Tuesday, March 19, 2013

IRON SKY: A Critique.


“Iron Sky” 
Is This the Best Sci-Fi Movie
Since 1988’s “Alien from L. A.?”
— a critique —
Wally Lee Parker

(Copyright © 2013 Wallace Lee Parker)

            Just so no one is blindsided by where this critique goes, let me list a few of my favorite movies.  There was 1980’s Flash Gordon, 1988’s My Stepmother is an Alien, 1986’s Howard the Duck, 1984’s Buckaroo Banzai: Across the 8th Dimension, 1984’s Electric Dreams — which featured a cello/computer-synthesizer duel/duet that still ranks as one of the best bits of cinematic music every produced — and of course, as noted in the title to this review, 1988’s Alien from L. A.
            None of this is meant to leave out the serial Treks and Wars, and a mass of assorted one-shots that litter sci-fi’s cinematic landscape.  However, I am going to add one more of my absolute favorites to this list, that being 1967’s The President’s Analyst.  If you’re aware of the plotline for this movie — and few people are — you might argue that it could hardly be classified as science fiction.  Well kids, the movie’s involuted plot is well summarized by James Coburn’s character, presidential psychiatrist Doctor Sidney Schaefer, when he says, “You know — one thing I learned from my patients.  They all hate the phone company.”  And therein lies the sci-fi sub-plot.
            Besides, why wouldn’t you call it science fiction when a portion of the storyline involves the protagonist being chased by a hit squad from the Canadian Secret Service — when we all know the Canadian Secret Service outsources all its hits?
Then too, it was less than ten years after the release of The President’s Analyst that the United States Government began breaking up American Telephone & Telegraph’s telecommunications monopoly.  Any X-Files fan would recognize that as more than just coincidence.
            I’m sure there are oodles of other quirky cinematic gems I could add to my list of favorite off-the-wall movies, but I’m not going to since I’m old and unsure I’ll be around long enough to complete such.  The thing is, none of these films are likely to pass the hard core sci-fi/fantasy purity test — in part due to the lack of science in their fiction — or scientifiction (a word coined by the father of modern science fiction, Hugo Gernsback).  By that I mean I understand that any number of sci-fi/fantasy fans would like to play a disintegrator ray over Alien from L. A., and/or Howard the Duck — possibly for what they view as a lack of quality (note that I resisted saying a “quack” of quality), a lack of proper relevance regarding what is actually possible, and in the case of Alien from L. A., Kathy Ireland’s grating whine (not her real voice, thank God).  But here I’d remind people of Buckaroo Banzai’s well-articulated argument against bullying in any form — including cinematic critiques.
Don’t be mean.  We don’t have to be mean.  Remember — no matter where you go, there you are.”
            Truly words to live by.
            Anyway — as regards the actual subject of this essay — Iron Sky is the story of a flock of Nazi expatriates that avoided 1945’s overthrow of the Fatherland by immigrating to the dark side of the moon.  Seventy-three years later, in the year 2018, they’ve regrouped, fully developed a steampunkish/dieselpunkish space technology, and — being prematurely provoked into action by an American mission to the moon’s dark side — have stepped-up their plans to return to Earth and establish a worldwide military hegemony under the authority of the 4th Reich.
            So when we’re talking about the hypothesis beneath 2012’s Iron Sky, it’s really just a footnote to another historical conspiracy — the Odessa program; the existence of which can be teased from of a plethora of divergent clues.  Though the Lone Gunmen from the X-Files would actually be the best people to explain all this, I’ll do what I can by saying that the actual Odessa conspiracy involved the orchestrated postwar escape from occupied Germany of hundreds upon hundreds of wanted Nazi war criminals — most of whom made their respective ways to South America.  This historic Odessa conspiracy seems to be the sliver of plausibility that the movie Iron Sky plays into when it adds the dark side of the moon to the list of possible hiding places for these expatriate Nazis.
Within this movie, the term “dark side” is used to describe that hemisphere of the moon always turned away from the Earth.  So in absolute terms, it’s really not any darker than what we consider the moon’s face in the sense that it goes through the same phases of dark and light.
All this accepted, you might be asking “But how could a breedable mass of Germans have possibly traveled to the moon in 1945?”  Well — as any well-grounded ufologist can document, the Germans were testing the flightworthiness of their prototype “zero point energy” saucer-craft as early as 1944 — which would move this entire Nazis on the moon premise out of the dominion of fantasy and into the realm of dystopian future history.  So, though not specifically mentioned in the movie, I’d guess the Nazis got to the moon by launching a fleet of the Luftwaffe’s most secret of secret weapons from their then secret base in Germany’s Antarctic territory of New Swabia — Neuschabenland in the German vernacular.  As the extras on the Iron Sky’s Blu-ray disk suggest, this operation would have likely begun in 1945 — immediately before or after the Führer’s death.  As to why this totally feasible hypothesis was placed among the Blu-ray’s extras rather than the movie itself, I expect we’ll have to wait for the prequel to Iron Sky for an answer.  Regardless, it should be noted that had Germany’s anti-gravity technology been fully developed before Germany’s overthrow, the world would now be a very different place.
