This blog post was written as part of MovieRob’s July 2018 Genre Grandeur theme: Bestselling/Popular Novel Adaptations
Long before Michael Crichton resurrected dinosaurs with “Jurassic Park” or even unleashed homicidal cowboy robots on unsuspecting guests (the first time) in WESTWORLD (1973), he wrote a now-classic tale of germ warfare and the scientists who are called in to deal with the aftermath of a satellite that crashes to Earth and unleashes a deadly microorganism.
Published in 1969, “The Andromeda Strain” put Michael Crichton’s name on the map. Compared to his later works such as “Timeline” and even “Jurassic Park”, “The Andromeda Strain” is a much more reserved, detached book that describes the attempts at analyzing the organism and diagnose two survivors with precision.
Renowned director Robert Wise took up the challenge of putting the novel on film. While the book was indeed a popular one, in a lot of ways it isn’t a likely candidate for a movie; it’s a testament to Wise and the crew he assembled that it works as well as it does. Aside from a race against a ticking clock in the final act, there is little action in the story. Wise and screenwriter Nelson Gidding do a fantastic job of taking what could have been tedious laboratory scenes and turns them into something unsettling and gripping. A sequence where two of the scientists examine the capsule in great detail is helped by revolutionary miniature special effects shots provided by Douglas Trumbull and James Shourt.
Production designer Boris Levin and cinematographer Richard H. Kline team to provide a cold aesthetic to the entire film that works fantastically well (Wise and Kline would again team on the first Star Trek film, giving the Enterprise interiors a similar clinical feel). Gidding also deserves credit in his decision to inject a small bit of diversity into the film by making one scientists in the film a woman (all four are men in Crichton’s novel).
Wise also makes several other shrewd casting decisions. While none of the cast are complete unknowns (James Olson is probably the least recognizable face here), there are no stars in the film. In a behind-the-scenes interview, Wise explained that he would have had a hard time believing a big-name star (he cites Gregory Peck) as a scientist. Instead, actors such as Arthur Hill as the team lead, Jeremy Stone, ground the film with a sense of reality that I agree might have been lost with bigger names. Likewise, David Wayne and Kate Reid, who round out the main cast, are quite good in their roles.
As with his casting decisions, Robert Wise also thought outside of the box when it came to the score for THE ANDROMEDA STRAIN. Not wanting a traditional orchestral score, Wise turned to composer Gil Mellé, who was a pioneer in the realm of electronic and synthesized music. Mellé was most well known at the time for his theme to Rod Serling’s series “Night Gallery” and he had also scored episodes of “Columbo” and later scored “Kolchak: The Night Stalker.”
Mellé’s score to THE ANDROMEDA STRAIN is difficult to describe. It works quite well in the film, but can be somewhat unlistenable in places on its own. Largely nonmelodic, it reminds me somewhat of the classic Louis and Bebe Barron score for FORBIDDEN PLANET (1956).
THE ANDROMEDA STRAIN main titles
Much of the unique sound in the score comes from Mellé’s homemade instrument, the “percussotron.” While it is obviously incomplete, there is a very interesting clip on YouTube of Mellé demonstrating the instrument and its use in the film: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CQ28Ze65ixE
Finally, I would be remiss in not mentioning that, while the album may be a somewhat difficult listen, the LP version of the score might be one of the coolest-looking records I have ever seen.
The score does work quite well in the context of the film and only adds to the otherworldly, unnerving feeling that permeates throughout. While some of the technology may be dated now, THE ANDROMEDA STRAIN works well as an effective scientific thriller that seems all-too plausible.
Because STAR TREK IV: THE VOYAGE HOME was such a spectacular success, attention quickly turned to another sequel. Due to contractual obligations, the job of directing STAR TREK V was handed over to William Shatner, who also wrote the initial concept for the film. Drawing inspiration from the televangelist phenomenon, Shatners initial outline, subtitled “An Act of Love,” dealt with a holy man on a quest to find God.
STAR TREK IV: THE VOYAGE HOME completes a trilogy of films that began with STAR TREK II. Yet in many ways, it also feels completely different from the first two parts in that trilogy and perhaps in the Star Trek franchise as a whole. The tone is noticeably and purposefully lighter, and the extensive location shooting makes the entire film feel much more airy and wide open than the others, which were almost exclusively confined to soundstages.
STAR TREK IV also brought with it a change of composer. James Horner, who had scored the previous two films, departed in favor of Leonard Rosenman, who was a personal friend of director and star Leonard Nimoy. Reportedly, Nimoy had wanted Rosenman to score STAR TREK III, but didn’t have the clout at the time to make it happen. While I would have a hard time imagining anyone other than Horner score SEARCH FOR SPOCK, I don’t think I can hear Horner’s themes working well in STAR TREK IV either. Continue reading “Trek Charts a New Path Home”
Musicals have always left the audience split, we have seen plenty of different types of musical that enter into other genres, we’ve had high school, gangsters, love stories and horror as well as the big one from the 2017 Oscars. The question remains what is your favourite Musical?
