Life Before Star Wars: Aliens, Apes, and Animated Weirdoes

Originally published on The Solute

Before Star Wars proved they could be big business, sci-fi and fantasy were the province of hippies and freaks, and Wizards is one of the last artifacts of that time.

As befits a director who got his start animating R. Crumb’s Fritz the Cat, Ralph Bakshi goes to the world of underground comix for inspiration on Wizards — this time to the sword-and-sorcery fantasies of artists like Richard Corben, Wally Wood, and Vaughn Bodé, which were full of the kind of sex and violence even George R.R. Martin could only dream of.

Wizards has the standard elves and wizards, but with a twist. The fairy princess could have walked out of Hustler, the wizard is a wiseassed little man chomping on a cigar, and they ride around on surreal critters that look like fat ostriches with donkey heads. And the evil wizard’s minions look suspiciously like the cast of Bodé’s Cobalt 60.

Fantasy and science fiction are opposites as often as they’re alike, but Star Wars found a middle ground, dressing up a fantasy plot about knights, wizards, and princesses in sci-fi clothes. Wizards is a much stranger fusion — hundreds of years after humanity wiped itself out in nuclear war, the fair folk returned to rebuild the world in their absence. The story follows two wizard brothers, Avatar and Blackwolf, one good and the other evil. And then it gets weirder. Blackwolf discovers ancient Nazi propaganda films, which somehow become a weapon of mass destruction. Striking allegory for how the threat of fascism never dies or implausible nonsense? I’ll tell you this, after reading about how preservationists have fought to keep film from disintegrating after just a few decades, I have a hard time swallowing a plot where they last a whole-assed millennium, let alone the possibility Blackwolf found a projector to play them on.

Unlike Lucas, Bakshi didn’t have the resources to realize his vision. Sometimes, he seems to have run out of money for animation because the movie stops dead for narration over comic artist Mike Ploog’s concept art. Worse, those are the best-looking scenes in the film. But more than that, Bakshi may be his own worst enemy. He absorbed the kinetic, rubbery appeal of the classic Looney Tunes shorts, but forgot that it only works because the characters have solid, three-dimensional reality even when they’re warped beyond recognition. Bakshi’s characters seem more like slapdash doodle. Star Wars made stock types so real many fans regard them as old friends, but the characters in Wizard never rise above the level of cardboard, and we never care about them enough to get invested in Wizards’ rambling plot. And the incongruous disco score in the most brutal war sequences doesn’t help.

Of course, when the characters and themes are strong enough, a rambling plot can be a feature, not a bug. Directed by Lucas’ friend and future collaborator Steven Spielberg, Close Encounters of the Third Kind is the first post-Star Wars science fiction film, but in spirit, it’s the last pre-Star Wars science fiction film. If Altman tried his hand at the genre, it might look like this. With its everyday settings and overlapping dialogue that sounds more like real conversations than anything polished by multiple screenwriters, it’s closer to the small, personal movies of the ’70s that Star Wars ran out of business than anything we’d recognize as sci-fi in a post-Star Wars world.

We get special effects money shots, but Spielberg doles them out sparingly. What really interests him is the human side of the story, told in vignettes of ordinary people experiencing alien phenomena. Spielberg said Close Encounters was important because he claims it was the first movie to say there’s life out there and it doesn’t want to hurt us. But what makes the movie so powerful is its darkness and ambivalence. The mostly unseen, inscrutable aliens are nothing like cuddly Chewbacca. We see how they destroy people’s lives, but we never learn why. It practically becomes a horror movie as we watch Richard Dreyfuss descend into alien-induced madness and drive away his children and wife, heartrendingly played by Teri Garr.

George Lucas worked heavily with Joseph Campbell, who famously claimed to have discovered the formula behind all mythology, and Lucas and Spielberg would become associated with the new style of rigidly structured storytelling. But when Spielberg made Close Encounters, he couldn’t be less interested in structure. Its rhythms are the rhythms of real life — no rising action and falling action, just actions that only coalesce into a recognizable plot at the end. Like all these movies, but better than most of them, Close Encounters is just as interested in the irrelevant details as the plot itself, and that makes his world feel lived-in instead of just a painted backdrop for his story. We can’t really blame Star Wars for killing this style of filmmaking — after all, Lucas filled the movie with so many throwaway details they’ve powered a whole “Expanded Universe” for decades. But Hollywood has a habit of learning the exact wrong lessons from its successes.

If you want to see how Star Wars changed the landscape, just look at Spielberg’s follow-up, E.T. — another, even better movie about suburbanites discovering alien visitors, but with a clear-cut narrative, a clean-cut, nonspecific reworking of Close Encounters’ lower-middle-class, deeply regionally specific world, and a much more lovable, toyetic alien.

Of course, before he made Close Encounters, Spielberg paved the way for Star Wars with the first modern blockbuster, Jaws, and two years later, Hollywood was still trying to catch up. 1977 saw movies with titles like Claws, Tentacles, and Orca. And Italian superproducer Dino DeLaurentiis saw this as the perfect time to revive the original movie monster, King Kong. Released in December 1976, King Kong narrowly missed our Year of the Month. But it’s such a perfect example of the kind of big, bloated effects movies that came out in Star Wars’ wake that it’s hard to believe Kong actually predates it. Besides, I had to watch this thing for a Looper assignment, so you’re all gonna suffer with me.

It’s a Kong for the ’70s alright. We get the cynicism ,with Charles Grodin as the villain, a scummy oil baron standing in for the original’s wide-eyed explorer. We get Jeff Bridges, the Dude himself, as a treehugging hippie scientist. We get dialogue like, “You male chauvinist pig-ape!” We get Deep Throat — not the Watergate informant, his namesake porno flick — as a plot point. The oil company is called “Petrox” for crying out loud.

The satire elements fall flat, give or take the update of Kong’s New York debut, where he’s decked out in a sequined Uncle Sam hat. But that’s not nearly as funny as the Paramount logo, which reminds you this toothless oil-industry commentary comes from “A Gulf-Western Company.”

It’s not hard to see why Star Wars blew this out of the water in the effects department. If anything, the effects seem to have gone backwards in the forty years since the original Kong. With all the technology developed in that time, the Kong crew make every one of their composite shots look ten thousand times more fake than what Willis O’Brien and Merian C. Cooper were able to accomplish with some miniatures, a projector, and a stretched-out condom.

It’s hard to believe future effects superstar Rick Baker worked on this. Then again, after hyping up their life-sized Kong animatronic only to discover it didn’t work, Paramount hushed up his involvement. He’s probably happier that why. Kong’s life-sized fingers look more like dildos. Skull Island is no longer a magical time-lost realm, it’s a mini-golf course. And there’s no dinosaurs anywhere. In a Kong movie, that’s gotta count as false advertising. The closest we get is a snake that looks about as convincing as sock stuffed with newspaper and that Kong takes out in under a minute.

Kong also makes the same mistake as so many remakes do in trying too hard to make its monster sympathetic instead of, you know, a monster. The original Kong was a horrifying image of unchecked masculine id, but so skillfully realized it’s still poignant to see him lost in and eventually destroyed by a world that’s had all those desires civilized out of it. DeLaurentiis treats Kong as an unambiguous hero, and he has to overlook a lot to get there. Jeff Bridges actually cheers him on as he murders a whole fleet of fighter pilots! And that’s not even getting into the attempt to paint King Kong as a true love story which, here as elsewhere, requires some really messed up ideas of consent since in every version, Kong literally walks off with the tied-up Ann.

Part 1

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Features writer at Looper and staff writer and editor at The Solute

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