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If we are going to talk about Chris Boucher’s Star Cops (and, you guessed it, we are) then we may as well get something out of the way and discuss the theme music right at the start. Now, I am aware my taste in such matters is not entirely in tune with the popular consensus – I am one of the few people I know who finds ‘Faith of the Heart’, a.k.a. the theme tune from Enterprise, to be quite a pleasant listen – and that no less an authority than Kim Newman, someone whose judgement I usually find impeccable, has declared that the Star Cops theme is ‘the worst theme tune of any TV show ever’. What, worse than the theme to Captain Zep – Space Detective? Sample lyric, ‘Across the stars, he’s on his way, it’s Captain Zep to save the day!’ (I know you’re curious. Go and google, I’ll be here when you’ve had enough, which could well be very soon indeed.)

The theme from Star Cops, known either as ‘It won’t be easy’ or ‘Theme from Star Cops‘, depending on how imaginative you are, is a mid-tempo piece of blues-pop by Justin Hayward. It’s not really my usual cup of tea, but I must confess to finding it rather agreeable – it has a sort of lugubrious wistfulness to it which appeals to me. That said, it is an unusual choice of theme for a hard SF TV show – I believe the logic behind it was that people who wouldn’t necessarily choose to watch a hard SF TV show might stumble across the mid-tempo blues-pop, find themselves charmed by it, and stick around for the following fifty minutes or so of gritty police procedural and variably-realised zero-gravity effects.

The tune carries on playing into the opening sequence of An Instinct for Murder, written by series creator Chris Boucher himself and first broadcast in July 1987 (in the baffling slot of eight thirty in the evening on Mondays). This segment at least is strongly conceived and quite well realised: a man goes for a swim in a lake, only to be set upon and drowned by two scuba divers. This is intercut with an astronaut on a space-walk being attacked and his suit sabotaged by two other figures in space-suits. The stuff in the lake is passably done, the spacewalk sequence surprisingly good, considering this is a BBC series from the middle 1980s, and it does give the theme tune a chance to reach an epic guitar solo which doesn’t usually get heard over the credits (it’s just getting started when they finish).

Overseeing the investigation of the death in the lake is our hero, Nathan Spring (David Calder), whom we quickly learn has little time for computer analyses of incident reports or the arms-length approach to police work which has become standard at this time (it is a recognisably near future: publicity for the series indicated it was set in 2027, not that there’s a great deal of reference to this in the actual script). The computer suggests it was an accidental drowning, but Spring is not convinced, rather to the exasperation of both his underlings and his superiors.

Largely, it seems, to get rid of Nathan, his boss has forced him to apply for the post of commander of the International Space Police Force: currently a part-time force of twenty or so, which the major powers would like professionalised. Spring doesn’t want the job, and his girlfriend (a slightly shaky relationship is skilfully suggested) wants him to get it even less, but the script is very clear about the political aspects of all this, and Nathan soon find himself heading for the European space station Charles de Gaulle, in Earth orbit.

There he meets the local ISPF inspector, David Theroux (Erick Ray Evans), whose real job is as one of the station’s traffic controllers. Theroux is making his own investigation into a string of mysterious suit failures, which the computers again have decreed to be within the realms of statistical probability. However, the death of a visiting politician while on a space-walk gives the issue a sudden urgency, and Spring and Theroux find themselves working the case together.

The first job of An Instinct for Murder is to establish the world, characters and format of the show, so perhaps it’s not really surprising that the actual murder mystery here ends up feeling a little under-developed: it turns out the killings are an attempt to discredit the Russians, who currently have the contract to do space-suit maintenance, and perhaps stoke up the coals so the Cold War burns a little hotter (like virtually everyone else, even in 1987, Star Cops completely fails to anticipate the collapse of the Soviet Union). Then again, this is always a problem when doing a detective story in an SF setting: you need to establish what’s normal and routine and possible in this world before you can start showing the anomalies and oddities which make up the clues the detective needs in order to break the case.

In other respects, however, the episode does a very solid job: you can tell Boucher is working incredibly hard to keep Star Cops grounded in reality and entirely free of the fantasy elements which usually dominate television SF (Boucher had previously written twelve strong episodes of the BBC’s premier science-fantasy show as well as script-editing the whole of Blake’s 7). It’s very cynical and naturalistic – even the title is meant ironically, and there’s a running gag about people quoting lines from The Magnificent Seven at each other, something which is utterly believable but the kind of thing which never happens in most TV series nowadays.

In terms of the near-future setting – well, again like everyone else, Boucher didn’t anticipate smartphones – at one point Nathan wants to watch the news in a restaurant and the waitress wheels in a small black and white TV on a trolley – but teleconferencing seems to be routine, even if people seem to favour huge wall screens over laptops or tablets (this does work well visually, though). Nathan even has his own virtual assistant, a small portable AI called Box, although it’s made clear that this is not common technology. Box mainly functions as a plot device and is rather reminiscent of Orac from Blake’s 7, though less obnoxious.

The episode doesn’t get everything right – for some reason Boucher doesn’t name the two most important guest characters, who are billed simply as ‘Commander’ and ‘Controller’, which is an odd touch, and while the special effects (‘Weightlessness by Eugene’s Flying Ballet’ – though, to be fair, the same company had the same gig on 2001) are as good as the BBC could manage on this kind of budget at the time, that’s still not saying a great deal. But the setting is intriguing, Calder is an engaging lead, and you do want to see where they take the series next. For a series which was essentially strangled at birth by the BBC, and marked the end of serious science fiction on British TV (at least, for many years afterwards), this is much more promising than its reputation might suggest.

Lucky for Some

John Carpenter’s 1976 movie Assault on Precinct 13 opens with a cosmopolitan group of young Los Angelinos out for a walk one night. As their neighbourhood is perhaps not the swankiest, they have opted to play it safe and are all carrying automatic weapons. Unfortunately, when they bump into a group of police, the officers of the law are likewise not inclined to take any chances and mow them all down with pump-action shotguns, apparently before the youths manage to get a shot off. These days this sequence feels rather provocative, though it was probably never intended to.

The rest of the movie takes place in the course of the next twenty-four hours. The leaders of the street gang whose members were killed meet and swear a blood oath to exact vengeance for the deaths of their friends – quite who is never made entirely clear. Initially it seems to be anyone who crosses their path, particularly ice-cream men, before they settle for ‘anyone sheltering someone we don’t like’. This is a plot device, to be honest, but a very functional one.

Carpenter goes on to introduce the various characters who will populate the story: Lieutenant Bishop (Austin Stoker), a Highway Patrol officer on his first night’s duty – a decent, principled man, keen to make a difference, Bishop isn’t completely delighted to be given a posting supervising a near-derelict police station on the verge of being entirely shut down. All he has to do is answer the phones, redirect anyone who comes in to the new station, and make friends with the secretaries (Laurie Zimmer and Nancy Loomis).

Meanwhile, a group of prisoners is being transferred from one penal institution to another. Amongst them are Wells (Tony Burton), a fairly undistinguished crook, and Napoleon Smith (Darwin Joston), a celebrity multiple-murderer with a bit of an attitude, not to mention an ego. Also going about his business is Mr Lawson (Martin West), a man taking his young daughter to visit his mother. And, of course, the gang warlords are on the prowl, looking for trouble.

