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Second Time Gloomy

Imagine my shock: it is, the calendar informs me, September at the moment, and likely to remain so for the rest of the month. So, what better time to absorb and cogitate upon a film so deeply concerned with the month of September that it is, in fact, actually called September?

Reader, I have to inform you that there is a con going on here. September is not about the month of September. It’s not even set in September – at one point towards the end of September, one character says words to the effect of ‘Ooh, and it’s not even September yet’. Is this some dark situationist prank from director Woody Allen? September actually takes place in August. What an outrage, likely to sow confusion and distress amongst film-goers everywhere.

You know, I’m tempted to say ‘…if only September were actually that dramatic’, because while Allen’s 1987 movie is certainly a drama, it’s one of those dramas in which – to the eye of the casual or inattentive viewer, at least – not very much at all happens that you could actually call dramatic. But it is, at least, something of a departure from the norm for a director who occasionally seems to have been intermittently remaking more or less the same film for nearly forty years now.

September takes place in a house in the countryside in a fairly remote part of Vermont – don’t get too excited about this departure from Allen’s normal New York City milieu, the entire movie was shot on a soundstage in, you guessed it, New York – where a woman named Lane (Mia Farrow) is coming to the end of a period of recovery, following an initially-undisclosed personal crisis. Her best friend Stephanie (Dianne West) is there to support her, while also present (if somewhat less supportive) is her mother Diane (Elaine Stritch), a faded Hollywood star, and stepfather Lloyd (Jack Warden). Hanging about the place are Howard (Denholm Elliott), an older man who is a teacher, and Peter (Sam Waterston), an aspiring writer.

It’s a bit hard to describe the premise of September without spoiling the whole plot, because the whole focus of the movie is on initially presenting this group of characters and then gradually uncovering the relationships between them and the events in their pasts which have shaped them as people. It’s also the kind of movie where very quick and allusive references are made to characters’ back-stories right at the start, which are not expanded upon until much later in the story, which demands a certain degree of trust and patience on the part of the viewer. Just what is the scandalous event in Diane and Lane’s past which Lane is so very keen not to see raked over in Diane’s proposed memoirs? What exactly has Lane come to Vermont to get over? You have to wait until well into the movie for these things to be elaborated upon, and even then the most you sometimes get is a strong implication.

In the end this is, at heart, not very much different from many Allen movies, concerning a group of well-off and articulate people operating on a level somewhat removed from quotidian turmoil (Lane is planning on moving back to New York but can’t decide if she wants to be a photographer or an artist), with an underlying theme not exactly calculated to warm the soul. Warden’s character gets a cheery scene where, as a physicist, he announces that the universe ‘doesn’t matter one way or the other. It’s all random, resonating aimlessly out of nothing and eventually vanishing forever. I’m not talking about the world, I’m talking about the universe, all space, all time, just temporary convulsion… I understand it for what it truly is. Haphazard. Morally neutral, and unimaginably violent.’ (On the whole I think I prefer Allen’s one liners.)

On a personal level this basically manifests as a high ambient level of misery and personal unfulfillment amongst all the various characters. Howard is in love with Lane, but can’t bring himself to tell her. Lane is in love with Peter, but has been hurt too many times before to be remotely proactive about it (well, unless you count arranging to go and see Kurosawa’s Ran with him – personally it’s not really my idea of a date movie, but I can well imagine Woody Allen disagreeing). Peter himself has fallen for Stephanie, who is unhappily married but can’t imagine leaving her children. All of these plotlines, along with that of the constant tension between Lane and Diane, work themselves out over the space of a concise 82 minute running time (it does perhaps feel a mite longer while you’re watching it), leaving you with an undeniable sense of a group of people realising that, perhaps, their best years are behind them, with only the autumn of their lives yet to come (hence, I’m guessing, the title of the movie).

And the craftsmanship of the writing and performances is really undeniable – Allen has clearly set out to tell a certain type of story in a particular way, and largely achieved his goal. Although not without a certain degree of struggle. Actors who’ve worked with Allen have occasionally grumbled about the director’s perfectionism and insistence on a contractual clause obliging them to be available for any reshoots he deems to be necessary. There is also the story that, having completed Manhattan, Allen was so unimpressed with the finished movie that he asked the studio for permission to scrap it and make an entirely new film for free. Something similar appears to have happened with September – having completed the film, the director decided that he wasn’t happy with it, so rewrote it, recast some of the parts, and made it all over again. (The Sam Waterston role was originally played by Sam Shepard, which I find a little ironic as I’m always getting those two actors mixed up. Apparently, it was even Christopher Walken playing Peter for a bit, which would have been much less confusing for me.)

Of course, you could argue there’s a fine line between perfectionism and self-indulgence, and if so then September is surely a rather self-indulgent piece of film-making, with its very stagey style and formalism. Why set out to make a movie which is, to all intents and purposes, just a very thinly disguised stage play? If you’re going to make a movie, then make a movie. On the other hand, if you’re going to make a movie pretty much every year (as Allen has been doing for nearly half a century now), then coming up with new material and new approaches must inevitably become a bit of an issue for you, so you may well end up either repeating yourself endlessly or doing very odd things just because you’ve never done them before. Not for the first time, I find myself wondering if Woody Allen’s enviable work ethic and productivity aren’t partly to blame for the inconsistent quality of his films. September is admirable on its own terms, but I’d struggle to say anything much more positive about it than that.

