Too Silly: Lost in Space, Anaconda, Escape From L.A.

Steven Dutch, Natural and Applied Sciences, University of Wisconsin - Green Bay
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Lost in Space

Sure, Lost in Space was a campy TV show in the Sixties, so awful it was fun. Could the movie version really be that bad? Oh yes! It’s a bad news, good news, bad news thing. The bad news is the movie doesn’t have a coherent plot. The good news is that you get three mini-movies instead. The bad news is that the mini-movies are really awful. It's not Plan Nine From Outer Space bad, just decrepit.

The earth is doomed. Recycling and conservation have come too late to stop the eventual collapse of the environment. The only salvation is to leave, and to do that we need a portal in space. So a starship is dispatched to install one. Without the portal at the far end, ships using hyperspace jump to random, unpredictable locations in space. Sort of like the script of this movie. But (ominous music here) an evil conspiracy wants the plan to fail. Why? Do they want to die? Do they have an alternate plan of their own? Why don’t they just hijack the mission and hold earth for ransom? What exactly is their agenda? We never find out. But hey, that’s merely the first of many details to fall through the cracks. The cracks eventually widen to interstellar scale, so this crack, a mere ten meters wide, is microscopic in comparison.

So the evil conspiracy sneaks evil Dr. Smith aboard the ship to sabotage it. After he reports success, the conspirators zap him by remote control and leave him for dead. Does this make sense? Here you’ve got a good evil henchman who successfully pulls off a piece of sabotage. So why not take him out for a Happy Meal as a reward, maybe give him a promotion and a medal? Or if you really must kill him, get him off the ship first so the crew doesn’t start wondering “Hey, where did this body come from?”

The starship, which is a huge disc-like affair, takes off from the surface. They don’t build this monster in orbit, they launch it from the ground. Then, to ensure maximum fuel inefficiency, they launch it straight up so the disk is plowing face-on through the air. Then, once it’s in space, the protective shell falls away to reveal - a ship more streamlined than it was when it took off. With this sort of approach to energy conservation, maybe the human race deserves to die out.

Doctor Smith isn’t really dead, just stunned, and alerts the crew just in the nick of time so they can avert destruction. But the only way to avoid plowing into the sun is to activate the hyperspace drive, except that without the target portal in place, the ship could end up anywhere. They are - you’ll never guess - Lost in Space. That’s where the title comes from. Pretty tricky, huh? The pilot wants to kill Doctor Smith, but everyone else realizes that a family isn’t complete without a villain perpetually escaping from confinement, scheming to kill them, then wheedling his way out of trouble to do it all over again.

A bunch of stuff happens, then the ship receives a transmission that turns out to be from a friend, sent ten years after the starship took off. What’s the significance of the message? Another item that fell through the cracks. They come upon an abandoned ship and board it. On board they find a bunch of extremely nasty spider-like creatures. Where did the spiders come from? What did they eat on the ship? More details. Also they rescue a little digital lemur-like creature, which serves two purposes: to be a really cloying pet for teenage Penny Robinson, and show that someone on the production crew can write simple animation programs in BASIC.

The starship crash lands on a planet where the family detects a "time bubble." The hole in time is a few miles across, or a lot smaller than the holes in the plot. When the time bubble starts shrinking, everyone escapes to the ship except the father, who watches in horror as the ship takes off and blows up.

At the center of the bubble is another copy of the starship, thirty years in the future. Aboard it are son Billy, now forty years old, and Doctor Smith, who conceals himself with a hood. All the other family members died years before. Doctor Smith connives to use the shrinking time bubble to escape to the other ship before it crashes, sort of like jumping ship to be picked up by the Titanic. Billy discovers to his horror that Doctor Smith had been bitten by one of the spiders and has turned into one himself (you have to wonder why he never suspected something might be unusual with the weird costume and all). Doctor Smith, it turns out, killed (and probably ate) everyone else. So Billy turns on Smith and helps his father escape just in time to assist in controlling the other ship and prevent it from crashing. But if the ship escapes from the planet, it won’t be there thirty years later, so what’s in the time bubble? Avoiding time-travel paradoxes is hard enough in good science fiction. In this mess, forget it.

I may have a few details wrong, but in this film, where no detail is connected to any other, it really doesn’t matter any.

