The Master Key (1945)
Film review #469
Directors: Lewis D. Collins, Ray Taylor
SYNOPSIS: A secret Nazi organisation operating in the United States has kidnapped Professor Henderson in order to force him to finish his “auratron” invention that can make gold out of seawater, and use the gold to fund the Nazis operations. Tom Brant, an FBI agent, hunts down the Nazi spy ring with the help of Detective Jack Ryan and his contacts in the police force to find Professor Henderson and bring the Nazis to justice.
THOUGHTS/ANALYSIS: The Master Key is a 1945 serial released by Republic Pictures and comprised of thirteen chapters. The serial centres around a Nazi spy ring operating in the United States, who kidnap Professor Henderson and force him to complete his “auratron” invention, which can turn seawater into gold, which the Nazis will then use to disrupt America’s industrial might. The only thing standing in the way of their evil plans is FBI agent Tom Brant and his companions in the police department. The plot centres around this Nazi spy ring who identify themselves with a key that has the letter “M” and a number engraved on it. They are given their orders by the “Master Key,” who conceals their identity from even the group. That’s all the “Master Key” of the title refers to, and yes, it’s a rather uninteresting premise, given the keys serve no purpose other than to identify the spies, and are used at the start of each chapter to “summon” the master key who explains the plot. The main focus of the plot is Henderson’s invention which apparently turns seawater into gold, an idea which is sounds ridiculous even by the serial format’s standards. The chapters involve the typical plot structure of the heroes trying to rescue the professor and his invention…the amount of serials that enact this same plot is too many to count, and most of them do it better than this one. The plot has very little direction otherwise, and the back-and-forth between the protagonists and antagonists is painfully slow, and explained through long scenes of exposition that slow the pacing down to a crawl. There’s some cliffhangers that incorporate more impressive large crashes or explosions, but they are usually, and obviously, stock footage or models, and the fallout is never really shown, only explained further with the shot of a newspaper front page and even more dialogue.
The characters are the usual bunch you associate with the serial format: there’s the young male leads who get into the fights, the older men who serve as support, and some token women who get the role of journalist or secretary. The villains likewise are uninteresting and have no character or role other than being henchman. The main villain we never see until the very end, instead giving orders through some sort of radio…thing. There’s constantly very little for the viewer to grasp a hold of, and as such, it is difficult to maintain attention on the serial as a whole. There’s some supporting characters including a bunch of younger street-wise teenagers who help out under the watch of Aggie, a similarly street-wise woman. Again, none of the characters really stand out or do anything of merit.
Released in April 1945, The Master Key was released in the very dying days of World War II. As such, it is difficult to see how relevant the whole Nazi spy ring plot was. The wartime serials typically focused on Japan as the primary U.S. enemy, and choosing the Nazis as the villains is perhaps an odd choice at this time. Each chapter opens up with a disclaimer of sorts saying that the serial is fiction that “could never happen,” and states that it takes place in 1938 before the war even started. I assume this was in order to keep the serial in line with the requires of the regulatory bodies, perhaps setting it before the war was necessary to not give the illusion that the Nazis were still a threat to the US in the then dying-days of the war, and that the U.S. was too powerful for something like this to happen anyway. It’s interesting then that they allowed it during wartime: perhaps they needed people to be on their guard, but on the verge of the Nazis being defeated, the tone changed to saying that there was no way that anything like this could ever happen to America. It’s also interesting that the serial clearly identifies the enemies as Nazis and shows their flags in their hideout: again, most serials previously did not mention the Nazis by name or show any of their insignia, instead showing enemies that were working for a “foreign power” which obviously was meant to be the Nazis. Again I assume the requirements of the film regulators changed at the end of the war, and by being able to identify them and place them in the past, it signified that they were a product of history, and no longer a real threat. Also a small note concerning the invention that can apparently turn seawater into gold: it’s so outlandish and nonsensical even by serial standards that it’s very hard to take seriously.
Overall, The Master Key is a poor showing, released at the wrong time. It has very little direction in terms of story or characters, and the long-winded scenes of dialogue and exposition overshadow any action scenes. It exists at a strange point in history where the Nazis were no longer credible or interesting villains, but also before the post-war serials, which turned either to America’s military war heroes battling foreign spies (implied to be the soviet union) or more sci-fi adventures. As such, The Master Key falls between the cracks and fails to find very little relevancy or entertainment value.
Panther Girl of the Kongo (1955)
Film review #467
Director: Franklin Adreon
SYNOPSIS: Jean Evans, a member of a wildlife foundation, is in Africa taking photos of local wildlife when she encounters a giant crayfish that nearly kills her. She teams up with Larry Sanders, a big game hunter, to stop the creature and discover it’s origins.
