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The Mercury Men

on Wed, 08/24/2011 - 00:00

The Mercury Men
During the first half of the Twentieth Century, serials were a staple of the Saturday matinee movie theater. Screened before the feature film, these short “chapters” of a longer narrative told the adventures of such science fiction and comic book related characters as Flash Gordon, Captain Marvel and the Green Hornet. Each of the approximately twenty-minute installments ended with a cliff-hanger scenario, ensuring that the theaters would be packed the following weekend as kids across the country waited with eager anticipation for what would happen next.

Pittsburgh native Christopher Preksta already demonstrated his nostalgic fondness for the old radio serials and comic book heroes of a bygone age with his 2008 web series Captain Blasto, which told the story of high school loner who transformed himself into the fictitious title character in order to get noticed. For his second online narrative, Preksta has again turned to the old movie serials of the 1930s and 40s for inspiration with the black-and-white sci-fi thriller The Mercury Men.

“The men of Mercury are the first race of men, made of pure light,” it is explained during the narrative. “And they’ve existed for endless generations. On one planet. And in a fraction of the time, man—made of the very dirt of the earth—lept into the stars. They’re afraid of us.”

The Mercury Men of The Mercury Men have a human form but appear as bright illuminations devoid of any physical features. They also have the ability to throw deadly balls of light that wipes out the remaining late-night employees of a Pittsburgh office building. Except for one, that is—the middle-aged, horned-rimmed glasses wearing Edward Borman (Mark Tierno). Borman initially manages to elude the Mercury Men until the arrival of aerospace engineer Jack Yaeger (Curt Wootton), dressed in a 1940s aviator outfit and armed with a Flash Gordon-style pistol that shoots special bullets.

Eventually Yaeger discovers that the Mercury Men are intent on destroying the Earth by maneuvering the Moon to crash into it. Using the frame of the 64-floor Steel Tower in Pittsburgh as a conduit, the aliens attach a gravity engine to the building in order to accomplish the feat in a matter of hours. With reinforcements from the secret government agency that Yaeger works for unable to arrive in time, it is left to Jack Yaeger and Edward Borman to thwart the plans of the Mercury Men and literally save the world.

In addition to the movie serials of the 1930s and 40s, The Mercury Men also draws heavily from science fiction films of the 1950s. Although featuring low-budget productions, the decade is often depicted as the classic era of sci-fi, with a list of movie releases that include The Day the Earth Stood Still, Forbidden Planet and Plan 9 from Outer Space. Alien invasions were a dominant narrative device during this time period—just like the plot of The Mercury Men—but mad scientists and experiments gone astray also found their way onto the silver screen. The Mercury Men thus features a living brain in a jar and a zombie to keep its action moving as well.

There is even an Alfred Hitchcock element to the web series. Beginning with 1939’s The Thirty-Nine Steps, many films by the master director featured an ordinary person being suddenly thrust into a foreign world of danger and intrigue. In The Mercury Men, Edward Borman plays just such a role, and the opening sequence of the web series—in which he attempts to hide from his alien invaders within a maze of office cubicles—brings to mind the classic scene from Hitchcock’s North by Northwest where Carey Grant is forced to take cover in a cornfield when attacked by a dust-cropping plane.

It was George Lucas’ admiration for the movie serials of a bygone era that initially inspired him to create both Star Wars and Raiders of the Lost Ark, and there are a small handful of nods to these modern day classics in The Mercury Men as well. In one scene, for instance, Edward Borman rounds the corner of a parking garage while telling Jack Yaeger that he will let him know when the aliens are coming, only to immediately run back screaming “They’re coming!” as bolts of light shoot out from the opposite direction. Han Solo faced a similar situation in the original Star Wars.

When Yaeger declares that he has reversed the effects of the gravity engine only to discover that it doesn’t work, meanwhile, his facial expression of innocent exasperation coincides with Solo’s difficulty in repairing the Millennium Falcon’s hyperdrive in The Empire Strikes Back.

The movie serials of the 1930s and 40s came to an end at the dawn of the television age as the kids that served as their target audience were drawn to the small screen and abandoned the Saturday matinee. The concept has become one of nostalgia through the decades since, but Christopher Preksta has taken the spirit of those “thrilling days of yesteryear” and transformed it into an enjoyable and exhilarating web series production nonetheless. The younger medium—with its shorter-length episodes and independent nature—is a perfect vehicle for such old-school storytelling, and The Mercury Men proves that the two are a winning combination.

Anthony Letizia

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