In Volume 1, Episode 14 of the Cinefantastique Horror, Fantasy & Science Fiction Podcast, Dan Persons, Lawrence French, and Steve Biodrowski visit the futuristic city of METROPOLIS, the 1927 science fiction classic from director Fritz Lang. The subject of a recent restoration that added over twenty minutes of footage, the film is ripe for reappraisal. Is it even better than before, or is the additional running time a mere marketing ploy to get you to buy more DVDs? Also under consideration this week: a Frank Frazetta obituary, Dario Argento does Dracula in 3D, plus a week’s worth of news and a look at upcoming home video releases.
In this article, taken from the book Fritz Lang (Oxford University Press, 1977) by Lotte Eisner, the sculptor Walter Schultze-Mittendorf reveals how he created the iconic “false Maria” robot for Metropolis.
The Birth of the female robot in METROPOLIS
By Walter Schultze-Mittendorf
Problems of form? No! Expressionism lived. Technological form had been discovered as motif for painting and sculpture. Primary, in this case, was the question, ‘What material?’
I thought at first to have real metal – chased copper plate. That meant searching for and finding a suitable chaser to execute the work. ‘Complicated,’ I thought, when Fritz Lang tried to interest me in the work. But which material really? An accident helped us. A workshop making architectural models gave us decisive assistance unintentionally. I went there because of another job. My attention was drawn to a little cardboard box labeled ‘Plastic Wood – trade sample.’ A postal parcel. This ‘trade sample’ was not interesting for the workshop and was given to me. One trial brought the proof straightaway that the material for our ‘machine creature’ had been found. ‘Plastic wood’ turned out to be a knead-able substance made of wood, hardening quickly when exposed to the air, allowing itself to be modeled like organic wood. Now it needed a procedure that was not very pleasant for Brigitte Helm: namely the making of a plaster cast of her whole body. Parts resembling a knight’s armor, cut out of Hessian, were covered with two millimeters of the substance flattened by means of a kitchen pastry roller. This was then stuck onto the plaster Brigitte Helm, like a shoemaker puts leather over his block. When the material hardened, the parts were polished, the contours cut out. This was the rough mechanism of the ‘machine creature’ that made it possible for the actress to stand, to sit and to walk. The next procedure was furnishing it with detail to create a technological aesthetic. Finally we used ‘Cellon’ varnish mixed with silver bronze and applied with a spray gun, which gave the whole it’s genuinely metallic appearance, so it even seemed convincing when looked at from close range. The work took many weeks however. In those days, films were carefully prepared and thus the realization of a piece of work unusual for a film like this one was ensured. In striking contrast to the present-day German film industry!
The best film of the year is easily the newly restored version of Fritz Lang’s science-fiction masterpiece, METROPOLIS which features twenty- five minutes of missing footage that hasn’t been seen since the movie had it’s premiere in Berlin, 83 years ago. This new footage restores important subplots and makes it clear just how badly METROPOLIS had been butchered by Paramount when they “improved” it for American audiences.
Unfortunately, while the beautifully restored Metropolis is showing at theatres around the country this summer, it appears that in most cities it will be projected at the sound speed of 24 frames per second, even though there is much evidence to suggest the film should be shown at 20 frames per second. In 2001, Enno Patalas of the Munich Film Archive showed a previously restored version of the film at The San Francisco Film Festival and Festival director Peter Scarlet noted, “Metropolis runs 147 minutes at its proper projection speed of 20 frames per second.” Likewise, cameraman Gunther Rittau in discussing the stop-motion effects used for creating the cityscape of Metropolis provides figures that indicate the film should be shown at 20 frames per second. It also seems probable that Lang shot the movie at a frame rate between 18 and 20 fps.
