Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Tobe or not Tobe: Tobe goes Sci-Fi

Following his work on BODY BAGS, director Tobe Hooper returned to the big screen in March 1995 with THE MANGLER, an adaptation of Stephen King’s short story about a possessed industrial sized laundry machine. No, really. I saw it in the theater but remember very little about it except that lead Ted Levine (Buffalo Bill from THE SILENCE OF THE LAMBS) sounded like he had marbles in his mouth and Robert Englund overacted (shocker!). No doubt this calls for a future revisit.

About the time THE MANGLER was hitting video shelves, Hooper’s small screen effort NOWHERE MAN (reviews to come) was debuting on UPN. He directed the first two episodes and this was a pretty interesting show about a photographer (Bruce Greenwood) who finds his life erased after he displays photos of a classified wartime execution. With shades of THE FUGITIVE, he finds himself on the run while trying to uncover the conspiracy behind it all. The show, unfortunately, only lasted one season and left audiences with the mystery unresolved. Regardless, Hooper proved he could offer professional if workmanlike efforts on the small screen. It is then that Hooper jumped back into the sci-fi realm. He proved he could handle the genre with LIFEFORCE (1985) and INVADERS FROM MARS (1986), but took a huge step back with his AMAZING STORIES episode. Thankfully, his work in DARK SKIES, PERVERSIONS OF SCIENCE and TAKEN are more like the former.

Conspiracy would play a large role in Hooper’s next television project, the pilot episode for the alien invasion series DARK SKIES (1996). Fox had seen their THE X-FILES (1993) become a ratings hit and, naturally, every broadcast company wanted in on that action. NBC unveiled this series in the fall of 1996. DARK SKIES focuses on John Loengard (Eric Close) and his fiancée Kimberly Sayers (Megan Fox), an idealistic young couple moving to Washington D.C. in 1961. John begins working as an assistant for Sen. Charles Pratt (John Jackson) and, looking to score brownie points, takes up the effort to investigate various budget projects. One such plan on the chopping block is Project Blue Book, a military investigation into the existence of UFOs. John digs into his work only to get visited by some mysterious and violent Men In Black who tell him to stop his inquiry.

Naturally this results in John digging even deeper into what is going on (cue investigation montage) and he finds out the group is led by Capt. Frank Bach (J.T. Walsh). Bach finds John’s persistence annoying but admirable and – as always is the case in Hollywood – offers him a job on his high level team, Majestic 12 (MJ12). Within minutes of joining the group, John finds out extra-terrestrials are real as Bach displays the frozen corpse of an alien from the fabled Roswell crash. Being part of this elite unit has its perks as John suddenly has a big office and the scorn of his Senator boss, who is being blackmailed to allow John to do as he pleases. Before you can start whistling THE X-FILES theme, John is off on his first investigation – a huge crop circle formation in Idaho in the field of a farmer (G.D. Spradlin), who turns out to be inhabited by an alien himself and tries to kill John.

The farmer is taken back to the lab where a tentacle alien shoots from his mouth (shades of THE HIDDEN). This is something the scientists have dubbed a Ganglien, a parasitic intelligence that seems to control both aliens and humans alike by attaching to their brain. Juggling his two separate lives, John struggles to tell Kimberly about his real job. Bach warns against this, stating that even President Kennedy isn’t aware of the true nature of MJ12. This shocks the do-gooder in John and he begins to believe his untrustworthy chief is, well, untrustworthy. Of course, Kimberly finds out soon enough when she is abducted by aliens and has a Ganglien implanted in her head. John and Kimberly manage to get it out of her before both of them decide it is their patriotic duty to inform the President of the true nature of the alien invasion and this deep reaching conspiracy. Cue our leads being on the run from government baddies for the rest of the season.

Judging from the pilot, DARK SKIES is a pretty good show. Hooper’s work is relatively nondescript but he acquits himself well with a few solid scenes (the crop circle chase; Kimberly’s abduction, which echoes the SALEM’S LOT window scene). The cast is very good as well with Close, who reminds me of C. Thomas Howell, as an appealing lead and J.T. Walsh doing his patented government prick routine. One thing I like about it is how they work in lots of real life UFO lore. You get character appearances by famed abductees Betty and Barney Hill and references to Rosewell, Blue Book and MJ12. In addition, they work in tons of historical stuff into the conspiracy including the release of Soviet captured US test pilot Gary Powers and the assassination of John F. Kennedy. I’m sure at some point Bobby Kennedy got his too. Series creator Bryce Zabel had big plans for the show with each of five seasons highlighting a decade of the fight against the aliens (keep this in mind when we talk Spielberg’s TAKEN miniseries). The show, however, was cancelled so audiences only got to see the 1960s.

Aliens factored into Hooper’s next TV project as he jumped into HBO’s short-lived PERVERSIONS OF SCIENCE (1997). With the successful TALES FROM THE CRYPT ending its runs on the channel, the producers felt they could create a sci-fi equivalent by adapting William Gaines’ “Weird Science” and “Weird Fantasy” comics. Lightning didn’t strike twice though, probably from an obvious attempt to beef up the erotic factor (notice the boob outline in the title). The producers also felt that the host character should be a buxom CGI seductress who would spit out some of the worst sexual double entendres in the history of TV. Even worse, this character named Chrome ended up being rendered to look like RoboCop with tits (see pic). What could possibly go right?

