Film Review: Sci-Fi Spectacular proves science fiction applies to everyday life

CHICAGO—This past weekend, Chicago’s Music Box Theatre held its first Sci-Fi Spectacular. The beautiful movie house resembles a half-size version of the Coronado Theatre and hosts film festivals regularly. One price covered the whole day, a 16-hour futuristic frenzy that drew people of all kinds.

Watching the aisles as people came or went, one could see the elderly librarian and her husband, or the fat guy in the “Plan Nine from Outer Space” T-shirt you could smell before he passed, even the emo kids with their skinny black pants, studded belts and wallet chains. M.C. Rusty Nails put together an interesting line-up of features and shorts, spanning sci-fi filmdom from 1902 to 2005.

The shorts included Warner Bros. classic cartoons with Marvin the Martian, bringing everyone back to the days of Saturday morning cartoons. Who doesn’t remember Daffy Duck fighting Marvin for control of Planet X? Rusty managed to dig up the first episode of the serial “Flash Gordon,” which gets my vote for the most unintentionally hilarious film of the day. For those of you spoiled by modern special effects, may I introduce you to the days of pre-computer effects? Everyone’s heard about wires and miniatures; less technologically-savvy filmmakers use them today. Not many modern-day filmmakers put extra appendages on iguanas hoping to conjure the image of a scary alien beast. It may have scared the pants off my parents, but I enjoyed it just for the nostalgia.

The features of the day began with Metropolis, Fritz Lang’s classic silent film about a futuristic society divided between thinkers and workers. Forbidden Planet followed; the story of a group of scientists who almost all perish, and the search for what happened to them on the mysterious planet.

I arrived to catch the last act of the newest feature on the bill, 2005’s Serenity, the story of a band of rogues hiding from an ultra-violent group that rules their universe. The film mixes sci-fi, humor and gore into an interesting tale of what happens when good intentions go bad.

Two more recent classics rounded out the evening—Terminator and Starship Troopers. An obscure selection played before the former, a still-shot French short titled La Jetee. I first experienced this film in college and fell in love immediately; it’s hard to find, but worth the search. This brilliant work inspired the long form script for 12 Monkeys, a far more inferior film.

The Day the Earth Stood Still garnered top billing for the day, fueled by a visit from one of the film’s stars, Patricia Neal. The film follows an alien craft that lands in Washington, D.C., and the events that transpire with the occupants. One spaceman stands guard outside the craft, armed to destroy any threat. The other alien, Klaatu, tries to warn the humans of an impending disaster, but suffers a gunshot wound before he can speak. He escapes his room at Walter Reed Hospital (cue the laughter), and lives among a human family for a short time. Klaatu disguises himself as a Mr. Carpenter, and befriends the family’s youngest. Neal plays the boy’s mother, a cautious but trusting woman who learns the secret Klaatu has to share with her world.

Neal took the stage following the film, and spoke with Foster Hirsch, a film professor from Boston College. “People flew in from New York to meet her,” M.C. Rusty Nail commented.

As Neal said about making the film: “It was great fun. We laughed all the time.”

Neal comes from the old Hollywood tradition of studio contracts, when actors had little choice in what films they starred in. She spoke highly of Michael Renny and Billy Gray, the actors who played Klaatu and her son, respectively. Neal suffered a series of strokes not long after the filming, damaging the parts of her brain involved in memory. She covered as best she could, praising the film and its message, saying, “I think it’s a beauty, the best sci-fi film ever made.”

Audiences who have not seen the film will get a kick out of some of the more dated references. My vote for most hilarious came when two doctors discussing Klaatu’s condition wonder about his people’s advanced medicine practices…just before they light their cigarettes. Hopefully, humor like this will remain in the forthcoming remake, slated for release in early May 2008 with Adrien Brody playing Klaatu.

Say what you will about science-fiction and its followers, I enjoy the genre. It’s such a cliché, but the fans are the heart and soul behind it. They clapped for Flash Gordon during the opening titles and booed the bad guy. During the entire time I was there, I heard not one cell phone ring in the full house.

Rusty, the festival’s founder, noted: “It was a wonderful day and evening. I got to meet one of the greatest actresses in cinema history and escort her down the aisle to a standing ovation. We sold out of tickets, and I believe her (Neal’s) visit cemented the success of the event.”

The stories told in these classic sci-fi films live on to this day, and, in some cases, outlive the world of advanced technology in which the story takes place. Science fiction uses abstract times, places and people to tell the stories that unite us all. Like a parent hiding peas in mashed potatoes, the genre hides tales of morality and humanity beneath a futuristic veneer. The films featured shared tales of tolerance and acceptance, two things in short supply in our world today.

Science fiction may deal with worlds and technologies unknown, but the underlying messages behind these films apply to everyday life. I leave you with advice for today from 1951’s The Day the Earth Stood Still: “The universe grows smaller every day, and the threat of aggression by any group, anywhere, can no longer be tolerated. There must be security for all, or no one is secure. Now, this does not mean giving up any freedom, except the freedom to act irresponsibly.” And finally, (Klaatu), “I am fearful when I see people substituting fear for reason.”

from the May 2-8, 2007, issue

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