Needless to say, all these characters eventually come together at the virtually-abandoned old precinct: Lawson has a shocking run-in with the gang and ends up killing one of them. With the others on his tail he takes refuge in the precinct, where the bus carrying Wells and Smith has made a brief stop. Before anyone realises what’s happening, the building has been surrounded by dozens of heavily armed gang members, all apparently out for Lawson’s blood, and all of them totally psychotic.

The movie basically treats the gang members like something out of a horror movie, which makes the ensuing alliance between Bishop, one of the secretaries named Leigh, and the two convicts more plausible. The quartet have to work together in order to fend off the waves of attacks the gang throw against the precinct, all the while trying to raise the alarm or find a way to escape…

The last time I wrote about a John Carpenter movie, I was unfortunately obliged to be fairly unkind about it, and proposed the standard thesis: that Carpenter is one of those people who for some reason has done his career backwards. It’s perfectly understandable for people’s work to improve over time, as they practise and learn from their mistakes – the fact that this happens is one of the very few benign laws of nature – but there is something a little bit baffling about people who get worse as they progress through their career. Carpenter started with this film, Dark Star, Halloween, The Fog and The Thing, but then unaccountably seemed to go off the boil, and what ensued is essentially – oh, dear, I feel awful for saying this – a long slide into creative irrelevance.

But this movie – oh, boy! If we’re going to go with the ‘backwards career’ notion, it follows that Carpenter’s first proper movie should be amongst his best – and so it is. Halloween is the early Carpenter film that gets all the attention, not least because it was a huge hit and consolidated a new horror subgenre (I hesitate to say it actually invented the slasher movie, because, you know, Psycho). I fully see why Halloween is so acclaimed, but for sheer pleasure and entertainment value, this is the Carpenter movie for me.

Of course, watching it now, you can see that this was a director who would at some point do something noteworthy in the horror genre – the faceless, silent gang members have something of George Romero’s zombies about them, and the precinct-under-siege of course recalls the embattled farmhouse in Night of the Living Dead (Carpenter has acknowledged the debt). But you might also anticipate there would be a proper western somewhere in Carpenter’s future, given Assault kind of resembles a mash-up of a zombie movie and a cowboy film – I’ve heard it described as an ‘urban western’, which strikes me as as good a description as any (always assuming we’re still allowed to use the word urban figuratively, anyway).

What we can learn from a film like this is that sometimes a script doesn’t need a lot of subplots and subtext and character motivation: it sets up the situation and characters with supreme economy, and, once it has brought them together, proceeds to play out virtually in real time, apart from a couple of cutaway sequences. Even then, there is barely a wasted moment or line – virtually all of Darwin Joston’s dialogue in the first part of the film is setting up a pay-off near the end. Carpenter has said the final script was put together in not much more than a week, which only goes to show that an intense creative blitz can sometimes pay dividends.

Having the right neighbours probably helps, too: Carpenter was living in the same building as Darwin Joston at the time, and Joston knew Austin Stoker from other acting work, and this was how the film found its two male leads. It is almost impossible to look at this film now and not wonder why Stoker, Joston and Laurie Zimmer did not go on to much more substantial movie careers – Joston in particular is effortlessly charismatic, but the others aren’t far behind him. The pay-off to the whole movie comes in the final shot, when Bishop and Smith walk out of what’s left of the precinct side by side, and it’s one of those moments which almost lifts you out of your seat.

The rather charged by-play between Joston and Zimmer, not to mention some of their other dialogue, does betray Carpenter’s great fondness for the films of Howard Hawks – Assault also owes a debt to his Rio Bravo – a classic Hollywood touch to what is still clearly a low-budget exploitation movie with some notably graphic violence. There’s still a film-school-punk edge to Carpenter’s work at this point, most obviously in the ice cream scene – the censor insisted Carpenter remove this, or the film would be given an X certificate (Carpenter obliged, but then put the offending moment back in for the film’s wider release). Even the director has since admitted he perhaps goes a little too far at this point.

Well, maybe: but it’s the combination of traditional virtues and restless edginess that gives the film its energy and ability to relentlessly grip and entertain. It occurs to me we are sometimes a bit too hard on John Carpenter, and are too inclined to judge him based on his later films: if you or I happened along and made a film as good as Assault on Precinct 13, then promptly retired, we would still be acclaimed as having made a significant contribution to cinema. Assault on Precinct 13, Halloween, and The Thing go to comprise a very impressive legacy, to say nothing of Carpenter’s other movies. But for me, this is the one at the top of the pile.

That well-known TV face Peter Bowles makes the first of his annual Avengers guest-villain appearances in Martin Woodhouse’s Second Sight, which ultimately turns out to be a bit less weird and interesting than it first appears. An experimental transplant operation is about to take place, with living corneal tissue being harvested from a donor at a Swiss clinic and brought to the UK, where it will be grafted into a blind millionaire named Halvarssen (John Carson). Steed is overseeing the project on behalf of the government, which at least provides him and Cathy with a route into the story, even if one inevitably wonders why this affair falls within the (admittedly vague) remit of Steed’s department.

Various things about the project just don’t add up: why all the rigmarole about transporting the corneas from Switzerland to the UK? Why doesn’t he just go there himself? And, given that these are living corneas, it follows that the donor will be sacrificing their own sight to give Halvarssen the possibility of regaining it (apparently there’s a 30% chance per eye of the transplant taking, though the person saying this turns out to be low moral character and probably should not be trusted). Isn’t there something very ethically dubious going on here?

Well, as you can probably guess, all turns out to be not quite as it first appears, and – as noted – perhaps less interesting. The actual reason for the tissue transport turns out to be the first one you might think of (the plot device involved has turned up in other places since), and the series is back on slightly shaky ground with a trip off to Switzerland for much of the episode (the kind of foreign excursion which was routine in series two but has been much less common this year): rather to Cathy’s annoyance, Steed manages to insert her into the situation in the guise of being some sort of medical and biological expert: something she complains is beyond even her awesome polymathic abilities.

Still, the episode is redeemed by being pacy, with a well-told story for most of its running time (there is perhaps the odd wobble near the end). Some good performances, too: Peter Bowles makes a smooth and plausible main villain, and there’s a well-scripted scene between Steed and Halvarssen, which, amongst other things, sets up another high-quality final ruck, this week featuring a gun battle where one of the participants is blind. Not a truly great episode, but probably above average.

On to The Medicine Men, written by Malcolm Hulke and initially transmitted on the 23rd of November 1963 (I mention this only because most books and articles on vintage TV give the impression that only one programme worth mentioning was shown on this date). Despite the title, this one doesn’t have a doctor in it, but it does concern the pharmaceutical industry, and touches on some reasonably contemporary concerns.

