Monday, June 6, 2016

Cardboard Science: Do you think you'll be able to respect a husband that probably pulled the scientific boner of all time?


As we briefly pause in our retrospective on the science fiction of George Pal, let's instead take a glance at something a little lower-fi: namely, Kronos, the 1957 sub-classic that must be counted as one of its decade's most successful attempts at depicting a full-scale alien apocalypse.

Directed by Kurt Neumann
Written by Lawrence Goldman and Irving Block
With Jeff Morrow (Dr. Leslie Gaskell), Barbara Lawrence (Vera Hunter), George O'Hanlon (Dr. Arnold Culver), and John Emery (Dr. Hubbell Eliot)

Spoiler alert: moderate

Kronos is absolutely emblematic of science fiction in the 1950s.  In some ways it's the most generic film of its genre and its era—but mostly in a really good way.  So: the film's plot turns upon an alien invasion, and not only does this invasion manifest as a giant monster rampaging across the countryside; the movie also offers a fun-sized body snatcher plot as a side dish.  In terms of its protagonists, it features a soulful science hero as well as a spunky-yet-subordinate female lead, whose primary concern, of course, is getting the science hero to slow down long enough to marry her—although she's not so idiotically committed to this goal that she doesn't recognize that the whole "salvation of the Earth" thing must come first.  Furthermore, it offers a Big Moral in the midst of all its sci-fi romping; and that Big Moral specifically regards our modern civilization's capacity to exhaust the planet's natural resources.  Yet this message is thinly spread atop the film, and you can easily take it, or even more easily leave it, as you please.  Oh, and it has not one, but two countdown sequences—and, somehow, even one after the other, they both manage to be pretty legitimately tense.  And, yes, in Kronos, someone cries out, "Great Caesar's ghost!"; and you can tell that they honestly mean it.

Finally, Kronos is a film of significant directorial competence, one that might be chock full of stock footage but which also cuts that stock footage into its original images without routinely giving the impression either that it's padding the runtime, or that the movie was unforgivably cheap.  (But then, as an independent production financed by Regal Films, it sure as hell was not very expensive.  It took only two weeks to shoot, and half the reason it even existed in the first place was because Regal had a contract with 20th Century Fox to churn out B-picture content in breathtaking CinemaScope—or rather, black-and-white "RegalScope".  You see, a great number of angry theater-owners, who had been burned during the 3D boom-and-bust cycle of 1953-55, had an urgent need to be assuaged that 'Scope was actually here to stay, and therefore that all the renovations necessary to project 'Scope movies weren't just giant wastes of their money.  Fox arranged for Regal Films to fill that void, and so they did, with dozens of Westerns and a few SF pictures, all filmed in black-and-white 'Scope for pennies on the dollar of the bigger Technicolor spectacles.  You may not know this about me, but I love me some black-and-white 'Scope—which is why it's such a terrible shame that Kronos doesn't have anything like a proper DVD, the Image Entertainment discs having been pressed when widescreen televisions apparently didn't exist, the result being a letterboxed image playing inside a 4:3 frame.  So it goes, I guess.)

Anyway, it is a genuinely competent film, but not, however, a particularly stylish one—except that somebody decided that their monster would be incredibly, hilariously awkward, and thus gave it the basic form of a giant alien refrigerator which, like its smaller terrestrial counterparts, does not have any conventional means of locomotion.  Yet the monster, of course, does have an awful great need to move (you can't rampage standing still, you know).  Meanwhile, the same somebody who came up with Kronos' design must've also correctly intuited that simply putting wheels on the monster would just look profoundly lame.  And so they arrived at a more ingenious solution: they decided that the monster would move by way of cel-animated hovering—something that I believe we're supposed to understand represents the five cylinders upon which it rests rising and falling, and which is so wonderfully stupid that I'm glad it has only ever been depicted in this very film.  You don't buy it for even one second, but you kind of love the idea of it, anyway.

Altogether, then, Kronos is the kind of B-movie that gives B-movies a good name.