Apparently the main reason the film was transferred to DVD and is currently being shown at 24 frames a second is due to notations on the original score by Gottfried Huppertz. However, according to Stefan Drossler, the current head of the Munich Film Museum, silent films in Germany were routinely shown at frame rates much higher than they were shot at, and projectionists even had to be warned about “speed limits.” Martin Koerber who oversaw the current restoration of Metropolis says, “The premiere of the film took place at the Ufa-Palast am Zoo in Berlin, on January 10, 1927. At the time, the length of the film was 4,189 meters: at a projection speed of 24 frames per second (we can only guess at this today), meaning the showing lasted 153 minutes. …The actual projection speed for the premiere is unclear. Noted on the deleted piano accompaniment for the shortened version is a projection speed of 28 frames per second.”
With such confusion surrounding the proper projection speed, a simple viewing of the film at 24 fps indicates many of the chase sequences and characters appear to be moving too quickly. When seeing Metropolis at the slower rate of 20 fps the characters movements appear much more natural.
However, Metropolis at any speed is a real treat to see up on the big screen, in a print that makes the film look absolutely gorgeous, excepting the 25 minutes of badly damaged 16mm footage that has now been carefully inserted into the film. To celebrate, here is Fritz Lang talking about Metropolis with his friends, Willy Ley, Tonio Selwart and Herman G. Weinberg as recorded and transcribed by Gretchen Weinberg and published in Cahiers Du Cinema in 1965. Fritz Lang places his hands on the coffee table, while looking at a series of photos from Metropolis spread out before him. FRITZ LANG: Do you know that there is a shot of my hands in each of my films? Ah, here is Brigitte Helm in Metropolis. God, she’s beautiful! You know, Metropolis was born from my first sight of the New York skyscrapers in October 1924, before I went to Hollywood where UFA was sending me to study American methods of production. It was terribly hot at that time. While visiting New York I felt it was the crucible of the multiple and confused human forces, with blind men scrambling around in the irresistible desire to exploit one another, thus living in perpetual anxiety. I spent an entire day walking the streets. The buildings seemed to be a vertical veil, very light and scintillating, a luxurious backdrop suspended from the gray sky to dazzle, distract and hypnotize. At night the city gave only the impression of living; it lived as illusions do. I knew that I must make a film of all these impressions. On returning to Berlin, in a burst of energy, Thea von Harbou (Lang’s wife) started to write the script. We imagined, she and I, an idle class living in a great city thanks to the subterranean work of thousands of men on the verge of rebellion, led by a daughter of the people. To prevent this rebellion the head of the city asks a scientist to invent a robot in the image of the girl in question. So the robot, Maria, turns against her people and incites the workers to destroy the machine that is the heart of the city, which controls it and gives it life. I have often said that I did not like Metropolis and this is because I can’t accept today the leitmotif of the message of the film. It is absurd to say that the heart is the intermediary between the hands and the brain, that is, of course, between the employee and the employer. The problem is social and not moral. Naturally, during the shooting of the film, I liked it, if I hadn’t I couldn’t have continued to work on it. But later I started to understand what didn’t work. I thought, for example, that one of the faults was the way I had shown the work of the man and the machine together. You remember the clocks and the man who works in harmony with them? He became, so to speak, a part of the machine. Well, that seemed to be too symbolic, too simplistic in its evocation of what is called “the evils of mechanization.” Now, several years ago, I had to revise my judgment again at the sight of our astronauts in their promenade around the world. They were scientists but still prisoners of the space capsule, nothing else—almost a part of the machine that was carrying them. Lang looks at more photos from Metropolis: the children fleeing the flooded underground city, the robot Maria, the revolt of the workers in the chamber of the machine and the immense stadium used by the children of the ruling class. FRITZ LANG: See, here’s a shot by Shufftan, it’s Eugene Shufftan who did it. You asked me, Willy, what technical problems we encountered. Well, that scene we shot thanks to mirrors. Shufftan scratched the glass on certain parts of the mirror; then he placed it facing the camera lens so that part of the set–constructed to human scale–appeared in the mirror, which also reflected a miniature set representing the machines in motion. These miniatures extended the real set, because it would have been