A Chinese woman dies in suspicious circumstances at a Turkish bath in London (what I personally find rather mysterious is why she goes into a steam cabinet wearing such heavy mascara, but that’s by the by). It turns out she was investigating counterfeit medicines being sold in what we would now call the developing world: the packaging and branding of respectable, legitimate companies is being duplicated (or almost duplicated) and the markets flooded with substandard knock-offs. Once again, it initially seems like slightly small potatoes for Steed and Mrs Gale to get involved in, but then again I suppose there is that murder to consider.

Well, it all turns out to involve adulterous shenanigans at the company the episode primarily features, a disreputable ‘action’ painter, Mrs Gale going undercover at the Turkish baths (one carelessly framed shot of Cathy in the shower has Honor Blackman briefly sharing more with the audience than she probably intended), Steed going undercover as an utterly preposterous Icelandic art dealer, complete with fur hat and thick accent, and much more beside. The story does turn out to have some stakes, in a slightly contrived way: the villains’ plan becomes one to create anti-British sentiment in the former colonies by releasing deadly fake medicine in identical packaging to that of British companies. There’s also a lovely moment where Steed finds himself held at gunpoint by a rather over-confident villain. ‘I’m sorry, I couldn’t find one with a silencer,’ smirks the bad guy. ‘That’s all right, I could!’ beams Steed. Pop!

‘That hat’s not a patch on your bowler, Steed.’ (Here all week.)

In the end this is another episode which probably gets a bit too unravelled in the final act, but is redeemed by some of the incidental pleasures I’ve outlined above. We’re at the point now where the by-play between Patrick Macnee and Honor Blackman is usually enough of a pleasure to make up for whatever weaknesses the rest of the plot may have: the running joke in this one is about them practising their putting and chip shots while discussing the case, and of course the final punchline to the episode is that Cathy’s handicap is half Steed’s, much to his obvious shock. Lots of fun, regardless of the plot.

Next, Rex Edwards (who I believe is a new name to us) contributes The Grandeur That Was Rome, an episode which apparently led to Honor Blackman receiving a fan letter written entirely in Latin – when Patrick Macnee passed it on to his old Latin tutor (but of course…), it proved to be outrageously pornographic, to the point where they couldn’t contemplate actually showing her the translation. The episode itself perhaps doesn’t live up to the quality of this anecdote, but it’s another one you could certainly imagine appearing (perhaps in somewhat modified form) in season four or five.

Strange crop failures and livestock diseases are afflicting Europe (shades of On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, but let’s not get ahead of ourselves) which leads Steed to the offices of a leading feedstock company – but who could be attempting to bring about widespread famine and the associated social upheaval? The trail eventually leads them to Sir Bruno Luca (Hugh Burden), a millionaire scientist and businessman with a fixation on ancient Rome and who is, as you might be able to guess, as mad as a muskrat. Luca wants to reinstitute the Roman Empire (with himself as Caesar, naturally), and is looking to do so by causing plagues and funding an autocratic political movement.

Well, any episode which concludes with a togate and gladius-wielding Steed taking on the bad guys obviously has things going for it, even if the technical limitations of the video-taped episodes mean this doesn’t have quite the panache or scope of some of the episodes that will come to follow it in the filmed seasons. Hugh Burden is unafraid to be, ahem, expansive in his performance, but much of the plot is relatively down to earth (it feels like there’s a lot of poking about in the offices of feedstock suppliers). Still, the way this episode eschews entirely a conventional espionage or crime-related story in favour of a lunatic mastermind seeking world conquest does mean it feels very much like a harbinger of the more outrageous episodes of the Emma Peel years, and it’s nice to have just a taste of things to come.

An Accidental Mirror

It was suggested that I come up with some kind of contribution on the topic of ‘public art’ for a forthcoming themed issue of the webzine I contribute to. Once I’d found out what that meant and done some googling, it turned out that there are a few films on this subject, mostly documentaries, but for the most part access to them is restricted, either by geography or a paywall. Maybe this is the future of cinema right here: if, as people are seriously suggesting, physical cinemas will no longer be financially viable in the post-pandemic world, then everything is going to depend on where you live and which streaming services you can afford to subscribe to. At which point I think I will simply just throw in the towel and just stick to watching moronic game shows and TV series from fifty years ago.

Thankfully, that awful day is still a few months away, and in the meantime there are still a few relatively free streamers available: mostly those tied to TV networks, which just means you have to endure them stopping the film now and then while they try to sell you things you can’t really afford any more and never needed in the first place. One of them turned out to be showing The Square, directed by Ruben Ostlund (O with two dots over it), an artist whose career has had some ups and downs: The Square won the top prize at Cannes, but on the other hand his previous film, Force Majeure, suffered the indignity of an American remake starring Will Ferrell. So it goes sometimes.

The Square takes place in and around a Stockholm art museum, curated by the suave and thoughtful Christian (Claes Bang). He is something of a public figure around town, and the museum is hosting a number of prestigious shows and installations, including a man pretending to be an ape (Terry Notary) and the ground-breaking ‘Mirrors and Piles of Gravel’, which is pretty much what it sounds like.

All is well in Christian’s world until he sees a young woman begging for help while he is on the way to work one morning: naturally, his decent and humane instincts lead to him being dragged into a scene with her, her violent ex, and another stranger. Everything seems to resolve itself quite peacefully, but then he is horrified to discover it was all a set up and he has been mugged.

This preys rather on Christian’s mind, as you might expect, and somewhat takes his mind off preparations for a new installation called ‘The Square’, which apparently symbolises compassion and shared humanity. Then, one of his staff is able to trace the location of the stolen phone to a nearby tower block, and rather than face a confrontation, Christian decides to send a letter demanding the return of his property to every single flat.

You know this is not going to end well, but exactly how it all goes wrong is not quite so easy to guess. The general thesis of the film is much easier to discern, though, as it’s not presented with particular subtlety: one scene shows a charity worker in a busy street asking the passers-by to ‘Save a human life’, the irony being that she herself seems completely oblivious to the plight of the various homeless people around her. Most of the film is a series of extended riffs on the same idea: characters make a big deal about how decent, humane, refined and liberal they are, but then their actual behaviour suggests they are rather more petty and self-serving.

There are also a number of pretty good gags about the absurdity of the contemporary art and culture world: at one point part of one of the piles of gravel is accidentally hoovered up, forcing Christian to get some fresh gravel and recreate the pile using old photos as a model. (The Duchampian question of what this says about the nature of art is left implicit.) The hip young social media gurus the gallery hires to drum up publicity for The Square come up with a video which is ridiculously offensive and inappropriate, but still somehow entirely credible.

Elsewhere the film perhaps acts as a reminder that satire and comedy are not always the same thing. In one of the film’s big set pieces (and the one depicted in most of the publicity), the artist pretending to be an ape runs amok at a dinner, which is initially greeted with indulgent laughter from the attendees, but eventually results in an angry mob delivering a beating. It’s oddly uncomfortable and unsettling to watch, as are the various scenes where Christian is given a hard time by a young boy who is suffering as a result of his non-confrontational approach to dealing with the muggers.

