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The business of proper big-screen revivals of classic movies can be a funny old thing sometimes. It’s quite normal for the two slightly art-housey cinemas in my area to regularly show something like The Graduate or West Side Story of a Sunday afternoon, the main selection criterion seeming to be that the film is just old and good. In terms of an old movie getting a more general showing, well, having a major anniversary certainly seems to help. Even so, things are often not quite as one would expect: if you’d asked me which blockbuster Hugo-nominated fantasy film would be getting a spruced-up revival for its fortieth birthday in 2017, my first guess would not have been Close Encounters of the Third Kind.

(Then again – and I hope you will forgive the digression – there is always something slightly nostalgic about a revival, and I get the impression that nostalgia is only allowed near the stellar conflict franchise nowadays under strictly controlled conditions. To do otherwise might end up suggesting that there was something genuinely magical and innovative about those first couple of films, while the current sequence are just machine-tooled product. Other opinions are, of course, available.)

Close Encounters, directed and (in theory – many hands were involved) written by Steven Spielberg, is one of those movies which has shifted into the cultural background somewhat over the years, no doubt as a result of its ideas, themes, and images being so extensively reworked in other venues. Long before seeing the actual movie, I remember watching the parody of it on The Goodies (Bill Oddie, in a Superman costume, playing a trombone duet with an alien spacecraft), and not being at all confused by the various references. Hard to imagine The X-Files without Close Encounters; impossible to imagine E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial at all, for obvious reasons.

The film opens on a black screen, over which an unsettling wail of white noise rises, before a smash cut to the heart of a sandstorm. One group of the film’s protagonists emerges from this: Lacombe (Francois Truffaut), a French scientist, who meets a group of American colleagues. Together they make a disturbing discovery: a flight of torpedo-bombers has been deposited in the Mexican desert. The planes seem to be a squadron that disappeared off the coast of Florida in 1945, but they appear to be brand new, as though thirty years has not happened. A witness speaks of the sun rising in the middle of the night and singing.

More strange phenomena occur over Indiana: strange lights in the sky are reported by airline pilots. A blackout spreads across the countryside. Electrical engineer Roy Neary (Richard Dreyfuss) leaves the domestic chaos of his home in an attempt to track down the source of the power cut – he is an ordinary guy, a little harassed, but generally happy in his life. Then something happens to him on a lonely country road in the middle of the night that changes everything. He encounters a UFO, which wreaks havoc with his truck and gives him severe sunburn before heading off. Neary goes in pursuit, encountering others who have had similar experiences. Amongst these are Jillian Guiler (Melinda Dillon) and her infant son, who were visited in their home by an unseen presence. A flight of several UFOs swoops by, hotly pursued by the cops. Neary’s world has been transformed.

From here the movie follows both Lacombe and Neary. Lacombe is a scientist, following a trail of evidence: long-since-disappeared ships return, in rather improbable locations. From India there come reports of strange noises from the sky. Signals are received from deep space, providing map co-ordinates. Government preparations are made. Something is coming to Earth.

Meanwhile, Roy and the other eye-witnesses are struggling to make sense of their own experiences. They find themselves compelled to draw or sculpt a particular mountain. A particular five-note sequence of music has mysteriously lodged itself in their brains. Roy’s newfound obsessions cost him his job, and eventually drive his family away. He is irresistibly drawn to the mountain from his dream – as Lacombe observes, Roy has been invited to a very special occasion…

Close Encounters is part of that sequence of early movies which established Spielberg as probably the most famous and financially successful director in the world – Jaws, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Raiders of the Lost Ark, and E.T.. (Rather more obscure is his 1979 knockabout comedy film 1941, which was less successful but which I find very hard to dislike. Apparently the experience burned Spielberg when it came to doing pure comedy, which is a shame, as legend has it his next project was going to be, almost unbelievably, a big-screen blockbuster movie version of The Goodies. Strange how all these things link up together in different combinations.) Of all of them, Close Encounters is the one which has slipped furthest from the public consciousness, perhaps in part because it hasn’t been sequelised or exploited to death, and also because it has to some extent been eclipsed by E.T..

The similarities between the two are obvious – the relationship between Neary and Lacombe clearly parallels that of Elliot and Keys in the latter film, which had its earliest origins as a Close Encounters follow-up – but it seems to me that Close Encounters is a rather subtler and more thoughtful film, in addition to being less sentimental and cutesy. It feels much more of a piece with other films being made in America in the mid-to-late 1970s, when the country was still trying to process the tarnishing of the government in the Watergate affair and the implications of the conclusion of the Vietnam War. People were looking for something that would allow them a chance to escape, and perhaps even give them something to believe in, and it seems significant to me that so many of these late 70s and early 80s films conclude with an explicit act of faith on the part of the protagonist – switching off a targeting computer and relying on instinct, or averting their eyes from the wrath of God. Close Encounters of the Third Kind is perhaps the fullest realisation of this theme of all of these films, for it is surely primarily about the finding and following of faith.