If you want to join the next round of Opinion Battles we will be take on What is your Favourite Alfred Hitchcock Movie, to enter email your choice to firstname.lastname@example.org Saturday 18th August 2017.
Darren – Movie Reviews 101
La La Land
Yeah, I am still going to pick this film even with all the hate it seems to be getting now, it tells a wonderful love story that shows us just the correct amount of love as it isn’t all about the happy ending but those happy moments. The songs are great…
Cliff (donning the Rocketeer helmet and rocket for the first time): “How do I look?”
Peevy: “Like a hood ornament.”
When you were a kid, was there anything quite as cool as a rocket pack? Sure, superheroes like Superman can fly, but he’s really an alien from another planet. But a rocket pack? That’s something anyone can strap on and fly off anywhere you wish.
Except that in 1938, the ability to fly takes on a whole other nefarious meaning, because both the U.S. and German armies are trying to develop a working model for military purposes. When the audience first sees the rocket pack, it’s being hauled by two goons across an airfield, with the FBI in hot pursuit, and in the process, they destroy a brand new plane being flown by Cliff Secord (Billy Campbell) and manage to stash the rocket in a hanger where it is found by Cliff and his friend/father-figure Peevy (Alan Arkin).
That’s the set-up for the 1991 Disney/Touchstone Pictures film THE ROCKETEER, which was Joe Johnston’s second directorial effort (following on 1989’s HONEY, I SHRUNK THE KIDS). Based on a comic book series, this was Disney’s second foray into comic-inspired films (the first being 1990’s DICK TRACY).
One thing that I completely missed as a kid but sticks out to me now is how, in becoming The Rocketeer, Cliff is really the accidental hero. When he and Peevy find the rocket, neither of them is thinking anything remotely heroic. Their plane crash in the opening sequence also took out a gas truck, and its owner Bigelow (played with wonderful sleeze by Jon Polito) wants them to pay him back for the loss. This makes Cliff’s motivation for keeping and using the rocket one of financial necessity, not a desire to do good or right wrongs.
Not to say that Cliff is a bad guy. He’s just a regular guy with real-world problems, and he sees the rocket as a means to an end. Billy Campbell sometimes gets a bad rap for his performance here, but I rather like him. He’s not especially heroic, but then he really shouldn’t be because he’s not a hero in the normal sense.
He’s also a bit of a dolt when it comes to how he treats his girlfriend, aspiring actress Jenny (Jennifer Connelly). If there’s one fault I can find with the film, it’s that there really isn’t much chemistry between the two actors (despite the fact that they were allegedly dating during filming). This is a relationship because the script says so rather than because the actors sell it, even though they both look the part.
Cliff also quickly finds himself the rival (in more ways than one) with leading man Neville Sinclair (Timothy Dalton). Sinclair is obviously a take on Errol Flynn, and Dalton is clearly enjoying himself in the role. First, he is revealed to be behind the gangsters who were trying to steal the rocket, as he admonishes the head of the gang, Eddie Valentine (played, in a real stretch of casting, by Paul Sorvino). Later, Sinclair starts to make a move on Jenny, at least in part because he knows she knows who has the rocket.
He’s also sent his henchman, Lothar (Tiny Ron) in search of the rocket. I suppose it’s their way of calling back to the fact that this is a comic book movie, but Lothar is a bit distracting because of his obvious prosthetic makeup that seems like a leftover from DICK TRACY. The character also disappears for stretches at a time, becoming more of a plot convenience than an actual important element.
Getting back to Cliff, it’s interesting in that when he finally uses the rocket, he does it because he has no other choice. In fact, pretty much every time he becomes The Rocketeer, it’s to clean up a mess he’s created: he first has to rescue an over-the-hill pilot who is only flying because he’s trying to help Cliff out; later, Cliff needs to save Jenny from Sinclair after he uses it to escape a couple of FBI agents who also are after the rocket.
It’s this last wrinkle that might be the film’s only (minor) misstep plot-wise. Adding in the FBI adds a fourth group that either has or wants the rocket, and it’s a bit much to keep straight (as a kid, I remember being confused by who was who). I can forgive the added complexity a bit by the fact that these agents are working for the inventor of the rocket, who is none other than Howard Hughes (the always good Terry O’Quinn). He wants the rocket back to keep it from falling into Nazi hands; Neville Sinclair turns out to be a Nazi agent hiding within Hollywood society.
The presence of the FBI also provides one of my favorite little touches in the film. Towards the end, the FBI and the Valentine gang find themselves on the same side, shooting against the Nazis. At one point, Valentine and one of the agents stop firing their machine guns for a moment, look at each other, have this moment of ironic realization, and resume firing.
Despite a few creaky effects that definitely show their age, the film’s climax aboard a Nazi zeppelin works pretty well, and the final resolution that does Sinclair in calls back nicely to an earlier sequence where the rocket is damaged. I also really enjoy how Sinclair’s fiery plunge takes out the “land” in the “Hollywoodland” sign.
When I first saw THE ROCKETEER I really only knew James Horner based on his scores for STAR TREK II and STAR TREK III. Also being a big fan of John Williams’ score for SUPERMAN (1978), I was a little apprehensive about a composer who I felt was more subdued in his approach (silly me).
