Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Movies That Suck: The Crazies (1973)

I can already see the fire in the eyes of all devoted George Romero fans when they read this title. If you've been following my blog from its inception, you would know that I think very highly of Mr. Romero. His Living Dead series was the first thing I ever reviewed on here and his original Living Dead trilogy was part of my 101 Favorite Horror Films. I also think that his 1982 anthology Creepshow is a very fun movie as well. But, as with all great filmmakers, the guy has made some turkeys along with his indisputable classics and, in my opinion, The Crazies is one of them. I first heard of it when it was briefly mentioned in the documentary on the Ultimate Edition DVD of Dawn of the Dead in order to shed light on the films that Romero made in the time period between that film and Night of the Living Dead. They showed a brief clip from the trailer, with the guys in the white bio-suits with gas masks gunning down a bunch of people in a field. It looked interesting but I didn't anything more of it until I started listening to Deadpit.com. CK and Uncle Bill told me personally that The Crazies might be one of Romero's non-Living Dead movies that could be worth my time. I finally saw it when I got a used DVD of it at McKay's in Chattanooga. It was only $11.00 but I still felt ripped off. I can safely say that when I watched this movie one night shortly after getting the DVD, it was one of the most excruciating 102 minutes I have ever spent watching a movie. This movie really lives up to its title. It goes way too fast to the point where you have no time to get invested in the lead characters and it ends up being a very painfully boring sit.

One night in the small town of Evans City, PA, two young children are messing around when suddenly, their father goes mad and begins tearing their house apart. They also discover that he killed their mother before he eventually sets the house on fire. Two firemen and the pregnant nurse girlfriend of one of them get the call to come to work when the fire is reported and soon, the military rolls into the town and all of the soldiers are wearing biological containment suits with gas masks. It is revealed that a plane carrying a secret biological weapon developed by the military crashed near the town just recently and the virus, codenamed Trixie, has infected the town's water supply. The virus either eventually kills its victims or renders them incurably insane. The military does everything it can to both contain the virus within the perimeters of the town as well as try to find a cure but the hastily put together operation leads to the deaths of many soldiers and civilians and mayhem engulfs the town. The two firemen and the nurse are briefly captured by the military but they, along with a man and his teenage daughter, manage to escape and attempt to take cover in the hills since they don't trust the actions of the military, particularly the firemen, who are ex-Vietnam veterans. The rest of the film centers on the group's attempts to get away and keep from becoming infected and the military trying to stop the virus from spreading throughout the rest of the country.

This was made in the period between Night of the Living Dead and Dawn of the Dead where George Romero was attempting to establish his identity as a director who could do other things besides strictly horror films. Funny thing is that The Crazies, up until Dawn of the Dead, was the closest thing to a sequel to Night of the Living Dead that Romero ever produced. It is similar to his zombie movies in that it focuses on people being turned into murderous creatures, a group of people trying to escape the carnage, and, as with most of Romero's films, it has a good amount of political commentary, particularly on the military and the government (although it's much more blatant here and is more in line with his later films rather than his early work). Unfortunately, as we'll get into shortly, I don't think Romero succeeded in that aspect with The Crazies as he did with his original Living Dead films. With the failure of this film, along with his two previous films, There's Always Vanilla and Season of the Witch, with the exception of a couple of documentaries, he wouldn't make another movie until his vampire film Martin in 1976.

My biggest problem with The Crazies is the pace. This thing moves like a car rolling out of control down a hill. It opens with a quickly with an already infected man trashing his house, murdering his wife, and finally setting the house on fire. From there, we're hastily "introduced" to the characters and the situation and the plot is set in motion. You would think that would make the movie exciting and fun but it doesn't. A movie can be boring because it goes too fast as well as because it's too slow and that's what happens here. Moreover, we're introduced to the lead characters so quickly and learn only the basics about them, if that, before they're thrown into the situation. I know Night of the Living Dead had the situation start off quickly from the beginning but we still had lulls to get to know the characters so we could root for them as they tried to face down the zombie menace. This movie's pace is so frantic that we don't have any time to grow close to the characters and therefore, what happens to them means nothing to us. On top of that, after the opening cemetery scene, Night of the Living Dead let us see how dire and serious the zombie outbreak was becoming, with more and more zombies showing up at the farmhouse that served as the main setting of the film as well as news reports on the radio and TV about how the outbreak is happening everywhere. We don't get anything like that in The Crazies. Before we know what's going on, the military takes over the town and starts hunting down and killing the infected people while we only learn about the gravity of the situation from fast-paced, hard to hear dialogue from the military and government officials. Show us, Mr. Romero, don't tell us. On top of that, as if the pacing of this movie wasn't enough to make it completely batshit insane, the editing is nuts too. Most of the cuts don't seem to last longer than ten seconds, if that, and there are also moments where there is insane inter-cutting between a government official describing something and what he's describing being put into action. There is a way of doing that and making it work but it just comes across as clumsy here, as if the editor, which is Romero as well, is having a stroke. The structure also gets monotonous and tiresome after a while. A reviewer on IMDB said it best: the movie repeats scenes of the leads trying to escape the military, the army officers arguing with each other about how ass-backwards the operation is and how nothing is going right, the lead scientist who is trying to find a cure arguing with the Army officers that he doesn't have enough resources or time to do his work properly, and government officials in Washington trying to keep themselves from being publicly embarrassed over and over again to the point where you feel like the story is not progressing at all. In short, the film is just an incomprehensible, fast-paced mess.

Not only are the characters so hastily introduced that it's hard to care for them but it doesn't help that the acting isn't the best either. Lane Carroll (who never worked again after this movie and before it, appeared only in Hercules in New York, Arnold Schwarzenegger's first film, and Romero's There's Always Vanilla) and W.G. McMillan (who's actually appeared in a lot of stuff, mostly TV work, since although this was only his second film) play the film's lead couple, Judy and David. There's not much to say about them. David is the most level-headed member of the on the run civilians whereas Judy really doesn't do much except act as a nurse at the very beginning of the movie before they go on the run (her doctor actually advises both her and David to try to escape the military). Judy is pregnant with David's baby, they're very much in love, and they're determined to make it out alive. But, Judy eventually succumbs to the virus and is killed by a posse, dying in David's arms. Also, in an ironic twist of fate, David develops a natural immunity to the virus but at the end of the movie when he's finally captured by the military, they don't bother doing an immunity test on him. I did find that to be a wonderful bit of sad irony: a potential cure is right under their noses and they don't even know about it or care to check. There's also Harold Wayne Jones (who only appeared in a few other films and TV stuff, including Romero's Knightriders, after this) as David's friend, Clank, who is part of the same fire brigade that David is and also served in Vietnam, same as him. He kind of looks like David and I wonder if that was intentional, that it was meant to be another link between the two, even though their personalities are different. It's hinted at in his first scene that Clank also has feelings for Judy and is maybe a tad bit jealous that she didn't pick him as a lover. He's also much more hot-headed and impulsive than David, which is acerbated when he contracts the virus. He starts gunning down soldiers left and right and acts in a kind of schizophrenic way. He even goes so far as to attack David near the end of the film when he realizes that he and Judy tried to leave him behind. He's eventually killed by the military. Again, while the acting by these three characters is not bad, it's still amateurish and, again, coupled with how hastily they're introduced, makes it hard for me to really care for them.

Now Artie and his daughter Kathy are two characters that I can honestly say I didn't like. Artie is played by the late Richard Liberty, who would go on to play the mad Dr. Logan in Day of the Dead. While Liberty's performance in that movie is wonderfully entertaining in how over the top it is, here he's playing a creepy, sleazy man who has lost his wife and is left with only his daughter, whom it is revealed he has sick sexual feelings for. I don't know if it's because he thinks she's his wife in his delusional mind, judging from how he calls her by his wife's name at one point, or if he just harbors sick fantasies about her period, although it's probably as a direct result of the virus, but whatever the case, he actually attempts to have sex with her. He's stopped by Clank but still, that's just messed up. Personally, I wonder if Artie already had these sick thoughts and the virus just brought them up to the surface. In any case, he hangs himself after his rape attempt is foiled. Now, Lynn Lowry (who appeared in stuff like I Drink Your Blood before this and would go on to be in David Cronenberg's first feature film, Shivers, and Paul Schrader's remake of Cat People) annoyed the crap out of me as Kathy. This virus makes men go crazy but it seems to make women childlike and annoying (it does the same thing to Judy near the end and her death is her own stupid fault as a result). Kathy just aggravates me in this film due to her annoying, childlike way of speaking, her almost getting them shot by the soldiers, and her death is her own fault because she wanders out in a field in front of a bunch of soldiers. You just can't make me care about someone if the virus they get makes them act annoying and stupid. She also has one of the most hilariously bad death scenes ever. She gets shot, spins around, and simply says, "Oh," before keeling over. I don't know what Romero was thinking when he had her act like that but I just couldn't take it seriously.

I thought Lloyd Hollar was fine as Col. Peckem, who's trying his best to maintain order in the chaos-ridden town but knows that the chance of this town surviving the situation is slim to non-existent. By the end of the movie, he's completely disconcerted and despondent when he's called away to another town that's possibly infected with the virus. The way he reacts, you know that he feels that it's probably never going to end no matter what he tries to do. The ending scene with him being airlifted out of the town and looking down upon the chaos that has completely devastated it is quite well done and would be even more powerful if the rest of the movie had been as effective. Another character that I also kind of enjoyed was Richard France (who would go on to play the eye-patch wearing scientist on the TV in Dawn of the Dead) as the frustrated Dr. Watts. I found him to be funny and he kind of unintentionally sounded like me voicing my complaints about the film itself. In his introductory scene, he's complaining about how the army is forcing him to go to Evans City even though he's confident that he could do more productive work at the base and when the soldiers say that they can't do anything about it, he yells, "This is so random!" I was thinking, "Tell me about it, man!" Even later, he's saying stuff akin to, "This is a mess!" and so on and, again, I'm like, "Right on." I also laughed at how, after being unable to look through a microscope with the helmet of his bio-suit on, he decides to heck with it and takes it off, even though he could be risking infecting himself. His last scene is also another one of the few I actually liked, where he finds a cure for the virus but when he tries to get out of the building, the soldiers think he's one of the infected because he's not wearing a bio-suit and they try to quarantine him. He's trampled by a stampede of the infected and is killed as a result and the cure is destroyed. It's another bit of sad irony that the military have unknowingly helped to destroy what chance they had of stopping the virus. The last character of note is Harry Spillman as Maj. Ryder, the initial man who is in charge of the operation until Col. Peckem arrives. He's just doing his job and himself is unaware of the true nature of the situation until Peckem actually tells him. When he is told, he feels like a fool that he bought the cover-up story of the situation. Not much else to say about him. I also must briefly mention Will Disney (I doubt he was related to Walt) as Dr. Brookmyre, the kindly doctor who tells Judy that she and David must get away from the army for the sake of the baby. He's not that noteworthy of a character but he's obviously a decent person due to his concern for the couple.

