrast to the human colony settings, and the ones used on earth.

The movie does take some extreme liberties with its portrayal of Mars. The way the atmosphere affects an unprotected human is all wrong. The red lighting and even the shade of red used by the production team is way off. However most of this can be explained away if you buy into the fact that Quaid is imaging all of this. He wouldn’t have a firm idea of what Mars is really like, except what he knows from movies.

Johnny Cab is a glimpse of our future - now I'm
really scared!
For the scenes on earth, Total Recall goes for a more near future look. Nothing is really too out of touch from our world. But there are neat little touches that tell us that we are in a world where technology advanced enough to give people some additional creature comforts. Every women I’ve known who’s seen this movie, comments on the receptionists nail color changing device. Johnny Cab (voiced by Robert Picardo of all people) is an immediately memorable character. In some ways it still has that 80s vision of the future, something that reminds me a bit of the classic Bubblegum Crisis series. It all adds to the film’s charm.

Sound effects are pretty solid in the film. Nothing super crazy in the design department. Since the film occurs in the near future, most of what we hear is familiar sound effects from our own time. But the explosions and gunshots pack a real punch, and what else can you ask for from an action movie with Arnold Schwarzenegger.

Total Recall represents some of the best action music from Jerry Goldsmith’s long career. The most interesting element is his use of electronic sounds to supplement the orchestra and provide a bit of a futuristic sound to the score. This is a favorite of mine from my favorite composer, so I wrote a whole blog about the music that you can read here. Suffice to say it supports the film wonderfully, and even has a couple of satirical moments of it’s own.

Exotic locals, dangerous locals and seductive women
yep, it's Bond in space!
At some point, the combination of Arnold Schwarzenegger and Paul Verhoeven had to happen. You had one of the biggest action stars of the 80s with a director who understood how to film a great over-the-top action scene. How could this not work? For me this is one of Arnold’s best performances. He does a good job with all the aspects of Quaid, from the construction worker who is almost content with his life to the man on the run from a shadowy organization out to kill him. He actually looks afraid in this film, something that we really hadn’t seen too much of in films like Commando or Terminator. This role allowed Arnold to be confused, afraid and even a bit helpless at times. The exact opposite of what a super spy is supposed to be. But I also love when he plays Hauser in the recordings. That guy is such a jerk, really a 180 from the Quaid character we know. You can tell Arnold is just have a good time in this film, and that kind of energy really helps carry the audience along for the ride, and matches the energy that Verhoeven injects into the film.

Matching his enthusiasm is Ronny Cox as Cohaagen. Between Robocop and Total Recall Cox was one of the best villains of the late 80s and early 90s. Not as smooth as say David Warner or Alan Rickman, Cox still had a sense of command about him. In this film he’s a bit of a blowhard, but he is still in control (or likes to think he is). He’s a great bad guy you love to hate. Matched with him is Michael Ironside as the hot-tempered Richter. Ironside has a real intensity in this role, almost going over the top, but remaining believable as a guy who just hates Quaid. The fires of jealousy burn strong, because Quaid was sleeping with his girl.

Sharon foreshadows her skills for "Basic Instinct".
And when that girl is Sharon Stone, well who can blame him. Stone as Lori really steams up the screen in nearly all her scenes. You almost get the feeling that she is actually more dangerous than Richter or Cohaagen. She has a couple great fight scenes including one with Melina. It’s a shame Lori makes her exit about halfway through the film, a little more of that bad girl wouldn’t have hurt.

Rachel Ticotin as Melina turns out to be Quaid’s dream girl. She plays the role just as the script describes her, a combination of demure and sexy. She is one tough girl, and shares in the action and danger of the second half of the film with Quaid. Ticotin gives the part a lot of personality and you genuinely like her.

The script to Total Recall was probably the initiator of the virtual reality film craze that eventually hit in the late 90s. While we can probably go back to Tron as the grandfather of these movies, Total Recall was one of the first mind bender flick made for a large audience. When the film came out it sparked lots of discussion and I knew several people who saw the film twice just to see if there were clues to the reality we were seeing in the film. Essentially it was the Inception of 1990.

Red: the color of blood, oppression and Mars.
What helped the film was the satire that kept the film from getting too serious. Sure there were plenty of Arnold one liners in the script, but there were also moments like the whole Johnny Cab sequence, or the bizarre fat woman costume that Arnold uses to sneak onto Mars. There is also a touch of social satire, not quite as obvious as the material in Robocop. But I like how a guy like Quaid, who has a really great life, can actually be so dissatisfied with it that he would risk a lobotomy. Depending on how you view the ending, he may end up brain dead.

Total Recall works as well as it does because of the way Verhoeven keeps the plot and action moving. Things do twist around, and the audience it kept guessing, but the ride is constantly fun. There is also a bizarre visual, intense action scene or funny one liner around the next corner. You can sit back and take in the explosions and blood. You can try to figure out if this is all a dream. Or you can realize that Total Recall is a solid piece of entertainment by a crew and cast at the top of their game. For me, it is the best of Verhoeven’s sci-fi trilogy (including Robocop and Starship Troopers), and certainly superior to Hollowman. Revisiting it, I was surprised how much fun the movie was, and how well it held up. 

