In the Dust of the Stars (1976)

East German sci-fi time…

SYNOPSIS: The spaceship Cynro is on a mission to the planet TEM 4, where a radio signal broadcast years ago calling for help has finally been answered. As they enter the atmosphere, the ship encounters a problem and crash lands on the surface. They are received by the planet’s leader, Ronk, who seems inviting and convinces the crew that the distress signal sent years ago is no longer relevant. However, one member of the crew has remained unconvinced, and his investigations start to turn up a host of dark secrets about the world they have landed on…

THOUGHTS/ANALYSIS: In the Dust of Stars (Im Staub Der Sterne in its native language) is a 1976 East German film that is a mixture of classic sci-fi and art house sequences that are intertwined with one another. The story concerns the spaceship Cynro and her crew of six that land on a planet to investigate a distress signal. Throughout the course of the film, the crew investigate what is happening on the planet and uncover some disturbing things along the way. There are plenty of things going on to make this film watchable, and enough variety and mystery to maintain interest. The story does seem to resemble an extended episode of Star Trek, with the twists, turns and moral dilemmas that plague the crew, but perhaps it lacks the engaging characters to really deliver something more unique. There is some character development weaved into the film, but there could have been more. One thing that is a little out of the ordinary in this film is the large female cast, and the crew being a female majority, which is rather unheard of, especially in science-fiction films of the time (or, you could argue, even now). Each member of the crew seems to have their own role, and the cast seems quite well-rounded, but again a lack of specific development is a problem. This does gradually improve especially near the ending, as a number of ethical dilemmas start to arise and the individual crewmembers have too make important decisions about the fate of the planet and its people.

In the Dust of Stars mixes a classic science-fiction story with some very psychedelic and art-house performances, which are interspersed throughout the film at irregular intervals. These mostly consist of hypnotic dance sequences or various close ups of eyes and such forth. These sequences do seem more experimental and disorientating than the more traditional sci-fi parts of the film, which perhaps play it safe and don’t innovate very much. These performances certainly add an extra dimension to film, as well as the opportunity to experiment and do something a little different. They do seem a little out of place, but they do make some sense when one looks at how the film deals with the meeting of different cultures and races, and how some customs may seem very odd and unusual to an outsider. Some of the characters certainly have a strange and eccentric behaviour, which adds a layer of complexity which is curious and a little bit fun.

As I mentioned, the film does feel very much like an episode of Star Trek, and this is not limited to the story; the sets of the spaceship and the alien indoor environments all have that clean and smooth feel with lots of control panels and random bits of machinery that fill the sets. The outdoor scenes take place in an expansive desert or quarry (that traditional sci-fi setting for alien worlds), and helps to open it up a little. There are also some more bizarre settings such as the Leader’s room (full of mirrors) and his garden, which have a surreal quality to them, and are put to good use. I’m not sure how this film fits into the rest of Eastern german cinema, as I’ve not seen any other films from there, however, it’s a decent film with some quirks and while it’s not groundbreaking it delivers a solid story and characters, and gives it a little experimental twist to make it stand out a little.

Heartbeeps (1981)

Robots in love…how adorable?

SYNOPSIS: Val and Aqua are two service droids that have been placed in storage following various accidents. As they start to converse with each other, they decide they wish to know more about the outside world, and escape the factory to explore the surrounding woodland, and are accompanied by another comedy robot, who constantly tells bad jokes and one-liners. As they travel, they create a smaller “child” robot, and Val and Aqua develop feelings for each other as they try to teach their “child” about the world and continuously evade the long arm of the Crimemaster Deluxe robot, who is pursuing them under the impression that they are wanted criminals…

