A Boy and His Dog review

5 July 2018

Title:A Boy and His Dog
Genre:SciFi Adventure
Runtime:91 min

A Boy and His Dog is a 1975 film starring a young Don Johnson, based on a novella by Harlan Ellison. I'm including this review in honour of Ellison, who passed away June 28th, one week ago at the time of this writing.

Harlan Ellison is one of the most emblematic writers of the so-called golden age of science fiction. He was highly prolific, highly awarded, widely recognised, and left behind him a plethora of stories so extremely distinctive, and yet so highly varied, that it is almost a contradiction.

Having said this, he was also a highly controversial figure, and quite often what we remember about Ellison is Ellison, rather than Ellison's writings. For example, perhaps his most notable achievement is the anthology "Dangerous Visions", which remains one of the high points of the golden age of science fiction, and often described as the moment when science fiction ceased to be a marginalised genre and began its mainstream adoption. And yet, if one is to read "Dangerous Visions" today, with the sensibilities of a 2018 reader, "Dangerous Visions" is more than just a bit embarrassing. The key theme of the anthology is its attempt to shock the reader with taboo themes and subjects, exclaiming that only under the protective mantle of the science fiction genre can such topics be explored without the reader running for the hills. In 2018, however, all these taboos have long been rehashed to death, and "Dangerous Visions", stripped of its shock value, becomes downright boring.

Ellison has also contributed to the moving image. He has had a sordid love-hate relationship with the Star Trek universe, to which he contributed, among other things, the first draft of what was to become the series' most beloved episode ("The City on the Edge of Forever"). He also wrote screenplays for other TV series, including for The Twilight Zone and Babylon 5.

Interestingly, his impact on Hollywood movies was much less direct. It manifested itself mainly in ideas. Ellison's writings are chock-full of ideas, often pushed out to the reader in a whatever-sticks manner, and it is not difficult to trace the ideas from any given one of his stories and see how they influenced an entire generation of later writers. As an example of all of the above, Ellison sued (with out-of-court success) to be recognised as the writer whose ideas gave rise to The Terminator franchise.

But, surprisingly, actual adaptations of Harlan Ellison's works to Hollywood movies are few, and screenplays are virtually nil. This review is dedicated to what looks to me to be his only serious Hollywood adaptation: A Boy and His Dog, based on Ellison's award-winning novella of the same name. It is a very quirky film, decidedly Ellison-y, and, according to IMDb, is likely to receive at some point a remake, which (extrapolating on existing Hollywood trends) will surely lose both the original quirkiness and the distinct Ellison charm.

Let us therefore examine Ellison's most enduring direct contribution to Hollywood.

The film A Boy and His Dog is a post-apocalyptic tale set in 2024. However, like so much of Ellison's works, it screams farce in every scene, to the point that one cannot take any part of it at face value. The only way to do the story justice is to treat it as an allegory, providing social commentary.

To recap the story briefly for those unfamiliar with the film: we are in 2024; the world is a barren wasteland following World War IV (which lasted 5 days, the time it took to fire everyone's nuclear arsenal). We follow Vic (Don Johnson) and his dog Blood (portrayed by Tiger, the dog from The Brady Bunch, with such sensibility and precision that it deserves an award of its own). The two are connected telepathically, and, in fact, the first of the allegories thrust upon us is that they act as the "id" (the simple-minded, impulsive, violent and sex-driven Vic) and the "super-ego" (the measured, well-educated, cynical Blood) of a single entity.

The "ego", missing from this equation, which would be the cohesive unifier in the mind of a real person, is in this case portrayed by the invisible bond of love shared by a man and his dog, and, indeed, in retrospect much of the movie can be seen as an exploration of this bond and its strength, pitting it against the bond between man and woman (although, to be fair, both relationships are portrayed as parodies of themselves).

For comparison, and perhaps as a first example of how Ellison has affected other works, this is the same bond that George Lucas says he was aiming to explore when he created the Star Wars universe, with Han Solo and Chewbacca at its heart. (Lucas says they were inspired by his own travels with his dog, Indiana.)

However, Ellison is not tied to any one of these two interpretations of the relation between his protagonists. In his usual "throw everything against the wall" style, he is equally happy to have the dog, when appropriate, become, for example, a parody of the educational system, by having it, in the midst of this post-apocalyptic world, force Vic to learn by rote the names of the U.S. presidents.

