by Aaron Einhorn
Hey everyone, Aaron here to bring you the report from this year’s 37th Annual Case Western Science Fiction Marathon, held every year the first week before classes resume at the Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, Ohio. I’ve been a long-time attendee of the The 24-Hour Ohio Science Fiction Marathon held in Columbus each Spring, and last year, for the first time, ventured up to Cleveland for this event. I dragged a few buddies along with me – who had never attended any of the science fiction film marathons – and at 6:00 p.m. On Friday evening, we stepped into Strosacker Auditiorium on the Case Western Campus full of eagerness, anticipation, and perhaps just a bit of nerves.
The line-up for the event was pretty heavily on the modern film, but a surprising number of the films were ones where I had never made it to the theatre to catch the movie, with three surprises in the line-up:
- Cowboys & Aliens
- Bride of Frankenstein
- SURPRISE I
- The Rocketeer
- The Mummy
- Back to the Future
- SURPRISE II
- The Andromeda Strain
- The Call of Cthulhu
- SURPRISE III
- X-Men: First Class
- Super 8
- Jurassic Park
As I discovered last year, the CWRU Science Fiction Marathon traditionally includes several surprise films, and usually they tease the film with trailers beforehand, so people can attempt to guess the upcoming film.
The Marathon began at 8:00 p.m. ET on Friday, January 20, 2011 and ran until (I’m guessing) 4 a.m. on Sunday, January 22. So, without further ado, here’s my recap of the event.
As I already knew from last year, the marathons at CWRU are a very different experience than the Columbus marathons I’d been attending for the past twenty-plus years. The mood was a good deal more rowdy and low-tech – this was an event being put on my a student organization on a college campus, not in a traditional theatre, and it showed. The ticket sales, concessions, and seating arrangements were all low-tech, cash only. The signs were hand-made, and people were everywhere. Sleeping bags and air mattresses were splayed on the stage of the auditorium, there was tons of stuff on the seats, and there was a palpable buzz in the air.
In other words, you could tell that this was a well-loved event, and people were excited. But you could also tell that things were going to get a little rough in places. It was kind of exciting, which was good. It was also needed, because having the event begin on Friday night meant that I was already exhausted before the first film even started, something I was a bit afraid for.
Also unlike the Columbus marathons, there was no host organisms, although a member of the CWRU Film Society did welcome us at the beginning of the night, and a few other appearances were made on the stage by both students and the faculty adviser. The Columbus Marathons are partially characterized by contests, give-aways, and quips from the hosts between films, so I’m still getting used to the lack of that element here – although one of the hosts of the Columbus marathons was at the event, and I would often chat with him between movies.
After the introduction, we got a science-fiction themed “theatre rules” video, a trailer for The Dark Crystal, our first cartoon of the night, and then moved straight in to the event.
Cowboys & Aliens
Although theoretically based on Platinum Dunes graphic novel of the same name, I had never gotten around to seeing Cowboys & Aliens when it was in the theatres this past year. I’m not sure why that is. Perhaps it was just a matter of timing. Perhaps it was the plethora of superhero films that had been in theatres. Or maybe… just maybe… I was able to look past the very glitzy trailer, and the inclusion of Daniel “James Bond” Craig, Harrison “Han Solo” Ford, and Olivia “Dear God, Could This Woman Be Any Hotter” Wilde, and realize that this wasn’t going to be a terribly good film?
Sadly, I don’t think I was able to make the assessment beforehand, and I went in to Cowboys & Aliens hoping to at least get “Independence Day in the Old West”. Unfortunately, the movie didn’t even live up to those relatively modest standards. The actual battles between the aliens and our ragged band of western cliches were fairly well shot, and the special effects were decent, but the film as a whole was a hot mess. The pacing was all of the place, the urgency never materialized, and most significantly, the characters were largely unlikable.
This actually takes some doing. Harrison Ford, Danile Craig, Olivia Wilde and Sam Rockwell are all very accomplished actors, and full of on-screen charisma. To make it so that the only character I found even somewhat likable was Clancy “The Kurgen” Brown’s tough-as-nails preacher, really takes effort. Misplaced effort, to be sure, but effort. On the other hand, at least we got Cowboys & Aliens out of the way early on, so we could move on to (hopefully) more enjoyable fare.
