Over the past few weeks, Lost in Translation has been looking at how to remake some movies featured on Mystery Science Theatre 3000 Now it’s time to see what the films have in common, besides being not well made. Budget was a huge problem for each movie to the point where going cheap hurt the presentation. However, each film had its own reason for the low budget.
Remaking a bad movie requires that the original film have something worth bringing out. Each movie featured in the past month does have a core idea worth examining. Reptilicus is the first and only Danish kaiju movie; a giant sea monster wreaking havoc somewhere other than Japan or the US could be a draw. Danger!! Death Ray was a Italian spy movie taking advantage of the popularity of the 007 films; a remake could turn Bart Fargo into a franchise that is neither Bond nor Bourne. Robot Holocaust felt like someone’s post-apocalyptic tabletop RPG put to film; remade as a TV series, the setting could be expanded instead of looking like a number of encounters facing the player characters. Manhunt in Space was an early TV space opera; a remake could take a retro-pulp feel, crossing Star Trek with Flash Gordon. Manos: The Hands of Fate was a disaster of a film limited by its budget; remaking it could bring in the horror missing in the original. There is a core that can be dug out.
A large budget isn’t necessarily an instant fix. Battleship is the prime example here at Lost in Translation of a large budget still not leading to either a good movie or a good adaptation. Low budgets, though, mean that the necessities, including competent crew from the grips to the editors, are cut back. The goal is to find the right budget for the movie. A Reptilicus remake would need to invest in the special effects to make the titular monster impressive. A Manos remake, though, wouldn’t need the same budget; indeed, too much money may create new problems* for a film that’s essentially a horror story at the personal level.
Once the budget problem is fixed, the next is fixing the editing. Manhunt didn’t have the issues the other films had; its limitation came from being a TV series from the early days of television. Robot Holocaust needed to be tightened up at points. Reptilicus had a few moments where the limitations of filming were obvious, including a shot where it is easy to tell two different types of film were used, one for the monster and another for the victim being eaten. The other two had worse problems, with editing errors still getting into the released cut.
The format of the remake will be key. Robot Holocaust may be better served as a television series. Its setting needs to be set up and explored, with each of the various factions – the air slaves, the Amazons, the robot overlords, and even the Dark One – getting attention so that they all don’t feel like a check box. Manhunt could work either as a film, albeit one with a sequel hook if Cleolanta escapes at the end like all good pulp villains do, or as a pilot for a TV series about the Space Rangers. Danger!! Death Ray works best as a film, as does Reptilicus and Manos, the first two to take advantage of the large screen, the latter because the story is self-contained.
Special effects, while tied to budget, should be addressed. None had great effects, especially compared to today. The Death Ray remake needs to look like it wasn’t filmed in someone’s tub with Billy’s toys. Manhunt needs to be updated given how far technology has changed since 1954. Reptilicus, the monster, looked very much like the puppet he was. Robot Holocaust had similarly obvious puppets, making it hard to believe the characters were in danger from angry worms. Even Manos, despite having very few effects because of its low budget, could use some upgrades, especially for the Master’s hound. Today, CGI can help fix the problems, but it’s not a panacea. Good effects still won’t help if the rest of the film has problems.
Why remake the films, especially given that the originals weren’t good to begin with? Each of the films were featured on MST3K, whose popularity grew through word of mouth. Manos in particular is better known thanks to its appearance on the series. The audience expectations would be low; any improvements would be a bonus. The expectations could backfire with Manos, though; the draw is because the movie is so bad. As a bonus to studios, there’s already a commentary on what went wrong, MST3K itself.
It’s possible to learn from your own mistakes. It’s also possible to learn from someone else’s. The movies featured on MST3K all have problems. Figuring out what went wrong and how to correct it while remaking the movie is an exercise worth indulging in. Some of the movies may not be easy to remake, and some may be too far gone to be salvageable, but watching them with an eye to where the production made mistakes can help prevent your own.
