12/9/06

205 Rocket Attack USA

(1961, Drama-Political, b&w), with:

The Phantom Creeps: Chapter Two, Death Stalks the Highway

(1939, SciFi-Serial, b&w)

The driver is either missing, or he’s dead.

Rating: *

In a nutshell:

Short: A goofy mad scientist crashes through the bushes in an invisibility belt.
Film: Russia destroys Manhattan when the U.S. falls behind in the nuclear arms race.

Short Summary:

In our last exciting episode, we saw the skydiving blond girl escape the plummeting government plane just before it crashed with the mad scientist’s estranged wife on board. Now, in The Phantom Creeps: Chapter Two, Death Stalks the Highway, we learn that even though the plane nose-dived into the ground, the pilot survived, though in a state of suspended animation due to Bela Lugosi’s Alka Seltzer-loving exploding mechanical spiders. The federal agent survived as well; only the estranged wife died, of a heart attack I think.

The newly shaven, incomprehensible mad scientist (Bela Lugosi) arrives in disguise, finds his wife dead and swears vengeance on the government for killing her though, technically, she died of natural causes. Meanwhile, his former colleague, a scientist of the non-mad variety, desperately seeks an antidote for exploding spiders. He sends agents back to Lugosi’s house, who, you may or may not recall, moved all his stuff to the secret basement where it wouldn’t be found. It turns out that Lugosi wasn’t very thorough when he moved, so he returns to the upper stories of the house in his invisibility belt to retrieve the boxes of evidence he left lying around that the Feds somehow missed in their thorough search of the place.

While cleaning his lab, the Feds show up and Lugosi’s clumsy chauffeur tries to run for it, but falls stunned to the ground after taking several revolver and shotgun blasts at close range. Still invisible, Lugosi escapes in his car, but an agent and the skydiving blond give chase. A ways down the road Lugosi stops his car and gets a big stick. The agent jumps in the car just in time for the invisible Lugosi to whack him in the head. Lugosi then sends the car over a cliff where it crashes and bursts into flames. Stay tuned!

Film Summary:

Sister city to Mutually Assured Destruction, Russia.Rocket Attack USA is a cautionary tale about how during the Cold War, the U.S. government foolishly spent it’s military funding on price supports for cheese (I did not make that up) instead of the space program. The U.S.S.R. spent its money far more wisely, on Sputnik, which helped answer the three basic questions about what makes intercontinental missiles possible. What would be the effects of radioactivity on the missile, what gravitational force would the other planets exert on the missile, and what is the density of the air up there? (I did not that make that up either.)

While American scientists work feverishly on a missile of our own, the military sends a spy (dubbed Spy Guy by Joel and the ‘Bots in host segment five) from Washington to Russia in a single-engine plane. He walks from the border to Moscow where he sits in a cafĂ© with a babushka-wearing belly dancer and a fire-eater for an interminable amount of time before his beautiful Russian informant (dubbed Sooey the Pig Girl by Joel and the ‘Bots) comes to get him. Luckily, she’s recently become the mistress of the Defense Minister and knows all the important details about the Russian missile.

The Defense Minister, like all cinematic Russian bureaucrats, is an alcoholic, apelike adulterer, who continuously spills state secrets to his traitorous mistress while Spy Guy lives in her closet, forced to listen to their drunken coitus. Back in the U.S., scientists fail to make a working missile before the Russians, so of course one day over tea the Russians decide to destroy New York. Naturally, Spy Guy and Sooey the Pig Girl fall in love and make an attempt to destroy the Russian missile before it can be launched, with the rather incompetent help of a random British Intelligence agent. Fortunately, the missile has only one rather sleepy soldier guarding it, easily dispatched by Spy Guy with a pocketknife. Unfortunately, British Agent has supplied an explosive with a 20-minute fuse. The Russians find and shoot Sooey the Pig Girl and Spy Guy to death, while easily removing the explosives to a safe distance before it can go off.

You’d think that with all of the main characters dead, the film would blow up New York and end, but no, we’re only two thirds of the way through. Now we follow the adventures of half a dozen average New York citizens in their daily lives. It’s reported that relations with Moscow have been patched up. Suddenly (a relative term) and for no particular reason, the Russian missile is launched. The military is informed when the missile is 10 minutes away. People mill about in the streets for 15 minutes. The radio warns everyone who can’t get underground to lie down on the ground and cover themselves with newspaper (I did not make that up either). A blind guy says, “Help me” in an unconvincing manner. The bomb hits and three million people die. And it’s all because of the government’s previous ill-advised funding of cheese.