In the end, if this is a comedy, then it is a comedy of manners and social awkwardness, although one taking place in a milieu that was unfamiliar to me, at least: there’s a scene in which Christian and Anne (Elizabeth Moss), a journalist he hooks up with, have a protracted row over who should be allowed to dispose of the used contraceptive. Another depicts a visiting artist (Dominic West) attempting to give an interview in front of an audience which contains a man with Tourette’s syndrome: it’s all very low-key and naturalistic, but still somehow squirm-inducing. (Apparently this is one of several sequences in the film based on real events; another touch of verisimilitude which led to problems is that The Square is ascribed to real-life artist Lola Arias – there was a dispute over whether she actually gave her permission to be used.)

You know, reading all this back I’m making The Square sound like a solid, thoughtful, intelligent film, a worthy Palm D’Or winner. Maybe it is – Bang’s performance is a fine one (he has since become rather better known in the UK after appearing in the BBC’s Dracula), and it is clearly not one of those films which has just been slapped together. However, as with Force Majeure, I found a lot of it to be so understated, deadpan and slow that I wasn’t sure what to make of it. The problem is compounded here by the fact The Square is nearly two and a half hours long. I’m not saying it sprawls, but I did find it very hard work and in the end watched it, effectively, as a mini-series of three episodes, which isn’t something I normally consider doing. After all that, would I recommend it? I’m not sure. It almost seems more interested in its own austere and careful style than in actually making its points effectively and entertainingly. It actually comes across as slightly pretentious, which for a film aspiring to satirise pretentiousness is not a good direction to go on. It’s okay, but I would be wary of giving a more enthusiastic endorsement.

Deux Points

It is an odd coincidence, to say the least, that one of the world’s leading streaming sites chooses to release a movie about the Eurovision Song Context in the first year since the ESC’s inception that it hasn’t actually been run. Whether or not David Dobkin’s Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga is a worthy substitute for the actual show will probably depend on what you think of it – always assuming you’re the kind of person who actually feels the absence of Eurovision in your life.

But hey, let us not forget: people from all over the world read this blog (and are left equally unimpressed) and it may just be possible that you don’t actually know what the Eurovision Song Contest is. Hmmm. Well, born out of a desire to increase international amity and prevent another war, Eurovision marks the one night of the year when the nations of Europe (or at least those who belong to the European Broadcasting Union, which includes some definite outliers when it comes to what ‘European’ actually means) come together and… sing songs to each other. First comes the best bit: the songs. Six people max on stage, no politics, any language is permissible, and your singer doesn’t actually have to be a native of the nation they’re representing: hence Celine Dion turning out for Switzerland in 1988. Then comes the other best bit: the voting. An international snake-pit of bias and partiality, a mixture of total predictability and wildly random choices. One year Norway won with an instrumental. Another, Finland entered a heavy metal band dressed as Orcs with exploding guitars and won by a record margin. There are even rumours that the UK may have won at some point, back in the mists of antiquity. It’s totally absurd and (yet?) strangely wonderful.

For the wider world, of course, Eurovision’s most famous alumni are ABBA, who won the contest in 1974. The movie opens on this night, with the people of the small Icelandic town of Husavik gathering to watch the show, although recently-widowed local eminence Erick Erickssong (Pierce Brosnan) is rather disapproving. However, the sound of Bjorn and the others is enough to lift the spirits of his son Lars, and sparks a life-long love of the contest.

Forty-something years later, Lars (Will Ferrell) is the town’s parking attendant by day, and an aspiring musician by night, part of the duo Fire Saga with his friend Sigrit (Rachel McAdams), whom he’s pretty sure is not his sister. His father still seems consumed by contempt for him, though. Will all this change when opportunity knocks, and – through a fairly unlikely series of events – Fire Saga are given the opportunity to go to Edinburgh to represent Iceland at Eurovision? Will his father come to respect him? Will Lars come to recognise his true feelings for Sigrit? Will Iceland’s moment of Eurovision glory finally arrive?

Perhaps I have already given you a clue as what one of the major issues with Fire Saga (not typing that title out in full every time) is: once you strip away all the Eurovision-themed gags and other material, what you are left with is a fairly predictable story of ridiculous underdogs coming good coupled to that of, well, a couple beginning their coupling. Eurovision is largely a backdrop.

Not entirely, however, but the problem here is possibly a UK-specific one. Over twenty years ago the makers of the sitcom Father Ted did a brilliant spoof of Eurovision in one of their episodes. I’m not saying that Fire Saga is knowingly ripping this episode off. I’m just saying the two have suspiciously similar stretches of plot in key areas.

I mean, it’s obvious that Ferrell (who also co-produced and co-wrote, along with Andrew Steele) has done his homework when it comes to Eurovision, which his Swedish wife apparently introduced him to – there are lots of little gags and references to reward devotees of the contest. A group looking suspiciously like the Finnish Orcs briefly appears, as does Demi Lovato as a character with authentic Euro-hair and Euro-cleavage. Dan Stevens turns up as a slick and rather metrosexual Russian entrant; Melissanthi Mahut appears as a cat-suited Greek singer presumably based on Eleni Foureira. They even work in a sequence with Will Ferrell running in a giant hamster wheel. It goes beyond affectionate spoof, though, and things take on a rather smug and self-congratulatory tone with a lengthy sequence where various Eurovision celebs from recent years turn up and sing a medley together – the one who looks like a Swedish Claudia Winkleman crops up, as does the Israeli chicken woman, the Russian chap with the violin, and so on. Is the movie sending Eurovision up or not? It’s hard to tell: the fact that contest director Jon Ola Sand is one of its executive producers suggests  this was never on the agenda. (Even so, the movie gets enough Euro-specifics wrong to annoy actual fans of the contest (I would expect) – if Edinburgh is hosting the show, why are the presenters from eastern Europe? Why is Graham Norton commentating on a semi-final? Why is the voting procedure different?)

On the other hand, I can imagine the entire population of Iceland (that’s nearly 365,000 people) getting justifiably cross with the way their country is depicted as being bankrupt, saddled with a mind-set out of the dark ages, and populated largely by fish-obsessed drunks whose idea of culture is singing along to a song called ‘Yah Yah Ding Dong’. There’s even what seems to be a joke about the Icelandic nation being inbred, though this may just be a different joke that isn’t put across very well.

The ultimate problem with this is that it mostly isn’t actually funny. It’s not a complete desert of mirth, because there are a few funny moments: Pierce Brosnan knows how to handle himself in a comedy (though he’s not permitted to sing), and there’s a very funny cameo from Nadja the Vampire as Fire Saga’s choreographer. Rachel McAdams is also rather better than the script deserves; she is a very capable comic performer and it would be nice to see her get the chance to carry a movie. Here, however, she is saddled with Will Ferrell. (I should also say – and it has taken a few days for this to become apparent – that Husavik, the song McAdams mimes to at the climax (actual vocal by Swedish popstrel Molly Sanden), is one of the genuine musical highlights of the year.)

Now, if we’re talking about bad Will Ferrell comedies, Fire Saga is not as bad as Holmes and Watson, but then you can say the same about a mild case of gangrene. The thing is that Ferrell’s particular style of knowingly ironic stupidity coupled with so-so slapstick has lost most of its freshness. You can see him working hard to find some laughs throughout the movie. But they elude him almost completely.