* To be honest, Manos may be better served being remade as a student project. Today’s off-the-shelf video recorders have far greater capabilities than the 16mm camera used to film Manos, including a far greater record time than 32 seconds. The plot doesn’t need extensive sets or effects.
Why the remakes this month? November is National Novel Writing Month, or NaNoWriMo, and I’m participating. As an attempt to save some time, I want to cut the number of movies watched down to get to the analysis faster and still be able to get to NaNoWriMo’s goal of 50 000 words in 30 days. I shouldn’t be surprised, but the MST3K remake posts are running longer than expected. As a result, the choice of movie to be remade is based on familiarity with the episode.
Mystery Science Theatre 3000 is known for riffing. That’s the core of the series and its follow ups, RiffTrax and Cinematic Titanic. For the early years, the crew went for the cheesy movies that were packaged with films that TV stations would want, partially because of the cost. No one wanted the movies, really, so they could be had for cheap. Some of the films were re-packaged episodes of old TV series, edited into one movie. Such is 1954’s Manhunt in Space, which began life as Rocky Jones, Space Ranger. Rocky Jones lasted all of two seasons as a syndicated TV series in the early days of television. Manhunt consists of three episodes of the series, the three chapters of “The Pirates of Prah” that were easy to edit together.
Manhunt in Space stars Richard Crane as Rocky Jone, Scotty Beckett as Rocky’s co-pilot Winky, Sally Mansfield as Rocky’s navigator Vena, Robert Lyden as Bobby, Patsy Parsons as Queen Cleolanta of Ophecius, Ray Montgomery as Space Ranger Reggie, Henry Brandon as space pirate Rinkman, James Griffith as Space Traffic Controller Ken
The movie opens with Vena and Reggie on board a cargo rocket heading to Casa 7 when they get hit by a mysterious ray, neutralizing the ship’s systems. Pirates led by Rinkman board the cargo rocket to rob it of its valuables, then leave, letting the ship drift without power. Meanwhile, at the Office of Space Affairs. Rocky and Winky are told that their leave has been cancelled. Instead, they’ve been assigned to investigate the disappearance of a number of ships near Casa 7. They rush there in their rocket, where they find Vena and Reggie adrift. Rocky brings them about his rocket, then tries to work out where the pirates could be based – Prah. On Ophecius, Queen Cleolantra receives work from Rinkman about the success of the raids. Cleolantra, though, compares Rinkman to Rocky, not inspiring confidence in the pirate leader.
Since Prah has a defensive field around it that no ship has been able to penetrate, Rocky gets a new device installed on his ship. Cold light*, when activated, will cloak Rocky’s ship by causing light to slow down; the device runs close to absolute zero, rendering the light slower and thus not showing anything, the opposite of a mirage. The cold light lets Rocky penetrate Prah’s defensive field and land.
On Prah, Rocky uses a tried and true method to discover information – he gets caught. Rocky learns that Rinkman is taking orders from someone else, but not who. Rocky escapes and flies back to Casa 7. The pirates, though, have a man on the inside. Space Controller Ken reports Rocky’s return to the pirates, who then come to Casa 7. The pirates capture Rocky to prevent him from reporting in. Rocky manages to escape and fools the pirates into thinking he’s left. The pirates figured out that an invisible rocket is hard to find, so they marked the landing pad where they captured Rocky. Rocky moved that mark to an empty pad. He lets the pirates gather, then strikes. The climactic battle sees Rocky and Winky taking on the pirates and winning. Rocky then takes his crew to his ship and leaves Casa 7, letting the local authorities round up the pirates.
Why remake Manhunt? It doesn’t have name recognition beyond being featured on MST3K. It is old enough to be picked up on the cheap. The plot works with a retro-pulp feel, much like the 1980 Flash Gordon movie. Space pirates, a femme fatale queen, and a plucky hero, everything that should make for a decent pulp movie is there. Manhunt‘s biggest problem was being a syndicated TV series; again, low budget, though the crew did try to get fancy with the cold light cloak. Our knowledge of space has grown since Rocky Jones first aired.
