Sunday, September 21, 2014

Cardboard Science: Attack of the tiny temps!


Dr. Cyclops is one of those old, old, old sci-fi spectacles, and much of the joy it offers is inextricably bound up in its very vintage.  But even though it may be undermined at every last turn by a score that can't stay put, actors who might be reading their lines phonetically, and a distressing lack of gusto in its pursuit of its classical references, this rear-projectionfest may be more resonant today than it ever was in 1940.

Directed Ernest P. Schoedsack
Written by Tom Kilpatrick
With Albert Dekker (Dr. Alexander Thorkel), Charles Halton (Dr. Bulfinch), Thomas Coley (Dr. Bill Stockton), Janice Logan (Dr. Mary Robinson), Victor Kilian (Steve Baker), and Frank Yaconelli (Pedro)

Spoiler alert: moderate

"What is this shit?" you reasonably ask.  "That's no '195,' followed by a digit between 0 and 9."  I answer that, in fact, science fiction movies were made before The Flying Saucer, and would continue to be made after On the Beach, insofar as the latter is notas is sometimes believeda documentary.  Cardboard Science has a wider scope than just one decade, and the Before Times are vaster than you might imagine, stretching from George Melies' mutilation of the moon in 1904 all the way to Ridley Scott's meditation on mortality in 1982, the latter entering this world just a few months before I did.  There's a lot to look at in those eight decadeseven if, with advancing age, you do need to hire some extra help to look at it for you.

Such is the inciting incident of Ernest Schoedsack's Dr. Cyclops, which is an angry sci-fi allegory about temporary employment, albeit probably not on purpose.

We open in the laboratory of Dr. Mendoza, an expressionistic nightmare vision of coruscating emerald light, alternating with pebbled shadows.  Mendoza has built his workshop on the mouth of madness, his own secret radium mine in South America.  He hopes to use it to fight cancer and help disaffected USAF officers hide stolen thermonuclear weapons from satellite surveillance.  But to develop its wealth, he needs assistanceso he has called in his mentor, teacher, and friend, Dr. Thorkel.  (An ethnic Kryptonian surname, it is pronounced "Thor-kel.")

A disagreement erupts over the scope and course of their project, and Mendoza fires Thorkel out of hand.  But Thorkel, having closely studied his Engels and Marx, murders him instead, providing the film its first awesome kill (but not its last); and although it can easily be overstated how gnarly Mendoza's fate is, the briefly-glimpsed optical effect of his face in the throes of death is still pretty righteous.

Sorry, Mendoza.  No superpowers or strange transformations for you.

The radium mine now his, Thorkel turns his radioactive bonanza to his own goals.  But scientific triumph is still beyond the grasp of just one man, especially one old man with failing eyesight.  He has the assistance of local yokel Pedro, who is dumb and submissive and played by an Italian; but this is of course not enough.  So Thorkel sends for the eminent biologist Dr. Bulfinch, his comely student Dr. Mary Robinson, and mineralogist Dr. Bill Stockton.  Bulfinch and Robinson are delighted to be summoned by such a prestigious employer, and equally delighted to participate in such a secretive project; Stockton isn't thrilled, but he goes where the work is.  After a journey of some ten thousand miles, they arrive, accompanied by their mule-driver Steve Baker, and eagerly begin their work.  Bulfinch and Stockton spend twenty minutes analyzing some slides in a microscope, and upon their initial reports, Thorkel's eyes light up behind his coke bottle glasses in epiphany.  Immediately, Thorkel recapitulates the vicious cycle inherent to the system of wholly alienated labor that he's inherited: he closes the project down at once, thanks everybody for their hard work, and kindly tells them to get the fuck out.

As a degreed man in 1940, unused to what would become the dominant mode of labor relations in the 21st century, Bulfinch is absolutely incensed.  Striking a blow for mistreated contractors everywhere, he refuses to budge.  Meanwhile, Stockton would leave, resigned to his personal economic apocalypse, but ambition rekindles within him when he recognizes pitchblende and the million-dollar mine it represents.

A tense but brief standoff develops, and ultimately the entire partyPedro toois tricked into examining Thorkel's radium concentrator; very stupidly, all five of them permit themselves to get locked in the chamber while Thorkel, in his terrifying homemade radiation-suit/bondage-gear, begins the first human trial of his radical new therapy.

It cures... tallness.

