(Literal title: The Golden Grain)
What would you get if you combined Star Wars with The Princess Bride?
I don’t know, but it wouldn’t be Fantastic Games.
Not even if you threw in a bit of The Neverending Story.
Or switched out Star Wars for its extravagantly silly Italian rip-off, Starcrash (1978).
Although you would be getting closer.
Fantastic Games was the second film made by the eccentric Italian director, Alvaro Passeri, who is perhaps best remembered for his first film, the bizarre and hallucinatory Plankton [Creatures from the Abyss] (1994). He had been a special effects technician during the height of the Spaghetti Science Fiction boom of the Eighties, and worked on two of my favorite guilty pleasures, The Raiders of Atlantis (1983) and Warriors of the Year 2072 (1984). His films appear to have been made more or less independently, and I have no idea how he scraped the funding together to make them. But the three I’ve seen so far — and from what I’ve heard, his two remaining films as well — are bizarre, ludicrous, over the top and unlike any other film any reasonable human being ever conceived of, even on his worst day.
Which makes them well worth watching in my book.
Part of what I love about them is his use of practical effects. He is using every single trick he learned during the twenty years he spent working in the industry before he started making these films. A lot of his tricks are fairly obvious, but that is part of the fun. They certainly have more character and inventiveness that you could hope to find in most of the computer-generated effects out there.
It certainly doesn’t start like a Star Wars rip-off: On a cold Christmas Eve in a tiny cabin somewhere in the mountains, a young girl named Mary is desperately ill. Her mother and grandfather are trying their best to take care of her, but hope her father will return soon.
To keep her entertained, her brother reads to her from the book Mary got for Christmas. It which tells the tale of the evil Makeb, Lord of the evil Planet of the Dark Fortress, who plans to conquer the Dwarf Fortress and steal their gold, with the help of his cyborg army.
But the Dwarfs call upon the Queen of Hope to take on Makeb. So she flies through space on the Surfboard she obviously borrowed from the Silver Surfer, dressed like a cavegirl, along with her tiny (but brave!) dog to save them, asking in return only a single grain of wheat which glows golden in the light of the sun.
But Makeb is waiting for her, and traps the Queen of Hope in his dungeon. He then forces her to play in his dangerous, live videogame. She has to survive countless deathtraps, laser beams, fire monsters, a vicious giant caterpillar, living skeletons and countless other threats.
Meanwhile, Mary is getting sicker, an avalanche has blocked the only road to the Doctor’s, Mary’s dog is missing, and things seem to be getting worse in the little cabin…
Only that outline really doesn’t hint at how weird this film truly is. The Dark Fortress is hard at work building those cyborgs, and we get to see a lot of cool effects showing us how they build them. The interior of the fortress features countless tiny rooms in which one of Makeb’s technologically enhanced henchmen stands at a workstation. These sequences look rather familiar as I suspect he reused the sets and models he constructed for this film (with a bit of redecoration) for his next film, The Mummy Theme Park (2000).
Only this time around, he wasn’t satisfied with panning horizontally through all his repeated tiny rooms (in reality, one very small set), but instead we also get vertiginous shots passing up through layer after layer of tiny rooms, each one with its own cyborg inhabitant.
Then there is the general, hypercolorful look of the entire film with the fantasy sequences inside the Dark Fortress rich in Gold and Red. The labyrinth itself does become a bit visually repetitive, as it is all red and rocky, caves and tunnels, even though they seem to have used a number of different models to create it. Makeb’s throne room, however, is far more distinct, with its towering wall of little cells, its massive throne, and Makeb’s mirrored mask. There is a richness to the look of this miniature set which seems typical of Passeri’s work, with lots of detail and complexity — and with dozens of cyborgs played by human actors in those shots, one in each cell.
However, there is also a high-tech retro grunginess to this world, somewhat reminiscent of Terry Gilliam’s Brazil, all tubes, wires, outdated computers and keyboards, mixed with shots of computer screens and a big, old-school 8-bit videogame-style map of the Labyrinth.