Anaconda

We start off with an anthropological expedition heading up the Amazon in search of a lost tribe. Actually, the tribe isn't lost, but nobody else knows where it is. There's the anthropologist (Eric Stoltz) and a film director (Jennifer Lopez), who apparently have, or had, a relationship. There's Lopez' black assistant (Ice Cube), the sound man and his girl friend Baby Bird (a nickname she acquires later in the film), and an abrasive, arrogant English narrator we can call The English Impatient. Apparently David Attenborough wanted too much money. He brings aboard, among other things, cases of champagne and golf equipment. There's also the riverboat pilot who gets in a few scenes shirtless, looking a bit like Fabio with mange.

Hmmm. Jennifer Lopez and Ice Cube. Are we perhaps looking at Anaconda: The Musical if this film succeeds?

On the way upriver, they pick up Sarone (Jon Voight), a stranded ex-seminarian turned snake catcher. He just happens to know where the lost tribe is, but really wants to lure the boat into the territory of a huge anaconda, which he intends to catch. The logic of this is a tad baffling, since kidnap victims are not going to make for very effective help, and the money he plans to make off his catch ought to be enough to attract any number of desperadoes willing to take risks. (But the film is only starting - the logic of the rest of it makes this part look like Aristotle.) Mike Nelson in Movie Megacheese claims Voight has the accent of the commercial cartoon character the Frito Bandito. How an otherwise perceptive writer can be so wrong amazes me. He doesn't have the accent of the Frito Bandito. He has the accent of the Frito Bandito doing a really bad impression of Marlon Brando in The Godfather ("We're gonna make that snake an offer he can' refuse). 

The propeller gets fouled, and Stoltz goes down with scuba gear to free it. He apparently went to the Scuba School Where They Don't Teach You To Inspect Your Gear, because he is stung by a large, poisonous wasp lurking in his mouthpiece. Voight announces this is very serious, and that Stoltz must get to a hospital immediately, and he just happens to know a short cut. Unfortunately, the fuel barrels all get knocked overboard soon after and sink. The physics of this is just a wee bit perplexing, since the barrels were full of diesel fuel and air, both of which are lighter than water. Well, maybe it was leaded gas. 

Now they need fuel, too. Or maybe they could just get into the main channel and let the current carry them downstream. No, they come up on an abandoned building where they stop to try to find more fuel. It's there. So is the anaconda, who gulps down the pilot. Voight muses that it's really too bad about the pilot and all, but a snake like that could really be worth a ton of money, and recruits the sound man into his plot. Sound Man soon pays for his treachery by becoming a sound bite in full view of Baby Bird, who was also his lover.

Voight takes over the boat for real, nyah-hah-hah, and in one of the few redeeming scenes in the film, slaps around The English Impatient and forces him to carry his gear. The other passengers plot to take the boat back. Lopez tries to seduce Voight in a style so ham-handed even he can see through it, and when Black Dude tries to sneak up from behind, Voight is quick to stop him. But the passengers have a back-up plan (about the only intelligent idea in the film) and The English Impatient blind-sides Voight with a golf club. So Voight ends up tied up in perfect cartoon fashion with 3/4 inch rope around the hands and four loops around the body. Not under the arms so he can't wriggle loose, just around the body. Why people think it's more secure to tie up someone with big ropes, I'll never know. Have you ever tried to tie a tight knot in a thick rope? Give me the PVC cord they use at the lumber yard to tie down plywood any day. 

Now, what to do about Baby Bird? She's cute, but we already have Jennifer Lopez, and she's so hysterical over the loss of Sound Bite that we can rule out any nude scenes. And a snake eating a tiny, pretty girl would be in poor taste even in this film. So we have to get rid of her somehow. The boat gets fouled on a sandbar next to a waterfall, and the other passengers, with great trepidation, get into the water to fix cables to winch it free. That leaves Baby Bird and Voight on the boat. Baby Bird comes at Voight with a knife, seeking revenge, but Voight whips out his legs, which were not tied, grabs her around the neck and strangles her. I have my doubts this could be done even if Baby Bird were the one tied up, but she obligingly forgets the use of her hands and the knife and dies. Voight pushes her overboard and gets free. 