THOUGHTS/ANALYSIS: Panther Girl of the Kongo is a 1955 serial produced by Republic Pictures and comprised of twelve chapters. The serial centres around Jean Evans, who works for a wildlife foundation taking photographs of wildlife. She is known as “Panther girl” because…I don’t know, she rides an elephant sometimes and dives off cliffs; the only panther I recall seeing is at the end screen. Anyway, she encounters a giant crayfish that attacks her, but is saved by Larry Sanders, a big game hunter in the area. The two team up to try to stop the monster and unravel the mystery of it’s origins, while trying to stop two outlaws in the area. This is the cornerstone of the plot, alongside Dr. Morgan, a scientist also in the area, has created the giant monster to scare off people from a mine full of diamonds while he harvests them all. Obviously, this type of plot has been done to death, and is perhaps more famously associated with a vast chunk of episodes of Scooby-Doo, meaning it’s hardly an interesting watch nowadays when it’s been done and done again. There’s also not much of a plot besides this, and the heroes trying to stop the giant crayfish monster thing. Trouble is, it doesn’t show up for a good chunk of the serial, and so Jean and Larry are left to do the typical back-and-forth with Morgan’s henchman, as they make plans, set traps, and start fistfights with each other. As it is, the plot rarely has any direction, and the stakes are also pretty low, since again it’s not all for world domination or anything, just a man wanting to mine some diamonds in the middle of nowhere.
Quite rarely for a serial, the main character is a woman. Jean Evans is the “panther girl” due to her prowess in the jungle (even though there’s no panthers that we see), and she actually does something other than being kidnapped. The only other serial that does this to this degree is perhaps Jungle Girl (more on that later). However, when the script requires it, she does revert to the typical screaming damsel in distress, and the male lead swoops in to save her. He also does most of the shooting and punching, but still Jean’s character is central to the plot. Larry is just a typical male lead with no real character. The villains also are just typical henchman and a “mad” scientist who isn’t all that mad, just wants to get rich. The setting of non descript “Africa” and its stereotypical depiction of “tribes” is problematic and presenting the entire continent in this way is a depiction that prevailed for decades thanks to films such as these.
The serial is quite similar to the Jungle Girl serial released in 1941, particularly with regards to a jungle-savvy female lead. This is also not coincidental, as this serial uses a lot of the footage from the serial, particularly the on-location stuff and animals. In 1955, the serial format was really on it’s last legs, and it’s no surprise that the studios wanted to do as little new stuff as possible (although cost-cutting and re-using footage has been a staple of the serial format for years at this point). Since Jungle Girl was released fourteen years before, and theatre-goers probably wouldn’t have seen it or forgotten about it due to the lack of home media releases, and the only way to see older serials would be to watch re-releases at theatres, which I believe were somewhat rare, and even then they really don’t benefit from repeated viewings. The re-used footage is pretty heavy in the finale, when the action sequences are almost entirely made up from this footage, and the transition between the different footage is very awkward and disjointed. For example, you can clearly see “Jean’s” outfit change from scenes as she instantly switches from a miniskirt to swinging from the trees in leggings. The “giant” crayfish is obviously not a giant one, just a regular one filmed amongst miniatures. It’s not particularly convincing, especially when the “giant claw” attacks people with the rest of its body just offscreen. Overall, Panther Girl of the Kongo is a fairly weak serial, in which it’s most interesting aspects are just bits of re-used footage. The plot is non-directional and has fairly low stakes, alongside often feeling it’s just padding for the more interesting re-used footage. The emphasis on the female lead is a more unique aspect, but she is reverted to the typical “damsel in distress” when the plot wants to do a more typical set-up of the female being the victim. The serial is very low on imagination and spectacle, and is emblematic of the serial format in it’s twilight years as the format became unviable with the introduction of televisions in homes.
The Lost Planet (1953)
Film review #466
Director: Spencer Gordon Bennet
SYNOPSIS: Investigating a suspected U.F.O. crash in the mountains, reporter Rex Barrow and photographer Tim Johnson head there to check it out, but find themselves captured and sent to the planet Ergro by scientist Dr. Grood, who sends them to work on the planet to mine minerals and build his inventions to take over the universe. Rex, Tim, captured scientist Professor Dorn and his daughter Ella must overcome Grood’s mind control device and other contraptions as they try to put a stop to his evil plans…
THOUGHTS/ANALYSIS: The Lost Planet is a 1953 serial produced by Columbia Pictures and comprised of fifteen chapters. It is the last science-fiction serial that the studio produced (although the studio itself only produced three serials which could be fully described as “science-fiction”). The serial starts out with reports of a flying saucer crashing on Mount Vulcan, and reporter Rex Barrow and photographer Tim Johnson go to investigate, but end up getting captured along with Ella Dorn, and taken by rocket ship to the planet Ergro, where evil scientist Dr. Grood has taken over the planet to mine a new element that fuels his evil inventions. The plot of the serial revolves around trying to stop Grood and his various inventions, most notably his mind control device, which places prisoners in his power. It’s not only that though: this element that Grood is mining also fuels inventions such as a death ray, mind-reading device, invisibility and a whole host of other sci-fi tropes. Normally just one of these inventions would be enough for a serial to focus on, but here they’re all thrown into the mix. While this helps with keeping the serial varied across its fifteen chapters, it also has the effect of having little focus on any one of them. The one which stands out most is the use of the mind-control/hypnosis device. which is probably the least interesting of them all, and a lot of the plot just revolves around being hypnotised and de-hypnotising certain characters, creating a predictable back-and-forth.
