“We are here to serve humanity.” Thus states one of the hippest title sequences ever done in my opinion, something that sticks with you long after the rest of the film ends up in the Recycle Bin on your mental desktop.
It’s the tail-end of the Groove Era—psychedelics, calf-boots, turtlenecks, and breezy free-form jazz. The United States is run by a beneficent race of humanoid aliens of unknown origin who have striven to end war, hatred, political and social corruption, sexual tension, and obesity. They call themselves The Monitors, and the civilization they are trying to push the country into accepting is the kind of maternalistic, overly-intrusive nanny state envisioned by genial Swedish socialists. As the film’s tagline declares, “If you don’t like air pollution, war, body odor, hard pizza rolls, exercise, hairy musicians, sexy blonds, tooth decay, smiling heroes, population explosion….you’ll love The Monitors.” All is not well in Paradise, however; there are those who rebel against the flaccid, Wonderbread norms of the new society and long for the good ol’ days of promiscuity, liquor, kickbacks, and the Missile Gap.
This is the conflict at the heart of this film, based very loosely on the 1966 novel of the same name by science-fiction author Keith Laumer. I have done both, and I found this to be one of those rare instances where the film is more entertaining than the novel, mainly due to Laumer’s stilted writing style and excessive sobriety. The film’s main problem is that it careens around like an unmedicated bi-polar patient, unable to decide whether it is a witty, stinging commentary on American conservatism or a slapstick Stoogefest.
Directed by Jack Shea and filmed entirely on location in Chicago, the film featured the first screen appearance of Chicago’s Second City comedy troupe, which radically changes the balance of the film from being a Sober Warning of Excessive State Interference to one of Zany, Promiscuous Drunks Trying to Get Away from Daddy’s Rules. Veteran comics Avery Schreiber, Larry Storch, and Keenan Wynn have major roles, and cameos of late-60s contemporary comedians and pop culture figures are frequent.
The film is an odd period piece in several ways, and was a spectacular flop. It was produced on a small budget by camera manufacturers Bell & Howell to showcase a new cinematic camera system they had recently developed, and to draw attention to Chicago as a hip alternative place to shoot movies. They failed on both counts; Bell & Howell stopped producing cinematic equipment within two years, and no-one would film in Chicago for decades after the film’s failure.
From my perspective, the film’s main flaw is that is goes way overboard on the Zany/Madcap Humor. For instance, Larry Storch (of “F-Troop” fame) is always funny, but only in small doses; like watching Lindsay Lohan at a bar, you might get a laugh for the first 10 minutes or so, but after that you just want the bouncer to club her over the head and drag her away. A New York Times review from October of 1969 agrees, defecating on the film by stating “The movie is neither as funny nor as stinging as it was intended to be….The endless wisecracks seem none too wise or witty, or, for that matter, new.” For a film that features a well-known comedy troupe, that’s a major “ouch.”
Overall, the acting is pretty decent. Guy Stockwell (older brother of Dean Stockwell) plays Harry, a kind of generic All-American Guy who nevertheless comes across as likeable; Susan Oliver (who looks good in green as an Orion slavegirl in the Star Trek episode “The Menagerie”) plays Barbara, a chick who never quite makes up her mind about the Monitors, working first as their agent then joining (sort of) the resistance; the sober but likable Shepperd Strudwick plays the leader of the Monitors, Tersh Jeterax, and, when the film comes to its conclusion, leaves the viewer feeling as though they have disappointed Dad; and Sherry Jackson (of the classic biker-B “The Mini-Skirt Mob”) who flounces into Harry’s life as Mona, the girl who helps him escape from the Monitors’ re-education facility and has a great wet-tee scene in a fountain.
The cinematography is remarkably good with many really well-composed shots; director of photography was Vilmos Zsigmond who would go on to shoot classics like Deliverance, The Deer Hunter, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, and The Black Dahlia. Its amazing to see such talent at work on such a low-budget project, like having Ansel Adams photographing piles of dog crap.
The story progresses pretty much the way you’d expect, with almost no surprises; the resistance (let by a pair of batshit officers played by Storch and Wynne) plans to bomb Monitor HQ, thus rendering the excessively-structured Monitors leaderless and impotent. Although he dislikes Monitor rule, Harry is not quite prepared to go that far and he contacts the mothballed President to help foil them. They do, but Jeterax and the other Monitors are so disappointed by the antics of the Earthmen they have come to save that they withdraw from the planet, like disappointed parents leaving their wayward teens to face the consequences of their actions.
And that is one of the crazy things about the film. Yes, they can be annoyingly overbearing, like impeccably-well-dressed high-tech hall monitors tasked with keeping order in the unruly Human High School and issuing detentions accordingly, but they are so well-meaning and so damned polite about it that you can’t really dislike them. By the end of the film, you find yourself sympathizing with them instead of with the idiotic yahoos who have spent the movie trying to bring them down. Nevertheless, life without booze, sex, corruption, and fast-food would be a serious drag, so you still—paradoxically—are glad to see them go. I don’t know whether the film intended to have that dual effect or whether it was something I brought into it.
In any case, if you’re looking for a groovy, late-60s ride in a sci-fi convertible, with a few laughs and a brace of martinis and miniskirts along for the ride, this is a pretty good film to check out.
Watch the trailer to The Monitors