Last week I saw two movies that I want to contrast and compare. The first film is the 1969 Toho science fiction tour de force Latitude Zero. Its highlights include: guys in stupid looking man-bat costumes suspended on visible wires, obvious model submarines, hideous science-fiction futuristic clothing, terrible dialogue, Cesar Romero, brain transplants and lasers. Fun!
The second film was Transformers: Dark of the Moon, a Michael Bay tour de force which features: computer generated robots bouncing up and down like hyperactive children, a female lead that was she was freakin’ weird looking, terrible dialogue, John Turturro, energon transplants and explosions. Fun?
Bad special effects, nonsensical science and nonsensical plots are par for the course. They can be campy. They can be silly. Yet, whatever the perceived failings of Japanese science fiction movies; I would be hard pressed to think of one that wasn’t entertaining. I am always happy to see one that I’ve not seen before. Welcome to Latitude Zero.
The plot is simple. Captain Craig McKenzie (Joseph Cotton), who is a mix of college dean and Captain Nemo, leads Latitude Zero, a Utopian community under the sea. He has a super-submarine and an arsenal of high tech gadgets. McKenzie’s nemesis is the evil Dr Malic (Cesar Romero). Malic, who has his own super-submarine, is obsessed with besting McKenzie and destroying Latitude Zero. Malic kidnaps a Japanese scientist and his daughter who were to on their way join McKenzie and his crew. Captain McKenzie and his friends mount a rescue.
If I had to sum up Latitude Zero, I would describe it as a watered down James Bond movie minus James Bond. The gadgets are there. The mad villain surrounded by henchmen and hotties in the fantastic hide-out is there. The gee-wiz pulp action is there. All of these attributes are to be expected. After all, Latitude Zero is adapted from an American 1940s radio adventure serial of the same name written by Ted Sherdeman (Sherdeman who also wrote Them! You have probably seen the 1986 James Cameron remake, Aliens).
Latitude Zero was Toho producer Tomoyuki Tanaka’s bid to make a big budget American-styled science fiction movie. To that point, Toho was mostly known to audiences outside of Japan for their kaiju movies such as Godzilla, Mothra and Rodan. Tanaka, it seems, wanted to expand Toho’s reach.
In the American market foreign language films have a problem getting traction outside their core audience, hamstrung by the need for subtitles or dubbing. Another hurdle in the American market is that Americans need American characters with whom they can identify. I could go on at length, but I’ll save that soap box rant for another day. Tanaka wanted Latitude Zero to have the widest possible audience and he gets past these obstacles by casting several American actors including: Joseph Cotton, Cesar Romero, Richard Jaeckel, and Linda Haynes. The entire production is filmed with the Japanese actors delivering their lines, like their American counterparts, in English.
Latitude Zero, despite the Americanization, it still full of Toho goodness. Directed by Ishiro Honda with effects by Eiji Tsuburaya, the film has the same sense of playfulness that most of Toho’s sci-fi and kaiju films share. The violence is pretty mild. The giant rat and bat creatures are not very scary looking. I’m guessing that was deliberate. Tanaka, Honda and Tsuburaya by this time where making their movies with an eyes toward for younger and younger audiences.
Speaking of yoofs, we can now move to Transformers: Dark of the Moon. This is latest installment of Michael Bay’s epic trilogy, based on a cartoon from the 1980s, which in turn was based on a series of robot toys.
What’s it about? Well, I’d say it’s about an hour too long! Ha! Okay, here is the skinny: There are two camps of robots, one group seeks to rebuild their war torn home world. The other group is resigned to the loss and seeks to build a place for themselves on Earth. There is robot fighting. There are other scenes were people talk. There is more robot fighting. The movie ends.
Tranformers: Dark of the Moon opens with metal robots flying in a metal space ship. They are being shot at with bits of metal. Inside the ship, with every hit it takes there are more bit of metal. Everywhere, flying bit of metal. I have a hard time discerning what is going on. Everything is made of the same colors and textures. There are lots of things moving very fast.
There is something wrong with this. I have been watching action movies for years with effects that, as the yoofs of today might say, “Look really tight.” So why, during action scenes, am I never on the edge of my seat? There are explosions! There are things flying all over the place! Everything is moving fast! There are occasional bursts of bullet time slow motion, so you can stop for a moment and see how many things are on the screen, before the film resumes ludicrous speed. And lastly, to make sure I know that I am watching an action movie the SOUND GOES UP TO REALLY FREAKIN’ LOUD!
I’m wiping the blood from my ears. I finally realize what it is that I hate about CGI: The lighting of the objects is just off enough, the physics are just off enough, the textures are just off enough to where my brain says “Pthhhh, that’s not real. That’s a video game cut scene.” There is no risk in a video game cut scene and that undermines the action. That and the fact that half of the action sequences I see in modern CGI laden films are so fast and indistinct, like the scene I just decribed, that I have no idea what is going on.
