Monday, September 25, 2017

Retro Review: CYBORG 2087 (1966) and DIMENSION 5 (1966)

(US - 1966)

Directed by Franklin Adreon. Written by Arthur C. Pierce. Cast: Michael Rennie, Karen Steele, Wendell Corey, Warren Stevens, Eduard Franz, Harry Carey Jr., Adam Roarke, Dale Van Sickel, Troy Melton, Jimmy Hibbard, Sherry Alberoni, Betty Jane Royale, John Beck, Jo Ann Pflug, Richard Travis, Byron Morrow. (Unrated, 86 mins)

Made on the cheap and originally intended for TV syndication, CYBORG 2087 has surprisingly bigger aspirations than its paltry budget can accommodate. Shot in a flat fashion on backlots, a western ghost town set, and in a Los Angeles neighborhood, the film was directed by Franklin Adreon (1902-1979), a career journeyman who began writing Republic Pictures serials back in the 1930s like THE FIGHTING DEVIL DOGS and DICK TRACY'S G-MEN before moving into directing television in the 1950s and 1960s like LASSIE and SEA HUNT. Released by the short-lived United Pictures Corporation, CYBORG 2087 was shot back-to-back with DIMENSION 5, using the same crew and many of the same sets and locations, and both were written by Arthur C. Pierce (1923-1987), whose screenplay credits include such gems as 1960's BEYOND THE TIME BARRIER, 1965's THE HUMAN DUPLICATORS, and 1966's WOMEN OF THE PREHISTORIC PLANET. Nothing Pierce ever penned was as imaginative as CYBORG 2087, but the film is repeatedly thwarted by its cheapness and the old-fashioned, get-it-in-the-can attitude of Adreon. He's obviously constrained by a budget that looks like less than an average episode of LOST IN SPACE, but only an anonymous clock-puncher like Adreon could take this ambitious science-fiction story and end it with a old-timey brawl in a barn that looks like an outtake from yet another version of THE SPOILERS. Watching CYBORG 2087 today, it's impossible to ignore the similarities with James Cameron's THE TERMINATOR--a universally-regarded classic--and Charles Band's TRANCERS--a smaller film with a devoted cult following--two films by young, visionary directors that would come a couple of decades later while CYBORG 2087 was consigned to late-night TV well into the 1980s and eventual obscurity once battered prints of old movies on The Late Late Show followed by a sign-off became a thing of the past.

In 2087, half-human/half-machine cyborg Garth A7 (a slumming Michael Rennie, in an obvious riff on his iconic role as Klaatu in 1951's THE DAY THE EARTH STOOD STILL) is beamed aboard a small spacecraft to 1966. His mission: abduct military scientist Prof. Marx (Eduard Franz) and bring him to 2087, preventing him from introducing his latest findings in his study of "radiotelepathy" that will result in government abuse and subjugation of future generations over the next century, turning the America of 2087 into a totalitarian hellhole of controlled thought and rule by evil cyborgs. Garth A7 is programmed to feel no emotion, his focus only on his mission, which makes it easy to exercise control over Marx's colleagues Dr. Zellar (Warren Stevens) and Dr. Mason (Karen Steele). But as they become convinced that what he's saying is true, Garth A7 learns emotion and bonding and feels a need to protect Mason and Zellar when two "tracers" (old-school stuntmen Dale Van Sickel and Troy Melton) are sent from 2087 to kill Garth and prevent him from changing the future.

