Feeds:
Posts
Comments

Missive Unforgivable

One of the incidental pleasures of life as a pathological movie-goer is that you become intimately familiar with censor-speak: that is, those extra remarks which the BBFC append to a film’s certificate explaining why it’s been given the rating that it has. ‘Injury detail,’ for instance, ‘strong violence’, ‘moderate sex scenes’ (this is moderate on a spectrum running from ‘mild’ to ‘strong’, not ‘disappointing’ to ‘outstanding’, naturally). I was a little surprised, therefore, when the certificate for Ritesh Batra’s adaptation of Julian Barnes’ The Sense of an Ending limited itself to a simple ‘only suitable for viewers 15 and older’. A metropolitan BBC drama with a bit of a period element and proper actors like Jim Broadbent, Harriet Walter and Charlotte Rampling? A 15? If it was only a question of a few basic effs and jeffs (‘strong language’) they would surely say so; the same for a quick game of ‘whose leg is it anyway?’ (‘moderate sex scenes’).

Well, much to my surprise it turned out that the main reason the 15 rating on The Sense of an Ending goes unannotated is because, well, if you started, you’d probably never stop. This movie is shot through with a particularly repressed and British kind of grimness, for all that it is superbly written, directed, and performed.

Jim Broadbent plays Tony Webster, a semi-retired shopkeeper, who seems like a very average chap as the film gets underway. (Perhaps the point of the film is that he actually is a very average chap.) He seems well-set in his daily routine, has reasonable relationships with his ex-wife (Walter) and heavily pregnant daughter (Michelle Dockery) – he’s perhaps a bit too reserved and irascible to be what you’d genuinely call a nice fellow, but neither does he seem an especially bad person either.

Then Tony receives a solicitor’s letter, telling him he is the recipient of a bequest – one recently-deceased old acquaintance has left him the diary of another, long-dead old friend. He has not heard from either of these people in decades, for all that he had significant relationships with them when he was a young man. However, there is a further complication – the executor of the will, another former intimate of Tony’s, is refusing to hand over the item in question. But why? And why exactly does Tony find himself growing so obsessed with (as he puts it) claiming his legal property? Are there other psychological forces at work here he is unwilling to acknowledge?

Much of the film is told in flashback, with Billy Howle playing the young Tony, and Freya Mavor as Veronica, the girl he finds himself getting so involved with (who eventually becomes the uncooperative executor, played with customary steely froideur by Charlotte Rampling). Emily Mortimer plays Veronica’s mother, Joe Alwyn is Tony’s close friend Adrian, and Matthew Goode gets the much-coveted ‘and’ position in the credits as their history teacher.

For a while I almost felt a bit cheated, for I had turned up to see a film with Jim Broadbent in the lead role – and who doesn’t love Jim Broadbent? – and this seemed to be turning into a period drama with Broadbent only participating in the framing sequence – but the action, such as it is, definitely returns to the present day for much of the latter part of the film. At one point in his rather turbulent personal life, the young Tony wrote an impulsive letter, posted it, and then promptly forgot about it, little suspecting the consequences it might have for its recipients.

No, really – who doesn’t love Jim Broadbent? Everyone knows him as one of the UK’s greatest comic actors (one of the few people capable of coming in and stealing an episode of Blackadder while ostensibly playing a minor role), but also effortlessly touching when the part requires it, and the man’s sheer work-rate is also startling – I’d completely forgotten that he was in three films I’ve seen in the last year or so, in addition to the ones I actually remembered. And he turned down an OBE, on the grounds that actors aren’t the most deserving recipients of that sort of honour, and he didn’t want to be seen to celebrate the idea of Empire. What a guy.

Of course, a lot of Broadbent’s movie work consists of him coming on and doing a little character cameo, more often than not comedic in nature, so the prospect of him playing the lead role in a film which really gives him a chance to do his stuff was, frankly, a bit mouthwatering, regardless of what the actual movie was about. And Broadbent’s performance lives up to expectations (of course) – in some ways his role here almost resembles the one he plays in the Bridget Jones movies, in that he’s the awkward, almost-bumbling father of a young woman who spends her times rolling her eyes at him a lot. But as the story unfolds the less appealing aspects of Tony Webster rise to the surface – unwittingly or not, this is a man quite possibly responsible for horrible things, and Broadbent isn’t afraid to appear unsympathetic and even quite sinister as he acts upon the fixation which gradually develops in the course of the story.

It seems to me that this is a film about a man looking to get a feeling of closure – that sense of an ending alluded to in the title – regardless of whether this is justified, or suits the other people involved, or is even in any way true. One of the advantages of having the film partly set in a school is that the characters can have fairly abstract debates about the intersections between story, history, and motivation without it seeming contrived, and these certainly feed into the theme of the piece. Can we ever truly know why somebody does something? Even if that person is us? And if that’s the case, can we genuinely claim, or disclaim, responsibility for the results of our actions?