too costly and too complicated to build for such a short scene. This combination of reality and artifice was then filmed (instead of being done in the lab like it would be now), and that was due to the ingenuity of Shufftan. Lang looks at a photo of the cityscape of Metropolis. FRITZ LANG: We constructed a miniature set of the streets about seven or eight feet long, in an old studio with glass walls and we moved the little cars by hand, inch by inch, one frame per movement, filming image by image. We moved the planes and photographed them in the same way. This scene that takes only one or two minutes on the screen took six days to shoot! Ultimately the worse difficulties we encountered were not in the shooting but in the lab. The cameraman had told the technician to develop the film normally. But the head of the lab, knowing the time we had spent filming this short scene, decided to develop it himself. No one had thought it necessary to tell him that for reasons of perspective, the cameraman had filmed the background a little out of focus to give the impression of great distance. The head of the laboratory started to develop the negative focusing the background and not the foreground. The scale of dimensions was then destroyed. I tried to keep my calm. “These things happen, my children,” I said, “Let’s start again.” And we did. (The first thing I discovered about making films is that you never make them alone. Your crew helps you. And I had a remarkable crew.) As for the videophone scene, it was done by projecting a part of the film shot previously in the rear of a telephone apparatus, across a translucent screen, one foot by two. This was the first rear projection and the first transparency. We didn’t realize the importance, the scope of what we had done, for if we had we would have made a fortune patenting a process universally employed today. At the time we only knew that there was a problem that had to be solved. My cameraman, Gunther Rittau, was determined not to fake the shooting; he used his intelligence to arrive at this solution: he synchronized the camera with a projector that was to project the picture of a man on the videophone. That was done with linked rods connected by mobile joints going from the camera to the projector, which were, because of the shooting stage, rather far from each other. Then, when the scene started, the two machines worked at the same time in perfect synchronization. The flooding of the workers city was real, shot in normal scale. Hoses at street level projected water like geysers.
Another camera effect concentrated on creating the robot Maria. The concentric rings of light that surround her and move from top to bottom were in fact a little ball of silver rapidly turning in a circle and filmed on a background of black velvet. We superimposed those shots, in the lab, over the shot of the robot in a sitting position that we had filmed previously.
The city lit up at night was done with an animated drawing. The way we filmed the explosion of the heart machine was one of the first uses of the subjective camera, giving the audience the same impression that the actors feel of the shock. The camera was attached to a swinging pulley on a vertical board that advanced toward the machine on the platform then moved back to give the effect of the explosion.
Sergei Eisenstein visited me in the studio and we had a controversy about the moving camera versus the fixed camera, but we weren’t able to discuss it for long because of my shooting schedule. I planned to see him several days later, but he had already left Berlin and I never saw him again. Someone told me that he did a study on my working methods on the first Dr. Mabuse, which I’m told was published in Russia.
Speaking of camera effects, there are some that can only be done thanks to make-up. For example, in The Testament of Doctor Mabuse, when Doctor Baum meets the ghost of Mabuse at night, he sees on its head the living brain he had dissected that very morning, in order to discover what anomaly had made Mabuse a great criminal. This is how it was done: we had a special skull on which we put glass tubes outlining the form of the brain. The tubes were filled with mercury so the liquid moved whenever Mabuse did. Between the glass tubes the make-up man put bits of white hair, like Mabuse had in real life, which gave the public the impression of seeing his brain through the skin. To enhance the horrible aspect of the spectre, a bit of eggshell was placed over each eye and the cornea was painted in a deformed way. Lang looks at a photo of Peter Lorre in M. FRITZ LANG: Peter Lorre. I discovered him for M, you know. I loved him very much. We were friends for 35 years.
After screenings in Europe, the newly restored version of METROPOLIS (1927), German director Fritz Lang’s silent science fiction classic, made its U.S. debut in Hollywood as part of the Turner Classic Movies film festival. Subsequent play dates are scheduled in Los Angeles, San Francisco, Tampa, Detroit, Ann Arbor, New York, and Cleveland (full schedule below).
