Hitting 50: Help!

Help!, the Beatles’ second motion picture, arrived in American theaters fifty years ago this month.  Like its predecessor A Hard Day’s Night, it was directed by Richard Lester and featured a number of new songs, a frantic pace and screwball humor, with the Fab Four playing a fictionalized version of themselves.  But where the first film was filmed in black and white, lending an almost documentary feel to the proceedings, Help! made the transition to living color and full-blown fantasy.

In fact color very much defines the look of the film, as the previous film’s city-bound and overcast “all England” locations give way to the blue skies and wide open locations in the Austrian Alps and the sunny Bahamas, and interior shots feature sets with brightly painted walls and lit with color gels.   Under cinematographer David Watkins, color practically becomes another character in the film.

 
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The plot, such as it is, centers on a ring that’s being sought both by members of an Indian cult and a pair of British mad scientists, but which is currently stuck on the finger of our favorite drummer, Ringo.  Beyond that basic notion, it’s mostly just an hour and a half of musical performances, slapstick comedy and pretty locations, strung together in just-short-of-random fashion.

The lads continue to demonstrate a flair for comedy, even if their accents and rapid-fire delivery can sometimes make the dialog a challenge for these American ears to follow.  Ringo probably fares best, especially in a scene where he explains to an incredulous police inspector that the cultists want to paint him red so he be sacrificed to their god.  “It’s a different religion from ours,” he says.  “I think.”

Just in case anyone’s still taking things seriously, at one point Paul is accidentally shrunk down to do doll size and has an “adventure on the floor.”  And hang on, girls: when he shrinks, his clothes are left behind!

 

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Cannily, the gag-a-minute approach only requires the stars to remember a few lines at a time, with the lion’s share of the work falling to the editors and post-production wizards to make it all somehow gel as a film.  And that’s a good thing, as all four of the Beatles later admitted they were usually too stoned to focus on much of anything during production, and even the shortest scene could take all day to capture between giggle fits.  Anyway, the genius of making the whole thing a madcap lark is that it almost renders criticism impossible.  “But it’s all so illogical!”  Yes, that’s what we were going for.  “Nothing makes any sense!”  Yep, that’s the idea.  And admittedly, it does kind of work. Films built around pop stars always involve ridiculous detours into the fantastic as characters suddenly break into song with mysterious instrumental accompaniment wafting in magically from somewhere off-camera (Heaven?) .  But whereas in the Elvis movies that just felt like a bizarre, almost supernatural interlude in an otherwise conventional romance or adventure, here launching into a spontaneous performance on electric instruments in the middle of a pasture, on a ski slope or on a beach is no more or less insane than anything else that happens.

 

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In about a year’s time, the Monkees would borrow this approach of stitching together short, comedic scenes shot in multiple locations with “concept” musical performances and build a TV show around it, becoming something of a popular sensation and earning more fan mail than any performers on the tube (though Mr Spock and Ilya Kuryakin gave them a run for their money).  Also in its no-holds barred use of garish color, Help!‘s inspiration is seen in shows like Batman, also a year away at this point.

There are three sequences that always stick out for me. One is our first look at the Beatles’ London flat(s).  In this fictionalized version of their lives, they all live happily together in a giant space that’s part swingin’ bachelor pad and part carnival funhouse (and which they’re able to casually enter and exit without being mobbed by throngs of screaming girls).

In a neat touch, the music stand on the electric organ is filled not with sheet music but with vintage issues of Action, Jimmy Olsen and Superman comics (I look at exactly which ones here).

The next wild scene comes when the lads try to travel incognito to the Bahamas, arriving at the airport in disguises designed to look ridiculously over-the-top but which, amazingly, end up closely mirroring the looks the Beatles will grow into in just a few years time.  Well, at least in the case of John, George and Ringo, anyway.    Paul just looks like he’s impersonating Eric Idle.

 

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The other amazing scene comes in the Bahamas, when George rides on the back of the villains’ car in what strikes me as a fairly dangerous stunt.  In the Beatles Anthology book, George notes in surprised hindsight that the Fab Four were plopped onto skiis for the Austrian scenes and simply told to perform, despite having no experience whatever on skiis.  His point was that no one seemed overly concerned at the prospect of one or more of the films’ stars ending up seriously injured.  If anything, the car stunt is even more outrageous; from what I can tell that’s really George on the trunk as the car careens down a mountain road at a not inconsiderable rate of speed.