Ellison is clearly out to shock us, with Vic's matter-of-fact attitude towards such things as murder and rape -- In one scene, when he discovers a woman who had been tied up, raped and mutilated by a passing gang, he bemoans that if they had only left her in one piece she'd be in perfectly good shape to be raped by others, such as himself, later on. -- but to a modern audience the whole thing looks absurd. Vic is a mild-mannered gentleman, never uttering a swear word throughout the entire film, avoids attacking anyone unless attacked first (and even then only provides a measured response), and the few scenes exhibiting (very sterile) nudity are so stylistic as to appear like outtakes from A Clockwork Orange, which, only 4 years earlier, created this highly distinctive style. (In the latter half of the film, we see the appearance of over-the-top, grotesque use of make-up and the farcical use of symbolically-loaded clothing, which is a direct continuation of the same style effect.)

Most of the film can be divided clearly into two halves. The first half is above ground, and its sensibilities have been replicated precisely, four years later, by Mad Max, to the point where I do not feel they need elaborating on. Ellison's only addition to this universe is a mysterious disease that spreads on contact, rots the mind and the body, and causes all infected to become rage-fuelled monsters. This, too, has in the meanwhile become an overused Hollywood trope (see, e.g., Firefly), and Ellison even makes use of it in its most effective form, namely in the variation where the bearers of the disease are talked about far more than they are ever actually seen on screen.

In the latter half, Vic ventures below ground, to discover a society that borrows heavily from 1970's Beneath the Planet of the Apes (although, to be fair, Ellison's original novella was published already in 1969), and with a look-and-feel that borrows heavily from 1967's The Prisoner. It is a society that mimics, parodically, a Norman Rockwell painting, but whose members, under a guise of a developed social structure, nice clothing, elaborate make-up, and other trappings of modernity (down to a marching band), are no better, and in many ways much worse, than the gangs of thugs roaming above ground. These under-dwellers, like H.G. Wells's Morlocks, are rapidly losing their human origins, and are looking to Vic to inject new life into their ranks.

Vic's foray into the underworld comes in his attempt to follow a particular woman, with whom he had already had sex repeatedly above ground. This is perhaps the part of the story that took me most sharply out of suspense of disbelief. Again, 2018 sensibilities are at play: whereas to a 1975 audience rape could be played for shock value and not thought about too hard, in 2018 one must contend with an audience more educated about the topic. So, for example, while a 1975 audience may have linked rape with sex, explaining by this Vic's behaviour, a 2018 audience is far more aware that rape is part of a power-play, not part of sexual interaction. I was in disbelief that Vic would pursue anyone who has participated with him in consensual intercourse, and by this robbed him of his need of an aggressive display of power dominance. I think a real-world Vic would have been repelled.

Either way, the man-woman relationship drives the film's main plot-line, and both Ellison's original novella and the film adaptation end on the note of pitting this relationship against the man-dog one. The script, by writer-director Q.L. Jones, ends on a pun. It is a beautiful pun, bringing together all the film's motifs. The pun was well-received by fans at the time, and is easily the film's most memorable moment. However, it does reduce everything we have witnessed in the 91 minutes leading up to that moment to an elaborate joke, with this as its punchline. Ellison (in typical self-righteous Ellison-ness) objected strenuously to this change in tone of the last line, far preferring his own ending. However, that ending is only minutely different (while not a direct pun, it does the same in reducing the tale to a punchline story, comparable with the last line of Rosemary's Baby (1968)). If anything, Ellison's gripe with the altered ending is that it enraged him and others for bringing to a point the very tones that provide the story's main themes. So, in my view, Q.L. Jones's ending is actually the more effective of the two, while serving exactly the same purpose.

It is unfortunate, of course, that one cannot take this ending as more than the punchline of a joke, and by implication cannot take the film as more than a long joke, but at the same time one also has to remember that the film is throughout a self-proclaimed farce, at no point trying to take itself with any level of self-seriousness, and that if it is a joke, at a 91-minute run-time it does not over-stay its welcome.

As can be seen in this review, the story generated many ideas that were later toyed with endlessly by other writers, but at the same time does not treat its ideas with any elitism: it borrows happily from all manner of sources that preceded it, and gleefully concocts a ridiculous soup that mixes all ingredients together. In this, Ellison has created that most distinctive of Ellison creations: a story that is talked-about, immortalised by its infamy far more than by its story value. To appreciate this one as a story, one has to be willing to be entertained by a lighthearted social farce featuring rape, mutilation and murder (but toning down the source material by omitting incest). If a remake ever comes out, I can only hope it is directed by Quentin Tarantino.

RIP Harlan Ellison.