I find it now a little ironic that my parents are fond of declaring that E.T. is actually some form of Christian allegory (they said the same about the first stellar conflict movie for a while, if memory serves) – for one thing, Spielberg is not exactly noted for his Christian background. But Close Encounters does have that spine-tingling sense of human beings coming into contact with the deeper mysteries of the universe, and so often the imagery used is religious: there are signs and portents in the sky. A ship appears, ark-like, in the middle of dry land. When John Williams’ famous five-note motif first appears, it is as a mantra, endlessly chanted by what appears to be a choir of Indian mystics. At one point Roy Neary demands of the sky what all of this means.

Neary’s story itself practically qualifies as a conversion narrative: he’s an Everyman, transformed into a true believer by a chance encounter. From this moment on he finds he has no other choice than to follow his new faith, despite the efforts of friends and the authorities to dissuade or convince him otherwise. He loses his job, and his wife and family leave him too (the movie is perhaps a little hard on Neary’s wife, played by Teri Garr). But he presses on, makes his pilgrimage, and in the end it appears to be him, the true believer, who is chosen ahead of all the government-approved candidates to be taken up into the heavens by otherworldly forces. (The sensation is presumably one of pure rapture.) Spielberg has said that he now finds it unimaginable that Neary could abandon his children and go off into space, but in the context of the movie, and given its theme, it would feel very strange if he didn’t: the movie is about shedding those kinds of Earthly connections in favour of the spiritual kind.

That said, it’s not a cosy or sentimental spirituality: Close Encounters‘ aliens may be otherworldly, but they are also enigmatic and strange, and often frightening as a result – the visitation of alien forces on Jillian in her home is a genuinely frightening sequence, rather at odds with the rest of the movie. (Almost enough to make one regret the fact that Spielberg hasn’t really directed a horror movie since Jaws; one imagines it would be utterly terrifying.) There is a real sense of the unknown and perhaps unknowable touching life on Earth.

Perhaps this is rather odd material for an SF movie, then: but then I suppose this is a case of a film being declared SF simply because it isn’t obviously anything else, and besides, it has aliens in it. (It’s noteworthy how rare in-the-flesh aliens are in ‘serious’ SF movies prior to 1977, also this movie’s role in creating the assumption of friendly alien life which would persist until Independence Day once again inverted the stereotype.) Science fiction and ufology are distant cousins, I suppose, but no more than that, simply because ufology is only marginally science (it’s still more respectable than Bermuda Triangle lore, which is also touched on in this movie). While there’s obviously something going on with the UFO phenomenon, I doubt it admits to a single, simple solution, and not the one suggested by Spielberg here – but as I’ve suggested, the UFO element of the story is simply a metaphor that allows Spielberg to talk about something else. (Slightly ironic, then, that the 40th anniversary showing I attended was followed by a serious talk by a couple of university professors about the prospects of intelligent life in the universe and our chances of communicating with it.)

Spielberg’s casual mastery of cinema is already well-developed in this movie, which includes several of his most memorable bits of legerdemain – the moment where the lights in Neary’s rear-view reveal themselves to be not headlights, but something rather more exotic, for one, and the one where a TV set in the foreground flashes up an image replicating the vast sculpture dominating the room behind it, for another. He also manages to keep a film which could easily have become a bit airy and earnest grounded and accessible, inserting many bits of humour and action. Not that he gets everything completely right – quite apart from the handling of Mrs Neary, one is struck by the sheer number of people (virtually all men) at the Devil’s Tower arena who seem to have nothing to do but stand around looking on in awe: spectacle trumps logic here, I suppose. Fairly prominent in the crowd is a young Lance Henriksen – there’s a guy with an interesting CV – and also J Allen Hynek, the formulator of the ‘close encounters’ scale (which never gets elaborated upon in the actual movie, oddly enough).

The late 1970s and early 1980s have left us with a lot of significant SF and fantasy movies, not all of which get the attention they deserve. Close Encounters of the Third Kind is probably the least action-adventure oriented of all of them, and the least escapist (as escapism is generally understood, anyway). It’s also much more obviously a film about personal themes, but one which handles them in a very accessible way. That it manages all this while still looking very much like a modern special-effects blockbuster is by no means the least of its achievements. Probably not Steven Spielberg’s best film, perhaps not even the best of his early films – but still a significant one, and worth remembering. Good to see it back on the big screen.