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George doesn’t mention this stunt in Anthology, but he does note that the film provided his first introduction to Indian culture, a development that would have a huge influence in his life and music, and eventually, if briefly, lead all four Beatles to explore transcendental meditation under the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi.

Also interesting for me as a 007 fan is the influence of the Bond films, starting with composer Ken Thorne’s homage to the famous Bond theme (tacked on to the start of the title song, at least on the “Red Album”).  Goldfinger had exploded onto pop culture just a year earlier and was likely still in release as Help! was being filmed.  In one scene where the femme fatale tries to remove the ring from the finger of a slumbering Ringo, the accompanying music is clearly inspired by John Barry’s Goldfinger score, specifically the scene where Bond finds the late Jill Masterson covered in gold paint.   And in a “blink and you’ll miss it” gag, one of the villains doffs his headgear and throws it at someone, adding his own “swisshhh!” sound effect to mimic Oddjob’s deadly bowler.  However, as the “headgear” in this case is a turban, it merely unravels en route and falls to the floor.

As a film, I have to agree with the consensus that Help! is inferior to A Hard Day’s Night, and the first time I saw it, it didn’t really hold my attention to the end.  But as time goes on and 1965 slips further into antiquity, I think it takes on a greater value as a sort of filmic time capsule.  It’s got a lot of great footage of the young Beatles near the end of their “moptop” phase, the groovy fashions, interior designs and vehicles of the mid-60s, a few really clever gags and, of course, plenty of awesome music.  Also, taken in the context of the times, it takes a fairly ingenious approach to the old problem of how to make a movie starring non-actors.  Probably its greatest charm is that it presents the Beatles not quite as they were, but as we liked to imagine them; witty and carefree, shuttling around the world from one romp to the next, all living happily together in one groovy flat and prone to breaking spontaneously into song.

Verdict: Still looking Fab at 50

 

The Name’s Austin, Steve Austin

As noted in an earlier post, the highly-rated (and Hugo nominated) TV movie adaptation of Martin Caidin’s Cyborg aired in March, 1973, selling its audience on the outlandish notion of a half-mechanized superhero and launching the 70s cultural phenomenon we knew as the “Six Million Dollar Man.” The challenge faced by its inevitable sequel films, Wine, Women and War and The Solid Gold Kidnapping, was more prosaic but in some ways more daunting: Now that we’ve got a working cyborg, what do we do with him?

The most obvious solution was to turn Steve Austin into America’s answer to James Bond, the “clever” twist being that where 007 lugs around a cache of hi-tech gadgets, Austin himself is the hi-tech gadget.  And so in the two sequel films, the accent is on international intrigue, diabolical masterminds and glamorous babes.

Wine, Women and War opens in Egypt, and clues us in immediately that Steve is a secret agent because he’s wearing a tuxedo and sending signals with a pen light.

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Apparently it’s a bionic pen-light, since the previous shot established that Steve is standing on the balcony of one of many high-rise buildings in a brightly-lit city, and yet his signals are seen and read by observers on a U.S. submarine parked miles away in international waters.

Slipping out of the tux to reveal a wetsuit (reversing Bond’s striptease in Goldfinger), Steve uses a miniature rebreathing device (Thunderball) and swims out to a bad guy’s yacht, where he uses his night-vision-enabled bionic eye (replaced by the familiar “telescopic” model in the later series) to locate a wall safe and then escapes by swimming at torpedo-speed to the waiting sub.

Recuperating from his adventure in a high-security wing of a Washington hospital, Steve has a prickly chat with his handler in the OSI, Oscar Goldman.  This is our introduction to Oscar, the replacement for the more openly cranky, thoroughly unscrupulous and consequently much more fascinating Oliver Spencer character in Cyborg (played by Darren McGavin, who by the time of this film had moved on to The Night Stalker).  In contrast, Oscar comes off as merely shifty and vaguely disreputable, a typical government “suit” who uses phrases like “need to know” and, with Richard Anderson’s perpetual tan and then-stylish eyeglasses thrown in, seems fairly smarmy to boot, like a middle-aged swinger.

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Over time, Oscar would ostensibly evolve into a more charming and endearing character, as much a buddy to Steve as a boss.   Personally I never fully warmed to him, with his annoying habit of calling Steve “pal” and later his even creepier insistence on calling Jaime Sommers “babe,” which besides qualifying as sexual harassment (he was her boss, after all), also felt like a personal betrayal of Steve, the guy we all knew was meant for Jaime.  Some “pal!”

