Wednesday, August 23, 2017

Calamity (1976)

I have always meant to try my hand at sculpting.  I still might.  The closest I ever came would likely have been either assembling monster models as a kid or painting tiny Dungeons and Dragons miniatures with a toothpick (a paintbrush just seemed too unwieldy for my chubby, little fingers), and, yes, I know that neither of these comes even close to the orbit of actual sculpture.  I think I would like to try doing mini-maquettes or mini-busts of different characters or maybe just full-size busts.  Stuff like the Creature from the Black Lagoon or the Hulk or something.  Stuff that’s in my wheelhouse.  None of that enigmatic modern art sculpture for me (maybe if I’m feeling lazy).  There will be growing pains, to be sure.  After all, I have zero experience sculpting anything, unless you count using Play Doh, but that was some time ago and nothing to write home about.  Time would also be a huge factor, since I don’t have enough of it to do the things I like to do now (like sleep, eat, and so forth, and you should see the hoops that have to be jumped through to get these reviews done on the regular), but I’m sure there are those who would also say that the time should be made for it (like time is a sheet cake or something).  I think I would likely stick to clay, as sculpting in mediums like stone or wood is (A) less forgiving/fixable, and (B) I would be less likely to inflict grievous bodily injury to myself with chisels, etcetera.  Who knows?  Maybe I’ll sculpt the most perfect statue of General Guan Yu, like Uncle Chao (Yu-Hsin Chen) does in Hung Min Chen’s Calamity (aka Zhan Shen aka War God aka Kuan Yu Battles with the Aliens), and it will come to life and defend the Earth.  But in all likelihood, I’ll just wind up throwing out stuff I think turned out like crap.

Martians land in Hong Kong and give humanity an ultimatum: Die on your feet or live on your knees.  No human steps up, so Uncle Chao’s statue takes matters into his own hands.

Calamity is a film whose existence was ineluctable.  By that same token, that it exists at all is nothing short of miraculous.  Considering the levels of insanity to which the Japanese Tokusatsu genre climbed by this point (and, it can be argued, all of Japanese genre cinema), it was only a question of time before someone came up with this idea of giant gods battling Brobdingnagian Martians (and very well may have much earlier than this).  This is the sort of film where “space scientists” work in science fiction labs and call themselves “space scientists.”  Where Martians come in trios like the Three Stooges.  Where nothing is impossible, including Guan Yu inhabiting a wooden statue and becoming a real god, like Pinocchio (or Jet Jaguar, take your pick), because nothing in this world is improbable.  For example, Chao-Chun (Ming Lun Ku) creates a laser/heat gun that can melt steel, but no one ever thinks to use it on the aliens (or if they did, they either dismissed this idea straightaway or I just missed it).  Yes, this is a world of fantastic imagination, but it’s more like the cover version of a Tokusatsu film than one in its own right.  Is it in the realm of reason to criticize Calamity for this photocopy quality when so many of its Japanese counterparts do the exact same thing?  I would suggest yes, because those Japanese fantasy films of the Moiré Pattern Effect variety are just as bland and characterless.  What’s good for the goose…

The film also deals with science versus religion.  Uncle Chao believes with all his heart (bolstered by the imaginary, remembered voice he hears from the photo of his dead wife) that Guan Yu will possess his statue if the god deems it perfect.  Bear in mind, this is before the Martians land, so one has to wonder what Uncle Chao’s end game is prior to the invasion?  Maybe he feels that too many people have turned away from the gods, like his son Chao-Chun.  Maybe he’s just fulfilling the promise he made to his wife, and that’s all.  Either way, it’s science-minded Chao-Chun who is forced to accept a deity into his mode of thinking.  Chao-Chun even says, “There is no power of god in the world,” so you can see the lines of demarcation drawn clearly (sort of).  Likewise, the Martians belong to the realm of science or, to be more precise, science fiction.  They are technology and machinery incarnate.  They even have electronic BEM eyes that light up.  Guan Yu must teach them the lesson that gods are no laughing matter (take that how you will in this context).  

By that same token, this conflict reflects the struggle between traditionalism and modernity.  Uncle Chao carves wooden statues using nothing but his chisels, his hands, and some elbow grease (by the way, he is functionally blind with Glaucoma, making his efforts even more preternatural).  He knows that there is value in taking the time to do things by hand and do them right.  Apparently, his whole life has been a progression toward the perfection of his craft, a quasi-Nirvana.  Chao-Chun uses scientific tools, largely automated, and he even adds in the science fiction go-to of radiation (in another experiment [this one involving bees] which goes nowhere).  He laments the hard path scientists have to trod (“If everyone was like you, we’d still be primitive”), because it has to be worth it.  According to this film, however, not so much.  Guan Yu is, naturally, the most traditional of traditional symbols, and the Martians the ultimate symbol of contemporary man (even though they’re not human).  They, like Chao-Chun, have a hard time grasping how tradition can be so powerful when it’s so archaic.  And this is why they fail or are useless to the film’s narrative, such as it is.

It’s not unfair to ask how the special effects in a special effects film fare.  So, how do they fare in Calamity?  Sadly, not so well.  Aside from a handful of decent matte shots, they’re pretty threadbare across the board.  The miniatures are as simplistic and undetailed as it’s possible to be.  The Martians look bad (in an Irwin Allen television show sort of way, but cheaper), especially when compared to the rather ornate Guan Yu costume.  But these things could be forgiven if the action worked or if the story had some interesting ideas or tension or characters.  But it doesn’t.  The Guan Yu versus aliens scenes are essentially the same moves repeated ad nauseum.  Further, the human characters contribute nothing (the exception, of course, being Uncle Chao).  There is even a hellion biker girl character who has nothing to do other than ride through tunnels and dance to Carl Douglas’ “Kung Fu Fighting” (I’m almost positive the song rights were procured for its use here), and that’s just wasteful.  The most calamitous thing about Calamity is that it’s entirely constructed of window dressings without the windows.  The filmmakers knew the notes but not the tune.

MVT:  the giant monster battles, though they are repetitive to the point of lethargy.  

Make or Break:  By the middle of the final battle of the giants, you’ll just want it to be over.

Score:  6/10    

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