Touted as the precursor to films like BLADE RUNNER, METROPOLIS is cinema’s first example of a science fiction extravaganza, using elaborate miniatures and other special effects to depict a futuristic city engaged in a class conflict between the rich, living in their lofty skyscrapers, and the workers, toiling in machinery rooms down below. Director Lang himself thought the scenario (by his wife, Theo Von Harbou) was somewhat simplistic, yet the film’s visual power has retained its reputation as a classic.
METROPOLIS was the subject of a previous restoration, currently available on DVD from Kino Video, but even that version was incomplete. Two years ago, additional lost footage was discovered in South America and restored by the Munich Film Museum. The footage, part of a 16mm duplicate print, amounted to 25 minutes (approximately one-fifth the film’s running time), including entire sequences – such as the original ending – not seen since the debut in Berlin in 1927. Perhaps equally important to the missing footage was the fact that the 16mm print provided a reliable guide for editing METROPOLIS back into something resembling its original form.
The restoration took one year, costing approximately $840,000.
Hopefully, the restoration will iron out some of METROPOLIS’s narrative weaknesses. The news of a new ending is particularly interesting, as the conclusion of the film (as it has been seen for decades) is somewhat problematical: basically, the conflict is resolved by a hand-shake between representatives of the two factions, and as Philip Strick said in his book Science Fiction Movies, you wouldn’t trust either one of them after the fade out.
In any case, METROPOLIS is one of the most important films in the history of science fiction cinema, and in these days of home video domination, any excuse to get the film back on the big screen is a good one. Theatrical engagements will take place in the following venues:
Film Forum in New York, New York – Opens May 7
Laemmle Royal Theatre in Los Angeles, California – Opens May 14
The Cleveland Museum of Art in Cleveland, Ohio – May 21-23
Ken Cinema in San Diego, California – opens June 4
Music Box Theatre in Chicago, IL – opens June 4
Coolidge Corner Theatre in Brookline, Massachusetts – – opens June 4
Lagoon Cinema in Minneapolis, Minnesota – opens June 4
Oklahoma City Museum of Art in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma – June 11 only
Chez Artiste in Denver, Colorado – opens June 11
Detroit Film Theatre in Detroit, Michigan – June 11-20
Senator Theatre in Baltimore, Maryland – opens June 11
Capitol Theatre in Arlington, Massachusetts – opens June 11
West Newton Cinema in West Newton, Massachusetts – opens June 11
Robinson Film Center in Shreveport Louisiana – June 18-24
Comell Cinema in Ithaca, New York – June 26
George Eastman House in Rochester, New York – June 26-27
Pacific Cinematheque in Vancouver, British Columbia – July 1-6
Zeitgeist Arts Center in New Orleans, Louisiana – July 5-7
Cinema 21 in Portland, Oregon – opens July 9
Avalon Theatre in Washington, D.C. – opens July 9
San Francisco Silent Film Festival in San Francisco, California – July 16
Cleveland Cinematheque in Cleveland, Ohio – July 16-17
Lake Worth Playhouse in Lake Worth, Florida – July 23-29
Mos’ Art Theatre in Lake Park, Florida – July 23-29
Tivoli Theatre in St. Louise, Missouri – opens July 23
Ritz at the Bourse in Philadelphai, Pennsylvania – opens July 23
Bijou Cinema Bistro in San Antonio, Texas – July 27 only
Festival Fantasia in Montreal, Quebec – July 28
Tivoli Cinemas in Kansas City, Missouri – opens August 6
Wexner Center for the Arts in Columbus, Ohio – August 6-7
Plaza Classic Film Festival in El Paso, Texas – August 8 only
Living Room Theatres in Portland OR – August 6-12
Castro Theatre in San Francisco, CA – August 13-15
Lake Worth Playhouse in Lake Worth, FL – August 20-26
Tampa Theatre in Tampa, Florida – August 29
Normal Theatre in Normal IL – September 2-5
Museum of Fine Arts in Houston TX – September 2-6
Michigan Theatre in Ann Arbor, Michigan – September 12 & 14
Jacob Burns Film Center in Pleasantville NY – September 17-23
Proctor’s Theatre in Schenectady, New York – September 26-27
Milwaukee Film Festival in Milwaukee, Wisconsin – October 1 & 3