Bride of Frankenstein
This movie is a classic by anyone’s standards, and if we’ve all seen it before, that’s no reason not to treat it with the love and respect it deserves. As I wrote about during my review of the 3rd Annual Shock Around the Clock, Columbus’s Horror Movie Marathon, held this past October, “The Universal classics take a turn towards the silly shortly after this one, but Bride of Frankenstein is one of the best sequels that has ever been made, carrying on the tones and characters from the original perfectly.” When I saw it this past October, the film was presented on video, so I was really looking forward to catching it in film once again. Karloff brings an amazing degree of empathy to the monster in this movie, Clive is great as the Doctor, and I just really love this movie.
All of which led to a great deal of heartbreak for me. Before Bride began, we got a clip from the local Hoolihan & Big Chuck late-night movie show. Most areas had one or more hosted shows where films were shown, intercut with clips, quips, and skits from the host. Elvira is perhaps the most famous example of this phenomenon, but many local TV stations had their equivilant, and Big Chuck and Hoolihan were one of such from Cleveland. I found the first clip entertaining enough, but since I’m not a native of Cleveland, it didn’t have the nostalgia-goggles that would have made watching it really fun. Sadly, we didn’t get just one cut-in during Bride – we got a airtime’s worth of interruptions, and the jokes got really old for me, really fast. Especially since I really was looking forward to Bride, and I began to resent each interruption.
Needless to say, this had me in not the best of moods moving in to the first surprise. I’ve been told that the first surprise for this event tends to be a terrible film (last year I was treated subjected to Battlefield Earth), so I was kind of dreading what we might end up seeing as the trailers began.
You see, the trailers that precede each surprise are hints about what film is going to play – and this time around, we ended up with trailers for Spider-Man 3, 2010, X2: and a Popeye cartoon with Lil’ Sweet Pea. What was the unifying connection? Were we in for a bad superhero sequel? Well, no, actually. The connection was space travel, evolution of apes, raising a little one, and James Franco, Brian Cox, and Jon Lithgow. And the film?
Rise of the Planet of the Apes
Another film from the past year that I just never made it out to see, Rise of the Planet of the Apes had an interesting challenge ahead of it. You see, from the first announcement of the film, I had little hope for it. Fox’s previous attempts to restart the Apes universe had gone… poorly. I had little love for James Franco as an actor, and some things are often better left as mysteries. Prequels that explain how we got to a certain point rarely do so satisfyingly, and even if Frida Pinto is easy on the eyes, and Andy Serkis is the best motion-capture actor of our age, I just didn’t think we were going to end up with anything all that watchable. Resultingly, despite hearing that Rise of the Planet of the Apes was actually good from many of my friends, I never made it out to the theatres to see it.
I sort of regret that now, although in some ways, I’m glad that my first experience with the film was with a marathon crowd. Rise of the Planet of the Apes is an amazing film, filled with meaningful performances, an amazing lack of “stupid rays” forcing the characters to do awful things, and the slow, exhausting pull of watching a train wreck. By this, I mean that from the first beat, we can see how the choices made are going to lead to disaster after disaster. People are going to suffer, die, and mankind is going to be wiped out and replaced by hyper-intelligent apes, and there are a million little spots along this path to hell where a different set of good intentions could have averted the disaster – but instead, things proceed as we know they must.
It’s solid storytelling, with elements of pure greek tragedy. And Serkis steals the show as Cesar. If you haven’t already seen Rise of the Planet of the Apes, it’s available now on DVD/Blu-Ray and some on-demand services. Check it out.
For many a year, The Rocketeer has been on my list of under-rated superhero films. Directed by Joe Johnston, and released in 1991, this Disney-released film was an amazingly solid tale of a young pilot who ends up with a rocket pack, and finds himself caught between the FBI, the Mob and the Nazis. Cliff’s transformation into a reluctant hero is a touching story, and when supported by a cast that includes a very fetching Jennifer Connelly as the love-interest, and includes Timothy Dalton as the scenery-chewing, villainous Neville Sinclair, The Rocketeer remains a great, solid film which should be caught by any superhero film fan.
