Wednesday, December 25, 2013

The Last Dinosaur (1977)

Dinosaurs are awesome. Every kid knows this, though a lot of adults forget for some reason. Dinosaurs are so awesome that we, as a species, cannot seem to accept that something so awesome could cease to exist. Surely our world is big enough that somewhere, somehow, the dinosaurs have just been waiting for us to find them again.

That possibility gets more and more unlikely as fewer unexplored sections of our planet remain. Sure, there are claims of plesiosaurs (not actually dinosaurs, of course) in lakes that cannot possibly hide such creatures but we all know that that is bunk. And it is highly unlikely that Tyrannosaurus Rex is chilling out at the bottom of the Marianas Trench.

Yet, we still hold out hope for some lost world somewhere. A place where species that were actually separated by millions of years coexist with each other because fuck scientific reality. We want to see T-Rex fighting a Stegosaurus before chowing down on a Mastodon with our own eyes!

Enter Rankin and Bass, the same folks who informed our childhoods with the stop-motion Rudolph, The Red-Nosed Reindeer special and gave us a mostly faithful adaptation of The Hobbit that didn't require nine hours to tell. In 1967 they had co-produced Toho's King Kong Escapes--which one could easily argue is the best remake of King Kong ever produced and technically be correct--so they were no strangers to helping to foot the bill for a Japanese special effects epic with some white faces in the cast so white Americans wouldn't have to strain themselves by caring about the fate of somebody outside their ethnic group.

So ten years later, they co-produced today's feature. For The Last Dinosaur they skipped Toho and went straight to Tsuburaya Productions. Eiji Tsuburaya, the special effects wizard who gave us Godzilla, had founded the company with his family and Tsuburaya Productions gave the world the marvelous Ultra Q and the insanely popular Ultraman. They knew their stuff, but you might not know it if you watched this film. Perhaps the fact that Rankin/Bass intended this to be a TV movie meant that it was granted a much lower budget, but there is a reason this is film is not remembered for its effects--except possibly in an ironic capacity.

Masten Thrust (Richard Boone! Who will always be Smaug in my head, despite having not seen The Hobbit until I was well into my twenties) is an aging billionaire, captain of industry, and great white hunter. Decades ago he was the ideal specimen of man, but in 1977 he's a a relic of a bygone era. You might even say that he's a dinosaur, and the last one.

Look, the movie wants you to say this. They even just sang you a whole terrible song about it under the opening credits.

Well, Masten (I am not calling him Thrust the whole damn review) might yet have a chance at relevance. Ironically, it comes not from the futuristic Polar Borer that Masten has funded to explore the Arctic for new sources of oil but from something the Borer found that's even more antiquated than Masten.

The first Polar Borer expedition discovered a bizarre, almost tropical oasis inside the Arctic ice--possibly created by a volcanic crater. Of course, we only know about this because geologist Chuck Wade (Steven Keats) stayed with the Borer while the other four members went ashore--and were promptly eaten by a live Tyrannosaurus Rex. So, Masten holds a press conference to bellow incoherently at reporters. Oh, and to announce that he is dragging Chuck back to the prehistoric oasis to study the T-Rex in its natural habitat, along with a Masai tracker named Bunta (Luther Rackley), unspecified scientist Dr. Kawamoto (Tetsu Nakamura), and a reporter to be selected by the journalists present.

The selected volunteer from the press pool ends up being Frankie Banks (Joan Van Ark!), but Masten naturally refuses to take a woman along. As we know from earlier scenes, Masten sees women as nothing but sex objects. So Frankie successfully convinces him that she is fully capable by...having sex with him. I'm not sure how this convinces him, but it does.

And the Polar Borer is off. Their arrival in the lost world is a lot less hostile than the first expedition. They see a couple Pteranodons that are slightly more convincing than the Pterodactyls from The Land That Time Forgot (but only slightly)...and then they encounter the first of the film's goofy monster suits, a charging Uintatherium--a type of prehistoric rhinoceros with formidable tusks. Chuck, hilariously, identifies it as being "one of the cerapapsians," which is A) not a word and B) clearly a mangling of "ceratopsian", which the creature most certainly is not. Whatever it is, it is going somewhere in a damned hurry. Everyone wisely gives it a wide berth, except for Frankie. In fact, she clearly would have been run over by the beast as she stood dumbly photographing it if Masten hadn't tackled her out of the way.

Having encountered verifiable proof of prehistoric life, the expedition makes camp. Then Dr. Kawamoto stays behind as the others go looking for the T-Rex. When Bunta climbs a tree to get a better view of their surroundings, we discover that Tyrannosaurs mastered stealth technology millions of years ago--for the Rex gets right up next to the tree before Bunta realizes it's even there.
Our star, ladies and gents.
The T-Rex is a guy in a suit, as you no doubt guessed. As theropod dinosaur suits go, this fellow is no Gorosaurus but I'd have to rank it a bit higher than the T-Rex suit in The Land Unknown as it at least doesn't look so immediately pathetic and weirdly proportioned. It also uses a roar that is a combination of Godzilla's and King Caesar's. It's definitely a goofy suit, but it actually has a sense of personality, which is always important in a movie dinosaur. Unfortunately, that personality is largely "bumbling oaf".

