A month ago, I discussed adaptations under new names, how a name change can distance the work from the original, and the idea of a work being an adaptation in all but name. I’ve reviewed one movie, Real Steel, that used a name change to create a distance between it and the work it is based on. Real Steel, however, was still built upon the late Richard Matheson short story “Steel”. Today, however, I will look at a movie that only claims inspiration from a work.
Throughout the run of Lost in Translation, I’ve maintained a philosophy looking at both the good and the bad. Good movies can show how to do things well. Bad movies can be a lesson on what not to do, and may still have elements that work. Street Fighter: The Movie was a great example of a bad movie that still had elements where they tried to stay faithful. Even Dungeons & Dragons made an effort to be recognizable. And, yes, everything I review, I watch, read, or otherwise experience. With Alien from LA, I started feeling like Gonzo the Great, suffering for the art. Or maybe I felt more like Statler and Waldorf. Suffice to say, Alien from LA falls under the category “Bad Movie”. If it weren’t for the fine people of Mystery Science Theatre 3000, I don’t think I could have gotten through the movie with sanity intact.
I watched it, so you don’t have to.
Alien from LA was inspired by Jules Verne’s Journey to the Centre of the Earth, or, more accurately, the 1959 movie adaptation with Pat Boone. Verne is considered one of the founders of science fiction, creating works that explored fantastic parts of the Earth and that inspired scientists and engineers. His works have been translated to many languages, second only to Agatha Christie for sheer numbers. /Journey/ has been made into several movies under its own title and has inspired other works. The book chronicles the search for a route to the centre of the Earth* and the sights seen along the way, including dinosaurs and a prehistoric human. Verne took the time to think about the underground ground world; electrically charged gas for lighting, the dangers of gas build up, the need for food and water. The 1959 movie added elements such as Atlantis to the underground world and a few extra characters, including a duck.
To say Alien from LA borrowed elements from the 1959 movie and the original work would be like saying the English borrowed from other languages; the “borrowing” involved a dark alley and a dagger. With the name change, liberties could be taken with the source material. The story remained more or less the same, someone goes down into a new world underground and discovers what’s there. In the original Journey, the reason for searching was to discover what an alchemist found in an Icelandic volcano. The 1959 movie presented a puzzle in the form of a plumb bob in volcanic rock left by an Icelandic scientist three hundred years earlier. Alien from LA had Los Angeles waitress Wanda Saknussemm, played by Kathy Ireland, trying to find out what had happened to her father on an archaeological dig in Africa. At her father’s dig/apartment**, Wanda reads through her father’s journals and discovers that he may have found Atlantis. Wanda decides to take a look at her father’s basement/dig site and finds a chamber where she falls through a hole into a seemingly bottomless pit.
When she regains consciousness, Wanda finds herself in an underground world and meets up with Gus, who she accidentally saves from being murdered. Gus takes Wanda to Atlantis to help find her father while trying to determine whose voice was the most annoying***. Wanda is, despite the frumpy clothes, obviously an “alien”, a surface world dweller, because of her “big bones”. Along the way. Wanda loses her glasses, cleans up using a steam vent****, and gets new clothes that lets her look like Kathy Ireland should. Wanda gets kidnapped, taken to be sold at the underground underground market, is rescued, finds her father, and, eventually, returns to the surface world mostly a new woman.
To say Alien from LA had problems is an understatement. Shot on a limited budget that had parts of it restricted to Africa, the movie reused several actors in multiple roles. The studio, the Cannon Group, was well-known for B-grade action movies such as the Death Wish sequels and Invasion U.S.A, plus Breakin’ and its sequel, Breakin’ 2: Electric Boogaloo. By the time Alien from LA was being produced, Cannon’s funds were coming from Michael Milken’s junk bonds, with the junk bond market crashing in 1988. The movie was being used to bring the restricted funds out of Africa. Quality of work wasn’t first and foremost.
In terms of casting, the only real name in the movie was Kathy Ireland. Known at the time for being a Sports Illustrated swimsuit model, Alien from LA was her first lead role. Her size, being 5’10” tall, helped land her the role; the director needed someone to look stronger than the thin, underdeveloped Atlantians. Her co-star, William R. Moses, playing Gus, previously played Cole on Falcon Crest and would appear with Julia Roberts in Mystic Pizza later in 1988. The remaining cast was relatively unknown to mainstream audiences.
Visually, the movie did make the underground world and Atlantis look alien. The terrain was more than just a cave while still enclosed and slightly claustrophobic. Buildings in Atlantis were built into the rock walls. The lighting was variable, dim in some areas, bright but tinted in others. Adding to the other-worldliness was an element of government overwatch through a hybrid of George Orwell’s 1984 and the Max Headroom TV series complete with omnipresent television screens with a talking head releasing sanctioned information. The clothes worn by the Atlantians were either functional, as seen with Gus’s coveralls, or completely unconnected to any fashion trend in the 80s or any other period in history. The underground world was definitely its own place, uninfluenced by anything from the surface.
Beyond sharing the general plotline and using one name, Saknussemm, with Arnold Saknussemm, Wanda’s father, being similar to Arne Saknussemm, the Icelandic alchemist who first discovered the way to the centre of the Earth in Journey, there isn’t much in common, Even adding the 1959 version and its addition of Atlantis, Alien from LA isn’t a good adaptation. However, with the title change, Alien from LA distances itself from the original works to stand on its own feeble merits. It’s just not a good movie.
Next week, another look at the Star Wars prequels.
* Obvious, from the title.
** Don’t ask.
*** Wanda won. She kept her squeaky voice throughout the movie. Gus’s Australian accent came and went, probably trying to escape Wanda’s voice.
**** Steam does not work that way.