In The Mummy Theme Park, Passeri added, as a throw-away detail, a skeleton dancing against a black background (a classic, old-school effect. Here, working with what is obviously a bigger budget, he creates an entire cantina sequence populated by living skeletons, all against a black background. Not only is it surprisingly effective, as they seem fairly solid and real, and the black-suited technicians working them are completely invisible, but the scene itself has a strong visual contrast, thanks to all the color and the bright lighting outside this cantina.
And, you probably will notice that the charming cottage where the real-world part of the story takes place is a lovely little model, with the human actors deftly inserted. I have a sneaking suspicion that Al Passeri was probably using the old Schüfftan process, which uses mirrors to add human actors to a set or matte without process shots. After all, Mario Bava used it very effectively in Planet of the Vampires [Terrore nello spazio] (1965) and even Peter Jackson used it in his The Lord of the Rings trilogy.
Also quite impressive are the dazzling moving starscapes, filled with colorful nebulae. I thought for a moment, in one scene, with the teenaged Queen riding her surfboard, that the background was bleeding through her image, only to realize that the misty nebulae were passing in front of her, while the background was clearly behind her. The attention to detail is impressive.
Even if a lot of people might have been fooled by it.
As this is all supposed to be some sort of fairy tale, much of the dialogue within the story rhymes, although the movie itself makes fun of this convention. This also allows him to indulge in some nicely eccentric details, like the dwarf whose huge mustache is supported by two balloons.
Perhaps the most curious element here is that — as in The Neverending Story — the story in the book seems to affect the events in the real world, and there’s even a Wizard of Oz moment at the end.
But then I don’t think Alvaro Passeri was ever happy borrowing from just one source.
Not when he could borrow from dozens at once.
It’s hard to convey just how strange all this really is. At times it threatens to become something more predictable, like a Star Wars copy, or a simple rip-off of The Princess Bride, only to plunge unexpectedly into videogames, fantasy sword battles or horror — or whatever else popped into Al’s fertile mind at that moment. I’m not sure how Fantastic Games would function as a children’s film, as it is at times quite scary, albeit in a rather playful sort of way. On the whole it is reasonably child-friendly, even with the jokes about the dog heroically stopping a monster by, well, peeing on it (I guess Nickelodeon was doing the same kind of humor around that time…). I suppose you could probably point to one strange plot twist as a hint of the psychosexual suggestions found in Jim Henson’s Labyrinth, but if that is what Passeri intended, it is far more muted, and only takes place within a fantasy that has nothing to do with the stalwart and heroic Princess.
And, in our age of silly “strong women” effortlessly disposing of weak male antagonists, it is almost refreshing to watch a story where the Queen wins, not because she is a great warrior, or has powerful weapons, but because of her determination and the fact she never loses hope.
Avoid this one if you are allergic to cheap Italian fantasy films, or if you are only happy when your digital effects look perfect. You definitely do not want to watch Fantastic Games if you object to badly dubbed Italian films with somewhat annoying little kid voices and somewhat dubious voice acting. And you will definitely want to avoid this one if you do not want to see a film where the good and virtuous win, all the villains fail, and happy endings exist.
But, if you share my love of the best absurd films, if you are more entranced by the surprises, the ideas and the undeniable richness of the eccentric visual worlds you find in the works of Terry Gilliam, Tim Burton, or Jeunet et Caro, then you need to watch this one. Yes, you will laugh at the terrible moments, shake your head at the rhyming dialogue (which, fortunately, more or less disappears for most of the film), but then, that’s why we watch cheesy Italian delights in the first place.
This is a strange and entirely delightful film. But, like a rare delicacy, not everyone will appreciate it.
But by now you probably know whether your palate is sufficiently developed to enjoy Fantastic Games.
And, if not, well, I feel for you.
After all, you are missing out on some of the best things in life…
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