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Space Junk

Received wisdom, even amongst some of the people who actually worked on the show, is that a voyage into the first season of Star Trek: The Next Generation is likely to be painful and unrewarding: almost a textbook case of time not well spent. ‘Almost unwatchable’ is one of the kinder comments concerning the first season or so, and the consensus seems to be that if the show had been running on a network, rather than in first-run syndication, it would not have been given the time to find its feet in the very impressive way that it ultimately did.

But, hey, I like to live dangerously – and there is something about these early shows, a slightly goofy sense of adventure reminiscent of the original series that gets lost as the programme becomes more stately and cerebral. And while you are really on a hiding to nothing trying to argue that any of these shows are truly outstanding TV, you do come across the odd episode which is interesting enough to be cut some slack.

So, then: Symbiosis, from the back end of season 1, story by Robert Lewin, script by (as was usual at this point) a whole mob of people. Still quite early days on the Enterprise-D – Geordi is still flying the ship, they’re not quite sure what to do with Worf, Riker’s chin is still exposed to the elements, and Tasha’s life expectancy can be measured in days (this was actually the last episode to be filmed featuring her as a regular character, which is why Denise Crosby waves goodbye to the camera at the end of Tasha’s final scene). The Enterprise is doing something important and astronomical when it picks up a distress call from a small freighter in danger of crashing into one of the two inhabited planets of the local system. The peculiar uselessness of the freighter’s crew means the vessel is lost, but four survivors and the cargo (a mysterious barrel) are saved.

A reunion of the supporting cast of Star Trek II appears to have been in progress on the stricken ship, as materialising on the pad are Judson Scott, as one of a pair of smug aliens in shiny clothes, and Merritt Butrick, as one of a pair of sweaty aliens in shabby clothes. What’s going on is this: the smug aliens come from the planet Brekkia (much more Brekky than most planets), where their whole society is dedicated to producing the drug felicium (which is what’s in the barrel). The sweaty aliens come from the planet Ornara, where everyone carries a terrible incurable disease and needs regular doses of felicium in order to function at all. In return for medical supplies, the Ornarans supply the Brekkians with all their material requirements – an arrangement which allows one side to live, and the other to live well, to paraphrase an unexpectedly elegant line of dialogue. The question is now one of who the felicium belongs to, given that the payment was destroyed along with the freighter – one side says it is desperately needed, but the other refuses to just give it away.

However, the olfactory rodent detection sensor on Dr Crusher’s tricorder starts to register, mainly because she can’t find any trace of disease in the Ornaran visitors, despite their clear physical discomfort and claims that they are infected. The penny (or the Federation equivalent) drops when the Ornarans are allowed a dose of the medicine as a goodwill gesture, and instantly subside into a doped-up stupor. There is no plague – not any more, anyway. The Ornaran dependency on felicium – and thus the entire basis of both societies and their relationship – is simply because it is a massively addictive narcotic. Picard and the others have stumbled into a case of drug-dealing on an interplanetary scale…

(Before we get onto the rest of it, many people stick the boot into this episode for a number of different reasons, but no-one seems to have noticed the strangeness of the set-up which the plot demands – the Ornarans are heading home with their load of felicium, which is fair enough. But why are they bringing two Brekkians back with them, along with – apparently – whatever they paid for the drugs with? The fact that the payment is destroyed with the freighter is a plot point.)

As I say, the thing about many of these early TNG episodes is that it’s relatively easy to imagine them, or a close version of them, appearing in a fourth or fifth season of the original series. This one is no exception – although the lumberingly heavy-handed allegory (hell, it’s not even an allegory, it’s an episode which is explicitly about narcotic addiction and drug dealing) and a few incidental plot details (both the Brekkians and  Ornarans can generate shocks like an electric eel) inevitably mean the 60s episode you’re reminded of most is Let That Be Your Last Battlefield, not exactly 60s Trek‘s finest hour or so. People say the Federation is a post-scarcity economy; well, not as far as subtlety is concerned, much of the time.

(Possibly the most egregious element of the episode is a scene in which Wesley wonders aloud how anyone could let themselves get addicted to drugs, and receives a kind but stern lecture from Tasha on the subject, rather in the style of a Very Special Episode of a kids’ cartoon. This was apparently crowbarred in by writer and executive producer Maurice Hurley – the other writers didn’t want it there, the director didn’t want it, the actors were begging not to have to perform it. It is a bit like a lead weight that drags the rest of the episode down. If I were the kind of person who gave star ratings, I would knock a star off just for this one scene.)

On the other hand, Symbiosis is also very much influenced by how the Roddenberry vision had developed over the years since the 1960s. The drug-dealing situation is the backdrop to the episode, but the central conflict is all about the lofty moral principles of the Federation, specifically (of course) the Prime Directive not to interfere in the internal workings of other societies. What’s going on is clearly a case of parasitic exploitation – the Brekkians are fully aware of what they’re doing – and you would imagine that were Kirk in the captain’s seat they would have found a way for him to resolve the situation with a fist-fight and quite probably a ripped shirt.

But, of course, it’s not Kirk in command but Picard, and first-season Picard at that. The writers simply haven’t figured out how to make best use of Patrick Stewart at this point, and Picard is not the thoughtful and subtle figure of immense moral authority he would eventually become, but more a starchy apparatchik whose remarkable qualities we’re told about more often than shown. You wait and wait for the moment where Picard will unleash a scathing condemnation on the Brekkians, making it quite clear how morally bankrupt and reprehensible their civilisation is, but it never comes. If Kirk’s motto could have been ‘Risk is our business’, then Picard’s – this week, at least – is ‘my hands are tied’. He can’t tell the Ornarans they’re being duped (and doped). He can’t stop the Brekkians from selling them the drug. He can’t allow Dr Crusher’s plan to give the planet of the junkies a synthetic drug to help wean them off the felicium. It really sucks to be Picard on a week like this one.

