Wednesday, October 2, 2019

Cardboard Science: Prisoners Of The Wind

It's October, which means it's time for our annual crossover event between Popcorn Culture's Census Bloodbath and Kinemalogue's Cardboard Science! My good internet friend Hunter Allen has assigned me three more 50's sci-fi flicks and you should head over there later this month to catch his thoughts on my three 80's slasher picks!

Year: 1961
Director: Cy Endfield
Cast: Michael Craig, Joan Greenwood, Michael Callan
Run Time: 1 hour 41 minutes

Evidently, the constraints of Cardboard Science are less strict than Census Bloodbath (I'd love to thoroughly break down more slashers outside of the 80's, but 400 titles don't need to be added to), because this month we're briefly slipping out of the 50's to tackle a movie that, one year after Psycho, just doesn't really feel "genre" anymore: It's Mysterious Island (the lack of a "the" is continuously confounding to me), based on the Jules Verne story that also gave us 2012 Dwayne Johnson vehicle Journey 2: The Mysterious Island

Perhaps I'd have been better off watching that one. Who can say?

In Mysterious Island, which is set midway through the Civil War, four Union prisoners - dashing Capt. Cyrus Harding (Michael Craig), loyal Cpl. Neb Nugent (Dan Jackson), cowardly Herbert Brown (Michael Callan), and newly captured war correspondent Gideon Spilitt (Gary Merrill) - escape in a hot air balloon with kidnapped Confederate soldier Sgt. Pencroft (Percy Herbert). When a storm blows them off course, they crash land on a lonely island in the Pacific, where they must work together to survive.

Of course, eventually two shipwrecked women - Lady Mary Fairchild (Joan Greenwood) and her niece Elena (Beth Rogan) - wash up, and of course the male servant they had with them died in the process. I can't think of a worse place for two women to be in the 60's than stranded with a bunch of male soldiers, but they seem to make it work and the ladies both find themselves suitable partners in Spilitt and Brown respectively. Oh, and eventually they discover another denizen of the island, a mysterious Captain Nemo (Herbert Lom). This isn't a spoiler because the opening credits proudly announce his presence, a good fifty minutes before he shows his face onscreen.

Oh, and also there's some giant monsters prowling around the island.

More on that later.

So, the opening credits. (Yes, this review is gonna get really granular.) You know credits, right? The part where the names of the people who worked on the film slide across the screen? Well, this movie doesn't seem to have ever seen a credits sequence before, because instead of politely arranging the names atop a crashing ocean backdrop like any other 60's island movie might have, we get a relentless cacophony of color. The ocean background is filtered into oblivion in a half dozen Day-Glo colors, with the credits in alternating stripes of different, equally obnoxious hues. When green over purple is the easiest combination to read, you know there's a problem. It's a hideous display that actively reduces the amount of information the audience is able to receive, which one would think would be the opposite of any movie's intention.

Nothing in the film is worse than this (how could it be?), but I think the credits speak to a deep problem with the entire project. Not a single ounce of forethought was put into the way they could make this appear as a coherent whole. If Mysterious Island is a Lego set, it was assembled by a blindfolded child with no instructions. Random plot points jut out from the center while others are elliptically rushed by without a passing glance, to the point that the monstrous contributions by Ray Freaking Harryhausen feel even less than an afterthought.

It's really obvious when Mysterious Island remembers that there are giant monsters roaming about, because about once every 25 minutes they chuck one in, to the shock of all the characters who have also forgotten there are giant monsters in the middle of their island survival adventure. We spend 75% of the film watching them fashion sexy Gilligan's Island cosplay and spruce up a cave, but not prepare to deal with the horde of monstrous and violent creatures they periodically have to defend themselves from. It's implied that the women have lived there for months and none of the men have even mentioned fighting a giant crab at one point. Plus, the monsters are provided by Ray Harryhausen, and while they're not his best, they're certainly a delight. Which makes their sidelining even more infuriating. And then, later on, the movie has the gall to assume we will be afraid of pirates showing up when there are literally giant bees like eight yards from their house.

Side note: for a supposedly deserted island, it certainly gets a lot of tourist traffic.

Mysterious Island is very concerned with the process of survival, so we get a lot of hunting for food, fashioning huts and primitive weapons, and exploring the terrain. This would probably be interesting if it was an adventure movie from the 40's before we'd already seen 8 million similar narratives. This movie has elements that make it stand out from the generic Robinson Crusoe model, but the fact that it seems to actively want to ignore them means it relies on a lot of truly boring material instead.

