The Two Most Influential Science-Fiction Films of 1960’s

Even though the 60s, or at least the start of the 60’s, now lies fifty years in the past, we are rapidly approaching SF films that are well known, and quite familiar to a larger audience. This of course makes the selection of just two as ‘most influential’ even more fraught with controversy and argument. Good!

The 1960’s is a rich field to for SF movies, particularly if we keep in mind a wide definition of SF that may include many films not generally thought of as part of that genre.

For example Dr. No, released in 1962, not only launched the Bond film franchise that runs strong to this very day, but it also birthed the entire super-spy genre which morphed, with Tom Clancy’s help, into the techno-thriller genre, a genre that is SF wearing fancy dress. By any reasonable observation and definition Dr. No is both SF and influential. So read one and see how I have selected one films that I think will scarcely surprise anyone, and another that will be received quite the opposite.

2001: A Space Odyssey – 1968

2001-a-space-odyssey-originalStanley Kubrick’s brilliant and baffling masterpiece, 2001 is truly not only one of the most influential SF films of the 1960s, it is one of the most influential films of any genre of all time. It is groundbreaking in its style, scope, depth of concepts, technical mastery, and sheer artistry. Coming at the end of the decade, this movie raised the bar on what could be expected of a science-fiction film. Where Forbidden Planet brought in literature, 2001 demonstrated that SF, the genre of ideas in print fore decades and decades, could also be the genre of ideas on the silvered screen. Eschewing a traditional plot driven narrative, this film took us from the dawn of humanity through its eventual evolution beyond the cradle of Earth. It did this will a level of technical competence that forever changed what would be expected of a major SF film and set the stage for the dazzling spectacle in the next decade of Star Wars.

Co-written by one of the grandmasters of hard SF (science-fiction that is devoted to scientific accuracy) Arthur C Clarke, 2001 took a solid believable ground in science, capturing the realities of projected space-travel with a near documentarian style, and made this all accessible to the general public. I have twice seen this film screen in theaters and both times the audience is held in its powerful and hypnotic grip. While I prefer my films to have a more traditional narrative, I can see and appreciate the art, power, and brilliance exhibited in the film.

My second film, released the same year, is about as far as you can get from 2001: a Space Odyssey. This movie is a film assembled by amateurs, shot on grainy poor stock, limited in scope, with a traditional narrative about survival, and yet it is a small independent film that shook the foundations of film making and spawned a new genre unto itself.

Night of the Living Dead – 1968

What, I hear you scream, that’s not a science-fiction movie, that’s a horror film, a zombieNight-of-the-Living-Dead film! Yes it is both of those things, a horror film, just as Frankenstein was a horror film, and it is not just a zombie movie it is the progenitor of all modern zombie movies. It is also, quite clearly, a science-fiction film. First off, co-writer and Direct George A. Romero has mentioned in interviews that the inspiration for this film was Richard Matheson’s novel, I am Legend, a story about a world overrun by scientifically explained vampires. In the film Night of the Living Dead, quite unlike Romero’s other zombie films, there is a clear explanation given for the rise of the dead and their transformation into murderous cannibals – radiation from the Venus probe. This radiation is what ‘activates’ the ghouls’ brains (the term zombie is never used in the movie and was grafted onto these revenants later) and it is what destroyed the brain destroys the ghouls. The cause and explanation is grounded in a scientific reason, though it is terrible science. So, like Dr. No, this is a movie that one rarely thinks of as SF, but clearly falls within those borders.

It’s influence would be hard to overstate. It has been called the most successful independent film of all time. (Only a mistake in the editing room prevented Romero and company from being richly rewarded for their creation and instead plopped the film directly into the public domain.) Where Dr. No spawned a single franchise and a fad, that quickly died out, in super-spy movies, the zombie films not only continues to be popular, the tropes of the zombie movie can often be found in other films far afield. The scene in Burton’s version of Sweeney Todd where the ‘mental’ patients attack their doctor is straight out of any zombie movie. The very concept, one that didn’t exist in 1967, has fully permeated our society today. Quibble all you like, I do not see how you cannot rate this as one of the most influential SF movies of the 60’s or of all time.


