by Jay Seaver
SCREENED AT THE 2012 BOSTON SCI-FI FILM FESTIVAL: My first reaction to Erik Hammen's "Time of the Robots" is that it's a bit like the story of the talking dog, where the important thing is not that the dog speaks eruditely, but that it talks at all. I think that gives this project too much credit, though - yes, Hammen has mashed various public domain feature films and serials together into a new silent movie, and that's impressive, but unless the whole is better than the sum of its parts, what's the point?As the movie opens, aliens from the Phantom Planet have visited Earth, who send Fritz Fausten (Buster Crabbe) to serve as ambassador, along with his girlfriend Marta Gerhadt (Carol Hughes). A jealous princess, though, sends Fritz home bereaved, and his replacement, Doktor Mercury (Bela Lugosi) eventually returns home with the technology to build robots. But when these robots start going haywire, and Mercury refuses to co-operate with police, Fausten must called back into action. But what has really happened to Marta?
"Aa little bit of this, a little bit of that, and you get... this and that."
Hammen pulls together footage from over a dozen sources, most notably Flash Gordon Conquers the Universe, Radar Men from the Moon, The Phantom Creeps, and Tarzan the Fearless, and relies on public domain music as well, though he composes some of his own and of course writes the new dialogue himself. This is, by and large, decent source material - few of these movies are exactly award winners, but they're entertaining serial and B-movie fare that are fun to watch on their own. And even the ones that aren't good as wholes have a few gems within them to be excavated, and a movie made up of the various good bits has something going for it.
Of course, one could argue that this is what blockbuster movies are today - a whole bunch of big action scenes which would be the centerpieces of films in another age haphazardly glued together. And while I don't think the we can reasonably say that Hammen's retrofit is better than current Hollywood writing, he comports himself well enough. There's a story that mostly makes sense, the intertitles that connect the unrelated bits of source material get the job done and don't wink excessively at the audience, and his editing is good enough to hold up over the film's hour and a quarter run-time. Some of the elements thought up to bridge gaps and sew the movie together are potentially interesting stories on their own.
The unavoidable question, though, is whether the end product is worth the effort. In order to make a coherent story, one thing has to provide the framework, and in this case it's Flash Gordon Conquers the Universe, and while that's as cheap and hokey as any 1940s serial, it is still fun to watch, enough so that it's hard to argue that Time of the Robots is more entertaining. If the end result is just to re-edit and mash-up a three-star serial into a three-star movie, well, why bother? It would be something if Hammen had radically repurposed his material to make something fundamentally different from the source, but he doesn't really do that. There's not much in the way of satire here, and while there's perhaps a bit of meta-commentary going on with themes of transformation and duplication, they're off to the side rather than the thrust of the story.They are there, though, and maybe they give "Time of the Robots" a bit of a reason to exist, because it's not quite a good enough movie that it can stand on its own without someone knowing its gimmick. Still, if you do know the gimmick, and how most mash-up videos wear out their welcome in less than five minutes, it is kind of impressive that the dog talks at all.
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originally posted: 02/18/12 23:41:12