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Alien Nation

Nickelodeon’s Invader Zim, a cartoon show about a hapless hubristic overeager megalomaniacal paranoid alien who goes undercover as an elementary school student (he is small of stature) to research the weaknesses of mankind preparatory to its enslavement, hit the air at the end of March; already it has inspired dozens of Internet fan sites, with names that will signify much to devotees of the series: The Scary Monkey Show, Zimmy Zim Doom Night, Worm Baby, Prepare To Be Subjugated, The Planet of Broken Glass, Chocolate Bubblegum. To be sure, there was something of an audience already in place — the adepts of series creator Jhonen Vasquez, whose comics Johnny the Homicidal Maniac and SQUEE! are read widely and avidly by the type of young persons who, my personal research informs me, adopt such cyberspatial handles as kreepygirl, barbieskull, angel the suicidal psychopath, razor blade lust, GothicRose13, ChaosSlave51 and Flesh_of_the_Beast. Vasquez also brought some of his alternacomic pals into the creative process: Roman Dirge (whose Lenore is about a little dead girl) contributed to the writing and design, and Rosearik Rikki Simons (co-creator of Reality Check! and a colorist on Vasquez’s own I Feel Sick) does color work and supplies the voice of Zim’s semicompetent, childlike, spare-parts robot sidekick, GIR, who goes about ill-disguised as a dog. Vasquez, who paints himself into the occasional scene, Hitchcock-style, also does the odd voice bit, and that he and his friends are TV amateurs (under the wing of old pros, of course) may be what gives the show its distinctive flavor, makes it that cool draught of something you don’t see every day, Chauncey after which thirsts the weary traveler in Newton Minnows’ vast wasteland. There is something odd at work here — an unironic, outsider, underground aesthetic that has more to do with the zine scene than with currents in modern animation and cribbing from or paying homage to Avery, Hubley, Hanna-Barbera, Ward or anime. Even filtered through Nick’s kid-friendly aesthetic and business plan, Vasquez’s nihilist-Gothic predilections make Invader Zim a dark show, authentically creepy even while it’s funny. (I can’t quite believe that the network has rated it TVY, which is to say suitable for all ages; but kids are made of sterner stuff these days, I suppose, having been raised on The Simpsons, the Internet and comics like, well, like Vasquez’s.)

On paper, it’s nothing new. The disguised alien living among us, the lone unheeded human voice decrying his presence — these are not original figures in the annals of science fiction. As aliens go, Zim is — beneath his big human contact lenses and badly chosen Presley peruke — old-school standard issue: bug-eyed and antennaed (the insect paradigm), little and green (the preferred alien color, before they turned officially gray). Like most cartoons, it’s not so much a matter of the story as the storytelling, not so much the words as the delivery, not so much the content as the tone, which is mysterious and disturbing in a kind of elemental, icky way. Much of the city outside Zim’s own underground fortress is nonspecifically leaky and stained, and there is a healthy, or unhealthy, ornament of pustules, carbuncles, saliva and germs — which reflects the invader’s perception of Earth and Earthlings (“miserable human stinkbeasts,” “sad little Earth monkeys”) as filthy and disgusting — and what may generically be termed “guts,” seen from the inside and out. (In the series’ spookiest episode, Zim, concerned that the school nurse will discover his lack of human organs, steals them from his classmates, replacing them with “stuff” — an alarm clock, a radiator, a remote control, a cat.) The camera moves are suitably cinematic, the lighting effects are expressionistically effective, the timing makes the suspense suspenseful and the comedy comic.

Though it has more of a world-view than most animated series, it’s not a deep show, particularly. Zim has no conscience, only a mission — his closest cartoon forebear is probably Daffy Duck — and his small-fry nemesis Dib is just as grimly obsessed. There are no life lessons here, except of a peculiarly discouraging sort, and none of the incidental empowerment provided by something like The Powerpuff Girls. Nearly every character not actually an alien is alienated — angry, distrustful, alone. In one episode, Zim temporarily adopts a “best friend” to seem more human, but none of the other characters have friends, anyway. Dib has a sister, a video-game-addicted Goth gamine named Gaz, who doesn’t like him, and a father, Professor Membrane, who doesn’t notice him. The only really likable figure — GIR, the easily pleased, easily distracted robot assistant, and the show’s obvious plush toy — is an idiot. (“I miss my cupcake,” sighs GIR, having eaten his cupcake.) I don’t mean this to sound negative. It’s a lively and troubling and handsome and funny show, in which shtick is never used as a substitute for character; Vasquez understands that shtick proceeds from character, and in this wise he is well assisted by actor Richard Horvitz (Angry Beavers), whose every reading expresses the enormous distance between Zim’s self-regard and the likelihood of even the least of his plans coming to fruition.

Turner Classic Movies, which has already spearheaded high-profile archeocinematic conjecturations of Orson Welles’ Touch of Evil and Erich von Stroheim’s Greed, offers now its restoration of the 1925 film of Arthur Conan Doyle’s 1912 dinosaurs-are-alive novel, The Lost World. Not to be confused with the Spielberg-Crichton film of the same name, which does cop its basic big idea and dino-run-amok-in-a-modern-metropolis finish (the beastie faring better here than in most such scenarios, I am happy to say), nor with another, slightly previous and apparently little-shown restoration by the George Eastman House, it has been assembled from kibbles and bits of eight different celluloid sources, which were transferred to high-end video and digitally spackled and squeegeed and strung into a longer, more sensible, more original version of the movie than had been available for several decades. In other words, it was turned into television as part of the process of its salvation. Television is where all film will finally go, the revival houses and cinematheques being on their own unequal to the task of preservation, and certainly unequal to the task of distribution. As many people may see The Lost World on Turner this month as have ever seen it anywhere.

Wallace Beery, as a professor who leads an expedition back into the Amazon to prove he wasn’t blowing hot air about those big lizards he saw there, is the actor you’re most likely to recognize, despite the patently fake beard that swallows half his face. Then there is Bessie Love, who started in Birth of a Nation and lasted long enough to play in Ragtime and Reds, in a perpetual moony sulk over simpy male lead Lloyd Hughes, and coveted simultaneously by big-game hunter Lewis Stone (later Judge Hardy), who in 1925 is already too old for her and ought to know better. “The acting is very bad,” reported Picture Play Magazine when the movie came out, and the stylistic dissonance of 76 bygone years does not make it play any better, plus there is the distressing business of a white actor corked up to portray a black man. But the humans are in a sense only there to take you to the dinosaurs: We want to see flesh on those big museum bones. (The desire sustains: The Lost World, remade at intervals over the years, and recently a syndicated, sexyfied series — it airs locally on KTLA, Saturdays at 3 p.m. — is being remade again, as a BBC/A&E TV movie, starring Bob Hoskins.) If the drama is improbable, even on its own terms, and the romance superfluous and the comedy limp, the film is nevertheless delightful in its way — there is a chimp and a monkey and a missing link, which get up to various sorts of mischief —and of course there are the dinosaurs, brought to life by Willis H. O’Brien, who later made King Kong move, and a volcano and some neat models of London. If the great beasts look rather more cute now than frightening (as a consequence of which one can’t help but wish them well), they may have scared the pants off great-grandpa, whose world knew no computer animation, just as Jason and the Argonauts used to scare the crap out of me.

INVADER ZIM | Nickelodeon Fridays, 9 p.m.

THE LOST WORLD | Turner Classic Movies | Premieres Friday, July 20, 5 p.m.


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