Some people watching this episode come away with the impression that its central theme is simply ‘drugs are bad and drug dealers are horrible’. The episode certainly does express this sentiment – grindingly – but it’s also got a strange message about how doing the right thing can often leave a bad taste in your mouth. Picard comes up with a kind-of solution to the situation – he withdraws an offer to help maintain the Ornaran space fleet, meaning their ships will soon break down, ending the drug trade, and guaranteeing agonising Cold Turkey for the entire population of Ornara – but the implication is that, even if he hadn’t done this, the Federation would have won some kind of moral victory simply by resisting the urge to intervene. Is it really the case that preserving the Federation’s lofty principles is worth condemning an entire planet’s population to excruciating withdrawal symptoms, and the possible collapse of their society? Picard seems quite sure that it is, even though he admits that they may never learn the consequences of their actions (another ship may not be in this sector for decades).

Star Trek, in all its incarnations, is generally a show with a degree of moral sophistication to it, but this is one of those occasions which makes you wonder quite where Gene Roddenberry’s head was at. The Prime Directive is a dandy plot device for ramping up the conflict quotient in a story and complicating the lives of people with, after all, vast resources backing them up. But does it really stand up as an absolute moral imperative? This is the kind of episode which gives you pause, as far as that goes. Unfortunately the sheer crushing obviousness of the drug addiction plot largely eclipses the moral aspect of this particular story. You could never call Symbiosis a great episode, but digging into it at least provides food for thought.

A Swine Romance

I am increasingly aware that I am, in many important ways, a man out of time – not to the extent of wearing double-breasted pyjamas or being hailed as a possible future Tory Prime Minister, but I’m fully aware that many of my views are, well, rather old-fashioned. One of these is that the best place for watching a new film is the cinema. This may just be dyed-in-the-wool traditionalism, or possibly simply the fact that going to the pictures a couple of times a week often makes up most of my social life (there are other people there, after all, even if I don’t speak to them or actually know their names).

Nevertheless, the world moves on, and new films are starting to show up in places you might not have expected a few years ago. Investing heavily in films, along with much else, is a video streaming site which is not paying me for advertising and so which I will not name. (Suffice to say it rhymes with Get Clicks.) One thing you can say about these guys is that they do not skimp when it comes to things like actors or production values: they show every sign of making proper big movies which would be quite at home getting a (proper) traditional theatrical release.

For example, let us consider Okja, directed by Bong Joon Ho, a movie which appeared on the site in question. There are some extremely odd things about this film and the manner in which it has been presented, but it is no more extravagantly weird than many other films which I’ve seen recently.

Tilda Swinton plays Lucy Mirando, newly-installed boss of a major corporation, who as the film starts reveals her plan to start a ten-year programme of raising a litter of unusual ‘super pigs’ in different locations around the world. The new breed of pig offers hope of an end to the problem of global food shortages forever!

Hmm, well. Ten years pass and we meet Mija (An Seo Hyun), a young girl living in the remote mountains of South Korea with her lazy and skinflint grandfather – and Okja, one of the Mirando super pigs they have been entrusted with. Okja is an impressive beast, having grown from cute piglethood into something resembling an endearing hybrid of a particularly big hippo and Lockjaw from The Inhumans. Needless to say, Mija and Okja have a very strong bond, and as they have purchased Okja from the corporation, their rustic idyll can continue forever.

Except, of course, that her grandfather has been lying about buying the pig, and Mirando’s apparatchiks turn up, accompanied by their zoologist shill Dr Johnny (Jake Gyllenhaal), to take Okja off to Seoul and then New York for the final of the Giant Super Pig Contest. Okja is spirited away without Mija’s consent (spiriting away an animal the size of a small van is a neat trick, I have to admit), and she is outraged when she learns of her grandfather’s deception. Mija equips herself for an epic quest and sets off in search of her beloved animal…

Now – and I hope I’m not breaking any confidences here – my sister has a thing about pigs. Hmm, perhaps that didn’t come across quite the way it was intended to. I should clarify things and stress that she is just inordinately fond of our porcine friends. No, that’s not quite right either – well, look, she’s a pig person, all right, just not in any peculiar or unwholesome way. And so it occurred to me that I might end up recommending Okja as a film she would want to watch, perhaps with her kids. Certainly, the opening set-up has that slightly grotesque and outlandish quality of a Roald Dahl story, and the first movement of the story feels intentionally ‘classic’ in its elements and tone.

But I will not be suggesting Sister-of-Awix check this movie out, and especially not with her children around. This is indeed a film about a young girl’s quest to recover her giant, slightly magical pig, with a somewhat fantastical tone. But it is a fantastical film about a young girl and her giant magical pig with a monumental F-bomb count, some startlingly brutal violence, and also a no-holds-barred visit to an abattoir at one point. It’s all a bit more Tom-Yum-Goong than it is a Disney film.