Anyway, at this point, the “friendship” hasn’t yet evolved, and Steve makes it clear he doesn’t care for his new line of work or his oily new boss.  Undaunted, Oscar uses Steve’s friend Harry Donner to help him manipulate the bionic man into traveling to the Caribbean, where he’ll be drawn into the mission Oscar wanted him on in the first place.

On what he thinks is a vacation, Steve acquires a female companion named Cyn, and as they enjoy a game of golf, Steve accidentally hits a ball hard enough to send it practically into orbit.  Pressed to explain this seeming impossibility, he deadpans, “It’s all in the wrist.”

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Thus begins a long tradition of one-liners aimed at explaining bionic feats to incredulous onlookers.  In the previous film, Steve was still traumatized by his accident and uncomfortable with his new cyborg status (to the point of attempting suicide!), but from here on in, he’ll seem to cope fairly easily with jokes like this.  A better line, and one with more of an edge to it, comes when Cyn calls Steve out for being cranky and asks what his problem is.  “The doctors say I’m not all there,” he answers.

That night Steve and Cyn visit a casino, or more accurately stand in front of the camera and look down at an imaginary roulette wheel, as the “casino” exists only in the form of stock footage from the Universal archives.  By now it’s becoming obvious why the “Bond” approach didn’t pan out for this show: despite the logic of using America’s bionic super-weapon for international espionage,  the hard truth is you can’t do a James Bond movie on a TV movie budget.  Steve may be worth six million dollars, but with Universal controlling the purse strings, he’s strictly a poor man’s 007.

On the other hand, the wardrobe is pretty impressive.  Take for example the timeless allure of this classy dinner jacket:

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The other ingredients in the Superspy Stew include a Soviet scientist/official played by The Man from UNCLE’s David McCallum, a nefarious arms dealer and Blofeld-wannabe called Arlen Findletter (played by Eric Braeden of Rat Parol and Young And The Restless fame) and Russian hotty Katrina Volana, played by Britt Ekland, a  mere year before her turn as a proper Bond girl in The Man With The Golden Gun.

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Okay, so Findletter has an arsenal of nuclear missiles for sale, the USSR wants to buy them, and it’s assumed Steve (whose known association with Oscar Goldman brands him a spy) was sent to bid on behalf of the Americans.  Steve is held on the boat to keep him out of the negotiations, but he ties up Katrina and makes his escape with relative ease.

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This leads to a rather unfortunate Bondian quip as Steve — about to jump overboard — tells the bound and gagged Katrina, “Sorry to violate your porthole,”  no doubt eliciting a groan even from Roger Moore.

By now, Steve’s in the thick of things whether he wanted to be or not, and soon enough he ends up in Findletter’s secret missile storage facility, represented by what must be noted is a pretty darn good matte painting for TV of the day:

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Steve saves the girl (but not his Russian buddy McCallum) and booby-traps Findletter’s Polaris missile before making an exit through a convenient escape hatch.  As they climb from the subterranean missile hangar to the surface, Britt delivers a convincing Bond girl audition with  with classic lines like, “I’m tired!” and “I can’t go any farther!”  while Steve shouts up encouragement from beneath her, probably wishing this could at least have been a “bikini” scene.  When they reach the top (the exit hatch opens onto a cemetery), Steve exits first — meaning he’s somehow managed to pass Katrina on the ladder (a neat trick) — and gives her a hand up.

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Steve takes Katrina in his arms and breaks into a run.  As it’s still early in the game, we haven’t yet settled on the “slow motion” effect for bionic feats, so instead we see Steve hustling along in fast motion.  This is just as well, as Findletter has finally triggered Steve’s booby-trap and set off the Polaris missile’s warhead, triggering a nuclear blast.  Oops.

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And that’s the end of Mr. Findletter.  Along with all his flunkies, his home, the homes of his neighbors and anyone in them, not to mention anyone unlucky enough to be passing through the area at the time, probably a few local businesses, schools, hospitals, etc.  But luckily not Steve and the girl, who are huddled behind a nearby hill, entirely safe from atomic fall-out.  And so ends our tale, but James Bo…I mean, Steve Austin will return.

Which he does in The Solid Gold Kidnapping, involving (as the title implies), the kidnapping of a highly placed US diplomat who may be the key to world peace. Still in 007 mode, Steve is vacationing at a ski resort with a beautiful girl when he’s called to action by Oscar Goldman and — in a really weird turn — paired with a lady scientist (Elizabeth Ashley) who’s volunteered to have the brain cells of a dead bad guy transplanted to her own brain so she can “see his memories” and find the kidnap victim.  Don’t ask.

