Wednesday, May 29, 2013
Heath Holland On...Coppola's Forgotten Film
This week I want to shed light on a film that has been inexplicably forgotten. This project seemed to have everything going for it: it was directed by Francis Ford Coppola, the filmmaker who gave us The Godfather, The Godfather Part II, and Apocalypse Now. It was produced by George Lucas, three years after Return of the Jedi. It had a score by the very talented composer James Horner, and it featured Oscar winner Anjelica Huston in a major role. And in 1986, its release was one of the biggest events in the entertainment business, spawning cross-media merchandising and tie-ins. But here we are, close to thirty years later, and it’s been lost to time. This film is not hard to find, and only requires a small amount of your time: seventeen minutes, to be precise.
Of course, this forgotten collaboration can be only one film: Captain EO.
That’s right. This column is about Captain EO.
The idea was to present a film in 3D featuring Jackson’s music and dancing, Lucas’ special effects and storytelling, and Coppola’s direction. As a bonus, the film would be shown in a special theater that would utilize special “4D” technology that would add live special effects such as lasers and interactive elements to the film as it played.
Michael Jackson was at the height of his fame in 1986. It was after Thriller (the album and the short film shot by John Landis) but before the release of Bad (the album and the short film directed by Martin Scorsese). It was long before he became the gaunt cautionary example of plastic surgery gone wrong. It was also long before any allegations of sexual misconduct. At the time of Captain EO, Jackson was 28 years old and was the biggest star in the entire world.
The “story” of Captain EO is pretty thin. There are extremely high quality versions of it all over You Tube (just make sure you’re watching the 17 minute version), but I’ll give a brief overview: it opens on Captain EO’s ship as it flies through space, blasting 3D meteors out of the sky. The crew of this ship consists of two robots called Major and Minor Domo, a two headed pilot named Idey and Ody, a tiny little puppet called Fuzzball, and a little elephant-alien named Hooter (tee hee) that looks a lot like Max Reebo from Return of the Jedi.
This crew is on a mission to a dark, industrial planet (that looks literally JUST LIKE the Death Star) to find the Supreme Leader of the planet and deliver a gift. They’re having some trouble getting where they need to go because Hooter ate the map (I lost 12 IQ points just by typing that), but after flying through trench after trench of this planet and giving the audience a fun ride, they do eventually crash their ship on the surface.
They are almost immediately apprehended by these freaky looking industrial dudes who look just like the Borg from Star Trek, and taken to the Supreme Leader, played with much goth appeal by Anjelica Huston. She spends the bulk of her screen time hanging from the ceiling, suspended by black cables and machinery. When Captain EO tells her that he’s there to deliver her a gift, she sentences him to 100 years of torture. Depending on whether you’ve enjoyed what you’ve seen so far, 100 years of torture could be used to sum up the film. But the day needs to be saved, so what’s an interstellar, androgynous captain to do? Sing and dance, of course.
It’s all fairly airy, and it’s true that there’s not much substance to it. However, this little theme park attraction is quite an accomplishment in storytelling, with the sum being far superior to its parts. That’s why I wanted to write about it. There’s a lot of talent on the screen. Yes, it’s INCREDIBLY dated, but when this thing came out, it was at the cutting edge of technology and had the most powerful talent in Hollywood (perhaps the world) involved with it. I don’t say that as hyperbole, either. This was George Lucas in the aftermath of the most successful film trilogy of all time, and after Coppola had done just fine for himself, as well.
The special effects long predate any computer-created imagery, so what we have here is purely practical. It’s been so long since I’ve seen the Star Wars trilogy unmolested (insert Michael Jackson or catholic priest joke here) that it’s hard to remember what those original effects actually looked like, but I think they looked better than this. So much of this little short film feels familiar, like it’s just out of frame in the background of Star Wars. I wouldn’t be surprised if the industrial planet from this film is actually leftover parts of the second Death Star model from Return of the Jedi. It sure looks like it.
Things also feel fairly rushed. It’s hard to find out exactly how long was spent working on them, but some scenes are CRUDE. Remember the scene in Jason and the Argonauts with the skeletons sword-fighting? That looks like Avatar compared to some of what they throw on the screen in Captain EO. In spite of how dated these effects were, Captain EO was one of the most expensive film projects ever made at that time, and cost almost $2 million per minute of screen time.
If you can’t tell, I really, really love Captain EO, but it wasn’t always that way. My first exposure to this little gem was in 2011 on a visit to Walt Disney World’s Epcot Center during the film’s “revival” in the wake of Michael Jackson’s death. It would be generous to say that Disney rolled this thing back out as a tribute to Jackson (that’s their story) instead of seizing the opportunity to cash in on the craze that followed his passing.
Let me be clear. Captain EO is pretty terrible. Because of the nature of technology and the advancements being made in the mid-to-late eighties, the special effects were practically outdated before they even hit the screen. It’s easy to look at it for exactly what it is: a cash grab by all involved -- a way to increase park attendance with a quickly produced, pandering piece of fluff that makes everyone feel good but doesn’t have any lasting legacy.
But that’s just the thing. For me, it does have a lasting legacy. There’s an underlying sense of innocence and sweetness that I really appreciate. My wife and I walked out of Captain EO making fun of it, talking about how corny it was and how bad the special effects were. But in the days following, we started making little references to it. First at its expense, but then just in the spirit of it. And little by little, it wormed its way into my brain. Just like Captain EO brought the message of love and music to the supreme leader, this little movie brings those things to my own life.
We live in an ironic, cynical culture, and I’m just as guilty of being negative and pessimistic. But I don’t love Captain EO ironically, I love it because it’s wonderful. It’s optimistic and positive, and when Jackson sings that he’s here to change the world, I totally believe him.
But even if it wasn’t a success, I admire it. It’s cheesy and saccharine, and it seems to have no place in our world today. And I suppose that’s what SECURES its place in our world today. We need these little beacons of light and positivity. It’s a remarkable, largely ignored little corner of film, but it sure has come to mean a lot to me.
Sail on, Captain EO. Hee hee!