General consensus seems to be that Get Clicks have dropped the ball when it comes to its handling of Okja, not least because it is still listed on its UK site as a ‘G’. This in itself is slightly confusing, as it’s not a standard British certification – I assumed it stood for ‘General’, but apparently it means ‘Guidance recommended’. The BBFC, by the way, appear to have given Okja a 15 certificate, which seems to me to be entirely appropriate.

But you can’t really blame Get Clicks, except in the most general way, for the fact that Okja is utterly bizarre in its tone – this is definitely not a children’s film. But it has the same kind of subject matter as a children’s film, and is largely made in the style of one. So, what exactly is going on here? I fear the worst, readers, specifically that this film has been made to appeal to the dreaded Ironic Sensibility. Many of the English-language scenes not concerning Mija and Okja have a very knowing, tongue-in-cheek quality, which after a while set my teeth to aching. The film seems to be inciting at least part of its audience to be complicit in its own weirdness, while assuring them that it is absolutely sound in terms of its politics and morality and so on. I know I am on the thinnest of thin ice here, but I have a very low tolerance for the whole phenomenon where adults sit down and have earnest conversations about (for example) the admirably progressive gender politics of a cartoon about talking kittens. It seems to me to represent a retreat from maturity and actual engagement with the serious issues of life – except where serious issues are handled only in the most simplistic way. The looming threat of right-on smugness is a constant danger.

So I found it with much of Okja. This is, obviously, a film with a message to deliver about animal rights and the practices of the food industry – you could quite probably label it as a piece of pro-vegetarian propaganda, to be honest. Fair enough – there are arguments to be made here. But the style of Okja means its sheer sentimentality grates with the graphic nature of many of its scenes. This is a shamelessly, brazenly manipulative film, so much so that it actually becomes irritating rather than affecting. My first instinct after it finished was to go and have a sausage baguette, just on principle.

This is not to say that there is not much to enjoy in Okja – the staging of the early scenes with Mija and Okja in the forest is honestly magical, and the depiction of Okja is genuinely stunning – CGI never ceases to improve, of course, but I have absolutely no clue how some of the shots in this movie were achieved. Then again, the film is almost wholly about Okja (hence the name), so I suppose getting the CGI right was a priority. There are also a raft of good performances from people like Swinton, Gyllenhaal, Shirley Henderson, and Paul Dano (who appears as an animal rights activist).

In the end, though, I couldn’t help thinking that Okja is only a few more script drafts away from being a really great children’s film – Babe, quite literally on steroids. But as it stands, there’s too much profanity and darkness in this film for it to be suitable for normal kids, while at the same time it’s too childish and eccentric to function as a piece of entertainment for mature audiences. Definite talent at work here, but in a very undisciplined way.

Grave Reservation

Autumn is upon us, schools and universities are back in session, the last of the big summer tentpole movies have been and gone, and in the pause before the onset of serious awards-bait, we have a chance of a slightly more interesting and intelligent type of genre movie. This is also an opportunity for people who get their biggest pay-checks for appearing in movies about killer robots and giant monsters to show that they still have what it takes as credible actors and not just the basis for action figures. Thus, we find Jeremy Renner and Elizabeth Olsen appearing in Taylor Sheridan’s Wind River.

Jeremy Renner plays Cory Lambert, a US Fish and Wildlife Service Officer who is also a lethal rifle shot (nice to see that Renner shows no sign of becoming typecast – I can think of at least a dozen movies where he plays a sniper, a special forces operative, an assassin, or something similar). He describes himself as a hunter, but one of the things the film quietly suggests is that the difference between a hunter and a sniper is basically down to where you happen to be pointing your gun. Lambert is on the Wind River Indian Reservation, on the trail of a mountain lion, when he comes across the half-dressed corpse of a young woman, frozen solid inside a snowdrift.

The authorities are summoned, including happened-to-be-in-the-area FBI agent Jane Banner (Olsen) – Banner originally hails from Florida, so the wilds of Wyoming in the depths of winter are not exactly her comfort zone. A medical examination takes place, and many blood-curdling details relating to exactly how one dies of exposure when underdressed in a blizzard are passed on to the audience, but the most significant one is that, although she was attacked, the girl’s cause of death was technically exposure, not actual murder, which means Banner will not be given the full support and resources of the FBI as she works on the case – the local Tribal Police Chief (Graham Greene) is not surprised.

Still, Lambert is willing to pitch in, which is probably just as well, as the answers to the mystery of the girl’s death lie somewhere out in the snowy wilderness. Many grim truths about the inhabitants of Wind River threaten to come to light, provided Lambert and Banner survive to discover them – the land itself here can be as deadly as any criminal…

I really should keep better track of my up-and-coming American writer-directors. All the way through Wind River I found myself thinking that there was something about this film, the strength of the writing and dialogue, the sense of time and place, the elegant unfolding of the plot, which put me rather in mind of Hell or High Water from last year. And, of course, that was another Taylor Sheridan movie – if you want a smart, tough thriller set in the wide-open spaces of the US of Stateside, Sheridan is turning into a very good bet.

Once again, it’s a little tricky to pin down exactly what kind of movie this is – there are elements of the investigative-procedural, of course (visits to the path lab and so on), but also sections with a strong western vibe to them. Renner spends a fair chunk of the film in a cowboy hat, and while he isn’t strictly speaking a lawman, his character is definitely out for justice in a certain very specific way.

