Wednesday, 30 December 2015

Review: Space Adventure Cobra (1982 Film)

Cobra, the universe’s most wanted outlaw, runs his motorcycle into a cat-suited bounty hunter. She, naturally, has her aim set on him, but not for his bounty. A gold-skinned crime-lord kidnapped her sister. With Cobra’s help she will save her sister from Crystal Boy’s megalomaniacal clutches.

Not a deep plot. And, despite many obstacles poofing into existence from A to B, not a complex one neither. The plot is an excuse. It seems an illustrator, still reeling from a prolific creative burst, sat before a wall plastered with drawings of characters, settings, moments and explosions, and only then wondered, ‘How can I string these together.’ In this, SAC resembles something from French Sci-Fi comics. The artist wishes to flex his visual muscles, and then concocts a narrative as vehicle. So while the narrative is little more than a well-done 80s, tongue-in-cheek, action-fest, I would be in error to judge purely on that. From the Bond-style opening credits to a space cruiser’s screen-filling flight, the film, with no apology, puts style over substance. 

It’s a good thing, then, that the film charges along, like a high-speed train overlooking new and strange vistas. It bullets along so fast the audience doesn’t have time to consider the narrative’s emptiness. More importantly, they’ve no time to grow bored of the current image. That the ‘emotional’ moments elicit no emotion, and that Cobra and his love interest have no chemistry, matters for nothing. These check-list action movie do the bare minimum of their job, and get out. And that bare minimum exists not to get the audience invested, but to give the narrative and characters justification and momentum.

The tacked-on plot does at times become self-parodic. Not inherently a bad thing, of course. For a tongue-in-cheek film like this, it fits right in. I can reduce most scenes to: Here we are in [location] – Oh, no! [hoard of enemies]. Here we are in the prison ship – Oh, no! Killer robots. Here we are on the desert planet – Oh, no! Zombies. But though SAC repeats this mad-lib constantly, it never descends to dullness or predictability. SAC continually conjures new locations and new hoards.

The characters just perform their narrative and aesthetic function. Cobra is the archetypal 80s action hero, the muscly Gary Stu. He has enough confidence, competence and goofiness to embody the typical teenage boy’s power fantasy. The female bounty-hunter Jane is his love interest. She has about as much depth as Cobra. In an almost Meta plot twist (spoilers) her role as love interest turns out to be completely interchangeable. As can be expected in an 80s action film, this main female character either appears in a skin-tight cat suit, or in nothing at all.  For antagonist, we have Crystal Boy, an eight-foot tall crime-lord with golden skin who uses his metal ribs as spears. Crystal Boy has no tragic backstory, or any redeeming features. He is a villain, and only that, designed for the hero to kill. Coincidently, he also spends most of his screen time naked.

But, as I said, the plot and characters merely provide vehicle and drive for the visuals. Cobra is an 80s action hero in a 60s sci-fi world of sex and psychedelia. From the opening scene where a shrunken old man proclaims the death of God, as a massive spaceship flies across the screen, SAC confirms it has scale, vision, and the animation to do them justice. While narratively SAC’s universe seems one taped-on location after another, aesthetically they all hold together. Though many and myriad visually, the locations seem of a piece. The snow planet feels at home next to a chrome mega-city.

Some scenes exist only to justify a single striking image, and for such images these scenes are worth it. In one, the severed head of a bountied outlaw resurrects and levitates to attack Cobra and Jane. Is this scene strictly necessary? No, but because I saw Cobra clobbering a severed head like a punching bag, I’m glad it exists.

The action scenes are equally well-done. As the script-writers have internalised Chandler’s Law, smooth, readable animation during the many action scenes is necessary. Only sometimes do these scenes descend to two combatants against a cost-efficient wall of speed-lines.

The music. It’s serviceable, and reminiscent of Star Wars. It does its job and rarely wrenches viewers from the film. The closest it comes to distracting is the music meant to communicate a sense of wonder. Rather than fitting a rip-roaring action film, a Disney animation would suit it better.

SAC is a film worth-watching, but know why it is worth watching before embarking. It will not leave you with thoughts, feelings or questions, nor much sense of the plot. At most a few images and sequences will remain. For them, the film exists.      

1 comment:

  1. Sorry I did not have time to watch the film (though I have resources…), but I might never see (for there are so many good things out there). Cobra is indeed a perfect fantasy for teenager boy (not to be with him, of course), but to be him. His outlaw identity echoes the rebelliousness of adolescents, whilst his good humour (goofiness) makes him likeable (with a boy’s heart), and the writer is thus able to move away from much heavier and more depressing atmosphere of such life (in realistic depiction). His identity can be found across the human culture as a gentleman thief. There is Robin Hood for English folklore, but Chinese and Japanese folklores also have such archetype, (an outlaw with a righteous heart, generally reflecting that the depressed attitude among civilians that justice is unattainable by lawful means). Still, even if such person does exist, he or she is romanticised by the legend (they are always young, strong, handsome, adored by all, romantic, clever). Before the official creation time for the manga that this film is based on (1978), Star War has just released (1977), and Han Solo of course is such archetype, and the science fiction background is similar (space, good vs. evil). James Bond (created by 1953) is another good variation of such type. In recent time, we have the Star-Lord from Guardians of the Galaxy.
    But because we have created the good male part of the story, we must throw him a love interest (usually or always in the form of a sexy woman, femme fatale, dangerous but… that why James Bond changes the female partners a lot), somehow, if their sexual appealing is not their only requirement, it would be the most obvious. However, the male is irreplaceable (as our protagonist), but our love interest is interchangeable, replaceable, deposable (their function is to expand the male-centred narrative, but this is unfair, it can be that their life just happen to intertwine, at least I hope the female characters would have such strong characterisation). Then actually they need a sidekick, Robin Hood and Little John, Han Solo and Chewbacca, Cobra and Lady Armaroid (with almost always a male-male deep bond of trust, but Lady Armaroid is a female cyborg, I wonder why when the technology is so advanced, first, all the cyborg has still a gender binary, and the plot is still very traditional, because the audience as well as creator is still not there yet, so female and racial representation in earlier science fiction can be a little bit… problematic). Yes, Lady Armaroid, a female robot with perfect body obeying the order of a male, so royal, so willing, so… I would not deny her own agency, but there is always a certain aspect we need to discuss when such artistic choice is made by human.
    Then we have villains as well, they generally follow the same rule as female love interest, as deposable, replaceable, and interchangeable, but they are pushed to be villains, that is, non-human territory (as villains generally are, until we must all give their a tragic background story). They are cruel, clever, and they always have minions for hero to kill. Come to think of it, Doctor Who is thus a perfect example for such archetype (gentleman, solo, outcast, clever, charming, high-technology…), with various non-human villains, and several changeable female assistant (love interest & sidekick, but no necessary).
    The problem for such archetype is that all the rest element would begin to surround him rather than to have more diversity (if we choose to focus on him, that is, Star War pushes such archetype secondarily, but then we have chosen-one…).
    But perhaps one of the most important feature for this archetype is the ability to live two identity as an outlaw and the disguise, or perhaps unlawful but justice (double identity, therefore, spy can fall into the same trend), which is perfect to create an adventure naturally.