One of the interesting aspects of this serial is that it seems to have been planned to be a sequel to the Captain Video serial. A lot of the same actors return, and the costumes and props are obviously re-used from it (for example, the outfits of the “video rangers” are used for the uniforms of the brainwashed people on Ergro). Whether the idea of making this a sequel was scrapped early on for some reason is anybody’s guess. The characters themselves are an unassuming bunch, and fit the typical parts that these serials provide. Unlike Captain Video though, this serial actually has a female character, although as usual, her only noteworthy aspect is being related to another more important male character. There’s a number of villains that have their own unique personalities and play off against one another, but it never really develops into something remarkable, and the web of villains just becomes confusing and muddled. Particularly as the serial switches between Earth and Ergro constantly.
In terms of production, there’s some decent sets in this serial. The rocket ship looks good, and the space travel sequences between Earth and Ergro look pretty good, considering in 1953 no one had ever been into space. The acting is not great, but there’s definitely worse performances I’ve seen in serials. It might have gotten away with it, but some of the dialogue is pretty dull and loaded with technical jargon that the actors seem to be convinced about saying. One other problem is that both Earth and Ergro look exactly the same; obviously because both are filmed in the California hills like every other serial, and as such this adds to the confusion surrounding the story, as both planets look so alike you don’t know where you are some of the time. Another curious decision about the making of the serial is that there’s none of the typical fistfights you get in nearly every serial: the only time someone throws a punch is when Rex is turned invisible, and so even then, you can’t see him actually throw the punch. This is incredibly strange, most notable because Spencer Gordon bennet, the director, practically invented the choreography for serial fistfights. Maybe they wanted to focus on the scientific inventions and their varied effects for the action, but even then, as mentioned, this is only the third sci-fi serial Columbia made, and it seems a bit out of their comfort zones.
Overall, The Lost Planet is a bit of a mess, and suffers from attempting to do too much. The inventions and sets are cool, but they’re all just props without a decent plot to coalesce around. The stakes are pretty detached as most of the action unfolds on this non-descript planet, and the characters fail to make an impact despite having such a large cast. The lack of action in this serial is very questionable, and the array of inventions don’t really fill in the gap. The whole serial is full of typical set-ups and schemes, but fails to give any motivation for the characters, or direction for a plot to develop.
The Great Alaskan Mystery (1944)
Film review #464
Directors: Lewis D. Collins, Ray Taylor
SYNOPSIS: Dr. Miller, along with Dr. Hauss, has invented a new death ray called the paratron. However, Dr. Hauss is secretly a Nazi spy, who intends to steal the death ray to give to his home country. Jim Hudson, an adventurer of sorts, tells Miller that the material he needs to complete the paratron may be found in the Alaskan mines, and so they set off there, only to have their plane crash on the way…
THOUGHTS/ANALYSIS: The Great Alaskan Mystery is a 1944 serial released by Universal pictures comprised of thirteen chapters. The serial centres around the invention of a death ray called the “paratron,” invented by Dr. Hauss and Dr. Miller. However, they are having trouble completing it. Jim Anderson, an adventurer who knows Dr. Miller’s daughter Ruth, visits and remarks that a rare mineral that can be found in mines in Alaska might be what they are looking for. They all set out on a boat to Alaska, but various machinations are at work, as Dr. Hauss is secretly a Nazi spy, and intends to steal the paratron for his own country, getting the Captain of the ship to aid him in his scheme. The ship sinks and the cast are forced to survive in the Alaskan wilderness until they are rescued. The first two or three episodes are quite varied and dump the cast straight into the Alaskan wilderness doing what you would expect them to di in Alaska: getting caught in the snow, visiting Inuit natives, and such. After chapter three, the serial settles down into a more typical format, with the heroes and villains engaging in a back and forth as they try to get a hold of the paratron and stop each other. In terms of story then, it’s a standard serial affair. The stakes aren’t particularly high as everything revolves around this death ray which while is indeed powerful, doesn’t seem as revolutionary as some other inventions used in these serials (maybe because the idea of the death ray has been done to death). Also this is a wartime serial, and the stakes here probably pale in comparison to the real war going on at the time. There’s also perhaps something to be said for the fact that the setting of Alaska makes the serial feel somewhat removed from any wider context. However, the serial does make good use of the Alaska setting, as we get a decent amount of shots of the wilderness and unique set-ups in the mountains and snow, even if they rely heavily on stock footage.