Memphis Brooks Museum of Art in Memphis, TN – October 4
Landmark Midtown Art Cinema in Atlanta, GA – October 1-7
University of Nebraska-Lincoln (Ross Media Arts Center in Lincoln NE – October 1-7
Landmark Midtown Art Cinema in Atlanta, GA October 1-7
Dartmouth College (Hopkins Center) in Hanover, NH – October 15
Rockport Music in Rockport, MA – October 17
The State Theatre in State College, PA – October 17
Pacific Film Archive in Berkeley, CA October 19
UC Santa Barbara in Santa Barbara, CA – October 21
SIFF Cinema in Seattle, WA – October 21-28
Ragtag Cinema in Columbia, MO – October 22-28
Ziegfeld Theatre in New York, NY October 22 through November 4
6 Points Theatre in Jacksonville, FL – October 25-27
Bryn Mawr Film Institute – Bryn Mawr, PA – October 26
Real Art Ways in Hartford, CT – October 30
George Eastman House in Rochester, NY – November 5
The Guild Cinema in Alburquerque, NM – November 6-7
Cornell Cinema in Ithaca, NY – November 6
The Cleveland Museum of Art in Cleveland, OH – November 6
Roxy Theatre in Potsdam, NY – November 8
Olympia Film Society in Olympia, WA – November 12
The Loft Cine in Tucson, AZ – November 14
Calgary Cinematheque in Calgary, Alberta – November 18
Savannah Collect of Art & Design (Trustees Theatre) in Savannah, GA – January 8
McNay Art Museum in San Antonio, TX – February 24 at 6:30pm
You can check for additional theatrical play dates here.
The restored METROPOLIS was released on DVD and Blu-ray in November 2010.
This week, the Cinefantastique Horror, Fantasy & Science Fiction podcast turns its eyes back upon two classics of yesteryear, from renowned German master filmmaker Fritz Lang: WOMAN IN THE MOON (1929) and THE TESTAMENT OF DR. MABUSE (1933). The first is an ambitious early example of serious cinematic science fiction; the later is a masterful crime thriller with overtones of the supernatural. Dan Persons, Lawrence French, and Steve Biodrowski also delve into the week’s news and home video releases.
Our nearest neighbor in the Solar System, the Moon has long inspired the imagination of humanity. Everyone has heard of “the Man in the Moon.” In ancient cultures, lunar eclipses were feared as portents of disaster. The phases of the Moon were thought to have astrological significance, influencing the behavior of people on Earth – a belief that persists to this day (hence the word “lunatic,” derived from “lunar”). In 1935, the Great Moon Hoax convinced many people that life had been discovered on the lunar surface, at around the time that astronomers were establishing that the Moon contained no water or atmosphere – the essentials for life.
Today, the attraction of the Moon still pulls on in our hearts and minds, as evidenced by the literally hundreds of movies that use the word in their titles, usually for romantic and/or poetic purposes (e.g., Mizoguchi’s masterpiece UGETSU MONOGATARI, which translates as “Tales of Moonlight and Rain”). However, thanks to the Apollo landing, every school child knows that the Moon is a barren wasteland, uninhabited by aliens; this undermines some of its potential for science fiction adventure stories (after all, if the place is not the abode of Moon Men intent on destroying the Earth, what good is it?). When it comes to cinefantastique, use of th word “moon” in the title is more likely to represent an excursion into lycanthropy (FULL MOON HIGH, MOON OF THE WOLF, etc) than a journey to outer space. Yet science fiction filmmakers still continue to find occasional use for the orbiting satellite, most recently in MOON, which opens this weekend. What follows is a look at some of the more memorable examples of Moon-based movies…