Aside from a wall-smashing rescue at the beginning of the film, there’s very little in the way of “bionic” action in this one.  Steve is essentially a generic superspy who only occasionally does something too “super” for a “mere human,” like opening a stuck door (I kid you not) or seeing in the dark with his infrared eye (something any spy character could’ve done with a handy gadget).

Visiting the local casino (surprise!),  Steve meets a mysterious countess with ties to the bad guys, played by ex-Bond girl Luciana Paluzzi, who looks pretty fantastic given it’s been nearly ten years since Thunderball.

Much more overtly promiscuous than his later “series” self, Steve wastes little time getting the countess into bed, only to wake up the next morning to two consecutive assassination attempts (probably engineered by the countess, but it’s hard to tell as shot).  In the first attempt, Steve is shot at (and hit! Oops!) but escapes his attacker by opening a door on him (it’s not really clear whether this qualifies as a bionic feat).  Then follows what I have to assume was meant as a more exciting sequence, as Steve engages in a speedboat chase brazenly lifted from  Live and Let Die (barely a year in the past at this point), ending dramatically (?) as Steve pushes on his boat’s throttle so hard he breaks it off, which, true to little-kid logic makes the boat go ULTRA-fast.

After that, it’s just a matter of Lee’s stuntman jumping overboard so the boat can slam into that of the baddies, triggering a deadly explosion.  Or rather, a stock Universal Studios “explosion” optical super-imposed over the boat footage.  After all, if they don’t return the boats after filming the rental agency will charge them more than the film’s entire budget.

Ultimately, Steve locates the ship where the US diplomat is being held and stages a one-man rescue, which again is pretty short on the bionics.   Here at last we break away from Bond formula, though not for the better; where 007 ends his adventures with epic raids and the explosive destruction of villains’ lairs, Steve simply slides across a table top to knock over the movie’s chief villain, played by Maurice Evans.

That’s right, Steve’s ultimate adversary here is Samantha’s dad from Bewitched, making for arguably the most suspense-starved grudge match since Godzilla vs. Bambi.  Maybe it would have been a smidge more thrilling if they’d put Evans in his Dr Zaius make-up from Planet of the Apes.

And so ends Steve Austin’s career as a 007 wannabe, not with a bang but a whimper.  As noted,  it’s pretty hard to compete with James Bond on a TV budget, but somehow it might still have worked with a different lead actor.  Ultimately a huge share of The Six Million Dollar Man‘s success came down to its star, Lee Majors, but the “international playboy” routine simply did not play to his strengths.  Majors seems much more comfortable in jeans than tuxedos, drinking beer not champagne.   He’s much more cowboy than superspy, and when producer Harve Bennett signed on for the weekly series, he recognized this, making the character more Gary Cooper and less Cary Grant.
Neither of these films has the gravitas or creepy-cool appeal of the first one, or the charm of the later series, but they’re entertaining in their way, and if nothing else, offer an intriguing hint of where the concept might have gone in different hands.

At the Movies with Captain America

capamericaI don’t get out to the movies very often these days.  Partly that’s thanks to the logistics involved in finding a sitter for the kids, but mostly it’s due to my own indifference.  Going to the theater is frankly a drag at this point, what with 20-minute commercial “pre-shows” advertising everything from TV shows (?) to body spray (???), “digital sound” that mostly amounts to just more volume, fellow audience members who never learned how to behave in public and of course ticket prices that are flat-out ridiculous.  I don’t even have a tricked-out “home theater” and it’s still more satisfying for me to keep up via NetFlix than to go to the theater.  Factor in all the people who DO have home theaters with big screens and surround sound and so on, and it’s a wonder they sell any tickets at all.

But that’s another rant (or three).  The point is, Laura and I did get out to see Captain America: The First Avenger last week and I loved it.  First of all, it was terrifically cast; I’ve heard arguments for and against Chris Evans’ performance, but I thought he was great.  I love what Robert Downey, Jr does in the Iron Man films, but if you think about it, it’s got be a lot harder to pull off “earnest virtue” than it is to do “cocky irreverence.”  Evans manages to portray old-school, nice guy heroism here without looking like a schmuck, or wooden, which is getting to be a lost art.  Hayley Atwell is wonderful as Peggy Carter and looks very much like a film star of the story’s 1940s setting.  Certainly she’s more endearing and fully realized than Natalie Portman’s Jane Foster character from Thor.  Tommy Lee Jones is predictably great, if shockingly old-looking, and Hugo Weaving makes a perfect Red Skull.