The Rex fails to eat Bunta, despite him being within easy grabbing distance. As the others prepare to flee, Masten immediately breaks his promise and attempts to shoot the T-Rex dead. However, his first shot does nothing and then his rifle jams. Bunta drives the Rex off with a spear to the chest and Chuck and Frankie instantly set on Masten for just being after yet another trophy. Masten asserts that the dinosaur has already killed four people and would have killed them, too, but nobody is much swayed by that argument.

Unfortunately, poor Dr. Kawamoto is one of two minority characters on the expedition, so the Rex successfully sneaks up on him and then apparently stomps him dead before eating him and wrecking the camp. (Maybe the T-Rex from Jurassic Park studied with this Rex before playing deus ex machina) The Rex then wades into the lake the expedition came up in and carries the Polar Borer off in its mouth. Which is pretty impressive, given the Borer somehow held five people and this is supposed to be an ordinary Rex and not an extra large specimen. You wouldn't know that based on the scale of the suit and miniatures, but the dialogue insists it is so.

The Rex takes the Borer to its larder, and then attempts to bury it. This manages to awaken the Triceratops that has been hibernating inside the rock wall of the Rex's lair (?!) and thus initiates the sorriest attempt at a theropod vs. ceratopsian fight ever put to film. For one thing, the Triceratops is two guys in a suit doing the old "horse" routine and its huge head is almost always off-balance. For another, it is horribly choreographed. The first thing the Triceratops does is impale the Rex through the belly, and yet the Rex shrugs this mortal wound off and ends up killing its opponent.

Ironically, this same, "nu-uh, I'm the awesome one so I win" attitude saw the Spinosaurus defeat a T-Rex in Jurassic Park 3, despite the Rex's first move being to chomp on the Spinosaur's fragile neck with its insanely powerful jaws.

The surviving members of the expedition come back to find their camp destroyed, which just encourages Masten to persist in trying to eradicate the beast in revenge. Chuck and Frankie just want to leave, but when they discover the Borer is gone--presumably sunk by the Rex, which is a lot more logical than the truth--they realize they have no choice but to play along with Masten's power trip. Unfortunately, the Rex is not their only enemy--for a tribe of cavemen have been watching the group and they do not stay in the shadows for long.

The Last Dinosaur is not a very good movie. Certainly, it has nothing on King Kong Escapes, However, I find myself immensely fond of it nonetheless. Some of that is because I have vivid memories of seeing a sequence of it on one of those video preview screens they used to have in Walmart stores to advertise the various VHS tapes they had for sale.The T-Rex seemed awesome to me as a lad, but I never was able to get the VHS and didn't even see the film until years later when I caught it during a marathon of dinosaur-type movies hosted by Marc Singer that also allowed to finally see At The Earth's Core, The People That Time Forgot, and a broadcast-TV-approved cut of Beastmaster.

So there is a tiny bit of nostalgia attached to the film that allows me to somewhat overlook the fact that it is a poorly written film and a poorly structured one. We came to this movie to watch dinosaurs, damn it, not a weird love triangle developing between Masten, Frankie, and Chuck (Bunta is black and doesn't speak a word, so clearly he's not even a momentary romantic possibility for Frankie) while they squabble with a bunch of Japanese actors in caveman costumes. (Admittedly, this is actually a nice shift from cavemen in movies always being European in appearance)

Meanwhile, after the Triceratops fight the T-Rex only shows up twice more: once to menace Frankie and be humiliated when the others tie a boulder to his tail; the second to eat Bunta (oh, like you're shocked) and then fail to be killed by Masten's homemade catapult before attempting to stomp Masten and Frankie, then get bored and leave. The latter sequence was, incidentally, how I first learned the movie existed.

So, for a dinosaur movie it doesn't deliver all that well on the dinosaurs. Certainly, there are worse examples (ahem), but the dinosaurs in this film are rather sparse and their execution is hilariously lackluster. Even if you've never seen the film itself, you've probably seen the sequence where Masten attempts to kill the beast with a catapult. In slow-motion, the rock collides with the Rex's skull--which promptly indents and then pops back out. In slow-motion, in case I didn't stress that enough.

This is a silly little film. It's not very good and its special effects lean heavily towards the special. (Bad as the dinosaur suits are, the miniatures and optical effects are even worse) However, that kind of adds to its charm. I highly recommend it to fans of b-movies and those with a soft spot for dinosaurs. Though, the non-dinosaur sections will definitely wear on the patience of any child who watches this, dinosaur enthusiast or not.

Admittedly, my main reason for choosing to review this film today is that I definitely have not reviewed enough dinosaur films on this site--especially given I named it after a dinosaur--and given that this is a Rankin/Bass film that takes place at the North Pole, I feel it qualifies as a Christmas movie.

Certainly, Santa Claus: The Movie would have been so much better had it ended with this T-Rex devouring John Lithgow.


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