Moon movies really kick off with A TRIP TO THE MOON, George Melies short and whimsical 1902 film. The story combines elements of Jules Verne and H.G. Wells: as in Verne’s From the Earth to the Moon, the astronauts ride in a space ship shot out of a canon; as in Wells’ First Men in the Moon, the Earth explorers discover crustacean-like Moon Men. But if Melies owes his humorous tone to anyone at all, it is to Edgar Allan Poe for his satirical hoax “The Unparalleled Adventure of One Hans Pfaall,” which describes a trip to the moon in a hot-air balloon. Fantasy rather than science fiction, Melies’ film has a group of men in business – rather than space – suits landing on the lunar surface, where they breathe without trouble about the lack of atmosphere; their umbrellas take root when stuck in the ground; and the annoying moon men go up in a puff of smoke when struck. The primitive quality of A TRIP TO THE MOON date it somewhat (Melies films all scenes in master shots, never cutting to different angles), but the film retains its charm over a century later. In 1929, the great Fritz Lang gave us WOMAN IN THE MOON, which is probably the first feature film to deal with the subject of lunar travel in a serious manner. The lengthy story (the restored version of the film runs over two hours) involves the rivalry during a mission that takes place following the discovery that large quantities of gold exists on the moon. Unfortunately, the silent film was drowned out by the clamor of the new sound era of film-making. Although neglected, at least one writer believes WOMAN IN THE MOON is “quite an amazing film” that “shows Lang at the height of his powers.” With Lang’s WOMEN IN THE MOON overlooked, the first film that earned recognition for offering a believable portrait of space travel is George Pal’s 1950 production of Robert Heinlein’s novel, DESTINATION MOON. A meticulous piece of work that stuck closely to the known science of its day, DESTINATION MOON is a landmark in terms of special effects and production design (including a wonderful panoramic painting of the lunar scenery by noted astronomical artist Chesley Bonestell); it is also, unfortunately, slightly dull. Without a threat of menacing aliens, the moon is not necessarily very interesting, so the film lacks drama, coming across a bit like a psuedo-documentary. Still, you have to give the film credit for the integrity of sticking to reality instead of drifting off into fantasy.
DESTINATION MOON was followed up by 1953’s less well-remembered PROJECT MOON BASE, which was also scripted by Heinlein. Meanwhile, the low-budget ROCKETSHIP X-M(1950) just missed the Moon: its rocket ship (containing Lloyd Bridges, among others) veers off course and lands on Mars instead – quite an impressive accomplishment. Also in 1953 was the immortal camp classic CAT-WOMEN OF THE MOON, which is more or less summed up in its title – what more could you possibly need to know?
In 1958, Hollywood stars Joseph Cotten and George Sanders went FROM THE EARTH TO THE MOON. This competent but mostly forgotten film version of the Jules Verne novel suffered a bit from the passage of time between the source material and the adaptation. Verne often made uncanny predictions about the possibilities of air travel and space flight (From the Earth to the Moon predicts that America is the country with the ambition and ability to reach the moon, and based on the fact that the rotation of the Earth would provide an extra boost to any rocket launch, Verne picks Texas and Florida as the likely launching sites.) However, the method of travel – shooting a space ship out of a canon – would instantly kill any astronauts on board.
The same year as FROM THE EARTH TO THE MOON, Hollywood gave us MISSILE TO THE MOON, about a pair of escaped convicts who are forced by a scientist to pilot the titular ship – the plot twist being that the scientist is actually a moon-man who wants to get back home. 1963 gave us THE MOUSE ON THE MOON, a political satire directed by Richard Lester (who would go on to direct A HARD DAY’S NIGHT). This sequel to THE MOUSE THAT ROARED (in which a tiny country named Grand Fenwick declares war on the U.S. in the hope of being rebuilt with American dollars after being defeated) depicts what happens when Grand Fenwick decides to enter the space race: Not only do they win; they end up rescuing the astroanut teams from the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. The film suffers a bit from the absence of Peter Sellers (who played multiple roles in ROARED), but Ron Moody, Margaret Rutherford, and Terry-Thomas do a good job of filling his shoes. The New York Times’ film critic Bosley Crowther called the result “a blithely outrageous spoof” full of “daffy situations and some very droll dialogue.”