THOUGHTS/ANALYSIS: Heartbeeps is a 1981 sci-fi romantic comedy film all about robots who fall in love and try to deal with very human relationship troubles. The film establishes from the very start that robots or “service droids” are commonplace in people’s homes and lives, but it seems to be set in the “present” of 1981 (though not much is really seen of the state of society), and as such we are faced with the world we live in with something that clearly doesn’t belong. No real explanation is given to why this is, but the film does a lot of this as we shall see. The film starts by introducing the two main robots: Val and Aqua. The first thing you may notice is Val’s voice is perhaps the most annoying voice that could have been possibly contrived, and it stays painful and uncomfortable all the way through. Along with a stand-up comic robot, the two decide to go outside the factory where they are being stored to go and “gather data” on some trees and such…this is, in fact, the entirety of the story: The two robots go outside to look at trees, and a whole bunch of unfunny scenes happen along the way. Even worse, the film eventually winds up with the robots actually trying to go back to the factory at the end, and so the whole film comes full circle without actually accomplishing anything. The plot gives no payoff or reward, and the characters do not seem enriched by their journey, making the whole film seem really pointless. a big part of the story centres around the fact that Val and Aqua have a child (by building it, obviously), and try to teach it about the world, which is even more ridiculous when the parents are trying to do the exact same thing, and everybody in the film just seems completely lost and there is no direction to anything that happens.

This film portrays itself as a romantic comedy, but unfortunately, the film seems to only have a single joke: Robots trying to do human relationships. Every interaction between the characters offers the same outcome of robots trying to be human, and the supposedly humourous results that follow. Unfortunately there is nothing funny about what any of this, and the dialogue ends up being slow, painful and boring so any joke that is attempted just gets lost after the uneventful and tedious character interactions. Another source of comedy is how the “parents” try to raise their “child” and their disagreements on what is best for it, obviously mirroring how human parents argue over what is best for their children; again, this isn’t really funny or clever either, and if the film was trying to make a point about how robots are not that different to humans, then it is obviously going to fail on that level too because robots do not act like the ones in this film, nor will they ever. The only comedic elements which are actually funny come from Catskill, the stand-up comedian robot, whose one-liners are so intentionally bad and cheesy they offer some much needed relief from the rest of the film. It is explained that the reason he tells such bad jokes is that his “joke quality” setting is set to low…which ironically, is really not funny. The Crimemaster Deluxe, the crime-busting robot hot on the heels of the protagonists also provides some cheesy dialogue about “dealing justice” which breaks up the monotony of the one recycled joke, but even this robot sometimes just seems a bit too wordy, and goes over-the-top when it really needs to say a one-liner or two to fill a scene. Fortunately, it does also like to blow things up, so at least something happens in this film every once in a while. You may think that the humans in the film deliver a contrasting emotional performance, but the acting from them is perhaps even worse than the robots (the robots have an excuse for not being engaging characters), the actors just do not seem invested or interested in what they are saying, and as such, the viewer probably won’t be either.

I suppose if there are any positives to take from this film they are on two fronts: One is the makeup on the robots, which is quite detailed and thorough, even if they sometimes they look a bit too human. The stand-up robot has a fun design with the shifting eyebrows that matches its function as a joke-telling machine. It’s a shame the Crimemaster Deluxe did not have the same amount of effort put into it, as it resembles the offspring of a Dalek and a police car; its ridiculous appearance does add to its humour though I suppose. The big surprise of this film is perhaps that the musical score was done by none other than John Williams, the legendary composer behind Star Wars, Superman and others. This score is the only thing which comes close to generating any emotion from this film, and it is strangely moving, even overriding the rubbish that you see and getting the viewer to focus almost entirely on the sound.

Perhaps the world was not ready in 1981 for a robot love-story like Heartbeeps, but that does not excuse the fact that this is an utterly terrible film: There is no story worth mentioning, the characters are completely irrelevant and do not learn anything or develop in any way through the course of the film. Alongside that, the attempt at comedy is dreadful, as it seems that no one could think of any real jokes or interesting situations to fit the premise, and the film just tries to pad itself out with the same joke over and over again. The fact that this film only runs 77 minutes long proves the point that the film said all it needed to say (which was not a lot) very quickly, and spends a lot of time padding itself out with boring and unnecessary dialogue. Not surprisingly, this film was a box-office bomb, and the lead actor personally apologised for the movie, so you can really get an impression of just what a universal failure this whole idea was. This film is not worth yours or anyone’s time.