To remake Manhunt, let’s start with the Space Rangers. That organization is going to be the core concept of the remake. They’re the reason why the main characters are interacting with the plot. In Manhunt, Space Rangers patrol space to keep it safe from the predations of space pirates and evil queens, almost a prototype of Star Trek‘s Starfleet. Unlike Starfleet, the Space Rangers weren’t primarily for exploration, and the rocket ships only had a crew of three – pilot, co-pilot, and navigator. In the remake, the Space Rangers get a definite mandate – defend the Solar System.
Much like what happened in the Fifties, when old black and white silent films were remade with full colour and sound, a remake of Manhunt can take advantage of not just colour but also digital effects. Set design is easily augmented by CGI these days, and environments impossible to film in due to toxic atmospheres can be easily simulated. Black and white isn’t necessarily a bad choice, but a Manhunt remake may work better with colour.
Technology has changed since 1954. Manhunt‘s sets, which were done on the cheap for 1954 look woeful in 2017. Fortunately, not only can we make Rocky’s ship look modern to today’s eyes, we can do it for possibly less than in 1954. CGI takes care of the exteriors, though a detailed model may be nice and will help with merchandising. The interiors need to be updated so that they at least match the photos NASA has released of both the Space Shuttle and the International Space Station. Thanks to modern technology, the average person has a better idea of what the inside of a real space-going vehicle looks like. Thanks to modern science fiction television, the average person has a higher expectation of what the future will hold.
What the above means is that a decision needs to be made about what the space ships look like. Does the remake stay with the sleek rocket ships or will the Space Rangers use a vessel that looks like it evolved from the Space Shuttle. Rocky’s ship was capable of landing on its end, something that is still in experimentation today. A key moment in the movie is that Rocky can land his ship while cloaked in cold light. Audiences might find it easier to believe a space ship that looks like it came from the Shuttle can do just that. Changing up the ship design also means letting each major element – Rocky, the space pirates, and Queen Cleolantra – to have an easily identifiable vessel each.
Plot-wise, the main points from Manhunt can be reused. Space pirates are causing ships to go missing near Casa 7 and Rocky and his crew are sent to investigate. The investigation leads Rocky to discover the pirates’ base on Prah and that Cleolantra is behind the plot. The question of whether Rocky faces Cleolantra in the climax does depend on what format the remake takes. As a movie, to have a satisfying ending, Rocky must meet Cleolantra. Sequel hooks are possible; Rocky could escape Cleolantra’s clutches and foil her plans without defeating her outright. If Manhunt turns into a remake of Rocky Jones, though, Cleolantra could be left in the background, a hint to the audience of what’s to come later in the season.
There are details to clean up. The nature of the size of the United Planets, whether they represent just the Solar System or a larger community, needs to be worked out. The writers need to know the difference between a planet, a moon, and an asteroid. The dialogue will need to be worked on and some of the then-innocent lines may have to be excised. The writers should take the advice of Joel and the Bots and not overuse the word “space” as a modifier; the audience will get that the adventure is in space without the extra help. Winky might want to refer to the wild nightlife, not the gay nightlife, and “riding the rocket”, which may have come from “riding the rails”, now has a different meaning today. Of course, the writers could take Winky in a new direction and have him have a guy in every port. Even the title can use some sprucing up; Manhunt in Space is more serviceable than Rocky Jones, Space Ranger, but could use some oomph If you have a suggestion, add it to the comments below.
Manhunt in Space is a good example of television trying to jump on the space opera bandwagon. It was done on a low budget, typical of the era, and it shows. With work, it could be brought back. The core of the movie, space rangers on patrol battling space pirates, has potential, as long as there’s effort made to update the material.
* Cold light is technobabble, but the idea behind is solid if one doesn’t examine it too hard. As things cool, they lose energy. At Absolute Zero, there is no energy left in an object. Since light is both a wave and a particle, removing energy should slow it down. However, so far, the only way experimentation has been able to slow light was to send it through a dense substance, there may not be a basis for the technobabble. Such is the way of technobabble.