Captains Anonymous

I have seen it suggested that what Warner Brothers are currently engaged in with their DC Comics superhero movies is the cinematic equivalent of what I believe is called a fire sale: they’re offloading product which they don’t have a great deal of confidence in. I suppose some of these films are lucky to be coming out at all, given that the corporation cheerfully spent $90 million on a Batgirl movie which they then junked as some sort of tax wheeze.

Then again, this sort of thing is not entirely surprising where the DC movie franchise is concerned, for this has felt like a chaotic sort of undertaking for a long time – they have, in short, been all over the place since Joss Whedon and Zach Snyder ended up doing different parallel versions of the Justice League movie and they hired two different actors to play the Joker. The latest development is the hiring of James Gunn, whose previous DC-adjacent projects include The Suicide Squad and Brightburn: rumour has it he will be sacking most of the established actors and resetting the continuity. The whiff of confusion persists even now – no sooner had Henry Cavill come back for his cameo at the end of Black Adam than it was announced his services as Superman would no longer be required.

Where this leaves everyone connected to the Captain Marvel-related corner of the DC franchise I have absolutely no idea (the last time we discussed this topic I explained why there are compelling historical reasons for calling the guy in red and cream with the lightning bolt on his chest Captain Marvel, so there). The new movie here is Shazam! Fury of the Gods, directed as before by David F Sandberg. The first one came out four years ago and dates back to a point when DC actually seemed to have turned a corner and were routinely making non-sucky films – a sequel would usually be an opportunity to go bigger, more confidently. This sort of proves to be the case, though the results are not necessarily positive.

As things get underway, Billy Batson (Asher Angel) and his fellow fosterlings are spending their free time as mystically-empowered champions of justice – Billy’s heroic alter ego, who still hasn’t settled on a name for himself (suggestion: Captain Marvel), is played by Zachary Levi. They mean well, but still end up causing a significant amount of property damage, which naturally impacts on their popularity. The movie’s moral premise is also rather bluntly introduced at this point – Billy has abandonment issues, and is reluctant to give his family the freedom to be heroic in their own ways.

Soon enough they have bigger problems, as three ancient goddesses rock up looking to steal their divine powers and revive the ancient realm of the immortals. These are Hespera (Helen Mirren, 77, long skirt, fairly evil), Kalypso (Lucy Liu, 54, quite short skirt, extremely evil), and Anthea (Rachel Zegler, 21, very short skirt, only marginally evil). A big chunk of Philadelphia is soon sealed inside a magic dome, the family members start having their powers nicked, and there’s even a wooden dragon on the prowl…

And, you know, it’s a functional movie inasmuch as they spend the CGI budget wisely and it occasionally has some good jokes in it and ruptures your ear-drums quite effectively. Even so, you’re always aware you’re not exactly seeing anything groundbreakingly new, and what is here isn’t quite good or charming enough to make you overlook the fact it’s just a slab of corporate product. Unlike the original movie or Black Adam (its closest cousin), it’s a pretty big and unwieldy beast – there are a total of six major and assistant heroes, most of whom are played by two actors (Grace Caroline Currey plays both Mary Marvel and her human incarnation, presumably because both characters fill the hot young female supporting character niche), three villains, the foster parents and the Wizard (Djimon Hounsou) to be wrangled, so it’s not surprising the plot feels a bit discursive in places. Nor is it really surprising that the moral premise of the movie gets largely forgotten about, but the relative lack of screen time for Asher Angel as Billy Batson is quite unexpected – although this helps keep the jarring difference between Angel’s quite down to earth performance and Levi’s extremely broad comic turn less noticable. Jack Dylan Grazer, who plays Billy’s friend Freddy, is really in the film much more (which of course means that Adam Brody, who plays his alter ego Captain Marvel Junior, also doesn’t get much screen time).

Doing quite well in terms of prominence is Helen Mirren, who isn’t the kind of person you would expect to appear in this kind of film (then again, you could say the same about the Fast and Furious series, and she seems very happily ensconced there – there’s even an in-joke about this). Nearly thirty years ago many people were rather surprised when Nigel Hawthorne turned up in the Stallone headbanger Demolition Man; the explanation was that Hawthorne really wanted to lead the movie version of The Madness of George III, but would only be allowed to do so if he had some kind of proven track record in big Hollywood movies. Is there some fabulously good part that Mirren is gunning for which would explain her appearance in what’s really quite lowbrow fare? I’m not sure, but to be fair to her, Mirren slams various other performers through reinforced concrete with considerable aplomb.

I will be honest and admit I found myself wondering, partway through Fury of the Gods, if I was actually suffering from the fabled superhero movie fatigue. I think it’s more likely that this is just not a particularly interesting movie – it feels very much like the sort of thing that Marvel were doing five or six years ago, though maybe not quite as good – there is action, spectacle, knowing humour, some slightly contrived references to other films in the franchise, and a big cameo at one point, along with the now-obligatory mid- and post-credits scenes setting up future episodes. It’s a proven formula, but by now it feels a bit old-fashioned. And will any of the things this is setting up ever actually happen? I’m not sure anyone knows for sure at this point. The Shazam! films are amiably goofy enough, I suppose, but if this series does fall victim to the Great DC Reset I’m not sure anyone will really be that upset.

Never kill anything off. – Terry Nation

Of course they all die at the end. How else could this story end? What else were they going to do? What have they ever managed to do, except scrape survival by the skin of their teeth? It has been years since they achieved anything of note in their self-appointed mission to defeat the Federation. The greatest blows against the Federation have all been self-inflicted or struck from elsewhere. They may have destroyed the odd communication centre or liberated an occasional rebel leader, but that was a long time ago. Since then they have been running and hiding, gradually dying, running out of resources, until they eventual run out of luck and places to hide.

So: Blake, the final episode of Blake’s 7, written by Chris Boucher (of course) and directed by Mary Ridge. We get underway with some rather impressive model footage of Scorpio launching, which segues into model footage of the base blowing up: Avon and the others are moving on, the security of the place having now been compromised. Is Avon’s anti-Federation alliance dead in the water now? Soolin thinks it is; the man himself disagrees. Never mind all those resources and raw materials, Zukan was also there as a figurehead, and with him gone Avon has someone else in mind: while any idiot would do (well, within reason, which lets Vila off the hook), the man in question is… ‘strongly identified with rebels… and very popular with rabbles. They will follow him, and he will fight to the last drop of their blood.’

Avon is as cynical as ever, but something has changed – where once he would simply have dismissed a political idealist as a fool, now he sees them as a potential resource to be exploited. Somewhere along the line he has become as committed to the cause as any of his associates, even…

‘It’s Blake, isn’t it?’ says Vila. Nothing explicit is in the script, but Michael Keating does a wonderful job throughout the episode of suggesting the profound wariness and distrust Vila now has towards Avon – perhaps word of what happened a couple of episodes ago has leaked out, as the others seem very ready to accuse Avon of treating them as expendable resources. But as no-one has much of a better idea, off they go to Gauda Prime, a lawless fringe world to which Orac has managed to track Blake. (Avon must have started looking – again? – post-Terminal, possibly checking to see if Servalan was telling the truth about seeing Blake’s body. My inclination is to believe that Servalan was telling the truth to the best of her knowledge: let’s not forget there’s at least one unaccounted Blake clone out there somewhere, so it could have been him.)

