Tuesday, February 06, 2007


To get a good idea how much science fiction cinema changed in 1977, take a look at the genre films that came out in the decade prior to Star Wars. I believe Logan's Run was the last big budget sci-fi flick to come out of Hollywood before George Lucas, for good or ill, changed the rules. Psychedelic science fiction was common then, with John Boorman's Zardoz being a perfect example. 1969's The Illustrated Man is plenty trippy too, and a film that has really stayed in my head in the few days since seeing it.

Based on a book by Ray Bradbury, which was essentially a short story anthology with the title character binding everything together, the film stars Rod Steiger as Carl, a drifter wandering the rural countryside somewhere in depression era America. He crosses paths with a young man named Willie (Robert Drivas) who is making his way on foot to California. The two men share a campfire and eventually Carl explains that he's looking for a very specific house in which resides a woman he plans to kill. This woman is responsible for the skin illustrations (Carl bursts into a rage when Willie calls them tattoos) that cover nearly every inch of his body from the neck down. The illustrations are alive, or so Carl claims, and they offer glimpses into the future.

The narrative leaps back and forth between Carl's flashback of how an enigmatic and beautiful woman named Felicia (Claire Bloom who I remember best from Robert Wise's The Haunting) came to give him the tattoos... sorry, illustrations to begin with, the story of Carl and Willie around the campfire, and three tales of the future. These stories deal with a futuristic family whose children have developed an unnatural obsession with their holographic playroom, a crew of astronauts who have crashed on an alien world and are seeking shelter, and a man and a woman dealing with the fact that the world will end in less than a day.

Oddly enough, I find it both compelling and infuriating that some things are just never explained. Carl and Felicia appear in all three future stories with no explanation as to why. Are these reincarnations, or perhaps since the stories are coming through pictures on Carl's body they're being filtered through his mind somehow? Why does Felicia give Carl the illlustrations? Like I said, it's trippy. There are some charmingly outdated visions of the future here, like the single color uniform style clothing, and a very simple looking crashed spaceship that I would bet is a recycled prop from the previous year's Planet of the Apes. The film uses a more leisurely pace than most modern films, but rather than boring the audience, director Jack Smight uses the time to deepen characterization. They definitely don't make them like this anymore, but I sure wish they did.

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