The Monitors (1969) *½
When it comes to 60’s satire, I sometimes suspect that you kind of had to be there. I wasn’t, and Lord knows I never seem to get the joke. (Well, okay— so I got Dr. Strangelove, or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb, but that really is about it.) The Monitors, based on a story by Keith Laumer and adapted in part by the author himself, is among the purest examples of the breed, coming across almost as what might have happened if the “Laugh In” crew had produced a satirical sci-fi movie— which is to say that most of it left me utterly unamused, and more than a little pissed off.
The Earth has been invaded— indeed, conquered— by super-intelligent, emotionless beings from some faraway planet; on its face, it’s pretty much the same premise that drove about three out of every five sci-fi movies of the 1950’s. The twist is that the Monitors, as these aliens call themselves, are totally benevolent creatures who have stepped in essentially to save humanity from its own worst impulses. Taking the form of immaculately groomed men in black topcoats and bowler hats who speak in soothing monotones, the Monitors install themselves as a sort of global police department, enforcing peace, cooperation, reason, and tranquility all over the inhabited world. Obviously, they can’t do so indefinitely without humanity’s cooperation, and so the Monitors flood the airwaves with tacky public service announcements in which various people extol the influence of the aliens upon their lives. (“I love the Monitors because things have been so much cleaner ever since they came!” “Before the Monitors, I used to get bullied at school, but now that doesn’t happen anymore.” “You know what I like about the Monitors? They’ve got no sex drive…”) Naturally, all these TV and radio spots are accompanied by upbeat little jingles of the sort that modern viewers may have trouble believing really did represent the state of the art of broadcast advertising in the late 1960’s. (“The Moooonitooooooooooorrrs! They’re loved by young and old— hurray! They cured the common cold— oh boy!”) And of equal, if not greater, importance, head Monitor Tersh Jeterax (Shepperd Strudwick, from Dr. Renault’s Secret and the 1963 Psychomania) has instituted a program to recruit prominent and upstanding humans to serve in a sort of Monitor auxiliary.
One such recruit is actress Barbara Cole (Susan Oliver). She’s new to the program, and honestly isn’t totally convinced that it’s for her. Consequently, it’s bad news for Jeterax that Barbara is being pursued romantically by Harry Jordan (Guy Stockwell, later of Grotesque and Larry Cohen’s It’s Alive!), an ex-Air Force fighter pilot who now flies freelance for a number of shipping and commuter airlines, and who loathes the stifling, homogenizing regime of the Monitors with every fiber of his being. Barbara begins to spend a lot of time around Harry after she accidentally gets him blackballed from one of his employers, and it is while she is hanging out with Harry and his brother, Max (Galaxina’s Avery Schreiber), that she gets some idea of why her suitor finds the Monitors so objectionable. The three of them go to a park in Chicago (the city which the aliens have adopted as their capital), where the activities of a visibly loony street preacher (the monstrously unfunny Larry Storch, best known for lending his voice to a zillion monstrously unfunny cartoons during the 60’s and 70’s) cause the Monitors to descend upon the park and spray everyone in the crowd drawn by the preacher with the tranquilizer gas they carry in aerosol cans by way of sidearms. The incensed Harry snatches a spray-can away from one of the Monitors, and zaps its owner with it instead; this is a serious offense under the new order (punishable by “indefinite detention”), and Harry, Max, and Barbara are forced to go on the run. Just as they are about to be surrounded and taken in, the threesome receive an unexpected assist from the street preacher, who turns out really to be Colonel Stutz, the number-two man in the anti-Monitor resistance movement, S.C.R.A.G. Stutz bundles the fugitives into his James Bonded-out Lincoln Continental, and smuggles them out of Chicago. While he heads out toward S.C.R.A.G. headquarters, Stutz explains the movement’s aims, and it becomes perfectly clear that at least one aspect of his street preacher act was not a put-on— Stutz really is crazy. Naturally, the Monitors take steps to intercept Stutz and his passengers, but to little avail. Stutz, Max, and Barbara slip right through their fingers, and the only reason they’re able to apprehend Harry is that he leaps from the Continental in an effort to rescue a Monitor from the burning wreck of one of the cars Stutz trashed while breaking through a roadblock.