And the episode doesn’t hold Blake back for a cameo like last time, but treats him as the main character he is. But he has clearly been through some tough times since the battle of Star One: scarred, grimy, unshaven. And, it would seem, no longer the idealist Avon considers him to be: now he is working as a bounty hunter on Gauda Prime. Just as Avon has become more committed to a cause, could it be that Blake has become more cynical and pragmatic himself? Are the two of them become true mirrors of each other?

Gauda Prime is a strange place to find a rebel leader, being a den of scum and villainy after having the legal system suspended. Bounty hunters now make a good living there. It’s no place for thieves, killers, mercenaries or psychopaths – which means none of the crew are likely to enjoy their visit much. (It’s worth pointing out the economy with which Boucher creates Gauda Prime as a world with a sense of history and a particular situation, rather than just one of the anonymous planets with a name out of the scrabble bag which turn up in so many other episodes.)

Even getting there proves tricky, as the planet is under blockade and Scorpio comes under concerted attack: a feigned crash into the atmosphere turns into a real crash, and the crew (except for Tarrant) are forced to escape using the teleport. (The model work of the ship crashing is also excellent.)

It seems to be Boucher’s implication that Blake and Avon are circling around each other somewhat at this point – Avon has clearly been using Orac to keep tabs of Blake’s activities, and there’s a hint that Blake may have been returning the favour. When he learns that a Wanderer-class ship has been shot down, he suddenly and rather disingenuously announces to his handler Deva (played by the marvellous David Collings, who the following year would also feature in the last episode of Sapphire and Steel) he’ll pop over that way. He certainly seems well-acquainted with the names of Avon’s current associates.

Well, Blake rescues Tarrant from the wreckage of Scorpio – Slave’s final speech is clearly intended to echo the death of Zen in Terminal, but isn’t as effective – and Tarrant, despite claiming that he would recognise Blake on sight when he first arrived on Liberator, doesn’t do so with any certainty. Blake flies him back to his underground base, with Avon and the others following. (We learn along the way that Jenna apparently died running the Gauda Prime blockade as well.) Vila even observes they are all heading for a hole in the ground.

And, of course, a combination of Blake’s paranoia (sticking with his bounty hunter cover instead of telling Tarrant the truth about what he’s doing – which is recruiting an army to attack the Federation) and Avon’s paranoia (being too quick to believe Tarrant when he declares Blake has betrayed them) results in…

Here’s the thing, though: Blake and Avon’s fatal misunderstanding is heartbreaking, but also really immaterial. Blake’s already dead by this point, as there’s a Federation infiltrator on his team. How long Arlen would have waited before calling in the troops we don’t know, but the death squad turns up very promptly at the end once things start to go bad. If Avon and the others had left it even two days before deciding to go to Gauda Prime, they at least might have survived. It’s really just bad luck that kills the Scorpio crew.

And they do die; of course they die. The story doesn’t have any point if they’re all stunned or Tarrant faints or Avon ducks and all the guards shoot each other. I stand by my opinion that Terminal is a more satisfying story than this one, in terms of its theme and character development. But the whole point of Blake is that it’s messy and things seem to happen randomly or at the worst possible time (the attack on Scorpio, Blake recruiting Arlen just before Avon arrives). Of course Servalan isn’t in it, and Orac seems to vanish at the end – there’s no evil villain with a masterplan working against the characters, just a succession of bad decisions and bad luck. The message of this episode is that one really bad day is enough to kill anyone.

I think I’ve mentioned before that some people credit Blake’s 7 as an influence on Rogue One, particularly its ending: but the difference is that the end of Rogue One is all about sacrifice and hope – Blake’s 7 just ends with a slaughter and despair. No matter what happens to Servalan – and it’s easy to imagine her ending up back on the throne somehow – Blake and Avon and the others have achieved nothing worth mentioning. The Federation is stronger than ever and seemingly invincible. But the world can seem like that, and at least Avon has retained enough of his sense of humour to recognise the irony that it was his desire to find Blake that got everyone killed. Hence the series ends with its single most resonant motif: the smile on the face of the loser.


Strange to think, but there were many episodes of Blake’s 7 I hadn’t seen in over forty years prior to doing this pilgrimage through the show, and a handful I’d never seen at all (definitely not Children of Auron or Games). So finally spending a year watching the lot was satisfying for that reason. On the other hand, having watched and enjoyed parts of series three and four on their original transmissions, I was convinced that the show really got a lot more interesting once boring old Blake was off the scene and Avon got to do his thing. Discovering that most of the first half of each of those years is dross was a terrible shock.

In fact, as I’ve suggested, if Blake’s 7 splits into two halves it’s not along chronological lines – the division is between those episodes by people who know how to write fantasy and SF action adventure for a BBC budget – Terry Nation, Chris Boucher, Robert Holmes, Tanith Lee – and those with a background in cop shows and soap operas – pretty much everyone else, but with Ben Steed and Allan Prior as the worst offenders. The first show is terrific. The second is frequently risible. (My own essential seven from Seven: The Way Back, Shadow, Star One, Rumours of Death, Terminal, Orbit, and Blake, but with honourable mentions for Seek-Locate-Destroy, Pressure Point and Sarcophagus.)

And yet there’s something about these characters that makes you overlook the shonky plotting and weird continuity and dodgy production values. You find yourself writing the stories in your head that the series seems to have neglected to do – such as why Travis decides, off-screen, to betray humanity, or what happens to Blake and Jenna off-screen in the second half of the series. That has to mean something: a credit to the talent of the performers, if nothing else.

You can imagine a new version of Blake’s 7 made in a modern style, and it being potentially brilliant, but perhaps that moment has passed – the deaths of most of the key cast members hasn’t helped its chances, I suspect. But the series we have is still, at its best, great, thoughtful entertainment. And at its worst it’s at least very funny. Well done, Terry; well done, Chris; well done, David – you did good.

Must Try Harder

As we have established, I love a dinosaur movie, all things being equal – and after watching a vintage dinosaur movie, I often turn to my copy of The Illustrated Dinosaur Movie Guide (Jones, 1993), to see if I agree with it.  Let’s see what it says about My Science Project, written and directed by Jonathan R Betuel in 1985:

Entertaining teen comedy in which likeable student John Stockwell raids an old Air Force base for his end of term science project. But the machine he steals comes from a crashed UFO and pretty soon it has opened up a time warp which could destroy the world. With (blah blah blah…).

I’ll say one thing for Steve Jones, he’s got the art of the concise plot synopsis down pat, hasn’t he? There’s nothing I’d necessarily argue with there except some of the adjectives. However, the joy of having your own blog means you can ramble on for as long as you like.

No film of the modern age is entirely an island – at least, none that immediately occurs to me. The Terminator is just an exceptional example of a kind of punk sci-fi thriller of which there was a whole slew in the early 1980s – the difference is that most people have never seen or even heard of Trancers, Cherry 2000 or Night of the Comet. Something similar is true of the high-school sci-fi comedy genre, which briefly blossomed in the mid-to-late 1980s before equally rapidly fading away. The film of this type that everybody knows is Back to the Future, again because it is so exceptionally well made, though you could certainly suggest that Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure has left its mark on the culture, and I suppose Weird Science has a sort of following. Films like Real Genius and My Science Project really do seem to have slid into oblivion, though.

