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Return Of The Sci-Fi Spectacular!
by Peter Sobczynski

Forget about that “Star Trek” nonsense--seven of the best science-fiction films ever made are unspooling this weekend in Chicago in one grand marathon of shrunken men, hostile aliens and a little thing that I like to call the Infinite.

Although I have no doubt that the new theatrical reboot of “Star Trek” is going to make an enormous amount of money this weekend and satisfy viewers in the mood for nothing more than 2 solid hours of mindless eye-candy, I suspect that some serious-minded fans--the people who have been loyal to the franchise over the decades--may come away with it somewhat dismayed at the discovery that a franchise that became popular in part because it tried to introduce ideas and complex stories amidst the special effects and goofy aliens has now allowed itself to be almost completely dominated by the hardware. Luckily, genre fans who prefer their sci-fi films to have compelling stories and ideas and who happen to live in the Chicago area are in luck this weekend as local filmmaker Rusty Nails present “Sci-Fi Spectacular 3,” a 14-hour marathon comprised of seven classic films, a number of vintage trailers, memorabilia dealers, prizes, free energy drinks, a special guest and other surprises. All of this takes place on May 9 at the landmark Music Box Theater (3736 N. Southport) for the low price of $20 in advance ($24 on the day of the show)--hell, the opportunity to see “2001: A Space Odyssey” on the huge Music Box screen is worth the ticket price all by itself and the other films, as you will soon see, are nothing to sneeze at earlier.

Tickets for Sci-Fi Spectacular 3 are now available at the Music Box box-office, at Laurie’s Planet of Sound (4639 N. Lincoln Avenue) and online at Ticketweb. ( )

THE INCREDIBLE SHRINKING MAN (1957): Adapted by noted sci-fi author Richard Matheson from his own novel, this film from genre veteran Jack Arnold tells the astonishing story of Scott Carey (Grant Williams), a mild-mannered Everyman who passes through a mysterious mist while on a sailing vacation and who gradually begins to shrink to the point where even a common spider becomes a danger to him. You would think that after so many years, a film like this would have evolved into some kind of camp classic but this is the rare 50’s-era genre film that is still taken fairly seriously today because of the smart and tasteful screenplay and direction that generally eschews easy laughs, a compelling performance from journeyman actor Williams and special effects that are still fairly impressive and convincing even after more than a half-century of technical advances. Already the inspiration for one misfired remake (the 1981 Lily Tomlin vehicle “The Incredible Shrinking Woman”), this classic is scheduled to go before the cameras again in a version starring Eddie Murphy and with a script from a couple of the guys from “Reno 911.” Yeah, I’m as bummed as you are. (12:10 PM)

WAR OF THE WORLDS (1953): By comparison, this George Pal production of the H.G. Wells classic about Martians invading Earth has in many ways devolved into camp--the early scenes featuring vignettes of small-town life and the blossoming romance between studly scientist Gene Barry (whose character, Dr. Clayton Forrester, would later inspire the name of the mad scientist on “Mystery Science Theater 3000”) and the comely Ann Robinson are practically unendurable and the weird religious subtext that creeps into the final reels is fairly ludicrous (and probably would have made Wells irate). However, hardly anyone who sees this film acknowledges or even recalls these flaws because once the Martians begin attacking in a series of still-dazzling set-pieces, viewers are too enthralled with the spectacle unfolding before them to even notice. Yes, the Steven Spielberg version of this story may have been more elaborately staged and filled with state-of-the-art visuals but most sci-fi fans can barely remember it today even has they have virtually every frame of this film permanently tattooed in their brains. (1:45 PM)

PLANET OF THE APES (1968): The plot of this one is so familiar that I don’t see any point in rehashing it--if you have somehow made it this far in life without ever having encountered it before, this may not be the film festival for you. I will note, however, that even though it has become one of the most often-copied/parodied films in the history of the genre, it also holds up pretty well today thanks to the muscular and surprisingly impressive performance from Charlton Heston (even more so when you recall that he doesn’t actually speak for a good chunk of the running time), the incredible ape make-up devised by John Chambers and, of course, one of the most famous finales in screen history. (3:15 PM)