Sunday Night Movie: Planet of the Apes(1968)

I guess my essay series on influential SF films has –eh hm – influenced my selection for this week’s Sunday night Movie.
planet-of-the-apesReleased in 1968 Planet of the Apes would certainly be on the short list for best SF movies of that or any decade, but I can tell you that it is not one of the two films I selected as most influential from the 1960s.
While Planet of the Apes spawned 4 direct sequels, two television series’, 1 re-make and 2 sequels to the remakes, I would say that it’s impact beyond the franchise is limited primary to its advancement of special effect make-up.
The said it is a marvelous piece of political parable, taking the explosive issues of race relations and dealing with it under disguise of SF adventure.
The film concerns a crew of astronauts launched from Earth in the early 1970’s, ah the halcyon optimistic days when we simply assumed that our trajectory in space exploration would bend upward as sharply as a Saturn V thrusting for the moon, that through traveling at near the speed of light and by the use of cold-sleep, find themselves thousands of years in the future, crashed on a planet orbiting a star in the constellation Orion.
The surviving crew is made up of a scientific idealist who would ‘walk naked into a volcano’ if it meant he learned something no one else every knew, a egotist for whom glory has driven him to this one-way mission, and a misanthropist for whom mankind is something to be despised and dreams of finding something better than humanity amongst the stars.
Aside from a crashed ship, limited supplies, and inter-personal conflict, the mission is threatened when the crew discovers that this planet has humans, but one that have never progressed beyond mute animals, and that the dominate life are apes.
Captured and experimented upon, it reduces down to one survivor who eventually unlocks the puzzle of the planet, and despairs as the answer.
Truly a classic film, this one is well worth the viewing, and I am quite happy to have it on blu-ray. (As part of a boxed set containing all five of the original films.) If you have never seen it, crawl out from under that rock you hide under and do see it at once.


Some Economics Inspired Thoughts

A few weeks ago I signed up for an on-line college course in Macroeconomics. I am not taking the course for credit, but rather my own enlightenment. Economics is one of those fields of study where I do not have the sort of grounding I would like have, and as an SF author it has also bedeviled me in world-building.

The course has been very interesting and I do not doubt that some of my ignorance is being shaved away. As I have been going over the material I had an idea occur to me. Now I am sure brighter minds than I have already plowed this ground, but it is virgin territory to me and it is certainly something that has captured my attention.

First a re-cap on the Tragedy of the Commons.

Imagine you have a common – a pasture of grass that is owned by no particular individual. A group of people graze their sheep on the common, 2 sheep per person and every sells the wool from their sheep. As long as the number of sheep is not so high as to overgraze the common and kill the crass everything is fine. The trouble comes from the individual’s incentive. Each person can make more money for themselves by grazing more sheep, it cost that person nothing and gains them more wool to sell. If all the people do this, the common is destroyed and all are destitute. The idea of the Tragedy of the Commons is that individual incentives can work against both the common and individual good.

Now out modern economy is driven by a supply of goods and services which are purchased by consumers. The consumption by regular individuals is the largest factor in the equation. As people have greater incomes and more wealth they consumer more, causing greater production and the economy expands. It works best when all person have the greatest possible income that does not endanger production. All is well and good, until we consider the incentives of the individual producers; those who employ and distribute income.

Their twin motivations are to sell their goods and services for the highest possible price and to make the greatest possible profit from their production. In addition to seeking greater efficiencies, and lower cost materials, the producers have an incentive to lower the wage as far down as they can and keep the difference as increased profit. The Tragedy of the Commons rears its head in that if all or even most producers do this, then income falls, consumption falls, and in the end their sales and profit falls. Like the overgrazed common, it becomes a disaster for all.

This brings me to the concept and setting of a minimum wage. Like restriction on how many sheep can be grazed, a minimum wage, as I see it, could be used to stave off a contracting spiral in an unregulated economy. The best argument for a minimum isn’t justice, or fairness, or what kind of apartment can people earning it afford, it is what is the effect on aggregate consumption? When does having it too low become a drag by strangling consumption and when does having it too high choke production? Those, in my mind, are the truly critical questions.


The Two Most Influential Science-Fiction Films of the 1950’s

Ah, we have emerged from the SF desert of the 40’s into the rich garden of the 1950’s. For many people this is when SF movies really started. It is certainly when they came into their own as a genre.

My last post I suffered from few films to select from, and this post has quite the opposite trouble. The 1950’s were such a golden age of SF movie that entire books have been devoted to the movies and their history. (I would heartily recommend Bill Warren’s Keep Watching the Skies! as an invaluable resource.)

It was during the 60’s that we got Creature from the Black Lagoon, the first full body suit monster movie. We are also got Them! which spawned countless giant insect movies. The Day the Earth Stood Still is a prime example of SF film addressing the concerns of the day while Invasion of The Body Snatchers terrifically captured tis terrors. Of there are so many to chose from, but of course I have already made my picks. One I expect bears no surprise, but my first pick is rather unknown to most people today.

Destination Moon – 1950.