Fortunately for me, the audience must have been stunned into silence by the previous film – either that or they were dealing with the exhaustion brought about by being shown at 2:30 in the morning – and so I was able to really sit back and enjoy The Rocketeer with a minimum amount of snark. Between the monkey movie and The Rocketeer, I was feeling pretty good at this point, and looking forward to the next film in the line-up.
There are a litany of complaints one could levy at the feet of The Mummy. It in no way resembles the horror film it draws its roots from. The action is somewhat predictable. Brendan Fraser never feels like he belongs in the 1930s. And as time has gone, the CGI animation that provides so much of the film’s special effects begin to feel dated.
And if you want to get hung up on these issues, I suppose you have that right. It’s there for you to complain about. But The Mummy is also an amazingly fun movie. The pacing of this film is tight, moving swiftly and effortlessly from one scene to another. While Fraser gets the lion’s share of the snarky one liners, that doesn’t mean that the rest of the cast isn’t given opportunity to shine – and Fraser’s Rick O’Connell is far from an invincible action hero.
Rounded out with the delectable Rachel Weisz as Evelyn, and giving audiences their first real taste of Arnold Vosloo as Imhotep, The Mummy is another fun and enjoyable film – and if it is somewhat light on the hardcore science-fiction or horror elements, that can be overlooked for the sense of enjoyment one has during the film’s conclusions. While I never need to see either of the movie’s sequels, The Mummy remains a pleasurable experience, and one that gave me a much-needed jolt of energy as we neared the break of dawn. Perhaps the only film remaining in the announced line-up that had as much likelihood of being purely enjoyable was the one that followed it…
Back to the Future
I am old enough that I actually was able to catch Back to the Future in the theatres when it originally aired. I remember loving it, owning it on VHS (I don’t have it on DVD or Blu-Ray yet), and I eagerly awaited the sequel.
Incidentally, this also makes Back to the Future one of the first times that I learned just how bad sequels can be compared to the original.
That said, I certainly haven’t seen in it a theatre since then, and I couldn’t tell you when the last time I saw it on TV might’ve been. So I was cautiously optimistic about seeing it again, and discovering how well it held up. And I lucked out, because seeing it again was absolutely awesome. Marty McFly’s adventure – while predictable – remains fun, and the pacing on the film is tight enough that I never once grew bored, even knowing the beats in advance. Additionally, I had really forgotten how amazing Lea Thompson looked in the 1980s.
This was easily another highlight of the event for me, and another film that held up to my expectations and hopes.
If you’ve read my reviews from previous Columbus marathons, both horror and science-fiction, you’ll have noticed that there is a sad history of those events and the film Slither. Nathan Fillion’s battle against the slug-based critters has been booked at no less than three of the Columbus events, and been canceled each time. In fact, after it was canceled during the 2011 Horror Marathon, we joked that from here on into perpetuity, the schedule should list “The Annual Cancelation of Slither”. I told those around me that I would laugh myself silly if the movie were canceled here.
Astonishingly, Slither was not canceled. That said, I didn’t get to see it. The friends I brought to the event were desperately in need of something solid for food that didn’t come from the (very reasonably priced) concession stand. And so, as we approached 11:00 a.m., we left the theatre in search for food. The audience seemed to enjoy Slither, and hopefully I will finally see it, some day, at a future Columbus event.