It's almost certain that James Cameron saw CYBORG 2087 at a drive-in or on TV at some point in his life prior to 1984 (Garth A7's bond with Mason and Zellar also prefigures the Terminator's friendship with young John Connor in TERMINATOR 2: JUDGMENT DAY). While it's entertaining and never dull, it more or less boxes itself in as an MST3K-worthy "bad" movie with its inherent time-capsule cheesiness that puts in in the same category as everything else Pierce wrote: the ridiculous western brawl between Garth A7 and a tracer; the cheap "future" sets in the 2087 prologue (featuring a lab technician played by a debuting Jo Ann Pflug, who would co-star in Robert Altman's MASH a few years later), including a time-travel console with old-school 1960s tapewriter labels, the script not even foreseeing the era of the P-Touch; the instantly-dated pandering to "the kids" with 1966 teenagers who look like they're in their mid-20s and behave like it's a decade earlier (one is played by a debuting John Beck, later of ROLLERBALL and AUDREY ROSE); the exterior of the sheriff's office being an obvious condo that probably belonged to someone on the production; the sheriff being played by a skidding Wendell Corey (REAR WINDOW), drunk and slurring his words (he'd be even more shitfaced in 1968's THE ASTRO ZOMBIES before he died the same year from liver failure at 54 but looking 74); the tracers jogging around L.A. neighborhoods with toy ray guns and Great Gazoo helmets as they scour the area for Garth A7; Garth A7's mechanized left arm just being some silver retractable pens Scotch-taped to Rennie's arm; and Rennie running around throughout the film apparently completely oblivious to how Garth A7's tight space outfit makes it awkwardly obvious that the veteran British actor is going commando and totally freeballing it.

Michael Rennie (1909-1971)
Rennie made a name for himself in his native England in the 1940s before coming to Hollywood in 1950. After THE DAY THE EARTH STOOD STILL, he co-starred in some prestigious productions throughout the decade (THE ROBE, DEMETRIUS AND THE GLADIATORS, DESIREE) before moving to TV in the 1960s. By the time of CYBORG 2087, his career was in a serious downturn and despite appearances in a couple of big-budget Hollywood movies in 1968 (THE POWER and THE DEVIL'S BRIGADE), he was becoming a regular fixture in European genre fare like Antonio Margheriti's THE YOUNG, THE EVIL AND THE SAVAGE (1968) and Giorgio Ferroni's "macaroni combat" outing THE BATTLE OF EL ALAMEIN (1968). Battling emphysema and forced to have his final performances dubbed by someone else due to his weakening health and voice, Rennie finished his career in an undistinguished fashion, playing a mad alien scientist sent to Earth (between that and CYBORG 2087, you can see the Klaatu-inspired typecasting that plagued his final years) to resurrect dubious incarnations of classic movie monsters in the 1970 Spanish-made Paul Naschy monster rally ASSIGNMENT: TERROR. Always a consummate professional, Rennie brings some gravitas to CYBORG 2087 and appears to be taking it seriously, despite his impressive package shifting and flopping around for all to see. CYBORG 2087 isn't the standard definition of a "good movie," but it's better than its reputation and deserves some credit for attempting some ambitious ideas with a budget that can be politely termed "woefully inadequate."

(US - 1966)

Directed by Franklin Adreon. Written by Arthur C. Pierce. Cast: Jeffrey Hunter, France Nuyen, Harold Sakata, Donald Woods, Linda Ho, Robert Ito, David Chow, Jon Lormer, Bill Walker, Kam Tong, Marianna Case, Deanna Lund. (Unrated, 91 mins)