Black Dude sees a ripple coming through the water weeds and yells for everyone to get aboard. The English Impatient is cut off from the boat but scrambles ashore and starts climbing the rocks of the waterfall, pursued by the snake. Now snakes look like fire hose and have an IQ only marginally greater, so how this particular snake evolved a conception of revenge is a biological mystery. Also, anyone who's ever kept a snake knows they can eat, say, a mouse and be happy for a week. This snake snorks down human beings like popcorn. The snake corners The English Impatient high on the waterfall. From below, the falls looks like they are perhaps a hundred feet high, but from his vantage point it looks like looking over the edge of Angel Falls. You can see the Eiffel Tower on the horizon. But the English Impatient decides to jump and the snake catches him in mid-air! The snake is coiled around a tree, which falls from the extra weight and lands on the boat. Jennifer Lopez goes to shoot the snake and chaos reigns as Voight battles for the gun. Stoltz (remember him?) recovers from his stupor long enough to zap Voight with a tranquilizer dart. Voight falls in the water. And the tree? Now they're not only stuck under a sandbar but tangled in the branches of a tree? Nope. Black Dude announces "The tree knocked us free." 

Now we're down to Stoltz, Lopez, and Black Dude. They sail on and pull in at an abandoned sawmill hoping to find fuel. Lopez and Black Dude go ashore (Stoltz is unconscious again). There, they are met by Voight and the snake. This is a major medical mystery, how unconscious people can fall in the water and not drown, but recover and get someplace ahead of the heroes. (The very best illogical pursuit scene ever is in Disney's The Emperor's New Groove, where the villainess and her klutzy assistant are pursuing the king and his rescuer, but get to the palace ahead of them. "Wait. How did we get here first? I dunno, logically we shouldn't have. Oh well.") Voight, whose entire scheme has depended on needing help because he couldn't catch the snake alone, tries to catch the snake alone, using Lopez and Black Dude for bait. They are - you'll never guess in a million years - tied up back to back cartoon style with four loops of rope around the body, outside the arms. The scheme backfires, Voight gets et, and then the snake, still not satisfied (are humans like Chinese food to anacondas?) goes after Lopez. Black Dude douses the snake with fuel and sets it afire, and suddenly the snake has other things on its mind. It writhes in agony as it burns, but although it has spent most of the time up till now in the water, for some odd reason it stays on the surface and burns. The snake gets in one last shot at devouring someone before Black Dude finishes it off. On the way home, the surviving trio see the lost tribe and decide, hey, roll film. 

Now isn't this going to present just a wee bit of a problem when the survivors get home? They started out with seven people and come home with three. Aren't people going to ask a few questions? And won't the po-lice be just a bit skeptical of "oh, they were eaten by a giant snake?" Won't the riverboat company wonder where their pilot is, or will they merely say "hey, don't cut that last paycheck?" Shouldn't they at least have fished the dead snake out and brought it back for some kind of proof? And when they get home and the dead folks' relatives hire lawyers, Stoltz and Lopez are going to wish they'd let that anaconda eat them. 

Escape From L.A.

A cheerfully awful movie, starring Kurt Russsell as Ssssnake Plissssken, and there ought to be an Academy Award for whoever came up with than name!

In the near future, the U.S. is ruled by a theocracy that dumps all its bad apples in the ruins of Los Angeles, which was turned into an island by a super earthquake. The President's rebel daughter has stolen a Doomsday device and fled to L.A., and prisoner Plissken is sent in to get her back. The incentive? He's been infected with an engineered virus that will kill him if he doesn't.

It's your typical post-apocalyptic zoo, featuring warlords, mercenaries and the obligatory gladiatorial combat. The daughter has linked up with one rebel leader who's in league with foreign forces planning to attack the U.S. The Doomsday device is the control to a satellite system that can generate a crippling electromagnetic pulse that will knock out all electrical equipment, "even batteries." Plissken captures it, finds out that the fatal virus was all a hoax, sets off the device and walks off into the global dark age.

The special effects are so stupendously terrible they're fun. They look like what I was doing on an Apple II in 1985. Don't miss the scene where a tsunami washes Plissken up a ravine on a surfboard, and he overtakes and leaps into a speeding car.


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Created 15 August, 2001, Last Update 02 June 2010  

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