The 30th of October saw the remarkable news break that George Lucas had sold Lucasfilm to Disney for $4.05bn. As part of the deal, Disney announced that episode VII of the franchise would be released in 2015, with a torrent of further sequels to follow. This was quite a turn around as George Lucas had been previously quoted as saying that the franchise’s appearance at the cinema was over, but such u-turns matter little when someone gives you enough cash to set up a super base in the heart of a volcano, and to buy an entire army of kung-fu midgets for personal defence and for general ‘fuck shit up’ tasks.
Despite the Star Wars fanboi communities dismissal of the new trilogy, as an early adopter of Star Wars, I personally feel that the first two films represent the only decent Star Wars material. The movies sold out when it was decided that an army of genetically engineered super soldiers with a fleet of devastating weaponry should be defeated by a bunch of catapult-armed teddy bears. As far as I can see, the new trilogy is a perfectly successful set of films, because they are what they are. They are great entertainment for children, and as business entities, they managed to make a lot of wallets bulge. Disney will no doubt continue the franchise by supplying monstrous budgets and by making big, dumb, special effects-laden extravaganzas for children, and triple the profits with a line of merchandise. In this sense, they are the perfect inheritors of the franchise. However, I thought it might be fun to have a look at some of Disney’s previous escapades in the world of science fiction, just to see what we may be in store for.
20,000 Leagues Under The Sea (1954)
We start off with a gilded classic in this superb rendition of a Jules Verne novel. The story was first brought to film in 1916, but this 1954 vision is the definitive one. Every effort was made to ensure this movie’s success and it shows. A great cast combining the gravitas and authority of James Mason with the plucky charisma of action hero Kirk Douglas. With a gripping storyline, and great special effects, the movie managed to garner two academy awards. If Star Wars Episode VII comes out in 2014, then this movie made sixty years before represents everything that VII can achieve. Interestingly, David Fincher, of ‘Fight Club’ fame, is tipped to direct a remake of 20,000 leagues, with none other than Brad ‘stud-muffin’ Pitt brandishing the silvery whiskers of Captain Nemo.
Rotten Tomatoes rating: 89%
Escape To Witch Mountain (1975)
This movie in which two kids with psychic powers evade a bad guy trying to attain their skills for his own nefarious plans, represents Disney’s silver age of live-action movie-making. It very much sits in the family of movies together with ‘Bedknobs And Broomsticks’, ‘One Of Our Dinosaurs Is Missing’ and the Herbie films. Theme-wise, psychokinesis was a hot topic at the time. One year later, ‘Carrie’ would follow based on Stephen King’s more sinister adult take on psychic powers. Witch Mountain proved popular, inspiring not only an immediate sequel in 1978’s ‘Return From Witch Mountain’, but also a 21st century revisit in 2009’s ‘Race To Witch Mountain’, featuring the always watchable Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson.
Rotten Tomatoes rating: 76%
The Cat From Outer Space (1978)
Disney were knee deep into churning out kid-friendly, silly, fantasy movies during the 1970’s and this was one such affair. It’s got a cute, quirky animal, purportedly an alien cat, in it and a bunch of crap composited effects. Low budget nonsense, but we have to give Disney some credit for just churning out these little filmic efforts. Hey, well Lalo Schiffrin did the score and it’s got Roddy McDowall in it, so how bad can it be? Basically, a bunch of weird shit happens when the cat’s alien necklace glows so that the good guys can triumph over the bad guys. Truth be told, I haven’t seen this number since I was a kid, and something tells me, as nostalgic as such an undertaking might be, I could probably find a better use for my time.
Rotten Tomatoes rating: no rating, but IMDB gave it 5.7/10
The Black Hole (1979)
A movie with quite a respectable budget, ‘The Black Hole’ was released in the wake of the post Star Wars space mania. Its premise, in which a crew discover a lost spaceship residing on the edge of a black hole and decide to investigate, sounds very much like a set-up for a sci-fi horror movie akin to ‘Event Horizon’. Of course, it plays out for a family audience so this isn’t the case. It received a sour critical reception, so is unfortunately a movie that belongs in the mediocre bin. Ultimately, ‘The Black Hole’ appears to be a poor man’s ‘Forbidden Planet’, with Maximilian Schell playing the Walter Pidgeon role, and Anthony ‘Psycho’ Perkins stepping into Leslie Nielsen’s shoes. But sadly a clone from which no links to the original Shakespearean inspiration have survived in the two-bit script.
Rotten Tomatoes rating: 45%
This epic movie, which is seen as a masterpiece today, was somewhat misunderstood at the time. Released in an era when few people could understand the computer jargon-heavy language which was essential for understanding the plot, it was ahead of its time, and all that the audiences could grab onto were the pyschedelic special effects. This movie represented virtual reality being released in the same year that William Gibson coined the notion of cyberspace in his story, ‘Burning Chrome’. Disney managed to also misjudge this movie’s sequel in ‘Tron: Legacy’. The reverse scenario had occurred with that film, in that the audiences were far too familiar with the concept of digital realities, having watched the Wachowski brothers’ Matrix movies a decade previously. So the novelty of the concept was lost. It also forgot that it was supposed to be a fun kid’s movie by taking itself far too seriously and in this respect was trumped by another Wachowski brothers movie, ‘Speed Racer’ which came out in the previous release window.
