The Scoop: 2004 NR, directed by Richard Lowry and starring Blane Wheatley, Monica Himmelheber, Brent Moss, Kimberly Page, Will MacMillan, and Penny Drake.
Tagline: Six Thrilling Chapters!
Summary Capsule: Biff! Bam! Pow! OH NO A CLIFFHANGER!
Deneb’s Review: …Huh.
That’s a fairly good summation of my feelings as I sit down to write this. I’m really not sure just what to say about this flick, but I know I should say something, because if ever there was a movie that could be termed “cult”, this is it.
Well, let’s start with the bare facts. Monarch of the Moon is a retro-styled homage to the old Republic Serials, to the point where it’s literally divided into individual chapters, with a cliffhanger at the end of each. Dark Horse Comics had something to do with making it, although for the life of me I can’t tell what, as I’m fairly certain it’s not based on a property of theirs. (If I’m wrong, by all means inform me of the fact.)
The movie is set during WW2, and focuses on the adventures of one Cal Crawford, AKA Yellow Jacket (Blane Wheatley), a patriotic superhero working with good old Uncle Sam to fight them dastardly Nazis. (It is, in fact, billing itself as a “lost film” from those days, complete with time-degraded film quality.) As the story opens, the US Navy has been having problems with a mysterious fleet of high-tech submarines that’s been wiping out their ships. What’s worse, the diabolical Dragonfly (Kimberly Page), a sinister Japanese agent, has been connected with them! Zounds! Time to spring into action!
The rest of the plot basically consists of Yellow Jacket and his doughty (and extremely disaster-prone) crew of sidekicks going hither and yon to stop whatever diabolical plan is afoot – which, given the serial format the film adopts, varies quite a bit. One thing is a constant, though – it’s not just the Nazis who are behind these goings-on. They’re being orchestrated by a mysterious figure known as the Monarch of the Moon, who is exactly what he sounds like, and is planning to attack Earth any time now. Yep, aaaaaaany time now.
Will our heroes survive? Will the Monarch and those dirty rotten Nazis get the whuppin’ they deserve? Tune in next time to find out!
So, yeah. Those are the facts out of the way. Now what?
I guess I should start (again) by saying that I honestly do feel a little guilty at criticizing this film. It’s one of those low-budget affairs that was so clearly a labor of love on the part of everyone involved that you don’t want to find fault with it; you want to pat it on the head and say “well done! Here’s a biscuit!” Doing otherwise makes one feel uncomfortably like a bully.
However, I must criticize. I am here to criticize. I am, after all, a critic – it’s what I do. If there are faults to be found, I must find them, and I regret to say that yes, they are there. Sorry, Monarch! Please don’t hate me! Stop lookin’ at me with them great big eyes! I’m only doing my job!
Anyway. My heart hardened, I shall persevere.
If one were bound and determined to sum up the flaws of MotM in one word (and I am), that word would be “inconsistent”. This film just cannot make up its mind what it wants to be. Is it an homage to the serials – a parody of them – a deconstruction – all three at once?
Let us take the first chapter, for instance, in which everyone is chain-smoking like fiends, even at the most inopportune times. Yeah, yeah, it’s an ‘everybody smoked back then’ joke; fair enough. I personally find it a little distracting, but if they’re going that route, then fine.
The thing is, though, that this is inconsistent with the homage aspect of the film, something that they seem fairly serious about throughout. It would be one thing if the old serials routinely featured the heroes with smokes stuck in their gobs, but I’ve watched a few of them myself, and y’know what? They don’t. Believe it or not, the rules for such things (at least in serials) were pretty much the same back then as they are now – villains were frequently seen smoking, thus indicating their villainy, but the heroes rarely lit up, unless they fell into certain categories. The professor with his ever-present pipe? Sure. The seedy-but-lovable comic relief? Absolutely. The hardboiled detective/G-Man? All the time. The clean-cut costumed hero and his plucky Girl Friday? Almost never. And yet here, the latter two are the ones that puff away the most. Is this a joke? A commentary of some sort? If so, it’s an awfully confusing one.