Introduction:

In Soviet Russia, bad movie-watching experiments watch you.Tom Servo gets a haircut, making his head cylindrical instead of spherical. Joel does a brief Effeminate British Hairdresser impression as he tries to sell a bunch of hair care products to Tom.

Host Segment One:

Joel demonstrates an adding machine that prints in candy. Dr. Forrester demonstrates the water polo foosball table while wearing a wetsuit.

Host Segment Two:

Joel tells all about the Charlie McCarthy hearings in the sixties, when famous puppets of that time period were suspected of communism.

Host Segment Three:

Joel and the ‘Bots put on the “Civil Defense Quiz Bowl” while dressed in aluminum foil. When Joel asks about the two biggest myths of the Cold War, Tom answers, “One, we can win a nuclear war, and two, the survivors are the lucky ones.”

Host Segment Four:

Mike Nelson arrives as an unpronounceable Russian cosmonaut and introduces his robots, currently broken. Joel wants to dock their ships and exchange tales and technology, but their docks are incompatible.

Host Segment Five:

Joel and the ‘Bots are so upset about the film that they all talk at once about how awful it was. Quoth Dr. Forrester, “You’re upset. I like that.” Joel reads a letter.

Stinger:

A blind guy says, “Help me,” in an unconvincing manner.

Thoughts:

The very first stinger of the show.This is the first episode to add the stinger to the end, basically a five second clip of one of the most bizarre moments in the film, added after the ending credits.

Tom’s new cylindrical head is rather jarring; he loses his bubblegum machine symmetry for a sleeker, minimalist lava lamp look, except without the glowing wax. Since it’s the glowing wax that makes lava lamps cool, Tom’s new head is not.

The invention exchange is competent but nothing special. The Charlie McCarthy hearings and the Civil Defense Quiz Show are not laugh out loud funny, but they are deftly written parodies of Cold War paranoia. It’s worth it to watch this episode just for those two host segments. Mike has a funny accent as the cosmonaut, but the sketch seems to wander aimlessly before ending without a real punchline.

The serial short, like its predecessor in Episode 203, is a jumbled, incomprehensible mess. Bad sound and bad accents make the dialogue hard to follow. Plot elements fly every which way with no direction or meaning. There’s a big ugly robot, a stupid lab assistant, random car chases, and glaring inconsistencies from the first episode. For instance, they don’t seem to remember that Lugosi already moved all his stuff to the basement. He’s still got plenty of incriminating evidence lying around in plain sight that the Feds still haven’t found in all their searching. The exploding spiders mostly disappear, and the non sequitur blond girl pokes into things. Oh, and there’s a violent montage of sinister foreign language teachers. I can only summarize the short by saying that a lot of people who seem to know each other wander around a lot.

I have two words to describe the film. Blatant propaganda. Perhaps ludicrous propaganda would serve better. None of the actors, not the principals, not the supporting cast, not the narrator, not the extras, can even sound convinced themselves of the story they’re telling. Everyone has an American accent, even the British and the Russians. When the Russians speak Russian, the narrator tells us what’s going on in the hushed tones of a golf commentator who’s thoroughly bored by golf.

As for the science propagated by this film, maybe I’m wrong and maybe science back then really believed the tripe they’re telling us in the movie, but I seriously doubt it. Okay, so “Duck and Cover” (the idea that covering yourself with a newspaper would save you in the event of a nuclear blast) is well documented from that time period, but given the recent Washington propaganda (I write this in 2003, during Ashcroft’s ad campaign that duct tape will protect us from terrorist attack) I find it hard to believe that scientists of that time really believed the “Duck and Cover” doctrine.

I may be intensely ignorant of advanced physics, but I believe I can answer the three questions that the film scientists need to answer to make missiles. Question One: What would be the effects of radioactivity on the missile? Answer: Why are they worried about ambient radiation in the atmosphere, when the warhead the missile is carrying is one of the most intense sources of radiation on the planet? Question Two: What gravitational force would the other planets exert on the missile? Answer: The planets all seem to be really far away. What are they, astrologers? Okay, so the question about air density might be marginally relevant, but if I were going to build an ICBM, I’d be more worried about propellant and guidance systems.

Of course, the idea that we should spend money on industry and the economy instead of the military is absolutely absurd. Of course, the military deserves every last drop of our tax dollars. That we should spend good tax money on cheese is disgraceful.

That said, Joel and the ‘Bots do their usual fine job of riffing the material. While they have as much trouble as we do with the short, Cold War paranoia is full of sarcastic potential. While good riffing mostly makes up for dismal material, the movie remains largely unwatchable.