Well, I know it sounds heavy (and perhaps a bit pretentious), but the story itself is engrossing (if not exactly a barrel of laughs) and Batra handles the telling of it with deceptive skill, given the various flash-backs, flash-forwards, and other shifts in time and place. (He even tackles one of the more challenging set-pieces in the directorial playbook – that moment when two people attempt to, er, become fully engaged with one another on the back seat of a car – with impressive deftness. No, really, think about it: you’ve got two actors, a cameraman, a sound operator, possibly the director himself, and all the necessary gear, crammed into the interior of a car. Imagine the logistics. Imagine the jostling for space. Imagine the potential for the camera ending up pointing somewhere deeply unflattering or intrusive. I tell you, there should be a special Oscar just for bringing back-seat whoa-ho-ho to the big screen.) It doesn’t have quite the same emotional payoff as his previous film, The Lunchbox, but then that isn’t really the point of the exercise.

You don’t emerge from The Sense of an Ending blazing with delight or quite ready to rave about the film to strangers in the street, but that’s understandable – this is a film about the ambiguities of life, quite ambiguous itself in many ways, with many questions left intentionally unresolved at the conclusion. But it is still a deeply satisfying piece of drama, with the performances of the rest of the cast as impressive as that of Broadbent, and the writing and direction not showing many obvious flaws, either. It’s a quietly dark film, which may not endear it to everyone, but it’s also an extremely accomplished one, and I wonder if the producers haven’t done themselves a disservice by effectively releasing it as counter-programming to Fast and Furious 8: an Autumn release might have made this a genuine awards contender. Nevertheless, no matter the season, this is an impressive movie.

Carnal Knowledge

Since the heyday of Roger Corman there has been a pleasing synergy to the fact that horror movies have traditionally offered a reasonably safe route to decent box-office returns on a relatively small budget, thus allowing writers and directors near the beginnings of their careers the chance to make movies about quite challenging and sophisticated ideas, provided they respect the conventions of the genre. The early films of George Romero and David Cronenberg are full of social commentary and metaphorical power, it’s just that this is to some extent obscured by the fact they are apparently just exploitation movies about zombies and parasitic infection.

The question is to what degree the same is true of Julia Ducournau’s Raw, which appears to be an entry into one of horror’s least respectable sub-genres, but clearly has other things to say for itself. Garance Marillier gives a remarkable performance as Justine, a bright young student off to university for the first time. She is studying to be a vet, as is her older sister Alex (Ella Rumpf), who’s at the same college as her. Justine has been raised as a staunch vegetarian by her parents, but she is unsettled to discover that Alex seems to have lapsed a little into the ways of meat-eating.

The initiation rituals for new students at the college are extreme and debauched, and include the newcomers having to eat a raw rabbit kidney. Justine demurs, as you would, but without anyone to support her principled stance, and the threat of social ostracism looming, goes ahead and swallows the bunny bits anyway.

Her attempts to come to terms with the new opportunities, threats, and temptations of college life are somewhat complicated by the unexpected way in which her body reacts to eating raw flesh. Initially there is a rather grisly rash, and after this fades Justine finds herself gripped by a strange hunger that drives her to steal meat from the canteen, gnaw on raw chicken straight from the fridge, and even contemplate much darker sources of sustenance…

So, yes, this is the French-language feminist cannibal movie of which you may have heard, and (wait for it) fairly strong meat it is too. Cannibalism may not be your thing at the cinema; I can understand that, I’m not an unconditional fan of this sort of thing myself. It almost goes without saying that this is not a film for the faint-hearted or weak-stomached – there is gore aplenty, and while it is not spectacular it is certainly intense. That said, the film is uncompromising on all fronts – quite graphic sex and other bodily functions also feature – and, to be honest, the sequence which made me squirm the most involved one character giving another a not entirely competent bikini wax.

The fact the film isn’t just about bloody flesh is an indicator that at heart it isn’t, as I had feared, just some piece of heavy-handed agitprop on behalf of militant vegans. There seems to be a lot of this sort of thing doing the rounds at present and I’m not sure I really need to see more of it; I’m aware that from a certain point of view eating meat is ethically indefensible (certainly if you have any dealings with the mainstream meat industry), but, well, I’m told that the human capacity to simultaneously hold numerous mutually incompatible beliefs at the same time is one of the keys to our success as a species, so why not make use of it: animal welfare is a significant issue, but some animals do taste delicious. Inasmuch as the film is actually about vegetarianism, it’s because this is something which initially marks Justine as an outsider and thus makes her socially vulnerable. One of the things the film is about is the demands on young women to conform to certain standards of behaviour, whether they want to or not, and the ugly double standards that are often involved if they try too hard to fit in.

