And what are you kids mumbling about today?
(“Well, Uncle Mikey, we know you weren’t too impressed by “Pacific Rim”—“)
Not too much.
(“And we know that you vomit whenever you hear Michael Bay’s name—“)
(“Like now. Sorry. We’ll clean it up. But even you have to admit that movies featuring giant robots are finally coming into their own.”)
To be honest, my little booboocitos, I have to admit no such thing. For instance, in regards to The Director Who Shall Not Be Named, the only thing I will admit is that any movie director’s job might be easier if his plot and characters were supplied by Hasbro (confessing here that a Lego version of “Casablanca” or “Fight Club” might be an interesting idea). I can understand a certain amount of prepackaging in a movie . . . “Gone with the Wind” being a good example . . . but when the whole movie comes to you courtesy of Toys ‘R Us then it only makes the notion of things such as Plot or Direction seem less important.
(“But aren’t those superhero movies you love suffering under the same thing?”)
Remind me never to send any of you to law school again. But, in the first place, I don’t love all the superhero films. In the second place: yes, I am worried about the gradual glacier of prepackaging and marketing (what I call “The Happy Meal Effect”) eventually edging out Creativity.
But we were talking about giant robot movies. Don’t distract me. And keep mopping. Everything hinges on a belief I hold to, and yes it’s one that I beat you people over the head with time and time again. Stated as simply as possible: a special effect alone will not carry a genre movie. No matter how big your droid army is, how large your fleet of attacking starships or how intricately your robots move, you can’t just depend on a CGI department to do the job that the director should be doing. The finest computer in the world will never be able to impress drama into a scene. I’m not saying that every director will come out on top, but this is why I tend to prefer Mechagodzilla to Optimus Prime.
And then there’s “Kronos”. I—
Oh, don’t groan. You knew perfectly well I was building up to a review here. And yes: “Kronos” is an old movie. Just a year younger than me in fact—
(“Wow! That old?”)
Okay, I’m invoking a rule here. Next smarmy comment from anyone other than myself and I’ll take away the mop and make all of you finish cleaning without it.
And that’s Mister Selfish Film Snob to you.
Right. So yes, “Kronos” was made in 1957. It’s in black-and-white. And even I will be honest and admit that the overall story and effects work were not up to any real degree of excellence. And I can see some of you struggling.
But, in its defense, “Kronos” attempted an air of mood. Of eerieness. And, on occasion, it would succeed where, by rights, it shouldn’t have. But what success it gained was not solely on account of the effects department, but can be laid at the feet of the director: Kurt Neumann. Of German birth, Neumann wasn’t one of those filmmakers you’ve heard about who came to this country to escape the Nazis. Rather, he had arrived much earlier and had sort of an interesting job directing German-language versions of Hollywood films.
(“Mutter der Barmherzigkeit, ist dies das Ende von Rico?”)
Neumann ended up working for producers such as Hal Roach and Sol Lesser and began directing a variety of films for American audiences, including a handful for the Tarzan franchise. We are interested in Neumann mainly for his genre work during the 1950s. At the bottom of the heap we have “Rocketship X-M”: sort of a slap in the face to the genre whose only real distinction is that it was hastily made as a means of beating George Pal’s “Destination Moon” into the theaters. At the top we have “The Fly”: the first adaptation of the classic George Langelaan story, and one which still holds the audience’s attention after all these years.
“Kronos” falls somewhere in between. The story was by Irving Block. Now Block was mainly an effects person, but he did manage to write a handful of stories which were adapted into films. One of them turned out to be “Forbidden Planet” (which, it must be admitted, was by Block with some cribbing from Shakespeare). Another was “The 30 Foot Bride of Candy Rock” (which, it should be kindly said, is not for everyone’s tastes).
Block’s story was adapted into a screenplay by Lawrence L. Goldman, who also blessed us with the screenplay for “30 Foot Bride”, “The Saga of the Viking Women and Their Voyage to the Waters of the Great Sea Serpent*” as well as a whole wagon full of episodes for this or that television series.
