Wednesday, 21 November 2012

Lost Worlds and Rubber Monsters Part 1: The Last Dinosaur (1977)

Over the next couple of weeks, I'll be doing a short series on good old-fashioned monster movies from the pre-CGI days. Now, by "good," I mean "entertaining", not necessarily "good" in the more... uh... conventional sense. I'll also be looking at why these films, populated with puppets, plasticine stop-motion monsters and grown men in rubber suits are better (or at least more fun) than their more up-to-date counterparts. Today, we'll cop a butchers at...

The Last Dinosaur (1977)

Prepare to meet a man irresistible to women, a man of the world, a billionaire, raconteur, big-game hunter, industrialist, explorer, adventurer... every woman wants to be with him and every man wants to be him. Even his name sounds manly; Masten Thrust! Actually, if the cover of top international magazine Newswe-- uh... I mean Newsworld is to be believed, his full name is Masten Thrust Is He The World's Richest Man? Which sounds like a bloody funny name to me, so we'll call him Masten Thrust for short. No, no. It's such a manly name, we'll call him MASTEN THRUST! since it deserves capitals and an exclamation mark.

Oh yeah. He looks like this;

So irresistible, he doesn't need
to give a shit.

Naturally, we are introduced to Mr. THRUST! Whilst he is in the company of a lady. Take note here; if you ever find yourself in the position of trying to impress a hot red-headed lady in a pink 70s trouser suit, take a leaf out of MASTEN THRUST!'s book of seduction techniques and show her slides of the defenceless animals you've killed on Safari. Weirdly, when the slide show is finished MASTEN THRUST! thanks some bloke named Charlie, who is off-screen. Evidently, this is why giving a lecture on hunting animals I cannot eat  and whose death serves no other purpose than for sport never works for me. I need a bloke named Charlie gawping at us both from the shadows to get the girl really turned on.

Such is the mystery of MASTEN THRUST!.

Oh, and, when she compliments you on the fact that you've done everything, remind her that you haven't done her and go in for the kill. If you get bored halfway through, just walk out. Oh yeah, and toss her your scrapbook; that'll seal the deal. Go on, you know you want to. It's what MASTEN THRUST! would do.

Such is the opening of The Last Dinosaur (1977), a really weird international co-production between Rankin/Bass Productions in the US, and Tsuburaya Productions in Japan. While released theatrically in Japan and in other markets, it was cut from 106 minutes to 95 minutes in the US and went straight to TV. Obviously, this film was too good for western cinema goers.

Anyway, we jump cut to an Airfix plane (marked THRUST! INDUSTRIES, naturally) in a painted sky, dangling its way on piano wire to somewhere or another--presumably Japan because we get a shot of Mount Fuji through the window, but wherever it is, it's the most cosmopolitan place I've ever seen. Either that or the movie does a lousy job establishing a sense of place. The hot redhead (OK, according to the IMDB, her name is Thrust's Girl on Plane) is sat on her own in the plane, flicking through the scrapbook as Nancy Wilson belts out an amazingly 70s ballard  out over the main titles.

A ballard that includes such lyrics as, "His time has past/They are no more/He is the Laaaast/DIN-O-SAUR!" Followed by lots of bow-chika-wa-wa's, etc.

Anyway, once they arrive, THRUST! dumps Thrust's Girl on Plane, saying his farewells with a plane ticket back to Portland and a solid gold bullet. Mr. THRUST! then proceeds with all haste to a division of THRUST! Industries, whilst important, international businessman music plays, telling us that Mr. THRUST! is an important, international business man.

THRUST! Industries--where they do... um... stuff?

Once at the office/lab/industrial complex/whatever-the-hell-this-building-is-supposed-to-be, THRUST! meets intrepid reporter Francesca "Frankie" Banks (Joan Van Ark), whom he immediately assumes is a prostitute (it was the 70s, after all). Before she can correct him, THRUST buggers off upstairs to the lab, where he is met warmly by Clich├ęd Japanese Scientist (you know, thick-rimmed glasses, comb-over, briefly concerned with doing something or other in the name of science). OK, so his name is Dr. Kowamoto (Tetsu Nakamura) but the lab coat tells you all you need to know. Dr. Kowamoto introduces MASTEN THRUST! to Chuck Wade (Steven Keats), who is  supposed to be brilliant young genius, but looks like a gap toothed yokel who sees dinosaurs. Unsurprisingly, he claims to have seen a dinosaur.

So they all hurry away to an exposition conference, which takes the form of a press conference, where reporters ask each other, "is he really the world's richest man?"

Boy, does this press conference go on, but in a nutshell, MASTEN THRUST! has been drilling for oil using, for no god-damn reason whatsoever, 5-man underground burrowing machines that look like the Mole from Thunderbirds. Chuck is, unbelievably, a geologist and the only survivor of an accidental excursion by one of these drilling machines into a hidden volcanic valley. Everyone else was eaten by a dinosaur.

