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Exploitation legend Roger Corman has finally straightened out ancient history for us. It's no longer necessary to sit through three hours of The Fall of the Roman Empire; in the cable movie Cyclops we discover that Rome fell because of a rampaging one-eyed monster!
Cyclops is the 2008 version of what was once referred to as "entertainment for undiscriminating audiences". Producer Corman once again enters a market, meets its needs and exits with a healthy profit. The film is pedestrian twaddle that nevertheless delivers exactly what the Sci-Fi Channel wants, 88 minutes of gory action in perfectly lousy taste. When watching, it's helpful to remember that Corman began making movies out of practically nothing more than fifty years ago. His Atlas tried to pull off an entire sword 'n' sandal epic with a cast of fifteen and a short stack of togas. Corman is still capable of putting "something" in front of his camera for far less than other producers.
The basic story sandwiches the plot of Ridley Scott's Gladiator with a standard monster-on-the-loose-tale. In the reign of Emperor Tiberius (Eric Roberts, who seems mentally absent), a twelve-foot Cyclops wreaks havoc near Rome. Nasty royal nephew Falco (Craig Archibald, doing a subdued John Dall impression) wants to remove popular general Marcus (Kevin Stapleton, collecting a paycheck) from competition at court, and so influences Uncle Tiberius to put Marcus in charge of Cyclops removal. The beast is captured, escapes to rip up more citizens and soldiers, and then subdued a second time. Some slaves led by Gordian (Mike Straub) and a sexy barbarian with the convenient name Barbara (Frida Farrell) use the monster confusion as an opportunity to stage their own escape. By the time they're rounded up Falco has managed to get Marcus demoted to lowly gladiator status. Falco also talks Tiberius into using the Cyclops monster as a circus attraction; the excess rebel slaves and Marcus can be sacrificed to it in the arena. Marcus responds by inciting a slave revolt. He even communicates with the one-eyed monster, which quickly adds the words "meat" and "free" to its Cyclopedic vocabulary.
Cyclops is crude and artless but also not a cheat. Viewers looking for cheap thrills on the Sci-Fi channel got more than they expected -- at least twenty minutes of CGI monster action instead of the usual six or seven. The special effects are decidedly not going to win any awards for design or execution, but quality is not the yardstick in this arena. The aerial views of Rome look like something out of an old computer game. The animated monster has serious problems -- it moves awkwardly and has a strange surface texture that never seems a part of its live-action surroundings. Frankly, it looks like its development was halted in some intermediate stage of digital construction, before the animators could remove its rough edges and "temp" features like its dead eye.
That said, the Cyclops monster takes part in a lot of action and is composited fairly well in many scenes. As it's only twice the size of a man, the opportunities for interesting combat contact are maximized in blood-splattering impalements and gory shots of heads being ripped off. This is the Cyclops movie that a hyperactive 9 year-old would commit to paper, all violence for its own sake.
The play-acting is adequate given a script and format that leave no room for subtleties. Writer Frances Doel is a Corman veteran going back as far as Big Bad Mama and Cockfighter in the 1970s. Director Declan O'Brien is a perfect fit for Corman, an efficient shot grabber who puts together competent, attractive coverage in record time. The movie is tailored to the content limits of Free Cable TV. Frida Farell's sex slave stays clothed and limits her gyrations to combat in the gladiatorial ring. Up until a few years ago, nude scenes were a mandate in all but the most juvenile direct-to-video and cable TV work, but producer Corman's aim is to get in and get out with the cash. Why complicate things with a second hotter version? Vault space is expensive!
In some ways this new monster movie is an improvement over Corman's work of the 1980s and '90s. VHS releases could be shot on almost any format, but the Sci-Fi channel's HD signal requires higher technical values. Good and consistent lighting camerawork adds to the film's appeal. Roger and Julie Corman's production was filmed in Bulgaria, on sets left over from another cable film, 2004's Spartacus. The costumes are also of consistent quality, indicating another wholesale rental deal.
On the other hand, this is an extremely scaled-down Rome. The Emperor's circus arena is the size of a practice bullring and the spectator stands can't be holding more than two hundred pixel-people. Stable fees and wrangling facilities around Bulgaria must have been too expensive, for these Romans have no horses. Everyone walks into the countryside to do battle with the title monster. We almost expect to see slaves following the patrician generals, using cocoanut shells to make clip-clop noises, as in Monty Python and the Holy Grail.
Roger Corman's Facebook page claims that the cost of Cyclops was ten million dollars. His production diary also indicates that the movie had something akin to a whopping fifteen-day shooting schedule. Corman calls the film "one of the biggest and best pictures of my 400 film career". We love Roger Corman because he made such interesting movies -- in his first decades as a director. Although we still marvel at Roger's business acumen, his much longer producing-distributing career hasn't produced many films we can admire.
New Horizons' Cyclops looks terrific on Anchor Bay's colorful enhanced DVD edition; we only wish that Roger's older movies would be given this kind of care on home video. No extras are included.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
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