The cast for this serial is fairly large. However, none of them really stand out, and fall into very typical serial roles. The cast does however, consist of a number of popular and well-known actors of the time, which enhances the serial with some decent performances. You have the typical protagonist, the sole female character, and the elderly scientist, along with the villains and their henchman. There’s also plenty of characters pretending to be helping the heroes when they are the villains. it all adds up to quite a mystery, but never really flows into a coherent experience as all the characters are easy to get mixed up and don’t form their own unique performance.
As mentioned, the depictions of Alaska are perhaps the most unique part of the serial, with plenty of scenic shots, lumberjacking, and wilderness sets that make it look the part. The dialogue is what mainly drives the story though, as with most Universal serials. There’s not a lot of action scenes outside of some classic shoot-outs and chase scenes, and again that is typical of a Universal serial, which usually are less action-oriented than the ones from rival serial producer Republic. Overall, The Great Alaskan Mystery has many of the serials tropes that it needs to, but fails to bring it’s busy story and large cast together to create anything special. It’s got everything it needs, but is ultimately a bit forgettable, leaving it to be remembered as just another average serial amongst the many of the format.
Alien Invasion (2020)
Film review #463
Director: Yun Xiang Lin
SYNOPSIS: Private detective Xu Siwei is hired by Yang Lin to investigate the disappearance of her Father. They are led to a secret underground facility where they encounter a strange portal to an alien world. Barely escaping the alien horrors within, Xu is haunted by strange dreams that relate to this alien species, and heads to the town where Yang Lin was raised to find answers…
THOUGHTS/ANALYSIS: Alien Invasion is a 2020 science fiction film. The film starts off in a secret laboratory where an experiment on an alien portal goes wrong and a creature escapes into the laboratory, forcing it to be sealed to prevent the alien’s escape into the world. Next, we are introduced to private detective Xu Siwei, who after capturing a thief returns to his home to find Yang Lin, a young woman who wants to hire him to find her Father, who went missing fifteen years ago. The two are led to a secret laboratory where they stumble upon the alien portal from the opening of the film. They manage to escape, but Xu starts having recurring nightmares about the aliens, and seeks to unravel the mystery further by visiting Yang Lin’s hometown, where strange things are happening. The plot of the film is inspired by the Cthulhu and other such eldritch horror, as the alien in the opening scenes shifts its amorphous form and impales people with its tentacles. The film is essentially a science-fiction thriller, attempting to build tension in the mystery it creates and the environments in which it is set. The film struggles to do this successfully because the whole tone of the film is very inconsistent: at the start there’s some more action and quirky light-heartedness, as Xu is clearly emulating Benedict Cumberbatch’s portrayal of Sherlock Holmes. The film leans more towards a horror theme as Xu and Yang investigate the laboratory, and more of a slow-paced thriller as Xu and Yang investigate what happened to her parents in the town she grew up. With these constant shifts in tone, the flow of the story is constantly interrupted and it it becomes difficult to maintain engagement in the story.
The film centres around the two main characters Xu Siwei and Yang Lin, who investigate Yang’s father’s whereabouts after he disappeared some fifteen years ago. As mentioned, Xu is clearly ‘inspired’ by Cumberbatch’s portrayal of Sherlock Holmes, but that part of his character doesn’t really factor in after the first act when the film shifts to a thriller and the mystery overshadows any character quirks. Yang has plenty of mystery about her, but there’s nothing too special about her character. The chemistry between the two is alright, but could probably have been pushed further to increase the stakes. Overall they’re pretty standard characters from the genre, but still fairly likable, and supplemented by decent acting on behalf of the actors.
