There’ve been a lot of retro SF films out there which have tried to catch some of the unique flavor of SF film from past eras.
While most of these have been Fifties retreads, there have been a fair number which hearken back to the 1930s. Off hand, Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow, Monarch of the Moon and the Firesign Theater’s serial mash-up, J-Men Forever!, come to mind, although that hardly exhausts the list.
Here, we have a film which tries very hard to capture some of the fun of the old serials, with the wise scientist hero, Professor Jack, and his small group of assistants, The Electric Club. Mind you, this sounds more like one of the pulp heroes of the age such as Doc Savage (or, for that matter, Buckaroo Banzai’s Hong Kong Cavaliers).
All right, it is true that Gene Autry had his Junior Thunder Riders in The Phantom Empire, but that’s not quite the same thing. However, even the fact that we only see Professor Jack working with two of the members still leaves him with one more assistant than the average serial hero, who generally worked alone with the inevitable girl assistant, and, of course, an occasional helper who shows up for an episode or two before getting killed off, perhaps an inventor friend to come up with new gadgets for him, and sometimes a board of people he reported to, who then get killed off one by one as he tries to figure out which one is the villain (generally the last one left alive: no one ever said serial heroes were particularly bright).
But I digress. This one was obviously very, very cheap, with bargain basement video effects and obvious green screen action. Characters rarely move much in frame, at least in the long shots, and we certainly don’t have the traditional Republic serial knock-down drag-out fights. For some of you – you know who you are – that’s enough to condemn it right there.
However, I enjoyed this one, although it remains a fairly minor effort. Writer/Director/Creator/Star Jeff Waltrowski creates an amiable hero, with the emphasis more on his ingenuity than on his physical prowess. I particularly like his absurd but almost believable automatic reloading holsters for his weapon of choice – big caliber black powder single shot pistols.
Flintlocks, at that.
We also get a few nicely designed vehicles – a jet plane, a souped up biplane and his special car (based on a Tucker Torpedo!) – although, of course, they look toy-like and cartoony, thanks to the low-fi GCI.
But, more importantly, he manages to give it a nicely comic edge without descending into the sort of outright mockery far too many retro SF efforts fall into (like Larry Blamire’s Lost Skeleton of Cadavra). I particularly liked the bombastic badinage of the Professor’s alliterative main villain, Percepto (played with obvious enjoyment by David Santiago) who reminds me of the villains from the old Batman TV series
Where it falters, however, is the decision to put the Professor up against a menace from another dimension. This doesn’t seem to fit with the retro theme of the film. Certainly such a storyline wouldn’t have shown up in a Republic Serial, nor would they have equated magic with science. All in it it feels very jarring and out of place – as does an entirely unnecessary “modern women!” joke (apparently no one ever noticed that serial women were not fainting princesses but Thirties-modern gal Fridays who helped the hero rather than slowed him down, and would fight back if the villains tried to kidnap her).
Still, we have a gothic-fantasy lost island, a handful of insect men, a big sky battle, a few funny lines and a shocking reveal which is at least surprising.
It may never achieve greatness, but it is at least different from the routine and remains consistently entertaining.
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