The film looks amazing; despite all the sci-fi elements, the technology looks like it belongs in the 40s, or at least in a 40s sci-fi film.  There’s a control room central to Cap’s origin that’s huge and impressive and full of gee-gaws, but when you get up close, it’s all old-school dials and toggles and levers, which is awesome.  I’m so over touch-panels and holographic “head-up” displays: bring back the low-tech hi-tech!  Also the lighting and cinematography all look appropriate to the era, which is probably a big reason they picked director Joe Johnston, who’s been here before with The Rocketeer (another favorite of mine).

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There’s tons of Easter eggs for comic fans, but if you’re not one, they don’t get in the way at all.  All in all, it’s easily the best superhero film I’ve seen since the first Iron Man, but honestly I’m not sure I’ll enjoy any sequels as much if they’re set in the present day.

I’ve noticed I tend to like movies based on Marvel characters more than the ones based on DC heroes, and that’s not just because they’re technically better films (though they are).  It’s also because I don’t have much of an emotional investment in the characters.  I know who the Marvel guys are, and have an idea of their histories in broad strokes, but I’m not so mired in the minutea of their continuities that I get bent out of shape when the movies take liberties.  I knew, for instance, that the first X-Men film mixed and matched team members from various time periods, and that Mary Jane Watson was not Peter Parker’s first great love, but so what?  On the other hand, even at 14 I couldn’t get past the “crystal cathedral” Fortress of Solitude in the Superman films, or the fact that Jor-El was a white-haired, chubby AARP candidate.

Out of the Marvel roster of heroes, Captain America has always been near the top of my list, just by virtue of being closer to the traditional “hero” ideal than the average conflicted, neurotic Marvel protagonist, and that element is certainly played up in the new film.  In fact, I’ve seen it treated as a handicap by some reviewers, who say Cap is the “dullest” and “least psychologically complex” of Marvel’s characters.  One man’s meat is another man’s poison, I guess.  The thing is Cap’s the reverse of the standard Marvel hero.  Most of them are guys who gain powers first and learn to be heroes only afterwards; Spider-Man to atone for a colossal failure of character and the tragedy that results, Tony Stark (at least in the movies) to at last do something positive with a life up til now wasted on hedonism and debauchery.  Even Thor is an overgrown  kid who has to be taught a lesson in humility by his pop.  Steve Rogers is the opposite; on the inside, he’s a hero from the start; he just lacks the power to do anything about it.  The Super Soldier Serum enables his heroism, but it doesn’t create it.  The film understands all this and gets it dead right, in my book.   Stanley Tucchi’s Dr Erskine character explains the formula only magnifies a person’s true nature; it can make a good man great, but it would make a bad one only worse.

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The only real negative for me is that annoying subtitle, “The First Avenger.”  I gather there are at least three reasons for its use.  First is doubtless to differentiate this film from the “Captain America” film made in 1990, a film so infamously awful it went straight to video and is still held up as a sort of “Heaven’s Gate” of superhero flics.  The second reason is to allow the character’s name to be dropped from the title entirely in countries where “America” is a bad word (like we care; they’re all run by Red Skulls anyway).  But the biggest reason is to hype the movie everyone seems really focused on, 2012’s The Avengers.

In fact, for all intents and purposes, that one appears the ONLY big movie from Marvel’s standpoint, with the Hulk, Cap, Iron Man and Thor franchises merely lead-in’s to what’s being hyped as the greatest cinematic triumph since Edison invented the motion picture. This grates on me for lots of reasons; for one thing, it seems like the ultimate surrender of artistic integrity to treat an entire film as a two-hour commercial for another film.  It a tacit admission that the bean-counters have finally and completely won out over the artists. (Apparently it’s precisely this issue that led Jon Favreau to abandon the Iron Man franchise).  But it also seems like a stupid game plan, telling people, in essence, “Come see the movie that’s out now if you want, but let’s face it, the one that’s really worth watching won’t come out ’til 2012.”  I mean, would it make sense to say, “Come get our new double-cheeseburger.  It’s not nearly as awesome as the one we’re bringing out next summer, but hey, you’ve got to eat something in the meantime, right?”