Not to worry, though, as it only lasts up until the initial cliffhanger. After that, the joke goes bye-bye, to the point where it might never have happened at all. Eh? What gives, filmmakers? Did you… just forget about that aspect of things? That aspect that you had been focusing on for the past fifteen minutes or so? Is your memory really that bad? Que pasa?
And never mind the jokes, let’s address the seriousness. Just how seriously are we supposed to be taking this thing? Sometimes it’s deadly earnest, shading to surprisingly dark at times, sometimes it pokes fun at itself like mad, and sometimes both at once! What’s more, the former increases throughout the movie, while still adding in heaping dollops of the latter, until finally it’s more or less caroming back and forth between the two like the screenwriter was playing pinball. Like I said, it’s all about consistency, and this flick doesn’t have it.
So what does it have, then? Well, for all its over-the-topness, MotM is overall a pretty nice little pastiche of the serials. While this tends to make things all the more frustrating when they get it wrong, I’ll be the first to admit that a fair chunk of the time they get it right – and frankly, I wish they’d just stuck to a strict homage and left out the goofy bits. The serials were goofy enough on their own; they didn’t need the help.
To start with, it was a wise choice to make the movie a “literal” serial, with chapters and everything. Say what you will about the ending-on-a-cliffhanger-every-chapter thing – it works. It lends the story an air of breathless excitement, even though (and this is particularly true here, of course) it’s practically guaranteed to be resolved with an outrageous cheat. In fact, this is one of the few running gags in Monarch that I don’t really have a problem with, because it’s absolutely spot-on – they may not have cheated quite that much back in the good old days, but believe me, they came close.
Some purists have apparently voiced their displeasure over this film’s use of CGI in lieu of more old-timey special effects, claiming that this ruins the illusion. I’m kind of on the fence about this. While I do generally have a preference for more “practical” effects as opposed to those cooked up in a computer (a CGI critter may look snazzier than a puppet, but it’s never going to replicate the latter’s presence as an actual, physical object), my general philosophy when it comes to such things is “what works, works” – and the special effects in MotM work fine. (I will say, though, that the CGI does kind of ruin the inevitable “oh, look at how silly the effects were back then” joke. If we’ve already seen that the film is capable of much better things – and by that point, we have – it just looks kind of weird when you throw in something like that.)
Character-wise, there are only two that are really worth focusing on – Yellow Jacket and Dragonfly. The rest are just a succession of stock sidekick/villain characters who more or less exist to get killed off or otherwise brutalized (although Monica Himmelheber is admittedly pretty good playing a pair of sisters). This includes the titular Monarch, who is pretty much just a soft voice and tapping fingers for most of the film – if the scope of the film reached to the ‘60’s, it’s guaranteed he’d be idly stroking some kind of pet. Yellow Jacket himself is more or less your stereotypical ‘Great Scott!’ sort of all-American hero – competent at pretty much everything, ever-defiant in the fate of danger, just a little on the thick-headed side, and incredibly lucky. He gets his nom de plume from his sole superpower – he can call down a swarm of his namesake insects to deal with his enemies. (Sounds corny, I know, but think about it – would you want to tangle with a guy who could call down stinging vengeance from the heavens upon you? I wouldn’t.) He can also fly through the use of a good-old fashioned jetpack with absurd little flappy-wings on it that clearly do nothing at all, but he’s gotta have ‘em on there ‘cause, y’know. Thematically appropriate.
Then there’s Dragonfly, who is definitely the best character in the movie. She’s pretty much the standard ‘Dragon Lady’ type, albeit dressed up more like a Geisha girl. Despite her corny what-Gaijin-think-Japanese-sound-like accent and overall “I am a fiendish spy” demeanor, she’s the only character in the whole movie who’s played absolutely straight, and as a result is really pretty awesome – and in the final analysis, even somewhat sympathetic. She has a jetpack too, but it’s much less silly-looking. (Oh, and I love how she uses her cigarette holder as a blowgun.)