Compounding this problem is the way in which Fire Saga most accurately captures the Eurovision experience, by seeming to go on forever. A brisk ninety-five minutes is about right for this kind of film – an hour and three quarters at the absolute most. This one goes on for over two hours, and by the end I was feeling every minute of that time.

What are Americans doing making a movie about Eurovision, anyway? The tone is almost patronising, the suggestion that Eurovision is somehow inherently silly. Well – all right, it is, but this film misses the point, which is that something so self-confidently mad really can play a role in bringing the world together. Not having Eurovision this year was one of the genuine (if minor) tragedies of the pandemic. This movie is no substitute: it will not stop you missing Eurovision. If anything, it will make you miss it (ooh ah) a little bit more.

Batman and Robbing

Roger Marshall’s Death of a Batman has a title likely to confuse and mislead the kids of today, not that many of them are likely to want to watch it in the first place: the name refers to the nickname given to a soldier assigned to be the valet of an officer (the etymology gets a bit involved here and isn’t really worth going into).

The episode opens with an old boy of obviously quite limited means conking out, with his family gathered around him; the camera crosses the room to reveal a photo of a young Steed in army uniform: it turns out the recently-deceased was Steed’s batman at the end of the Second World War (less than twenty years before the episode was made, so this isn’t quite as incongruous as it might sound).

Naturally, Steed goes to the funeral, and is flattered to be remembered in the dead man’s will – he gets back ten quid he lent the man in 1945, which he had quite forgotten about. The chap who the deceased looked after in the previous war (Andre Morell) also gets a small bequest. Gob-smacking for everyone, however, is the fact that a man who was on a wage of twenty pounds a week (this was pre-decimal and pre-inflation, of course) has somehow managed to leave an estate worth somewhere in the region of £180,000. Has someone been up to something they shouldn’t?

The answer turns out to have something to do with insider trading and the stock market, but much more than that I find it quite difficult to go into detail about: I only watched it the other day, but the details of the plot are so impenetrable that it seems my brain found it impossible to retain most of them. This in itself probably says something about the episode.

This is a shame, as on paper the episode does not look unpromising: Morell is capable performer, and playing the dead batman’s son is David Burke, probably best remembered for a very decent turn as Dr Watson in the first couple of series of the Jeremy Brett Sherlock Holmes adaptations. Adding weight to my theory that there were only about seventeen actors working in the whole of TV in 1963 is the fact that Morell’s business partner is played by Philip Madoc, notching up his third appearance as a suspicious type in an Avengers episode in little more than a season. I suppose the episode is made a little more distinctive by the fact the villains rationalise their various crimes as being done in the name of supporting the British electronics industry (hmm, tell me another one) and there’s a scene where Honor Blackman has to contend with a set door that just won’t do as it’s told which is memorable for all the wrong reasons, but on the whole, until I watch this again (maybe in another 25 years) I am inclined to peg it as a dud.

Something much more fun comes along in the form of Eric Paice’s November Five (originally shown on November 2nd 1963, ha ha), although apparently this is an episode more likely than most to confuzzle non-British viewers, rooted as it is in the arcane details of our parliamentary system. It opens with the result of a by-election being announced, but the winner has possibly the shortest career as an MP in history as a second and a half later he is shot by a sniper (this sequence is not very well mounted, viewed from a modern perspective).

The official story is that this was an accident, but the dead man had been campaigning on the promise of exposing a major scandal – so was he just silenced? This is what Steed is wondering. He already knows what the scandal in question was – an atom bomb has been stolen – and this has been covered up by all the main parties. Can he track down the killers, and will they lead him to the missing A-bomb? Naturally, this involves Mrs Gale running for parliament in the by-election taking place to find another MP to replace the dead man. Cathy is not keen, even as Steed tries his hardest to persuade her: ‘I’ll pay your deposit! I’ll even kiss some babies for you!’

The clue to where the bomb eventually turns up is in the title of the episode, but this is fun, pacy stuff, if rather far-fetched (highlights include a fight on an indoor dry ski slope, and that’s before we even get to a gun battle inside the studio recreation of the palace of Westminster). It doesn’t really have any serious points to make about politics in general or the British system in particular, but it rattles along cheerfully and gets the balance between credibility and fantasy just about spot on. A strong episode.

Steed and Mrs Gale enter Parliament. Her intentions at least are honest.

Which leads us to The Gilded Cage, written by Roger Marshall. This was the first Cathy Gale episode I ever saw, when it was repeated in 1992 as part of the TV Heaven thread. (I am slightly sickened by the realisation that the episode was 29 years old at the time, which was 28 years ago. Tempus very much fugit, obviously.) Back then I was only passingly acquainted with even the filmed episodes – the only ones I was properly familiar with were those of The New Avengers, which had recently been repeated – and the lack of slickness and fantasy elements were a genuine disappointment, I must confess. Watching it again now, though, it seems to me to be a very impressive outing for the series.

Mrs Gale has apparently got a job at a secure storage facility for gold bullion, which she shows Steed around. Badinage between the two quickly makes it clear that she is planning to knock the place over and pinch the gold – what can be going on? Needless to say, it is part of a plan to entrap a senior (in every sense of the word) criminal named J. P. Spagge, a Moriarty-like figure who facilitates criminal activity for a slice of the takings. Adding further credence to my seventeen actor theory, Spagge is played by Patrick Magee, last seen only eight episodes earlier as the last villain of season two.

However, the plan seems to go horribly wrong when the police turn up and arrest Cathy for the murder of Spagge, her (missing) purse having been found by his body. The next thing she knows, she’s waking up on death row, having been convicted of the killing and sentenced to hang in only a few days… (Lest you be wondering, the last hangings in Britain took place the following year, though the last execution of a woman was in 1955. Critical insight and social history, and all for free. No need to thank me.)

A very lively and involving episode, this one, with some great characters: apart from Spagge himself, there’s his butler, who’s essentially a psychopathic snob much given to rhapsodising over Steed’s taste in clothes, and the leader of the gold robbers, a sculptor played by Edric Connor (apparently a noted calypsoist when not acting). Some good set pieces, too, although it’s shame that Connor’s character doesn’t get a more memorable send-off and there’s some very wobbly scenery during the final fight scene.

Watching The Gilded Cage now, one is inevitably struck by the irony of Honor Blackman overseeing the robbery of a gold bullion repository, especially one using knock-out gas to incapacitate the guards. I think we are still so early in season three that the striking resemblance to the plot of Blackman’s most famous big-screen appearance must be a coincidence – but it’s an amusing one nevertheless. Either way, the episode stands up extremely well on its own terms, one of the best to date.

Off the Deep (One) End

Well, how’s about this for a coincidence: we go from one film about a man stuck on a remote island with slightly crazy host and some unfriendly half-human half-animal creatures, to – well, another one, albeit of rather different feel and tone. I refer to another fairly obscure genre movie currently hosted by Get Clicks, which so far as I can tell didn’t get any kind of cinema release in the UK, despite the fact this is a Franco-Spanish movie made in English solely to improve its international chances. The name of the movie is Cold Skin, made in 2017 by Xavier Gens, and based on a novel by Albert Sanchez Pinol (though owing a debt elsewhere as we shall soon see).

