This week, I found a neat curated list on Filmstruck called 80s Adventure. It had a favorite of mine from childhood, so I decided to pull from that list and watch a film I’d never seen before. So this week’s films are:
John Boorman – Excalibur (1981)
Joe Dante – Innerspace (1987)
Innerspace was one of those films that captured my imagination when I was young. The effects, and the silliness of the story have always stuck with me. Excalibur I’ve never seen, so we’ll see.
Let’s get into it.
Excalibur retells the legend of King Arthur and his Knights of the Round Table. We follow the entire legend, from his birth, to pulling the sword from the stone, becoming king, forming the knights, his betrayal by Lancelot and Gwenevere, and his battles with Morgana and Mordred.
The film is directed by John Boorman, and stars Nigel Terry as King Arthur, and Helen Mirren as Morgana, among many others. It also has a lot of great recognizable British actors early in their careers like Liam Neeson, Patrick Stewart, Gabriel Byrne and some others.
As far as I can tell, this is a straight retelling of all the King Arthur legends that we’ve seen bits and pieces of in other films and stories like the animated film The Sword and the Stone, and First Knight, so I’ve seen a lot of these tales before, they’re really common. Of course, they’ve also been parodied famously by Monty Python and the Holy Grail. In fact, it’s arguable that more people are familiar with some of the legends from that source than from any other.
The film covers a massive timespan, from Arthur’s conception to death. I’m not entirely certain of the timeframe, but it seems like at least 50 years. That’s a major undertaking for any story. We start with Arthur’s father, Uther Pendragon, who is attempting to defeat Cornwall to take over the kingdom. He is given the legendary sword Excalibur which is the symbol of kings to further his quest. After Cornwall surrenders in exchange for a big chunk of land, he invites the new king to a big party where his wife dances for everyone. Uther decides that she should really be his wife, and starts the war again in order to steal her away.
So Uther isn’t really portrayed as a great guy. We meet Merlin at this early juncture as well, who is Uther’s advisor. Uther demands Merlin’s help in banging the other dude’s wife. In not his most heroic moment, Merlin agrees to help him out, as long as Uther agrees to give him any children that are produced via this union. Uther agrees, and Merlin makes a fog bridge for him to cross into the castle, as well as gives him a disguise to look like Cornwall.
Uther manages to rape Cornwall’s wife, Igrayne. Meanwhile, Cornwall is off trying to attack Uther’s camp, getting killed in the process. Uther wins the war and takes Igrayne for himself. 9 months later, Arthur is born, and Merlin comes to collect. As Merlin walks off with the child, Igrayne sobs and Uther decides to go after him. But as he does, he’s attacked and injured. But before he dies he manages to force the legendary sword into a stone and no one can pull it out.
This last scene is really interesting, because I think it accurately portrays what it was like to try to move in heavy armor. Every character in this scene is supposed to be an amazing soldier and fighter, and they all stagger around like they’re drunk. Every sword swing is slow and pained. Watching the fight scenes throughout the film, it’s hard to imagine this was an effective method of fighting people at any point in history. We constantly see swords clang ineffectively off the armor.
But, the style of the era wasn’t acrobatic fighting scenes. The style of this film feels much more like stagecraft than what we might find in modern films, where everything is set to look as realistic as possible. It’s definitely a style choice, but it hasn’t really aged well. When walking through castle corridors, it feels very fake, like foam blocks as walls, with whatever decorations they feel might look medieval-y. The height of this is a scene when a character walks through Camelot, and in the middle of it is some kind of market, but people are doing all sorts of random stuff that’s supposed to add flavor. It’s all really incongruous, and doesn’t work.
The film also has a real problem with introducing it’s characters. After the sword is deposited in the stone, a little festival environment sprung up around it. We also see that some sort of organized system has developed around who can take their turn at pulling the sword. We see the winner of a tournament played by Patrick Stewart excitedly run up and try, of course failing.
A new challenger comes with his father and squire. As the knight is prepping to join the next tournament, they realize that his squire has misplaced his sword. He sees a young boy running away, having stolen it. He runs right by Excalibur, and absentmindedly, grabs it, pulling it out of the stone easily. When his knight runs up to him, he tells him he can’t get his sword, but here’s Excalibur, he can just use that.