Shot immediately after and released at the same time as CYBORG 2087, DIMENSION 5 is just as cheap but completely lacking in any entertainment value. The less said about it, the better, and filled with endless clumsy exposition drops of the walk & talk variety (early on, one of these has the actors going through doors but walking down the same barely redressed corridor three times, and the same condo from CYBORG 2087 is somehow used as the entrance to a spy agency previously established as existing in the California Federal skyscraper), DIMENSION 5 runs 90 minutes but feels like a week and a half. American superspy Justin Power (Jeffrey Hunter) teams with sexy Chinese agent Kitty (France Nuyen) to use a nonsensical time travel belt (don't ask) to stop a plot by nefarious crime lord Big Buddha (Harold Sakata, best known as GOLDFINGER's Oddjob) to blow up Los Angeles (of course, it's later revealed that Kitty's reasons for going after Big Buddha are personal). Absolutely nothing happens in DIMENSION 5--one argument between Power and Kitty plays like a dry run for the "Whose reality? Yours or mine?" argument from THAT'S ARMAGEDDON! in KENTUCKY FRIED MOVIE--and the whole clunky, unpolished fiasco plays like the kind of painfully bad Z-movie you'd expect from an Al Adamson or a Jerry Warren. It's hard to believe the same director and writer made CYBORG 2087, which isn't necessarily "good" but at least has some inventive ideas and tries to look as presentable as it can while being financed with pocket change. DIMENSION 5, on the other hand, is an endurance test that only has a charming Nuyen to make it remotely bearable, and not even the imposing Sakata--badly dubbed by Paul Frees, who also revoiced Toshiro Mifune in John Frankenheimer's GRAND PRIX the same year--can liven it up, other than some amusing overacting in his death scene. Fans of QUINCY, M.E. will enjoy seeing Robert Ito as a Chinese agent (never mind that Ito is of Japanese descent) a decade before his career-defining role as Sam, medical examiner Quincy's hapless assistant, constantly forced to cancel his plans and stay late at work while an easily-distracted Quincy abandoned his job duties to play amateur sleuth, ordering him to "Cover for me, Sam."

Jeffrey Hunter (1926-1969)
DIMENSION 5 gets nothing from a bored, coasting Hunter, who co-starred with John Wayne in John Ford's timeless classic THE SEARCHERS a decade earlier and played Jesus in the epic KING OF KINGS just five years before this bottom-of-the-barrel dud. Hunter had recently finished "The Cage," the unaired pilot episode of STAR TREK, where he starred as Capt. Christopher Pike opposite Leonard Nimoy as Mr. Spock. After some retooling by creator Gene Roddenberry, Hunter declined to shoot a second pilot and wasn't interested in committing to the show if NBC picked it up, so the Pike character was essentially rewritten as Capt. James T. Kirk, giving William Shatner the role of a lifetime as Hunter made mostly garbage movies for his few remaining years. Like Michael Rennie on CYBORG 2087, Hunter was at a career low circa DIMENSION 5. His subsequent roles were TV guest spots, supporting roles in the 1968 Robert Shaw western CUSTER OF THE WEST and the same year's Bob Hope/Phyllis Diller bomb THE PRIVATE NAVY OF SGT. O'FARRELL, and several low-budget European productions, including the raunchy German sex comedy SEXY SUSAN SINS AGAIN and the Spanish gangster movie CRY CHICAGO. Hunter suffered a concussion during an on-set mishap near the end of production on CRY CHICAGO. He subsequently had a seizure on the flight back to the US, later believed to be a smaller stroke preceding a massive cerebral hemorrhage he would suffer at home in Los Angeles, during which he fell and fractured his skull. He was rushed to the hospital for surgery and never woke up. He died on May 27, 1969 at just 42, only three months after marrying his third wife. It would be 1971 before SEXY SUSAN SINS AGAIN would open in the US, along with the 1968 Italian spaghetti western FIND A PLACE TO DIE, and SUPER COLT 69, a 1969 Mexican western Hunter shot just prior to CRY CHICAGO, which ended up going straight to syndicated TV at some point in the 1970s.

Both CYBORG 2087 and DIMENSION 5 have just been released on Blu-ray (!) by Kino Lorber. They've been given the red carpet treatment with HD restorations--4K in DIMENSION 5's case, which completely undeserving. The rights to the films ended up with Paramount at some point, and they've been languishing in a vault for years, if not decades. They look better than ever, certainly an improvement over scratchy old TV prints and incomplete versions on YouTube. There's an audience for every movie, and I'm sure someone will find some semblance of entertainment value in DIMENSION 5 that a sane person cannot, but CYBORG 2087, once you get past its cheesy TV look and general cheapness and ineptitude, has something there in its concept--it's one of the earliest instances of pop culture specifically using the term "cyborg," first coined in 1960--that paved the way for smarter, better explorations of its themes and ideas.

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