We are on a ship heading somewhere remote, in Autumn 1914, and a young man (David Oakes) is off to take up a posting as a sort of meteorological clerk on a bleak island somewhere. Could it be that he is running away from the war consuming Europe? This certainly seems to be the implication. Already everything has got very Thoughtful and Significant. Soon enough the ship reaches its destination, but of the man our chap is replacing there is no sign. Despite the fact that the island is a thousand miles from nowhere, it still has a lighthouse on it (the script has a brave stab at explaining this rather obvious plot contrivance) and it turns out the lighthouse keeper, Gruner (Ray Stevenson), is a dissolute old grump unable to satisfactorily explain what happened to the previous weatherman.

Nevertheless, they still drop our chap off and sail away, leaving him with his anemometers and the notes left behind by his predecessor, which include some alarming anatomical sketches and the declaration ‘DARWIN WAS WRONG!’ which is never a good sign if you’re a character in this sort of movie. Before very long at all, dark shapes are slobbering around outside the shack and webbed hands are creeping in under the door – the fish-men have landed, and they are not friendly!

Now, I have to say that at this point I was not unimpressed with the movie, but it did seem to me something had gone badly wrong with the pacing of it: we were less than twenty minutes into a film lasting an hour and three quarters, and we had already reached the monster-menace-jeopardy stage. How on Earth were they planning to sustain it for another ninety minutes?

But no: the film goes off in a slightly different direction. Our chap realises he won’t survive alone and prevails upon Gruner to let him live in the much better-fortified lighthouse with him. The young, sensitive idealist and the bitter old misanthrope are thus thrown together in a nightly battle for survival with the swarms of (badly-nicknamed) ‘toads’ seemingly intent on tearing them to pieces. Things are complicated by the presence of a female fish-person whom they have, shall we say, a similar yet different interest in (let’s just say that everyone gets lonely sooner or later).

Cold Skin would normally seem like a very weird film, but nowadays it at least has the advantage of not feeling quite as aggressively strange as The Lighthouse, a film with which it shares a number of superficial similarities: both films are largely two-handers, largely set in lighthouses, largely about the effects of isolation (literal and emotional), and so on. There’s also the fact that both films are conducting respectful raids on H.P. Lovecraft – in Cold Skin‘s case, this is not just in terms of substance (angry fish-men on the prowl) but also some of the dialogue: ‘What we know is a small island in the vast ocean of what we don’t!’ cries our hero. Compare and contrast with ‘We live on a small island of ignorance in the midst of black seas of infinity’ (that’s from the opening of Lovecraft’s The Call of Cthulhu, by the way).

Well, you know, I love a bit of Lovecraftiana, especially if it’s engaging with the author’s deeper themes and not just sticking a CGI version of Cthulhu in at the end as a sort of Easter egg. Unfortunately, Cold Skin is… actually, I’m not sure what it is. It certainly feels like an attempt at a more commercial movie than The Lighthouse – it has a lot more action in it, and it’s not made in black and white using an ancient aspect ratio – and initially it seems like there may be some kind of metaphor going on for the first world war, with the endless, brutalising battle between the two men and the fish-creatures. But in the end it turned out to be less bleak and existentially dismal than I was hoping for, and the film turns out to be about the horribleness of people much more than the horribleness of a dispassionate mechanistic cosmos.

The film’s highminded seriousness is impressive, and the performances from the two men are impressive – as is that of Aura Garrido as the fish-girl, I suppose, but I did spend a lot of time wondering where her prosthetics ended and her body-paint began – but in the end the movie still feels slow and heavy and rather portentous (I was looking at my watch long before the end). It’s likewise an impressively polished production, but then I really think I need to stop commenting on things like that – these days it’s an exceptional movie that looks primitive and rough around the edges.

I ended up not liking Cold Skin nearly as much as I wanted to. It’s a decent film, made well, clearly with serious intentions – but it doesn’t really grip, it doesn’t seem to have anything unexpected to say for itself, and in the end its one of those films that seems happy to raid from Lovecraft on a superficial level but not really engage with his ideas in a deeper way. It passed the time reasonably and was occasionally not uninteresting, but I would struggle to give it a stronger recommendation than that.

 

The Island of Doctor Moreau tends to lag somewhat behind The War of the Worlds, The Time Machine and The Invisible Man when it comes to cultural profile, but if nothing else I suppose this puts it marginally less at risk of truly dreadful modern ‘re-interpretations’ (BBC non-adaptation of War of the Worlds, I’m looking at you). The disaster of the Marlon Brando-starring adaptation probably means we won’t see another big-screen version for a good long while, and while on one level this is a relief, it would be nice to at least consider the possibility of someone coming along and doing the story justice.

Taking a decent swing at the challenge is Don Taylor’s 1977 take on the novel (title marginally shortened to save on typesetting, I guess), which was probably the most distinguished entrant in a brief H.G. Wells cycle from American International (other movies in this ‘series’ were The Food of the Gods and Empire of the Ants). This is not an exceptional film in any respect, but its approach to the source material is interesting.

We open in the middle of the Pacific, where we find Michael York and his cheekbones in a lifeboat, along with two other men, one of whom has just carked it (thus we are signalled what dire straits they are in). York and his friend throw the corpse over the side, while the audience is inevitably distracted by the way that the lifeboat seems to be surging along at a fair old clip (mainly because it is being towed by the camera boat). Eventually they wash up on a rather substantial tropical island. York goes to explore, gets spooked by something in the undergrowth and ends up falling into a pit trap, while his companion is set upon by mysterious figures and killed (off camera). (There are, to be honest, various plot holes and unanswered questions here, based on what we later learn about how the island is set up, but these do not occur to us until much later, if at all.)

Well, York wakes up in the slightly dingy hacienda-style home of the owner of the island, Dr Paul Moreau (Burt Lancaster), which he shares with his dissolute factotum Montgomery (Nigel Davenport) and a beautiful young woman named Maria (Barbara Carrera) – not to mention some rather ugly servants. It seems York will be stuck there for a bit, but Moreau offers his hospitality, while warning him not to leave the compound after dark. York discovers that Moreau was briefly celebrated as a scientist of genius, but has since become a recluse here on the island. Taking York’s curiosity as a sign he is possibly a kindred spirit, Moreau reveals his collection of bottled embryos and informs York he is searching for the secret of what gives living creatures their form, and why this morphological destiny seems so inflexible. ‘Can we change that destiny?’ ponders Moreau. ‘Should we?’ responds York, quite properly for the hero of this sort of film.