This scene is a massive wasted opportunity in the film. When the squire walks up to the sword, at no point have we been told that it’s Arthur. When he grabs the sword, it’s just an afterthought. There’s no buildup to it, no anticipation for the audience, just grabbing the sword, and then after, someone calls him Arthur. It’s like the film doesn’t even care about the legend it’s trying to portray.
The filmmakers easily could have built up to this moment, adding some suspense for the audience. We could have learned early on that this was Arthur, and have been watching for his opportunity to take the sword. But instead, the opportunity was wasted on a throwaway moment that apparently meant nothing.
We then get a scene where everyone there tries to prove or disprove that Arthur is the rightful owner of the sword, and when he does prove he’s the only one who can draw it, then they begin to take sides. Merlin just wanders by to support Arthur, then Arthur runs off after Merlin, asking for explanations and help.
Throughout these scenes, Arthur seems weak and terrified. Which makes it all the more confusing when Merlin convinces him to return to the camp to help the knight that defended him(Leondegrance), who’s castle is now under siege, and he rides back, rallies the people still there waiting, and concocts a great battle plan to retake the castle, immediately winning the trust of the knights and having everyone proclaim him king.
He then goes on to start a campaign to unify the country, and when finally managing it, forms the Knights of the Round Table. We jump through all the beats of the King Arthur story, he meets Lancelot, he marries Gwenevere, Gwenevere and Lancelot fall in love, and Arthur finds out. Morgana is the daughter of Igrayne and Cornwall, who is also a wizard like Merlin, she traps Merlin and tricks Arthur into sex, conceiving Mordred, who she trains to hate Arthur and take over the kingdom. Arthur sends his Knights on the quest for the Holy Grail, which turns into a huge disaster. Then he has to fight Mordred for his kingdom.
This is another part of the film that falls down for me. Instead of going deep on one of the Arthurian legends like other films have that I mentioned earlier, it tries to tell all of them in one story. What it ends up feeling like is that we never get enough time to spend with any one story to really feel for these characters. It doesn’t end up being a very compelling or satisfying story.
Let’s take a look at the next film.
Tuck Pendleton is a disgraced test pilot who has to take work in a mysterious experimental lab in Silicon Valley in which he will be miniaturized inside a submersible capsule and injected into a rabbit to see if he can navigate the body. But when the experiment is interrupted by a rival labs attack, the head scientist escapes with the miniaturized Tuck, and injects him into an unsuspecting grocery store assistant manager, Jack Putter. Tuck manages to make contact and he enlists Jack’s help in retrieving the stolen technology in order to re-enlarge him before his capsule runs out of oxygen.
The film is directed by Joe Dante, who I’m a big fan of, he also directed Gremlins, which we’ve covered before, among many other great films. The film stars Dennis Quaid, Martin Short and Meg Ryan. Dennis Quaid was a pretty big star at the time, and Martin Short was one of the biggest comedians out there. Meg Ryan wasn’t quite the star she’d become, but she was definitely recognizable. We’ve covered Meg Ryan before, a couple of times in fact, and I’ve always got a lot to say about her. But I’ll reiterate what I’ve said previously: I think Meg Ryan is a great actress, who never got the strongest roles in her era to really show her talents. But she’s one of those incredibly memorable actresses that I’m always happy to see show up in a film. But suffice to say, this is a really fun cast, that really works well together.
Dennis Quaid, for his part spends about 75% of his screentime in a small capsule, but still manages to make the most of it. Throughout the film, he seems to be doing a pretty good Tom Cruise impression with his wild smiles. But he plays the arrogant, brash, but still lovable test pilot well, and the relationship between his Tuck and Meg Ryan’s Lydia manages to be the emotional core of what is otherwise a pretty silly film.
The first 20 minutes or so are essentially played straight. We meet Tuck and Lydia, who are a couple. Tuck is at a function honoring test pilots, and he is drunk and jealous of the men who got chosen ahead of him for a new mission. He makes a fool of himself, and Lydia, a reporter, takes him home. The next morning, she tells him that it’s over. We jump ahead two months, and learn that Tuck has a job as a test pilot for an experiment. We see him going through his routines, psyching himself up, but we don’t really learn what the experiment is right away. We also meet Jack Putter, who is at the doctor, complaining of a host of likely imagined ailments. He’s clearly a hypochondriac. And the doctor suggests that he take a vacation.