Hooper’s half hour segment entitled “Panic” is a riff on the hysteria started by Orson Welles with his famous 1938 “War of the Worlds” radio broadcast. Carson Walls (Chris Sarandon) is preparing to unleash his radio program on the unsuspecting public on Halloween. At the same time, two college kids (Jason Lee and Jamie Kennedy) are getting ready for a Halloween party where they will go dressed as aliens. Think you know where this one is going? One would suspect they get mistaken for aliens by frenzied folks and chased around. And that would be wrong. The script by Andrew Kevin Walker actually pulls a few clever twists on the audience in the regard. The two young men are actually aliens from Mars and kill everyone in the party when they think an invasion has begun without their knowledge. Hail Mars! They then travel to the New Jersey field where the program says the battle is going down, only to find the place empty. There they are confronted by two rednecks (Harvey Korman and Edie McClurg) who take them back to their house at shotgun point. There the rednecks reveal themselves to be aliens from Jupiter and Walls shows up to reveal his radio show was actually a ploy to flush out and kill the Martians. Hail Jupiter!

This is actually a fun little episode that I totally enjoyed. Hooper seems to be really into creating a comic book look with some great Dutch angles and effective lighting. He even gets in some of his trademark low framing/wide angle lens shots. On the downside, there is that aforementioned “we’re on risqué cable” factor so the script tries to shoehorn as much profanity as possible and some really odd sexual innuendo. For example, the redneck aliens have an S&M dungeon in their basement complete with a gimp in a box. And Korman says he wants a “close encounter of the lubricated kind.” Uh, why? These totally distract from the rest of what is a good episode. I haven’t seen the rest of the series yet but I can imagine there will be a lot of groaning. Not from the sex stuff, but from me rolling my eyes.

It seems all of this alien work was just preparing ol’ Tobe for his biggest work in years. No, not that abortion CROCODILE (2000) he managed to puke up, but the gig of directing the pilot episode of the Steven Spielberg produced miniseries TAKEN that aired on the Sci-Fi Channel in December 2002 (before they changed their name to the STD sounding SyFy). TAKEN was a mammoth 14-hour, $40 million dollar undertaking created by Leslie Bohem (whose first credit was THE HORROR SHOW). Now tell me if this sounds familiar: this sprawling series incorporates real history, UFO lore and follows these events over a period of several decades. Yup, it is the exact same premise as DARK SKIES but with the saving grace of “Steven Spielberg presents…” in front of it. Ah, Hollywood!

TAKEN’s pilot “Beyond the Sky” sets the stage with three storylines that run the course of the series. The show opens in August 1944 with Captain Russell Keys (Steve Burton) piloting his bomber in a firefight with German aircraft. The men suddenly see a series of blue spheres jump into the fray. Frozen in amazement, their ship is hit by enemy fire with Keys mortally wounded. Their aircraft is going down before it disappears in a blaze of blue light. Cut to June 1945 and Keys has returned home to the States. He doesn’t exactly remember how he and his men survived; all he remembers is waking up in a field in France. Storyline #2 takes place in Roswell, New Mexico during July 1947. Capt. Owen Crawford (Joel Gretsch) is one of the men called out to the crash site on “Mac” Brazell’s ranch but he quickly receives word from his superior Col. Thomas Campbell (Michael Moriarty) that this was nothing but a weather balloon. Crawford can’t dispel that myth when some hikers find an intact crashed flying disc with four dead alien bodies nearby. Seeing this as an opportunity to exploit, the ruthless Crawford begins using his knowledge of this top secret project to his advantage as he tries to find the fifth living alien. This leads us to storyline #3 as Texas waitress Sally (Catherine Dent) discovers a strange man hiding inside her shed one night. With her husband away on business, she bring the man, John (Eric Close of DARK SKIES), into her home. John says that he doesn’t know how he got there and is a farmer. Before you can say, “E.T. phone home,” Sally is warming up to her intergalactic boarder and soon carrying his/its child. Sally, yous got some splainin’ to do!

Given the big name before the title and budget, you can pretty much guess this is an A+ production. I think it is also easy to say this is Hooper’s best technical work in years. Hooper gets to shine through with a few great moments. The staging of the Roswell crash is impressive. Hooper also ups the scare levels and the Nazi nightmares that Keys keeps having that turn out to be his flashbacks inside the alien spacecraft are really well done. Tobe also has a great bit toward the end where John leaves and keeps the shot only on Sally’s face as he illuminates and disappears. It is too bad all of this is in such tight constraints of an innocuous Spielberg TV show for basic cable. There is nothing more cringe inducing than the voice over by Dakota Fanning as yet unborn child who serves as the narrator. It is such a saccharine touch (that almost sounds like it wasn’t originally supposed to be there) that probably gave Spielberg a boner. There is also some really bad dialog throughout the 2-hour pilot. As evidence, I offer you the second thing John says to Sally:
“Your husband doesn’t appreciate that kindness in you. He doesn’t see your sadness either. But you’ve stopped wanting him to. I think you’re right. Sometimes you don’t share with an uncaring person.”
Woo boy! I mean, I can understand him being an alien that can read minds but does he really have to speak like Dr. Phil? Rough stuff. It really makes me laugh at how similar TAKEN is to DARK SKIES. I almost want to think that Hooper was aware of this too and the casting of SKIES leading man Close – who is actually really good here – might suggest this. Still, this is a pretty good showing by Hooper. He manages to juggle three complex storylines and actually kept me wondering where this thing will go (although I’m not sure I will make that journey).

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