The film opens in the late 50s with the USAF delivering a crashed flying saucer to a base out in the desert. Eisenhower turns up and orders the thing destroyed, which the air force guys promptly get cracking on. It’s an interesting scene but it somehow seems to be lacking a big gag, image, or punchline; they wheel on a UFO and the US President just to do some exposition, which feels like a bit of a waste. This lack of big beats is a consistent issue throughout the film.

The story jumps forward to 1985, where student Michael Harlan (John Stockwell) needs to pass his high school diploma. (Stockwell also played – snigger – Cougar in the first Top Gun and, and here is something I bet you didn’t know, his niece is Florence of the Machine fame.) To do this he needs a successful science project, and just rebuilding a carburettor won’t cut it, according to his science teacher (Dennis Hopper, who is good value). This is a shame as working on cars is his main interest in life. As if that wasn’t bad enough, his girlfriend dumps him, and there’s trouble at home with his father’s new girlfriend.

Harlan ends up recruiting his bookish classmate Ellie (Danielle von Zerneck) to help him find something to impress his teachers – she thinks they are on an actual date, he does not. They end up nicking a weird piece of electronic gadgetry from an abandoned bunker on a local air force base. This turns out to be the engine from the UFO, of course. Well, maybe engine isn’t quite the right word, as it seems to function by sucking the energy out of anything close to it, whether that’s a car battery or the local power grid, and then using it to open a portal to the space-time continuum.

Harlan and his friend Vince (Fisher Stevens, possibly still best known for playing a comedy racial stereotype in Short Circuit out in the wider 80s sci-fi comedy genre) play around with the thing and find themselves inadvertently transported two hours into the future. Science teacher Hopper is shown the gizmo, gets carried away, and promptly finds himself zapped to parts unknown. The gizmo gets switched on and off a few times (probably once too many, as the film feels a bit slow and repetitive in the middle) before a swirling vortex opens over the high school, in which Ellie has become stuck with an obnoxious classmate. Harlan and Vince find themselves obliged to go inside and unplug the vortex before something really bad happens.

You know, on paper ‘high schoolers find an alien device which opens a rift in the space-time continuum’ isn’t that much less promising a premise than ‘high schoolers use obscure means to create the perfect synthetic woman’, ‘high schoolers use time machine to get famous historical figures to help them graduate’ or even ‘high schooler uses time machine to accidentally go back and stop his own parents from meeting’. It’s got potential; the issue is one of how you realise it, and here is where My Science Project really falls down.

The main problem is that it’s simply not very funny – I can’t remember a single decent joke in it – and on top of that, it’s very slow in getting going. It feels like the film should really be about the characters going into the temporally-scrambled school to shut down the gizmo and rescue Ellie, but this doesn’t happen until the third act, possibly for budgetary reasons, possibly because they just couldn’t think of much material for this part – there are fights with mutants, cavemen and an okay dinosaur puppet, but not much in the way of plot. Most of the film is thus busily setting up a climax which isn’t really worth the wait, and it becomes very dependent on the charms of the young cast to stay interesting – and while they’re good, they’re not that good.

The best of the high-school sci-fi films work because they are both genuinely funny and genuinely clever in the way they employ the ideas they have co-opted. Back to the Future is loaded with witty and creative little elaborations on its main idea, developing it in all sorts of unexpected and satisfying ways. Bill and Ted does something similar, although to a lesser extent. The problem with My Science Project is that the basic premise of the film – high-schoolers use a UFO gizmo to tear a hole in space-time – also serves pretty well as its plot synopsis. There is occasionally something worth seeing in this film, but not often; it’s the kind of movie which is mainly valuable in reminding you just how good other, similar films really are.

Sometimes it rather feels as if one of the main consequences of the pandemic, in cultural terms, has been to knock the film release schedule back a few years, so we’re currently encountering a slew of sequels that it feels have perhaps missed their natural moment – there’s another John Wick imminent, for instance, a Mission Impossible, and a further episode of Transformers on the way. And currently there’s Creed III, directed by and starring Michael B Jordan. Anyone watching Creed II back at the end of 2018 would probably have felt there was a good chance of another sequel – if there’s one thing you can be sure of about a film in the Rocky franchise, it’s that a sequel is probably going to happen  – but if you’d told them it would take nearly five years to arrive, this would have been more of a surprise.

The present-day section of the film opens with second-generation boxing legend Adonis Creed (Jordan) flattening an old enemy from the original film before retiring with dignity and many of his brain cells still intact. Having gracefully transitioned into the fight promotion game and spending more time with his family, he is therefore a little surprised to find himself approached one day by a figure from his past – Dame Anderson (middle name Judith, I fervently hope), who many years earlier was his room-mate when they were in care together, and was a talented boxer who was one of Creed’s early trainers (they make a big fuss about Dame being older than Creed, but Jonathan Majors, who plays him, is three years younger than Jordan).

Flashbacks gradually reveal that the youthful Creed got into a fight with a man who abused him, and the escalation of this – I’m being a bit vague to avoid accusations of spoilers – resulted in Dame going to prison for nearly two decades while Adonis got off scot free. Now Creed has immense prestige and material success, while Dame has nothing but a ferocious ambition to prove himself a great fighter. In short, Dame resents Creed for supposedly stealing his life, and will do anything to get what he believes he deserves. This being a Rocky film, it can end only one way – but while Dame certainly has the eye of the tiger, has Creed sold all his passion for glory?

Well, I say it’s a Rocky film, but Sylvester Stallone is notably absent from the screen (he’s still credited as a producer and for originating the series’ characters). Could it be that Rocky has actually died between movies? There’s nothing to indicate an answer one way or another, beyond the simple and surprising fact of his absence throughout. I suppose the film works well enough without him, but if Creed III doesn’t feel quite as resonant as the previous episodes it’s probably because it’s less connected to the original run of films. This doesn’t mean it’s a radical departure, inasmuch as the plot eventually resolves in the time-honoured fashion of someone knocking someone else out in the twelfth round of the climactic boxing match.

Is this is flaw or a genre convention? It’s a valid question, I think – most genre films are predictable, after all, but almost every Rocky and Creed film resolves in exactly the same way – two guys in a boxing ring pummelling away at each other. You don’t just know who’s going to win, you also have a very good idea of exactly how they’re going to do it. (NB Yes, I know that Rocky doesn’t technically win in Rocky or Rocky VI, but the point still stands if you swap in ‘does unexpectedly well’.) As ever, it’s about how they manage it, and director Jordan comes up with an interestingly arty method of dodging the usual mid-bout montage sequence – he’s helped by the fact that the story and performances are sufficiently engaging to involve you in what’s going on regardless of whether or not it’s a bit predictable.

The deeper issue with these films is that, whatever their moral premise and the character development of their protagonist, they are obliged to resolve via the protagonist beating someone repeatedly about the head and body. This was my issue with Rocky IV, which we talked about a few months ago – to begin with it looks like the film will be about having enough wisdom and self-knowledge to walk away from a pointless fight, before actually turning out to be about a sort of man’s-gotta-do-what-a-man’s-gotta-do reflexive machismo, concluding with a pointless fight (or what would be a pointless fight if it didn’t mark the beginning of the end of the Cold War. Maybe).

