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Sci-Fi Fest At The Music Box: An Evening of Apes, Aliens And Mad Computers

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The Music Box Theater in Chicago held its annual Science Fiction Film Festival on May 9th and no geeks were left unmoved! I arrived there around 3 in the afternoon to find the theater’s lobby converted into a mini comic-con with vendors of all sorts selling vintage movie posters, T-shirts and other odd memorabilia. You know you’re a film buff when you spend half an hour marveling at original theatrical one-sheets for films like Munchies and The Monster Squad.

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I had meant to arrive at noon and catch the first two films, The Incredible Shrinking Man and the non-Tom Cruisey version of War of the Worlds, but I got side tracked. I had dropped by the theater the night before to buy the festival pass early (they charge more for it on the day of the event) when I noticed that a midnight screening The Shining was about to start.

The Music Box was playing it to kick off their week-long Stanley Kubrick retrospective. Needless to say, I couldn’t resist. It was awesome on the big screen with all those steadicam shots, freaky imagery and scenes with Shelley Duvall batting some object at the camera. I’m glad that I got roped in for it.

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Since I stayed up so much later than I had planned to the night before, I overslept and… where did I leave off? Oh yeah, Sci Fi Fest. So its 3:30 and I’m sitting in my cramped seat among the other cinephiles, anticipating the start of Planet of the Apes, when, all of sudden, it was time for the monkey dance. That’s right, the monkey dance. A woman working at the festival attempted to get volunteers to come up onstage and join her for an impromptu “monkey-dance”. Only two people bit. Turns out sci-fi film geeks don’t like dancing in front of an audience.

The screening, however, was great. Planet of the Apes is a pitch perfect combination of Rod Serling’s nightmarish vision, great makeup effects, and a fabulously over-the-top performance by Charleton Heston (“Get your stinking paws off me, you damned dirty ape!”).

A little bit past 5:30, with hardly a moment’s rest (but still enough time to clean up the soda I knocked over) Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey lifted off. I must admit that I had tried to watch this film countless times on DVD before finally deciding that I would wait until I could see a 35mm print. It was definitely worth the wait. Right before the screening, one of the patrons asked if there were any “virgins” in the audience. It felt like I was at Rocky Horror for a second until the film actually began. Everybody quickly went silent. And they stayed silent for the duration (with the exception of some overly enthusiastic applause at the famous match cut between the falling bone and the floating ship).

I wondered if people were really entranced or just dozing off. Forgetting all the hype, I would say that 2001 (like a lot of Kubrick’s work) is fascinating and undeniably cinematic, but also quite flawed. Its lengthy, hypnotic, and gorgeous in some parts, and downright ridiculous in others. The endless gravity shoes sequences anyone? The flaws don’t really matter that much in the end. 2001 is actually pretty great. I can only imagine what it must have been like to see the effects in 1968 because they still look cool today. And HAL is still as creepy as ever.

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Post-screening, veteran actor Gary Lockwood, who played the ill-fated character of Frank Poole, was on hand for a Q & A. He said that there’s one question that has dogged him throughout his entire career: “What was Kubrick like?” Lockwood was a good sport (considering he was interviewed by a make-shift replica of HAL) and went on to talk about his admiration for 2001.

He said his favorite scene is the one where *SPOILER ALERT* Bowman slowly shuts down HAL and asks him to repeat the song he was singing. “The sexual subtext of that scene is brilliant,” he commented. Originally, Keir Dullea (“Dr. Dave Bowman”) was slated to be there as well, but he was tied up in Dublin with a role in the new stage adaptation of The Shawshank Redemption (what’s next Dirty Dancing?  Oh wait…).

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Shortly thereafter, I ducked out to grab some dinner and fresh air. At around 9:45, I returned to the Music Box to continue my marathon of thrilling other-wordly spectacles with… The Brother From Another Planet? Wait…what? A John Sayles film at a sci-fi film fest? Brother is a cutesy, slow-paced, none-too-subtle immigration allegory. Yawn. I had seen it on DVD years ago… and, how do I put this lightly? Once was enough. Next.

Luckily, no later than 11:30, James Cameron‘s Aliens was up. The newly restored print looked and sounded great. The screening had the feel of your typical midnight movie with devotees blurting out the lines right alongside Ripley & Co. I think my favorite shout-out was when somebody yelled “Douchebag!” after Paul Reiser‘s character said something particularly heinous to Sigourney Weaver‘s Ripley. And the climax of Aliens has what has to be one of my favorite action movie one-liners ever. It comes right after Ripley busts through the door wearing this weird, futuristic machine suit to rescue a young girl, who is being attacked by the mother alien. She coldly stares down the creature and yells with amped-up intensity: “Get away from her you bitch!”

I shouldn’t have to tell you that this brought the house down. Seeing Aliens in this setting reminded me that Cameron remains one of the best directors of truly great, fun, pop-action movies. I will definitely be queuing up in line for the release of his long delayed 3D extravaganza Avatar this coming November.

The marathon ended on a high note with David Cronenberg‘s cult classic The Fly, which came on at 1:40. And yes, the theater was still surprisingly full. Who needs sleep? The Fly is such an underrated and unique film with superb acting. Forget Jurassic Park and The Accidental Tourist, Jeff Goldblum and Geena Davis give the performances of their careers. In particular, Goldblum’s lonely transformation into, you guessed it, a freakish fly, is perfectly conceived. In the dark and seedy Metropolis that Cronenberg has created, every strange thing that happens is believable in its own way. It also remains a potent metaphor for, though not exclusively, the AIDS epidemic, which was still frighteningly new in 1986.

As a testament to The Fly‘s entertainment value, it managed to keep the Music Box audience alert in the wee hours of the morning after 10 hours of other screenings. If I remember correctly, there was even a standing ovation at the end of it… at least I think there was. Or maybe I was dreaming. I was pretty damn exhausted after all.

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