A Wind Named Amnesia (1990)

What is left of humanity when everybody forgets everything they know?

SYNOPSIS: In the year 1997, a wind sweeps across the Earth and wipes away all memories from everybody on Earth; all of their personal memories, how to speak, and how to operate any form of machinery. As such, the world quickly falls into a state of ruin and mankind reverts to a race of savages. Two years later, a man named Wataru encounters a woman named Sophia after an encounter with a death-dealing “Guardian” robot, who apparently did not lose any of her memories, and has some strange powers to boot. Wataru explains that he is able to speak and has certain memories thanks to the help of Johnny, a young test subject whose brain retained more information than an average human. hen Johnny passes away, Wataru starts travelling the U.S. and that is how he runs into Sophia.

Wataru agrees to take her to New York, and the two set off across the country to encounter the remnants of civilisation, all the while the Guardian robot is in hot pursuit…

THOUGHTS/ANALYSIS: A Wind Named Amnesia is a 1990 Japanese animation film set in a post-apocalyptic United States. The premise behind the film is that in the near-future of 1997, a strange wind blows throughout the whole planet that makes the entire human race forget everything they know or have ever learned, including their names, how to read or write, and how to operate any form of technology. As a result, the world quickly falls into disrepair and ruin, and humanity is reduced to tribal savagery. It’s an interesting concept to work with, and it provides a world that is both modern and yet primitive in which the story can be told in, and the contrast between them gives this world an uncanny feel that brings it into continual conflict. Perhaps the film does not go into enough detail about how he world gets to such a bad state, and the intricacies of what happened, but I imagine trying to explain every small detail would have dragged out the film with a lot of dull exposition, and even then there would probably have been some plot holes with such a big event and all of the implications one could have imagine it having. As it stands, there’s enough revealed by the film to provide the grounds for its story to be told, and that’s what matters. The film creates an interesting look at what is left of humanity when everything learned (technically, as well as culturally) is forgotten; the answer? Not much.

We learn about the state of the world as told by a young man named Wataru, who managed to regain his memories thanks to meeting a boy whose own memories were preserved thanks to being a test subject in an experiment to enhance the human brain. Wataru as a character strikes me as not very dynamic or interesting, but I suppose considering the story, then if you have no memories or opportunities to develop a personality or have much of an opinion about anything, then you won’t be a very interesting person. Wataru’s sense of adventure and motivation to keep travelling and see the world my not seem much, but as you become involved in the story, there’s a special emphasis on finding the essence of humanity, and Wataru’s longing to roam and see what the world has to offer plays a big part in that. One of the strengths of this film is its ability to make engaging and emotional moments with so little. There are a number of scenes with Wataru and Johnny at the start which really set the tone for the rest of the film, and gives some motivation and meaning to being able to do anything in this post-apocalyptic world without meaning. The film really does an impressive job of getting the viewer to invest in these characters, and all of the more minor characters that are encountered in the different settings are able to establish their own motivations that explore the depth and complexity of humanity, which is what this film is all about.