It's obvious that the film is meant to be about how one can't trust the American government and the military. The original script for the film by Paul McCollough only focused on the military aspect of the story at the beginning of it but the producer of the film, Lee Hessel, asked Romero to re-write it to where it focused much more on that aspect. For me, this is another problem about the movie. They should have focused on the characters who are trying to escape the military occupation of the town or focus on a heroic member of the army who is trying to find a cure for the virus (like the movie Outbreak) instead of going back and forth between the two subplots because, like I said, it gets monotonous and repetitive after a while. Also, when Romero attempts to do political statements and social satire in a subtle way while focusing mainly on making a good movie, it's entertaining; however, when he makes it so blatant that it feels like you're being beaten over the head with it, as in his later Living Dead films and Bruiser, it can be insufferable. While the obvious commentary in The Crazies didn't aggravate me too much and I didn't think it was the film's biggest problem by far, I still think it's one of the examples of Romero being unable to do it subtly. There are so many scenes with the military and government officials trying to find a way to cover their ass about the bio-weapon that I was like, "Okay, I get it. You feel that we can't trust the military and that our government officials lie." I felt the same way about his criticism of the media in Diary of the Dead: "Okay, the media can be bad and corrupted. I understand." Romero even makes the president of the United States look like a Bond villain or something, with his back to the camera, smoking a cigar and speaking in a voice that sounds shady (but then again, this was during the era of Richard Nixon so maybe it was justified). I thought the best part of the commentary was the scenes I described where the military unknowingly helps destroy a potential cure for the virus and later, they ignore another one. That was nice and subtle, that the military doesn't realize that it's doing more harm than good. I also thought the images of the soldiers in faceless, bio-containment suits would have been a subtle enough jab at the military. So, while I do see potential in the political statement that Romero is trying to make here, I think the blatant nature of it ultimately overrules the more subtle and well done aspects of it.

The makeup effects in this movie are fine and do their job. This was before Romero started working with Tom Savini so the effects here are not quite up to the standard put forth in the movies they would do together but since this isn't a zombie movie, there's no need for graphically over the top blood-splatters and the like. It's mainly consists of squibs with blood packs in them that result in some fairly graphic gunshots, some corpses getting burnt, a priest setting himself on fire which is fairly gruesome and disturbing, and, most gruesome of all, ripped open necks and head getting blown off. The effects are fine but they're really quick and the blood is that bright red, almost orange, blood that would later turn up in Dawn of the Dead that isn't very realistic when you get down to it. The infected people themselves don't look much different than normal people. It's all in the way they act. So, while there are some makeup effects here, they're just standard but simply serve their purpose in this type of movie.

Like the structure of the movie, the music by Bruce Roberts is very repetitive and monotonous. The bit that is repeated over and over and over again is the sound of these marching drums used to signify the military. You hear it so many times over the course of the movie that you really get tired of it. There are also some instrumental versions of military themes that play over the music as well as some bits with a singer vocalizing. In all honesty, the score is nothing to write home about in the slightest. There is a song called God Help Us that plays over the ending credits, though, that I felt was effective in showing the hopelessness of it all as Col. Peckem looks down on the town and sees how it is now in absolute shambles. As I've said, it's too bad the rest of the movie is so unremarkable because if it had been more powerful, that song would have hit home even more so.

Some may feel that The Crazies is an overlooked gem in George Romero's filmography but to me, it should have stayed obscure. It has some good points to it but for the most part, it's a fast-paced, frantic, confusing mess of a film that doesn't give you enough time to grow close to the lead characters, doesn't build the situation up well, has a monotonous, repetitive structure, and has some political commentary that is so blatant and in your face that it overshadows the more subtle and well done aspects of it. Every director, no matter how good, is going to make some bad movies and in my opinion, this is one of Romero's, made in-between two of his truly watershed films. Though, as I say, you can sort of see The Crazies as a cousin to Romero's zombie films as well as a precursor to 28 Days Later and the like. But, the reason the zombie films work is because they're simple whereas this is far too complex. Bottom line, I know this movie has fans and I respect that. I would never try to take that away from you. To me, though, The Crazies is just that: it's way too crazy for its own good and it cripples what could have been an interesting movie.

Sunday, March 25, 2012

The Terror (1963)

When I was very young, most likely around the age of five, I was often babysat by my grandmother at her house while my parents were working during the day. Somehow, she had ended up with a lot of VHS tapes, no doubt from my older cousins who often stayed with her as well. Among these tapes were old episodes of The New Three Stooges cartoon show, Godzilla vs. Megalon (I have her to thank for my lifelong love of Godzilla and Japanese monster flicks in general), tapes that were compilations of various cartoons, mainly public domain ones, and a Bruce Lee movie that I'm now sure was one of the many "Bruceploitation" films. Also among the many VHS tapes there was this movie. This was one of the few tapes that my grandmother wouldn't allow me to watch. While she had probably never seen it herself, the title The Terror was probably enough of a sign that this was not something a five-year old should be watching. That was a good deduction by her because, even though I'm a huge fan of the horror genre now, I was an easily frightened little kid. One time, I accidentally put this film in by accident and the first few seconds with the crashing thunder and dark castle were enough for me to quickly take the tape out of the VCR.

The Terror ended up as one of those odd films that I got a brief glimpse of as a child but wouldn't learn exactly what it was until many years later. Several Christmases in a row, my mom kept making the mistake of getting me those various public domain movie packs as presents and one of the them had The Terror among many other films. By this point, I had become the big horror fan that I still am today and I had learned a little bit about The Terror because it was mentioned briefly in a documentary hosted by Butch Patrick that was simply titled The History of Sci-Fi and Horror. I knew that it came about very quickly, as did most of Roger Corman's films but this was exceptionally quick and cheap, and that it starred Boris Karloff and Jack Nicholson and that idea in itself intrigued me seeing as how I'm a big fan of both of them. I also knew that this film was not the first to have this vague title. There was another movie called The Terror released in 1928 which was the first sound horror film ever made (these movies have nothing to do with each other, though). Anyway, I gave this movie a watch and when I saw the opening, I immediately recognized it and thought, "Oh, that's what that movie was." (You must realize that at just five years old, I wasn't able to comprehend movie titles yet.) My impression of it was basically just... eh. I was going to make this an entry of Movies That Suck but after watching the movie again in order to do this review, I don't think it's that bad. At the same time, though, it's nothing spectacular either. It's just a confusing, overly-plotted, cliched, and fairly dull mishmash of a movie whose spontaneous production idea worked against it greatly.

In 1806, a soldier from the Napoleonic army who has become separated from his regiment meets up with a strange young woman on a beach. Several mysterious events happen after he meets up with her, including her vanishing and him being attacked by a hawk that seems to come out of nowhere. He blacks out from the attack and regains consciousness in a cabin inhabited by an old woman and her supposedly mute servant. She also has a pet hawk that just happens to have the same name as the young woman but she claims that the young woman never existed and that the soldier merely imagined the whole thing due to his weary state from traveling for so long. The soldier, however, meets up with the woman again and is told by the old woman's servant to go to the castle of Baron Von Leppe in order to find out the truth. The soldier eventually arrives at the castle despite the old woman's protests and when he meets the old baron, it becomes clear that he is hiding something. The soldier is shown a portrait of the young woman and the baron reveals that she is his wife, who has been dead for many years. From there, the soldier takes it upon himself to find out what the baron is keeping secret from him and who, or what, that mysterious young woman is exactly.

Roger Corman has always been legendary for making films very quickly and cheaply, having made the majority of the original Little Shop of Horrors (which is also featured Jack Nicholson) in just two days but the way The Terror came about is just unreal, even for a Corman film. By this point, Corman was well into his cycle of directing lavish films based upon the works of Edgar Allan Poe. Having finished The Raven (which also starred Boris Karloff and Jack Nicholson) sooner than expected, he decided not to waste the remaining days and quickly came up with this film. He shot all of the scenes involving Karloff in just four days but left it to the second unit crew to finish the movie. With a story being created around those scenes of Karloff while the film was already being shot, it ended up being largely improvised and took nine months to fully complete, ironically becoming one of Corman's longest productions. In fact, even though Corman is solely credited as director, there were five others: a young Francis Ford Coppola (only ten minutes of his footage ended up in the finished film), Dennis Jakob, Monte Hellman, Jack Hill, and even Jack Nicholson himself took a turn at trying to make sense of the film. It was also filmed primarily on the sets of The Raven and The Haunted Palace, the latter of which Corman directed after filming the bulk of this movie. The reuse of those sets adds to the feeling that Corman intended for this movie to have the same flavor and atmosphere as his Poe films. In fact, many do consider this to be part of his Poe cycle, even though it's not based on anything that Poe created.

Boris Karloff was one of those actors who was always awesome no matter how subpar some of his movies tended to be and this is no exception. He gives the confused character of Baron Von Leppe his all, coming across as initially menacing but later becoming pitiable when he reveals the terrible secret that many years ago, he returned from a year of military service to find his wife having an affair and in a rage, killed both her and her lover. His soul has been shattered ever since and he also has not set foot out of his castle since the tragedy. He now feels that he's being haunted by her spirit as punishment for what he did but also admits that he looks forward to each time her spirit appears to him. You do get a sense that Von Leppe is not an evil man but just someone who made a horrible mistake and is now paying for it in his own private way due to his emotional torment. He's also smart enough to know that he has enough on his conscience for killing his unfaithful wife and refuses to kill the soldier, as much as he wishes him to leave. By the end of the movie, though, the torment of his wife's spirit is so much so that he agrees to drown himself in her tomb, to be with her as well as perhaps as atonement for his crime. Like I said, Karloff is great but even he can't save the confusion surrounding his character and the plot in general, which I will elaborate on shortly.

I would be lying if I said that you can see hints of the great actor that Jack Nicholson would become in his performance here. It's no doubt due to the fact that this was at the beginning of Nicholson's career and he was very young and inexperienced as well as the material he had to work with here not being the best but to me, his performance comes across as really stilted and bland. When he speaks the type of elegant and florid dialogue common in period pieces like this, it just comes across as not being natural to me. Classically trained actors like Karloff and Vincent Price could do it well but when a modern, edgy character actor like Nicholson does it, it just doesn't feel right in my opinion. Nicholson also just doesn't seem to know what he's doing (although, again, that's no doubt due to the unorthodox way this film was created) and he barely changes his tone of voice when he's acting here. It also doesn't help that his role of Andre Duvalier doesn't grant him much to do other than try to figure out what's going on. I never bought his infatuation with the spirit of Von Leppe's wife or hers with him for that matter. I hate ragging on Nicholson this much since the guy is an awesome actor and I do love watching him most of the time but here, his inexperience and the lack of good material doesn't make for a memorable performance.

I didn't find Sandra Knight to be that interesting as the ghost of the dead baroness, Ilsa (renamed Helene in her spirit form). To me, she wasn't scary or mysterious, just bland. She is nice to look at but her acting is so uninteresting and stilted, not to mention that her character and dialogue are so confusing and cryptic, that I couldn't care less about what she does Von Leppe or Duvalier. Read this exchange between her and Duvalier: "I am possessed of the dead." "You're a warm living woman. Who has told you these things?" "The dead." I rest my case. I did think that Dorothy Neumann fared better as the old woman who is revealed to be a witch and is controlling the ghost in order to torment the baron as revenge for killing her son i.e. the late baroness' lover. I wouldn't say she was scary and her exact methods don't make a whole lot of sense but I did think her character was kind of interesting, even though you know she's in on it from the first scene with her. Jonathan Haze is also fine as the witch's supposedly mute assistant, Gustaf, but he has nothing to do except talk in a raspy voice and tell Duvalier what he must do to find out the truth about the mysterious young woman as well as try to get Helene to resist the witch's control and go to Duvalier for release. One wonders why Gustaf didn't just tell Duvalier what was really going in the first place or why he gives enough of a crap about Helene to risk the witch's wrath but whatever. He also dies a particularly gruesome death when his eyes are pecked out by the witch's pet hawk (you have to wonder if whichever director did that scene took some inspiration from Alfred Hitchcock's The Birds, which came out the same year) so at least goes out in a memorable way.