In the end, we all got our asses to Mars.
Part of Hitchcock's World: Blogathon: Journey Across the Cosmos Through Film.

Monday, August 18, 2014

Movie Music Musings: Total Recall

Like just about everything else in the movie industry, film music goes through different phases and styles. What is really popular is rarely heard a decade later. Sometimes a sound that was popular in the Golden Age of film music is nearly forgotten in the push to modernize, and then will spring back with vengeance and dominate for another decade or two. Ask John Williams about that phenomena.

One of the big shifts occurred in action music. When it came to the 1970s and 1980s there was a undisputed king of action music: Jerry Goldsmith. His ability to write propulsive cues that featured strong themes and counterpoint made him the go to guy for movies like Rambo: First Blood Part 2 and The Wind the Lion. Goldsmith scored a lot of second tier action and western flicks like Extreme Prejudice and Breakheart Pass in between his bigger hits. But perhaps the biggest showcase of his action style was in the film Total Recall

While the movie can be considered a science fiction film, Goldsmith found himself with a movie that is packed with intense action scenes. The score follows suite, driving forward with an intensity that is impressive. Unlike Goldsmith's adventure scores of the same era, such as LegendMedicine Man, or First Knight, there are few moments of wonder, and there is no love theme. In fact the score is pretty mono-thematic, presenting a theme for Quaid that appears throughout the score. You first hear it in the opening track The Dream.

I love this opening titles track. First off, Goldsmith provides a bit of his typical musical sense of humor. The opening drums are nearly note for note identical to Basil Polidouris' score to Conan the Barbarian. In fact, the first 40 seconds sound like Goldsmith is providing us with a not so veiled homage. This has to be intentional, because Goldsmith often added little moments like this in his scores. He would reference his own work, like when he uses his march for Patton for a military moment in the comedy The Burbs. Sometimes he drops in something from another composer, such as when John Williams march from Superman is heard in Supergirl when we see a poster of Superman in the background. 

For Total Recall Goldsmith has some fun with Arnold being in the film, and gives us this brief Conan moment. But at the 40 second mark the actual theme for Quaid kicks in. This theme is surprisingly versatile, as Goldsmith will use pieces of it in nearly every track on the score. Sometimes he uses the beat, sometimes he will only use the first few notes. He slows it down, speeds it up and deconstructs in many ways. Goldsmith was one of the few composers who could take one theme and create a score that runs 70 minutes and never gets boring.

Now there are some motifs that pop up in the score. Nothing so developed that I would call in a theme, but musical elements that work in counterpoint to the main theme. You get a set of four notes, to ascending followed by two descending. It occurs frequently during moments of tension, when Quaid attempts to escape his pursuers. It creates a sense that the listener can't quite get away, always climbing, but coming back down. You can hear this phrase in the first four notes of the track Clever Girl.

One of the constant elements of the score is the frequent use of electronic percussion and electronic pulses. These sounds punctuate the score, providing a rhythm that seems to always drive the music forward. The electronic nature obviously ties back to the technological aspects of the film. In Total Recall Goldsmith sticks to his usual application of electronic sounds. He never attempts to replicate any of the orchestra with these sounds, but only uses them to create sounds that could never be replicated by an orchestra. What is impressive about his application here is that they are literally spiked through out the score, place with great precision, never sounding random or just added for effect. Instead, the electronic portions of the score are vital to the whole thing working as well as it does. 

A great example of this is the penultimate track End of a Dream. Here the orchestra provides the driving motion, rising higher and higher in a relentless fashion. At key moments Goldsmith's brand of controlled chaos ensues with the orchestra becoming dissonant, seemingly rising and falling, percussion running wild. Through all of this, electronics punctuate the sequence as it starts adding another layer of color to the track. Once it crosses the halfway mark, the track goes pretty much full orchestral with snare drums kicking in and the horns just blasting away. It's a really amazing bit of tension scoring, increasing the pacing and pressure musically and using such a varied application of the orchestra, the motifs and even elements of the main theme.

A few moments of musical beauty stand out. Tracks like The Mutant and the opening of The Hologram provide us with brief snatches of wonder, as Quaid encounters the leader of mutants or the Martian ruins. But mostly this score is relentless. Goldsmith's talents for complex but engaging writing are on full display, and his ability to coordinate electronics and orchestra are pretty much as their high point. Total Recall is often considered the best example of his action writing, and is certainly one of his most exciting science fiction scores.

As I mentioned at the start of this blog, Goldsmith was pretty much the king of action scoring for nearly three decades. His style was often mimicked and provided an intense counterpoint to John Williams more classical style of action music. Goldsmith was also one of the few mainstream composers in the 70s and 80s who really embraced electronics and used them in such effective ways with the orchestra. Usually you had either an electronic score or a orchestral one. Few could merge the two so well.

But that was going to change. One year after Total Recall came out, a new composer unleashed a more pop sounding merging of electronics and orchestra. His style was just starting out, but by the mid 1990s Hans Zimmer was going to perfect his action film sound, and that would evolve into the mainstream blockbuster sound that would dominate the 00s and 10s. So it is interesting to listen to Total Recall and Backdraft and see this turning point, from a composer at the top of his game, to the composer just starting his.