The Last Dinosau--oh, you get the idea. Of course, it's a T-Rex. It's never one of those little dinky ones with the hands or one of those huge turkey jobbies. It's a T-Rex.

Still, there is one thing fascinating about this press conference; MASTEN THRUST! is played by raging alcoholic Richard Boone and boy, in this scene, is he drunk. Really, really drunk. And as the film goes on. He just gets more drunk. The other fascinating thing is that when Mr. THRUST! introduces the team that will go hunting for the dinosaur (apparently to study its habits), he announces that he has hired his old friend, the best tracker in the world, Bunta (Luther Rackley). Bunta, being a Masai, is tall. I mean, really fucking tall. But the fact that he's tall does not warrant the reaction the reporters give. They don't bat an eyelid at notions of lost valleys, drilling machines or dinosaurs but show them a rather tall man? They go fucking nuts for it. It's like Kate Middleton got her tits out.


Naturally, the press association has chosen a reporter has to go on the expedition, and... actually, do I need to even explain where this is going? Do I even need to tell you that Frankie and MASTEN THRUST! will eventually hit it off trading hunting stories? And that she'll even have romantic night alone with the drunken old bastard? Well, not quite; she interrupts their tryst with he Pulitzer Prize winning slide collection (what is it with these people and their holiday snaps? ) and then she starts snogging the drunken old bastard. Like I said, he's irresistible.

Say! Ever wonder what movie inspired The Core (2003)? No, no one else has either! But now we know anyway; remember how the ridiculous, laser-powered drilling machine in that film was launched from an oil rig? Well, guess how they launch the ridiculous, laser powered drilling machine in The Last Dinosaur? In fact, once the THRUST! Polar Borer, as it is known, is dropped in the water, the scene plays pretty much shot for shot as it does in the later film (except, while The Core has crap CGI, The Last Dinosaur looks like it was filmed in a fish tank). Also, while Chuck, Dr. Kowamoto, Frankie and Bunta all wear spacesuits and helmets for the voyage, MASTEN THRUST will have none of that sissy, health and safety nonsense. He's a man's man and if he wants to dress up as Hemingway, he'll bloody well dress like Hemingway.

But finally, after a tense drilling sequence that only lacks tension, and one third of the way into the movie, the team emerge in a prehistoric land in the crater of a massive volcano (or something) and we see our first dinosaur! And it's... well, a rubber pteranodon on strings with matt lines around it, from where its been pulled from the blue screen.

No matter, as our intrepid heroes come ashore, they encounter a much more impressive beast;

It may not be the T-Rex, but at least it's two blokes in a pantomime horse arrangement. You can't go wrong with that. Also, the above clip is not the last case of complete idiocy the team displays. Straight after nearly getting killed by standing in front of a massive-fucking-angry-beast and not getting out of the way for a very long time, they make camp for the evening. Next to the lake. The lake populated by pteranodons. That swoop down and try to eat things. Things that include idiots.

The next day, they leave Dr. Kowamoto back at the camp because he has equipment to set up (Translation: so that he can get killed) and go exploring. Chuck displays his credentials as a gap-toothed yokel... sorry... brilliant scientist by muttering about the fauna, which must turn Frankie on because they suddenly and without warning develop sexual tension. T-Rex tracks are found, Frankie once again gets herself into another hilarious jam involving a giant turtle and some leeches, and a cave girl who I think we're supposed to find sexy follows them at a discrete distance. Ultimately, we don't find her sexy, because she not only has a mono-brow, but also because she adopts a strange Granddad walk (assuming your Granddad walks like an imbecile because mine certainly didn't). This, combined with her constantly frightened expression, makes her look like she's had a pants-related accident.

So finally, after nearly forty minutes and a lot of buggering around looking at tracks, discussing "spawn" and Bunta climbing a tree, the T-Rex finally makes and appearance.

It's a man in a monster suit. And it's glorious.

One of two things can happen when you're watching an old monster movie; you either think, "that looks crap" and turn it off; or your eyes widen, your mouth hangs agape and you regress to the state of a child, filled with wonderment at the magic of cinema. Naturally I fall into the latter category. Why? Well, let us examine the problem of CGI.

I have never once seen a shot using CGI that convinced me. I mean, sure, I've seen CGI that was photorealistic, but nothing that actually struck me as real. As far back as 1993, the T-Rex in Jurassic  Park was impressive, as were the raptors; there were times when you genuinely couldn't tell the difference between the full-sized, animatronic replicas and their CG avatars. Interestingly, Suitmation (yeah, really, that's what it's called) was used for the raptors, but mainly for when they were hidden in the bushes. So what's the problem?

Well, CGI creations lack personality. They lack, if you'll indulge me, a soul.

