The Monitors (1969)


USA. 1969.


Director – Jack Shea, Screenplay – Myron J. Gould, Based on the Novel by Keith Laumer, Producer – Bernard Sahlins, Photography – William Zsigmund, Music – Fred Kaz, Set Design – Ralph Hall. Production Company – Bell & Howell Productions/Commonwealth United Entertainment, Inc./Wilding Inc/Second City Productions


Guy Stockwell (Harry Jordan), Susan Oliver (Barbara Cole), Larry Storch (Colonel P.A. Stutz), Avery Schreiber (Max Jordan), Sherry Jackson (Mona), Shepperd Strudwick (Tersch Jeterax), Keenan Wynn (The General), Ed Begley (The President), J.J. Barry (Culp)


Earth has been taken over by The Monitors who rule with an authoritatively benevolent hand, using a gas to pacify any troublemakers. They constantly broadcast commercials that feature people being interviewed, telling how much better life is now under The Monitors. Harry Jordan is assigned to teach movie star Barbara Cole how to fly a biplane for a role but is fired when she messes around with the controls in mid-air. He is attracted to her, unaware that she is a Monitor agent sent to recruit him. They are caught up in a street protest and dragged in by the Secret Counter Retaliatory Group who are seeking to fight back against The Monitors.

The Monitors was a considerable oddity when it came out. The film was based on The Monitors (1966), a satiric novel by US science-fiction writer Keith Laumer. The production was mounted by the Chicago branch of the US-Canadian improvisational comedy troupe Second City – the same group that have over the years fostered talents such as Dan Aykroyd, John Belushi, Steve Carell, Rick Moranis, Bill Murray, Mike Myers, Harold Ramis and Martin Short, among others. The film, the second production for Second City following the obscure Philip Kaufman film Goldstein (1964), ended up being a flop.

Though The Monitors is made by a comedy director and features a number of comedy actors, it is often hard to tell if that is what it is trying to be. The central idea – of aliens (that uncannily prefigure the Men in Black) dressed in black suits, creating commercials for how good life under them is and spraying people with pacifying gas – has a great satiric edge to it. It’s just that not much of it is apparent on screen – you feel as though the film is poking fun at something but the targets are so broad, it is hard to tell what they are meant to be. The film seems to be aiming for something akin to the sharp brilliance of The President’s Analyst (1967) – or perhaps even more so what John Carpenter’s They Live (1988) ended up being a couple of decades later – but misses it by a mile.

Much of the film feels like it is trying to be hip and improvisational. It has no real plot, just lots of scenes with the characters running around. It seems to be trying to tap an anti-establishment vibe without actually finding it has anything to say. There is no clear idea in the script what the characters are trying to achieve, what they are running from or even the sense you get in comedies of characters stumbling/bumbling from scene to scene in a haphazard way. The height of silliness is surely a scene where the protagonists defeat armed guards using fruit and vegetables.

The film certainly has a fascinating cast, most of whom became known in retrospect. Guy Stockwell is the younger brother of the better-known Dean Stockwell. Guy had a four-decade career, mostly in minor parts and few starring roles. He is probably best known to cult audiences as the circus master in Alejandro Jodorowsky’s Santa Sangre (1989). Susan Oliver had a career almost entirely in tv, her best known genre role being as the green-skinned slave girl in the Star Trek pilot The Cage (1966). Avery Schreiber later became a well-known comedy performer. Ed Begley, who plays The President, is the father of the better known actor Ed Begley, Jr. The film also features small cameos from Peter Boyle, Alan Arkin and his son Adam.

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