It been reported that the Transformers when transforming from a robot to a car, for example, can have upwards of 10,000 moving bits and pieces. I’ve been told that every one of those pieces fits together logically. If, for example, you follow the left side mirror, you can see that it becomes the cheek bone of the transformed Autobot. That’s really impressive; but it doesn’t make the movie any better.
Hollywood is so focused on the spectacular; so focused on more and faster and louder that they let most basic elements suffer. “Characters? Plot? Screw all that,” says Hollywood, “Go see an art film.” It’s hard to blame them.
Since Jaws, the big studios are looking to release the next big blockbuster. The three Transformers films have collectively made nearly 3 billion dollars in world-wide box office receipts and a further 600 million dollars in home video sales in the United States alone. Good or bad, Hollywood has three and a half billion reasons to make Transformers: Megatron’s Xtreme Dance Party! And those are the reason that matter most.
You might be saying to yourself, “Hey, Rob, isn’t this like comparing apples and oranges? Aren’t these are two very different films from two different eras?” Yeah, on the surface they are very different. They also have some commonalities, the foremost being that both films are designed to have crossover appeal, targeting two different audiences — adults and children. Both movies are presented as science-fiction fun rides.
Toho was keenly aware that audience for their science-fiction movies was increasingly made up of children. To their credit, Toho’s offerings never dumbed things down and always tried to impart a message, often reinforcing the value of the common good over personal desires. Greed, bullying and irresponsibility are punished. Personal sacrifice and working for the common good is often rewarded.
In Latitude Zero, it’s clear that Captain McKenzie is powerful. It’s also clear that he isn’t interested in personal gain, but devotes his efforts to the common good. At every turn he proves a model of restraint. Ethically unambiguous, he leads his people by virtue of his moral authority rather than force or position.
The Transformers tries to do the same, in that it wants to appeal to kids and grown-ups. The leader of the good guys is Optimus Prime who, like Captain McKenzie, leads from example. His sense of ethics is uncompromising. Instead of taking the expedient path to win, Prime does what is right. That was the cartoon. In the most recent film, Prime and his Autobot followers often place expediency over ethics. Prime allows humans to be killed, the Autobots kill in cold blood and finally Prime himself commits murder.
Further, Transformers: Dark of the Moon is laced with chauvinism. Almost every woman in the movie shown in a negative light, often depicted in a sexually overt and crude manner. Though I will say Transformers: Dark of the Moon does take a moment to pause and dish out a little homophobia. It’s not that I feel a need skewer the movie out of political correctness. It’s just bad writing – lazy and dishonest. In lieu of discernible personalities, the robots are given odd accents and act in a variety of racial and cultural stereotypes. There is one Autobot who talks like Mike Myers doing his awful Scottish Shrek voice. Really? Really? To me it’s less like offensive and more like annoying.
The only thing interesting about the Transformers: Dark of the Moon is the question it accidently poses about means and ends. The Decepticons are patriots of a sort. Their goal is the resurrection of their home world. They are not picky about the means, which includes looting the planet and enslaving the people of Earth. The Autobots have their own set of values, claiming to champion freedom and digital apple pie and whatnot. Yet they are willing to comprise themselves morally — lying and killing, in an effort to stymie the plans of the Decepticons.
In contrast to Latitude Zero or even The Transformers cartoon from the 1980s, this movie has nothing worthwhile for kids. There is no message. There is no sense of wonder, fun or adventure. It’s all violence and spectacle, like old timey bear-baiting shows.
What works in Transformers: Dark of the Moon is entirely technical. There is a tremendous amount of hard work here done by some very talented people. Each shot is done with care. It spends two plus hours yelling in your face “Look what I can do! Look what I can do!” It lacks heart and sensitivity. Pint sized robots talking like Joe Pesci, showing a space shuttle explode, racial stereo types, heroes that commit murder, blatant objectification of women are all ingredients that sour the sweetness of the special effects. How can I enjoy this movie if all it wants to do in annoy me?
Latitude Zero, on the other hand, had no rich Uncle Moneybags. Toho’s in-house effects geniuses, lacking in time and resources, make what they can with cleverness and ingenuity. Even so, Latitude Zero can’t touch Transformers: Dark of the Moon in terms of technical excellence. That being said, Latitude Zero wins in the one category that matters most to me: fun.
Every year I find myself more and more inclined towards renting or buying independently produced or foreign horror and science fiction when it comes to new releases. I’m far more inclined watch something made forty years ago (or older) than whatever is being pimped this month. I still go to the movies, just not very often.
The Final Score:
Latitude Zero – It’s goofy. It’s fun. If you’re the sort of person who likes tongue-in-cheek mad scientist movies, you’ll like this one too. Three of five.
Transformers: Dark of the Moon – It’s 200 million dollars worth of high speed meh. One and a half of five.