From the start, the soundtrack feels very much like a late eighties or early nineties, and all the robotic sound effects and whatnot feel very familiar. The whole film has that classic Japanese animation feel to it, and in this respect, it does look like just another anime film. The film starts to reveal big landscape shots of the American wasteland, and some familiar sites and cities, along with their deprecated state (such as New York and Las Vegas), the city settings especially have a great look to them, and the settings feel expansive and are taken advantage of by the characters in various chase scenes. One thing I wondered about this film is just how the world manages to get so badly destroyed in 2 years: The near-future of 1997 does seem to have made some big technological leaps, but with no one able to use them, I’m not quite sure how skyscrapers have managed to be levelled within this time frame; I guess it makes for some good scenery so I shouldn’t really complain…

There are a couple of things that stand out as weaker portions of the film. One of them seems to be this robot that shows up from time to time that chases Wataru and serves as the primary antagonist: It’s never really explained why it fixes itself on chasing him across the entire country from Los Angeles to New York, or if there is no real reason at all and its just a malfunctioning mech, but I could not figure it out. However, it does lead to some cool chase scenes, even if there’s nothing more interesting about this thing to really integrate it into the story. The ending itself also feels a bit muddled: It explains why everything happened, sure, but then it just leaves with it being left unsure whether humanity will ever regain their memories; it is explained it is possible, and it will be known in a short time, but the film ends before it gives us that resolution, and setting the viewer up for an answer only to never give it does leave the film on a flat note. These shortcomings don’t detract too much from the film as a whole though, and I think A Wind Named Amnesia tells an interesting story with a curious premise that begs to be explored, and is done so very well. Perhaps it is a little too shirt to really capture that sense of adventure and freedom that seems to be at the heart of the movie, but what is does give the viewer is a setting that is intriguing, alongside characters that are (surprisingly) emotionally engaging, and as such is able to tell an entertaining story.

Growth IV

Still playing.

Growth Grid III

Got rid of the depth of field and the main text body. Looking better.

More “Grid” experiments

Nothing Left To Do But Cry (1984)

Time travel comedy with two bickering friends being sent back to the renaissance…

SYNOPSIS: Saverio and Mario are two friends that decide to take a drive through some fields as a shortcut instead of waiting at a train crossing. The two end up getting lost and stumble across a house in which they spend the night. When they wake up, they realise that they have somehow ended up in the year 1492. Struggling to accept this, the two bicker about what they are supposed to do, and how they can get back, and begin to plot some schemes to change the course of history while they are there…

THOUGHTS/ANALYSIS: Nothing Left to do But Cry (Non Ci Resta Che Piangere) is a 1984 Italian time-travel comedy concerning two friends as they wind up in the year 1492. There isn’t really much else to the story, and the film focuses on these two friends trying to cope with everything about the time period into which they have ended up in. There are a number of significant plot points that make up the core of the films different acts: When they first arrive, the two have to try and find a way to make a living or just survive in this strange time, and the usual hijinks ensue with present-day characters being trapped in the past. Essentially, the film feels like a collection of comedy sketches that are loosely woven together around a central narrative. There isn’t any main antagonist or supporting characters, and the film depicts these two friends essentially against the world, and though they are 500 years ahead of the rest of the world, they are constantly making a mess of everything they do. The multitude of situations the two get into give the film plenty of variety, and prevents the characters or the story from growing stale and repetitive; its actually quite clever how much the film can get from so little, and I think this comes from the two lead actors having great chemistry, and being able to carry out long scenes just between the two of them. Looking back on this film, I’m surprised how the film manages to make itself continually full of life and humour with so little traditional content. That said, the film does put things together quite smartly, and some recurring themes and motifs (trains, for example) create a continuity full of irony and juxtaposition that is a joy to watch.

The two lead actors (Benigni and Troisi) were two of Italy’s most recognised comedic actors, and they certainly know what they are doing in this film: The two play a traditional odd couple, with an energetic, self-absorbed and physically active Mario, and the more conservative thinker Saverio. The two have such a powerful chemistry that carries the film almost single-handedly, and their inane banter and arguing never gets old. The scene where it just the two of them usually comprise of them going back and forth trying to reach some sort of consensus or resolution. These scenes are usually quite long, but they never get tiring, again because the actors clearly know what they are doing. The dialogue itself feels very genuine, and I can’t quite tell if it’s all scripted or being improvised; either way it works. The two can rarely make up their minds about anything, and though their solutions are always short-sighted and full of errors, they still manage to get through by relying on one another. Apparently, a significant portion of the film’s humour relies on the fact that the two characters have different dialects and the word-play that ensues from the clash between them. Since I don’t know Italian, I can’t comment on this, but there is more than enough fun and humour in this film to make it worthwhile even if you don’t get this aspect of it.