When you see a puppet dinosaur, or a man in a monster suit, or a stop-motion creature, you don't just get the illusion of a living creature. A little of its creator's personality comes across as well. It's not just a special effect, it's a three-dimensional, tangible work of artistry that you can admire, in and of itself. There's something kind of endearing about a none-CGI monster; Godzilla (and I mean Godzilla, not that crap American abomination that was ret-conned into a completely different monster in the Japanese films*) may stomp cities,  the Xenomorph may lay eggs down your throat and rip your crew-mates to shreds,  the 1933 King Kong may wreck El-trains and carry women off to the top of the Empire State Building, but we love them because they are tactile; they are there, on-screen, for real; they have little bits of the personalities of the people who designed, sculpted and animated them. They may be monsters but they are imbued with a sense of humanity. A CGI creation, being removed from its creators by a mouse and a keyboard, has no personalty. It doesn't help that modern effects personnel working with computers aren't artists; they are technicians and thus do not understand that no matter how hard you work on visual details, you still won't imbue your creation with a soul. Interestingly, some film makers understand this and call in someone like Andy Serkis; Gollum, King Kong in the 2005 version and Caesar from Rise of the Planet of the Apes (2011) are all imbued with life by his motion-capture performance to the extent that we forget about the CGI. It is the state-of-the-art equivalent of putting a man in make-up and a monster suit.

Getting back to The Last Dinosaur, after the T-Rex kills Dr. Kowamoto in a hilarious scene that involves a 40-foot lizard (raptor? Bird? What exactly are dinosaurs?) creeping up on a Nobel Prize winner and stamping on him without said Nobel Prize winner noticing, MASTEN THRUST! becomes less interested in documenting the beast and grows more and more obsessed with bagging it with his rifle. This is everything his close friend Dr. Kowamoto would not have wanted but, hey, he's MASTEN THRUST!. "This forty-foot monster with the brain the size of a dried pea has... sob... just destroyed a man with one of the great minds of this century," he laments.

Even the backward Chuck objects; "But Masten, you told me... you swore to all of us that we were not going to harm the dinosaur!"
"You DING-DONG!" Screams MASTEN THRUST! in response.

Thus, most of the rest of the film is taken up with various cartoonish schemes to fell the not-so-last-dinosaur. At one point, they tie a boulder to the thing's tail, just to fuck with it;

In another classic moment, they build an elaborate catapult to fire a rock at the poor thing's bouncy rubber head. In slow motion.

Naturally, all this effort is wasted. Even MASTEN THRUST!'s home made bombs don't work, and Bunta gets killed when the expert tracker falls victim to the T-Rex's habit of sneaking up on people and squishing them. One suspects that the T-Rex must be sniggering to itself every time it does this but who knows what goes on in the mind of such a proud and mighty beast?

Actually, the T-Rex seems to delight in high jinx, steeling the Polar Borer at one point just to get back at the annoying individuals who keep doing vaguely annoying things to it. Whilst the T-Rex is playing football with it, this, for some reason, happens;

What was the triceratops doing lurking in a hole in the ground? Why does the T-Rex sound like Godzilla? Why do the characters keep reffering to it as the Last Dinosaur when it clearly isn't? What does a monster the brain the size of a dried pea want with a drilling machine anyway? I can only answer one of these questions; since the film was produced in collaboration with Tsuburaya Productions (the people who do the special effects for all those Japanese men-in-monster suit wrestling matches) they evidently decided to use stock sound effects of one of the most iconic and recognisable monster roars of all time, instead of using something less noticeable. Why did they do this? Well... I don't know. Think of this film as a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma. Sort of like Inception but with dinosaurs. Or not.

The film climaxes in a bizarre non-ending where everything turns into a race against time for no reason whatsoever (batteries or something), and while Chuck and Frankie elect to escape in the Polar Borer, MASTEN THRUST!, still obsessed with hunting the dinosaur elects to stay, walking off into the sunset as the cave girl gives him a suspicious look. The god awful theme song kicks in and it is then that we realise, "Oh yes! Now I see! MASTEN THRUST!, Great White Hunter, was the Last Dinosaur all along!" Genius.

Is this film a classic? Well, that depends on what you mean by the word "classic." But, by God, it's better than a Roland Emmerich movie any day.

*The american "Godzilla" is now known in the Toho cannon as "The Zilla" and is mentioned several times as a creature that attacked New York and was mistaken for Godzilla himself. She (as Roland Emmerich and his crew called her) finally faced off against Godzilla himself in Godzilla: Final Wars (2004). It is conspicuous that "The Zilla" was the only monster in that film to be rendered in CGI and not Suitmation. In addition, it was rather half-arsed CGI, almost as if Toho were insulting the very fabric of the monster's existence itself. Godzilla destroyed it in a battle lasting less than two minutes, prompting one character to decry, "I knew that tuna-eating lizard was no good!" Roland Emmerich, of course, continues to make films. Really, really bad ones; those that aren't boring like 10,000BC (2008) or 2012 (2009) are just plain bullshit like Anonymous (2011). It's telling that his highest rated film from the last ten years on the IMDB relies on historical revisionism. One suspects that his one good movie, Stargate (1994), was just a happy accident.

1 comment:

  1. I remember seeing this movie on late night tv when I was 9 years old back in 1980 and I thought it was so awesome. I don't want to crush that image by watching it again.