The film is very much on par with other Chinese science-fiction released around the same time in terms of production, which means in terms of the CG is that it doesn’t look too bad, but it also typically looks like someone put it together in After Effects in an afternoon. The colour is one thing that I think stands out, as it is vivid without making the scenes lose their tense atmosphere. The practical effects look pretty daft, particularly the aliens which are obviously people in very silly looking masks that are quite distracting. The fact that we don’t see any of the aliens for a good majority of the movie again breaks the sense of flow, as we are treated to this set-up at the start, then nothing really comes of it for most of the movie. The whole mystery surrounding Yang’s mother and father also never gets a satisfactory payoff, as everything is delivered in cryptic riddles and not explained properly. Overall, Alien Invasion is a fairly standard Chinese science-fiction film of its type, and is unremarkable in terms of story, characters or production. It’s inspirations are obvious, and does little to develop or explore them in any unique way, making it a fairly forgettable experience.#movie#movie review
Mysterious Island (1951)
Film review #462
Director: Spencer Gordon Bennet
SYNOPSIS: A group of soldiers fighting in the American civil war are captured by Confederate forces. They eventually escape on an observation balloon, but find themselves drifting for days, eventually landing on a desert island far from civilisation. However, the island is far from deserted, as a native tribe, pirates, aliens, a castaway, and a mysterious masked man are all up to various schemes on the island, and the new arrivals must find a way to survive against all these different factions and find a way home…
THOUGHTS/ANALYSIS: Mysterious Island is a 1951 science-fiction serial comprised of fifteen chapters. It is based on the novel of the same name by Jules Verne. The serial is set in the year 1865, during the American civil war, where during the siege of Richmond, Virginia, Captain Cyrus Harding is captured by Confederate forces and taken prisoner. he engineers an escape with some other prisoners by hijacking an observation balloon. Unfortunately, a storm sweeps the balloon way off course, leaving it to drift for many days. When it lands, the crew find themselves on a desert island far from any civilisation, with no way home. They quickly find that the island is far from deserted however, and the new arrivals must contend with multiple factions and their schemes. As mentioned, the serial is based on Jules Verne’s novel of the same name, and incorporates a fair amount of the novel’s structure and characters. This is in contrast to a lot of serial adaptations of comics and books, in which usually only one or two main characters are made to fit into the serial format, omitting a lot of the original’s world and set-ups (such as things that would be too expensive to implement). As such, the serial has a good flow and pacing that keeps things interesting across the fifteen chapters. There’s still plenty of tried serial tropes when characters set up elaborate deaths with plenty of opportunity to escape rather than just killing them, but on the whole there’s plenty going on between all of the different factions to keep things varied and interesting. Even through the fifteen chapters, which is at the longer runtime of these serials, it keeps things consistently entertaining.
Let’s talk about the characters in this serial: there is a very large cast, and multiple different factions that are working against each other. Apart from the main cast that wind up on the island, there’s the native population, a castaway that has gone mad, pirates, aliens from the planet Mercury, and a mysterious masked man. In keeping with the novel, all of these characters are from the source material apart from the aliens from Mercury, which were added for the serial. The serial could have easily got away with not adding them, as there’s plenty of characters and plot anyway, but I suppose they were added to keep up with trends, as sci-fi serials and films started to get more popular after World War II had ended and the subsequent years in which war heroes were the protagonists of choice. The alien characters and plot fit in fairly well and are incorporated into the story so that they don’t stick out as a forced inclusion, which is good. While none of the characters are really unique or memorable, they have a consistency in their acting, and you know who they are and who they’re aligned with when they’re on screen. The heroes are perhaps the least interesting bunch, as they’re all typical young male leads without any special talent or occupation. Nevertheless, you will be on their side as they try and make their way home.
Mysterious Island is a nice surprise in the period of the serial format’s declining popularity. Obviously helped by being based off a famous novel helps give the story an interesting set of characters and set-ups, the serial also incorporates its own elements which, while nothing unique, is integrated nicely with the rest of the source material, even if the sound of pirates, American Civil War, and aliens together sounds like an absurd mix. The acting is decent, the sets convey a consistent sense of location, and the story has a good sense of direction that maintains interest and excitement. Spencer Gordon bennet, the director, was a serial veteran by this point, and delivers his usual developed choreography in fight scenes and keeping the pace of the serial steady yet energetic. Overall, Mysterious Island is a surprisingly decent addition to the serial format, at a time when good examples of it were few and far between.
A Great Space Journey (1974)
Film review #459
Director: Valentin Selivanov
SYNOPSIS: The All-Union Children’s Space Competition aims to find three children that will be the first youths in space aboard a new spaceship. Sveta, Sasha and Fedya are chosen from the one hundred thousand applicants to embark on the mission with the sole adult on board, Captain Egor Kalinovsky. After the ship is launched, Egor is found to be sick, and placed in quarantine, leaving the children in charge of the spaceship…
THOUGHTS/ANALYSIS: A Great Space Journey is a 1974 children’s science-fiction film based on the play The First Three, or the Year 2001 by Sergey Mikhailov. The film opens up introducing a space program that will choose three children to be the first young people in space. Out of one hundred thousand applicants from across the Soviet Union, three children are selected: Sveta Ishenova, Sasha Ivanenko, and Fedya Druzhinin. The three are sent into space on the spaceship Astra with the only adult on the voyage, Captain Egor Kalinovsky, who is in charge of the mission. When Egor is found to have a fever, that may spread to everyone else, he is placed in quarantine, leaving the children having to take charge of the ship and the mission. The story is fairly simple, being a film aimed at children, and is fairly light on the details concerning what the mission they are on actually is. Nevertheless, there is plenty that is going on in the film, as the children have to navigate through a fair amount of emergencies and strange situations as their journey continues. Not having an overarching objective hinders any sense of direction and accomplishment the film has, but nevertheless, there’s a good sense of adventure and enough variety to capture viewer’s imaginations. There’s a bit of a twist in the story that explains most things at the end, but I’ll discuss that at the end too.