Of course if The Avengers does turn out to be fantastic, everyone’s happy.  But if it stinks, Marvel’s going to have a lot of very disappointed fanboys out there, considering the marketing campaign’s been rolling along for like six years now.  And let’s face it, so far the model has been that the more super-powered characters you cram into a film, the more it stinks, as borne out by the Batman and Spider-Man franchises.  The Avengers will have, what, six super-beings just on the side of the good guys, let alone whatever villains they toss in.  If they can cram all that into two hours and make it work, I’ll be impressed, but I’m doubtful.

With Captain America, though, even Marvel’s “this is a shared universe, so get used to it” attitude isn’t too grating as most of the film happens 70 years in the past, so I only have to put up with the obligatory cameo by Sam Jackson as Nick Fury at the very end of the film, plus a few in-joke references to other characters and themes that don’t get too intrusive.

As always, your mileage may vary, but I got the same feeling from watching this film that I imagine Cap’s legions of young fans had reading Joe Simon and Jack Kirby’s comics in the 1940s.  In fact, if they still offered “Sentinel of Liberty” pins, I’d order one right now.

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Cyborg: The Six Million Dollar Man

In the spring of 1973, ABC television aired a made-for-TV adaptation of Martin Caidin’s novel, “Cyborg,” introducing Steve Austin to millions of viewers and launching a 70s pop culture phenomenon.

cyborg1The film opens with ex-astronaut Austin suiting up to pilot an experimental aircraft at a desert testing ground, while hundreds of miles away in Washington, DC, OSO director Oliver Spencer holds a secret meeting to propose the creation of a top-secret superweapon…a cyborg, part man and part machine.  The estimated cost? Roughly six million dollars.

“Will you ask for volunteers?” someone asks.  “No….” says Spencer casually. “Accidents happen all the time.  We’ll just start with scrap.”

Spencer gets his human scrap pile when Austin’s aircraft suffers a catastrophic crash, leaving him mutilated and near death, a triple amputee with extensive internal injuries.  Judging Austin a suitable candidate for his project, Spencer directs the brilliant surgeon Dr Rudy Wells to make good on his theories of “bionics,” replacing human parts with mechanical duplicates capable of doing anything the originals could, and more.

cyborg2Austin has a hard time accepting his fate, at first repulsed by the sight of his new limbs, but in time he adapts to his bionics and the amazing power they give him. Then the other shoe falls as Spencer asks Steve to make good on his debt by taking on a special covert mission for the OSO.

Steve reluctantly agrees and parachutes into an Arabian desert on a mission to rescue a kidnapped Israeli dignitary.  He soon finds out what Spencer knew all along; the man he’s been sent to rescue is already dead.  With Austin now in the hands of Arab terrorists, Spencer — back in Washington — confesses his duplicity to Rudy Wells: This has all been a test to determine Austin’s resourcefulness and will to survive. “If he fails, I can always build another cyborg. But if he survives — which appears to be doubtful — then I know I have my man.”

Steve does survive, of course, escaping his captors and blowing up half the terrorist camp on his way out.  Back in the States, Dr Wells induces a sleep state in Steve to speed his recovery from injuries, and Spencer asks if it’s possible to just keep him asleep until he’s needed again, a suggestion Rudy finds abhorrent.

“Cyborg” was a ratings hit when it aired, earning a Hugo Award nomination and spawning two sequel TV movies and a hit weekly series that ran for five years.  As a medical/sci-fi drama it remains an entertaining bit of television.  For fans, it offers some fascinating twists on the Six Million Dollar Man story as we’d come to know it.

For one thing, Oscar Goldman is nowhere in sight, replaced here by OSO chief Oliver Spencer, a hard-hearted, ruthless man on the surface but — as played by the late great Darren McGavin — one we sense is more complex than he first seems.  Spencer hits Steve with what we might today call “tough love,” refusing to show him any pity or tiptoe around his feelings, and forcing him to accept his new life as a cyborg  and put his abilities to use in a cause.

cyborg3Someone — possibly McGavin himself — elected to have Spencer walk with a limp and carry a cane.  No reference is made to what led to this infirmity, but it adds a subtle subtext to Spencer’s plot to build a bionic man, and perhaps to his gruff demeanor.  “You’re more of a robot than I am,” Steve says bitterly.  “You should have been me.”  Without missing a bit, Spencer agrees: “Yes, that would have been simpler,” earning a surprised look from Steve.  Harsh as he is, Spencer emerges as a fascinating character who never fails to make sparks with Austin in their scenes together. Arrogant and tactless, he’s like a spiritual forefather of Hugh Laurie’s “House” character.  It would’ve been fun to see Spencer hang around, rather than step aside for the comparatively bland Oscar Goldman, but then if McGavin had stayed on we’d never have gotten “The Night Stalker.”