With Creed III the underpinnings of the plot are murkier : the initiator for the story is Creed’s sense of obligation towards Anderson, a need to make things right. And this seems like the right thing to do – it absolutely looks like Creed does owe him some kind of restitution. So all the trouble that ensues basically comes from the hero trying to do the right thing. Is the lesson he’s supposed to learn in the course of the film that doing the right thing is a mistake? It’s a tricky problem which the film attempts to get around by making Dame a compelling, complex antagonist and someone who is clearly ungrateful for the help he’s offered – which works, but only up to a point.

The film’s ace card is Jonathan Majors, anyway, who comes strikingly close to bulldozing Michael B Jordan off the screen. From the moment he comes on, you’re never in doubt that this is guy who is just not right somehow – he’s broken somewhere inside, and while there may occasionally be a smile on his face he is dead behind the eyes. There’s something of Mike Tyson in Majors’ portrayal, but the actor finds a way of turning him into a real person rather than just a cartoon villain. He’s certainly the most memorable franchise villain since Dolph Lundgren, and perhaps the best-performed of them all.

The rest of the film is competent and polished enough, if perhaps a bit too programmatic in places (all of Creed’s problems and heartbreaks come to a head around the two-thirds point with almost metronomic precision). The supporting performances are fine, with a few old faces from previous entries showing up (one notes that Florian Munteanu has dropped his ‘Big Nasty’ nickname – pity). There is perhaps one crucial bit of exposition which rattles past a bit too swiftly (the audience is required to recognise a photo of a character whom we’ve only seen fleetingly in one prior scene), but by this point the general arc of the storyline is not in any real doubt either way. It’s a solid and enjoyable film, even if it doesn’t have quite the same punch as the previous one. There may be a few more movies yet to come in this series.

Pinkness and Perfidy

And the title of ‘last new writer to be hired on Blake’s 7′ goes to… Simon Masters! I must confess I thought this was just another case of Chris Boucher giving a break to a new guy starting off, but no – while he certainly doesn’t seem to have that many writing credits to his name (although he has the unique distinction of being the only person to write for both Blake and Dallas), he seems to have been a very experienced script editor on shows like Z-Cars, the old Poldark, and The Brothers. So, another graduate of the soap opera/cop show school of TV drama, but so it goes. Masters’ episode is Warlord, directed by Viktors Ritelis (a Latvian-born gentleman in the middle of a long career at the time). I seldom mention the name of the director in these things, but Ritelis’ contribution is… unique.

As noted, we are very close to the end of the series, and for once there’s even a sense of the show building up to something (for the first time in a couple of series). The Federation reconquest is continuing apace, with new and more effective variants of the pacification drug having been developed. To try and counter this, Avon is holding a conference of the leaders of the major independent worlds to discuss. Or possibly it’s that year’s Eurovision Song Contest, it’s hard to tell given the costumes on display.

(Not for the first time, you can have fun playing where-have-I-seen-this-before? with some of these outfits: for example, delegate Boorva’s robe clearly has the seal of the High Council of Time Lords from Dr Who on its chest, while I think Mida is wearing part of a guard’s uniform from The Pirate Planet – I can’t be sure, though, it’s not like I’m a fan or anything.)

Everyone is duly impressed by Avon’s big flat-screen TV and agrees that an alliance would serve all their interests, if it weren’t entirely futile: they need the help of Zukan, the warlord of the title, who has the resources and raw materials to produce an antidote to the drug. The problem is that no-one likes or trusts Zukan. It all looks a bit pointless until Zukan turns up himself (he is played by Roy Boyd in black leather and a pink topknot), bringing supplies and very ready to apologise for his past misdeeds. The alliance is go!

Zukan has also brought his daughter Zeeona (Bobbie Brown, and you may insert your own joke here) – or at least she’s stowed away, because it turns out she’s a bit fond of Tarrant. Well, it takes all sorts. Just when you thought the costume and make-up departments had already peaked for the week, they unveil Zeeona’s trichological stylings, which are sufficiently indescribable as to make me break my usual one-photo-per-post rule:

Yes, quite. It would take a performer of Dench, Blanchett, or Hepburn K.-like stature to make much of an impression under that thing, and Bobbie Brown… well, it’s obviously quite hard to do the usual research, as I end up getting pointed towards new jack swing (whatever that is) or silly Sherlock Holmes pastiches, but it looks like her only other significant role was playing the slave Hedonia in the Mike Hodges version of Flash Gordon. Based on this episode I am not greatly surprised.

Tarrant and Zeeona get very loved-up, until someone tells Zukan she is on the base, at which point he demands she is shipped off to their home planet Betafarl, well away from curly-haired despoilers of badly-wigged maidenhood. Avon happily agrees (at one point virtually wrestling Tarrant out of the room to get him away from Zeeona), and undertakes to pilot Scorpio himself, with Soolin’s help – on this occasion only they adopt curiously hideous green, beige and gold flight suits. These seem to be popular with some elements of the fanbase, apparently because you can see more of Paul Darrow’s chest. Animals, these Blake’s 7 fans, I tell you.

But Soolin has an ulterior motive for coming along and helps Zeeona secretly teleport back to Xenon behind Zukan’s back. (Why is everyone else so keen to help Tarrant get some this week?)  Avon is as cross as two sticks when he finds out, and assures Soolin that if the price of saving the alliance is letting Zukan take his revenge on her for this betrayal, he will happily hold the warlord’s coat (and after last episode you really believe it). Zukan has already left Xenon and will be on Betafarl shortly after them. (Scorpio being the fastest ship in the galaxy has apparently been forgotten about by this point.)

Still, everything is looking good – the alliance has been formed, the antidote-production gear is being set up, and Tarrant is having sex for the first time in ages. It can’t last, of course (the run of good fortune, I mean) – there is a traitor at large. We have already seen an ominous canister amongst the chemical gear, with VIRUS GAS written on it in large helpful letters. What’s worse than a virus? Worse even than gas? That’s right, virus gas!

To stop everyone just running away from the virus gas (which, by the way, is also radioactive, but I expect that wouldn’t fit on the can), every exit from Xenon Base is also bombed. It’s a genuinely startling moment and does feel like a major development: not least because part of the roof comes down on Orac, disabling it. Tarrant, Vila, Dayna and Zeeona are left trapped in the rubble, as the radioactive virus gas kills the workers Zukan has left behind. Meanwhile, Avon and Soolin have arrived on Betafarl to collect raw materials (one last trip to the sandpit) only to find a squad of absurdly acrobatic Federation troopers waiting in ambush (these guys somersault over a sand dune like nobody’s business). Zukan has sold them out!

Yes, Zukan has done a deal with Servalan whereby he will destroy Avon and the alliance in return for being allowed to conquer the other members. (All without telling Servalan where Xenon is, in a slightly awkward bit of plotting.) This isn’t anything close to being Servalan’s best episode, which is a shame as it’s her last appearance in the show. (This is so unsatisfactory that at one point I got as far as plotting a sort of novel a clef predicated on the whole question of what the arch-villain does next after the heroes all die stupid futile deaths she’s not even involved in. Spoilers for the next episode, by the way.) Still, nice frock this week, and one final piece of magnificent treachery as she bombs Zukan’s ship.