When Jack gets to work we see even more of his life. The girl he has a crush on clearly has no interest in him beyond stringing him along. His boss likes him, but doesn’t seem to respect him much. As Jack goes to a mall travel agency to get his cruise tickets, he gets caught up in the main story.
At this point, we have seen the experiment take place. Tuck has been miniaturized, and stored in a syringe that is intended for Bugs, a rabbit at the lab. But a rival lab has sent a crew of goons to steal the chips that make the miniaturization possible. The system involves a pair of microchips, one on the outside, and one in the capsule itself. With one chip, miniaturization is possible, but with the second chip, the capsule can be re-enlarged. The rival lab needs both chips. But Ozzie, the lead scientist manages to run with the syringe.
He’s chased by a second rate bond villain named Mr. Igoe, who has a detachable hand. Different attachments do different things, one has a gun attachment, another has a claw, and in one scene, it’s heavily implied that he has a vibrator attachment…for her pleasure. Mr. Igoe chases Ozzie, catching up to him at a mall, where he manages to shoot him. As he dies, he runs into Jack, where he injects the syringe into Jack’s behind, before dying.
I can only imagine how terrifying that would be for anyone in the modern era. The film plays it for laughs, but imagine a dying stranger in a lab coat grabs you and forcibly injects you with a syringe. You might die just from the panic attack something like that would cause. But Jack, a serious hypochondriac, just goes to work after that. I feel like even someone who wasn’t health conscious would at least consider a stop at a hospital to run some tests.
But this is a comedy, so we mainly focus on how Jack reacts to Tuck beginning to mess with his body to figure out where he is. The film does a good job of playing Tuck’s confusion about where he is and how he got there. Tuck of course assumes that he’s supposed to be inside a rabbit. But he continues with the mission, trying to connect his systems to the visual and auditory systems. As he does this, Jack understandably freaks out, and his boss sends him back to the doctor. When he gets there, we’re treated to another very funny scene where Jack starts hearing Tuck for the first time. This plays out in an elevator, and then in the waiting room of a doctor’s office. There, he’s surround by SCTV veterans Joe Flaherty and Andrea Martin. Martin Short also worked on the show. Joe Dante always is good about interesting cameos, and Dick Miller, who was also in Gremlins makes a memorable cameo as a cab driver.
The film is an adventure film, with lots of twists and turns. We also get the classic suspense timer when we learn that Tuck only has until 9am the next morning to be re-enlarged before his oxygen runs out. And that without the other chip, it’s impossible to bring him back. The men at the lab chalk it up to bad luck and the price of progress, and essentially give up, but Jack and Tuck decide to go off on their own to get the chip back, enlisting the help of Lydia.
With Lydia’s knowledge, she and Jack run into “The Cowboy” played by Robert Picardo. I think from contextual clues that The Cowboy is supposed to be middle eastern, but I can’t really be sure. I don’t blame Picardo for taking a part like this. He’s a great actor, and in the era, it was just expected that white actors would play roles of other races and no one thought about it. This was also the decade where Fisher Stevens played an Indian man. It’s offensive, sure, but it’s mainly something we can look back on to say, we shouldn’t do that anymore…and hope that it’s true.
The Cowboy is a thoroughly ridiculous character, and really underscores the tone of the film. He’s a big boisterous foreigner, who’s obsessed with cowboy culture. He wears cowboy boots and hat everywhere he goes. He’s also an international fence, helping people find international buyers for their stolen goods. Lydia knows this, and concocts a plan to use him to find the stolen chip.
They manage to capture the Cowboy and inside his body, Tuck gives Jack the face of the Cowboy, and we get another funny scene where Robert Picardo is playing the role of Jack, playing the role of the Cowboy. Picardo does a really funny performance here, and no CGI or effects really required. Just the man himself.
Initially, Jack tells Lydia that Tuck has been kidnapped, but as the film goes on, Lydia seems to have a romantic connection to Jack. The film seems to imply that Jack and Tuck have a kind of symbiotic relationship, and the more time they spend bonded in this way, the more they take on each other’s qualities, leading Lydia to see in Jack what she saw in Tuck. It’s an interesting idea, and only subtly there, but it’s there.