Hercules battled the Moon Men in 1964’s Italian import HERCULES AGAINST THE MOON MEN. Also that year, Charles Schneer produced FIRST MEN IN THE MOON, an adaptation of the novel by H. G. Wells. The film is basically a showcase for Ray Harryhausen’s stop-motion special effects; nevertheless, it retains the Victorian setting and even some of Wells’ ideas, thanks to a script co-written by genre expert Nigel Kneale (best known for his Quatermass serials on British television). With NASA’s real-life Apollo missions only five years away from actually reaching the moon, the film updates much of the science (eliminating the flora on the lunar surface and giving the astronauts space suits made from deep sea-diving equipment), and the story is bracketed by scenes set in contemporary times to help make the period story more palatable to a modern audience (a technique later used in Titanic). Still, for all its virtues, the film feels a bit slow and episodic. Fortunately, Harryhausen’s work is splendid as always, and Lionel Jeffries is quite an amusing incarnation of Wells’ absent-mind professor, Cavor. If 1967’s ROCKET TO THE MOON feels a bit like FROM THE EARTH TO THE MOON, the reason is that both films were inspired by the writings of Jules Verne. This time we get stars Burl Ives and Troy Donahue instead of Joseph Cotten and George Sanders, in a story about real-life P.T. Barnum financing a trip to the Moon. Terry-Thomas (of THE MOUSE ON THE MOON) and Lionel Jeffries (of FIRST MEN IN THE MOON) lend their support to the proceedings. This independent production from euro-sleaze merchant Harry Alan Towers (also known as THOSE FANTASTIC FLYING FOOLS) was meant to rival lavish productions like THOSE MANGIFICENT MEN IN THEIR FLYING MACHINES. DVD Talk’s John Stuart Galbraith opines that the film is “shamelessly derivative but entertaining,” adding that it “wears thin during its aimless middle section, but has enough amusing ideas and performances to sustain it through to the end.” One year later, Stanley Kubrick gave us 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY. Although only the film’s second section deals with the moon, this has to be considered the greatest “moon movie” ever made, thanks to the utterly convincing special effects and the beautiful classical music used to lend a balletic sense of beauty to space travel. Not only do we get a trip to the moon; we also get a tour of the lunar surface, where TMA-1 (Tycho Magnetic Anomaly) has been discovered – a strange monolith buried beneath the Earth’s surface, presumably for humanity to discover when they have achieved the first step in space travel. The film’s depiction of space travel still ranks as the best and most scientifically accurate ever seen on screen. As if to offer a contrast between science-fiction-based-on-fact and science-fiction-as-all-out-fantasy, 1968 also offered us DESTORY ALL MONSTERS, in which Godzilla, Rodan and Mothra fight off an alien race from the Moon. The depiction of space travel is the stellar opposite of Kubrick’s – completely unbelievable but completely exciting, in a boy’s adventure kind of way; if you ever dreamed of being an astronaut flying through space and defending the Earth from aliens, this is probably exactly how you imagined it. Unfortunately, the real lunar landing eclipsed this type of adventure-fantasy, and “Moon Movies” – unable to compete with reality – began fading from the screen.
In 1969, Hammer Films, a company usually associated with horror movies, tried their hands at science fiction with MOON ZERO TWO. Despite opening credits music that deliberately evokes SPACE ODYSSEY, the film is actually more of a melodrama involving a salvage expert on the moon who gets mixed up with some criminals who hijack a mineral-rich asteroid and crash it onto the lunar surface.