Ordinarily, films which give house room to the notion of (for want of a better expression) frontier justice make me rather uncomfortable, as it strikes me as a very dubious message to putting into a piece of entertainment. Wind River manages to get away with it, much to my surprise, probably because it contextualises the idea so thoroughly and seems to be presenting it fairly dispassionately. It’s inevitably a bleak idea, but then this is a largely bleak film. It is, I would say, normal for films in this kind of setting to engage in a little social commentary on the lot of the inhabitants of reservations, and Wind River is no exception – the icy setting reflects the death of hope which has come to afflict so many of the film’s characters, and emphasises that this is a place profoundly different from America’s urban centres – this is a place from which only the strong can emerge unscathed.

To be honest, the murder-mystery element of Wind River’s plot is not particularly complex or challenging, but then the film is about other things – as mentioned, the loss of hope, and the corrosive effects of grief and guilt. The film needs considerable heft for this to work, and gets it mostly from Jeremy Renner, who gives a really impressive performance, achieving that neat trick of revealing everything about a character who really doesn’t speak much or show real emotion in the usual course of events. Olsen is also very good – one hopes she will break out of the genre ghetto at some point. Then again, this is a film with consistently strong performances from a mainly unknown cast (although Jon Bernthal pops up for a brief cameo at a crucial moment).

On the other hand, the film also contains some well-staged action, and what I took away from it was not really much to do with the characters or plot but a general sense of people struggling to find reasons to live – and, of course, the magnificent landscape of Montana in winter.

I suspect I’m making Wind River sound like an incredibly bleak and joyless experience, and while it’s not completely bereft of lighter moments, in general this is a serious and thoughtful film. And while it is true that the film does not shy away from the repugnant nature of some of the crimes involved, I think that’s infinitely preferable to a film in which people are casually blown away by the dozen and sexual assault is treated mainly as a seasoning element to make a film just a little bit more piquant for the jaded viewer.

Wind River is not a light or frothy film, but it does pretty much everything you would want from a film of this type – the drama and thriller elements complement each other flawlessly, the performances are good, the atmosphere is almost palpable, and the theme of the film is clear without the audience being beaten about the head by it. This is a very fine film.

Gore Blimey!

It’s not very common for a film to make it all the way into cinemas without me seeing a reasonable amount of publicity for it – if it’s a film that falls within my (fairly undiscriminating) area of interest, anyway. And yet this is what happened with Juan Carlos Medina’s The Limehouse Golem. Two questions obviously leap to mind – why did your correspondent go and see it, based on nothing but a title, a cast list, and a vague capsule description? And is it genuinely receiving some kind of stealth release, or can the producers just not be bothered to pay for an ad campaign?

Second things first – and the honest answer is, I’m not sure. The film had its world premiere nearly a year ago, and while twelve months isn’t an exceptional period of time for a film to sit on the shelf, it doesn’t really indicate a distributor bursting with confidence either. I’ve commented in the past on the fact that trailers tend to appear before a film of the same general kind, and The Limehouse Golem is an extremely tough movie to categorise in some ways – is it a period detective story, a grisly splatter horror movie, or a slightly more niche drama? The other question is a little easier to answer – we’re going through a quiet period release-wise at present, I’m loathe to waste an afternoon off by not going to the cinema, and this looked like it might be agreeably Hammer horror-ish. Which, I have to say, only goes to show…

The movie is based on the book Dan Leno and the Limehouse Golem, by the noted authority on all things Londonian Peter Ackroyd – which seems to be one of those novels which flaunts its erudition by including all manner of historical figures as characters, some famous, some much more obscure. On some level I suppose this therefore qualifies as another Victoriana mash-up, along the lines of Anno Dracula or Dickensian, but it’s less user-friendly than either of those.

The year is 1880 and Londoners are living in fear as a savage, brutal killer walks amongst them, slaughtering prostitutes, Jews, and whole families, seemingly at will. Installed as the fall guy on this challenging case is police detective Inspector Kildare (Bill Nighy), along with his sidekick PC Flood (Daniel Mays). Kildare’s investigations lead him to the reading room of the British Museum and a list of four men, one of whom must surely be the killer who has been given the nickname of the Limehouse Golem.

However, one of the suspects has recently died in suspicious circumstances, and his widow Elizabeth (Olivia Cooke) is on trial for his murder. Is there a connection? Kildare finds himself obliged to delve into the history of a string of grisly murders, while trying to uncover the truth about Elizabeth and her own unsettling personal history…

I am sure that Peter Ackroyd is a very erudite man. However, the screenplay for this movie was written by Jane Goldman, and while I’m sure she has many fine qualities, erudition and subtlety are not necessarily the ones that immediately leap to mind based on her previous work (Kingsman, The Woman in Black, Kick-Ass). How to best describe The Limehouse Golem? Well, one thing you can say about it is that it is never knowingly under-wrought.

Another is that there is something genuinely refreshing about a film which so comprehensively cuts loose from normal conventions of movie storytelling. There were whole sequences in this film which had me slack-jawed and goggling at the screen, confounded by the sheer audacity and weirdness of the thing. Is it a period procedural about a set of murders clearly intended to suggest the Ripper killings of 1888? Or is it a rather different kind of film about a young woman’s rise from extreme poverty to success in the music halls of Victorian London, and the pressures on her even after becoming a star? The film ping-pongs back and forth between them like a cross between a particularly gory slasher film and an episode of The Good Old Days (younger readers, ask your grandparents).