Well, everyone escapes from their immediate danger, and it does get a bit fraught, before Avon and Soolin rescue the others from the base. Zeeona teleports back down to neutralise the radioactive virus gas, but because she is a) a love-interest guest character and b) apparently even more of an idiot than her hairstyle would suggest, she gets herself killed (though even the radioactive virus gas can’t destroy that wig). ‘She took her glove off,’ laments Dayna, which is not the sort of epitaph I’d be happy with.

I have been fairly irreverent towards Warlord, which is usually a sign that I’ve been watching a bad episode. To be honest, though, the bones here are solid and effective, though the Tarrant-Zeeona romance doesn’t convince. Series four has rallied rather impressively after a wobbly start, and I can imagine a version of Warlord which undisputably continues that – but it would probably have been produced by David Maloney. This is one of those episodes of the show where the campness of the production and direction overwhelms the quality of the script. The wigs! The VIRUS GAS cannister! The other wigs and costumes! The somersaulting troopers! Most of the acting! The CSO! It’s all too much!

So this isn’t as good as the episodes preceding it, but it’s still entertaining (one way or another). You do get a sense of the series really feeling the need for more of an ongoing storyline at this point – there are references back to Traitor, but the alliance comes out of nowhere this episode and doesn’t really feature in the series finale. There’s no sense of what the concluding episode may hold, but that’s not really an issue. Anyway, it’s the only one left to talk about at this point.

Apathy and the Apocalypse

Joseph Losey was a left-leaning American film director who was blacklisted (supposedly at the behest of Howard Hughes, after he refused to make a film called I Married A Communist), and ended up working in Europe and especially the UK, where he eventually formed a long-lasting and productive relationship with Harold Pinter. His best-remembered films include The Servant and The Go-Between.

Not quite the usual sort of person you’d expect to find directing for Hammer Films, but then the movie he ended up doing isn’t your usual sort of Hammer film. It is The Damned (known in some quarters as These Are The Damned), filmed in 1961 but not released until a couple of years later.

As the film gets underway there is a strange tension between its Hammer and non-Hammer elements – there is a James Bernard score, instantly recognisable as such even though it seems to be in a minor key, but playing over images of rather odd sculptures (courtesy of Elizabeth Frink, who was present for part of the shoot) on a coastal clifftop rather than castles or mountains. And then The Damned seems on the verge of turning into Quadrophenia or Beat Girl, as we find ourselves in the  seaside town of Weymouth in the middle of tourist season, with a very John Barry-ish song called ‘Black Leather’ playing on the soundtrack. A young woman named Joan (Shirley Anne Field) finds her wiles attracting a much older man (B-movie stalwart Macdonald Carey, not that long before he started his three-decade residency on The Days of Our Lives); his name is Simon. However, Joan and Simon walking off together seems to attract the ire of a scooter gang, who proceed to beat him up, seemingly just for kicks. Giving it the beans  in terms of brooding saturnine intensity is Oliver Reed as the gang leader, King (not quite Reed’s first role for Hammer, but a step up); fairly prominent amongst his minions is a young Kenneth Cope.

Simon’s path crosses that of a sculptress, Freya (Viveca Lindfors), who will be living in the area courtesy of her own acquaintance, Bernard (Alexander Knox), a scientist in charge of a hush-hush government project in the area. To be honest this is just a contrivance to bring together two plot strands which would otherwise remain separate for most of the film, but it’s an acceptable one.

Anyway, Joan decides she really does like the look of Simon (one wonders why – he has his own cabin cruiser, but that’s about all) and the two of them run off together, pursued by King and his goons. They eventually make landfall near Freya’s cottage, where they are spotted by one of the bikers and a chase ensues. While trying to climb down the cliffs, they both fall into the sea, followed not long after by King himself.

They recover to find themselves in a cave under the cliffs, being looked after by a group of young children who are all 11 years old. We have already seen that the education of these children – by TV screen – is a central element of Bernard’s project. But who are they? Why is their skin so icy to the touch? And why is Bernard so determined to keep them isolated, seemingly at any cost?

In short, the film seamlessly shifts from looking like a teenage exploitation movie to something more akin to Quatermass or Village of the Damned, although it has a hard edge to it which is totally lacking from Hammer’s costume pictures of this period: the gang violence and ruthless scientific experimentation on young people seems to anticipate A Clockwork Orange, in some ways, too. The film was X-rated in 1963; these days it’s more like a 12, but that doesn’t quite tell the whole story.

I’ve been watching Hammer films for 35 years or so; the good, the bad, and the ugly. Usually they’re very entertaining, one way or another; occasionally shocking; seldom what you’d actually call scary. But The Damned is horrible in a way that no other Hammer horror film matches – not horrible in that it’s badly made (far from it), but horrible in its conception, in its absolute bleakness and nihilism. It finds real-world fear-buttons that velvet-wrapped gothic fantasies never get close to.

The children in the bunker under the cliff are the mutated products of a nuclear accident, and being studied and educated by Bernard and his men. Uniquely in the world, they are completely immune to radiation – in fact, their bodies generate it quite naturally, at levels which are eventually lethal to normal people. Simon and Joan are initially unaware of this, and are shocked to discover them being apparently held prisoner. But Knox has his eye on the bigger picture: he is secure in his absolute certainty that a nuclear holocaust is inevitable, and he is preparing the children for the day when civilisation is destroyed and they inherit an irradiated world in which only they can survive. This idea is put across in a chillingly matter-of-fact way and with complete conviction. It’s not just the situation, but the abandonment of any hope implicit in it – total acceptance and apathy in the face of a looming armageddon.

Bleak doesn’t begin to describe it, in fact, and what actually happens in the third act of the film only compounds it: already feeling the onset of radiation sickness from contact with the children, Simon and the others attempt to help them escape, only for Bernard to send in troops in radiation suits and helicopters to recapture them all. Simon and Joan are allowed to go free, as Bernard already knows they won’t get the chance to tell their story; other witnesses are also ruthlessly eliminated. Bernard reflects that the main regrettable consequence of the whole affair is that the children now know they are bing kept as prisoners. Simon’s yacht, with him and Joan aboard, begins to drift aimlessly; the holidaymakers at Weymouth go about their fun, oblivious to the plaintive cries of the imprisoned children in their subterranean world; the film ends.

Some elements of The Damned have not aged well, particularly the supporting performances and parts of the script (the scenes between Joan and Simon, for example). But the core of the film still has a tremendous power even today – it hits, appropriately enough, like a hammer. These days we may not be quite so conscious of the shadow of the bomb hanging over us, but that shadow still exists; there are enough terrible things we seem happy to put out of sight and out of mind. This is not a comforting film, or a particularly easy one to watch, but it’s still one of the most striking and effective Hammer productions I’ve ever come across, atypical though it clearly is.

Cretaceous Larks

If I didn’t know better I’d swear that Ireland was going through some sort of mid-life crisis, as it has taken to turning up on screen in all manner of unlikely guises. Ireland turning up in a movie playing Ireland, as in Banshees of Inisherin – fine and good and entirely reasonable. Ireland turning up as the state of Georgia, as it did in Cocaine Bear? Maybe not. And now Ireland making an appearance as, apparently, the Yucatan region? I really think not, to be honest. I can only assume the Irish government have come up with a really good tax credit system for film-makers, possibly spurred on by the embarrassment of Waking Ned (a 1998 comedy film actually set in Ireland, which was filmed in the Isle of Man).