            Everything considered, what could possibly go wrong with a movie like this?  This question in not meant to imply that I didn’t like the film.  In fact as far as disliking is concerned, I’m leaning quite to the contrary.  And eventually I’ll tell you why I didn’t dislike it.  But first we’ll need to deal with the inevitable political incorrectness of the whole Nazi thing.
            Yes, there’s nothing funny about real Nazis.  On the other hand, it reminds me of the story about two elderly men — one of them German and the other Japanese — sitting on a park bench and talking to each other in broken English.  Several passers-by were upset when they overheard the German saying, “Next time without the Italians.”
            Not offensive enough?  Well …
            To paraphrase the classic axiom about Chinese food — “The problem with German food is, you eat and an hour later you have a voracious craving to devour Poland.”
            To me, none of the above should be offensive to anyone — with the possible exception of the Italians.  But then the Italians — specifically the writings of one 16th century Italian named Niccoló Machiavelli — were the chief rationale behind the whole armed citizens/well regulate militia thing as seen in the constitution’s 2nd amendment.  So as long as we’re picking on the Italians, we can either praise or condemn them for that as well.
            But back to our search for politically correct Nazis.
            The truth is, it’s always been acceptable to use Nazis in comedies.  Among the most notable, a whole slew of World War II propaganda cartoons such as Der Fuehrer’s Face and Russian Rhapsody.  It’s perhaps interesting to note that during the 1950s it was common for local television — Spokane television — to show vintage propaganda (though not so vintage at that time) right along with all the other cartoons.  It seems like it was well into the 1960s before the propriety of doing so became a national issue.  Still, due to the inherent racial stereotyping, some age restrictions and such do need to be applied to the viewing of these historic artifacts.  But when properly framed as to the historical circumstances of their creation, these can still be very funny.
            Then there was 1942’s To Be or Not to Be — a movie about a theater troupe trapped in Warsaw during 1939’s German invasion.  The original version starred Jack Benny and Carole Lombard.  (The story was redone in 1983 by Mel Brooks.)  Going about as far as the prejudices of many moviegoers would allow in 1942, this script didn’t exactly shy away from the wartime plight of the Jews.
            And then there was television’s Hogan’s Heroes — extoling the joys of life in a German prisoner of war camp.  I did like it, though I’m not sure how well its comedy is aging.  But during the shows run, and for years after its final original episode aired in 1971, whenever people were asked a question, they would use the best German accent they could muster to quote Sargent Schultz’s famous tagline, “Nothing!  I know nothing!”
            One movie that should be very close to the hearts of sci-fi fans as a matter of it’s association to one of the new icons of sci-fi characterizations is the cinematic recreation of a Broadway play containing a veritable goosestep of gay Nazis — 2005’s  musical The Producers.
            Yes — I know The Producers is not science fiction.  Just bear with me.
            This might get a bit confusing, but — The Producers was originally a 1968 Mel Brooks film about a Broadway theatrical producer and his accountant’s scheme to make money by staging a certifiable flop.  For this they needed a play so bad it would be certain to close on opening night.  They chose a script written by a certifiable neo-Nazi — meaning both a neo-Nazi and certifiable — a script titled “Springtime for Hitler.”  Many years later Brooks’ original film was adapted for the stage, and that version opened to rave reviews on Broadway in 2001.  A second cinematic feature, this time based on this stage adaptation — not the first cinematic version — was the 2005 release noted above.
            A few years after the British sci-fi phenomenon Torchwood — a spinoff of Dr. Who, and something of a kinkier version of the X-Files — started appearing on American television, the wife and I picked up a bargain bin DVD of the second film version of The Producers.  That bargain bin dipping would have occurred around 2009 or ‘10.
           Are you still with me?
            The best parts of The Producers — the second film and likely all the other versions as well — are those scenes actually staging bits of Springtime for Hitler — the above noted play within a play.
            So we’re watching our new DVD — watching a scene in which a mixed choir’s line of extremely well-tailored SA (Brownshirts) are singing and dancing the virtues of the Fatherland — when I note that the handsome young blond out in front looks a little more than vaguely familiar.  Spit-taking my tea, I regurgitate to the wife, “That’s Captain Jack Harkness!”