Finally, I have to mention Dick Miller in the role of the baron's butler, Stefan. Miller has been in over a hundred movies, having been a favorite actor of Corman's as well as being in every single one of Joe Dante's films and usually, he plays either a sleazy character, a wiseguy with a tough Bronx accent, or a grumpy old man. It's amazing to see him in a period piece like this as a butler and it's even more amazing when he actually manages to make himself fit into this type of movie. He does a great job of hiding his distinctive Bronx accent and instead, speaks in a more refined voice befitting the character as well as the time period the film takes place in. He also manages to do something with his character and, in my opinion, makes him kind of memorable. He portrays Stefan as a fiercely loyal butler who will do anything to make sure that nothing disturbs his master, including this nosy young soldier and the old woman who is living in a nearby cabin that she shouldn't be. Even though the baron tells him not to harm Duvalier, you get the feeling that Stefan definitely would kill him if he could, particularly at the end of the film when the baron orders him to escort Duvalier out of the castle at gunpoint and tells him that he will kill him if he comes back. It's also revealed that Stefan isn't telling all that he knows about the death of the baroness, which leads to him dropping a bombshell on the old witch near the end of the film. It's a shame that Stefan dies in the film's climax because I really did like him. In fact, I will say that Miller is my favorite part of this movie, more so than Karloff. I really enjoyed Miller showing a side of his acting talent that he didn't get to that often and I wish he had.

The biggest problem with the movie is that, because the story was made up as filming went along, the plot is all over the place and peppered with so many twists that it will make your head hurt. Near the end of the movie, you find out that Karloff's character is not Baron Von Leppe but, in fact, Eric, the baroness' lover. The real baron was killed along with his wife and Eric, for some reason, took the baron's place and has been pretending to be the baron for so long that he's come to believe it himself. So the old witch, in plotting to get revenge for her son's death, has just driven her own son to commit suicide. I also can't get it straight whether Helene is really the spirit of the baroness or not. Did the witch resurrect Ilsa's spirit and rename her Helene (if so, why did she rename her) or is this the spirit of a woman who just happens to look like the deceased baroness? I guess it is indeed the spirit of Ilsa but I still don't understand the purpose of renaming her. Also, she seems to know that the man she has condemned to suicide is, in fact, Victor but she's blaming him for her own death. I'm thinking, "It was the baron who killed you, not your lover!" That's just bad writing right there. On top of all of that, the witch's pet hawk is also named Helene. So, can the spirit Helen change into a hawk? You would think so since in the first scene between Duvalier and Helene, she vanishes and then the hawk comes out of nowhere and attacks him. But at the end of the movie, the hawk is seen flying above the castle while the spirit is down in the basement, trying to drive the baron to suicide and Duvalier also sees it flying away in the last scene while Helene's body is decomposing in front of him. So is that hawk a symbol of the witch's control over the spirit? See what I mean when I say that the plot of this movie is convoluted as all get out?

There's also stuff in this movie that just makes no sense. The opening scene is a big example. It shows the baron coming down the stairs in the main part of the castle and then proceeding down into the basement (a shot which is repeated several times, I might add). He follows what seems to be a trail of blood drops on the floor deep into the cellar, opens the door, and a nasty looking skeleton pops out at the camera. It then cuts to the opening credits. What was that? You never find out because it's never brought up. The witch's death is also random as can be. When she, Duvalier, and Stefan try to get down into the crypt to stop the baron from killing himself, she refuses to go into the mausoleum that leads down into it because of her association with the forces of darkness and attempts to run away. Out of nowhere, a bolt of lightning strikes her and she burns to death. Again, where did that come from? Was that God punishing her for her evil deeds? If so, why didn't He do that long before then? Before that when Duvalier and Stefan search the late baroness' room, they find a crib that seems to suggest that she had a child at one point and they even question it. But that plot-point is completely disregarded and never mentioned again. Finally, this is a minor nitpick but I don't quite get why Helene decomposes at the end of the film if she's a spirit instead of a reanimated corpse. I'm probably thinking too hard on that score, though. Again, when you learn of the hodgepodge way this film was constructed, it's not so surprising that there's a lot that doesn't make sense but it's still really distracting.

As many before me have mentioned, for a movie called The Terror, it's not really that terrifying. If you're scared by people walking around in dark corridors and cemeteries a lot, this will be the scariest movie on Earth. Granted, those kind of slow scenes can be tense and scary but when the plot around them is so confusing and the payoff isn't worth it, I tend not to care about the movie's attempts at atmosphere. During the scenes where Jack Nicholson is doing just that in this movie, I just felt bored, not scared or interested in what was going on. While the Gothic sets and cemeteries are lush and do lend some class to the film (that is, if you can see them since this film's public domain status makes it difficult to find good quality prints of it), it's not enough to keep this movie from being a convoluted bore most of the time.

The music was composed by Ronald Stein, who composed the music for many of Roger Corman's films as well as many other B-movies in the 50's and 60's. It's not surprising why he was never able to break out and compose music for bigger movies because his music for The Terror, while not horrible, is just typical. It's just one of the most uninspired, run-of-the-mill horror scores I've ever heard. I can't tell you about any standout pieces of it because it's just not memorable. As monotonous as the score for The Screaming Skull, at least I was able to comment on it. This is instantly forgettable.

Roger Corman produced and directed a lot of movies in his career. Some are cheesy fun, some are actually very classy and well made, some are downright horrid, and some are just forgettable. The Terror is an example of the latter in my opinion. It is interesting to see Boris Karloff and Jack Nicholson onscreen together and the story behind how the movie came about is interesting but other than that, the movie is honestly not worth the 79 minutes it takes to watch it. The unorthodox way the film was constructed resulted in a confusing, convoluted plot that makes the movie too tricky to get into and destroys any atmosphere the Gothic sets could have created. If you're a fan of Roger Corman and you haven't seen this or you want to watch the movie yourself to try to figure out what it all means, be my guest. I, however, doubt I will ever watch this movie again. Corman has made dozens of movies that I enjoy much more than this. It's just confusing, dull, and worst of all, forgettable.

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Found Footage Horrors: Cloverfield (2008)

Like everyone else, Cloverfield was a movie that sure caught my attention when I first became aware of it. I didn't see the infamous teaser trailer before Transformers (mainly because I never saw that movie since I had no interest in doing so) or the actual trailer but I can pinpoint the exact moment that I realized that it was coming. It was on New Year's Eve of 2007 when my mom and I went to see the movie The Water Horse (which is an enjoyable family fantasy movie, by the way) at the theater. While I was waiting for Mom to get our popcorn and drinks, I saw a display for it which was the same image as the poster and later, the DVD covers: the Statue of Liberty with its head seemingly bitten off and New York in ruins in the background. As I said, it had my attention from the start. Throughout January, I started to see TV spots for it, which only hinted at what it could be. I couldn't tell if it was a monster movie or what from those commercials. I knew there was a ton of hype for it, that J.J. Abrams was involved with it (I thought he actually directed it for the longest time), and there was a whole lot of speculation over what it was about. I found out that it was indeed a found footage type horror movie in the style of The Blair Witch Project (which weren't as commonplace around that point) and little by little, I eventually discovered that it was a monster movie, mainly from a TV spot that briefly showed the monster as well as from people talking about it. Being a huge fan of the Godzilla movies and giant monster movies in general, I knew that I had to see this movie. I got it for Christmas in 2008 and, ignoring the mixed opinions of it from people I knew, I sat down and watched it. I'll say right now that I freaking love this movie. I don't care what anyone says, this is one of the best entries in the found footage subgenre in my humble opinion.

Starting off as scenes of college student Rob Hawkins fooling around with his girlfriend Beth before they go off to Coney Island for the day, the camera footage switches to Rob's brother Jason and his girlfriend Lily planning a surprise going away party for Rob, who is moving to Tokyo to take a tremendous job offer. The night of the party, Jason gives Rob's best friend Hud the task of using the camera to document goodbyes from all of Rob's other friends. When Rob arrives, he's ecstatic but the mood soon turns sour when Beth shows up with another guy. Hud and Jason eventually find out from Lily that Rob and Beth broke up shortly after the day they spent at Coney Island and had made love the night before. Later on after Beth and her date leave after a heated argument she has with Rob, Jason and Hud try to advise him on what to do when there's suddenly an enormous explosion. After seeing another explosion as well as several buildings and the Statue of Liberty being destroyed, the group discovers that New York is under attack by an enormous creature that has appeared out of nowhere. With the city in a panic and the military evacuating everybody while trying to destroy the monster, Rob and his friends try desperately to find Beth and rescue her.

Instead of J.J. Abrams as I originally thought, the film is actually directed by Matt Reeves. I thought this was perhaps his first film but it turns out he's been directing since the mid-90's with films like Future Shock (actually one of three directors who directed various segments of that anthology film) and The Pallbearer. After those films, he mainly directed television up until Cloverfield, helming episodes of shows like Felicity (which he created along with J.J. Abrams), Miracles, Homicide: Life on the Streets, and Relativity. He's also written films such as Under Siege 2: Dark Territory and The Yards. His only directing credit since Cloverfield so far has been Let Me In, the Americanized version of the critically acclaimed Swedish vampire film, Let the Right One In. He's supposedly involved with a sequel to Cloverfield but whether that ever comes about or not remains to be seen. So, yes, the guy has had a very hit and miss track record, but I think this movie proves that he can make a good movie when given the right material.

I have to comment on J.J. Abrams as well, since he came up with the original idea even though he didn't direct or even actually write the film. I never watched Felicity, Alias, or Lost (although my mom did watch the latter) but I did thoroughly enjoy Super 8 (which, interestingly, was rumored to be a sequel to Cloverfield in the months leading up to its release). Although, I do have to address his inspiration for creating the movie. He said it came to him when he was in Tokyo and he was surprised to see that there were still many Godzilla toys in stores. He thought, "Why doesn't America have its own Godzilla" and he came up with the concept of the movie. Okay, two things about that strike me. One, why was he so surprised to see that Godzilla is still mega-popular in Japan? Godzilla is one of Japan's most beloved cultural icons so, of course, he's still going to be prevalent there. Second, his thought about why America doesn't have its own Godzilla. Uh, J.J., America does have its own Godzilla. Perhaps you've heard of him? He's called King Kong. I don't know. I don't have anything against Abrams personally, but sometimes the way these big Hollywood producers think puzzles me.

The basic idea of Cloverfield is ingenious in my opinion. We've all seen Godzilla movies as well as the giant monster movies that were prevalent in the 50's and early 60's and most of us, myself included, have enjoyed watching enormous creatures tear big cities to pieces. We often see the terrified citizens of the cities running for their lives but I don't we ever pondered this: what is that situation like for those people? What would it be like if you were going about your everyday routine when suddenly this gigantic thing just shows up and starts attacking the city or, in my case, the countryside that you call home? Most of us know what it's like to be in that situation where it's a natural disaster like a tornado or an earthquake but what if you substitute it with a giant monster? It would be pretty terrifying to know that this gigantic bringer of destruction is actually alive instead of simply being a force of nature. In fact, I'll bring it closer to home. Cloverfield, to me, is a portrayal of 9/11 had it been caused by a giant monster instead of terrorists. If you watch those scenes where the character holding the camera is taping buildings being destroyed and crumbling around him as well as enormous dust clouds choking the streets, you can't tell me that they don't resemble footage from that horrible day. In fact, after the first jolt, the characters head up to the roof of the apartment building to see if they can get a view as to what's going on and if you listen, you can hear someone say, "You think it's another terrorist attack?" I rest my case. Basically, this movie is what it would be like if you were caught up in that type of situation. Since you wouldn't be in the position of an objective third person watching the destruction from afar as when you watch giant monster movies, it would be terrifying. (In fact, I've even dreamed that I was caught up in the events of this film and let me tell you, that was scary!)

Something else that makes Cloverfield a film that one can relate to more than your typical giant monster is the unknown origin of the creature. In just about every giant monster movie, you find out what the monster is and where it came from, whether it be from data collected by scientists or somebody just happening upon it. There's almost always a concrete answer in these types of movies. In this film, though, you never learn anything as to what the monster is, just like the characters. They don't know what it is. Hud throws out a bunch of typical sci-fi speculations, just as the monster being an undiscovered creature that's been living at the bottom of the ocean or a military experiment gone awry or even an alien but we never get an answer. While we can't be sure, even the military doesn't seem to know what the monster is or at least that one soldier doesn't, saying that his superiors aren't telling him anything. All we do learn is that the military considers it a big enough threat to warrant leveling Manhattan to get rid of it. To me, this is what makes the terror of this movie much more palpable, that this thing just shows up and you never find out what it is or where it came from.