Cannibalism as a metaphor for peer pressure is an interesting approach to take, but Ducournau makes it work, and also makes it clear what a tightrope young women are on at this time in their lives – transgression of any kind can see them ostracised, ridiculed on social media, or worse. The urge to try and disappear must be strong. The director doesn’t hold back in making the student culture of the college just as repellent as anything that Justine’s little eating disorder drives her to (her cannibalistic tendencies are implicitly compared to bulimia at one point), and makes it very clear just how vulnerable an unworldly young woman like her is, surrounded by so many new temptations.

One thing that possibly weakens the film is the way that Ducournau attempts to insert another layer of metaphor, making Justine’s desire for flesh figurative as well as literal: the new world she is plunged into finds her having to contend with feelings for her room-mate (Rabah Nait Oufella) – she becomes jealous, possessive of him, finds these powerful new emotions difficult to deal with. But what does she really want to do to him? Suffice to say the ensuing scenes are powerfully sensual, if not completely comfortable viewing, and the film is strong enough to survive this slightly split focus. It also manages to accommodate a closing scene which largely seems to be there to provide a startling and memorable twist ending, which while not quite feeling like a complete cheat, does feel somewhat like it’s drifted in from a film which is much more of a black comedy than this one.

I wasn’t sure quite what to expect from Raw, but I was impressed with what I got – in an odd way it does have that clinical, queasy feeling of a very early Cronenberg movie, but the skill with which the director handled picture and soundtrack (Jim Williams’ score is also highly impressive) almost put me in mind of… well, I almost hesitate to say this, but in some ways Raw resembles the cannibal horror film that Stanley Kubrick never made. If you only go and see one feminist cannibal horror movie in French this year, Raw should be your choice – always assuming you have the stomach for it.

It’s a Family Affray

There comes a point during F Gary Gray’s Fast and Furious 8, possibly when the great Vin Diesel is jumping his car over a nuclear submarine in order to rid himself of the heat-seeking missile which someone has inconsiderately launched at him, when it is entirely reasonable for a person to forget that things were not always thus with this franchise. The last four or five installments have been such utterly reliable, if slightly ridiculous, big-scale entertainment, that you might assume that this is really an in-name-only sequel to the moderately gritty and down-to-earth 2001 progenitor of the series.

This is about as good a hopping-on point for newcomers as any film in the series. As things get underway, man-mountain boy-racer and mastermind of good-hearted skulduggery Dom Toretto (Diesel) and his wife Letty (Michelle Rodriguez) are enjoying a postponed (since F&F4) honeymoon in Cuba. This involves Toretto launching burning cars into the harbour at supersonic speed, backwards, but romance is a personal thing, after all. Meanwhile, colossus of justice Hobbs (Dwayne Johnson) is enjoying a little down-time, until someone arrives to deliver some important exposition. Thus we get a scene where someone is trying to explain to Hobbs about a stolen doomsday weapon while he is distracted and trying to coach his daughter’s soccer team.

Well, Hobbs retains Toretto and the rest of the F&F All-Stars to help him get the doomsday widget back, not realising Toretto has fallen under the sway of evil cyber-terrorist Cipher (Charlize Theron), who gets him to pinch the widget and zoom off with it, abandoning the rest of the All-Stars. But how is this possible? Given that Dom devotes most of his dialogue in these films to rumbling on about the importance of ‘fam-er-lee’, what could possibly make him sell out his nearest and dearest this way?

Anyway, Hobbs gets slung in the chokey for his part in the failed mission, and ends up in the next cell to Deckard (Mr Jason Statham), the villain of F&F7, conveniently enough. Energetic prison-riot shenanigans inevitably ensue. In the end, shady intelligence puppetmaster/plot device Mr Nobody (Kurt Russell) gets the All-Stars, Hobbs, and Deckard together and tasks them with finding Toretto and Cipher before they can do anything too naughty with the stolen doomsday widget. Cue a succession of monumentally overblown car chases and fist-fights, a peculiar bromance between J-Stat and the Rock, some extremely broad humour, and more than a whiff of sentimentality as people bang on and on about ‘fam-er-lee’…

The key question about this one, I suppose, is whether or not you can make a viable and satisfying Fast and Furious movie without the late Paul Walker (or, for that matter, Jordana Brewster, who doesn’t appear either). The answer seems to be ‘yes’, but I get a sense of the film-makers being aware of the change in the essential dynamic of the series – this may be why Diesel is sent off into his own plotline away from the other characters for most of the movie, and Statham and Johnson inserted into the heart of the ensemble (although rumour has it that this may also be due to Diesel having had a bit of a tiff with certain of his co-stars and refusing to share any scenes with them). This is very successful, I would say, because these are two charismatic dudes who deserve a chance to do more than just sweat and either sit behind steering wheels or wallop stuntmen. The dividend extends further, with both Michelle Rodriguez and Tyrese Gibson getting some of their best material in the history of the series. (Scott Eastwood turns up as a new character and also does surprisingly well.)