We did get back in time to prepare for the next surprise film. This time around, the teasing trailers were of a very mixed bag. We found ourselves viewing the trailers for The Rocky Horror Picture Show, Licence to Kill and Ingmar Bergman’s The Passion of Anna – a mixed bag, to be sure. And what unifying factors were we supposed to take from this? Why, Richard O’Brien, Timothy Dalton, and Max Von Sydow, each of whom menaced the hero we know as…
Flash… ah-ah! If you have any memory of film from the eighties, you almost certainly remember Queen’s bizarrely catchy soundtrack for Flash Gordon. Flash Gordon is a pure camp film, from Flash’s attitude, to Hans Zarkoff’s bizarre quirks, to Dale Arden’s NYC sensabilities. Brian Blessed plays himself as the leader of the Hawk Men “DIVE!”, and Timothy Dalton plays himself as Prince Baron. Max Von Sydow is absolutely the scene-stealing champion of this film, however, with his bizarre and awesome portrayal of Ming the Merciless.
If you don’t have a set of nostalgia goggles for this film (which was the case for one of our band of travelers), I can see how this film would start to lose you. But personally, I loved every bizarre minute of it, and I happily sung along with Freddie Mercury.
“Later. I like to play with things a while before annihilation.”
The Andromeda Strain
Michael Crichton’s story of a NASA probe, returned to Earth and carrying an extraterrestrial plague, is a fascinating look at both biowarfare and the Cold War mindset. Based on Crichton’s scientific and medical background, the film is full of interesting science and has several halfway decently rounded out characters.
It is also really, really slow. And this can make it a very risky film for any film marathon event. Placed at the wrong time in the schedule, it can be really hard to stay awake for this movie, and the last time it aired at a Columbus marathon, I missed about half of it.
Fortunately, playing in the early afternoon, I was well prepared for The Andromeda Strain this time around, and I thoroughly enjoyed myself during this film. I heard several complaints from those around me about the lack of “conflict” in this film, and it’s true that there isn’t really an antagonist to be found – but theatre and literature have long said that a story’s conflict can be Man vs. Nature or Man vs. Himself, and we had plenty of both in this film. If there is one thing I find unwanted, it’s the “climax” with the race to shut down the self-destruct. The film is ultimately about finding the cure for Andromeda, and that’s enough without the threat of a nuke destroying the facility.
The Call of Cthulhu
If you’ve looked around on the internet, and especially if you’re a fan of H.P. Lovecraft and his Cthulhu mythos, then you have probably heard about this film. Entirely fan-produced by the HP Lovecraft Historical Society, this film is done as a silent film from the 1920s, features a stop-motion Great Old One, and a host of amateur actors.
If you’re a strong fan of Lovecraft’s story, then you will probably really enjoy The Call of Cthulhu. You couldn’t ask for a more faithful translation of Lovecraft’s work, and the silent film approach is a good way to handle the material. It certainly captured the sense of dread that pervades Lovecraft’s writing. As a film fan, I was left indifferent by the film. The acting was passable, but not exceptional. The tale was paced like the short story, which doesn’t work all that well as a film, and for wanting to make a silent film, I wish they had done a bit more research into that style. The camera angles and speed of cuts matched that of a modern film, not the films of the 1920s, and I would have liked they to try to match that approach – along with just making it silent and black and white.
I don’t want to make it sound like I hated the film – I certainly didn’t. And if I had found it as a YouTube video, I would have been thrilled. But for a prime slot in the marathon, I didn’t feel like it delivered. Also, considering that we were a full hour behind at this point, and the film’s running time is an hour… yeah, I would’ve been happy to see a command decision to skip this one – especially since it was the only digital film projection (as opposed to using film) this time around.
But enough with the belly-aching! Surprise Number Three was on it’s way… and I had no idea what to expect from this. The teasing trailers did very little to help, as we received a look at the Tom & Jerry episode “The Bodyguard”, The Witches of Eastwicke, The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the Eighth Dimension, and Buffy the Vampire Slayer. What did these films have in common? Why, they all shared cast members with the 1978 version of…
Invasion of the Body Snatchers
Are you paranoid? No? Would you like to be? If so, watch this film. Invasion of the Body Snatchers started life as a McCarthyism-era metaphor, and has grown to represent every conspiracy theory you’ve ever had. The original film takes place in a small town, and stars Kevin McCarthy as the hero, while the 1978 remake takes Donald Sutherland, moves the film to New York City, and ratchets the creepiness factor up by ten. One nice moment – and one that was missed by viewers who didn’t know the original – was the appearance of an older McCarthy in the midst of the film. It’s a great call-back to the original, and in some ways makes this movie more a sequel than a remake.
