Armchair Cinephile 

STRANGERS FROM STRANGE LANDS

The Day the Earth Stood Still (Fox)
The Man Who Fell to Earth (Anchor Bay)
Little Otik (Zeitgeist)
Metropolis (Kino Video)
Futurama (Fox)

In the classic 1951 The Day the Earth Stood Still (Fox), the alien is too smart to stick around for X-Files-style analysis; he blends into human society, trying to find out if Earth

 
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contains any inhabitants willing to speak before shooting. At the end of the film, the jury's still out; Klaatu bids farewell with a warning - you Earthlings are free to kill each other, but if you don't get it together before you're capable of interplanetary travel, the galaxy won't abide you - that is as timeless as the beautifully eerie Theremin score Bernard Herrmann wrote for the film.

The spaceman in Nicolas Roeg's The Man Who Fell to Earth (Anchor Bay) is a good deal more ambiguous, and that's not just because David Bowie portrays him. He exploits his advanced technology to amass a fortune, but refuses to explain himself to anyone - as does the film itself, an elliptical narrative that lets you watch for an hour or so before giving any hint why, how, or when Bowie left his world. It jumps through time without warning, expecting the viewer to put two and two together.

That refusal to spell things out makes the film a compelling puzzle; Roeg's style makes it beautiful. Things get really ridiculous late in the tale, what with kinky alien sex, government conspiracies, rampant alcoholism and all, and many viewers will feel cheated by an ending that is as uncertain as the rest of the film. But as a Space Age fable, it's appropriatelycomplicated.

Two other recent releases go even further with their allegorical fantasies. Surrealist Czech animator Jan Svankmajer's Little Otik (Zeitgeist) may be his most physically

 
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conventional film - there's little stop-motion animation in it - but his skewed sensibilities permeate the story. A man who is unable to father children sees them everywhere, even in the fruit he slices open, and the filmmaker does his part to keep maternity on our minds too, as when he cuts from a woman's bulging belly to a shot of a ladle emerging from a particularly gory bowl of soup.

The man, whose wife would dearly love a child, teases her by making one out of a tree stump. But the wife takes to the little wooden baby as if it were her own, trimming its roots and dressing it up. Mysteriously, the thing begins to grow, and to eat. And eat. And eat. Soon he's a trememdous beast, gobbling up neighbors and postmen, and his terrified but loving parents are forced to decide whether to cover up for him or do a little pruning. Alternately comic and scary in a fairy-tale way, Otik is an old-country fable that might make you think twice about procreation.

The messages of Fritz Lang's Metropolis (Kino Video) are more difficult to decipher, as the story's themes range from Christianity to Marxism, German romanticism, and a vision of the future thorny enough to linger through movie history, influencing such landmarks as Blade Runner. At the story's heart is a scientist who creates a robot woman to replace his lost love - equal parts Little Otik and Pygmalion, with more than a little Frankenstein thrown in.

Kino's new edition of the film shows how little we've known of Lang's silent classic since it debuted in 1927: After a brief run in its complete form, German distriutors butchered the film, cutting seven of 12 original reels. Various restorations have been made over the years - including some that hardly deserve the name, like one in which Giorgio Moroder colorized chunks of the film and replaced the soundtrack with Freddie Mercury. This new DVD is the result of a mammoth reconstruction; though some scenes appear to be lost forever, editors have inserted title cards to at least explain the missing action. This version is more complete than any

 
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seen after 1927, chock full of weird tangents and complications that struck contemporary distributors as superfluous. Finally, film buffs can decide for themselves whether faceless executives knew better than one of the cinema's greatest practitioners.

For a gentler look at the future's horrors, Fox just released the first season of Matt Groening's Futurama. A pizza delivery guy is frozen for 1,000 years and thawed out in a bizarre new world, where he becomes ... a delivery guy. The series may not have the dense concentration of belly laughs that The Simpsons once boasted, but the premise lends itself to the sort of commentary on our world that only science fiction can provide; robots and space travel have rarely been this funny. •


More by John DeFore

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