It turns out, of course, that Moreau has been putting his ideas into practice by injecting different animals with human genetic material and creating a collection of hybrid creatures, most of which are roaming around on the island looking not unlike extras from Planet of the Apes (director Taylor helmed one of the best Apes movies, and John Chambers did both sets of make-up). York is appalled, especially when Moreau indicates to him that the position of the ‘true’ humans on the island is precarious – one sign of weakness and the beast-men may rise up and kill them all. In order for any of them to survive York will have to be as brutal and ruthless with Moreau’s creatures as his host is…

When I wrote about The Island of Doctor Moreau a few years ago, I admitted to being left a little troubled by the arguably racist dimension of the colonial interpretation the book lends itself to: Moreau’s genetic uplift of the animals into something approaching human form as a metaphor for the ‘civilising’ efforts undertaken by colonial powers during the century in which Wells was writing. It’s to the credit of the film that this kind of idea lingers on here, though by implication more than anything else – it also occurs to me that the film’s take on this is more explicitly critical of Imperial power structures, anyway, suggesting that the ‘masters’ are brutalised and diminished by their role as much as anyone. It’s a shame the film doesn’t explore these kinds of ideas further.

The other thing I noted about the book is the extent to which it falls down if assessed in terms of standard narrative dogma: the story takes a while to get going, the protagonist doesn’t actually have any influence on the story, events would have played out the same way if he’d never actually been there, and so on. As regular readers will know, I am quite wary of adaptations which only treat the original text as a set of general suggestions, but I can understand why people might think there was room for improvement here. The screenwriters certainly come up with a strong idea for the final act of the movie: annoyed by the persistent failure of his attempts to turn animals into men, Moreau decides to approach the problem from the other direction and turn York into an animal. It’s this which leads directly into the climax of the movie (providing a few quite effective scenes along the way). On the other hand, this does remove the creepier and more downbeat aspects of the book’s conclusion, but you can’t have everything.

On the whole, though, the movie is well-mounted, and most of the performances are very decent: Burt Lancaster certainly looks the part as Moreau, and York makes the most of what’s a fairly underwritten role. Even when it’s departed from the substance of Wells (which happens quite frequently) the film has the sense and atmosphere of what’s ultimately one of the great pieces of Gothic SF (though not often described in those terms, I note). The only bit of it which really falls down in the love-interest subplot featuring Carrera’s character, which is presumably there in deference to the diktat that All Films Must Have Romance In Them (Or At Least Some Soft-Focus Sex). Nearly all of these scenes feel like a graft taken from somewhere else, and the operation is not a complete success. You keep expecting a twist ending where Carreras starts turning into a mongoose, or something, but it never happens. (Apparently such a conclusion was scripted, but Michael York refused to film it on grounds of taste and decency.)

In the end this is a decent film rather than a great adaptation – it’s never quite as visceral or as disturbing (or, indeed, as Gothic) as you would really like it to be, but the basic shape and concerns of the book survive at least as well as in some other, rather more celebrated Wells movies. If the film really has a flaw, it’s that it seems a little too interested in playing it safe in the name of commercial viability, but you can’t blame the film-makers for the nature of their industry. Worth a look, anyway.

 

James Mitchell’s Man with Two Shadows is an episode with a number of elements suggesting he hasn’t quite got the hang of The Avengers house style yet: the hook scene mostly concerns the actor Daniel Moynihan taking his trousers off and putting them back on again. This happens more often than you would have thought possible, given it’s such a short scene. The episode is largely set in a British holiday camp (another element which, to the modern viewer at least, hardly screams glamorous escapism) and the hook sees Moynihan (playing a character named Gordon) in his chalet. He takes his trousers off. He opens his wardrobe – only to find another Gordon in there with a gun, waiting for him! The second Gordon shoots the original and then sets about taking the dead man’s place. Fake Gordon takes his own trousers off. After a moment’s thought, Fake Gordon then puts Original Gordon’s trousers on. Cue the title card. Let’s just say it could all be a bit slicker.

Steed is dragged into proceedings by a meeting with a former double agent named Borowski (Terence Lodge), who has been caught by the Other Side and subjected to odd procedures which have left him with an interesting range of multiple personalities – quite how and why are not gone into, as they are not pertinent to the plot – they’re just there to make Borowski a more interesting character and add some character to what would otherwise be quite a dry pipe-laying scene. Borowski raves on about plans to replace key individuals in the British establishment with identical doubles, suggesting that a scientist and a top spy are amongst the targets.

Clues lead Steed to the holiday camp in question, and he brings Mrs Gale along to back him up (Honor Blackman has a very different hairstyle to her usual one in this story, almost enough to distract one from her various swimsuit scenes). The mangled body of the original Gordon has turned up, so Steed also gets the man’s doctor and dentist to come with him, for a full examination (a spurious reason for this is come up with). But could this all be a trap? It turns out a duplicate Steed is already standing by… The possibility has certainly occurred to Steed’s superiors, one of whom is also taking an interest. If it ever looks like Steed has been replaced, Mrs Gale is to terminate the duplicate.

Not, perhaps, the most original of premises for a story, and one they revisited (rather less plausibly) in the New Avengers episode Faces, in which London’s homeless population apparently contains a double for every single member of the security establishment. This one works a bit harder to seem sensible, stressing the amount of time and effort it takes to create one of the duplicates (Steed’s double complains it’s taken five years of hard work.)

Nevertheless, a solid episode: you can tell the programme-makers are taking advantage of the fact they’re not making the episodes as-live any more, as this one would have been almost impossible to achieve under those limitations. Mrs Gale gets a cracker of a fight scene with one of the henchmen come the climax, tussling away in the camp ballroom as a waltz tinkles away in the background, and it finishes on a great character moment – Steed decides to leave the fake Gordon in place, as he’s a very useful channel for supplying the Other Side with credible misinformation. But what about his fiancee? Shouldn’t she be told? Steed is at his most amoral; Mrs Gale is morally outraged, naturally. As I say, solid stuff.

Up next, The Nutshell is the first of two episodes from the obscure writer Philip Chambers, and it enjoys a very positive reputation, amongst the writers of at least one major Avengers website anyway. It opens with a very striking young woman in a wetsuit engaged upon some sort of covet mission; it’s Edina Ronay, again, getting a bit more to do than in her previous appearance in the series. (Perhaps my head is getting too easily turned by a set of cheekbones and a fringe, but I’m wondering if Ronay wouldn’t have made a terrific Avengers girl herself.)

(I make no apologies…)

Steed, meanwhile, is having tea with Mrs Gale, and revealing he is a believer in the MAD doctrine which shaped a lot of strategy during the Cold War. Let us be charitable and assume this is a sign of Steed’s innate pragmatism and cynicism, rather than outright foolishness. The phone goes, summoning him urgently to a meeting – what’s more startling is that Cathy was warned ahead of him this would be happening, and is under orders to go along as well.

They are off to the Nutshell, a top-secret nuclear bunker (‘the nutshell’ is one of those laborious acronyms you often find in spy-fi stories; this episode is full of them). Here they are placed under the command of top man Disco (John Cater) – this is another acronym – and told that Big Ben – yet another acronym – has been stolen. Big Ben is one of those lists of undercover agents which are always prone to being nicked (see the first Mission: Impossible film and Skyfall) and it has to be retrieved – but who would know about the security at the bunker?

Steed would, it seems: he goes straight off to see Ronay, who is playing Elin Strindberg, a Swedish escapologist and contortionist (excuse me a moment – >sigh<). It looks like Steed himself has orchestrated the break-in and is intent on passing the secret list to somebody from the Other Side. Can he possibly have gone bad?