For his part, Jack seems to think that Tuck can give him super powers, which in some cases, Tuck can provide in a way. He’s able to stimulate Jack’s adrenal gland, and affect electronic equipment near Jack with some of his equipment.
Eventually, Lydia and Jack kiss, which somehow transfers Tuck to Lydia. While he’s out, Jack still thinks Tuck is affecting him, and begins acting the hero on his own, without Tuck’s encouragement. It’s a nice moment of growth for Jack. While in Lydia’s body, Tuck discovers that she’s pregnant, meeting his child before they’re born, and plays their favorite song in her ear to tell her he’s there.
The film does a good job of mixing action and comedy throughout. In a lot of films with this kind of cast, Martin Short would handle all the comedy, and Dennis Quaid would handle the action. But in this story, with the two essentially being in the same body, Short has to do everything, and he turns out to mix the two pretty capably.
The effects are also pretty great. Joe Dante is known for his effect driven films and this one does not disappoint. The shots of the capsule inside the body and all the shots of it interacting in various locations are great, and really hold up.
In the end, they manage to get the chip, and get back to the lab in time, getting Tuck enlarged again. Of course, a film like this has to end that way, but it’s a credit to Dante as a director that the moment when Tuck comes out of the capsule and takes his first breath is incredibly satisfying. The film ends with Tuck and Lydia getting married. As they get into their limo we see that Tuck’s cufflinks are the microchips, and the limo driver is the Cowboy. Jack takes a moment to tell his doctor, the girl he had a crush on and his boss that he’s cured, he won’t date her, and that he quits in that order, and then drives off to save the day.
The Double Feature
So here we have two films. One which was an old favorite, and one that was entirely new to me. We also have some weird parallels between the two films. In both of them, we have a character who takes on the face of a different character to impersonate them, and in both films we have a dying character inserting something into something else as their last act before dying.
As for my personal thoughts, I have some major issues with Excalibur. I just can’t shake the feeling that I watched a really bad movie that made a lot of mistakes. I want to be fair to every movie I watch, but this one just doesn’t hold up. There are also some movies that work when they initially come out, but seem worse as time goes on because the effects change, or styles change, and they just don’t look right anymore. I don’t think that’s the problem with this film. I mean, it is a problem, but it’s not what makes it fail. This film has serious structural problems and completely fails at engaging the audience. It makes me feel like the film is just going through the motions and just checking off boxes of Arthurian legend.
Innerspace is a film I loved as a child, which can always make for a dangerous rewatch. As children, we tend to love things for different reasons than we do as adults. As for this film, I still liked it, though not as much as I did as a child. The film is highly ridiculous, but it’s intentional. And while the plot is silly, and the characters are sometimes silly, the action works, and the emotions are real. So in the end, Innerspace does hold up pretty well. The acting is good, and the direction pulls it all together.
As a combination, I definitely wouldn’t recommend the two of these together. I initially considered the 80s version of Clash of the Titans instead of Excalibur, and I think that would have been a better pairing to Innerspace. But as always, this blog is one long experiment, so it’s worth it to try things out.
Things have been going slow this summer, but I have managed to stay on schedule for the work I set out for my dissertation up to this point, and I’m on track to meet my first deadline at the end of July, which is excellent. I also got moved into a new office this past week. I had been in an open office type space, but the school I’m in has a habit of absorbing other smaller departments like we’re the Borg or something, so they had to make space. I am now in a semi-private office with a door and a lock, that will eventually be shared with 3 other people, but in the transition, and because it’s summer, it’s just me for the time being. I thought it might be lonely, but I’ve gotten a lot of work done so far.
But let’s consider next week’s films. Next week, I’m going to look into a box set of DVDs that again I’ve had on my shelf for years but never watched. This time it’s a set of Japanese horror films called When Horror Came to Shochiku. Next week’s films are:
Kazui Nihonmatsu – The X From Outer Space
Hajime Sato – Goke, Body Snatcher From Hell
Both looks suitably goofy and crazy and I’m excited to see what happens.
See you then.