Much like the actors who starred in The Blair Witch Project, the actors in Cloverfield had no idea what they were signing up for when they auditioned for it because, to keep the plot a secret, they auditioned with scenes from other J.J. Abrams productions instead of scenes from the movie's actual script. As a result, the cast ended up being composed of unknown but very talented and likable young people. I enjoyed pretty much every member of the core group of characters. I thought Michael Stahl-David was likable in the lead of Rob Hawkins. At one point, his brother tells him that he's kind of a douchebag but I don't think he is. I don't he and Beth broke up because he was a jerk or anything. I think it was just primarily one of those things and how relationships, especially between fairly young people, tend to go. You don't find out exactly why Rob and Beth broke up but you get hints that it was because Rob didn't call her or anything after they had sex. Yes, he does same thing really sleazy and terrible right before Beth leaves that hurts her feeling but again, I don't think he's a douche. The minute he gets a cellphone call from Beth, he puts his life on the line to go back into the heart of the city and save her, despite the fact that he will most likely die in the process. That's a definite sign that despite their breakup, he still deeply cares about her. I think Stahl-David's best scene in the movie is when they take refuge in the subway and Rob has to do the painful task of telling his mom that his brother's dead. You can see that it's killing him, as well as right before that when he realizes that, for the moment, he has no way to get Beth. This shows that even though he's flawed and messed things up with Beth, he's the kind of guy who's not going to let the ones he cares about die no matter what. He's a great guy in the long run.

I don't know why but Hud (T.J. Miller) always came across to me as being a stoner type guy. When Jason first approaches him with the camera, he looks and sounds kind of like he's been smoking weed. I know he's more than likely not and that's just how he comes across but it was just odd. Anyway, I liked Hud a lot. He's the typical goofy best friend and is the one who carries the camera throughout the film. I thought he was funny. I did laugh during the scene where they see that Beth's apartment building is leaning against another one and he suggests going up to the top of the other building and getting on the roof Beth's. He immediately says that was a bad idea but the others decide to go ahead and do it. He grumbles something like, "Nobody ever listens to me except when I come up with the worst idea ever." I also liked his lines when they save Beth and she sees the monster for the first time. She says, "What is that?!" and Hud just says, "Uh, it's a terrible thing." As they're getting out, they're attacked by one of the parasites coming off the monster and when she asks, "What was that?", Hud says, "I don't know. Something else. Also terrible." That deadpan delivery did make me smirk. I also crack up when they're walking in the subway tunnels and he's saying the worst thing at the worst time, stupidly reminding them of when a maniac was lighting people on fire in the tunnels. Still, Hud is a good friend and does try to talk Rob out of going into the heart of the city because he knows he'll more than likely get killed but when Rob is determined, Hud decides to go with him to help him. The only thing that Hud does that I kind of frown upon is when he learns that Rob and Beth slept together and he starts telling everybody at the part about it even though Lilly told him not to. That was pretty stupid and insensitive and even Jason calls him on it. It didn't make me despise Hud, though. Heck, I was bummed when he got killed by the monster near the end of the movie so I definitely didn't hate him. Hud: nice guy but does some dumb things.

Two of the three main female characters don't have much to do in my opinion. You don't get to know much about Beth (Odette Yustman) since the focus of the main plot of the movie is the group trying to find her in the city but she comes across as a sweet woman whom you would go back for and I do feel bad for her at the end of the movie when she's crying and hysterical, knowing that both she and Rob are probably about to die. Lily (Jessica Lucas), Jason's girlfriend, at first comes across as kind of a ball-breaker with how she orders Jason around in the opening scenes but as the movie went on, I grew to like her as well. Even though he was kind of a dipstick, she clearly loved Jason and is devastated when he's killed. Like Hud, she's also good enough to go with Rob to help him save Beth even though she doesn't have to. She proves to be sweet because you see her comforting Rob after he's had that heartbreaking talk over the cellphone with his mother. She also ends up being the one member of the key group of characters who manages to get away. The one main female character that I'm not too keen on is Marlena (Lizzy Caplan). She's the outsider of the group, doesn't really know Rob, and, I could be wrong, but I think she was only at the party because she was meeting some people later. Hud has a crush on her but she's clearly annoyed by and doesn't like him, which doesn't seem to change during the course of the movie. When the two of them are talking in the subway during a quiet moment, she says, "I wasn't supposed to be here" and Hud says, "You didn't have to be." The way she reacts to that just rubs me the wrong way and that sarcastic junk she gives him when he says, "You know who Superman is?" She does save Hud's life when they're attacked in the subway tunnels by a group of the parasites that are coming off of the monster but when Hud thanks her for coming back to save him, she says, "What, you think I'm not the kind of person who would do that?" That just came across as bitchy to me, as well as when Hud says, "If you hadn't, I would have been dead" and she, while chuckling, says, "Yeah." I don't know, Marlena just didn't appeal to me with her sarcastic attitude towards everybody. Her death, however, is by far the most gruesome one in the film and that did shock me so I guess I didn't totally hate her.

Finally, I have to mention the only actor in the movie that I recognized, Mike Vogel, who was in the 2003 version of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, as Rob's brother, Jason. Even though he says that Rob is a douchebag, that's what Jason feels a little bit like to me. I didn't hate him at all and I actually wished he was in the movie longer but he does come across as a bit jerky when he forces Hud to do the documenting that he was supposed to do as well as when he and Hud force Lily to tell them what's going on between Rob and Hud. Still, you do get the sense that he loves his brother and he's forced to give Rob some tough love when they talk in the bedroom about what happened between him and Beth. All in all, even though he was a little bit jerky, I liked Jason and I did wish he lived longer.

Out of all the found footage horror movies, Cloverfield definitely has the biggest scale and scope. Most of these types of movies usually have a very small cast of characters and take place in one, maybe two locations. Cloverfield, on the other hand, had an impressive $25 million budget and every penny goes up on the screen. It's very impressive to see all these enormous scenes involving hundreds of extras, crumbling buildings, military vehicles, and the monster, which look they are taking place in the heart of New York City. You know they more than likely filmed the movie on backlots and sound stages with maybe a little bit of real footage in Manhattan (which is what they did for the most part, from what I can gather) but the scale of the film coupled with the POV camera style makes it feel frighteningly authentic. I heard some people saying that the movie loses its impact when you watch it on DVD and it's a movie made for the theater but I first saw it on DVD, on a much smaller TV than the one I have now, and I was still absolutely amazed by the movie. I also know that theaters had to put up signs warning would-be viewers that the shakiness of the camerawork could make them sick but, maybe it was, again, because I saw it on DVD, the film didn't seem shakier than most other movies in my opinion. The James Bond movie Quantum of Solace had much shakier camerawork than Cloverfield to me.

Like The Blair Witch Project, the marketing for Cloverfield was quite ingenious and got people interested from the get go. Not only was the casting and filming process carried out in secret, a viral marketing campaign was created and there was an interesting teaser trailer before Transformers that showed the scene where the head of the Statue of Liberty comes crashing into the middle of Manhattan and after that, all that was shown was the release date, with no title or anything. Even the film's came about in an unusual way. Cloverfield started out as a code name, derived from an exit that leads to the main offices of J.J. Abrams' Bad Robot Studios, and was changed constantly throughout production because that original name got too popular to keep the movie under wraps. Eventually, since the film was already so well known as Cloverfield due to the hype generated by the teaser trailer, they decided to just make that the actual title. There was also a lot of speculation as to what the movie was really about and what was causing the destruction seen in the trailers and TV spots. There was speculation ranging from the movie being an adaptation of H.P. Lovecraft stories, a film adaptation of the anime Voltron (I don't know how anybody got that idea), or that it could be a new Godzilla movie (which would have really excited me had I read that speculation in a magazine). In any case, all this secrecy about the film, coupled with the decision to release it in January which is typically a dead month for movies, was very risky. It could have been a massive hit like The Blair Witch Project or it could have backfired like Snakes on a Plane, which also had a viral campaign but didn't do as well as everybody was expecting it to.

Ironically, the aspect of the movie that had everybody speculating is, in fact, almost entirely inconsequential to the plot of the movie and that's the monster itself. You only see very brief glimpses of the monster throughout the movie and the focus is all about the destruction it causes and the terror that grips the city and the main characters. As for the monster's actual look, it's not bad. I didn't think it was anything special, mind you, but I thought the monster's sheer girth was impressive and the CGI used to bring it to life was very well done and realistic. The moment that you get a good, detailed look at the monster is the closeup of its face before it attacks and kills Hud. Like I said, it's an interesting design but I've seen much more striking looking monsters. I've also heard the design artists say that the monster is actually only a juvenile and that it's rampaging through the city because it's been attacked by the military and is scared. While that's an interesting idea to ponder, I like to put that out of my mind when I watch the movie because I find not knowing anything about the monster to be far more intriguing. Now, to address the speculation that the object you see fall into the ocean in the flashback to the Coney Island footage at the end of the movie is the monster in its infancy stage. That's an interesting idea, that Rob and Beth unknowingly filmed what would eventually rise up out of the ocean, destroy their home, and seemingly kill them when it first arrived. However, I wouldn't say that I'd want it definitively answered in the rumored sequel to this or anything like that. I think it's more fun to speculate about it than to get a concrete answer.

More frightening than the monster are these spider-like creatures that detach from its body and start attacking people. These things bring the terror to a whole new level. Even if you manage to escape the monster and hide in ground-level buildings or, in the main characters' case, the subway, there's something equally as dangerous that can still get you in your would-be shelters. Basically, you're not safe anywhere. The first glimpse of the parasites attacking soldiers on the TV is pretty shocking but their first major appearance where they attack the main characters in the subway tunnels is by far the creepiest scene in the movie, with the reveal of the creatures via the night-vision on the camera being comparable to the first major look at the crawlers in The Descent. As if the creatures didn't look freaking enough with their spider-like bodies and huge mandibles, even if you manage to get away, you're still going to die if one bites you (similar to the Komodo dragon's deadly bite). Marlena is the only one in the group to be bitten (that bite looks very nasty, by the way) and she soon falls ill and blood starts leaking out of her eyes. I'm not sure what happens next. The soldiers that they've encountered see that she's been bitten and they take to her a medical area. You only see what happens next in silhouette and I can't tell if her head exploded or if the soldiers shot her. Either way, her death is the most gruesome one in the movie by far and makes those parasites feel like even more of a threat than the actual monster.

You may have also noticed that was the only point in this review that I've mentioned any sort of makeup effects. Since this movie is rated PG-13, there isn't much in the way of gore (not that it's needed) save for what happens to Marlena as well as some corpses and nasty-looking wounds on victims. Also, the rest of the deaths that occur in this movie are the type of casualties you typically see in giant monsters, where you can guess that people were no doubt crushed by the monster's girth or by buildings collapsing on them. Even when Hud is attacked by the monster at the end of the movie, you don't see him get torn to pieces or anything. All the monster does is grab him, hoist him in the air, and spit him out. Maybe he was bitten half but you don't see any part of his body after his death except for his head so you don't know. This kind of movie typically doesn't warrant a lot of gore so I'm glad that they didn't try shove it into the movie just for an R-rating.