The monitors bring Harry to Jeterax’s control room, where the alien leader attempts to convince the pilot of his people’s value to the inhabitants of Earth. Jeterax also tries to sell Harry on joining the auxiliary in exchange for the suspension of his detention sentence. Figuring he has little choice in the matter, Harry accepts enrollment at the Monitor academy, but he spends much more time looking for opportunities to escape than he does on any of the things he’s supposed to be learning. Eventually, he falls in with a recruit named Mona (Curse of the Moon Child’s Sherry Jackson), who has already figured out how to get away, apparently out of sheer boredom. And again apparently out of sheer boredom, she readily agrees to lead Harry in making an escape attempt.
Meanwhile, Barbara and Max have been inducted into S.C.R.A.G. While Stutz and Major Culp (J. J. Barry) try futilely to make a soldier out of Max, Barbara meets the commander of S.C.R.A.G. (Keenan Wynn, from Around the World Under the Sea and Piranha), who she discovers is even more thoroughly out to lunch than his subordinates. His big plan to drive the Monitors away from our planet is to set off his experimental implosion bomb at the site of their headquarters in Chicago, destroying the coordination for the aliens’ activities around the world. With no central command, the neurotically systematic Monitors will rapidly fall prey to the anti-invader riots and uprisings which they are now just barely able to keep a lid on, and humanity can finally get back to business as usual. Barbara, you may recall, began this story as a Monitor sympathizer, and she’s really not at all sure she likes the idea of a return to business as usual, which on Earth entails such wonderful things as political corruption, environmental spoliation, ethnic and religious bigotry, and the Vietnam War. Consequently, she is an extremely reluctant S.C.R.A.G.er at best, and feels no compunctions about staying in touch with Jeterax via the portable telescreen she carries around in her purse. The picture becomes more complicated for her still when Stutz leads Max on a daring mission to break Harry out of the Monitor academy, which just happens to coincide with his and Mona’s escape attempt. Barbara’s feelings for Harry are stronger than ever now that she has had a chance to see him with another woman, and her loyalties become correspondingly confused. While Harry, Max, and Mona break loose from S.C.R.A.G. Central by stealing a helicopter and flying to Washington to seek an audience with the now-irrelevant President of the United States (Ed Begley, from The Dunwich Horror and Wild in the Streets), Barbara sits around in her room trying to puzzle out which side she’s really on. And just to make things that much more interesting, it’s right about then that Stutz enlists Culp in an attempt to betray S.C.R.A.G. by selling the implosion bomb to the Monitors for absolutely no reason that I can fathom.
Zaniness is not a comedic mode that appeals to me— in fact, it would be perfectly fair to say that I despise zaniness. The Monitors is nothing if not zany, and while it’s true that I do not quite despise The Monitors, I came awfully close for much of its length. The take-offs on late-60’s TV commercials mostly work, but they’re just about the only thing in the movie that does. Larry Storch in particular is nearly unbearable, buffooning his way through the movie in a manner that really makes you appreciate the grace and subtlety which he brought to the part of TV’s Koko the Clown. (It therefore comes as a pleasant shock when Storch gets to deliver the funniest line— or rather, absence of a line— in the whole film.) The worst part, though, is that The Monitors is not content simply to be a screwy farce, an enterprise at which it might possibly have succeeded. No, this movie wants to make us think! We should be thinking! about how it seems all too plausible for human beings everywhere to rise up in defense of violence, venality, and hate in response to those evils being removed forcibly from the world by outsiders from another planet. We should be thinking! about what it means that this movie’s creators had to portray the S.C.R.A.G.ers as completely insane militarists in order to make them seem less sympathetic than the essentially good-hearted aliens. But all I was thinking! about was how much funnier the anti-war shtick was when Stanley Kubrick did it five years earlier, and how much more convincing Michael Rennie was as a purveyor of “peace— or else!” at the beginning of the preceding decade.