Rotten Tomatoes rating: 70%
Flight Of The Navigator (1986)
Here, Disney masterfully managed to create a plot centred around alien abduction, without having to raise the thorny subject of anal probes. The abductee in question being twelve year old boy, David Freeman, who is taken by aliens and thrown forward in time 8 years. After NASA get hold of him, his adventure takes off when he stumbles upon a spacecraft, who’s AI sentient pilot, refers to him as The Navigator. So the adults at NASA seemingly lose their star acquisition to a twelve year old (doh!!! you’re fired…), but then there would be no big family Disney adventure movie if this didn’t happen.
Rotten Tomatoes rating: 78%
Atlantis – The Lost Empire (2001)
This cel-animated adventure was released, rather unfortunately, in the same release window as ‘Shrek’, and as it turned out, Shrek turned out to be a total Disney killer. With Michael J Fox voicing the main character, and with a blend of 2d and 3d effects, Atlantis could have been a great movie, had 3d animated movies not been established as a genre. This was a problem that Disney were going to have for a while.
Rotten Tomatoes rating: 49%
Treasure Planet (2002)
Disney’s attempt at a science fiction re-imagining of Robert Louis Stevenson’s classic swashbuckling tale, ‘Treasure Island’, was a slap in the face for their investors. At a production cost of $140 million, it managed to recoup $109 million at the box office. The DVD sales managed to make back the losses, but it revealed a shift in attitude in the cinema-going appetites of the twentieth century family. ‘Toy Story’ released seven years previously, had been followed by a torrent of 3d animated movies, and audiences seemed to have fallen out of love with what was seen as an old-fashioned style of animation. Despite a great cast, with ‘Looper’ and ‘Inception’ star, Joseph Gordon-Levitt playing Jim Hawkins, and Bill Murray taking on Long John Silver, even the great critical reception it received was not a strong enough pull for the popcorn mob. This movie showed that even with a big budget, great writing and well-crafted visuals, Disney was more than capable of producing an absolute turnip of a movie.
Rotten Tomatoes rating: 68%
At last, we arrive at Disney’s true masterpiece, according to Rotten Tomatoes. ‘WALL-E’ is a dystopian fantasy story set in a future where Earth has become so polluted, the human race has been forced to leave the planet. It’s quite an ethical tale, but rather than patronise us with a stern cautionary tale, a great Pixar script and their associated animation skills bring us what is possibly the greatest 3d animated feature of all time. Cleverly put together, much of the first half of the movie works through pure visual communication with few lines of dialogue. The film is bright, witty, clever, emotional and the story is very well balanced. It’s a film which nods to the style and tradition of 1970’s science fiction films, such as ‘Silent Running’. Disney’s acquisition of Pixar was a very smart move, and in doing so, they embraced the zeitgeist of modern animated movie making, where movies like ‘Treasure Planet’ had totally failed.
Rotten Tomatoes rating: 96%
John Carter (2012)
This was the movie that almost sent Disney under. It resulted in Disney posting massive losses, and showed that Disney was massively out of touch with what audiences wanted from a science fiction film. The film was based on Tarzan creator, Edgar Rice Burroughs’s civil war space-faring character of the same name. A seminal work that arguably laid the groundwork for many science fiction stories that followed, including ‘Star Wars’. Therein lay the problem. By telling this old fashioned story in an era where audiences were more than familiar with the science fiction genre, a genre that indeed had moved on in a modern age of computers and the internet, John Carter seemed nothing more than a load of old-fashioned tosh. Disney missed the mark once more.
Rotten Tomatoes rating: 51%
OK, well here are the Rotten Tomato grades for the Star Wars movies:
||Rotten Tomato grade
|Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace
|Star Wars Episode II: Attack Of The Clones
|Star Wars Episode III: Revenge Of The Sith
|Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope
|Star Wars Episode V: Empire Strikes Back
|Star Wars Episode VI: Return Of The Jedi
Well, if we average out the Rotten Tomato ratings of the Disney science fiction films above, we get 68%. Interestingly if we compare this to the Rotten Tomatoes average mark for the Star Wars movies, which is 79%, well that tells us one thing. Disney’s movie output is very hit and miss quality-wise, and this may come back to haunt them.
Disney have endured some very mixed fortunes in its handling of the science fiction genre, but one thing’s for sure. The head of the merchandise division at Disney must have shit his/her pants when they heard about the Lucasfilm acquisition. Leia is now officially a Disney princess, and the future of fluffy ewok and Jar Jar Binks toys is in safe hands.