Like most found footage horror films, the only time there's any music in Cloverfield is over the ending credits, where you hear a pretty catchy overture called Roar!, composed by Michael Giacchino. It's a nice sounding piece of music, suitable for this type of monster. In fact, Matt Reeves has even said that it's meant to be a tribute to the music of Akira Ifukube, the legendary Japanese composer who did the music for many of the Godzilla movies. I didn't think about that when I first saw the movie but now that I listen to it, I sort of hear the resemblance. Granted, I've been watching Godzilla movies all my life since I was a kid and have always thoroughly loved Ifukube's scores so I should have spotted that the first time around. Maybe I wasn't thinking about it at that time. Ah, well. I also have to mention the sound effects in the movie. While there's no music playing during the opening with the Paramount and Bad Robot logos, there is a booming sound that starts off in the distance and slowly gets louder and louder, another obvious tribute to Godzilla. The dead silence except for that booming is really creep and it works in establishing a mood right off the bat. The roar that the monster gave in the trailers even sort of sounds like Godzilla but you never hear that roar in the actual movie. Instead, you hear the thing making trumpeting-like sounds and screams when it appears. Those sounds are still well made, nevertheless. I find the clicking noises made by the parasites to be really eerie, especially when they hear it in the pitch darkness of the subway tunnels. Only thing that throws me off about those parasites sound-wise, though, are the Donald Duck-like noises they make when they attack. That's odd. What, did they take lessons from the killer in Lucio Fulci's The New York Ripper? Okay, it doesn't sound that much like a duck but if that was supposed to be creepy, it comes across as unintentionally funny.

In my humble opinion, Cloverfield is one of the best examples of the found footage subgenre. It has likable characters (for the most part), an epic scope unusual for this type of film, moves at a brisk pace (it's only 85 minutes long and ten of those minutes are the ending credits), shows you how terrifying it would be to be caught up in an attack by a giant monster, which most of these types of movies either don't manage to do or wasn't their agenda, and above everything else, it's a nice love letter to Godzilla movies and giant monster movies in general. It rose above all odds and became the first blockbuster hit of 2008, grossing over $170 million and again, for a movie released in January, that's very impressive. I think this movie is why there's been such an influx of found footage horror films in the past few years. The Blair Witch Project may have popularized the idea but all that came after that movie were mainly spoofs and parodies of it. It was after Cloverfield where you began seeing movies like George Romero's Diary of the Dead, Quarantine, the Paranormal Activity films, The Last Exorcism, and so on. Some have worked, some have failed miserably, but to me, their existence mostly stems from Cloverfield. Like The Blair Witch Project, it seems like there's been a backlash against the movie ever since it was released, with there being just as many haters as there are supporters. If you heard a lot of negative criticisms of the movie and haven't seen it because of that, you should still check this movie out if you're at all a fan of giant monster movies. In my opinion, it was worth an hour and a half of your time.

Saturday, March 17, 2012

Stuff I Grew Up With: Star Fox 64 (1997)

This is yet another game that I doubt I would have ever owned had I not played a demo of it at Wal-Mart. I never played the original Star Fox for the Super NES (and to this day, I still haven't) so I had no expectations when I went into this game. Also, the controller for the demo was messed up when I played it. I couldn't keep the Arwing very high in the air for very long and I never finished the first level because I kept crashing. And yet, despite that, what little of the game I played at the Wal-Mart was enough to let me know that this was one I was going to play in-depth the first chance I got. What really sold me were the characters' distinct, likable personalities as well as the fact that there was much more dialogue in this game than I had ever heard in any game before. I just thought that was so cool. In any case, I rented the game many times from my local video store and finally owned it when I received it as a Christmas present in 1997. While there are some things about the game that irked me as a kid and still kind of get under skin now, I feel that, on the whole, this is one of the N64's most well put together and fun games.

The story of Star Fox 64, which you can hear on an opening crawl when you first activate single player mode, takes place in the Lylat System. On the fourth planet, Corneria, a brilliant scientist named Andross goes mad with power and nearly destroys the planet before being exiled to a distant planet called Venom. Five years later, when strange activity is reported at Venom, the mercenary Star Fox team is sent to investigate. One team member, Pigma, betrays the team, resulting in the other two members, Peppy Hare and the leader, James McCloud, to be captured by Andross. Peppy manages to escape but James is killed by Andross. A few years later, Andross declares war on the Lylat System and a new Star Fox team headed by James McCloud's son, Fox, is contacted by General Pepper of the Cornerian Army to defeat the power-mad scientist.

From my research, it seems that Star Fox 64 came into being when master game-creator Shigeru Miyamoto decided to shelve the proposed sequel of the original Star Fox in favor of using the more powerful capabilities of the Nintendo 64 to create a much more striking and advanced game. Star Fox 64 is a remake of the original game that also combines elements from the canceled sequel. Miyamoto himself said that 60% of the game is remade from the original while 30% is from the sequel and 10% is completely original. Looking at existing screenshots of Star Fox 2, you can definitely see that a lot of it was incorporated into Star Fox 64. While I've never played the original game, I've always found Star Fox 2 to be a fascinating curiosity piece. It was covered extensively in Nintendo Power and other gaming magazines (I didn't have a subscription to any gaming magazines at the time but I've learned about this after the fact) and there were many screenshots from it but it was never released. It's odd because the Japanese version of the game, at least, was finished (it's unknown whether the English version was ever completed). I don't see why they just didn't go ahead and eventually release it. Nowadays, I don't see why they couldn't put it on the Wii Virtual Console if it's at least playable. Just one of those mysteries of video games, I guess.

The gameplay is interesting. In each level, you control one of three vehicles being operated by Fox McCloud. Most of the time, you're flying a jet-like vehicle called an Arwing but there are a couple of levels where you pilot a tank called the Landmaster and in one level, you operate a submarine called the Blue Marine. Most of the levels are in a rail-shooter corridor mode where your vehicle goes down a fixed path and you can maneuver around to avoid obstacles and shoot at enemies. A few levels as well as certain sections of various levels are in All-Range mode, where you can move around freely to engage an enemy in combat (the Arwing is the only vehicle you can operate in All-Range mode). Nearly every level has a boss you face at the end of it. In fact, both levels on the planet Venom have a secondary boss that you face before moving onto the battle with Andross. Where the gameplay becomes atypical is in its non-linear series of levels. Depending on what path you take in a level or whether or not you succeed in achieving a certain objective, the path you take throughout the Lylat System in order to reach Venom tends to be different through each playthrough. The planets along each path vary in difficulty: the bottom row of planets is the easy path, the middle one is the medium, and the top one is the hard path. On top of that, you get a different game ending depending on which path you take to Venom. There's no save feature so you're intended to finish the game in each playthrough and if you don't or get a game over, you have to start from first mission on Corneria again. While I personally prefer the normal fixed series of levels in a game, I won't deny that this does enable the game to provide you with a different experience each time you play it.

The three vehicles share some aspects such as upgrades and weapons but are also different in what they can and can't do. The Arwing has the largest number of different maneuvers. It can brake and boost, perform a somersault so you can flip around behind a pursuing enemy, and in All-Range mode, it can perform a U-turn. There's a maneuver called the barrel-roll you can pull off by pressing the Z-button twice. This move deflects enemy fire. You can also pick up a maximum of nine smart bombs and fire them with the B-button in order to clear out huge clusters of enemies (you can wait for them to explode on their own or detonate them by pressing the B-button again). By holding the A-button, you can charge your laser as well as lock onto enemies and fire upon them. The Arwing starts out with a single laser blasters but you can acquire laser upgrades strewn throughout the levels. Flying into one enables you to fire two blasts and flying into a second upgrades your two blasters up in power. Your upgrades do carry over from level to level. However, if you get killed or lose one of your wings, you downgrade back to one. You can repair your wings by flying into another laser upgrade or a special wing repair item.

The Landmaster tank has many of the same capabilities as the Arwing: boost, brake, and barrel-roll (however, the barrel roll here is for avoiding enemy fire and doesn't deflect it). The Landmaster can also hover in order to get over obstacles. You can also lock on to enemies and fire smart bombs with the Landmaster but you can't upgrade your laser. The Landmaster tends to be my least favorite vehicle in the game because it's difficult to hit airborne enemies from the perspective you have while being stuck on the ground. The Blue Marine sub is basically the Arwing except underwater. In addition to boosting, braking, and barrel-rolling (which does deflect enemy fire here), the Blue Marine can also upgrade its lasers and lock on. In place of smart bombs, the sub has an unlimited supply of torpedoes which light up the darkness as well as destroying enemies (trust me, you'll be glad those torpedoes are unlimited because the level where you use the sub is choked with enemies). All the vehicles encounter the same items that enable you to regain health, which are these rings that you have to fly or drive through. Silver rings recover a little bit of damage but you usually encounter a lot of them to make up for it; there are some rare silver star-shaped rings that appear in the later levels that recover much more health than the normal ones; and finally, there are gold rings which recover the most amount of health. On top of that, if you get three gold rings, your life bar becomes longer and another three gold rings gets you an extra life.

As I said, what really struck me about Star Fox 64 were the characters and the actual use of voice-acting. It seems that in the original game, the characters spoke in gibberish that was supposed to be the actual language of the Lylat System (also, it seems like the PAL version of this game has a feature where you can enable that Lylat language among the dialogue). Here, though, the characters talk and act like real people. The dialogue may not be exactly Oscar-worthy, mind you, but at the time, this was quite impressive for a game. During each level, there is a lot of com-chatter between the characters as they relay to you gameplay advice, technical information on the strength of the bosses you come across, alert you to hidden paths in some levels, or just bust each other's chops, as you would expect members of a mercenary team who've known each for a long time to do (like the members of Dutch's rescue team in Predator). While I do enjoy the characters most of the time, they do tend to grate on my nerves in all-range mode levels where they're constantly getting chased by enemies and always call on you to help them. Even after you help, they tend to get in trouble again (especially Slippy Toad). It's like they can't do anything for themselves in those situations. Also, if their life-bar is drained completely during a mission, they're forced to retreat and have to sit out the next mission while their ship is being repaired. That makes you really paranoid when you're flying through a huge cluster of enemies and shooting constantly because your team members have a bad tendency of flying right into the line of fire and if you accidentally shoot them, they will admonish you for it. That can get old really fast. In All-Range mode, if you're not careful, you can fly into them but even though you can lose a wing, I do like hearing them complain: Peppy Hare yells, "Watch where you're flying!" and Falco Lombardi goes, "Get out of my way!" I also like hearing them complain when you shoot down an enemy that they're pursuing. Bottom line, I do think it's a very cool feature but there are times where the characters can get on my nerves.

Let's get this out of way: my least favorite character by far is Slippy Toad. I could just shoot down this little pissant myself if I could. And I know I'm not alone in my thinking. Now, I will give Slippy credit that you need him around when you're battling a boss because he brings up its lifebar but that's about all he's good for. He sucks as a pilot and he can't shoot for crap. The most annoying thing about him is that he's constantly getting pursued by enemies and always whining, "Fox, get this guy off me!" (in fact, he does this within a few seconds of the first mission of the game!) He'll keep whining, yelling, "Oh no!" and "Slippy's hit!" until you help him but even if you do, he'll more than likely get into trouble again and you have to bail him out a second time. That makes his cockiness in one level where he's being followed by enemies even more annoying. He says, "You want a piece of me?" and when you destroy those those enemies, he says, "Take that!" Oh, shut up, Slippy, you stupid, annoying wart-hive! Lyssa Browne's voice acting is irritating as hell too. You have to wonder about his gender because he's supposed to be a guy but there's a woman doing his voice. While women usually do voices for children, including you male children, Slippy isn't supposed to be a child. In any case, the voice, and the character, is just really grating.