Anyway, the Irish Yucatan features prominently in Scott Beck and Bryan Woods’ 65, a film which (now I think of it) is filled with this sort of silliness. It’s the product of the same school of film-making as last year’s Idris-Elba-being-chased-by-a-lion film, with the killer high concept this time around being Adam-Driver-being-chased-by-dinosaurs.

Now, let’s be clear: mutatis mutandis, I love a film with dinosaurs in it. I will give any film with dinosaurs in it a fair viewing. I  went to see Paddy Constantine’s Tyrannosaur even though it didn’t turn out to include a single theropod. So if I turn out to be less than thoroughly positive about 65, it’s not down to my having an issue with prehistoric animals, or indeed Adam Driver.

The film gets underway on the distant alien planet of Solmaris, where we find Driver (playing an astronautical dude called Mills) hanging out with his partner and daughter. The daughter has the kind of significant cough which will speak volumes to the switched-on viewer. It turns out that Driver is just off on a long-haul space trip which he doesn’t really want to do, but is doing it anyway as it will make a big pile of money to pay for the daughter’s significant cough treatment. (Interesting to see that across vast gulfs of space and time, the pernicious scourge of privatised medicine endures. I suppose it’s a bit like the socio-political equivalent of Japanese knotweed.)

Anyway, midway through the space trip, some asteroids bong into Driver’s ship, which promptly crash-lands in a primeval wilderness. Most of the passengers instantly go from being corpsicles to just corpses, which makes Driver very depressed. But it turns out a nine-year-old girl (Ariana Greenblatt) has survived and been defrosted, which perks him up a bit. However, things are made more complicated when, venturing outside, he comes across a massive, clawed, tridactyl footprint.

At which point the title card kicks in. It turns out that 65 is just the short name for this film, which appears to actually be called 65 Million Years Ago A Visitor From Another Planet Crash Landed On Earth. (I can see why they went for the short version.) The thing is that this is presented as though it’s supposed to be a tremendous twist to knock the audience back in their seats, despite the fact there are dinosaurs in the trailer, on the poster, and the title 65 makes no sense at all in any other context.

It’s actually a fairly significant problem for the film, as you suddenly realise that as far as Driver’s concerned, this is in no way happening 65 million years ago, it’s happening in the present day. He has no knowledge of or interest in the fact that, 65 million years after the events of the film, a civilisation will have arisen on this planet in which quirky credible indie actors get lured into making silly overblown sci-fi B-movies. From his point of view this is just another alien planet filled with large hangry reptile-adjacent life-forms.

Which just starts you, as the viewer, wondering why they didn’t just make a film about an astronaut in the future crashing on an alien planet with hungry monsters on it instead; it might have been a bit more visually innovative. (As it is the film is sort of depressingly reminiscent of the Smith-Shyamalan clunk-fest After Earth.) And once you’re off down this path you catch yourself wondering about all sorts of things. Like: what kind of name is ‘Mills’ for an ancient astronaut, anyway? For a visitor from another planet he’s just a bit too ordinary, too much of a regular guy. The little girl, it turns out, doesn’t speak the same language as him (this is mainly a device to allow Adam Driver to be even more central to the movie, which is effectively a two-hander anyway), but then you realise: never mind that she doesn’t speak English, neither should he. I know aliens speaking English is a convention of pulp sci-fi movies, but the thing is that there’s no obvious plot reason for him to be an alien at all, because the specifics of the story don’t actually matter. Never mind Earth 65,000,000 years ago, this could be happening on planet Mingmong in the year 2500 and it would make no difference whatsoever to the story.

All of this probably wouldn’t be so much of a problem if the rest of the film was a relentless, gripping, entertaining adventure. However, it is not: most of it is made up of Driver and Greenblatt yomping aross Ireland – sorry, the prehistoric landscape, being pursued with an increasing degree of severity by prehistoric monsters. The CGI on the prehistoric monsters is pretty good, certainly good enough to indicate that at least some of these are not ‘real’ dinosaurs (as in, ones to be found hanging around in the fossil record) but new ones made up by the visual effects department. It’s all yomp-stomp-chomp with the occasional interlude of Driver bonding with his young ward.

Unfortunately it ends up somewhere in the netherworld between boring and interesting, which leaves you plenty of time to think about all the odd stuff about the movie which I have already mentioned. The writer-directors rose to prominence for doing the script for A Quiet Place, a high-concept exercise in parental responsibility, and you can sort of see how this is meant to be another swing at the same kind of material. It’s certainly a functional movie; they manage the occasional jump scare and some interesting visual touches, but never enough to persuade you to forget the wonkiness of the premise.

Apparently 65 started filming in 2020 and has been hanging around waiting to be released for ages: its actual release date was the fifth one it received. You can imagine why: it’s not so much being released, as jettisoned when there’s not much else going on. There’s certainly some talent involved in this film – but, special effects aside, you’d be hard pushed to recognise it. Not so much a dinosaur movie as a gap in the fossil record.

Here’s a hypothesis: the reason that Blake’s 7 has a reputation for being a festival of camp unintentional comedy is because it is a science fiction (or at least SF-adjacent) series frequently made by actors, writers and directors who would probably have been happier making soap operas or cop shows, with a budget that would definitely have been a better fit for a soap opera or cop show. The reason that it’s sometimes much better than that sounds is because, every now and then, it’s made – or at least written – by people who really understand how to do science fiction on a BBC budget.

Imagine, if you will, someone coming to Blake with an open mind and just being shown a selection of episodes by Terry Nation, Chris Boucher, Robert Holmes and Tanith Lee – say, The Way Back, Shadow, Pressure Point, Gambit, Rumours of Death, Sarcophagus and Terminal. They’re watching a whole different show from the poor sod who gets stuck with all the Allan Prior, Ben Steed, and Roger Parkes episodes.

You will perhaps have noted that there is nothing from series 4 in the ‘best of Blake‘ selection I just suggested – perhaps this is because Vere Lorrimer, who produced the final year, is not one of those people who really knows how to do BBC SF, while David Maloney, who did the rest of the series, had a track record that suggested that he really, really did. Well, maybe Sand gets onto the list, and it definitely finds episode 11 there waiting for it: this is Orbit, by Robert Holmes, a terrific writer who’s at close to his best on this occasion.

Scorpio has been summoned to the vicinity of the planet Malodar, summoned there by someone claiming to be Egrorian, a brilliant scientist who has been on the run from the Federation for the last decade. But now Egrorian (John Savident) has a proposition to make to Avon – in person, in his dome on Malodar, to which he will have to travel by shuttlecraft (Egrorian is a very particular sort of renegade scientist). This at least saves Tarrant and Dayna from teleporting down, which they have already volunteered to do. Vila, of course, has done nothing of the sort. ‘I like to stick with you, Avon, where it’s safe,’ he says, in something that sounds like an innocuous little line but is actually setting up the whole crux of the episode.