Destination MoonThose who know me might suspect I selected this film because of the close association with one of my favorite SF authors, Robert A. Heinlien, but they would be wrong. This film, as a movie, is in my opinion flawed, but I am not selecting for best SF movies in each decade but most influential and on that count there can be no arguing with Destination Moon. This film, released in 1950, was a box office hit, both domestically and over-seas. It launched George Pal into his love affair with SF film, and for that alone it is an important film but it also launched the SF film crazed of the 1950’s. Without this film we do not have the rich fertile treasury of SF films from this decade and without those movies we do not have modern SF cinema. Destination Moon, while dry and flawed, is one of the most important SF films of any decade.

Forbidden Planet – 1956.

Forbidden Planet (1956)This selection should be less surprising. It is a well know movie, beloved and rescreened often. I had the good fortune to catch it in a theater and the special effect and images still hold up quite nicely. The characters are quite a bit dated, very much the writing is a product of the repressed 50’s, with the Production Code still in full effect, but this is still a movie well worth watching. It is influential because until Forbidden Planet science-fiction films were not literature. Most SF films were heavily plot based, being either adventure stories, such as Destination Moon’s exploration of the adventure inherent in a trip to the moon, allegorical story, or arguments for a particular worldview, such as The Day the Earth Stood Still. Forbidden Planet, an SF adaptation of The Tempest took the SF movie, with credible science, beyond the solar system and into the soul of humanity. It asked, with typical MGM glitz, deep questions about revenge and power and to price might they extract. In addition to opening up SF film to deeply internal stories, though they might be about aliens and robots on the surface, Forbidden Planet also inspired Gene Roddenberry’s Star Trek. The production design of the movie strongly influenced the look of the television series, and the very concept of a paramilitary exploration of new worlds and new life-forms start here. There is no doubt that you can draw a line from Forbidden Planet, through Star Trek, to many shows and films today.


Movie Review: Edge of Tomorrow

A little later than I would have liked, my sweetie-wife and I went out this morning caught a matinée showing of the SF film, Edge of Tomorrow. The premise, if you haven’t seen any of the trailers, is rather ‘alien invasion meets Groundhog Day’. Tom Cruise plays Major Cage, edge-of-tomorrow-movie-traileran American military PR Officer who has never seen a day of combat, now suddenly thrust into the largest invasion in human history. Untested, untrained, and unworthy this is not the sort of assignment Cage wants to participate in.

The invasion is against an alien infestation that has taken Europe. One of the smart elements in this film is that the alien’s are not presented so much as invaders but more like a parasitic infection on the planet’s eco-system. This intelligently avoids one of the major pit-falls in attempting an alien invasion plot, mainly that any race with starships and easy access to orbit, wins again an opponent who does not posses those qualities. Another element I need to praise is the screenwriters avoiding any specificity in why this has happened. They didn’t come here for our women, our gold, or our water, (elements all used in rather dumb fashion in other alien invasion movies.) and the motivations of the aliens are left, unknown.

Cage’s acquires a talent, which causes him to ‘reset’ time whenever he is killed, causing the character to be the only person with memory of the day’s events that for him are past and for all other the future. Given Cages limitations and faults personality-wise, he is unable to convince others of his intelligence save for the mythically heroic Sgt Rita Vrataski a woman credited with hundred of alien kills. Together they must find a way to use Cage’s talent to turn the war before humanity loses it all.

The film is rather well put together and I would say 95% of the time plays by its rule-set, it does however abandon the rules of its setting for a cheap joke and to deliver a final ending that for me is somewhat unsatisfying. It was not so much as to cause me to regret seeing the film in the theater, and it’s light-years ahead od ‘Sphere’s’ terrible ending, but it was in the final moments, a cheat. How much this bothers you will be a purely idiosyncratic effect. Certainly for the genre of SF films focused on alien invasion this one works far better than most and is worth at least one viewing.


My CPAP wisdom

It was a little over four years ago that I received by diagnosis of severe sleep apnea. It came as a surprise; though I snored and had issues with being tired I had not expected that this would happen. I started CPAP therapy and this gave me my life back. So now that it has been four years I thought I would put together a small post sharing what I learned about making this therapy work effectively. Before we continue, these are simply my personal experiences. I am not a medical professional and you should always consult with a medical professional about any therapy you are engaged in.

1)   The Right Mask

First and foremost in getting the most of your CPAP therapy is finding the right mask for you face and your sleeping habits. Personally I started nasal pillows, which isn’t even really a mask. This was a device that affixed right under my nose and plugged directly into the nostrils. I thought it might work best because of the small profile, however I tend to open my mouth during my slumber, and this dropped my pressure below therapeutic levels. Even with a chinstrap I couldn’t keep my mouth closed. (A symptom I am sure many would say it equally true when I am awake.) This also ruled out the nose only masks. I tried several nose & Mouth masks before I found one with a gel form that sealed nicely against my skin without requiring too much pressure.