The other two characters are much more tolerable, even if you have to bail them out of danger as well from time to time but not nearly as often as Slippy. I like Peppy Hare's role as the oldest, most experienced member of the team who gives you gameplay advice throughout the levels. My favorite voice actor for him is Isaac Marshall who did him in this game because the voice does sound middle-aged but it doesn't sound like somebody who's about to keel over at any moment, as Peppy tends to sound in later games. I just like the personality that comes through the voice: gun-ho but knows he has to rely on his friends and acts primarily as a mentor to Fox, perhaps feeling like a surrogate father to him in light of what happened to James McCloud. On top of that, he utters the popular line, "Do a barrel-roll!" which has become an internet meme in recent years. My favorite team member is Falco Lombardi, the hotshot bird pilot of the team. Granted, he is like the Raphael of the group in that he's a hot-headed smart ass and constantly gives you crap, even when you save his hide from enemies (though, to be fair, he almost never actually asks for help) but he's the most skilled fighter of the group and really tends to help you when you're confronted with a lot of enemies. Plus, I like Bill Johns' voice acting, with all the sarcastic remarks that he throws in. I know some find his attitude to be really annoying but I just love this character. As for Fox McCloud himself, I thought Mike West's acting fit the character well: a confident, young leader who begins to become like his father. Nothing else I can say about that since Fox is the character that you control. Finally, even though he's technically not a member of the team, there's ROB 64 (voiced by David Frederick White), the robot pilot of the team's mothership, Great Fox. Although he stays out of the action for most of the game and mainly gives you technical data, he often calls you and when you respond, he'll send you an item (if you're not missing a wing or you have all the laser upgrades, it's a smart bomb). He does, however, join the action during a very tough mission where he has Great Fox fire its lasers in order to destroy big, Star Destroyer-like crafts that you come across in that level.

The game also has a nice supporting cast. General Pepper, the leader of the Cornerian army, is the guy who informs you of each mission at the beginning of the levels (although, in some instances, he tries to dissuade the team from going if he feels it's too dangerous). Not much say to about him though you have to wonder, though, why he doesn't send his armed forces to help you in the most difficult missions. I do prefer the voice given to him by Rick May in this game to the others (the one in Star Fox Adventures sounded a little too bombastic to me). There are two supporting characters who actually do join you in one specific mission for each of them and appear in another one afterward. Bill Grey, an old friend of Fox's, first appears when you have to help his squadron stave off an attack on a planet called Katina. Whether or not you manage to stop the attack, Bill appears briefly in your very next mission to assist you. Another character is Katt Monroe (voiced by Lyssa Browne), a pink cat with a crush on Falco who appears out of nowhere in one mission and also assists you briefly in the very next mission just like Bill. While I do think Bill is a cool character, I feel that both he and Katt aren't all that useful in the subsequent missions they appear in, especially Katt. But, at least Bill's first appearance is tied into that level's actual mission. Katt just comes out of nowhere. But whatever. I also can't be certain if James McCloud is really dead or not because after the real battle with Andross you engage in on Venom, James appears to guide you out of the rapidly exploding base. Once you escape, he disappears without a trace so you're not sure whether he was a ghost, an illusion, or if that really was him. In any case, he's given a deep, commanding voice by Mike West that is quite striking when you first hear it, especially when you consider that it's the same guy who does Fox's voice.

The look of Andross has always kind of perplexed me. Each time you encounter him, not only in this game but in Star Fox Adventures as well, he's always a gigantic floating head and hands. I'm sure that's not his real form and he just became that in order to battle you but it just never looked aesthetically useful in the long run. How could he have become such a great scientist and created a huge empire if he's just a floating head and hands? In any case, in this game, Rick May gives him a booming voice that sounds almost mechanical, kind of like Darth Vader. By the way, Wikipedia noted that he kind of looks like Dr. Zaius from Planet of the Apes and now that I think about it, he does. Other than Andross, the main antagonists that you come across at least once during every playthrough of the entire game are members of the Star Wolf team. They're basically an evil counterpart to the Star Fox team in that they're a mercenary team that Andross has hired. The leader of the team, Wolf O'Donnell (voiced by Rick May), has a cultured, sophisticated voice (in this game, anyway) but nonetheless, is an evil character who thinks he's a better pilot than Fox. Pigma Dengar (voiced by David Frederick White) is the member of the original Star Fox team who betrayed James McCloud and Peppy. His main character trait is that he's a greedy, sadistic pig who only cares about getting a huge paycheck from Andross. Leon Powalski (voiced by Rick May) is a chameleon-like character with a calm, classy, and sinister voice who seems to be a bit arrogant since he sometimes refers to himself as, "the Great Leon!" Finally, there's Andrew Oikonny (voiced by Bill Johns), the young nephew of Andross. He's like Slippy in that he's the youngest member of the team and is the most inexperienced at piloting. He's also not very smart. Every time you encounter the Star Wolf team, the various members will each target a specific member of your team: Wolf targets you, Pigma goes after Peppy, Leon tries to shoot down Falco, and Andrew chases Slippy. Worse, if any of your teammates gets so damaged that they're forced to retreat, whoever was chasing them will join Wolf in pursuing you. You can't avoid the Star Wolf team in this game because no matter what path you take, you'll eventually run into them.

Here's an interesting story concerning myself and the voices in the game. As I said, the voices was something that astonished my ten-year old mind at the time and was what attracted me to the game. However, I kind of grew to hate the game's voices because of the annoyance they unintentionally caused me in my personal life. There was this kid at my elementary school who found out that I really liked the game and once he found that out, he would aggravate me mercilessly during recess, asking what I said when this character said this or when this character said that. What really tore it, though, was when the guy somehow found out my phone number and started calling me and asking those idiotic questions at home. I got so annoyed that eventually, there was a time where he called and my mom picked up the phone but when she called me, I refused to talk to the guy. She was immensely embarrassed and kept yelling at me to talk to him but I was like, "You can threaten me all you want, Mom, I am not talking to that idiot." That kid had been a thorn in my side all throughout elementary school, always annoying me to end. I guess maybe he sincerely wanted to be friends with me at this point but he went about it the completely wrong way. He refused to leave me alone, even when I told him he was driving me crazy. I eventually went to a different school so it didn't matter but I was kind of resentful towards Star Fox 64 for a while afterward. Anyway, that has nothing to do with the game itself but I just some people would be interested in that.

The game is very well designed. Granted, the character designs do have that polygonal look to them that was common with games around that time but the environments with the planets and the enemies especially are quite imaginative in their designs. The enemies don't consist of just typical spaceships, although those do look good. There are big rolling robots, robotic fire birds that drop exploding eggs on you, bizarre-looking crafts called tripods that hover right in front of you while firing, long eel-like creatures that slither through space, bee-shaped enemies that fire swirling multi-colored blasts at you, and a whole lot of others. The most interesting living creatures that you encounter are on the planets Aquas and Zoness, which I will elaborate on when I discuss the actual levels. The bosses are also interesting creations. The first couple of bosses are standard robots and ships but as you progress through the game, they become more complex and imaginative in how they look, as well as much tougher to beat because you often have to hit them in a certain way in order to make them vulnerable and finish the job.

To make the game's replay value even more interesting, there's an Expert mode that you can activate by receiving a medal on each level. You get a medal when you destroy a certain number of enemies as well as if all of your teammates being with you at the end of the level. As you can guess, Expert mode is a much harder version of the typical single player campaign. There are more enemies in each level and your vehicle is much more vulnerable (your Arwing will lose wing if you run into anything). Interesting thing to note about Expert mode is that Fox wears dark sunglasses much like his father, James. In fact, a strategy guide for the game (not the one published by Nintendo Power, mind you) described it as being able to play as James McCloud but that's a big lie. Apparently, if you obtain all the medals on Expert mode, you get a new title screen for the game. Big whoop. (Fun thing you can do with the title screen, though, is that you can move around the 64 in the title and the four characters will actually watch it in curiosity and amazement.) Other stuff you acquire from getting medals include a sound test where you can listen to the game's soundtrack and activate new vehicles to use in multiplayer mode.

As I've said before, being an only child I hardly ever bothered with the multiplayer sections of any games as a kid unless I had friends over. While my friends and I did play the multiplayer of Star Fox 64 every now and then, it wasn't nearly as much as the multiplayer modes of games like Goldeneye or Mario Kart 64. As with most N64 titles, this game's multiplayer can support up to four players and there are three modes of play: Point Match, where the winner is the player who shoots down the other player the largest number of times; Battle Royal, where the winner is the last player who isn't shot down; and Time Trial, where you have to destroy a large number of enemies in a certain amount of time. You start with the Arwing being the only available vehicle but after earning medals in Story Mode, you can use the Landmaster (which can upgrade its lasers here) or have your character walk around on foot with a bazooka. There were only three arenas to play in, though. To be honest, I barely remember anything about the multiplayer on this game. I don't remember it being awful, I just don't remember much of it since we hardly ever played it but that, in and of itself, should say something. I wonder why they didn't have it to where you and your friends could play in Story mode and the team members who weren't being controlled could be handled by the computer? Just saying.

This game was also the first N64 title to make use of the Rumble Pack, which it came packaged with. The Rumble Pack, for those who don't know, was this large peripheral that you would attach to the back of your controller and every time you get hit by something or when there was a gigantic explosion in the game, the controller would vibrate. It was an attempt by Nintendo to make you feel like you were part of the action, like you really were flying along in a huge space battle. Personally, though, I almost never used the Rumble Pack. It was an interesting idea but when I'm in the heat of a huge battle or an intense race (I'm personally referring to Diddy Kong Racing, which also made use of the Rumble Pack), I find the vibration to be more of a distraction than anything else. Unfortunately, games for next generation consoles are now almost guaranteed to have a rumble feature and the controllers for said consoles had the actual mechanism built into them. Some games are good enough to give you the option of turning the rumble off but some don't (I find that to be true mainly with games for the Wii) so you're stuck with it. Didn't mean to go off on a tangent there and if you enjoy the rumble feature in this or any other game, Rumble Pack or not, that's fine but it just bugs me.

The music, composed by Koji Kondo and Hajime Wakai, is pretty good. The main title has become the recognized Star Fox theme and it has a nice, grandiose sound to it (I'm not sure if that theme was in the original game). Some other bits of music that I like include the eerie theme in the Sector X level, the music that plays during the Landmaster levels, the Katina music, the Bolse Defense Outpost music, the Zoness theme, the Sector Z music, the music during the Easy route level on Venom, and the triumphant music that plays after you defeat Andross. It may not be one of the best scores ever created for a video game (to me, at least) but I think it's pretty good and serves its purpose well.

Now for my usual overview of the levels. 

Corneria: The first level is a cinch. You must rescue Corneria City from an attack by Andross' forces. Like I said earlier, shows how much of a pest he is going to be throughout the game because he needs you to bail him out of trouble just a few seconds into the first mission. The enemies here include big Garuda robots that throw big steel beams at you as well as push buildings over, sometimes on top of useful items if you don't destroy them quickly; a lot of standard fighter crafts; the aforementioned firebird robots that drop egg bombs on you; mole missiles that shoot up from the ground and head right for you; small tank-like crafts that you'll encounter constantly throughout the game; and ski bots on the water which don't attack you but can get in the way if you try to fly underneath these rock arches. There are two paths you can take to finish this level. The first is to keep following the direction the corridor mode is pointing you in. Completing the level on that path will lead you to the Meteo asteroid field. The other is a bit more of a challenge. There's a point in the city where Falco is pursued by three fighters and his shield malfunctions so you have to help him by taking them down (you'll have to boost in order to get close enough to shoot them). After saving Falco, fly under the series of stone arches on the second patch of ocean and Falco will point towards a different path. This path will take you to Sector Y. Both paths lead you to a different boss you must fight but they're both ridiculously easy. The boss on route 1 is a giant robot who is one of the most vulnerable enemies in the entire game. All you have to do to destroy him is shoot the green panels on his back. You can shoot one of his legs off to make him completely defenseless but that's not even necessary to defeat him. (You get an extra life if you fly between the robot's legs and do somersault without bumping into him.) The boss on route 2 is a huge aircraft carrier that is also very easy. All you have to do is shoot the insides of its three launch bays when they open. After you destroyed them, the actual craft will vulnerable to attack.