One of the weirder things about Cyclops is that Thorkel's plansdespite almost another hour's worth of narrativenever once appear to be the slightest bit more concrete than an unexamined god complex.  (So it is just like real temp work.)  There are reasons one can think of to recommend taking humans and shrinking them, though it seems unlikely any of these reasonslessening the pressures of overpopulation, reducing our environmental impactwould occur to someone in 1940.  (On the other hand, they did occur to the scientist in The Devil-Doll in 1936.)  Whatever his aims, Thorkel does not elaborate upon any of them, as he is concerned solely with the technical success of his seemingly pointless invention.  Studying the miniaturized Bulfinch, he is pleased to see that his physicality, intellect, and terrible personality remain intact; but when he realizes that Bulfinch, and everyone else, are returning to their native resolution, Thorkel resolves to kill them, lest they interfere in his science again.

So begins the obligatory and welcome violent action phase of our cool science fiction story, and Dr. Cyclops joins the ranks of The Invisible Man, Things to Come, and Schoedsack's own King Kong as a junior member of the club of extremely old movies with awesome effects work.  (A very junior member, however; perhaps nothing in all cinema will ever again be so mind-blowing as the how-did-they-do-that? depiction of invisibility in James Whale's ancient ultra-classic.)  It's not only Cyclops' photographic techniques that impress: the giant puppet representing Thorkel's arm is the standout piece of effects engineering, amongst many great examples.  It flexes and twitches, in simulation of human conscious and even unconscious movement, and if it misses realism by a hair or two, it has enormous weight and undeniable existence, and Bulfinch is definitely being physically grasped by something huge.

Behold his mighty (electromechanical) hand!

Cyclops is arguably more consistently convincing than The Incredible Shrinking Man, but this is only because it is less ambitious: it suffers severely in comparison to the more deeply-staged three-dimensionality of Jack Arnold's action (not to even mention, of course, Arnold's and Richard Matheson's far greater emotional depth).  True, the illusion is never broken due to an unfortunate fade into intangibility in Cyclops; yet Schoedsack's film is also nearly flat in any scene that requires Thorkel and his victims to be on screen at the same time, as rear projection is the go-to trick here, not the traveling matte.  However, dynamic motion returns (and total believability is achieved) when the marginalized workers are permitted to scramble about colossal sets and props in their attempt to escape and eventually to destroy their tormentor.

In the extended chase sequence that results, several of our temporary heroes die horribly, but no one ever gouges out one or both of Thorkel's eyes.  This is one of the reasons why Cyclops was never going to be a truly great film.

One of many, unfortunately.  The very first thing you'll notice about Cyclops is that the stilted, nearly-contractionless dialogue appears to have punched up by Lt. Cmdr. Data, and that the acting that delivers these lines, whether by design or by accident, is generally on the level of a very competent high school play.  Thus nearly every single statement is rendered as a pompous declamation by actors who seem to have just read the script.  The sole exception is Pedro, who as a mildly offensive comic stereotype is permitted to be slightly less wooden in his character construction.  (The other non-scientist, Bakerdespite his earthy sub-Bogartnesscertainly doesn't escape.)  Yet, perhaps because this strange style is so uniform, one easily becomes used to it, and whatever it sacrifices in terms of characterization, drama, and believabilitywell, it edges into the legitimately bad, to be honest, but if it is not enjoyable on any other level, it is deliciously camp.  For Thorkel himself, though, Albert Dekker transcends these limitations by fully embracing them: whatever the flaws of his co-stars, his affable mad science is just about pitch-perfect.

Cyclops has great cat acting, tooa must for for the resizing subgenre.

The second thing you'll noticeand you will notice it far morenever aesthetically coheres.  This is the awful, awful score, composed and agglomerated by the film's true villains, its musical supervisors, Gerard Carbonara, Albert Hay Malotte, and Ernest Toch.  Their work ranges from the heights of the merely competent to the abysses of the outrageously inept.  The nature of their compositions suggests either vast disagreements between the three men, or is otherwise evidence of a meeting of like but unsalvageably schizophrenic minds.  Their score fluctuates wildly, unreasonablyfrom the terrifying, to the thrilling, to the whimsical, to the outright fucking goofy, often in the space of a single scene, sometimes in the space of a single shot.  Thanks to these asinine choices, Cyclops is imbued with atrocious lack of tonal consistency, such as the film itself would otherwise never suggest.  Cyclops, as visually constructed, is ever a sci-fi thriller, with notes of horror, and a very good one; Cyclops, as presented with its score, is an adventure movie, a horror movie, and a dumbassed, unfunny comedy, routinely all at once, and on this count it is a miserable failure.  Rarely has score come so close to undoing a whole movie as it does in Cyclops.

