While he may be embarrassed by the body art he sports, Judge Bill Gibron finds his prison yard tats more appealing than this 1969 sci-fi anthology.
Don't dare stare at the Illustrated Man
While traveling to California looking for work, happy hobo Willie (Robert Drivas, Where It's At) runs into Carl (Rod Steiger, In the Heat of the Night), a carnival worker on a mission. He is out to find Felicia (Claire Bloom, Limelight), the mysterious woman who covered his bodies in tattoos—or "artistic illustrations," as she often referred to them. Since he's cursed with the unexplainable power to make the images come to life, Carl warns Willie not to gaze to closely at his unusual skin markings, which will reveal shocking stories set in the future. One tale deals with a fractured family and an evil nursery where African wildlife poses a potential threat. Another focuses on space travelers tested to their very limits when they land on a planet drenched in nonstop rain. Finally, Willie sees a frightening vision of a world completely wasted, and of the few humans who must make a shocking, disturbing decision. All the while, Carl torments and teases the youth. Seems he doesn't understand the power of The Illustrated Man's many ink-based evils.
Forged during an era when "serious" science fiction was finding a footing and tinged with the kind of counterculture cinematics that look both dated and ahead of their time, The Illustrated Man is quite the confusing combination. In essence, this is an omnibus experiment, a speculative anthology drawn from three of Ray Bradbury's more famous literary efforts (collected in a short-story volume of the same name). Yet there is also an elaborate linking narrative that pits tattooed terror Rod Steiger against depression-era hitchhiker Robert Drivas in a complicated game of psychological subterfuge. At its core, Steiger is out to kill Claire Bloom, the woman responsible for his bevy of body art. But much deeper than this, director Jack Smight wants to comment on the nature of man, the fragility of fate, and the sinister scientific situations that doom both. By contrasting the earthy, naturalistic aspects of the main storyline, the filmmaker is then able to shock audiences with the film's ultramodern allegories. Bradbury, known as one of America's premiere genre writers, should really be called a fabulist. His twist-oriented tales use out-of-this-world settings to sell what are basically moralizing cautionary tales. The three selected here—"The Veldt," "The Long Rain," and "The Last Night of the World"—all paint the future as a dark and disturbing place, a landscape overloaded with potential problems. How the humans react to each scenario is supposed to say more about us than any technical tome could ever hope to reveal.
The Illustrated Man, though, loses sight of that stance early and often. For long periods of time, we are stuck in a surreal showdown between Steiger and Drivas, a homoerotic mind game where Carl's animated illustrations seduce the youth into visiting these disturbing tales of days yet to come. Putting on his country bumpkin airs, Steiger seems stuck in another movie, reduced to repeating himself and puffing out his chest as a sign of male superiority. Drivas, on the other hand, is lost in a confusing amalgamation of emotional extremes. He starts the film happy, moves into something similar to fear, slowly goes mad, and then is driven to an act of desperation so silly it seems completely out of place. Equally odd are the sequences between Steiger and Bloom. Though these scenes are supposedly simmering with sexual energy, we instead get the distinct impression that Carl is more carny than he cares to admit. As the artist, Bloom is withholding her favors, forcing Steiger to take more and more trips under the needle before hitting the bed. But his pre-sack roll rant is ridiculous, completely contradictory within the context of the relationship we've seen. Smight obviously didn't know what to do during these scenes. He goes for a Tennessee Williams style of melodrama and ends up with Blue Roses all over the lens.
The short-story segments are much better, even if they too suffer from a 1969 level of invention. During the "Veldt" sequence, the family sits on furniture that can best be described as a cross between a deck chair and some bunk beds. Even worse, the rest of the apartment is festooned in Early American Polystyrene, an off-white nightmare that would make even the most sophisticated being a little loco in the coco. As for the narrative, we know what's going to happen once the evil little children show up with their disrespectful ways. Anyone who calls their parents by their first name and requires a daily check-up from a futuristic government therapist is just waiting to off someone. In a similar vein, the advanced Adam and Eve elements of "Last Night" lead nowhere. The story is all suggestion (the world is supposed to be ending) and doe-eyed dramatics (parents pining for their soon-to-be-dead offspring). Neither effort illustrates Bradbury at his best, and each narrative takes liberties with the original text. Only "The Long Rain" works well, more or less because Smight simply stages a driving rainstorm within an interstellar setting and lets the actors go at it. Steiger, Bloom, and Drivas appear in each anthology piece, and both men are magnificent here. One particular shot of Steiger standing, face literally pummeled by huge droplets of water pouring down, lifts "Rain" above the rest of the average offerings.
In general, however, The Illustrated Man feels like a missed opportunity. Granted, the limited resources available to Smight and crew caused some of the film's many issues (Steiger had to suffer through 20 hours of make-up just to get those goofy tats all over his torso) and the basic element of the book—a man whose body art comes to life—was impossible to render in late '60s cinema. Indeed, one could easily see this sort of story being remade, especially with the availability of photo-realistic CGI. But film may not be the proper format; Bradbury's book contained 18 tales, so perhaps a Sci-Fi Channel original series might be in order.
In any case, what we have as part of this package (a decent DVD with 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen image, nice Dolby Digital Mono sound, a trailer, and an interesting featurette on Steiger's tattoo torture) will probably not inspire a new legion of fans to the film. Steiger is too stylized, his acting in the anthology sequences a combination of clipped conservatism that too completely contradicts his cornpone persona in the linking material. Drivas and Bloom, sadly, can't save it either. Each one is merely eye candy for an intended gender-specific crowd. Instead of achieving its goal as serious science fiction, The Illustrated Man comes off as arcane and insular. There may be a method inside Smight and Steiger's madness, but it doesn't match up with what Ray Bradbury offered on the printed page.
Give us your feedback!
What's "fair"? Whether positive or negative, our reviews should be unbiased, informative, and critique the material on its own merits.
Scales of Justice
Studio: Warner Bros.
Review content copyright © 2007 Bill Gibron; Site design and review layout copyright © 2014 Verdict Partners LLC. All rights reserved.