Even Charlize Theron does pretty well with a character who is, on paper, not much more than an, um, cipher, much given to slightly preposterous speeches about evolutionary psychology and so on (clearly she’s yet another person who’s just read Sapiens). Given the size of some of the performances elsewhere in the movie (and the size of some of the performers, come to that), it’s hard to make a big impression as the bad guy in Fast and Furious Land, but she has a good go, helped by the fact that Cipher steers the series into some properly dark territory – something genuinely shocking and serious befalls a regular character partway through this film, threatening to tilt it all over into the realms of bad taste.

The casual way in which the film recovers its absurd, freewheeling tone is just another sign of the genuine deftness and skill with which these films are made (although this one does seem to score a bit higher on the mindless slaughter scale than most of the others). I do get mocked for my sincere enthusiasm for this series, but it is simply supremely well-made entertainment, and if the combination of stunts, jokes, fighting, and sentimentality is a bit preposterous, so what? With the Bond movies seemingly locked in ‘glum’ mode for the duration, there’s a gap in the market for something so knowing and fun. At one point in this movie, Jason Statham launches himself into battle with a squad of goons, gun in one hand, baby-carrier in the other, and what follows is both a terrific action sequence and genuinely very funny, with all the craziness you’d hope for in one of Mr Statham’s own movies. I do hope they keep Deckard (and his own fam-er-lee) around for the next one.

If Fast and Furious 8 is silly or ridiculous (and it really is), I would suggest it is silly and ridiculous in an entirely intentional way. And underlying all this is a script that regular writer Chris Morgan genuinely seems to have thought about – he doesn’t quite do his usual chronology-fu, but nevertheless he’s locked onto the fact that ever since the first one, the best of these films have all been about the camaraderie and sense of belonging you get from being part of a gang, or a family, and this informs the plot of this one in a fundamental way – that’s the thread linking the new film to the original one. Silly is not the same as stupid.

So I suppose it’s possible to genuinely dislike Fast and Furious 8, in the same way it’s possible to dislike any movie – but that doesn’t make it any less successful in hitting the targets it has set for itself, or indeed any less entertaining for the rest of us. If every film were made with this degree of skill and attention to detail, then the world would be a happier place.

 

Booming with Gravitas

Well, it’s time for another installment of our very irregular and even more pointless feature, New Cinema Review (that’s ‘new’ as in ‘new to me’, not as in ‘freshly constructed’). On this occasion, the venue in question is the Octagon Theatre, Market Harborough. As you may have surmised, this is not one of your actual cinema chain outlets but a legitimate theatre which occasionally puts on a film on a slow night. Well, it’s always nice to go somewhere where the bottom line of the refreshments stand doesn’t appear to be the sine qua non of the whole operation, and the fact this is a proper theatre guarantees a decent rake and line-of-sight to the screen. No adverts (yay), no trailers (boo), no BBFC certificate (hmmm), and some interesting films on their coming soon list (Mustang, Captain Fantastic, Elle, and Headhunters all due in the next few months) – I’ve been to worse places, that’s for sure.

On this occasion I had turned up to watch Peter Berg’s Deepwater Horizon, a film from last year which I didn’t bother going to see at the time, because, well, it looked like the whole thing had been in the trailer (not to mention on the rolling news back in 2010, though I missed it myself due to being incommunicado in Sri Lanka). This is a movie based on a fairly well-known event from the recent past, so I was a bit surprised to find myself being flapped and hissed at for predicting what we were in for, in the bar before the film: about forty-five minutes of all-American character-building and then an hour or so of stuff blowing up, quite possibly with a billowing US flag at some point. Does this really constitute a spoiler? It’s like being told off for revealing that the boat sinks at the end of Titanic.