So, for the first time in what seems like an age, Avon and Vila, the last surviving original characters, get to go on an adventure together. (To be fair, the script does suggest that Avon has been actively trying to avoid putting himself in harm’s way, thus explaining why he’s been a less active presence in many of the episodes since Terminal.) As a writer elsewhere, Holmes acquired a reputation for his facility with double-acts, and when writing Blake he seems to have locked onto Avon and Vila as the relationship with the most potential. Paul Darrow and Michael Keating apparently used to look forward to Holmes’ scripts in particular, and it shows in their performances. The repartee between them is utterly winning, in an episode which – for its first two thirds at least – seems to be functioning as a black comedy as much as anything else. Avon and Vila obviously know and understand each other, and even if they’re not really friends, there’s an amused tolerance on Avon’s part and a sort of dependency from Vila.

Down in Egrorian’s dome they meet the man himself and his apparently-senile assistant, Pinder. Egrorian has summoned them here to offer them the Tachyon Funnel, a super-weapon he has invented apparently capable of instantly destroying anything, anywhere. The scientist claims this is because he wants to see the Federation toppled, but can’t be bothered to do it himself. All he asks for in exchange is Orac…

(The main plot hole with Orbit is that the Tachyon Funnel genuinely seems to work – which means that whoever controls it effectively controls the galaxy. In which case, why worry about Orac at all? Why risk trading the Funnel away when you could simply use it to extort anything you wanted? One could accept Egrorian doing something weird, as he is clearly a perverted lunatic, but he’s being backed up by Servalan, whom one would expect to be more pragmatic.)

Avon accepts the trade, and sets about thinking up a way of double-crossing Egrorian, while trying to work out in turn how Egrorian is going to screw him. Meanwhile Servalan is giving Egrorian a hard time over how complicated his plan is (which I suppose answers my criticism up the page somewhat), in what is another very funny scene: Egrorian is an over-the-top grotesque in the classic Holmes style, and Jacqueline Pearce gets to do a lot of eye-rolling in the face of his fawning and flattery – ‘My steel queen! My empress!’ ‘Oh, get up!’

The trade is made, Avon supplying a replica Orac he happens to have lying around, and Vila starts planning what to do with the galaxy – starting with an imperial palace made of diamonds and a bodyguard of a thousand virgins. But the real Orac reports that the shuttle won’t have enough power to escape Malodar’s gravity, Egrorian having secreted a speck of ultra-dense neutron star he happens to have lying around aboard the ship. To avoid crashing, they need to dump as much weight as possible, losing all unnecessary baggage – which, Orac suggests, includes Vila himself…

Getting to this point has involved a degree of contrivance (and eliminating Egrorian involves some more, this concerning radiation which makes people age at an accelerated rate), but I suspect the black comedy elements of the episode are partly here to smooth things along. Anyway, it’s worth it for the climactic sequence in which a gun-toting Avon hunts a terrified Vila through the shuttlecraft. Michael Keating was crying at one point when this was being filmed, though it was dropped for potentially making the episode too disturbing. It’s shocking and yet completely in character for Avon to be quite so ruthless when the chips are down; Darrow’s performance just makes it more plausible that he has actually become totally psychopathic – he adopts an unnaturally calm and gentle voice while trying to persuade Vila to reveal himself, which probably would only have made him suspicious even if he wasn’t aware of the real situation.

It’s a shame the Avon-vs-Vila element of the story doesn’t last longer, but the denouement feels very briskly done in every respect. What’s interesting is that neither of them has told the others what happened on the shuttle. ‘I couldn’t find Vila,’ says Avon matter-of-factly when explaining how he moved the dwarf star material. ‘I’m glad about that,’ says Vila, deadpan. ‘It’s a trip I won’t forget, Avon.’ ‘Well, as you always say, Vila, you know you are safe with me,’ replies Avon, his usual smooth and cool self. But Vila has dropped his usual pretence of being an amiable halfwit and is looking at Avon with genuine wariness.

Whether this change in one of the series’ central dynamics would have ultimately led anywhere if the series had continued, we will never know: there are only two episodes left, after all. But even as a standalone it’s still an immensely entertaining and interesting story, making expert use of limited resources and finding a wholly new way of exploiting one of the show’s central relationships. If this doesn’t prove to be the best episode of the season I’ll be very surprised.

A Window on the Weird

The first thing to say about the writer and film-maker Ib Melchior is that, obviously, he had a fabulous name. The second is that he had an unusually influential career for someone who is, on the face of it, an extremely obscure figure: he wrote the short story that eventually gave rise to Death Race 2000 and its imitators and remakes, and also claimed to be the originator of the Lost in Space concept – he was never credited on screen for this but nevertheless made nearly $100,000 out of the movie version. Writing credits on well-remembered films like Robinson Crusoe on Mars also feature on his CV.

And then there is The Time Travellers, a 1964 film he wrote and directed for American International. At first glance this looks like a joke of a bargain-basement Z-movie quickie, but, once again, there are some distinctly interesting things going on here: quite apart from the fact that this is the first film to feature the idea of a time loop, it looks very likely that this film was also quite influential on the time-travel movie subgenre.

It opens with some scientists about to test the new time-viewing gadget they are developing, but this is briefly put on pause by the appearance of Danny the electrician (Steve Franken), warning them that the cables may not take the load. When the machine is switched on, odd shadows flicker through the room, before the viewing screen settles on an image of a bleak, rocky landscape. It is Danny who notices the screen has mysteriously started showing a 3D image – and then, after trying to touch it, discovers the screen has become an actual portal into another time and place.

Now, I am aware that there are two possible responses to this particular idea: ‘that’s stupid’, which is true but not particularly interesting, and ‘that’s a stroke of storytelling genius’, which is surely also true. I must confess to being firmly in the latter camp myself – the idea of the screen as a time window doesn’t make much less sense than many other time machines, and there’s something irresistibly alluring about the idea of the barrier of the screen being breached this way (an idea that can be exploited in many different ways – just compare Ringu with The Purple Rose of Cairo).

One by one the scientists and Danny the electrician clamber through the time window into the desert and vanish – though there’s also a genuinely eerie moment when mutant humanoids appear on the other side and attempt to force their way through into the 20th century – lab assistant Carol (Merry Anders) manages to see them off with a fire extinguisher.

Eventually Danny, Carol, and the two (very dull) scientists are reunited in the desert, and decide not to hang around there – but the time window collapses, stranding them in the other world. A sticky end at the hands of the mutants seems inevitable, until they find refuge with some regular people living in an underground shelter. Most prominent amongst them are patrician boffin Dr Varno (prolific character actor John Hoyt) and available young hottie Reena (Playboy‘s Playmate of the Month for June 1960 Delores Wells), and they fill in the background.

They’re all in the year 2071, after a nuclear war has rendered the planet uninhabitable. Varno and the others are building a starship to leave Earth for a planet near Alpha Centauri, always assuming the mutants don’t break in and smash everything first. Perhaps the time travellers can help? Various scenes of the visitors getting to grips with 21st century life ensue, which are moderately interesting but don’t move the plot along much. Then it transpires there is a problem: there’s no room for outsiders on the ship. While an earlier idea about building another time window to get home and prevent the war was shot down on the grounds that history is apparently immutable, just using one to leave the dying future Earth is seemingly A-Ok.

And at this point things get even weirder than they have been up to now, with the characters returning to the 1960s only to discover that… well, suffice to say that this film has one of the most memorably bizarre endings (or perhaps non-endings would be more accurate) in cinema history.

