Sunday, April 19, 2009

The Illustrated Man (1969)

I've been meaning to see The Illustrated Man since it came out on DVD not too long ago. I figured what the hell, it's based on a great collection of Ray Bradbury stories, it's got to be good, right? One would think so but the truth is actually something much different. This is not a very good picture and I'm not just saying that because it's become horribly dated. Rod Steiger is a terrific screen presence, but unfortunately he's too much of a presence in this thing. As the titular character he completely overshadows Robert Drivas, fellow wanderer. I don't know, maybe that was the intent. The illustrated guy meets up with Drivas on the side of a lake and from the get-go is a bonafide nut. I mean, this guy carries his little dog in a sack and justifies it by saying "he likes it hot, like me" only he said it at a few more octaves than I could ever muster. Also, he takes off his shirt and reveals a body covered in tattoos. "From head to toe" he says, with a wink, as he's taking a piss.

Well, this illustrated man, this Steiger guy, thinks he got a raw deal back when he was working the carnival circuit and some witch covered his body in ink (don't call them tattoos to his face or you'll make him angry). Slowly, I guess these "illustrations" cause him to go mad, as they each tell a different story, if you stare at them too long. So, Steiger is on the road to kill that witch (Claire Bloom) and gain himself a little bit of vengeance I guess. I don't think they could remove them with lasers at this point in history so he is shit out of luck in that department. So, of course Drivas can't stop looking at the art work and, as a result of his folly, we are treated to three separate stories. Three visionary tales about science and progress and isolation that look and feel like they were made for television. Probably a result of the director, Jack Smight, having spent the majority of his carreer in that particular medium. Maybe not the best choice for a Bradbury adaption, especially one that might depend on cutting edge effects. Oh well.

The first story they chose to include is actually one of the better ones in the collection, "the veldt". It's about a family (Steiger, Bloom, and their two obnoxious, spoiled children) living in a futuristic society. Everything is sterile and white, which I guess is where we thought the future was heading back in the late 60s. The veldt refers to a nursery for the children, a room that creates a hologramic playground of anything they desire. For some reason, the kids choose the african veldt, full of Lions and tigers and...pretty sure no bears, maybe a giraffe was in there somewhere, but I doubt it, since they probably couldn't afford them or the studio was out of stock footage. So, everything is going well for these two spoiled brats until their parents finally come to terms with just how spoiled they are. Meanwhile, fiction becomes awfully close to reality. The parents ground the kids, the kids disappear, the parents go looking for them in the veldt and then later we see that Drivas guy show up in the veldt to wonder what those lions are eating off in the distance. This is a terrific story given a so-so presentation. Things could have started off worse I suppose.

Next is the story about the long hard rain which is pretty much a piece of shit. Again, Steiger stars, this time as the leader of some astronauts marooned on venus where apparently it never stops raining. So, they walk and walk and bitch and complain and walk some more. Some of them go mad, one drowns himself by titlting his head back and opening his mouth. Steiger tries to maintain some semblance of hope by mentioning these sun dome things that will provide shelter and radio contact to home. They find one, completely destroyed, another guy kills himself and, well, you get the picture. The original story was fine because, while not a lot really happens, we at least delve a little into the psychology of the men. It's not easy to accomplish that in a film, especially an anthology film, so we're simply left with lots of walking and talking and yelling. Also, no mention of the alien race that destroyed the sun dome (from the book). Also, what the fuck is Claire Bloom doing in the sun dome at the end?

The third story is even worse. I think it's called the last night on earth or some shit like that and involves Steiger and Bloom playing the same asshole parents to the same asshole kids from the first story. Only this time, the parents weren't eaten by a lion, they've got more important things to worry about like the nuclear holocaust that will take place sometime early morning. So, the parents debate the merits of euthanizing their children so they won't have to experience it. I'll be fucking honest for a moment, I didn't remember this story and I just watched this picture a week ago and I can't remember what they decided. If these were supposed to be the same kids from the first story then I think it's a pretty easy decision. Kill the little bastards, right? I don't know, this should have been a powerful tale, but it was just lots of talking as far as I could tell. No end of world in sight. You don't need a big effects budget to effectively convey a hopeless situation like nuclear war. I often think about that picture Testament, which might be the only nuclear war film from the 1980s that actually withstood the test of time. It was probably made for something like ten grand and focused on a mother trying to protect her kids in the face of nuclear fallout. When all hope is lost, she somehow managed to find a little. The end is pretty fucking heartbreaking, but a little, miniscule bit of hope manages to shine through. Not hope for the characters in that film, they were all toast. Hope for us, I believe was the message. Anyway, back to The Illustrated Man and that last night on earth story. It reminded me of the last night on krypton with the set design and also Steiger kinda looked like Brando, when Brando was in Superman. The final story should be the best, but that's certainly not the case here. It's the worst.

I don't know what to say...the final story is told and we cut back to Steiger and Drivas, who is now pretty much insane and then completely loses it when he sees Steiger strangling him on the one empty spot on his chest. This thing will never lessen how I feel about the original stories but it will always cause me to lament a missed opportunity. Also, it's fucking distracting as hell to feature Steiger and Bloom in all of the stories. What the fuck, couldn't they afford anyone else in the cast? Why bother making an anthology film based on Bradbury when you are given a miniscule budget. This isn't a movie. It's three mediocre "outer limits" episodes strung together. They didn't even pick the best stories from the collection which is, I guess, the most frustrating thing. Would have loved to see "kaleidoscope" put to film. Zack Snyder is attached to a version of "The Illustrated Man". Hopefully, he won't follow this one too closely. Of course, with today's technology we can go anywhere, do anything in our moving pictures.

I know it sounds like I hated the picture which is probably a bit too harsh. I guess I would never go out of my way to hang out with it. Everytime Steiger, as the illustrated man, was on screen I was never less than compelled. He's an entertaining actor. The makeup was incredible as well since I realized these were not actually real tattoos. The transition from tattoo to story was a pretty lousy, vintage 60s, wavy picture, psychedelia type of effect. They went with what they know. This was probably a popular picture for tripping hippies. I just wish there were more scenes with the illustrated man and less of the stories. Or, maybe they could have chosen better stories. Also, it's an interesting contrast to go from a world where magic is possible (the illustrated man's world) to visions of worlds where science is the source of all evil. It's a nice try Jack Smight, but he should just stick with television I guess is the motif I am taking from this thing.

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