Well, anyway. Chief point of audience identification is Mike (Mark Wahlberg), top electrical bloke on the Deepwater Horizon, an oil exploration rig in the Gulf of Mexico. (The name Deepwater Horizon is really a gift to film-makers, being exciting and ominous in just the right blend – I bet if they’d called the thing Riggy McRigface it would all have turned out very differently.) As things get going, Mike is about to head back to the rig for another tour of duty, leaving behind his lovely wife Felicia (played by Kate Hudson) and winsome young daughter (played by a winsome young child actor). As this is a mainstream movie not solely aimed at experts in oil extraction procedure, the winsome daughter gets a sequence where she explains what Mike does for a living in language a ten-year-old child could understand, which means most of the average cinema audience can probably cope with it too. This comes with visual aids, as well – never before has shaken-up cola frothing out of a can been such a portent of doom.

Mike flies off to the rig with his boss Mr Jimmy (Kurt Russell in a fine moustache) and co-worker Andrea (Gina Rodriguez). Needless to say, all is not well as they arrive, as visits by the camera to the sea bed beneath the rig make clear: ominous bubbles leak from around the drill head. It transpires that the preparation of the oil shaft for an actual extraction rig is far behind schedule, rather to the chagrin of the project’s paymasters at BP. They are pressuring the rig workers to accelerate their operations, even if this means cutting corners on things like safety.

You know what happens next: ambiguous results on safety tests are interpreted by the money-grubbing BP suits in the most optimistic manner, things go creak, things go bubble, things go whoosh, and then things – a lot of things – go boom (honestly, the really impressive takeaway from this movie is not the spectacle of this rig exploding, but the fact that these things don’t go bang more often). Mike, Jimmy, and Andrea find themselves initially trying to get the situation aboard the stricken rig under control, before eventually realising it’s all basically terminal and their main concern should be getting off in one piece…

I don’t mean to be especially glib or flippant about what happened to the Deepwater Black, not least because eleven men died in horrible circumstances. That’s a tragedy, a dreadful loss – no question about it, no argument from me. But given it’s such a tragedy, the question must always be, what are we doing making drama-entertainment films about it? Are we not just complicit in satisfying our own suspect urges, in the same way that we do when we rubberneck at a road accident? With, of course, the complicity of the film-makers, who are fully aware of this, but happy because it allows them to use all their pyrotechnical virtuosity in a film the critics are virtually obliged to treat respectfully, as it is about Real Life Heroism – in other words, they get to blow things up but still be taken seriously!

I rather suspect we have a case to answer, because Deepwater Horizon is structured just a bit too much like a crowd-pleasing thriller for comfort. The technical details of what specifically went wrong on the rig are never really gone into, and the first half of the film does feel more like the opening of a disaster movie than anything else – characters are established, warning signs overlooked, the experience and instincts of decent working men is ignored by contemptible guys in suits, and so on. We are told that virtually every scene in this movie is based on eyewitness testimony, which at least allows for some moments you wouldn’t accept in an actual piece of fiction – Mr Jimmy receives an award for his outstanding safety record about an hour before his oil rig literally explodes – but, even so, the film has clearly delineated good guys and bad guys in a way real life generally doesn’t. Chief bad guy is a BP exec played by John Malkovich, who is in form which I can only describe as very John Malkovich. It’s an idiosyncratic turn quite at odds with the studied naturalism of everyone else, but I did enjoy it, inasmuch this is a film you can honestly enjoy in a guilt-free way.

Technically, this is a very proficient film, and the performances are fine, too – Wahlberg can play this kind of Everyman in his sleep – and the big bangs and flashes, when they come, are as accomplished as you might expect. You could argue that a lot of the dialogue is unintelligible, not least because it’s technical drilling jargon, but you don’t need to understand every note to grasp the tune on this occasion. It’s all very capably done and exciting, and yet come the end you are still reading a list of the names of real people who died, and seeing their photos, and how are you supposed to handle the cognitive dissonance there?

I suppose you could make the same argument about many other ‘based on true events’ type movies, some of which I have said quite positive things about in the past – Everest leaps to mind as one, and I’m sure there are others. Perhaps it’s simply the approach that Deepwater Horizon takes – it’s a lot less interested in why it happened (and what happened next) than it is in how big the explosions were, and who a convenient scapegoat might be. On a technical level this film is impressive, but I think the memory of those lost in the disaster might have been better served by a less simplistic film.

The Ant Hill Mob

There was a time when any science fiction film that wanted to be taken seriously found itself helplessly caught up in the wake of 2001: A Space Odyssey – SF wasn’t SF unless it was cerebral, austere, and concluded on a note of either pessimism or wilful obscurity. This tendency is visible in movies from the late 60s until about a decade later – even the coming of George Lucas’ stellar conflict franchise didn’t quite kill it off, with Disney’s 1979 entry to the robots-and-ray-guns subgenre, The Black Hole, concluding with a bafflingly surreal sequence.