(*Seriously, that’s the whole title of the film.)
I have not read Block’s original story so I cannot tell who I need to point a finger at . . . either Block or Goldman (or Neumann) . . . but, among other things, “Kronos” serves as a textbook example of Bad 1950s Movie Science. I can understand the budget not being enough to bring in a technical expert, but hell . . . the back pages of the average issue of “Strange Adventures” carried more useful and accurate science than could be found in “Kronos”. Judge for yourself. The story opens as scientists are watching the approach of an enormous asteroid. In the forefront of this effort is Dr. Leslie Gaskell, played by our old friend Jeff Morrow (“This Island Earth”, “The Giant Claw”, etc.). He’s being assisted by Dr. Arnold Culver (played by George O’Hanlon): one of those proto-nerds who can see two people carrying a dead body out of a laboratory, shrug and go on about his work. Yes, pumpkins, we’re in Big Trouble here.
Finishing out this triumvirate of brain power is Barbara Lawrence as Vera Hunter: laboratory photographer who’s constantly trying to lure Gaskell into the darkroom to see what develops (heh heh heh). Now I don’t want to rag too much on Lawrence. After all, she was a trouper who played in practically everything that went before a camera lens (e.g. “Oklahoma”, “A Letter to Three Wives”, etc.). Maybe it was the lines, or maybe the way Neumann directed her, but in “Kronos” she has a rather difficult time producing only slightly less sex appeal than a doorstop. Small wonder Haskell is always finding excuses not to finish his dates with her (but, applying the “only pebble on the beach” rule, he eventually ends up proposing. Oh well).
(Yes, I’m mean. I’m sorry. I had the same problem with the way Julia Roberts was depicted in “Ocean’s Eleven”, so there.)
Anyway, Haskell & Co. are suitably worried about how close the asteroid is getting to Earth. So much so that they bring their concerns to the attention of Dr. Hubbell Elliot: the head brain-cell at the place. Elliot essentially goes “pish-tush”, which tends to rankle Gaskell no end (and you haven’t lived until you’ve seen Jeff Morrow rankled). But what our heroes don’t know (and the audience does) is that Dr. Elliot has been POSSESSED by an ALIEN INTELLIGENCE sent from the self-same asteroid which is coming closer. Elliot, by the way, was played by veteran actor John Emery. Besides having been Tallulah Bankhead’s only husband (which probably went far to explain his perpetually drained look), Emery was another one of those actors who did Everything (appearing in features from Hitchcock’s “Spellbound” to, well, “Kronos”). Rule of thumb for students of genre films: when an actor like Emery gets POSSESSED by an ALIEN INTELLIGENCE then you know some Serious Crap is about to come down. The possession scene occupies the first five minutes of the film and is one of the more eeriest scenes. In fact, the first ten or so minutes of “Kronos” would nicely work as a classic episode of “The Outer Limits” (Karl Struss’ black-and-white cinematography, which also worked so well in 1932’s “Island of Lost Souls”, is used to good effect here).
Meanwhile, the asteroid (which is clearly a smooth disc with a glowing lower half, so who’re we kidding?) heads even closer to Earth, and an attempt is made to destroy it with a nuclear missile. Cue the stock footage of a V-2 launch, The missile is fired and . . . seeing as how we’ve still got almost an hour left to go in the film . . . has absolutely no effect, and the asteroid plunges into the Pacific Ocean off the Mexican coast. Now follow me on this, pumpkins. According to our heroes, Earth was on the verge of being pummeled into hummus by an asteroid. Said asteroid crashes into the ocean, and one would be correct in thinking that this would call for a major scientific expedition. But everyone essentially goes “pish-tush”, and so the only people possessing enough interest to go check things out are our three heroes. While this happens, Elliot is sitting in his office, his face glowing as he maintains telepathic communication with the . . . well, it was supposed to be an asteroid.
