|Sci-Fi Boys, The|
|Written by Bill Warren|
|Tuesday, 16 May 2006|
This odd documentary was released on DVD by Universal, and is scheduled for theatrical release later in the year. The basic premise is to show how some filmmakers of today—directors, makeup artists, effects experts—were influenced in their youth by the magazine Famous Monsters of Filmland and by stop-motion maestro Ray Harryhausen.
Harryhausen, Ray Bradbury and Famous Monsters editor and life-long science fiction fan Forrest J Ackerman were teenaged friends---in fact, Ackerman introduced the two Rays—and have remained friends ever since. Bradbury appears here occasionally, though like Harryhausen and Ackerman, doesn’t participate in a real interview for this project. And indeed, writer-director Paul Davids (who appears himself) doesn’t clearly link Bradbury to the “sci-fi boys” who are his primary interview subjects. Also, producer George Pal, whose films were immensely influential on at least two generations of filmmaker, gets little mention here until a peculiarly intrusive scene very late in the film in which Davids and Ackerman, aged almost 90, visit Pal’s grave.
The first half or so of “The Sci-Fi Boys” works the best; though there’s little narration in a film that could have used more, just what Famous Monsters was is clearly explained. The idea that most of these fans were nerds and geeks is briefly addressed, often by the interview subjects themselves. So is the overwhelming influence of the original “King Kong;” in fact, Peter Jackson, director of the 2005 remake, is the first interview subject. He talks about Kong and about his love for Harryhausen’s films and Ackerman’s magazine.
Other filmmakers and experts interviewed include enthusiastic John Landis, Stephen Sommers, Rick Baker, makeup artist Steve Johnson, writer-director-historian Donald F. Glut, director/collector William Malone, historian/collector Bob Burns, effects expert Dennis Muren and Paul Davids himself.
One of the primary areas dealt with is the many amateur movies most of these guys made when they were teenagers (or, in the case of the prolific Glut, even younger), and footage from some of these films is included—perhaps a bit too much footage, as it keeps derailing the main track of the film, long after the point has been made: Famous Monsters and Harryhausen steered these guys into filmmaking as soon as they could grab a camera. (They weren’t the first; inspired by the Universal horror films of his youth, as a teenager Hugh Hefner made his own monster movies,.)
After about the halfway point, the movie begins to lurch from topic to topic; the focus blurs and Davids is hard pressed to get it back. At one point, as John Landis enthusiastically describes his youthful filmmaking activities, he’s abruptly rendered in lousy cartoon animation (by Evan York), which is more confusing than anything else. At another point, there’s an almost shocking cut from the face of Forry Ackerman in his early 50s to Ackerman in his late 80s. And for unknown reasons, Davids thinks Roger Corman had something to do with “Invasion of the Saucer Men.”
There’s a digression into the gimmicks of schlockmeister William Castle, but this isn’t linked directly to any of the Sci-Fi Boys—even though two of them, Glut and Bob Burns, separately participated in the stunts Castle staged in their respective home towns. Also, Rick Baker, Dennis Muren and Steve Johnson each talk about the change in effects from live-action (“analog”) to computer graphic imagery (CGI), though again, the connection to the main thrust of the film is more than a little vague.
Sometimes, the match of the sound track and image gets a bit weird; when someone talks about how science fiction can inspire mankind to wonder about things that might have been, on screen we see an insect man chasing Faith Domergue around the spaceship set of “This Island Earth.”
In addition to the monster kid/sci-fi boys home movies, Davids uses a well-handled 1970 video interview conducted by science fiction writer James Gunn (not the director of “Slither.”) Ackerman solemnly reads from script while photographed in various areas of his original “Ackermansion.” Davids occasionally uses other outside sources.
There are lots of extras, primarily footage shot for the documentary but not included in the finished film. Some of these are strange; there are a couple of letters from Universal founder Carl Laemmle to a teenaged Forry Ackerman that are hard to read. There are slides shot at various functions, but no captions are provided; unless you recognize the people in the photos, you’ll have no way of knowing who they are.
Scenes are included of Tom Hanks presenting the Gordon Sawyer Award (an Oscar statuette) to Harryhausen at an Oscar ceremony a few years back. There are more teenage movies from the interview subjects, including “The Monster” by Bob Burns (also available on the DVD “Monster Kid Home Movies”) and one of Don Glut’s many films. But the cream of the extras crop are the additional sections of interviews, particularly with the articulate, ingratiating Steve Johnson, a makeup maestro, and with Dennis Muren.
Muren was a teenage special effects fan who started out making his own feature film (“Equinox,” due out on DVD this summer), then had the great good fortune of teaming up with George Lucas. Muren was in charge of the effects for “The Empire Strikes Back” (which Glut novelized), and Ground Zero for the formation of Lucas’ Industrial Light & Magic (ILM). Muren is aware that he, personally, is the pivot point of change from live action to CGI effects (it was he who convinced Spielberg to turn to CGI with “Jurassic Park”). He’s a very thoughtful man who’s pondered all this stuff for years, and is articulate on a casual-moviegoer level. The stuff with Johnson, Baker and Muren is the real treasure of “The Sci-Fi Boys.”
There’s a strange, puzzling omission. Of all moviemakers working today, the one who has always been the most involved “Sci-Fi Boy” of them all, Joe Dante, is not included among the interviewees, even though several films from his underrated “Matinee” are included. Dante is friendly with almost all the people shown—so where the heck is he?
If you, too, grew up with the science fiction movies of the 1950s (and thereafter), and dashed down to the corner drug store every time a new Famous Monsters of Filmland was published, “The Sci-Fi Boys” is a must purchase. For others, it’s largely an interesting, sometimes mesmerizing, look at a corner of filmmaking that has rarely been discussed in these terms.
---Bill Warren (who wrote for Famous Monsters)