Even so, very few of these movies are quite as out there as Phase IV, a 1974 film directed by Saul Bass. Bass is best remembered as a legendary graphic designer and creator of some of the most memorable credit sequences in cinema history, and this was his only feature film: it’s clear throughout that as a director his focus is overwhelmingly on the visual element of the movie.

This is an early example of a film which dispenses with a conventional title sequence entirely (somewhat ironic, given who the director is), simply opening with the caption ‘Phase I’. Ten full minutes elapse before we actually see a human being, with the story being told via montages and voice-over. Some kind of cosmic event has occurred (the film is unspecific about what it actually is), but its key terrestrial consequence goes unnoticed by almost everyone: across the world, different species of ants, normally in competition with each other, cease their hostilities and begin to work together. But to what end? Strange geometrical structures, constructed by the ants, appear in the desert of Arizona, along with crop circles (the film predates the modern crop phenomenon and may in fact, it’s been suggested) have been one of its inspirations).

Entomologist Dr Hubbs (Nigel Davenport, best known to a generation of British viewers as fruity-voiced tycoon Edward Frere in Howard’s Way) cottons on to what the ants are up to and persuades the powers that be to fund an investigation into what exactly is going on. A lab is set up in a geodesic dome out in the desert (this is the kind of SF movie lab where the equipment includes grenade launchers, but, you know, go with it) and Hubbs sets about annoying the ants in the hope of learning what has happened to them, and ideally teaching them not to get uppity with the human race. Hubbs’ assistant, mathematician Lesko (Michael Murphy), is more cautious and inclined to take a moderate approach, but soon enough the scientists are besieged by hostile ants, along with a young local woman (Lynne Frederick) whose farm was destroyed by the formic hordes. Can Lesko find a way of communicating with the ants, whose collective intelligence is no longer in doubt, or is this just the first stage in a battle that will decide the fate of the world?

Fairly heavy stuff, I think you’ll agree. The film would probably agree, too, considering the intense and very serious way the story is handled – there are no moments of lightness or humour and the actors are all playing it absolutely dead straight. The result is quite a bleak and austere film, rather cold in tone despite the desert setting.

This isn’t the man-vs-killer-ant movie you might be expecting – I vaguely recall it turning up on TV in a double-bill with Them! at some point in my youth – and the striking central image of the movie’s poster, that of an ant gnawing its way out of the centre of a human palm, occurs relatively early on, and not quite as a moment of full-on horror, either. There’s less death-struggle and more philosophical and mathematical discussion as the two scientists discuss what’s going on in fairly abstract terms.

Even so, the most memorable parts of the film don’t concern the human characters but the ants themselves. There are numerous weird, long sequences of ants rattling around in the nests, doing significant but obscure things, clambering around inside human machinery, and so on. It’s a masterclass in editing skill, I suppose – the way the footage of the ants is assembled manages to suggest intention and a vague sense of what is supposed to be happening – but also betrays Bass’s fascination with playing with images and storytelling on a purely visual level. There is, obviously, a lot of miniature photography of ants in this film; there is also time-lapse photography, slow-motion filming, and various other optical effects too.

Many of these are accompanied by an expository voice-over from Murphy, and I wonder if this was something the studio insisted on as the movie started to take shape – the voice-over adds to the impression that this is a rather odd B-movie, but it does stop the film from becoming completely oblique and wilfully enigmatic. As it is, much is left for the viewer to decide – are the ants being actively controlled by some cosmic force to reshape the nature of life on Earth? Or has some random influence caused the ant hive-mind to experience a form of uplift, and it’s the ant superbrain itself which is responsible for everything that happens?

It’s all left very unclear – not least because the studio cut about five minutes from Bass’s preferred climax, leaving it a very brisk 84 minutes in total. If the extant film is off the wall, then the original would have been downright freaky – a reconstruction of the original ending exists on the internet, apparently depicting what the world will be like after Phase IV is completed, and the bizarre impressionistic symbiosis of human and ant that is shown in it is not quite like anything else I’ve ever seen.

Despite all the fascinating and unique things about Phase IV, however, this is still one for the ‘novel but deeply flawed’ category. The B-movie premise and characterisations don’t help the film when it comes to achieving the level of rarefied sophistication it’s clearly aiming for, while the visual storytelling, while innovative and memorable, is just a bit too slow and abstract for the film to work as a thriller or conventional drama. The film’s visual distinctiveness and general air of weirdness mean it is worth watching, if you like abstract SF movies or maybe even art movies generally, but as a conventional piece of movie entertainment this is basically a tough and probably not especially rewarding watch.

Time to Light the Lights

So here it is: the final episode of the original run of Survivors, Martin Worth’s Power. Whether or not you find this to be an appropriate and satisfying conclusion to the series is probably a matter of taste; personally, I think it rounds off the series better than any of the other obvious candidates, despite the fact it is only tangentially about any of the core characters of the programme.

