R2-D2, C-3PO and BB-8 are unpacked and put into place for the upcoming Star Wars and the Power of Costume exhibit at the Detroit Institute of Arts. Ryan Garza, Detroit Free Press
When George Lucas was editing what would eventually be his first “Star Wars” movie in 1977, he used aerial dogfights from some of his favorite Hollywood films as place fillers for his action scenes. The legendary writer/producer/director and classic film buff has not been shy in citing his influences for that movie and the franchise that followed.
The Detroit Film Theatre at the Detroit Institute of Arts is showing nearly 50 of those inspirational movies, most of them science fiction classics, in an ambitious series booked in tandem with the museum exhibit “Star Wars and the Power of Costume,” which runs through Sept. 30. The films, many shown in free 3 p.m. matinees at the DFT’s auditorium, began Tuesday with 1958’s “The Hidden Fortress,” a Japanese adventure film by Akira Kurosawa. (The evening programs require regular DFT admission.)
“You look at Darth Vader’s helmet and see that it is clearly influenced by Japanese samurai helmets,” says Elliot Wilhelm, who curated both the “Star Wars” exhibit and the film program. “So much of ‘Star Wars’ feels like ‘The Adventures of Robin Hood,’ from 1938, where you have this band of rebels wielding swords instead of light sabers, reacting against an empire gone mad.”
The adventure films (“Robin Hood” shows on July 31) are just one of several categories under the umbrella of what the DFT is calling “Sci-Fi Summer.” The movies run the gamut from 1950s alien invasion movies to more modern examples of the future like “I, Robot” and “District 9.” Matinees are preceded by chapters of the “Flash Gordon” movie serials, whose iconic exposition-setting crawls at the start of each episode became synonymous with the “Star Wars” films.
The series continues at 3 p.m. Thursday (also July 19) with “It Came From Outer Space” (1953), based on a Ray Bradbury story about aliens who control the bodies of earthlings to cover their own horrible physical forms. The 1958 drive-in classic “The Blob” (3 p.m. Saturday and July 28) features an impossibly young Steve McQueen as one of a group of teenagers battling a red shapeless mass that invades their small town.
The evening programs commence at 7 p.m. Saturday with “The Man Who Fell to Earth” (1976), starring David Bowie as an alien visiting earth to find fresh water for his dying planet. As envisioned by director Nicolas Roeg, the alien’s embrace of earthly greed and excess makes a statement about capitalism and consumerism.
A few films proved elusive when booking the series. “2001: A Space Odyssey” was pulled at the last minute because its distributor was focused 50th anniversary screenings being shown in 70mm, which locally were ultimately booked at the Redford Theatre (Aug. 9-12). The actual “Star Wars” movies were also considered, but got mired in rights issues between Lucas and Disney, the latter which now owns a big chunk of the “Star Wars” universe.
“Most, if not all, of science fiction is about what’s happening in the present,” says Wilhelm. “If you’re going to tell a story that’s somehow gripping and intriguing to an audience, it’s rarely about an inconceivable future.”
Wilhelm, who has taught courses on science fiction films at Wayne State University since 2015, believes that context is important when viewing films from a different era. “When I ask my students if they know anything about the Cold War, I’m always surprised at how few hands are raised,” he says.
That’s why he led a recent semester with “The Atomic Cafe,” a 1982 documentary about the duck-and-cover era when America was seemingly on the brink of nuclear devastation from the Soviet Union. This came across especially in science fiction. “That giant insect movie may seem really dated and really silly, not about anything at all, but every film in my class touches on something really important, really relevant,” Wilhelm says.
And they are also super fun. Wilhelm shares with Lucas a nostalgia for classic sci-fi titles, some of which he saw during their original release. Wilhelm figures he was about 6 years old when “Forbidden Planet” came out in 1956. He remembers getting a free ticket as part of a Quaker Oats promotion and being taken by his parents to the Michigan Theatre in downtown Detroit. This launched a lifelong fascination with Robbie the Robot and a surprisingly frank conversation with his dad about what star Walter Pidgeon meant when talking about “monsters from the id.”
“I was no child genius,” he says. “If it happened in a movie, I paid attention. That same information in a classroom? Not so much.”
Wilhelm says the afternoon series is a concerted attempt to attract new audiences to the DFT. Keeping the movies free is part of the concept. “With a visit to the exhibit and then an afternoon film, families can easily make a day of it,” he says.
Here are some highlights from the Detroit Film Theatre’s Sci-Fi Summer. See the full schedule at the DIA website.
“The Creature from the Black Lagoon”: One of three series films originally released in 3D, this one involves the search for a prehistoric gill man in the Amazon. (3 p.m. June 16 and July 7)
“Metropolis”: Fritz Lang’s visionary silent masterpiece about a city of the future features one of the most iconic movie robots ever, what might be considered the great-great grandmother of C-3PO of “Star Wars.” (3 p.m. June 17 and July 8)
“Planet of the Apes”: Evolution is reversed as Charlton Heston lands on a planet completely ruled by apes. It’s one of the most-quoted, most-referenced sci-fi movies ever. “Take your stinking paws off me, you damn dirty ape!” (3 p.m. June 22 and Aug. 10)
“Alphaville”: Jean-Luc Godard’s wacky mix of film noir and sci-fi about an aging detective (Eddie Constantine) who discovers a powerful computer that has drained the city of all emotion and hope. 7 p.m. June 22)
“Invaders from Mars”: Legendary film designer William Cameron Menzies directed from a kid’s perspective in this tale of a boy who watches friends and parents taken over by an alien life form. (3 p.m. June 28 and Aug. 23)
“The Prestige”: Here’s a chance to see Christopher Nolan’s head-trippy tale of rival magicians Hugh Jackman and Christian Bale on the big screen. (7 p.m. June 29)
“The Day the Earth Stood Still”: The 1950s movie invasion began in 1951 with Robert Wise’s tale of the alien Klaatu (Michael Rennie) and robot assistant Gort sent to stop earth from its own self destruction. (3 p.m. July 1 and Aug. 19)
“The Thing From Another World”: Though listed as producer, Howard Hawks is traditionally credited with directing this chilling tale of a bloodthirsty alien in a remote arctic outpost – and the clash between scientists and the military about how to stop it. (3 p.m. July 5, 25)
“Forbidden Planet”: MGM produced this lavish space yarn, based on Shakespeare’s “The Tempest,” about a scientist and his daughter living on a remote planet, visited by an unwanted rescue party. (3 p.m. July 22 and Aug. 26)
“Solaris”: Directed by Andrei Tarkovsky, based on a novel by Stanislaw Lem, this tale of mysterious alien intelligence that effects the emotions on a space station is often favorably compared to “2001: A Space Odyssey.” (7 p.m. Aug. 25)
Now through Aug. 31
Detroit Film Theatre at the Detroit Institute of Arts
313-833-7900 or www.dia.org/dft
3 p.m. screenings free with museum admission, which is free for residents of Wayne, Oakland and Macomb counties
Evening screenings $9.50, $7.50 students/senior
Editor’s note: A previous version of this story gave the incorrect day for the screening of “The Man Who Fell to Earth. It is at 7 p.m. Saturday.
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