If this movie were a pudding submitted for the Great British Pudding Showdown, I rather imagine that the first note from the judges would be ‘Easy on the eggs in future’. It opens at such a pitch of near-strangulated tension that it really finds itself with virtually nowhere else to go, and practically the whole film takes place with every element – script, performances, direction – elevated to an extreme level; naturalistic this movie is definitely not. At one point there’s a particularly startling sequence in which Karl Marx – yes, that Karl Marx – dressed up in a top hat and cape, saws the head off a prostitute. And this is not much more startling than most of the rest of the movie, which is stuffed with baroque dialogue, double-entendre-laden musical numbers, dwarfs, transvestitism, kinky sexual practices, severed body parts, and repressed libidos. There also seems to be some sort of LGBT subtext going on here, but as this is the one element of the film not rammed into the audience’s frontal lobes, it’s a little difficult to tell what message it’s trying to communicate beyond the obvious and pedestrian one.

Does it actually work as a movie, though? Well, you can always rely on Bill Nighy to deliver a superb performance, and I’m starting to think the same is also true of Olivia Cooke, who has never failed to impress me in any of the films I’ve seen her in. In terms of simple production values, British companies are simply very good at this kind of late-Victorian period piece. The Limehouse Golem is never less than arresting viewing, and rattles along energetically. But, at the same time, the film is so all over the place that I’m not quite sure what it wants to be or say, and it does feature the kind of plot twist which is simultaneously outrageously unbelievable and rather predictable.

In the end, The Limehouse Golem is really not very much like a Hammer horror film, but neither is it much like anything else I can remember seeing recently, either. There are lots of good things going on here, along with much that is baffling, some that is startling, and a few things that are actively silly. In the end the whole confection is probably a bit too bizarre and phantasmagorical to really succeed as a movie, but you could certainly argue that this is one of those movies where the incidental pleasures of the journey just about make up for the fact that the destination isn’t anything particularly special.

 

tIn quS Qujmey

The 23rd century used to be a very different place. I am old enough to remember when the Star Trek films were very new and rather exciting additions to the world created by the original TV show, a world which was enthusiastically studied and extrapolated upon by a generation of fans throughout the 1970s and early 1980s. At that point, Star Trek really belonged to its fans, and they happily seized upon every little point of lore and casual reference as they expanded the universe of the show.

The lack of any prospect of new Trek gave this project a freedom to innovate and go beyond the limitations of the TV show – not necessarily by dragging it into a mature readers ghetto of gratuitous sexual content and other graphic material (although there was certainly an element of this), but by treating the show like the serious SF it had always aspired to be. In the 1990s, certainly, Star Trek became the McDonald’s of science fiction, omni-present, reliable, safe, samey. But some of the early books from the 1980s are much more like the real stuff: they’re SF set in the Star Trek universe, rather than simply TV tie-in books.

Time moves on, of course, and while some of these books have lasted reasonably well, others have fallen foul of subsequent developments in the TV and movie canon. Looking at these books now is an undeniably odd experience – they often still have that authentic Trek feel to them, despite the fact that they are frequently totally at odds with the ‘real’ history of Trek.

This is particularly noticeable with The Final Reflection, a novel by John M Ford. This book was originally published in 1984, the same year that Star Trek III was released. One of the noteworthy things about Star Trek III is the fact that it’s the first movie that deals in-depth with the Klingons as we have come to know them today – although their presentation in the film is not exactly in depth, the ‘standard’ Klingon make-up debuts here, along with the familiar Bird-of-Prey ship design, and of course Marc Okrand’s Klingon language. Other writers, most significantly Ronald Moore, would take these things as a starting point and go on to develop the Klingon culture in much more detail.

The thing is, however, that John M Ford was there first, creating his own vision of how Klingon society functioned, and doing so with the approach of a fan rather than a professional. The makers of Star Trek did not explain the radical difference in appearance between the Klingons of the original TV show and those in later versions until the mid 2000s, but fans of the show had come up with their own explanation decades earlier – not being as adverse to genetic manipulation as their Federation rivals, the Klingons had re-engineered themselves into a number of different sub-species, some of which (the lumpy-headed ones) were more pureblooded, while the fusions (the ones more closely resembling human actors in face paint) had been created for the purposes of interaction with other species. This and many other things form the fabric of the story of The Final Reflection.

The story itself is partly a coming-of-age novel, partly a political thriller. There is a very brief frame story set aboard the Enterprise some time after the end of the TV show, but most of the novel takes the form of a story set nearly half a century earlier (TV characters are referred to or implied to appear). Krenn, an orphaned young Klingon, finds himself adopted into the house of a senior strategist, joins the Imperial Navy, distinguishes himself in border skirmishes with the Romulans, and soon rises to become captain of his own ship, no mean feat given the omnipresence of both rivals and Klingon Security.

This leads to him being given a singular mission: to travel to Earth and collect Emanuel Tagore, the first ambassador from the Federation to the Klingon homeworld. To say there are political tensions and factional disagreements on both sides regarding this is an understatement. Is Krenn’s mission even intended to succeed? Could it just be intended to provide a pretext for the war which some in both the Federation and the Klingon Empire seem to desperately want?

The Final Reflection is written with considerable elegance and skill, Ford skating through some potentially tricky areas (involved descriptions of space battles) with impressive deftness. I would have to say that the different sections of the story don’t quite tie together to form a thematically satisfying whole – the early chapters’ desire to provide an insider’s perspective on life in the Klingon Empire don’t really have a direct connection to the more involved plot of the rest of the book.