So if you first few masks don’t work for you, keep looking. There are all sorts of masks with all sorts of materials. Keep at it until you find the right one.

2)   A Clean Mask

Most instructions that come with the masks advise cleaning on a weekly basis, but this may be too infrequent. Each night you use the mask oils from your skin become affixed in a thin layer on the contact surfaces, degrading the seal. I have found that by purchasing CPAP mask wipes, I can clean the contact surfaces each night and improve the seal. This reduces how tight the mask needs to be when worn, and improves the general effectiveness of the therapy.

3)   A Shorn Face

If you’re male, and particularly if you are hirsute and given to ‘five o’clock’ shadow, it would be prudent to shave before bed. Just like gas masks, sleep apnea therapy masks do not function well with beards and unshorn skin.   You see a common theme appearing in my advise, getting a good seal. The point of the therapy is raising the pressure in you airways so that you have unobstructed breathing and you can keep properly oxygenated. A good seal is critical to obtaining that needed pressure.

4)   The Right Accessories

The mask and your skin are the most critical elements in securing good therapy, but making your sleep comfortable can sometimes be a matter of the correct ancillary devices. I myself tumbled and turn in my sleep, when I first started my CPAP therapy I often woke myself either tanged in the hose or by the roar of air escaping the machine after I had pulled the tubing free of the connectors.

I found a hose stand on Amazon that works well for me. The base slips between the mattresses and it hold the hose overhead, much like an IV stand does in a hospital, allowing me to toss and turn with little restriction.

I hope that this sharing experience helps someone out. If you think you may have sleep apnea I cannot stress enough the need to be tested. I didn’t think this applied to me, but during testing they discovered my blood oxygen levels were dropping in the high 80’s, and as I understand it, anything under 95% is considered dangerous. If people tell you that you snore and stop breathing, get thee to a doctor. If you wake up constantly through the night, get thee to a doctor. If when you stop moving you find yourself falling asleep, get thee to a doctor.


The First Beta Read Results

Saturday afternoon I held the beta-reader lunch for my latest novel. I had a pretty good turn out and there was a lively and illuminating discussion.

These sessions are not for me, the author, to defend or explain my choices, prose, or assumptions, but to hear from readers, some who have come totally cold to the piece, what they took away from my work. It can be very difficult not to fall into an explanatory spiral. After all things that seemed so clear to me that I feared I was hitting my poor future readers with clue-by-fours can turn out to the be vague and vaporous hints to my actual readers.

I shan’t go into the details of our discussions. It would be terribly dull for anyone not familiar with the work and for those distance beta readers still working on the project I’d hate to contaminate the process.

I can say that at this moment I have a ten bullet point revision document generated. Some of the changes are rather major – at least one massive plot hole was exposed in the discussion – and several are minor, and some come down to find and replace to make character names more distinct from each other.

Hopefully my distance readers will get me their final feedbacks in the next couple of weeks and I can drop myself fully into revision mode.


The Two Most Influential Science-Fiction Films of the 1940s

So here’s the next and in many ways the toughest essay in this darned series. Why is this one so bloody tough? Because there really are no notable SF films, from around the freaking world, that was produced during the 1940s.

For most of these essays my task has been to chose, from a number of influential SF movies, just two and name these as the most influential of their decade. Certainly the next decade up, the 1950s, will prove a challenge. What a treasure of rich, interesting, and diverse films to selection from, but the 1940s? There isn’t anything here, sister.

I am not going to leave this entry empty handed. I am going to find at least one genre movie that had a lasting impact on films far beyond the scope of the picture or its box-office.

mighty_joe_young-6My selection is 1949’s Might Joe Young. It has been called, and rightly so in my opinion, a King Kong knock-off. It is the story of a young woman and her pet 12 foot tall gorilla. They are brought out of the wilds of Africa to the wilds of Hollywood as entertainment for a nightclub. The ape goes mad, there is destruction and terror in the streets of Los Angeles. All in all not a terribly original story line, it features one of the stars of the original King Kong, a truly influential film, and the special effects were headed up by Willis O’Brien, the technical wizard who did the effects for Kong.

None of this makes this film particularly important or memorable, the O’Brien supervised the effects work, which were primarily performed by Ray Harryhousen .

Harryhousen’s influence on special effects and film reverberates to this day. In the Final Episode of season 4 for Game of Thrones, when the skeletal wraiths attack from the ice, that scene is pure Harryhousen. Brendan Fraiser fighting the mummies in 1999’s The Mummy is a direct homage to Harryhousen work in the Sinbad movies. Clash of the Titans, 2010, is a remake of Harryhousen’s Clash of the Titans 1981. It is nearly impossible to over state the impact on film and special-effect that this one man had, and his first big break was on this fairly forgettable film, Mighty Joe Young.