            While I’m aspirating, she gives me that bewildered look.  (All husbands know that look — that “I’m bewildered; primarily because you’re an idiot” look.)  And then she asks, “What are you talking about?”
            I point at the screen.  That!  Up there!  The extra handsome Nazi in front!  The one in the dark blue SS uniform!  Or is it dark black?  Anyway — except for the blond hair, that looks exactly like Captain Jack Harkness from Torchwood!”
            It can’t be.”
            I know that’s him,” I insist.
When the movie’s over and the credits are dripping down the screen, there it is in white on black.  Lead Tenor — John Barrowman.”
            So what does the original creator of The Producers, Mel Brooks; the second movie’s most notable actor, Nathan Lane; and the second movie’s lead tenor, John Barrowman, have in common?  In real life they’re either Jewish or gay (though none are both) — which means had they lived in German during the Nazi era, all three would have eventually ended up in a death-camp.  So — if these three people want to make fun of the Nazis, who am I to disrespect them for it?
            Anyway, several weeks ago the wife and I were poking around the ‘movies and music’ section of BestBuy when we happen upon a Blu-ray copy of Iron Sky.  I don’t recall reading or seeing any promotional materials about this movie beforehand, but then I often forget things — a prime example being where I last stuck my memory-stick.  Anyway again — this purchase was based solely on the pictures and text printed on the container.  And on the fact that none of the new releases being offered that week sounded particularly interesting.
            Reading the Blu-ray container, the first question that came to mind was who’s the guy listed as director — Timo Vuorensola.
            There seem to be several answers to this.  One would be that Timo is lead singer and primary songwriter for the Finnish avant-garde band Ӓlymystö (which supposedly translates out of the Finnish as “intelligentsia”).  A quick YouTube listen to what this group describes as “industrial” music suggests that the band’s sound — sound seeming to be a much more charitable description than music — is not for everyone.
            Considering that Ӓlymystö was formed in 2002, we can assume Timo’s involvement with the band postdates his interest in acting and directing.  For evidence of that we need to look toward a series of Star Trek parody films from Finland, and to Finnish CGI artist Samuli Torssonen — who is considered the driving force behind these parodies.
            Collectively titled Star Wreck, this series began in the early 1990s as short animations intended for streaming over the internet.  Of the seven films in total, the later ones graduated toward live action blended with computer generated images.  By the last of the series, the feature length Star Wreck: In the Perkinning, the film was not only being made available online as a free download, but had also been upgraded to a theatrical film and purchasable DVD — all with English subtitles.  The DVD can currently be found on Amazon.
            Reportedly the primary studio for pasting together the final Star Wreck film was a two room apartment in Tampere, Finland — though a good amount of outside location filming was also done.  The group’s approach to filmmaking was “learn as we go.”  The production reportedly struggled on for seven years, but the final results quickly became a fan favorite.
            During the production of the Star Wreck series, Torssonen began drawing donations from his fan base to finance the work.  This technique of creating an online base of contributors proved very helpful when gathering the seed-funds for Iron Sky, the first fully commercial theatrical release produced by this collaborative team.
           It’s not clearly delineated when Timo Vuorensola first began associating with Samuli Torssonen on the Star Wreck projects, but it must have been before the 1997 release of Star Wreck V: Lost Contact, since Timo not only directed but also played the part of Lieutenant Dwarf in that film.
            By the time of In the Perkinning’s 2005 release, it appears that both Timo Vuorensola and Samuli Torssonen has become part of an international collaboration of filmmakers intent on blending the cost savings available from the new computerized cinematography technologies into the fundraising power of an active internet fan base to finance professional quality films outside of the traditional corporate system.  Such fundraising allowed the joint Finnish/German/Australian production of Iron Sky to move forward.   At a total cost of about ten million dollars — an amount that likely wouldn't have even covered the executive bonuses on CGI heavy mainstream productions such as Avatar (two-hundred and forty million) or John Carter (two-hundred and fifty million) — the completion of Iron Sky seems to suggest a viable template for future fan financed productions.
            It will be interesting to see whether Timo Vuorensola will continue to move upward as a director via non-traditional means — as might also be said of the early careers of Quentin Tarantino and several others.
            Returning for a moment to Timo Vuorensola’s association with the “industrial” band Ӓlymystö, this may in part explain the production team’s decision to use the well-established avant-garde band Laibach for Iron Sky’s soundtrack.  Laibach is described as a Slovenian music group with an industrial, martial, and neo-classical flavor — which translates out as pulsating, often repetitious, and containing messages of a highly political nature (this last is only an assumption on my part since the vocals are not in English).
            As for the unique science fiction movie Laibach signed on to score, it’s probable that the lack of polish in certain areas of the film can be attributed to the filmmakers’ ongoing learning process.  But always being on a learning curve is likely a chronic state for anyone creatively practicing the cinematic arts (or any other art for that matter).