Ten years later, MOONRAKER never reached the lunar surface. Instead, James Bond battled bad guys on an orbiting space station. Although the film is pretty much a self-spoof, filled with laser beams and tongue-in-cheek action-adventure, the outer space special effects are pretty stellar, with an eye for as much accuracy as possible. Another film that tried eat its cake and have it too was SUPERMAN II.Though mostly Earthbound, the film featured an early sequence of escaped super villains murdering astronauts on the surface of the Moon. The comic book nature of the material gave the filmmakers license to ignore reality in order to suit the needs of creating an exciting sequence that would not be filmed with total realism, but the production design and special effects are clearly influenced by the real-life lunar landings, with recognizable space suits and a lunar rover. AMAZON WOMEN OF THE MOON (1987) is an anthology of comedy sketches, along the lines of THE GROOVE TUBE, TUNNEL VISION, and KENTUCKY FRIED MOVIE. The film takes its title from one of the longer episodes, a spoof of bad sci-fi flicks like CAT-WOMEN OF THE MOON. Stern-faced actor Steve Forrest sends up his tough-guy looks as the leader of the mission, and Sybil Danning makes an attractive Queen of the Moon. A GRAND DAY OUT (1994) is one of the few “Moon Movies” (besides SPACE ODYSSEY) to earn an Academy Award nomination. The stop-motion film, written and directed by Nick Park, was nominated in the animated short category but lost to Park’s other film, CREATURE COMFORTS. GRAND DAY OUT introduced the world to the delightful duo of Wallace and Gromit, a somewhat dense human and his considerably sharper canine companion. In their debut, Wallace runs out of cheese and gets the bright idea that he can find a ready supply on the Moon; being an inventor, he whips up a rocket ship in his basement, and off they go. Unfortunately, the lunar surface is not as palatable as they hoped, and they encounter a somewhat threatening robot, but everything works out well in the end. The film’s linear storyline is primitive compared to later Wallace and Gromit films, but the humor and charm make this fanciful excursion a wonderful fantasy in the tradition of Melies A TRIP TO THE MOON.
With the Moon no longer quite so mysterious as it once was, the number of films that focus their attention on the lunar surface has dwindled. Earth’s lone satellite is only humanity’s first step into outer space, and filmmakers who seeking space invaders, alien cultures, and strange new worlds must look further out into space. When science fiction franchises like STARK TREK imagine a future when travel to the far reaches of the galaxy is possible, the Moon starts to lose its lustre.
That may be changing, thanks to the passage of time since Neil Armstrong made the giant leap for mankind onto the lunar surface. For those too young to have been impressionable children during that era, the lunar landing may seem less like a piece of history and more like an incredible legend. As Duncan Jones, director of MOON, said in a Q&A posted here:
The thing about the Moon is that I was born after the Apollo missions went to the moon. For a lot of our generation, it’s something very mysterious and slightly unbelievable. Even if you know that humanity has been to the moon, it feels a bit mythic and legendary; it doesn’t feel like something we can relate to. The fact that all of us can look up and see the moon at night…it’s like this place that none of us gets to visit. So I think there’s a mystery there. Even if we know everything about it from a scientific basis, there’s still something so mysterious about it. It’s the obvious place to set science fiction because it’s the first step….
Here is some astounding news. Although METROPOLIS has recently been restored by the Munich Film Museum, many of the lost scenes from the 3 hour version that premiered in Berlin in 1927 were still missing. Now, even more of the missing scenes have been found in South America. A report from the German newspaper Die Zeit outlining the details of this sensational discovery (along with some unrestored shots from the missing scenes), can be found here. Read More
Fritz Lang’s science-fiction classic Metropolis is set for a 21st century remake, thanks to producers Thomas Schuely and Mario Kassar.
Alexander producer Schuely has now acquired the rights to update the silent masterpiece.
“With the overwhelming role technology plays in our daily lives, the growing gap between rich and poor, including the gradual elimination of the middle class, the story of Metropolis is a frightening reflection of our society that takes place in an all too possible not too distant future,” he told Variety.
Schuely told the industry newspaper he is negotiating with some of the world’s biggest directors to helm the picture, which should begin shooting in 2008.
I imagine lots of great filmmakers would love to get their hands on METROPOLIS, but I’m not sure we really need a remake. Sure, the themes are relevant, but many of them were already recycled in BLADE RUNNER. (Over here, Cyberpunk review makes the case for considering METROPOLIS the grand-daddy of all cypberpunk cinema.)
Despite my reservations, I can understand the temptation of wanting to recreate the old silent classic with modern special effects technology. The results – in color and widescreen, with stereophonic sound – could be absolutely spectacular.