The third thing you'll notice is that every character in this movie seems to mightily suck, as a human being; and this will be your final impression of all of them, unless you yourself have been subjected to the indignities of temp work, and so come to identify with the revolt of these diminished professionals.  As this is a hidden and unintentionally-woven thread that I didn't quite grasp myself until sitting down to write, it is only in our post-author world that it can be counted as a legitimate strength of the film.  Viewed from any other perspective, there is not a single sympathetic person in the entire story.  Thorkel is a killer; Bulfinch and Robinson are egotistical trespassers who won't leave an old man in peace; Stockton, in combination with Baker, are amoral thieves, who might actually have been in the early stages of planning Thorkel's murder before they got shrunk; Pedro is the only one you would not hate to know, and he is a moron.  It is therefore impossible to say that this film's homogenous population of total dicks does not do the story some harm.

But, while a rewrite might have been in order, and a rescoring would result in an entirely different movie (even an absence of music would inevitably provide a better one), Dr. Cyclops remains a most enjoyable way to spend 77 minutes, worth watching to witness the illusions even early films could accomplish with their special effects, if for nothing else.  And in the intervening years between its premier and today, it has accrued an added resonance that was almost certainly never present in 1940, but is impossible to miss in 2014.

Score:  6/10

That which is indistinguishable from magic:
  • Thorkel explains the function of his shrinking ray as not dissimilar to the primitive radiotherapy machines already used in those days to treat cancer, but far more accurate and sensitive, capable of destroying cells one-at-a-time in a controlled process.  In other words, people are shrunk by each piece of their bodies being radiologically-annihilated in scale with every other piece. So what happens to all the cellular debris?  Even if it were vaporized, Thorkel's ray would just make people explode.  Some early experiments would have been pretty cool to see, but I guess you can't win them all.
  • Also, Thorkel is highly interested in the continued function of his subjects' nervous systems, but our nervous system can't just be scaled down in this fashion.  There are nerve cells, feet in length, within our bodies.  Where'd they go?  (I won't even bring up the destruction of the brain tissue, its effects being so tremendously obvious.)
The morality of the past, in the future!:
  • Once shrunk, Thorkel provides white handkerchiefs to cover his victims' shames.  I guess it's after Labor Day, because no one likes them; I am not myself enough of a fashionista to know if this rule applies in the southern hemisphere in the first place.  As Dr. Robinson (Ph.D.) is the only female, she is tasked with making all five of them new clothes, by herself, overnight.  She is woman, I guess: hear her sew.
  • One of the action scenes involves throwing lit pieces of wood at a real crocodile.  I'm sure he was fine, but it's still a pretty shitty thing to do.
  • Pedro is certainly less racist than he could be.  That counts for something, right?
  • The sets are monumental and extraordinarily detailed, and deserve to be noted as such again.  I did not mention the shotgun scene, either, which is (other than the Goddamned score) exquisite.
  • Cyclops is one of the earliest films to exploit radioactivity as the scientific gloss upon an essentially supernatural story; and though it is not the first I know of, which is The Invisible Ray (1936), Cyclops is the most fanciful to date.  Interestingly, because it is 1940five years before Hiroshimathe focus in both these films is upon types of radium, not uranium or plutonium, an occurrence that would soon become vanishly rare in atom-centric science fiction.
  • Cyclops is also the first sci-fi film in color, and it looks great.  Technicolor was almost rare enough to be science fiction itself in 1940, though of course many films had been in color beforehandthe earliest I've ever seen myself is The Phantom of the Opera '25, with the two-color red-and-green process deployed for the unforgettable Bal Masque sequence, a scene I'm comfortable calling the best single use of color in a movie till 2001: A Space Odyssey forty-two years hence, and, nope, I'm not overlooking The Wizard of Oz.  (Or Gone with the Wind.)
  • In my list of early SF films with truly sublime effects work, you may have noticed I didn't mention Metropolis.  Congratulations!  You can read.  Actually, the production design is sublime there, but I just really don't like that movie much at all.  One day I'll explain why.

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