The three main characters are the children that were chosen through the space program. Each of their characters are developed through flashbacks to when they were undergoing the testing, highlighting their relationships with their parents and each other. There’s also Egor, the only adult on the spaceship, who is placed in quarantine, but can still communicate to the others. One of the children, Fedya, is placed in command of the mission after Egor is quarantined, and it is hinted that he is troubled by something about the mission, but refuses to disclose it. Sasha is very animated, and teaches the other children dance moves to keep them entertained. Sveta is more headstrong and quick to rush into situations (contrasting with Fedya’s more reserved nature) and perhaps has some romantic feelings for Sasha. Between the three children, they have a good range of personalities, and at least one of them will appeal to children that the film was aimed at. Their interactions feel genuine in this extraordinary situation, and are generally likeable in their own way. There’s also a good balance between the children needing to act like adults, and also like children; such as when they complete their task running the spaceship, and immediately go get some ice cream from a nearby fridge.
The ending of the film reveals that the entire mission is actually just a simulation for the children to test their abilities. Fedya initially works it out, but keeps it secret for the remainder of the mission. You might think this is a bit underwhelming and disappointed that the children do not actually go into space…and in fact, that’s why actual soviet cosmonaut Alexey Leonov appears at the end of the film saying this exact thing. He also says that the time will come soon (?) when children will really go into space, and encourages children to continue looking forward to it and chasing their dreams, which is nice. The film also rewards the children for the completion of the simulation with a celebration and fanfare, so it still feels rewarding, and as if the characters accomplished something.
The quality of the sets and production values of the film certainly deserve some mention. The set of the spaceship is detailed, and the shots of the ship travelling through space are quite convincing given the time it was released. the model shots of the spaceship and other things also have quite a lot of detail in them. The whole aesthetic evokes the look of 2001: A Space Odyssey, which I’m sure is no coincidence. Given that the play the film is based on is called The First Three, or the Year 2001, it would certainly there’s a connection, but whether it is an homage, a parody, or knock-off, I’m not sure. The film was also apparently in production for two years, which I think shows in the look of the finished product. There’s also some musical interludes which don’t really fit in too well, but again probably something children would enjoy. Most notably, the song’s were written by a young Alexey Rybnikov, who would become one of the Soviet Union’s and subsequently Russia’s most famous composers, apparently in no small part due to the popularity of the soundtrack of this film.
Overall, A Great Space Journey is a fun little adventure that I’m sure its target audience would have enjoyed. The film is well constructed, and great effort had obviously been taken to make detailed and engaging sets. The characters themselves are relatable and distinct, without being too much of walking tropes, and the story has plenty of things going on in it, even if it lacks direction or purpose sometimes. It packs in a fair amount of detail and adventure in just over sixty minutes, and with some decent editing, always has something interesting going on.
My Girlfriend is a Duplicate (2021)
Film review #457
Directors: Xing Guangjun, Tu Biao
SYNOPSIS: Chen Fei often wakes up after having a dream where her boyfriend Ma Jia tries to choke her. Ma dismisses it, but when Chen gets suspicious about Ma’s work, she discovers a secret laboratory under their home, within which a number of clones of her are being stored. It turns out that she herself is one of these clones of Ma’s girlfriend that he accidentally killed, and that the cloning technology is being sought by a nefarious organisation…
THOUGHTS/ANALYSIS: My Girlfriend is a Duplicate is a 2021 Chinese romance sci-fi film. It is based on the novel “Dragon Fleet” by Tu Biao, who also co-directs this film. The film centres around the young couple Ma Jia and his girlfriend Chen Fei. She is beset by bad dreams about being choked by her boyfriend, which he dismisses as just stress. Ma himself is heavily distracted by his research, which brings in no money for them, and is an added source of stress. When Chen gets curious about the basement of their house, which Ma maintains is just full of junk. When Chen eventually makes her way down there to investigate, she makes a startling discovery: a large number of clones of herself in suspended animation. She eventually learns from one of the other clones that they are all – herself included – clones of the original Chen Fei, who was Ma’s girlfriend before he accidentally killed her. However, he was able to “print” clones of her thanks to the research he has been doing that builds upon his Father’s own research; part of a secret government project to enhance the health of its citizens. The story has a fair amount of different elements in it from romance and science-fiction, so the story has some variety in it. The science-fiction aspect is the most interesting aspect of it, as we learn about the couple’s past. The romance aspect isn’t developed very much, and plays out with beginning as a typical young couple, and never really exploring how this discovery would affect their relationship. When Chen makes the discovery, the film shifts almost entirely to the science-fiction genre, with a lot of the story told through flashbacks. At just over an hour long, we don’t see anything more than these series of flashbacks and a brief follow-up focusing on the consequences of it.