Meteo: This level's pretty straightforward. You have to destroy 200 targets to get a medal here but the enormous amount of asteroids (which do give you points when you destroy them) and enemies make it an easy task. Some types of asteroids you can blow up, while others you can't. At one point, you come across these huge, planet-like asteroids and you better follow Peppy's advice on what to do to keep from getting crushed. There are also a couple of long, hollow asteroids that you must fly through. The enormous amount of enemies consist of wedge-shaped spaceships, lasers attached to certain asteroids, a type of robot that hops up and down while firing at you, long, eel-like creatures that shoot fireballs at you, robots that are only vulnerable when their orange backsides are facing you, butterfly-like fighters that cluster together in formations, robots that create webs that you can run into if you're not careful, and the bee enemies that fire swirling blasts at you (you can't lock onto them). As with most, there are two ways to exit this level. The first is to fly through the asteroid field to the end where you battle a huge ship. This ship has several glowing yellow sections that are obviously where you shoot it. The ship does have a shield that absorbs your laser blasts and fires them back at you, an attack that shoots electrical bolts at you, and two laser blasts that are shaped like a series of rings but again, it's so obvious where you need to shoot that it's not that hard. Beating this boss sends you to Fortuna. However, if you fly through the seven warp rings in the area before you reach the boss (which is difficult to do because your ship starts spinning crazily after you go through a good number of them and it's hard to maneuver), you'll enter into a strange dimension with a number bizarre enemies and whole lot of items that will eventually lead you to Katina.

Fortuna: This is the first completely All-Range mode level of the game. Your mission is to recover the base from the enemies that have taken it over. (By the way, doesn't this level remind you of the ice planet Hoth in The Empire Strikes Back? Heck, even the situation is kind of similar.) When you first start the level, you may think it'll be easy since all you have to deal with are these very vulnerable saucers but ROB 64 will eventually inform you that a time bomb has been planted at the base. And that's when the Star Wolf team attacks. Now you have a time limit to where you must take out the Star Wolf team so you can diffuse the bomb. The problem is that the evil mercenaries' ships are fast and hard to hit. You can lock onto them but they often manage to outrun the charged up laser blast. You can flip around to tag the one chasing you but he'll often take evasive action and it's hard to keep him in your sights. You often have to bank really hard to do so. This is one of those levels where I tend to get annoyed at my other teammates. They're all calling for your help but you've got your own problems with Star Wolf himself baring down on you. Your best bet is to target each member of the team one at a time and shoot them enough to where your teammate can turn the tables on his pursuer. Unfortunately, Slippy usually gets in trouble again even after you help him (of course). You shouldn't be scrapped for health, though, because there are radar beacons that give up silver rings when you destroy them. Where you go next depends on the outcome of the situation. If the Star Wolf team evades you and the base is destroyed, you'll proceed on to Sector X. If you manage to shoot the members of the team down, Fox will fly into the base, diffuse the bomb, and proceed to Solar.

Sector X: This is an interesting level in that you're sent to investigate a rumored secret weapon that Andross has been working on but when you reach the base, you discover that it's been destroyed (if you know anything about science fiction, you can probably guess what the cause is going to be revealed as). Even though it's now a big floating field of debris, the place is still crawling with enemies. There are canine robotic fighters that attack you when you get close, robot fighters that tend to link up in groups of three, more of those killer bee robots, floating space mines that explode automatically when you get too close, and automated lasers on the floating remnants of the base. There are also these floating spy satellites which don't attack you and in fact, are quite useful because they contain items. Besides the enemies, you also have to avoid big floating pieces of debris and there are spots where you have to maneuver your Arwing carefully to fly through openings in the really big pieces of the base. There are three possible ways to complete this stage. Eventually, you'll come to a fork in the path and if you go left, you come across four gateways that you can open by shooting them repeatedly until they turn red. If you fly through all four (which is a bit tricky since they tend to disconnect from the pieces of debris they're attached to), you'll enter a warp zone similar to the one in Meteo and you'll travel to Sector Z. If you fail to open the gates or you take the right path instead, you'll eventually face the boss which, predictably, is the secret weapon which has gone haywire. It's a large, floating robot torso and there are two phases to the battle. First, you have to shoot at its head when its glowing eyes are visible while avoiding laser blasts from its head and its hands which it shoots at you like missiles. When you keep shooting it and blow its head off, you'll think you've beaten it but the robot comes back to life for another round (the thing even wags its finger at you). This time, it has a head that's much smaller and harder to hit and at the same time, you have to dodge faster laser blasts, the robot throwing big pieces of the base at you, and it spinning around while flailing its huge arms. If you manage to destroy the robot quickly, you'll move on to the planet of Macbeth. However, Slippy will charge at the robot early in the second phase and if he gets hit by the robot's hand, he'll tumble towards the planet of Titania and you'll have to go there to rescue him next.

Titania: This is basically the Lylat System's version of the planet Mars with the red sky and red sand everywhere. It's actually an interesting level in design because of the ancient architecture which hints at a long lost civilization as well as strewn about skeletons of some species of large creature. This is one of the two levels where you use the Landmaster tank and while its useful in attacking all the ground-based enemies, it's hard to hit all the enemy fighters in the sky (even when you're in the Landmaster, you still have to occasionally save your comrades, who are in their Arwings, from pursuing enemies). There are plenty of enemies and hazards here. There are gigantic crawling robots that aren't that hard to destroy but you will take damage if you drive into them, robots on hills that throw boulders at you, enemy tanks which aren't hard to destroy but they often travel in groups, and crafts that dump land mines on you. Speaking of which, there are land mines everywhere in this level and they're hard to get a lock with the Landmaster's turret. There are also big explosives that detonate when you get close but if you shoot them, they'll jump away and explode in the air. There are tall, sentry towers that shoot long lasers at you and it's tough to avoid two or three in a row because they criss-cross each other. On top of all that, there are sections where you have to avoid giant pillars which tumble down towards you. There's a valley right before the boss where all of the hazards come out of the woodwork at you and it can get frustrating, especially on Expert mode. The boss here is a bizarre, four-armed, skeletal creature that has Slippy in one of its hands. To free Slippy, you must destroy the other three arms and when you destroy the fourth one, its beating heart behind its rib-cage will exposed. The boss' attacks are laser blasts from its upper arms while it tries to smash you with its lower ones and a Godzilla-like energy blast that it shoots from its mouth. This boss can be tricky but if you keep a cool head, you'll eventually take it down.

Bolse: This space station is the easy route's entry into Venom. This is an all-range mode mission and the first part is simple. You have to destroy the six shield reactors so you can attack the energy core (the enemy fighters flying around the station are shielded as well). You have to fight the station's gravitational pull during this section and the energy rays emitting from the reactors can damage your ship but it's not too difficult. Once the shield is down, a swarm of fighters will come out of the center of the base. There are laser cannons spread along the surface of the station. Worst of all, if the path you took through the Lylat System didn't lead you to Fortuna or if it did and any members of the Star Wolf team escaped that mission, you'll have to deal with them here. The good news, though, is that there's no time limit here and since the station has stopped rotating, flying is much easier. During the dogfight, the energy core will eventually reveal itself. To destroy it, you have to blast the eight yellow panels on the towering center of the core. This task is made complicated by the core's constant turning as well as the fact that destroyed panels start spraying laser blasts. I never found this to be too difficult a level, though.

Katina: This is the first of the three medium levels. To get here, you'll either have to use the warp in Meteo or be redirected from Sector Y (I'll elaborate on that later). In any case, this level is straight out of Independence Day (which makes sense seeing as how it was the biggest movie of the year before this game's release). It's an all-range mode level where you join the squadron led by Fox's old friend Bill Grey in staving off an attack on the planet's base. When you first enter the stage, you may find it difficult to differentiate the enemy ships from those in Bill's unit. The difference is that the enemy fighters are saucer-shaped whereas the friendly ones look like jets. Even with that difference in mind, though, you more than likely will accidentally destroy some friendly crafts. While your targeting computer will only lock onto enemies, the charged up blasts will destroy any friendly crafts that are too close. It's best not to use smart bombs as well. Eventually, an enormous mothership will enter the battle and position itself above the base. It first will spew out more fighters from its four hatches. You must destroy all four of the hatches, which can get tricky because they're constantly opening and closing (Bill will tell you when they're opening). After they're destroyed, the saucer will expose its powerful laser core. You have one minute to destroy it before it charges up sufficiently to vaporize the base. Much like the Fortuna mission, where you go next depends on whether you save the base or not. If the base is destroyed (again, that cinematic comes straight out of Independence Day), you'll be redirected to Sector X. If you succeed in defeating the saucer, you'll proceed on to Solar (Bill will briefly join in both missions when you arrive at them from here).

Solar: This level is basically the Lylat System's sun. Your biggest enemy here is the heat. You have to stay as high as you can because the closer you get to the molten surface, the faster you'll take damage. To complicate that, there are sections where there are huge swells in the lava which you absolutely must keep from touching. There are also large swarms of birds made of lava, some of which will chase your teammates, and gigantic fireballs that spring up across the surface. Fortunately, items are all over the place here, revealed when you blast apart rocks that spring out of the lava. If you come here from Katina, Bill Grey will appear briefly and if you follow him, he'll drop some items for you. This is one of the few levels where there are no hidden paths or outcomes. Your next destination is always the same. The boss here is a gigantic, mantis-like bioweapon that's made entirely of magma. It's not too difficult to beat though. You first have to destroy its arms and after that, just shoot its mouth until its dead. It will create tidal waves of lava with its arms and once you've destroyed them, it will sling its sizzling hot magma bodily fluid at you as well as splash into the lave to create a huge swell. It also spits rocks at you from its mouth but those rocks are filled with items so it's unknowingly helping you on that score.

Macbeth: This is the other Landmaster level. The planet serves as the location of the factories and plants that create Andross' weapons. Your main target here is a supply train that's heading for the main weapons factory. The thing is that the train is not defenseless in the slightest. It dumps enormous boulders in your path as well as sends them hurtling towards at several points and it also has a car with a tower that fires missiles at you or at a nearby hill to put more boulders in your path. The engineer will also activate security bars that you have to hover over and, of course, the sky is full of fighters that your comrades are trying their best to take down (you will have to rescue them a couple of times). The train's cars take a number of hits to destroy but the good thing is that they're big and slow, which makes them easy to hit. Destroying some cars will cause chain reactions that blow up a good number of cars ahead of them (though you'll have to blast the cars' charred remains out of your way). Your next destination depends on whether you manage to take out the main weapons factory or not. You'll come across eight switches along the track that will change the train's direction and send it crashing into the weapons factory if you manage to flip them all by shooting them. If you manage that, you'll head to Area 6 next. If you're unable to flip the switches, you'll have to take out a hovering robot that the train deploys (this thing appears while you're trying to flip the switches and if you manage to flip them all, you don't have to worry about fighting it). This robot has a number of fierce attacks including iron bars that it shoots along your path that you must take out, wide beams of energy that it shoots from its wings, and its tail that it uses you scoop you up. You have to target its head and tail (both of which are kind of tricky to hit, especially the head since it's so small) and once they're destroyed, you must shoot the glowing power panel on the train. That will cripple the robot for a few seconds and it will be vulnerable to laser fire. After taking out the robot, you'll head to Bolse. (I must note that I absolutely love the dialogue by the train engineer in this stage, especially when you defeat him. When you change the train's direction, he yells, "No! Hit the brakes! I can't STOP IT!" When you destroy the robot, it'll come crashing towards him and he'll yell, "No! Get away!" Really funny stuff.)

Sector Y: The first of the hard levels, this has you flying into a sector of space to save a fleet of Cornerian ships from Andross' forces. This level is a war of attrition as you fly through in corridor mode and do battle with enormous, heavily armed battleships (you can destroy them but you can disarm some of them by blasting the turrets on their sides), homing missiles, and a ton of flying, robot warriors with shields and large laser blasters. Your next destination is determined before you enter the boss battle. If you destroy less than a hundred enemies, you'll be sent to Katina. If you manage to destroy over a hundred enemies, you'll head onward to Aquas. In order to get the hundred hits, it's best to take the upper path when this one battleship forces you to either go above or below it. The first part of the boss battle consists of you battling two large robot warriors. These guys are quick, agile, and they constantly charge you and shoot at you with their huge laser pistols. They're annoying but I never found them to be that hard to defeat. After you destroy them, though, the big boy, an even larger, silver robot warrior, comes out to play. Despite its size, it's still very agile, is well protected by its large shield, and a direct hit from its laser gun can really damage your Arwing. You can destroy its shield but it takes an ungodly number of hits. After that, just keep sweeping and blasting it until it explodes (with its pilot screaming in rage and defeat right before it does).

