Illustrated Man [1969]

Ray Bradbury's celebrated fiction has been notoriously resistant to screen adaptation, but that hasn't stopped the flawed film version of The Illustrated Man from gaining a small but devoted following. First published in 1951, Bradbury's classic book consisted of 18 stories framed by the tale of a man whose entire body is a living canvas of exotic tattoos, or "skin illustrations," each inviting the reader/viewer into Bradbury's ominous realm of science fiction, fantasy, and horror. In the film, this framing story takes place in Depression-era America, where a young drifter named Willie (well played by Robert Drivas) encounters Carl (Rod Steiger), the gruffly eccentric Illustrated Man. Gazing upon Carl's mesmerizing tattoos, Willie is transported into three of the 18 stories in Bradbury's collection. A pioneering exercise in virtual reality, "The Veldt" features a high-tech playroom (a precursor to Star Trek: The Next Generation's holodeck) where two children select an African veldt as their favorite virtual playground, ultimately trapping their parents (played by real-life couple Steiger and then-wife Claire Bloom) in a place of deadly danger. "The Long Rains" finds a quartet of astronauts (including Steiger and Drivas) stranded on Venus, where an incessant downpour preys on their sanity. "The Last Night of the World" takes place on the eve of a nuclear holocaust, as a desperate couple (again played by Steiger and Bloom) agonizes over the decision to euthanize their children before the end of the world. As adapted by Howard B. Kreitsek and directed by Jack Smight (best known for Airport '75 and episodes of the original Twilight Zone), none of these stories work as well as the framing device, in which Steiger gives a brashly volatile performance. The story selection is curiously misguided and poorly executed, and Smight predictably fails to capture Bradbury's elusive quality of poetic allegory. Anthology films are always hit-or-miss anyway, but The Illustrated Man is more pretentiously frustrating than most (and more dated, especially in terms of sets and costumes), although it effectively captures the dreamy, contemplative tone that prevailed in many "art" films of the late '60s. If seen in the right mood, it's the kind of failed experiment that makes a lasting impression, despite its many shortcomings. --Jeff Shannon

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