Our story begins in the observatory of Drs. Leslie Gaskell, Arnold Culver, and Hubble Eliott.  Gaskell is the actual astronomer; Culver the computer geek who calls his colossal vacuum-tube calculator "Suzie," and takes the feminization of a piece of house-sized and barely-functional machinery as far as it could possibly go; and, judging by Eliot's access to a secret, fortified office, complete with a bank vault door that locks from the inside, he must be the big man in charge.  But one night, Gaskell happens to observe a highly peculiar celestial object—an "asteroid" that actually changes its course, which everyone knows is quite impossible.  Unless...

There's an awful lot of possibility in that "unless," but you know good and well that it shall turn out that this "asteroid"—which is, at all times, represented onscreen as a patently obvious flying saucer—is indeed under the control of an intelligent agency hailing from the beyond the stars.  That intelligent agency has, in fact, already been revealed, when we saw the saucer drop off a scout—specifically, a disembodied luminous being that hops from one body to another until it reaches Dr. Eliot, whom it concludes has the access it needs to bring our puny civilization to its knees.  (Or, the alien just got tired, since it just hangs around, tormenting the poor fellow, even though Eliot's resistance to its control soon sends the doctor to the nuthouse.  But surely there must have been a slightly more useful vessel on this planet than some sweaty office manager, who doesn't even enjoy too much freedom of movement for half the picture.)

In the meantime, though, Gaskell becomes quite obsessed with the "asteroid," much to the chagrin of his main squeeze, Vera, who ribs her boyfriend as he dicks around with science and Dr. Culver.  However, this is where they realize that the giant object is actually going to strike our Earth.  Nukes are deployed; they don't stop it; but thankfully for everyone, instead of landing on the North American continent, it splashes down in the Pacific.  Gaskell, Culver, and Vera go to check it out—and the next day they wake up to find the machine squatting on the beach, waiting to unleash the apocalypse we've been promised.

But devastation, purely for its own sake, is not its mission.  After it begins its attack, it becomes clear—thanks to Eliot's ability to intermittently resurface and offer the audience vital exposition—that this machine is a great accumulator of energy resources, tasked to suck up all the energy on Earth (especially atomic energy) and transport it back to its homeworld.  Gaskell has, of course, already dubbed the beast "Kronos" in a fit of poetry, even though at this point he didn't actually know about the machine's intention to eat our atomic piles—and hence the mere fact that Gaskell's overly-specific mythological reference kinda-sorta almost works does very, very little to camouflage the obvious strain of the screenwriters, who quite clearly spent hours trying to figure out what their totally rad movie monster ought to be called.

And Kronos is pretty rad, in its very weird and ridiculously arbitrary way.  Indeed, as long as you don't think too much about its mobility—and director Kurt Nuemann is obliging in this regard, since he tends to shoot Kronos from low-angles—it just looks so damn cool.  Kronos' extreme blockiness must be its single greatest appeal: it feels like an alien machine, albeit the exact kind of alien machine that a very literal-minded denizen of 1957 might have dreamed up, were they tasked with creating a movie monster that was new, modern, and supposedly extraterrestrial.

It's the goofy-looking retractable antennae on the top that really gives the game away.

Still, there's a real premonition of 2001: A Space Odyssey in Kronos, and you can't help but half-adore the stupid fucking thing.  It grows as it absorbs energy, too.  "We have half of the equation... But up there, they have the second half!" Eliot shouts ecstatically at Gaskell during one of his moments of lucidity.  Unlike our own primitive ability to simply turn matter into energy—for example with our crude nuclear devices—the advanced creatures that built Kronos "can turn energy into matter!"  (This is where the Message enters the picture: Kronos has been dispatched to our world because they have used up their own poor, exhausted planet—and in case you couldn't connect the dots between the aliens' overconsumption and our own, the film helpfully connects them for you, in dialogue.)

The upshot is that, while Kronos is as American as apple pie and a truly exemplary entry into the annals of 50s-style Hollywood science fiction, it casts its net far wider than American cinema, and winds up something close to an honest-to-God American kaiju movie.  The only thing really missing is a genuine personality for Kronos.  But even that lack is still somewhat addressed, with the personality of the alien controlling Eliot (and, also, telepathically directing the machine).