Aquas: The sole level where you use the Blue Marine sub, this can be a very tough stage. There are enemies galore here and it can become really congested. You have to constantly fire your lasers and torpedoes just to clear the way as well as destroy incoming threats. Early in the stage, there are little, normal-sized fish that don't harm you but are attracted by your torpedoes and tend to block them from hitting their intended targets. Fortunately, they disappear when you get further into the level. The design of the enemy sea creatures you encounter is quite inspired, I must say but on the same token, they're all very tough and can take a lot of punishment. You have these enormous, long fish that swim across your path, blocking your way; oversized angler fish that take a lot of hits to destroy, even with torpedoes; these weird creatures that look like floating shells at first but open themselves up to reveal humanoid proportions and you can only damage them by shooting their vulnerable insides; big starfish that explode like mines; clams that fire laser blasts at you; jellyfish creatures that link up in threes to create electrical charges (you can't destroy them at all); enormous squids that don't actually attack you but can get in your way; and these scallop-like things that are armored on one side and are best taken down with torpedoes. You also have to admire the Atlantis-like ruins you come across throughout the level, suggesting that there was a civilization on this planet but it eventually sunk into the sea. The boss is an enormous clam monster that isn't difficult so much as it's just annoying. The thing shoots eels out of the pods on top of its shell (you can destroy the pods), and enormous pearls out of the pods inside its mouth (you can only temporarily put them out of commission rather than destroy them). You first have to shoot the two stalks inside the mouth that are holding up the top of the shell until they turn white and then blast them with torpedoes. Once they're both gone, you have to target the clam's eye. It puts a shield in front its eye that you have to shoot until the eye is exposed and then target it with torpedoes. The more you damage the creature, the more pearls it'll shoot to block your torpedo shots so the last two or three hits can be tricky to score.

Zoness: This is another ocean planet like Aquas only this time, you fly above the water in your Arwing. Also like Aquas, this level is choked with unique and challenging enemies, particularly those that travel in big groups. There are two types of bird-like creatures: one type that drops bombs on you and bigger types that tend to chase your comrades; big water skimmers that can only be taken out with charged up lasers and bombs; clam-like things that leap out of the water and shoot energy blasts at you; squadrons of patrol boats; and, worst of all, enormous heavily armored sea serpents that don't attack you but can damage your Arwing if you run into them. You can't hurt those big serpents at all and they pop up very unexpectedly so you must keep your guard up. Fortunately, there are lots of enemy supply boats that yield items when you destroy the containers on their decks and this is where Falco's would-be girlfriend Katt drops in to help and, like Bill Grey, she'll join you on whatever your next mission is. There are also searchlights strewn throughout the level. If you manage to destroy them all (which can be tricky because some are behind these gates whose rudders you have to shoot quickly in order to open them), you'll move on to Sector Z next. If even one spots you, though, and you just have to fly by one without shooting it for it to detect you, you'll be forced to head to Macbeth next. Either way, you'll have to battle the boss, which is a heavily armored battleship operated by an ape who talks like a stereotypical pirate. At first, it's completely invincible to laser fire and you'll have to use smart bombs (fortunately, it shoots plenty of slow moving iron balls that turn into smart bombs when you blast them). First, you have to destroy the twin funnels on the front and while you're trying to do so, the ship will submerge down into the water and fire a big, spiked ball on a chain at you. Once the funnels are destroyed, you have to blow up one of the launching pads on either side of the ship and once you do, the ship will turn around and try to use its backside crane to recover the lost part of the ship. Destroy that crane and the ship will be completely defenseless (you can now use your lasers on it as well as bombs to finish it off).

Sector Z: This All-Range mode level is fairly straightforward at first. The first part of it has you scramble out of Great Fox to take on a number of enemy fighters. These crafts are fast and more heavily armored than most enemy crafts you've encountered before and there will be instances where you'll have to save your buddies from them. There's also a lot of floating space junk so if you're not careful, you could lose a wing. However, if you get too badly damaged, you can fly into the docking bay on Great Fox's backside, you'll come out good as new (you'll have to reclaim your laser upgrades if you lost a wing yourself, though). Where things get dire is when the enemy fires six big missiles at Great Fox. The missiles approach in ever escalating numbers: the first approaches by itself, the next two approach together, and the last three come at Great Fox all at once. ROB 64 will warn you when they are approaching and how far they are from their target. If you don't have the highest laser upgrade, your best bet is to use charged lasers and smart bombs. The missiles move very slowly so you will have a lot of time but the problem is that you have to wait until they enter your radar area to launch a full-scale attack on them; otherwise, your Arwing will automatically do a U-turn. Your friends, including Katt, will help you take them out (if they're not being pursued by enemy fighters, that is) and if you fire rapidly enough, you will destroy them. If Great Fox is hit by any of the missiles, you'll be redirected to Bolse. If you manage to destroy the missiles, you will proceed on to Area 6.

Area 6: As the last level before you reach Venom, this level is a war of attrition in every sense of the term. It's an absolute endurance with thousands of enemy fighters, more of those bee robots, lots of umbrella-shaped space stations that turn and fire multiple laser blasts at you,  octopus-like missiles that drift toward that you must take as quickly as possible because the concussions from the explosion can still damage your Arwing even if the missiles themselves don't hit you, and two types of battleships: ones with skulls on the side that can be taken down with a few shots and Star Destroyer-like ones that can only be taken down by destroying the bridge. All three of your teammates will need your help at one point or another and at one point, Andross himself will come on the communication line and taunt you (that is, if you answer the call). The good news is that ROB 64 will have Great Fox fire upon some of the battleships if you answer his call. (Weirdly enough, the two characters in charge of operations here are reptiles instead of apes.) The boss is a large saucer-shaped satellite that has metal tentacles with claws on the ends, a warp mechanism, an unlimited supply of missiles and fighters that it can deploy, and worst of all, a powerful laser that it shoots out of its core like the freaking Death Star. You have to shoot the tentacles to make the satellite open up to reveal its core and then you must shoot the three energy balls rotating around the core (the latter segment is hard because the screen keeps shifting, making it easy to miss). Repeat this process twice and the core will become vulnerable. You have to keep shooting the core and the tentacles until the thing blows up.

Venom: There are two different stages on Venom, depending on which route you took to reach it. If you approach it from Bolse, you'll enter a corridor-mode level where you have to battle swarms of fighters, robots, and small tank-like crafts, enormous pillars that jut out of the ground, and big blocks that will either come flying towards you or form a hazardous forest that you have to navigate through carefully (that latter situation depends on which of the many different routes you take). By the way, this level is nearly impossible on Expert mode. You will die so many times there because there's always something that you'll run into and therefore, lose one or both of your wings. After flying through over such a hazardous planet surface, you'll enter a temple where you face one last boss before the battle with Andross: a running statue that is actually a robot. You have to destroy the rock armor on every part of his body until his head starts rotating and then blast it until it blows apart. After that, the robot's mechanical innards will be completely exposed and you can destroy him with just a few more shots. During the chase, the robot will strike the walls and send long bars in your path (after a while, there will so many that they'll be hard to avoid) and there are also falling pillars and big statues with swinging arms along the path. 

After destroying that robot, you head down a long corridor to Andross (fortunately, the game is good enough to give you plenty of items to make up for any damage you received during the level beforehand). This form of Andross with the big floating head and hands isn't that hard to defeat, actually. He tries to smack you with either of his hands and then tries to smash you by clapping his hands together. He also shoots a lightning bolt from one hand and his most damaging attack is when he tries to inhale you into his mouth. When he does that, fire a smart bomb into his mouth or if you don't have any, somersault like crazy to avoid being sucked in. If he does manage to suck you in, he'll spit you back out, causing a lot of damage, destroying one or both of your wings, and disorienting your ship for a few seconds. He also spits out a ton of rocks but fortunately, those tend to have items inside them. His hands are quite vulnerable and so are his eyes. If you shoot him in the eyes, he'll pause momentarily and that will give you ample time to target his hands. Once you've destroyed both of his hands, the brow between his eyes will become vulnerable but only at certain key points, namely after you shoot a bomb into his mouth or when he spits out all those rocks. All you have to do is blast away at those moments until his head explodes. When you've come from Bolse, his head will explode to reveal that, in actuality, you've been fighting a robotic double of Andross. You have to get rid of it quickly because there's no way to dodge it when it charges at you. After you destroy it, you'll get the ending credits but afterward, Andross' head will appear in the sky, revealing that you haven't really defeated him yet.

The real final battle begins when you enter Venom from Area 6. Before you battle Andross, you'll have to battle the Star Wolf team one last time. As if that wasn't bad enough, they're now flying new and improved ships. I've been able to take down their original ships quite easily since I got used to them but the ones they fly here are quite a challenge. They're faster and much more agile than before, with stronger twin lasers (instead of the single ones their original ships fired), the ability to do a barrel roll and create a stronger shield than your Arwing, so much so that even direct hits from smart bombs don't do as much damage. During this fight, your teammates' cries for help are even more annoying than before (Slippy's especially) and I tend to lose most of them, especially if they took a lot of damage from Area 6. Believe me, you don't want to have to face two or more of these improved ships by yourself if you can help it. Even after you manage to turn the tables in your friends' favor, you still have to deal with Wolf himself and a ship that's nearly impossible to get good shots at. This fight will take a long time and you'll lose a lot of lives the first time you try it. My only advice is just to stay patient and keep trying.

After dealing with the Star Wolf team, you'll head to the real final battle with Andross. Getting to him is not very straightforward this time. You have to navigate a maze of corridors until you find him and you have to be careful of the sharp turns or you'll lose a wing. When you get to Andross, the first part of the fight will be the same as the battle with mechanical doppelganger. When you destroy Andross' head, that's when the real battle begins. Andross' oversized brain and eyes will be all that's left. This is a very tricky battle, which is in all-range mode this time. Andross launches his eyes at you on long energy strands that can damage your ship if you touch them and the eyes themselves shoot lasers at you. Those eyes can be difficult to get in your sights because they're on the edge of the field and always seem to get right behind. Your best bet is to keep somersaulting until they're in your sights and blast them away quickly. After you destroy the eyes, it's time to attack the brain itself but this is harder than it sounds. You must shoot the medulla, which is the small section on the back of the brain that's a different color from the main section. The brain moves around quite fast and getting behind it can be tricky because the tentacles underneath it can severely damage your ship and destroy your wings if they get you. To make matters worse, if you accidentally shoot the main section of the brain, it'll teleport right behind you. Tight turns and barrel rolls are your best bets to getting the medulla in your sights.

Even after you destroy Andross, you're still not done. Andross decides to try to take you with him by causing a huge explosion but at the last possible moment, James McCloud suddenly shows up to show you the way out. This last part can be challenging because you can't let James get too far ahead of you and you have to be ready to turn. If you lose James and take the wrong path, you'll fly right into a fiery dead end and be destroyed instantly. Once you make it, you can celebrate because the endurance test is finally over.

Man, that review took a while but it was worth it because Star Fox 64 is one of my favorite Nintendo 64 games by far. It has good characters, groundbreaking use of real voice acting, enjoyable and challenging gameplay, well designed levels and enemies, good music, and a non-linear way of playing that makes for a lot of replay value. If you've never played it before and have a Nintendo 64, I'd say give it a try. Also, if you feel that this isn't your kind of game, remember that I knew nothing about it before I actually played it. In other words, you might just be surprised.