This is a movie I’ve seen at marathons in the past, and I wasn’t really looking forward to it once it began. I felt very much that it was a safe sci-fi choice, and a film we all have seen before, so why bother? But once I came back in from a short mind-clearing trip in the lobby, I found myself really drawn in. Sutherland is excellent here, giving us both strength and compassion, and his transition from skeptic to believer is entirely convincing. Leonard Nimoy and Jeff Goldblum both provide great supporting character roles, and the special effects are… well… oogy.
One thing I will certainly tell you… it’s easy to keep yourself awake after watching Invasion of the Body Snatchers, and while I don’t really need to see it again soon, it is certainly a film worth revisiting.
X-Men: First Class
By the time this film was slated to begin, I began to worry. We were already nearing the 24-hour mark of the marathon (and getting closer to 36 hours that I’d been awake, not counting some head nods during earlier films). And I’ve seen X-Men: First Class. Several times. Twice in the theatres, and once since purchasing the Blu-ray. Was I really going to be able to make it through again? And unfortunately, the answer was “not really”.
X-Men: First Class has some great elements to it, and contains a really, really good story involving Charles, Eric, Raven and Hank. The Shaw plot is decent, and Kevin Bacon is a perfectly adequate Sebastian Shaw. Unfortunately, the secondary mutants are all fairly forgettable, and as we got to the recruitment scene, I started to nod off. It wasn’t until the team had returned to Xavier’s home (and future school) that I began to wake back up and get back into it.
I was lucky – I got to see most of the excellent Magneto-seeking-revenge scenes, and I was cognizant for the finale, while I was able to largely ignore the fact that Darwin, Angel, Azazael and Riptide were in the film at all.
I’ll happily watch this one in the future – but perhaps not when I’ve already been awake for more hours than I can count using both hands and feet.
Unfortunately, it is wrapped in a plot that is incomprehensible and meandering. Clearly a script that has been written and rewritten, elements that should have been lost with earlier drafts remained in the script (possibly because rewriting happened after animation had already been completed), and what we were left with was a hot mess.
I desperately wanted to watch the entire film of 9, but it failed to grab me at any point during the first half hour of the movie, and despite having a run time that was less than 90 minutes, I dozed through most of it. When I awoke in time for the climax, I no longer knew what was happening, nor did I care enough to find out. Perhaps the film would benefit from a future re-watch, but I don’t see that happening based on my lack of interest with what I experienced. It’s a shame, because this was clearly a labor of love, and the design work really is stunning. As an experiment, 9 is kind of interesting. But as a film? It wasn’t worth the viewing.
Maybe next time…
Sadly, exhaustion and the prospect of a three-hour drive home began to set in, and as I realized that with Super 8 not ready to start until eleven, if I stayed for it and Jurassic Park, I wouldn’t make it home until close to dawn. With a wife and kids who needed me home, myself and my friends bid adieu to Strosacker Auditiorium, and I vowed to return next year. As for Abbrams and Spielberg’s films? Well, they’re both available on Blu-Ray, and I shall catch up with them soon. I was a little disappointed that Super 8 and 9 weren’t reversed, because I would really have liked to catch the former, and was fairly disappointed with the latter.
Despite some personal problems with the snark during the older films, and personal adjustments to my time-schedule, the 37th Annual Case Western Science Fiction Marathon was a lot of fun, and if you find yourself nearby in Mid-January, it’s worth checking out. One nice thing is that they do have a pay-as-you-go option, where you can watch just a few films for $4 each.
Until next time, remember that you can spend your last few hours drinking on a beach somewhere – which, by the way, is not a bad plan, that alone… bad… friend… good, to take your stinking paws off of me, you damn dirty ape, that if you’re going to build a time machine into a car, you might as well do it with style, that Flash will save every one of us, that which is dead will eternal lie, you’re next, and that peace was never an option. Good-bye, Benny.
(Source: CWRU Film Society)