For low budget but financially independent production teams such as Iron Sky’s, the question is whether they should experiment with novel approaches in an effort to create what they envision, or to only envisioning what they know they can produce.  This is to suggest that the novelty that feeds the public’s hunger for something different comes at a risk.  And a willingness to assume risk within cinema is usually associated with a shoestring budget because few corporate investors are willing to totally recluse themselves from meddling with the creative process when it’s their potential profits on the line.  Such interference most often tends toward risk aversion.  And risk aversion toward a lack of creativity.
            As for the intended audience of Iron Sky, the majority of the dialogue was originally shot in English.  Subtitles were used for those passages filmed in German.  What this might indicate as to the intentions of the collaborators as far as potential distribution is concerned, I can’t say.  But I’d assume the intention was always for international distribution.
            Having the heroine, Renate Richter, an English teacher born and raised at the German moon base Schwarze Sonne Black Sun — provides an explicable rationale for having much more than expected of the film’s dialog in English and for the idealistic Renate having an inclusive naïveté regarding Germany’s wartime history — as well as a tendency to accept whatever she’s told at face value.
            Renate Richter is played by 32 year old European television and film actress Julia Dietze.  Raised in Munich, Germany, Julia was born in Marseille, France, to a French mother and German father.  Her father is a well-known artist in Europe.
            The show begins with the landing of black astronaut James Washington near the Nazi’s secret moon base — a landing assumed by Schutzstaffel Oberguppenführer (SS senior group leader) Klaus Adler to be a precursor to an invasion.
            Wolfgang Kortzfleisch, current Führer of the 4th Reich, is somewhat skeptical of this quick analysis.  However, he and the rest of the German high command are shocked when James Washington’s space helmet is removed and he’s revealed to be black.
             This proves to be an opportunity for Renate Richter’s father, the suitably mad Doktor Richter, to try out “albinisierer” — a serum that changes other races into blond haired, blue eyed, white skinned Aryans.
             And that’s just the start.
             James Washington is played by Christopher Kirby — perhaps best known for his role as Mauser in The Matrix.  Klaus Adler is played by Götz Otto, a German actor perhaps best known to American audiences as the menacing secretary to villain Elliot Carver in the James Bond film Tomorrow Never Dies.  Führer Kortzfleisch was created by veteran actor Udo Kier, easily recognized from his supporting roles in Barb Wire, Blade, and Armageddon.  And another veteran German actor, Tilo Prückner, adds the role of Doktor Richter to his 100 plus movie credits.
             Back on Earth, the other lead parts are carried by Stephanie Paul as President of the United States, and Australian actress Peta Sergeant as her fashion conscious reelection advisor.
             Be warned, Americans with a neo-conservative world view are not going to like the political undercurrents of this movie.  If Saturday Night Live’s parody of Sarah Palin raises your hackles, you’re also not going to like this movie.  If you’re too sophisticated to digest a little schlock in your cinema, you’re most certainly not going to like this film.
             On the other hand, if the visualization of a Dieselpunk fleet of massive Hindenburg-like spacecraft escorted by squadrons of flying saucers on an attack vector to Earth piques your curiosity, then maybe this movie is redeemable.
             I’ll preface my closing comments by saying I was raised in an era when most every science fiction movie being produced — and there weren't that many — had problems.  Many times the actors, directors, and scripts were absolute bottom of the barrel.  The best special effects were usually poorly photographed miniatures, jerky stop-motion animation, or guys in rubber suits hiding among some fake rocks — meaning none were realistic or seamless.  Being promised much and chronically fed slop, I may have developed a more forgiving taste than most — and tend to retain that tolerance when the filmmakers at least have their hearts in what they’re doing.  What I cannot tolerate is a director, cast, or crew that clearly considers themselves above the material they’re producing.  Regardless of whether it’s comedy, drama, or romance, when it comes to science fiction and fantasy I expect my cinema to be served like it’s either revenge or the best of Klingon soups — meaning ice cold and deadly serious.  Just play it as if you mean it, and if the script contains any comedy, drama, or romance, it’ll naturally float to the surface.  Trying to force these things from a vacuum almost always fails.  That’s what I’ve learned from sixty plus years of science fiction movies.
             What I can definitely say of Iron Sky is that the cast and crew approach things very professionally.  The special effects are top drawer.  Some of the directing and maybe bits of the plot and script show signs of still being a work in progress — especially those areas where it fails to pull back before going over the top.  But altogether — despite the script’s inability to somehow tie American Telephone & Telegraph into the moon Nazi conspiracy (they didn’t even try) — I’d say this movie deserves a place among my list of favorites.

———  end ———