On the other hand, I imagine that many people reading this book will just be wanting to read about Klingons being Klingons, and Ford does not disappoint, expanding on the (actually really tiny amount of) information from the original series and The Motion Picture to create a rich and coherent culture. Ford’s Klingons have their own naming conventions, their own set of idioms (the seat of Klingon emotions is apparently the liver, not the heart), and their own pop icons – apparently the most popular entertainment franchise in the Empire is the suspiciously familiar-sounding Battlecruiser Vengeance, a long-running series about the exploits of a Navy cruiser and its senior officers. Central to all of this is the notion of ‘the Perpetual Game’, the idea – fundamental to their culture – that all Klingons are involved in an unending struggle for success and glory. The Final Reflection takes its name for a term from klin zha, essentially Klingon chess, which is a motif throughout the book (needless to say, rules for playing klin zha – though presumably not the most prestigious version using live pieces – are available on the Internet).

Most of this is created out of whole cloth, but somehow it all feels ‘right’ and convincing – for original series Klingons, anyway. Reading the book does remind you of just how much of what we learned about the Klingons in those initial episodes has been quietly erased from history – you can argue that references to Klingon slave camps are just hearsay based on faulty intelligence (in one episode a Klingon character seems equally convinced that the Federation practices slavery too), but we do see Klingons using personal torture devices on-screen, and the brutal methods employed by Kor in Errand of Mercy seem to be institutional, not just an example of one psychopath in a position of power. Certainly The Final Reflection acknowledges the existence of slave races within the Empire, and the paranoid, vicious nature of Klingon society (Vulcans travelling within the Empire, for instance, must consent to having the telepathic centres of their brains excised). One of the few criticisms I’d make of Ford’s world-building is that his Klingons do come across as, well, rather more Romanesque than the Romulans themselves, with their adoptions and slave-holdings and gladiatorial games. It’s difficult to think of an alternative set of cultural reference points, though.

Fascinating and thorough as this mostly is, virtually none of it meshes with the details of Klingon culture established since, mainly in Berman-era Trek (let’s not even get started on the Klingons of Discovery). The canon Klingons are almost wholly different – the inconsistencies in their appearance have an alternative explanation, and their biology is hugely different too – Ford’s Klingons mature and age more rapidly than humans, with sixty counting as a very ripe old age, whereas one of the biologically peculiar things about canon Klingons is that while they do grow to adulthood at a highly accelerated rate, compared to humans anyway (Worf’s son Alexander is conceived in 2365 and only ten years later is serving as weapons officer on a warship), they remain healthy and capable for a very long time (Kang, Kor, and Koloth are all senior officers in the late 2260s and are still around and active, albeit a bit elderly, a full century later).

The same goes for the Klingon language developed by Ford (he names the Klingon homeworld Klinzhai, by the way), which seems to be completely different from the entity unleashed upon the world by Marc Okrand. Okrandian Klingon translates the word ’empire’ as wo’, for example, whereas Fordian Klingon opts for komerex or kemerex (literally ‘that which lives and expands‘, thus providing another window into the Klingon mindset). It says something about the lasting impact of Ford’s book on the perception of the Klingons amongst a certain type of truly dedicated fan that even today you can find websites for a Klingon fan group calling itself Khemerex Klinzhai.

The thing about Ford’s Klingons is that they are subtle and nuanced and oddly ambiguous in a way which canon Klingons aren’t, really: canon Klingon society is basically just a red-lit room with a bunch of guys shouting ‘Honourrrrrrrr!’ and head-butting each other – easy to get a handle on for an hour-long TV show, I suppose, but probably less interesting as the protagonists of a genuine novel.

But then again, as I say, the influence of this book has been huge and enduring, although not always very obvious. One of Krenn’s more unexpected traits is his great fondness for fruit juice of different types, which is apparently not unusual amongst Klingons – this must surely be the source for Worf’s well-known love of prune juice. And, by one of those strange coincidences, literally hours after finishing The Final Reflection, I came across The Hidden Universe Travel Guide to the Klingon Empire, a – for want of a better word – spoof travel handbook for anyone planning a holiday in Klingon space. It’s all very much in line with Berman-era canon, but odd little things jump out at you – the Klingon star is named Klinzhai, for instance. The guidebook recommends visiting a klin zha parlour in the First City of Qo’noS. There is a box-out describing the enduring appeal of the Battlecruiser Vengeance franchise, and an advert for a Vengeance theme park ride. And page 94 is dedicated to a sidebar entitled ‘Appreciating The Final Reflection’, which tells of how a Federation anthropologist named J.M. Ford wrote his famous novel while living undercover in the Empire, basing it on historical events.

Not many three-decade-old tie-in novels are still well-regarded enough to get this sort of shout-out, especially ones which have no claim whatsoever to even apocryphal canonicity. Yet it seems entirely appropriate in this case – you can’t honestly claim that John M Ford wrote the book on Klingons – at least, not any more. But he did write a book on Klingons, and one which is still influential and entertaining today. Practically essential reading for the serious student of all things Klingon; a fine SF novel for everyone else.

Groovy Strain

The reimagining of Westworld as a proper, mature, hide-granny’s-eyes TV series might, you would have thought, have ensured a little attention for the director of the original movie, but this has turned out not to be the case. Perhaps this is because the one of the creators of the new Westworld is Jonathan Nolan, a notable figure in his own right; perhaps the fact that Michael Crichton died nearly ten years ago may also be significant. Even so, it’s surely a shame – Crichton didn’t create the kind of books or films that get a lot of critical respect, but they’ve certainly had an impact on modern culture, and some of them were actually pretty good.