Still not quite the self-confident, square-jawed hero who will launch a thousand toys, Steve Austin in this film is a complex character.  We first see him sauntering casually onto the tarmac of an airfield, nearly late for a test flight.  His mind is on his days as an astronaut, and we sense his life is starting to drift off target.  After the crash, he attempts suicide on finding himself a triple amputee.  Later, even though his bionic limbs look identical to the originals, he still considers himself a freak, and when he rips open his bionic arm while rescuing a child from a mangled car, the child’s mother reinforces his fears, asking in revulsion, “What are you?”  These themes of alienation and self-loathing will continue to some degree in the next telefilm, but quickly fade as the series gets under way and Steve — and his audience — comes to see his bionic enhancements as a net gain, and even a blessing.

For some reason, the film deviates from the novel by making Austin a “civilian member” of the space program, rather than an Air Force Colonel.  Maybe this is to rationalize Spencer’s scheme at the end of the film, where he sets up an elaborate test of Steve’s patriotism and combat readiness.  Presumably if he were an Air Force officer, those traits would be a given.  Maybe it’s a reflection of the Vietnam War, still in progress when the film aired; it’s possible someone thought a story about a military man made into a super fighting machine wouldn’t generate as much sympathy as that of a civilian forced into government service by circumstances beyond his control.

cyborg5This first film is also more violent than the series would be.  On reluctantly agreeing to take Spencer’s assignment, Steve says, “I don’t want to kill people.”  Nonetheless, Steve racks up an impressive body count in this film, taking out terrorists with a machine gun and grenades in precisely the sort of high-firepower climax the later series would studiously avoid.

Nearly 35 years after it first aired, “Cyborg” (aka “The Six Million Dollar Man”) still holds up as compelling drama and thought-provoking sci-fi.  As an action flic, the pacing can be a bit slow, and the anemic musical score by Gil Melle can’t touch the heroic, jazzy coolness of Oliver Nelson’s work on the series proper, but all in all, this is a solid 90 minutes or so of entertainment.  IF, that is, you can get your hands on it. Hopefully Universal will work out the legal issues keeping this and the rest of the Six Million Dollar Man saga out of reach of DVD collectors here in the United States.

Steve Austin.  Better, Stronger, Faster. And the first inductee in my Pop Culture Hero Hall of Fame.

Quick Review: Star Trek (2009)

I finally got around to seeing the new Star Trek film this weekend, a month into its theatrical run.

All in all, it was an enjoyable film; fast-paced, well-acted and with some cool visuals. I’m just old enough to be put off by modern special effects, with the shaky “camera work” and dizzying pans and zooms, so I didn’t get as much out of that element as some folks may have. Besides just being disorienting (and thus counter-productive), it also invites comparison to the new “Battlestar Galactica”, which I’m sure Abrams and company would desperately deny being an influence. It probably didn’t help that the two previews that ran before the picture were for “Transformers” and “GI Joe,” another two rocky rides in the video cuisinart.

The key to the film’s success is in the casting. I had my misgivings about Chris Pine as Kirk, not least because of my lifelong affection for Bill Shatner in the role, but also because there wasn’t anything in Pine’s resume to suggest he was capable of playing the charismatic action hero. That he did, however, and with real style.

Curiously, I had exactly the opposite feelings about Zachary Quinto as Spock. His casting early on predisposed me to like this film, but now that I’ve actually seen him in the part he’s left me underwhelmed. Maybe it’s his voice, which lacks the bassy authority of Nimoy, or as Trek legend Herb Solow has said it could be that he just doesn’t have that look of “the wisdom of a thousand years” in his eyes. It doesn’t help that the script puts Spock through his emotional paces, dealing with great anger, grief and passion in his first outing, and creating a much more outwardly emotional Spock than we’re used to seeing. A key to Nimoy’s success in the role was his ability to hold back, to suggest at powerful feelings beneath the surface, but keep them in check. Here Spock wears his emotions on his sleeve, and the result is a far less interesting characterization, in my opinion.