Indeed, his opening cue is not bombastic in the classic superhero vein. Instead, Horner wrote an absolutely gorgeous, long-lined melody from which to base the score. His main Rocketeer theme is one of my favorites from Horner’s entire body of work, and it is absolutely gorgeous in its first appearance, performed initially by solo piano over the opening credits. He also wrote a “B Theme” for The Rocketeer, which kicks in just as Cliff’s ill-fated flight takes off:
“Main Title / Takeoff”
In a style similar to Williams, Horner also wrote themes for Jenny and for Sinclair. His “Jenny” theme, which follows her character throughout the film, receives a lovely concert arrangement on the soundtrack that is introduced by piano, strings, harp, and solo French horn:
Sinclair’s themes consist of two motifs. The first is a descending motif similar to the one that Horner used in STAR TREK III to represent the Excelsior. The second, more sinister is four rising notes that are usually played in the low brass. Both make several appearances in the track “Neville Sinclair’s House” which plays over Jenny being brought to Sinclair’s home, his (unsuccessful) attempt to seduce her, and her discovery that he is a Nazi agent.
Excerpts from “Neville Sinclair’s House”
Because this is a superhero film, the action music is arguably the most important part of the score. Despite my unfounded initial reservations about the main theme, Horner does a magnificent job in tweaking his themes for the action cues. My favorite bits come from Cliff’s first appearance as the Rocketeer, as he rescues a pilot in mid-air. A bombastic version of the main theme accompanies Cliff’s attempts to successfully pilot the rocket, including two falls that are wonderfully scored by Horner:
“Flying Circus” excerpt #1
He also brings back the second “flying” motif at the end of this sequence, scoring a humerous bit of action as Cliff flies out of control. This also includes one of the moments I definitely remember from the trailers: Cliff plows through a field as two guys who look like they should be selling Bartles and James wine coolers remark, “biiiig gopher.” It’s also perhaps the best use of the Jew’s harp I’ve ever heard in an action cue (an admittedly short list).
“Flying Circus” excerpt #2
One of the unfair criticisms of James Horner is that he tends to recycle themes from previous scores. While he does do this, I don’t think its to any greater degree than most composers. If anything, he tends to reuse rhythms or short phrases rather than whole themes. For THE ROCKETEER, he does keep this to a minimum, save for the Sinclair theme I mentioned earlier, and his chromatic motif from “Genesis Countdown” in STAR TREK II. This latter motif appears most prominently in the build to the climax, which occurs in Griffith Park Observatory. As the tension builds between Cliff and Sinclair over an exchange of the rocket for Jenny, this motif plays prominently in the underscore. As Cliff manages to turn the Valentine gang against Sinclair (because of his Nazi roots), Sinclair then unleashes a hidden squat of Nazi foot soldiers, followed by the reveal of a giant zeppelin hiding behind the observatory (not sure how this is physically possible but go with it). The remainder of the cue is rounded out by the expected action music featuring the main themes as well as Sinclair and Jenny’s themes.
Excerpt from “Rendesvouz at Griffith Park Observatory”
The final selection is from the final climax of the film, which takes place aboard the zeppelin. Once Sinclair is killed, Cliff (now rocket-less) and Jenny run across the top of the zeppelin which is being engulfed in flames. Finally, Hughes and Peevy arrive in the nick of time to rescue them, as a final statement of Sinclair’s theme plays over the Nazi emblem disappearing in the fire.
Excerpt from “The Zepplin”
All in all, THE ROCKETEER is an immensely enjoyable film that unfortunately didn’t do well at the box office. Joe Johnston does a terrific job nailing a period feel (a talent he would also bring to CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE FIRST AVENGER later in his career), and all of the actors perform their roles well. It’s a shame that the film didn’t do as well as it could have on it’s initial release, but it seems to have found an audience thanks to home video. Despite the rash of comic book movies these days, few seem to have the heart and characters of a film like THE ROCKETEER. If you haven’t seen it yet, I highly recommend you check it out.
The success of STAR TREK II: THE WRATH OF KHAN virtually guaranteed that there would be a third Star Trek film. Nicholas Meyer, who had so skillfully written and directed the second film, refused to do the third based on his displeasure with the idea of bringing back Spock. Ironically, this would wind up putting Spock himself, Leonard Nimoy, in the director’s chair for the second Star Trek sequel, which was written and produced by Harve Bennett.
One area of continuity between this and the previous film was the retention of James Horner as the composer. In this second film, he would be given the chance to add new themes, primarily for the Klingons and the Genesis Planet, and also further develop multiple themes from the previous film.
In looking back at the scores of the various Star Trek films, STAR TREK III: THE SEARCH FOR SPOCK seems to have fallen in the proverbial crack between the excellent STAR TREK II: THE WRATH OF KHAN and the immensely entertaining STAR TREK IV: THE VOYAGE HOME (although the score to the latter film is certainly polarizing). On a more personal level, this particular soundtrack holds a special place for me:
STAR TREK III introduced me to the world of film music.