It is clear that this film lacked much of a budget, and a lot of the settings are sparse and without detail. nevertheless, they are quite well done, and feel like very genuine settings. The costumes are a bit outlandish, but that is obviously done for the comedic effect, and to bring in some colour to the film. Through the large outdoor shots and the wandering through fields, you really get that sense of isolation that Saverio and Mario have in this time period, as they often tend to be the only characters around. Nevertheless, these scenes are kept fully active with the constant bickering between the two which really carries this film. When the two come across Leonardo da Vinci, we get a very interesting scene in which the two try to convince him to build something from there ideas, and split the profit three ways. However, as this scene goes on, the two come to the conclusion that Leonardo isn’t quite the genius he was made out to be, as they can’t get him to understand anything they propose (though they don’t explain it well, and it turns out at the very end of the film that he is a genius anyway). Though the last act of the film is probably the weakest, it focuses on getting more to grips with history and figures such as Da Vinci, and again keeps things varied enough to warrant its inclusion, as well as providing a wider context for the film. Overall, I really enjoyed Nothing Left to do But Cry, as it feels it gave the two actors room to really perform at their best, and to give a comedy performance that is always fun and often hilarious. Though it might appear to be a film of little substance, the sheer amount of dialogue and the easily missed attention to detail gives the story as a whole a well-rounded feel, and if  it appeals to your sense of humour, should leave you very satisfied and entertained.

Gas-s-s-s (1970)

Post-apocalyptic comedy all about staying free in a world where the young have inherited the Earth…

SYNOPSIS: A military gas leak has accidentally occurred that has killed everyone in the world over the age of twenty-five. In this new world where the authority and power of the older generation has disappeared, a rag-tag bunch of young, free peace-lovers are travelling across America to find answers in this strange new world: Encountering all sorts of different power structures that have tried to establish themselves, and keeping to their ideals in a world where they are the only thing left…

THOUGHTS/ANALYSIS: Gas-s-s-s (Also know as Gas! or: It Became Necessary to Destroy the World in Order to Save it, which I assumed was a play on the film Dr. Strangelove’s subtitle, but apparently its a play on a quote from a US army officer during the Vietnam war, who when speaking about a village they destroyed, said that it was “necessary to destroy the village in order to save it) is a 1970 post-apocalyptic comedy film set after a gas weapons leak by the U.S. military wipes out everyone on the planet over the age of 25. After the collapse of all authority and governmental structure, the younger generation is left to try and sort things out. At the start, we get a small cartoon which explains the backstory of the gas leak, and a short sequence where we are introduced to two of the main characters, Coel and Cilla, as the opening sequence shows Coel being chased by police officers while wielding a crossbow (This is never really explained…). From there, Coel and Cilla begin driving across America to a supposed place of safety that they have heard about. Along the way they meet some more free-loving youngsters as they all travel across America, occasionally having to deal with groups of youths that are trying to establish control and order in a less “free” manner. I’m speaking very generally because the film doesn’t really focus on a strong story and a driven narrative: It wanders around a lot and never grounds itself in anything, which considering the counter-culture movements this film is aiming at, does work. just like in the film, all authority is gone, and there are just rag-tag groups trying to carve out identities and power in this new world, and the film reflects that in its story and characters, never authoritatively defining them and firmly rooting them with any sort of identity; of course this has a negative impact, as the characters are rather forgettable and it becomes quite difficult to invest in a film/story without any direction or payoff. There is also some random appearances of Edgar Allen Poe riding a motorcycle to warn the group about repeating histories mistakes, and even God has a few lines to say at the end of the film: All of this mixes together to create a very strange experience.