Charles, Hubert, and Jenny are travelling up to Scotland by rail, trying to catch up with Alec and Sam. Alec is ensuring the power grid is shut down, preparatory to his attempts to restart the generation of electricity at a hydroelectric plant. What he doesn’t realise, of course, is that Sam is determined to stop the restoration of power, believing self-sufficiency to be a morally better way of life for the survivors.

Things get a little more complicated when Charles and Jenny discover, rather to their surprise, that Scotland is not the empty landscape they expected but home to a thriving population of about 150,000 people – outnumbering the entire population of England by about ten to one! The local laird, McAlister (Iain Cuthbertson), is rather cynical in his expectations of English attitudes towards the Scots, and hardly surprised when he learns that Charles has been planning to utilise Scottish-generated electricity exclusively for the benefit of English communities. Even assuming that Sam’s plan to destroy the mechanisms at the power stations can be stopped, can the English and Scottish survivors reach an agreement as to who will control the electricity?

Well, the first thing I have to say about Power is that is does require the dedicated viewer to accept that the nature of the show’s world has fundamentally changed since series one – McAlister’s explanation as to why the plague left Scotland relatively untouched doesn’t really make sense given what we’ve seen and were told in early episodes, especially Gone to the Angels. Isolation is only a protection against the virus as long as you stay isolated, as the angels discovered in series one – as soon as one survivor carrying the virus meets a community which hasn’t been exposed to it, the whole process of infection and death should start all over again. Power is essentially inconsistent with the early series one episodes (not to mention the general tenor of season two, where a running theme was the characters’ awareness of how close to extinction humanity was).

Once you get past this, it’s a decent enough story, I suppose – exactly what power the title refers to being usefully ambiguous, potentially either electrical or political power. The episode stresses that from this point on the two will go together, provoking yet another political squabble between Charles and McAlister. The fact that England and Scotland are basically now engaged in a diplomatic negotiation stresses the fact that nation-states are now back on the scene, and that while things are of course nowhere near their pre-plague state, the essentials of civilisation are no longer in doubt. As someone else has pointed out, the last scene of the episode could well be a call-back to a key moment in The Fourth Horsemen – both depict a couple eating by candlelight, but the important thing is that in Power they are doing so by choice.

Of course, one of the key influences on early Survivors, at least, was George R Stewart’s Earth Abides, which stresses how utterly unlikely the restoration of technological civilisation would be – certainly not within three years of the disaster, starting from such a low base population. The inclination and the resources surely wouldn’t be there, and the survivors of Stewart’s book have basically regressed to being hunter-gatherers by the time it concludes, six or seven decades after the plague. That said, it’s pleasing to find echoes of other classic SF fiction in Survivors, and one key element of Power – the way that, as soon as basic survival is guaranteed, politics once again rears its ugly head – seems to me to recall the conclusion of John Christopher’s Tripods books, where the alliance which has repelled an alien occupation of Earth messily disintegrates into petty nationalism and distrust. This is classic British SF, so naturally it’s going to be pretty miserable.

It seems to me that there is one further intersection between John Christopher’s brilliant catastrophe novels and Survivors, as well. Nearly twenty years later, Ian McCulloch (having finished being a star in Italian video nasties by this point, a gig he apparently got off the back of his Survivors stardom) approached the BBC with a view to reviving the series and seeing what kind of state post-apocalyptic Britain would be in, nearly two decades after the plague. (McCulloch was planning to return as Greg, but has always refused to reveal how this would be possible.) The big idea for the revived show would be that an unspecified African nation had made a much more rapid recovery from the plague than anywhere in Europe, and was now intent on a military occupation – colonisation, if you will – of the continent. The BBC declared that this was racist and declined to produce the new series, and when Survivors eventually returned it was as a remake rather than a continuation. McCulloch’s notion sounds to me to be very reminiscent of Christopher’s The World in Winter, in which the sun’s output declines, resulting in a new ice age and the populations of temperate regions being forced to flee to the equator. The final section of the book concerns a military expedition by an African nation to an ice-bound UK which has fallen into anarchy and cannibalism. The World in Winter is a problematic book in many ways for a reader nowadays – its themes of racial and cultural conflict remain awkwardly potent – but it does anticipate, at the very least, McCulloch’s vision for a new Survivors. Whatever: it was not to be.

Survivors itself may be an inconsistent series, troubled by conflicting ideas as to what it should really be focusing on, but its best episodes still stand up extremely well today, with a capacity for handling big ideas, and including complex, subtle characterisation, that few modern programmes can match. (Of course, most of the time the production values are lousy, but that’s BBC SF from the 20th century for you.) You can see why people have returned to it, in both the 21st century revival and the recent audio continuations of the original series. No end in sight to this vision of the end of the world; as you might expect, Survivors is a survivor.