Well, of course he can’t, it’s Steed, but that doesn’t stop this from being a particularly involving and tense episode (even if Edina Ronay isn’t in it quite enough). For once Steed seems to be operating entirely independently, and Cathy has no idea what he’s up to, and the audience is also kept well and truly in the dark until the closing minutes of the story. Is this, as some have suggested, the single best episode of the videotaped incarnation of The Avengers? Well, I think I’m going to keep my counsel on that for the time being, but it is certainly in the top bracket of the series up until this point.

It’s Not Not Unusual

Sometimes you come across or rediscover a film which time or a sense of familiarity have led you to forget the sheer weirdness of. I’m not necessarily talking about very obscure, fringe films dealing with odd subject matter, but those very occasional examples of someone high-up at a big Hollywood studio having a bit of a brainstorm and greenlighting a project that, by rights, had no business even going to script stage. When one of these films is a monumental success, the suit responsible is hailed as a visionary film-maker and usually goes on to a lucrative career making the same kind of movie over and over and over again. But it doesn’t change the fact that the initial film was still a bit weird at the time it was made. Most often, though, the film either flops or does okay, inspires no great raft of imitators, and we are just left with an eye-catching freak of a film.

So, then: Tim Burton’s Mars Attacks!, released in the UK at least in 1997, which one reviewer even at the time instantly pegged as an extraordinary piece of folie de grandeur which could only have been made by mistake. It is a very odd film even in its conception: Hollywood is increasingly looking to peculiar places to avoid the strain of having to think up original ideas for films, but rather than a book, comic, theme-park ride or game, Mars Attacks! is based on a set of trading cards. Films based on knitting patterns or the assembly instructions for flat-pack furniture are only a matter of time, surely.

The tone is set by a garishly grotesque sequence depicting a stampeding herd of blazing cows (inspired by original card #22, Burning Cattle), which we are invited to assume is the work of a passing flying saucer before it zips off back to Mars. The credits roll as a veritable armada of Martian ships, lovingly styled in the retro 50s manner, launch and head for Earth, causing no small degree of alarm on our planet.

In charge of overseeing the response is US president James Dale (Jack Nicholson), who seems to have a sort of vague hope the arrival of the Martians will result in him looking good. Others are less optimistic. (To be honest, this film has about eighteen main characters, so attempting to describe and keep track of them all would be a bit futile; we’ll see how it goes.) Anyway, the Martian Ambassador ends up landing in the Nevada desert and the translation machine built by one scientist (Jerzy Skolimowski, whose career seems to get more bizarrely eclectic every time I come across him) assures everyone that they have indeed come in peace. Yeah, right. Then of course there is a mix-up with a dove, causing the Martians to furiously reach for their ray guns, and…

To be honest, the film kind of falls into a sort of cycle from this point on: the Martians gleefully inflict garish death and horror on the humans for a bit, shouting ‘Ack! Ack! Ack!’ to each other all the while, after which the humans desperately wonder what went wrong and make a plaintive attempt to contact the Martians and put things back on a friendly basis. The Martians clearly can’t believe how dumb the humans are, and propose another meeting, which will clearly just be another pretext for more neon-hued slaughter, at which point it all repeats. Along the way there are various charming tableaux clearly inspired by some of the original cards (e.g., #19, Burning Flesh, #24, The Shrinking Ray, and #36, Destroying a Dog), although – if you’re wondering – the plot of the movie only very loosely follows that of the original card series.

So you look at all this and think, well, it has a very distinctive visual sense – Tim Burton initially wanted the Martians created using stop-frame animation, but budgetary considerations meant CGI was used instead (some of it not fantastic to the modern eye) – and obviously the weird black comedy aspects of the story must have appealed to him, but still – how the hell did this thing get made? Quite apart from the grisly black comedy alien invasion storyline, the film is subversive and tongue in cheek and often just plain weird, never things the financiers of your typical Hollywood blockbuster will knowingly try to do. The closing moments of the film see the world recovering from the Martian onslaught, which has been repelled using one of the silliest plot devices imaginable – and the return to normalcy is symbolised by deer, birds, and other animals flocking around Tom Jones, who launches into a celebratory rendition of ‘It’s Not Unusual’. I have a lot of time for Sir Tom Jones, but on this occasion he is wrong: it’s not ‘not unusual’. Often it is simply peculiar.

At the time the film came out, it was less than a year after Independence Day, and the assumption was that this was intended as some kind of spoof or parody of it. My first thought would be that it’s extremely difficult to parody something not intended to be taken entirely seriously anyway, but there are a few shots which do seem to suggest this may have been the case. The two films likewise share a sprawling structure largely derived from disaster movies, with a commensurately large cast (apart from Nicholson, Mars Attacks features – deep breath – Glenn Close, Annette Bening, Pierce Brosnan (doing a very Hugh Grant-like turn – apparently Grant was first choice for the role), Danny DeVito, Sarah Jessica Parker, Natalie Portman, Jim Brown, Lukas Haas, Rod Steiger, Martin Short, Pam Grier and Jack Black.

However, it also seems to me that Burton is also doing a send-up of sci-fi movies from an earlier generation. This was only a year or two after Ed Wood, which recreated the ne plus ultra of bad fifties UFO films, so you can see why he might have this kind of idea. Certainly there are shots and sight-gags which are spot-on parodies or recreations of films like Earth vs the Flying Saucers and This Island Earth. But, once again, how many decent, ordinary film-goers are going to get a joke like that?

And there’s one more set of influences to be stirred into what’s already a very eggy pudding (not to mention an over-cooked metaphor): as well as playing the president, Nicholson also turns up in another role, as a Nevada property developer (who mainly seems to be in the movie to give Nicholson a chance to ham it up just the way he likes to). Coupled to some visual cues in the design of the president’s war room, and Rod Steiger’s performance as the rather hawkish general, it’s hard not to conclude that, on top of everything else, Burton was either attempting to replicate the tone of – or just homage – Dr Strangelove. This only succeeds as homage, if that: Burton has many fine qualities as a film-maker but the same kind of fierce, forensic intelligence Kubrick possessed is not amongst them and the film doesn’t have the edge or satirical power of Strangelove. (Though… I watch it now, seeing the ineffectual leader, insisting he will take control of the situation and demanding that schools and shops stay open… and I can’t help but be struck.)

Virtually no element of Mars Attacks! is consistently successful. Some parts of it just don’t work at all: there are a few dead wood characters and jokes that just fall flat, some of them a bit suspect. However, there are enough jokes that work, and the film has enough of a sense of mischief about it, for it to be quite watchable: there are some very game performances, obviously I like all the call-backs to B-movie sci-fi, and I think one of the film’s real flaws is that Tom Jones only turns up in the third act. Every time I return to it, I just find myself marvelling that someone read this script and said ‘Yes, this seems like a perfectly normal piece of commercial film-making: have $70 million!’ In a sane world it should not have been made. However, it is unusual to find evidence of an insane world which actually makes one feel slightly optimistic, for once, and I am quite glad it was.