Of course, it helps if you have the right people involved, and in the history of film-making there have been few pairs of hands safer than that of Robert Wise, who directed the 1971 film version of Crichton’s novel The Andromeda Strain. It seems to me that some people dismiss Wise as just another studio journeyman, reliably knocking out the likes of The Sound of Music and West Side Story, but on their own terms, these are still exceptionally accomplished films. The Andromeda Strain was the second of Wise’s three SF movies, the others being The Day the Earth Stood Still and Star Trek: The Motion Picture (they are a peculiarly disparate trio).

The story opens with the team sent to retrieve a US satellite that has just returned to Earth discovering a silent, still small town in Arizona. Everyone there has dropped dead, apparently simultaneously – as the team discover in the very final moments of their own lives.

The government responds by activating a team of scientists prepared for just this contingency: the arrival on Earth of a lethal extraterrestrial pathogen. Two of them, Stone (Arthur Hill) and Hall (James Olson), venture into the dead town in spacesuits to locate the missing satellite, while Dutton (David Wayne) and Leavitt (Kate Read) proceed directly to the team’s secret facility beneath the Nevada desert.

Stone and Hall join them shortly, bringing with them two people who have inexplicably survived the alien pathogen – the town drunk and a small, understandably distressed child. Everyone proceeds to the lowest and most secure level of the base, while a strong recommendation is made that a nuclear weapon be used to obliterate the town and remove any chance of the infection spreading to more densely populated regions. Work gets underway on the process of locating, analysing, and neutralising the deadly agent, code-named Andromeda – the ultimate sanction being the presence in the base of another nuclear device, which will be used to sterilise the area if Andromeda shows any signs of escaping into the outside world…

When you watch The Andromeda Strain these days, you’re never very far away from a reminder that this is a film made in the early 1970s. That doesn’t mean it’s a bad film; far from it. But it is one very much of its era. Partly this is reflected in the way it is filmed and edited: Wise reveals a fondness for split-screen effects, which were briefly modish in the late 60s and early 70s. Mostly, though, the film is simply very obviously part of a whole lineage of rather grim American films from this period, all concerned with technology and existential threats to human existence. It’s second cousin to The Forbin Project, for instance, sharing that film’s preoccupation with underground facilities and the dubious wisdom of putting computers in charge of nukes. But, as I said, virtually every major studio SF film of the early 1970s was at least a little bit dystopian, and The Andromeda Strain comes off this way too.

The odd thing is that this isn’t really because of the threat of the Andromeda life-form itself, but a consequence of the antiseptic and inhuman environment the characters have created to contain it. The Wildfire project does not seem like a fun place to work – everyone there is po-faced, to say the least (although, with the exception of Kate Reid’s character, the whole movie is notably humourless). There’s something oddly conflicted about a film which, on the one hand, spends a huge amount of time fetishising the technology on display in it – waldos, computers, scanners, laser guns, and so on – but at the same time is obviously fundamentally disquieted by all of this gleaming, inhuman power.

(As a side note, it also occurs to me that The Andromeda Strain – if not the movie, then certainly the book – was surely a key influence on the British TV show Doomwatch, which I wrote about recently. The Andromeda Strain is marginally more SF, but both deal with teams of experts attempting to tackle unusual scientific threats to human life, with the emphasis much more on ideas and science than on the characters as people. Stone’s initial declaration that the town must be isolated and destroyed to prevent Andromeda from spreading recalls one episode of Doomwatch, but the smoking gun, surely, comes when the alien organism mutates into a form which eats plastic, causing a jet which encounters it to disintegrate in mid-air – suffice to say, the first episode of Doomwatch was entitled The Plastic Eaters and features jet planes having similar in-flight difficulties.)

Was Michael Crichton trying to make a serious point when he wrote the original novel, or was he just going for maximum verisimilitude by adopting such a down-to-earth tone? It’s hard to say, but The Andromeda Strain takes itself very seriously, even for an early 1970s SF movie. Wise later spoke of it having an almost documentary quality, which is helped by the fact it is filled with obscure character actors rather than movie stars. You have to keep your mind on the job while you’re watching it, too, given so much of it takes the form of actors playing scientists talking very earnestly to each other about matters of methodology, procedure, and their various hypotheses.

That said, of course, they have to produce a suitably exciting climax from somewhere, and The Andromeda Strain manages it rather neatly – not only does Andromeda eat its way through the plastic filters sealing the lowest level of the base, starting the countdown on the bomb, but the team realise that life-form is so alien that the nuclear blast will just provide it with an energy source that will let it multiply and infest the whole planet. Much scrambling up ladders and dodging automated laser guns ensues, as a desperate attempt to disarm the nuke is undertaken. In retrospect all of this seems more than a little bit contrived, but it does result in a genuinely tense and exciting conclusion to the film.

Even so, it’s not exactly an upbeat ending – not only has the gleaming apparatus of the installation come up short in several respects, mostly due to human frailty, but Stone admits to a government enquiry that there is no guarantee that any future incursions from space can be contained in this way. Still, this is pretty much par for the course, and in fact The Andromeda Strain is rather more cheerful than many of its contemporaries – Earth isn’t cracked open like an egg, or left a sterile industrial hell, or depopulated by a lethal virus. Maybe the movie makes the mistake of taking itself just a bit too seriously, but it’s still an impressively well-made, rather unusual SF film.