Of course, when your monster looks like this, the absence of personality kind of is its personality.

And the plot, obviously, walks entirely in the footsteps of Godzilla: giant monster arrives; giant monster is absolutely impervious to conventional weaponry (and, in Kronos, the giant monster is even impervious to thermonuclear weaponry—which is sensible enough, after all, given that it feeds on thermonuclear weaponry); and, at last, giant monster must be eliminated with radically unconventional and totally made-up super-science, in this case something to do with "reversing the polarity!" and "omega particles!," the latter of which exist solely on Star Trek: Voyager, if that's any indication at all of how incredibly stupid our poor actors are made to sound when they earnestly discuss their theoretical qualities.

It's all a lot of fun, with a lot of cool destruction that comes across with a great deal of charm despite the low budget, largely thanks to Irving Block et al's extremely neat special effects—manifesting chiefly as a great deal of delightful optical silliness.  But we should mention Jeff Morrow in the hero's role, too.  Kronos may be Morrow at the least effective I've ever seen him—he puts on better performances in This Island Earth, in The Creature Walks Among Us, and even in The Giant Claw—but he's still rather good as Dr. Leslie "Les" Gaskell.  Anyway, Kronos is also (by far) the best sci-fi movie he was ever in—in this case, the rising tide lifts all boats, including his.  (Incidentally, The Giant Claw is practically the exact same movie as this one—except that The Giant Claw is fundamentally broken, with a third act so Godawfully dumbassed that it still registers as atonal bullshit, even within the context of a 50s sci-fi flick.)  In any event, Morrow's swell: he presents his scientist with authority, but also with a more sensitive side—Morrow has a soft, gentle look to him that serves him well here—and his interactions with Barbara Lawrence, as his put-upon girlfriend, are seriously cute, no matter how extraordinarily by-the-numbers they might be.

Aw, look at Neumann quote From Here to Eternity.  Now that's precious.

Hell, the whole thing is better-acted than you'd have any right to expect: John Emery evokes some genuine desperation as the possessed Dr. Eliot (not to mention some genuine evil, when the alien is in control); and George O'Hanlon is a fun little nerd as Dr. Culver, to boot.

Kronos is no real classic, let's be clear.  It is, in many respects, kind of rote.  And yet it has some truly idiosyncratic design work, handsome direction that won't let you stay bored for very long, and a threat that feels legitimate.  So, whatever this compliment is actually worth, it really is one of the most enjoyable alien invasion films of its whole era.

Score:  7/10

That which is indistinguishable from magic:
  • Once again, "omega particles."  Christ, I hate Star Trek: Voyager.
  • Check out this totally mysterious "asteroid":
  • If the aliens can turn energy into matter, and also matter into energy, have they considered just, you know, doing that?
  • The Mexican coastline looks quite surprisingly inviting, and Los Angeles quite surprisingly liveable, considering the water-landing of such an enormous "asteroid" in the Pacific really ought to have annihilated everything along the North American shore for thousands of miles.
  • Kronos' ability to move is completely "indistinguishable from magic."
The morality of the past, in the future!:
  • The word "boner" used to mean something else, although public boners are still typically considered to be "mistakes."
  • If the technology were there, there is absolutely no doubt that Dr. Culver would be deep into the process of building a vacuum-tube driven sexbot.  As it stands, I'd still bet that SUSAN's control panels aren't anything you'd want to touch without gloves.
  • Isn't it just so annoying when your girlfriend aggressively tries to fuck you while you're trying to do science?
  • Kronos itself is positively wundaful, both in its interesting conception and in its Before Times special-effects.
  • The final fate of Dr. Eliot is also gloriously strange: the energy being condenses into some kind gross, silvery liquid, spills out of his face (albeit only in reverse-shot), and they both die.
  • Remember, our true greatest natural resource is uranium.  So please: recycle.

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