by Zack Smith
“We really shook the pillars of Heaven, didn’t we?”
—Jack Burton (Kurt Russell) in Big Trouble in Little China
I’m sitting next to another journalist in the Carolina Theatre’s Cinema One on a Friday night, watching 1987’s Robocop on the big screen. “Best line coming up,” he whispers to me, moments before Kurtwood Smith’s character bursts through the door and deadpans, “Bitches leave.”
A little later, I’m elbowing him. “Best random part,” I whisper as Paul McCrane’s character gets melted by toxic waste, thus creating an impromptu monster movie in the middle of the climax.
We’re at the Escapism Film Festival, an annual event celebrating genre cinema that boosted its attendance last year by more than 64 percent after switching over to all older films (this year, they’ve added a few R-rated numbers for the 9 p.m. showings. Their focus on nostalgia offers a rare opportunity to see films on the big screen that most moviegoers only know from TV and video.
This is a bigger deal than you’d think. Even as the technology that allows us to watch movies grows smaller and smaller (“You’ll be able to watch them on your fingernail soon,” grouses Carolina Theatre Senior Director Jim Carl), there are fewer and fewer prints available for the original 35-mm versions of these films.
In fact, as discussed in an earlier Artery post, five of the 12 films screening at the festival are either the last or among the last remaining 35-mm prints in North America. Almost none are films I’ve ever seen on the big screen.
Over the course of the festival, I manage to make it to eight of the 12 films, which I try to watch from two perspectives. First, how does seeing the film on the big screen change the experience, for better or worse? And second—for all the fond memories, how many of these actually hold up?
Star Trek II: The Wrath of Kahn: Haven’t seen this scenery-chewing contest between William Shatner and Ricardo Montalban all the way through since it came out. As I catch it on the first screening of the festival, the verdict is that Montalban gets more cheesetastic moments, but Shatner gets the big licks in with his classic scream of “KAHHHNNN!”
Other than the fact that 23rd-century computers look very bright and cardboard-y, the film holds up better than I remembered—the script is relatively tight, and there’s plenty of character moments. But the big screen doesn’t add that much—the effects are fun, but mostly serviceable. Greatest note—Spock’s sacrifice at the end was ripped off in the final episode of Lost, only instead of a reactor, it was…a stone in a big…watery…island…thing. It’s not good to think about that show too much.
Robocop: Another winner, and one that only seems more relevant in its depiction of corrupt corporations, privatized police and a Detroit overwhelmed by crime. While action fans might have overlooked the film’s satirical nature in its initial release, the current audience was roaring at many of the most outrageous lines, while the deliberately over-the-top and fake-looking effects have aged well (and the use of already-dated stop-motion animation for the ineffectual antagonist ED-209 only makes the clunky robot funnier. Plus, as mentioned, Kurtwood Smith as Clarence Boddicker.
The Muppet Movie: A favorite from when I was a kid, I’ve never seen this on the big screen. Only now as an adult do I recognize the dozen or so cameos by the likes of Orson Welles, James Coburn and Steve Martin. And if you don’t tear up or at least smile at “The Rainbow Connection,” you lack a pulse.
Buck Rogers in the 25th Century: This big-screen release of the pilot to the 1979 TV series is probably the least-seen of all the films at the festival, though the short-lived series has enjoyed a long life in reruns and DVD.
This last remaining print requires regular outages as reels are changed, something I’ll encounter with several films, but it’s worth it—the campy, dated nature of this one actually makes it more entertaining, whether it’s the weirdly softcore opening credits or living computer Dr. Theopolis coming off as very, very creepy (he tells Gil Gerard’s Buck that he’s an “attractive man” shortly after meeting him).
See for yourself in this bizarre dance sequence with what could only be described as a future date-rape drug. I leave this screening feeling very unsettled by what passed for science fiction in the late 1970s.
Raiders of the Lost Ark: Probably the best-known film at the festival, the film thrilled me as a little kid, but it takes a big screen to help you realize just how funny it is—how Steven Spielberg’s visual style does so much with longer, deep-focus continuous shots that keep the action moving (I’d completely forgotten the running gag with the thieving monkey).
And it’s also easy to forget how good Karen Allen is in this as Marion Ravenwood. Allegedly, George Lucas wanted Indiana Jones to have a different woman in every film, which worked out well for Spielberg (he married Kate Capshaw, Jones’ love interest in Temple of Doom), but took away from the tough, feisty equal he had in the original. If Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull did nothing else right, it brought that character back.
I walk out of this one with a renewed appreciation for how blockbuster films should be genuinely thrilling, offering laughs and emotional involvement along with big ’splosions.
The Last Starfighter: Another last remaining print that requires reel changes and suffers from a cigarette burn through the first reel, resulting in a swirling white mass at the bottom of the screen for the first 15 minutes or so. Hadn’t seen this one since childhood either, and it’s actually better than I remembered. In fact, Craig Safan’s opening score is something I’d loved when I was young, and had completely forgotten. And for a young dreamer, getting to become a galactic hero after getting the high score in a video game? Best idea ever!
The early CGI is laughable, the alien makeup is cheesy, and there’s way too much time spent at a trailer park, but for the hour and a half I’m watching this film, I’m officially a kid again.
The Legend of Billie Jean: One I have never seen all the way through, this TBS mainstay is the “must-see” of the festival from what theater employees tell me.
Oddly, Billie Jean resonates with me less for the teen-on-the-run plot, the campy catchphrase “fair is fair!” or even the presence of my childhood crush, Supergirl’s Helen Slater in the lead. Rather, I’m taken back by a scene where Slater flees the cops at a local shopping mall—I recognize stores that were once a mainstay of Crabtree Valley and North Hills, such as The Pantry and Kay Bee Toys. Ah, the mall culture of the early 1980s. And the presence of Billy Idol and Pat Benatar on the soundtrack doesn’t hurt.
My nerd-fu leads me to recognize Yeardley Smith, the future voice of Lisa Simpson, as a young teen hanging out with Billie Jean and future director Keith Gordon as her love interest. It’s not a straight-up great film, but as a piece of 1980s MTV nostalgia, Billie Jean is a cinematic time capsule.
Enemy Mine: The last film I’m able to catch before hunger, sleep deprivation and eyestrain take over is this 1986 adaptation of Barry Longyear’s award-winning SF novella about a human (Dennis Quaid) and his alien enemy (Louis Gossett Jr.) stranded on a desolate planet together. My memory of this involves pouring rain, much like the kind outside right now, being stuck indoors on a Sunday, and watching this with my dad as we try to think of something to do. To this day, my dad still quotes Gossett’s alien calling Quaid “Dawige” and “Urrrkmaahhhn.”
It’s not a great film. The soundtrack is terrible, voice-over narration is used to plug gaps in the story, and the rushed climax features some absolutely atrocious acting. But while the film’s unspooling in that darkened theater, I remember sitting with my dad on a rainy Sunday many years ago and wondering where this bizarre story is going to go, and the alien’s weird “Urrrkkmaaahhhn.”
It’s one thing to go see a great movie on the big screen, like Lawrence of Arabia or Citizen Kane or The Godfather. But it’s another thing to see a film that’s part of an experience—that evokes a time, or a place, or just who you were when you first saw it. That’s the joy of the Escapism Film Festival—both the thrills of other worlds or defeating the villain, but seeing the things you found imaginative when you were younger rendered larger than life against the silver screen.
By Sunday afternoon, Jim Carl tells me that they’ve already sold more tickets Friday and Saturday than all three days the previous year combined. There’ll be more films next year, and more memories. Now if only George Lucas would let the original non-Special Edition, non-3-D- Star Wars films back in theaters.