The rest of the cast is a bit uneven. Karl Urban nearly walks away with the movie as Leonard “Bones” McCoy, easily the standout in this lineup. It’s amazing when you consider what a brilliant scene-stealer DeForest Kelley was that Urban could come along and catch lightning in a bottle yet again. Simon Pegg as Scotty is a mixed bag; I got over his looks faster than I expected, and some of his dialog is fun, but overall it felt like they turned him into comic relief, and our Chief Engineer deserves better than that. John Cho bore no resemblance in looks or character to vintage Sulu, and although it’s cool to see the navigator get some real action in at last, in a way it just reinforces another stereotype to make the Asian guy a kick-butt martial artist. Zoe Saldana is gorgeous as Uhura, but otherwise shares no traits with Nichelle Nichols as far as I could tell. Anton Yelchin is fun as a super-young Checkov, but his presence creates one of my problems with the logic of the film, namely what are all these kids doing running the Enterprise?

Maybe I missed a line of exposition somewhere, but I could never figure out why a major space emergency has to be answered by the senior class at Starfleet Academy. Aside from Captain Christopher Pike and a handful of faculty, there seems to be no full-time Starfleet personnel on duty in this film. When the planet Vulcan is attacked, the students are pulled from their studies and shipped out on active duty, not just on the Enterprise but a whole fleet of ships. Is this day one of Starfleet, or what?

Arriving at Vulcan to find it under attack, Pike asks if anyone has advanced combat training. Sulu raises his hand, and Pike says, “You too, Kirk. You’re not even supposed to be here, anyway.” Meaning what, exactly? As a “stowaway,” he deserves to be sent on a suicide mission? Does HE have “advanced combat training” and Pike knows it from reading his file? Or does he just want him dead? Either way, Pike devises a Navy SEALS-like battle plan that depends on Sulu (about whose training Pike has just learned), Kirk (who isn’t even on active duty) and one security officer. Are we to assume there are no other personnel on the entire ship capable of this assignment? Has Pike shipped out with no security team whatsoever?

Adding to the fun, Pike makes Spock captain and Kirk his first officer. Again, why? Kirk is not only a cadet, he’s a cadet currently on academic suspension. And he’s being sent off-ship on what may be a suicide mission, anyway. What’s up with that?

But then, this Starfleet is a fairly laid-back outfit. For his meritorious service, Kirk is not only forgiven for cheating on an important exam, but is actually handed command of the Enterprise along with his diploma. That’s right, congratulations Cadet Kirk, here’s the best ship in the fleet, good luck. You’d think even James T Kirk should have to move his way up the ranks like everyone else. Also, it doesn’t help that it’s actually Spock who saves the Earth and not Kirk…so where’s his ship?

Not to worry; as the Enterprise prepares to leave orbit, Spock shows up and he’s all, “I’ll be your first officer, if that’s cool” and Kirk is like, “Righteous, bro” and so it’s all worked out, simple as that. We don’t stand on ceremony here in Starfleet.

Even the “real” Spock gets into the act, as Leonard Nimoy’s aging Vulcan sends Kirk to take command of the Enterprise away from his younger self. Of course, Earth is in immediate danger of being destroyed and time is of the essence, but Old Spock opts not to talk to Young Spock himself — even though that would speed things along greatly — because it’s more important that Young Spock learns what a great team he and Kirk make. Yes, that’s right, the Great Bromance is more important than the Earth itself.

But, what the heck, at least its all upbeat, harmless fun, unlike last year’s unrelentingly bleak “Dark Knight” or even the nihilistic “Galactica” that probably motivated Paramount to green light this film in the first place. If nothing else, “Star Trek” manages to recreate a sense of fun, adventure and — importantly for me — danger we haven’t really seen since the original TV series. As Bones says, space is a scary place, full of danger and death, and we should feel that. It was evident in the old shows, made in the days when the real space program was in its dangerous youth, and TV science fiction dominated by scary fare like “The Twilight Zone” and “The Outer Limits.” But somewhere along the way it got lost, until the various Trek spin-offs made space seem comfy and homey, with Picard running his Enterprise by committee vote from a love seat in what looked like a hotel lounge, and the biggest worry being a broken replicator or a nano-virus or some other such techno-babble. Space exploration should be scary and dangerous, and this film gets it.

Overall, a fun summer film, even if there’s not much to stick to your ribs. I’m willing and even eager to see more from this crew, which I guess is the acid test right there. The beauty of this “alternate reality” gimmick is that now anything can happen, creating not only the potential for real suspense (and tragedy) but also second chances for tragic characters like Captain Pike, who deserves it. Maybe we can even dare hope that when this Jim Kirk meets his maker (hopefully waaay down the road), he’ll do better than having a dumb bridge fall on top of him.