But that said, I will not complain about a bunch of shirtless men being friends on an island. Before (and even after) the women show up, it's an alluringly homoerotic tale of men being stubbly and barrel chested, struggling for dominance via gravelly voice-offs and intense stares. I'm not sweating, you're sweating. Unfortunately, neither monsters nor men are enough to unsink this film from the choppy waters of insipidity. I didn't hate watching it, but I wouldn't be so bold as to recommend it to anyone else.

That which is indistinguishable from magic:
  • Instead of just telling the group his plan to raise a sunken ship, Captain Nemo has a whole diorama fashioned with a fish tank, because there's nothing a Cardboard Science flick loves more than explaining its bullshit science in excruciating detail.
  • Literature from this period was really drawn to hot air balloons, but that is no excuse to setting a full 20 minutes of this movie about an island on a balloon.
The morality of the past, in the future!:
  • Elena decides to marry Herbert, who is clearly the least interesting or useful of the soldiers, because he is the only one who is young and white, and that's how these things are supposed to go.
  • There's a part where the men discover the skeleton of a man who hung himself, which is the closest to horror this film ever gets.
  • In a very serious moment, Captain Nemo activates a very silly-looking Wonka-esque water pump that flaps wildly behind his head. It's hilarious.
  • Captain Nemo also plays the "Phantom of the Opera" theme on an organ in his submarine. You know what, he may actually be the best comic character of the 60's.
TL;DR: Mysterious Island is a waste of Harryhausen, instead choosing to focus on a bunch of boring men doing "cool" survivalist stuff.
Rating: 5/10
Word Count: 1201
Cardboard Science on Popcorn Culture
2014: Invaders from Mars (1953) The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951) Them! (1954)
2015: The Giant Claw (1957) It Came from Beneath the Sea (1955) The Brain from Planet Arous (1957)
2016: Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956) Godzilla (1954) The Beginning of the End (1957)
2017: It Conquered the World (1958) I Married a Monster from Outer Space (1958) Forbidden Planet (1956)
2018: The Fly (1958) Attack of the 50 Ft. Woman (1958) Fiend without a Face (1958)
2019: Mysterious Island (1961) Robinson Crusoe on Mars (1964) Plan 9 from Outer Space (1959)

Census Bloodbath on Kinemalogue
2014: My Bloody Valentine (1981) Pieces (1982) The Burning (1981)
2015: Terror Train (1980) The House on Sorority Row (1983) Killer Party (1986)
2016: The Initiation (1984) Chopping Mall (1986) I, Madman  (1989)
2017: Slumber Party Massacre (1982) Hello Mary Lou: Prom Night II (1987) Happy Birthday to Me (1981)
2018: The Prowler (1981) Slumber Party Massacre II (1987) Death Spa (1989)
2019: Phantom of the Mall: Eric's Revenge (1989) Psycho III (1986) StageFright: Aquarius (1987)


  1. Ah well. I honestly do like Mysterious Island, but not really too much more than a 5/10 would indicate. The choppiness of the plotting probably has a lot to do with how they adapted a book that didn't have monsters in it, but since one of "they" was Ray Harryhausen, the movie was obviously going to have monsters in it. (What is possibly interesting in the book beyond another tale of island survival, I cannot possibly say. I guess the opportunity to retcon Nemo's death, then kill him again, along with introducing some major inconsistencies into his chronology?)

    Even so, I might put it ahead of the movie it serves as an off-brand sequel to (Disney's 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea) because, whatever else, it does have visually-interesting stuff happening every dozen or so minutes rather than Kirk Douglas getting drunk off formaldehyde. And I really love the heck out of the choreography around that terror bird.

    The weird thing is that Mysterious Island probably has a little more going for it than MOST Ray Harryhausen movies, which turn out to be reliably... well, not especially good, especially considering the reputation that precedes them (indeed, considering my childhood memories of his films). Nevertheless, unwisely or not, I spent a non-negligible sum of money on acquiring a lot of the damn things on blu-ray, and now I have passed the vague whimsy of Dynamation--and the vague boredom of the mediocre plots Dynamation apparently required--onto you.

    P.S.: If you think spending twenty minutes on a balloon in a movie called Mysterious Island is offensive, try out The First Men In the Moon, because you won't even begin to guess when they actually get to the damn moon.

    1. Look, we all loved a bunch of really bad movies as a kid that we still love now and nothing can take that away from us. And Mysterious Island isn't really bad. It's just... bland! At any rate, even the Cardboard Science movies I like the least I am always glad to have been exposed to, so thank you!

  2. Oh, and another postscript: whoever was titling these adaptations did indeed hate the definite article. The novel is THE Mysterious Island, in French or in English, much as H.G. Wells' novel was THE First Men In the Moon. The movie's just "First Men In the Moon." I guess it's to emphasize the breathless matinee excitement that is simply not demonstrated by the actual product in either case?