We get brief glimpses about what life is like in this new world. It is generally termed “post-apocalyptic”, but there’s not much of a sense of it as the main characters are generally liberated and free to do what they want until they come across a group that is trying to enforce law and order; as such, any sense on the state of the world in the wider scheme of things is not really mentioned, however you can imagine there isn’t really much happening on a global front now that everyone that was in such a position is now dead. There are a number of these self-proclaimed-authority groups the main characters have to deal with, each representing a different kind of society or governmental control. These include a tyrannical young teen (despot), Hell’s Angels running a golf course (Democracy), a Texas Ranger (who doesn’t realise he is in New Mexico) and most prominently, a college (American) football team (fascism). When each of these types of authority show up, the main characters find themselves being oppressed and drawn into often ridiculous and unwanted situations from which they have to make their escape, again nicely reflecting the attempt by the youth of the time to unshackle themselves from oppressive regimes. Any form of authority that shows up is portrayed as incompetent, brain dead and just plain foolish: The film is primarily a satire on all types of ruling classes/states, and each in turn gets a fair share of mocking. Most of it is far from subtle, such as the cheerleaders chanting Hitler’s name and cheering on fascism, but the film clearly is not designed to be too clever and subtle; it is being very over-the-top to get its points across. This way the film always tries to be fun and silly while also making a serious point to connect its target audience. Perhaps the nature of the film being very quick and ungrounded does give the satire less of an edge, and doesn’t really cut deep enough to make too much of a statement, but I think it would rather be the way it is than to “sell out” and lose some of it’s counter-culture values for a more traditional cinematic feature. nevertheless, it does have a few funny moments, but the comedic enjoyment you get out of this film is going to mostly depend on whether you “get” the movements and culture of the time this was produced.

Gas-s-s-s has very little in the way of budget, and as such the production values are quite dire. Most of the scenes are short and sweet, and barely have any time to sink in before the film moves on to something else. Again, this does add something to it being a counter-culture film that doesn’t quite fit into the traditional Hollywood film. Sandwiched in between all these scenes are songs that are played over shots of parties, montages, and the characters traversing the expansive American landscape. The soundtrack is very raw and feels very unpolished, but that’s not too say it is bad, it captures that rawness and intuitive power that music has when it isn’t overly-produced, and is clearly meant to appeal to its target audience. They aren’t memorable songs per se, but they fit the atmosphere that the film tries to create, and capture a sense of the time which it was produced. It is both a bit punk, and a bit hippy; making sure not to be too narrow in its target audience, and just trying to capture the general feelings of the time regardless of whether you were associated with a particular movement of not. This is a film for the disenfranchised youth of Post-Vietnam America, giving them just what they want: A complete demolition of the corrupt power regimes that brought about the war.

So we come to ask the question: is the film actually any good? The general consensus to that is “no”: Its characters are not developed, there’s hardly any story, and it is just so rough around the edges that nothing really fits together so it just becomes a number of disjointed scenes held together by some appropriate music; it seems that one is hard-placed to find someone that actually liked this film. But as for myself, I quite liked this film. all of the above criticisms are quite true, I admit, but as I was watching this film I just didn’t care about everything that made this a “bad” film in a traditional sense, I was able to just enjoy the ride and the adventure that these young people headed out on, and it is very rare you can get that genuine sense of freedom and liberation in a film when they are over-produced and supported by a large support network: Gas-s-s-s feels minimal, and unshackled, and subsequently able to roam and take the viewer on a journey through this strange new world and confront all these adverse authoritarian figures. If you don’t get that sense, then this film is going to be painful to watch if you want something more tangible to grasp onto. There is no real logic to anything the film does, but it is still strangely uplifting if you can sit back, enjoy the ride, and let the sense of adventure take you…

Practicing some rendering 3D environments in After Effects.

Growth

Just testing things as always.