The cast of the film is minimal, with the couple being the main point of focus for relationship drama, and a villain who emerges near the end. There’s some dialogue involving another clone of Chen, referred to as No. 126, and the ‘current’ clone of Chen, but it seems to set her up as her own unique character and then never go anywhere with it. I’m not sure if you’re supposed to empathise with Ma, given that he did kill his girlfriend, and has to continue re-cloning her as the clones have a fairly short lifespan. The ethics of the whole process seems very much unexplored, which seems odd for a science-fiction film, but less odd when you consider which country it is produced in.
In terms of production, the film isn’t up to the standard of big budget Hollywood films: the editing is awkward, and things often move around between shots, which disrupts the continuity. There’s also the rather unconvincing special effects and the wooden acting that doesn’t convey the powerful feelings that this couple are supposedly supposed to have for each other. The most interesting aspect of this film, as with most films produced in country’s with strict censorship programs, is how the film has to do and show certain things to be approved for release. At the start, we are told about a secret government bureau made to improve the health and wellbeing of the Chinese people, but it is done in such a way that it doesn’t make the government look bad or keeping dark secrets from the public. As such, any more details about how secret the bureau is and what it actually did is not addressed. The villain is outlined as being a traitor who wants to steal the Bureau’s research in order to sell it to China’s age-old enemy Japan. There’s also a scene where the villain goes to pray at an altar with what I presume is meant to be the Chinese Premier, to which Ma calls him out to “stop pretending” that he is paying his respects. This again is obviously reinforce the message that the villain is not part of the government and is this traitor that deserves no sympathy. As mentioned earlier, sci-fi films such as this would usually address the ethics of the concept of cloning, and whether it is right to do it. This film completely avoids saying whether it is right or wrong: the only wrong it highlights is selling the secrets to a foreign enemy. It is perhaps important to highlight that the Chinese government is often found at the forefront of cloning research, and any kind of critique could easily be seen as a critique of government research. The trouble is that such explorations of ethics and possibilities of science and technology really is at the core of the science-fiction genre, and in completely avoiding that part of it, this film feels quite pointless and empty.
The Phantom Creeps (1939)
Film review #456
Directors: Ford Beebe, Saul A. Goodkind
SYNOPSIS: An evil scientist named Dr. Zarko has developed inventions that he intends to use to take over the world. With the government and foreign spies constantly trying to get him to get a hold of his inventions, Zarko is uninterested until his wife his killed, when Zarko swears vengeance against the world. Faking his own death, he adopts a new disguise and sets to work. Bob West, a government agent, works together with Dr. Frank Mallory, Zarko’s once-assistant, and journalist Jean Drew to try to foil Zarko’s various attacks and the spies who want his work, while beginning to suspect Zarko is not dead after all…
THOUGHTS/ANALYSIS: The Phantom Creep is a 1939 film serial composed of twelve chapters. Most notable for featuring film icon Bela Lugosi as the villain, it would also be the last movie serial he would star in. The serial starts off introducing Lugosi’s character Dr. Alex Zarko, a brilliant scientist but a bit eccentric as he likes to play tricks on the government agents and foreign spies that are attempting to buy or steal his inventions. He takes everything in good stride until his wife is killed, and the thought of vengeance on the world completely consumes him, and begins using his inventions for evil after faking his own death. Government agent Bob West teams up with Dr. Frank Mallory, who was Zarko’s assistant who wanted him to donate his inventions to the government for the benefit of mankind, and left when he refused. Also working with Jean Drew, a journalist at a national newspaper. Together, they take on the spies that are attempting to get a hold of Zarko’s inventions, and investigate whether Zarko is really dead. One thing that stands out in this serial is all the various inventions that Zarko uses. He has invisibility, an eight-foot robot, robotic spiders that can paralyze people and also a device to put people into suspended animation. Normally, only one of these inventions would serve as the main plot point for a serial, but this serial gives us all of them. While all of these inventions have been the focus of other serials, having them all together like this gives some much needed variety, as different chapters focus on different things, and are used fairly creatively in the various schemes and set-ups. The plot has a lot of back-and-forth with the characters ending up at Zarko’s old home many times, only to be continually come under attack and being surprised when they do so. The story goes round in circles and lacks some direction with so many different things happening, but it’s better than nothing happening, which is what many serials do when they try to stretch very little over twelve to fifteen chapters.
In terms of characters, they are nothing special: there’s all the usual characters from the young action-hero, the sole female etc., but the star of the serial is obviously Bela Lugosi, who gets first billing, and is always the star of every film he is in. His performance is similar to his usual roles (he is the villain in a few serials), but he undoubtedly draws in the audience for those very roles. He also has an assistant called Monk, who plays the role of the idiotic assistant who bungles and sometimes intentionally sabotages Zorka’s plans provides some comedic value, but is mostly there to give Zorka someone to interact with and get his wrath out on.