Camped down on the Mexican coast our heroes can do little more than wander around and wonder about what happened to the asteroid (and, at least for Haskell and Hunter, some mild “From Here to Eternity” groping about on the beach). But the mountain comes to Mahomet as an ENORMOUS GLOWING MASS slowly starts rising from the depths. This followed by a thick fog, and thundering sounds as if SOMETHING LARGE IS APPROACHING. Oh well. Everyone decides to go to sleep and call it a day.
But, bright and early the next morning, the sun is shining . . . the birds are chirping . . . and there’s something resembling an eighty-story Ludwig Mies van der Rohe structure calmly standing on the beach. Now everyone decides to panic, and here we’re exposed to another example of the film’s occasional brilliance. Rather than give us something with arms and legs . . . which would’ve looked patently ridiculous . . . Neumann and his crew present the titular threat as a construction of gleaming metallic cubes topped by a black dome and twin antennae. I seriously doubt anyone who saw the film for the first time was expecting this, and the initial sight of it (accompanied by a Paul Sawtell/Burt Shefter soundtrack) never fails to make a tug at the viewer’s imagination. Coolly featureless and mysterious, one is forced to speculate not only what it is, but also what it’s capable of doing.
(The only flaw to an otherwise great scene is that Kronos is depicted as standing next to what looks like an outhouse, which doesn’t help the illusion of scale. More on this later.)
You would think that, with all this, the attention of the world would be radically heightened. Wrong-O, Mary Lou! Other than a few lighthearted remarks by news commentators the entire event is passed over, leaving our heroes to continue carrying out their investigation alone. In the meantime, back at the laboratory, Dr. Elliot produces a list of power plants in the nearby vicinity (isn’t it neat how he just happened to have something like that handy?) and delivers telepathic instructions to Kronos. Back at the beach the four outer pillars supporting the device begin pounding up and down . . . the large center column starts glowing and rotating . . . and Kronos begins blithely strolling across the landscape (accompanied by half the 20th Century Fox sound effects library. Kronos is a noisy beast). It’s never made quite clear how such an object is able to move around, but the animation depicting this is impressive as hell. So impressive, in fact, that it’s repeated often during the film (sometimes flipped over for a touch of variety) as Kronos travels over Mexico, creating disasters with a variety of rays, scattering the population and, most important of all, going from power plant to power plant and draining them dry of electricity. This is the Big Plot. Kronos is a giant energy accumulator, and its goal is to suck the Earth dry.
Well we certainly can’t have that and, after realizing that Kronos is gradually thumping its way towards Los Angeles, everyone finally becomes concerned (“Kronos” not really being the best example of USA/Mexico relations here). Haskell and the others regroup at the lab and (A) confront Elliot and his little possession problem, and (B) consider various options on how to deal with Kronos. One of the early ideas involves hitting the robot with a H-bomb dropped from a B-47, which results in one of the more visually dramatic scenes in the movie. Unfortunately, what the scene carries in drama it lacks in usefulness against the invader, and our heroes are forced to consider some increasingly embarrasing pseudo-scientific options in a never-ending attempt to Save the Day!
“Kronos” just escapes being a great SF film. A much more literate story and script certainly would’ve helped (note to people making low-cost SF films: just because you’re running the H-bomb explosion footage in reverse does not mean the energy of the blast is being absorbed). A budget which could’ve been stretched to provide more movement animation would’ve been nice as well. Careful attention to placement of models in regards to rear projection wouldn’t have hurt either. Sometimes the results in this area are so rushed as to continually confuse the viewer as to the correct scale of Kronos (attacking fighter planes occasionally seeming almost as big as the robot).
I’m willing to concede that “Kronos” was crippled by not only a low budget, but by a less-than-serious attention to genuine science (and yes, pumpkins, sometimes the audience does care about such things). Had such conditions been improved, then the film would’ve had legs worthy of a thoroughbred, and would’ve towered as tall as the titular mechanism.
That floor clean, yet?