Sunday, March 11, 2012

From Metaluna To Melbourne

The first science fiction movie I can recall seeing was This Island Earth.

In the early 1960s, back when Ming The Merciless was Prime Minister of Australia, my Uncle, Roy took me see that classic 1955 SF movie in The Crescent Theatre in Fairfield New South Wales.(see picture above: The Crescent in 1942).

It was the early sixties and even then The Crescent was run down. It dated back to the silent movie days and was one of the first cinemas in the area to show sound films. It stopped being a cinema in the 1970s and morphed into a carpet warehouse.

That's a common story for old cinemas in Australian cities. From the 1920s to the 1970s in Australia, the most elegant places that most people regularly visited, apart from churches, were cinemas. Even the shabbiest of fleapits had a certain charm. The logos above the doors of the mens' rooms were top hats and canes – for the women, parasols. The fittings were wood not moulded plastic and stainless steel. Carpets were old but quality, the light fittings aspired to elegance and classicism. Lobby cards for the current and upcoming movies were displayed in glass cases. They had a sense of history about them, even if it was measured in only a few decades.

I was five or six at the time and I had already visited lovelier fleapits in Sydney city, but this visit was special enough for me to remember it almost half a century later.

It was very exciting for a few reasons. Firstly, we went at night. When you're a child, night-time is exciting and mysterious. Secondly, we got popcorn and in the bottom of the popcorn box was a plastic cowboy. In all the years since, I haven't seen that again and yet to this day I still believe that cinema popcorn should have toys.

Multiple screens? Pah! I grew up when you had to hunt down which cinema a movie was showing at and work out how to get there. Give me the days when I had haul my teenaged arse 50 kilometres from my monstrously unhappy home in the outer 'burbs to see The Final Programme (a.k.a. The Last Days Of Man On Earth) at the Rose Bay Wintergarden just because it was based on a Michael Moorcock novel that I had read and not entirely understood.

So there I am hanging with my uncle, and the movie starts. Weird and exciting things happen.

The scientist gets alien technology from a catalogue that lets him build a Skype Machine with a triangular screen that shoots lasers. It turns out that the construction of the machine is a job interview.

He flirts with an actress who used to be Howard Hughes' girlfriend.

Aliens with big foreheads pick up the flirting couple in a flying saucer by tractor beaming their Cessna into a cargo hold.

The aliens take the two humans to an alien planet undergoing catastrophic renovation, show them a monster and go “Oh dear, too late for you to help us unfuck up our planet” and drive them back to Earth.

Can there be anything more marvellous for a kid?

Well, I did get a bit freaked out when the humans were put into giant test tubes full of a green gas that turns them slowly transparent so you can see their viscera and skeleton. The scrotum-headed Metaluna mutant didn't worry me too much.

But here's what I got from the movie at that young, impressionable age:

Science fiction movies are an escape from the real world.

Scientists work hard. Building an interocitor from packaged components takes time, careful work and coffee.

Don't trust blond men with bulging foreheads. They're only out for themselves.

Science fiction movies are extremely cool.

Which brings us today. Science Fiction movies are still cool. But only some of them. The ones that are more than a frenetic computer generated sound and light show. The ones that respect the genre and its conventions. The ones made with passion and imagination and rigorous internal logic. The ones that acknowledge and respect the other works that inspired their creation rather than ripping them off.

So I'm doing a monthly science fiction movie podcast as a companion piece to the venerable Paleo-Cinema Podcast. Unlike Paleo-Cinema, I'll be looking at recent as well as older films. Like Paleo-Cinema, I hope to have a lot of fun and explore some groovy films in doing it.

The first episode of The Martian Drive-In Podcast will be unleashed at the end of April, 2012.