With all of the inventions and devices that form the backbone of the action, the effects are fairly well pulled off. Of course, the mechanical spiders and the floating objects being carried by an invisible Zorka aren’t convincing nowadays, but there’s definitely worse I’ve seen in the serials of this time. One thing of interest is that there’s not many fistfights or gun shoot-outs, which is usually what most of the action in serials consist of. This serial has all of the inventions to replace that, but also focuses a little more on setting up large scale explosions or vehicle crashes that form the chapter’s cliffhangers. The chapters are also fairly longer than usual, going to about twenty minutes whereas some serials only have fifteen minute chapters with a lot of reused footage from a previous chapter. As such, I think you would get your value for money going to watch this at the theatre in comparison to others. Overall, The Phantom Creeps has a fair amount to offer viewers with its imaginative inventions, and Lugosi’s star quality. The story lacks direction sometimes and the other characters fall flat due to some dull acting and lack of anything unique about them, but overall the serial has enough to make it an above average venture.
Turbo Kid (2015)
Film review #455
Directors: François Simard, Yoann-Karl Whissell, Anouk Whissell
SYNOPSIS: In the post-apocalyptic world of 1997, a boy known only as Kid, who idolises the “Turbo Rider” comic book character, stumbles upon a girl named Apple, who starts following him around everywhere. When the local warlord Zeus starts pressing his terror across the wasteland, Kid discovers the remains of the real Turbo Rider, and along with them, the superhero powers he needs to take on Zeus himself…
THOUGHTS/ANALYSIS: Turbo Kid is a 2015 post-apocalypse sci-fi film, it is an expanded version of the six-minute short film T is for Turbo from 2006. The film is very much an 80’s retro-styled post-apocalypse film that were produced in overwhelming numbers throughout the decade (mostly inspired by the success of Mad Max). The film starts off introducing Kid, a teenage boy who lives in this wasteland by scavenging, and who idolises the comic book character “Turbo Rider.” One day he stumbles upon a bizarre young woman named Apple, who starts following him around everywhere. The pair get caught up in a fight with the local warlord Zeus. The story of the film is fairly straightforward and easy to follow, and while the stakes never seem to be too high, the focus is on the characters and their relations to each other, rather than saving the world. It definitely has that Mad Max feel in terms of the story, with minimal worldbuilding or lore into how everything was destroyed and how people survive in this world, which is more or less in keeping with the genre, which usually gives off an “end of history” vibe in that after the world is destroyed, the question of “why?” doesn’t have much meaning, particularly in comparison to the question of survival.
Kid stumbles upon the remains of the real “Turbo Rider,” and takes his superhero suit and laser blaster thing to become him, and this gives him the power to take on the villains. This also feels very much like another classic 80’s trope: the revenge flick, in which a wimpy teenage kid suddenly gets the power to take revenge on everyone that wronged them. The obscure film Laserblast (though released in 1978) is one that particularly stands out to me. This is also a very sudden realisation that Turbo Rider isn’t just a comic book character, but is apparently a real person in this universe, which is not hinted at all before this reveal. Perhaps it is a sign that a destroyed world has no need to remember superheroes. When Kid puts on the suit, he takes up the mantle of the superhero in this strange new world, and as his connection to other characters and his past is revealed. The cast of characters on the whole have their own personalities and roles, and while none of their characters are particularly noteworthy or unique, you get a sense of the entirety of their character, given that in a post-apocalyptic world, most people don’t have multi-layered personalities and interests, and instead rely on their base instincts to survive.
The 80’s aesthetic extends to the soundtrack, which is very synth-driven, and while the budget is fairly low for the film, the cheaper CGI also feels more suitable to its aesthetic. The majority of the film relies on practical effects, particularly in relation to the use of gore; and there is a lot of gore. This is also very much in keeping with the exploitation and revenge films of the time where those who have wronged our hero often end up being disembowelled or mutilated in some way. There’s a nice contrast between the colourful superhero element of the film and the excessive gore that again reflects an age of cinema when age ratings were all over the place. The practical effects of the gore lead to some pretty fun and absurd situations, particularly when the body parts land on someone’s head and a totem pole of severed torsos start piling up. It’s this sort of thing that makes the film quite creative. Turbo Kid is overall quite minimal in it’s story and world setting, but excels in some ridiculous and over-the-top special effects that create some visceral gore which equally nasty and funny. While there are many films that set themselves up as a love letter to the 80’s, Turbo Kid also follows that trend while not feeling like its not afraid to push itself further, and allowing itself not to be constrained by the usual tropes associated with it. The low budget I think hampers the ability to do something more grand and spectacular with the whole superhero element, but it’s a fairly decent film that has you connecting to the characters and immersing you in familiar tropes that are comfortable and recognisable, but still able to throw in a few surprises.