Anything else? Well, yes – it’s probably best to point out that this movie is not the most politically correct thing ever, as it invokes a number of stereotypes that were prevalent at the time in question. (Personally, I think the “Jap-Bots” that serve as the villain mook squad are rather charmingly ridiculous, but… yeah. Not for those who can’t take a joke.) But really, it goes with the territory, as the ‘40’s were not a time of overwhelming racial sensitivity, and if you’re trying to honestly evoke the feeling of popular culture back then – well, you kinda have to include these things, y’know?
In the final analysis, Monarch of the Moon is not a perfect film by a long shot. It has flaws, and plenty of ‘em. But it’s certainly not a bad one. I enjoyed it well enough, and hey, if you’re into deconstructionist humor, you might think it’s an absolute hoot. At times, it’s even strangely touching. Like I said, it’s clear that it it was made by people who loved the original material, and just wanted to have a good time evoking it. The end result may be a bit awkward, but I guess I’d recommend it, if you’re in a relaxed, heck-with-it-let’s-order-a-pizza sort of mood.
As long as it’s not evil pizza. Because, you know, evil never triumphs. Yellow Jacket told me so.
- The character of Yellow Jacket is (or so I would guess) based roughly on the Red Bee, a Golden Age superhero who used trained bees to attack his enemies.
- At one point, the Nazi scientist addresses Dragonfly as “Herr Dragonfly”. This may have something to do with why she doesn’t seem particularly fond of him…
- On the DVD, the movie is offered in both black-and-white and color versions. Having had the chance to compare them, I would actually recommend that those who enjoy the film watch both if they get the chance, as they have very different feels to them. The black-and-white feels closer to an actual serial, of course, which is nice, but the color version delivers some nicely candy-colored scenery and costumes that actually reminded me a bit of a Mario Bava film.
- The Japanese Dragonfly being played by a conspicuously non-Japanese actress is probably a bit of commentary on early Hollywood’s long-standing policy of hiring white actors to portray Asians (a policy which, some might argue, continues today – look at all the controversy around the casting of The Last Airbender).
Yellow Jacket: (swearing) Uncle Sam!
Dragonfly: You have two hour, or I turn Frankfurt into frankfurter.
Yellow Jacket: Now you listen to me, moon Nazi –
Monarch of the Moon: ‘Nazi’? I am the sole ruler of the most noble and evolved race this universe has ever known.
Yellow Jacket: Like I was saying, moon Nazi…
Sabula: You have been most troublesome.
Sally Stratton: An Egyptian pyramid – out here!
Benny: Oh gosh no, Miss Stratton; that’s an Indian pyramid!
Yellow Jacket: That’s right, Benny; that’s an Inca pyramid. Built by clever South Americans.
Corporal Dennich: Actually, Yellow Jacket, it’s a Ten’gatha pyramid – a race that until recently was believed to be a myth. This is the only one of its kind.
Yellow Jacket: I stand corrected.
Sally Stratton: I thought Indians lived in teepees.
Hans: They know about the thing!
Prof. Montgomery Wright: Seeing is believing, as they say.
Sally Stratton: My uncle used to see things. Used to talk to himself, too. We finally had to put him under a basket.
Dragonfly: Say goodbye to liberty.
Monarch of the Moon: I am working towards the repopulation of the most perfect species to ever draw breath.
Yellow Jacket: You work for the Swiss?
Zahi: You will remain here. Perhaps you will not die horribly this day.
Sally Stratton: I never knew hooking could be this hard!
Yellow Jacket: Get ready to pull the chute, Rusty!
Rusty: This thing has a chute?
Lt. Maxine Stratton: You slept through the briefing?
Rusty: There was a briefing?
Dragonfly: Prepare to invoke suffering, Doctor.
If you liked this movie, try these:
- The Lost Skeleton of Cadavra
- Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow
- The Rocketeer