The Chronological Spielberg: 1941 (1979)

Is it possible to have too much talent involved in a film? If there was ever an argument for that theory presented in theaters, I think it might be 1941. This flick was directed by Steven Spielberg directly after Jaws and Close Encounters of the Third Kind. It’s written by Robert Zemeckis and Bob Gale who would write a little film called Back to the Future six years after this was released. It stars an A-list crop of comedic and dramatic actors from Slim Pickens and John Belushi to Christopher Lee and Toshiro Mifune. Even with all that going for it, 1941 is simply not a good movie. I wish I could explain simply why that is, but the closest thing I can come up with is that the script is too unfocused, the film is too long and maybe Spielberg was trying to fit his square peg into a more John Landis-shaped hole.

I didn’t know all of the above when I went into this film, so I was definitely surprised by the huge amount of silly, slapsticky humor that kicks this film off, including a nude woman swimming in the ocean to the Jaws theme music who happens to be swimming under a Japanese sub. The idea here is that it’s right after the bombing of Pearl Harbor and everyone’s freaked out. The film takes place in California where they’re specifically freaked out about another attack like the one in Hawaii. This acts as the backdrop for a huge number of gags, storylines and sources of conflict.

The problem is that I don’t care. When the film’s supposed hero is presented as a goober bus boy who just wants to dance with a girl in a contest and then we’re shown a military group that’s made up of mostly boring or jerky people. Worse yet? That group is made up of Dan Aykroyd, John Candy and Treat Williams and they’re somewhat wasted.

Or are they? Honestly, it was hard for me to focus on this movie because its subject matter was treated in such a goofy manner that I just didn’t care. Apparently a huge anti-sub gun really was placed in a person’s yard in real life, but the way its handled in this movie with its cartoony nature, it’s just another piece of an overly complex movie.

The funny thing is that I think someone like Landis could have done a lot better with this film. Maybe Spielberg didn’t know who or what to cut. Maybe Landis would have utilized his talent a little better (from what I remember, Candy does little to nothing but mug in the movie). I definitely think he would have kept the film significantly shorter. Many people believe comedy should be kept around the 90 minute mark, especially zany ones because its easier for an audience to suspend their disbelief over a shorter period of time. I tend to agree with that and if this film had been less cartoony and had more of an actual emotional center, as well as had been roughly 60-90 minutes shorter, it could have been a much better film.

Space Double Feature: The Black Hole (1979) & Lifeforce (1985)

I’m not sure why I moved Disney’s sci-fi epic up to the top of our Netflix queue, but I did and I really enjoyed it. The flick reminded me that Disney used to make some really high quality genre movies back in the day (I still love watching 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea). I even read online that, because Lucasfilm wouldn’t rent them some of the special effects equipment they used to make Star Wars, Disney developed their own tech that was actually the best in the biz for a while. And, for the most part, the effects still really hold up. Some of the matte paintings could use some re-compositing to make the edges less obvious, but it was still fun watching the movie and guessing how they got away with the special effects. My one complaint is that I wish V.I.N.CENT looked a little cooler. When you look at him with his gigantic cartoon eyes he looks like a Snarf-like character that you’re going to want to punch, but instead, he’s pretty cool.

Also surprisingly cool? The cast. I was shocked to see it included Anthony Perkins Including “the guy from Psycho” in what was probably considered a kids movie is a fairly outside-the-box casting choice. Well, kind of. He’s got a crazy vibe in this movie too, just not “keep your dead mother around” crazy. The other big names on screen are Robert Forster who I don’t think I’ve ever seen in an older movie and Ernest Borgnine playing a role I didn’t expect him to be in. But, the two most fun cast members don’t technically appear on screen. V.I.N.CENT and Bob were voiced by Roddy McDowall and Slim Pickens! I’m not sure why they didn’t get billing, maybe it was a SAG thing. Anyway, it’s fun to hear them, though I’m not quite sure why you’d cast a potentially annoying southern accent as a robot or–in the world of the movie–you’d program a robot with said accent.

The movie itself has a fun plot. Perkins, Forster, Borgnine and company are on a mission in space and come across a black hole that happens to be monitored by Dr. Hans Reinhardt (played by Maxwell Schell) a rogue scientist who claims all of his crew died since monitoring of the hole started. See, in the future that’s one of the last untravelled territories and Reinhardt is obsessed with discovering its mysteries helped by an army of robots including the big red beastie Maxwell who looks like the villain of an 80s Saturday morning cartoon. As you might expect, things are quite as simple as they seem and there’s more to the robots than meets the eye.

I was expecting the twist ending, so it came as a nice surprise. There’s actually a good number of surprises towards the end, with characters making decisions that show their true character, but still offer some surprises. What seemed like it might be a corny cartoony type movie wound up being pretty nuanced with solid characters and a story that offered up its fair share of interest and surprises.

Meanwhile, I knew exactly why I wanted to watch Lifeforce and it comes down to two words and no, they’re not Tobe Hooper, but Space Vampires. That was the title of the book the flick was based on, but Canon changed it to Lifeforce to class things up a little bit. Anyway, the flick’s about a space-faring crew coming across a trio of preserved bodies. They take the bodies onboard their ship and next thing you know the ship’s deserted and heading towards Earth. The aliens get taken to Earth where they start wreaking havoc by sucking the energy out of living beings. From there it’s a strange mix of a vampire, sci-fi, zombie and save-the-world-while-trying-to-find-the-monster that seems to work even given the kitchen sink approach.

The reason horror legend Tobe Hooper wasn’t a big draw for the movie is because, well, I can’t say he’s done a lot of movies I like aside from Texas Chainsaw Massacre. Funhouse wasn’t so good, his involvement in Poltergeist is up for debate and, well, that’s all I’ve seen. Anyway, Lifeforce doesn’t feel like the kind of move that the guy who created TCM would make, but I liked it regardless. There’s not a lot of horror elements, though when the practical effects do come into play, they look pretty great. There’s one scene where one of the vampires recreates herself that almost made my stomach churn. I’m just glad I wasn’t eating a jelly sandwich at the time, otherwise it could have been messy.

Another draw for the movie is the inclusion of Patrick Stewart. I spent the whole time thinking he might be one guy in the cast because I wasn’t sure when the movie was shot. The character didn’t really look like Stewart, but I didn’t know what he looked like in the 80s, so I was trying unsuccessfully to convince myself it was Picard. Of course, that wasn’t him, he shows up later in the movie as a psychologist who gets slapped around.

Anyway, Lifeforce is a really ambitious movie. A LOT goes on and the plot is pretty layered. I like how there’s even a theory that these aliens are what human vampire myths are based on. When you think you’ve got the story figured out it gets a little bit more involved and more interesting. I wasn’t expecting much from the movie, but it turned out to be a delightfully strange movie to have on while I did work. I can’t say I highly recommend it, but if you’re looking for an off kilter sci-fi movie from the 80s, give this one a whirl.