It would be grossly overstating things to suggest that The Time Travellers is in any way a great film – but it’s much better than you might expect it to be, colourful and pacy, and filled with creativity. It’s filled with visual inventiveness. Quite apart from the time window itself – the ‘reverse angle’ of which is executed with considerable skill – Melchior has clearly spent a lot of time thinking about how to make this story work, and work interestingly, on a low budget. In-camera conjuring tricks take the place of actual special effects (one of these is performed by sci-fi superfan Forry Ackerman); one mildly-mutated character is played by a performer with congenitally deformed hands (not the most comfortable idea for a modern audience, I suspect).

On the other hand, it is a little hard to figure out quite what kind of audience Melchior is aiming for, as the tone of the movie is frankly all over the place. Parts of it – the post-apocalyptic dying Earth, the hostile mutants – are ostensibly quite grim, but there is also broad comedy and sight gags aplenty during some of the scenes in the bunker (the survivors have android servitors who are good for a few laughs). It even edges over towards being a full-blown exploitation movie at some points – Merry Anders and Delores Wells get a lengthy and entirely gratuitous implied-nude scene together, which is as visually striking as anything else in the movie (albeit for slightly different reasons). So it’s not as if the film’s ultimate spiral off into implacable weirdness is a complete surprise.

It’s not surprising that this is the kind of film that would inspire some of its viewers: quite apart from being remade only three years later under the title Journey to the Center of Time, it also supposedly inspired the TV series The Time Tunnel. And it seems to me that the basic idea of time travellers arriving in a devastated future to discover survivors desperately trying to build a rocket to escape hostile mutants – well, it sounds very much like that 2007 episode of Dr Who with Derek Jacobi in it to me (but what would I know, it’s not like I’m a fan or anything). Regardless of all that, this is a consistently inventive and interesting film, made with real skill and intelligence and an understanding of how to tell a story visually. Well worth watching if vintage sci-fi movies are your thing.

Everything, Inevitably

Careers take winding paths: you can start your career doing the most terrible nonsense and still end up a beloved, iconic, hugely successful star. Steve McQueen was in The Blob, George Clooney was in a Killer Tomatoes sequel, and so on. And now (at the time of writing, anyway) Michelle Yeoh is in with at least a chance of becoming the-first-woman-to-identify-as-Asian to win an Oscar (it turns out Merle Oberon has a lot to answer for) despite starting out in films with unpromising titles like Owl vs Bombo and Tai Chi Master.

Of course, even after you arrive you can still end up in a bad film, and in Yeoh’s case the one leaping irresistibly to my mind, at least, is Last Christmas, an egregious rom-com from 2019. This was such a bad film that it seems to have burned itself into my memory, and I was duly alarmed when elements of another new movie started ringing bells of reminiscence. I speak of Shekhar Kapur’s What’s Love Got To Do With It?, which has a virtually identical poster (female star is smiling knowingly to herself, male star is apparently overcome with joy merely by being in her presence), all the Working Title/Brit rom-com trappings, and Emma Thompson coming in for a broad comedy turn as a slightly embarrassing mum.

Nevertheless, Kapur is a director with some impressive films on his (relatively short) CV – most notably the two Elizabeths starring Cate Blanchett – and the co-spousal unit and myself fancied watching something fairly undemanding and not gory, so along we trotted to see it.

Lily James plays Zoe, whom we are repeatedly told is an Award Winning Documentary Film-Maker. She has grown up next door to Kazim and his family, who are Muslims of Pakistani origin. Kazim is played by Shazad Latif, whom you may recall as Clem Discovery in Toast of London and Voq the Klingon in Star Trek: Fandango. We are also repeatedly told that Kazim is A Successful Doctor. She has been through a string of unhappy romantic entanglements; he is single but thinking about settling down. The final destination may not be printed on the ticket, but it doesn’t look that difficult to figure out.

Or does it? In keeping with the traditions of his culture, Kazim decides to go for what is now known as an assisted marriage (‘arranged’ now having some slightly suspect overtones) with the help of his parents and friends. As it happens, Zoe is looking for a new, upbeat topic for her latest project (there are a couple of caricature media producer characters obsessed with image and branding rather than substance), and settles on making a film about Kazim’s search for a wife and eventual marriage.

After a false start with a matrimonial provision agency run by Asim Chaudhry (who is good for a few laughs, as you might expect), Kazim is put in touch with a woman in Lahore named Maymouna (Sajal Aly) who seems to tick all the right boxes. And so off they all fly to Pakistan for the wedding, even taking Zoe’s mum along for those moments when all you really want is a broad comedy bit. Zoe has had some fairly grim experiences on the western-style dating scene, also with the ensuing marriages, but even so she can’t help feeling that she doesn’t entirely want Kazim and Maymouna to tie the knot Pakistani-style…

Working Title is a company that has made a fairly varied set of films over the last thirty-odd years – they’ve done westerns, full-on horror films and even a Robin Hood film – but they are most closely associated with a particular flavour of British rom-com; the carefully-crafted confection of photogenic London views, appealing casts, slightly cheeky but still accessible scripts, and an only-in-passing acquaintance with real life. Four Weddings and a Funeral is the type specimen, but there are dozens more on the list – such is the appeal of the brand that there are films that look exactly like a Working Title rom-com made by other people entirely (e.g. Man Up). And to begin with What’s Love Got To Do With It? looks like it’s ticking all the boxes.

In the end, though, this turns into something rather different – there are still regular bits of pure broad comedy inserted throughout the script, but it’s a much more thoughtful and occasionally angsty film than you might expect, certainly a comedy-drama more than a rom-com. The script is by Jemima Khan, who left the UK to live in Pakistan herself, and unsurprisingly it is initially very careful to be even-handed about the relative merits of the western and traditional methods of finding a romantic partner – most assisted marriages appear to be successful, more than the western variety, and Zoe is depicted as having a fairly wretched time on the London dating circuit.

There’s some good thoughtful stuff going on here, although the film occasionally seems to be being a bit performative in its attempts to encapsulate the entirety of the British Islamic experience. The problem is that all of this isn’t really taking the film where the demands of the rom-com genre require it to go. You can almost feel the conventions of the form grappling around the story and forcibly wrenching it into a different shape as the end draws closer.

This sort of thing is always a shame, not least because it’s practically the definition of what constitutes melodrama; although to be fair to What’s Love Got To Do With It?, it seldom feels particularly melodramatic. Nor does it really feel like knockabout romantic fun for much of its length; I did lean over to the co-spousal unit at one point and whisper ‘This is a bit bleak, isn’t it?’ Now, let’s be clear – you have to knock the characters down in order to have any sort of uplifting ending, but it has to be an ending that works and convinces. The one here just seems really contrived and a bit mawkish, with characters abandoning the beliefs and principles they have been vocal about throughout as they are washed away on a wave of sentiment. Whatever the merits of the rest of the film are, the ending simply isn’t very good.

Of course, part of the problem is that any rom-com-about-Pakistani-culture is necessarily going to draw comparisons with Kumail Nanjiani’s The Big Sick, which is really, really good, and also doesn’t feature the main white character managing to persuade all their Asian friends that their own traditions are inferior to the western way of doing things. There’s some interesting stuff in What’s Love Got To Do With It?, and the film is generally well-made and well-acted, but this is a rom-com which is basically crippled by the fact it has to be a rom-com. Either no-one noticed this while the film was in development, or they all thought it didn’t matter. Either way, it was a bad call.