2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY (1968): Although this epic work may not be my personal favorite of the films of Stanley Kubrick (that would be “The Shining“), this collaboration between him and noted author Arthur C. Clarke is without doubt his best-made film from a technical standpoint and one of the supreme achievements of cinema–an endlessly fascinating and ultimately unknowable look at mankind and its often self-destructive quest for knowledge and power that hurtles us from the first stirrings of mankind to outer space in the 21st century and beyond. Those of you expecting a standard-issue genre film may be disappointed by its lack of conventional action, characterization (the closest thing to a human character in the film turns out to be a robot that goes murderously insane as the story progresses) or any sort of conventional narrative resolution. And yet, these are the very aspects that make it so fresh and endlessly rewatchable even after four decades–like the issues it deals with throughout, the film is essentially timeless and as a result, it will never go out of fashion and will remain a touchstone work that inspires debate and discussion for as long as there are people around to debate and discuss it. Speaking of debate and discussion, the film’s co-star, Gary Lockwood, will be on hand to introduce the film and talk about it after the screening. If you can’t make this screening, the film will be shown again the next day at 5:30 PM with Lockwood again in attendance. (5:30 PM)

THE BROTHER FROM ANOTHER PLANET (1984): Written and directed in a hurry by indie filmmaker John Sayles (who got his start in Hollywood writing the screenplays for films like “Piranha” and “Battle Beyond the Stars”) when he was unable to get funding for more ambitious projects like “Matewan” and “Eight Men Out,” this ultra-low-budget charmer tells the tale of a mute alien (Joe Morton) who crash-lands at Ellis Island and winds up in Harlem where he gets a crash-course in humanity from people who assume that he is just another homeless black man. It sounds like the premise for a lame “SNL” skit but in fact, it is arguably Sayles’ finest work as a director--it beautifully combines arch satire, human drama and genuine sentiment into a screenplay that includes any number of wonderful moments (my favorites being the ones in which the Brother encounters a record album and a cynical hustler on a subway train who does a trick that is bitterly hilarious), it contains a great performance from Sayles regular Morton and, unlike some Sayles films, it doesn’t overstay its welcome. (9:00 PM)

ALIENS (1986): In this months leading up to the release of this film, there was no small amount of skepticism about its chances in the genre press--sure, James Cameron pulled off something special with “The Terminator” but how could even someone as talented as him possibly equal the sheer terror that Ridley Scott inspired seven years earlier with the groundbreaking sci-fi/horror classic “Alien”? As it turned out, he managed to do just that (and then some) by eschewing the haunted-house atmosphere that Scott so effectively generated in order to transform the story into a balls-out action epic in which sole survivor Ellen Ripley (Sigourney Weaver in an Oscar-nominated performance) journeys to a seemingly abandoned space colony with a group of Marines and finds herself in the middle of a battle with seemingly endless hordes of the creatures that she barely survived encountering 57 years earlier. It starts off on the slow side but once Cameron kicks the material into high gear, it becomes such a tense and exciting non-stop thrill ride for its duration that you may find yourself literally out of breath by the time it finally ends. Although I still prefer Scott’s original, I will concede that this is both one of the greatest action movies ever made as well as one of the best sequels as well. (11:15 PM)

THE FLY (1986): Utilizing relatively little of the original 1958 film (or the short story it was based on) other than the title and the vague premise of a scientist who accidentally fuses his genetic material with that of a fly during a failed experiment in matter transference, David Cronenberg created a film that remains one of the peak achievements of a career that has given us any number of masterworks. As a genre film, it is exciting, visually thrilling and filled with some of the most memorably icky special effects and makeup ever put up on the screen. At the same time, it is more than just a gory monster movie--if it wasn’t, it would probably be called “The Fly II.“ It is also, thanks to the touching performances from Jeff Goldblum and Geena Davis, one of the most moving screen romances of all time--they are so charming, engaging and sexy in the early scenes that viewers find themselves genuinely and unexpectedly moved when their relationship is upended by Goldblum’s unexpected transformation (which can be read as a specific commentary on AIDS or as a general meditation of what transpires when any loving couple is beset by age or disease) that when it finally arrives at its tragic finale, even the biggest gorehounds in the audience may find themselves tearing up at what is transpiring. (1:45 AM)

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originally posted: 05/08/09 23:12:59
last updated: 05/09/09 00:24:57
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