A Touch of the Zeds

After well over a month of viral post-apocalyptic gloom, I find that I want to make it clear that not all genre TV from the 1970s was cut from the same depressing cloth. When I find myself in the mood for this sort of change of pace, more often than not I find myself reaching for an episode of either The Avengers or its bell-bottomed progeny The New Avengers, and so it proves this time too. The episode my gaze fell upon on this occasion was Sleeper, written (like most episodes of this show) by Brian Clemens.

A demonstration of a new knockout gas, S-95, is scheduled, and so a gathering of top scientific and intelligence boffins is in progress in London. Unfortunately, no sooner has one of these boffins arrived at London Heliport than he is bundled into a cupboard and beaten senseless with his own briefcase by this week’s villain, Brady (Keith Buckley). Brady goes on to observe the demonstration, along with Steed, Purdey, and Gambit, and they all (pay attention, this is a plot point) receive injections granting them temporary immunity to S-95.

One of the more notable revelations which Sleeper treats us to is the news that the British security services have sunk serious R&D money into – and there’s no other way of describing it – magic, because that’s what S-95 seems to be. It’s not a gas, because someone says it isn’t, being more a sort of cloud of magic dust. If you breathe in the magic dust you go to sleep for six hours, unless you’ve had the antidote of course. The dust doesn’t blow away or dissipate or anything like that; it remains just as potent (for, presumably, the six hours previously mentioned).

Oh, who am I kidding, it’s a preposterous plot device that works the way it does solely to enable the episode to function. Much the same is true of the way in which Brady manages not only to impersonate the boffin without anyone suspecting it, but also single-handedly steal a couple of cannisters of S-95 and a supply of the antidote, again without the alarm being raised. They should probably have spent less money on magic plot device secret weapons and more on padlocks and burglar alarms.

Anyway, Brady has assembled a rather suspect squad of ne’er-do-wells who have penetrated to the heart of London by the cunning ruse of pretending to be a coachload of tourists. Everyone on the coach is a bad guy, but they still go through the motions of listening to the guide’s spiel (the guide is a bad’un too), simply in order to preserve the surprise of their true identity for the viewer.

The plan, of course, is to dump a load of S-95 on central London just after dawn on a Sunday morning, putting the whole city to sleep and allowing Brady and his gang of ruffians to knock over every bank in the affected area. What they have not reckoned on is the fact that their operation has been infiltrated by an associate of Steed’s, not to mention that Steed, Purdey, and Gambit are still immune to the S-95 and will be up and about and able to throw a spanner in the slightly ridiculous works.

This is one of those episodes where it’s fairly clear that the main idea – the trio of protagonists contending with a much larger group of enemies in an effectively deserted London – came first, and the rest of the episode was written to facilitate it, no matter how absurd the necessary narrative gymnastics became. Most of the episode is a series of gently comic set-pieces as Steed and Gambit (who are paired up this week) and Purdey deal with various opposing parties.

The scenes with Steed and Gambit are fairly humdrum – the two of them exposit to each other a lot before deciding to go to the pub – but Purdey’s adventures are given an odd little twist by the fact she gets locked out of her flat and spends most of the episode in a fetching set of turquoise silk pyjamas. I first saw this episode early in 1991 on a late-night repeat (showing just before Mike Raven in Crucible of Terror, fact fans) and I have to say my teenaged self found many of Purdey’s scenes to have a subtle erotic charge to them (at one point she has to pretend to be a shop mannequin, and of course her pyjama bottoms start falling down). Nothing very much comes of this except a fairly absurd fight between Joanna Lumley and Prentis Hancock (ah, Prentis Hancock, one of the unsung heroes of 70s genre TV).

(Other before-they-were-famous members of Brady’s gang include David Schofield, who’s been in everything from An American Werewolf in London to a couple of the Pirates of the Caribbean films, and Gavin Campbell, who was briefly an actor but these days is best known as a presenter of That’s Life and a celebrity marathon runner. One of the pleasures of watching these old TV shows again is spotting these incongruous faces in the minor roles.)

There are some quite well-mounted action sequences in the deserted city streets, especially a car chase with Purdey at the wheel of a commandeered mini, but on the whole it’s not nearly witty or entertaining enough to justify the sheer level of contrivance and preposterousness involved. Being knowingly silly is pretty much the sine qua non of Avengers and New Avengers episodes, but this one is a bit too silly and not nearly knowing enough. Still kind of memorable in that 70s New Avengers way, though.