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We’re in the middle of one of those funny, slightly unpredictable times of year, when you’re as likely to come across a tiny oddball sleeper release as something which has been produced and marketed as an aspiring blockbuster. As I say, it’s a product of the time of year: it’s too late for full-blown blockbuster season, but similarly too early for the genuine awards contenders to start making their appearance. So you do tend to get a lot of mid-budgeted genre movies of different kinds, and doing the rounds at the moment is the new Jo Nesbo (final O with a line through it) movie. Long-term readers (may God have mercy on you) may recall I was rather impressed by a couple of Nesbo adaptations which came out about five years ago, Headhunters and Jackpot. Those were both foreign language movies given a subtitled release over here, but the new movie is Anglophone. Directed by Tomas Alfredsen, it’s a grisly, hard-edged crime thriller, definitely not for children or the squeamish, entitled The Snowman.

(Hmmm. Something not quite right here, but I can’t quite put my finger on it. Never mind, it’ll come to me.)

Oh well. Things get underway with a prologue of unremitting grimness, set in the wilds of Norway, setting the tone for the rest of the movie rather economically. Brightening this up a little is an English-language cameo from Sofia Helin, most famous outside of Scandinavia for her role as the detective with ASD from the TV show The Bridge: sadly, she is not in the rest of the movie.

We are then introduced to top Norwegian homicide detective Harry Hole (Michael Fassbender), who is – all together now – brilliant at his job but lousy at holding his personal life together. As the movie opens he is forever waking up in the park after a heavy night on the booze, which is not something to be done lightly in Oslo in the winter. ‘I need a case, I need to work!’ cries Harry when taken to task by his do-everything-by-the-book superior. ‘I can’t help it if the murder rate is so low,’ snaps his boss. Luckily, plenty of murders are just about to happen, so we can all breathe a sigh of relief.

Yes, someone is going about kidnapping and then murdering women in a quite horrific fashion, and leaving snowmen as his calling card. (It’s never made completely clear whether the snowman-building happens before or after all the dismemberment takes place; it strikes me as a rather cumbersome M.O. for a modern serial killer, but what do I know about these things.) Harry isn’t initially assigned to what’s at first believed to be a routine missing persons case, but he is friends with the officer who is (Rebecca Ferguson), and together they figure out what’s going on. But can they locate the killer before yet more women (yes, it is mostly women) meet a sticky end?

(Oh, hang on. I’ve figured it out.)

(That’s more like it.)

As I said, I was properly impressed and entertained by both the previous Nesbo (O with a line through it) movies that I saw, primarily by the cleverness of the plotting and the black humour running through both stories. Then again, it does seem that our Scandi cousins have a knack for this sort of thing – I’m not a big fan of the label ‘Scandi noir’ (or ‘Nordic noir’), but detective shows from Sweden, Denmark, and Norway have become something of a fixture on at least one UK TV network, and it seems to me that The Snowman is trying to tell the same kind of story in the same kind of way.

All the elements are there, I suppose – troubled family backgrounds, people keeping secrets from their loved ones, corruption in high places, gore – but the actual story just isn’t quite up to scratch. The Magic Wand of Improbable Coincidence gets waved over the plot fairly frequently, to say nothing of the way that the story digresses away from the serial killer plot and gets mixed up in shady goings on involving a prominent businessman (J.K. Simmons) and a bid for the ‘World Winter Sports Cup’ (I guess the Winter Olympics people took one look at the script and said ‘No way are you using our name in this!’).

The story gets lost in other ways too: there’s a bit of a cold case element to the plot (the killer has been at it for ages), and the film chooses to incorporate this by having a few flashbacks. I’m not sure these were strictly necessary, but even if they were, I think it was probably a mistake to centre them around a character played by Val Kilmer. Kilmer is not, to put it delicately, ageing gracefully, nor has his acting range improved – the fact that I’d got the impression from somewhere or other that he had actually died is neither here nor there. His appearance is, in short, rather a distraction.

Also problematic is the way that the film-makers don’t really seem to be content with making a good solid detective thriller – every now and then a scene comes along suggesting this movie wants to be a serious drama about the personal lives of Harry and those people around him. Well, Fassbender and his fellow actors are capable enough, but again the result is a film which lacks focus and often feels laborious on a thematic level – it’s clear from very early on that it’s largely about what it means to be a good (or bad) parent, but the script keeps grinding on about this, rather unsubtly.

I’m not sure there is a way to subtly depict various people having their heads literally blown off or body parts removed with power tools (the killer has a special gadget just for this purpose, I wonder if you can get one on Amazon), but if there is, The Snowman does not hit upon it. I would say this is a very strong 15, certificate-wise: there’s some proper gore and grue in the course of the movie. Personally, I am mostly desensitised to this sort of thing, but I am aware a lot of people aren’t – and there are horror-movie levels of splatter at times during The Snowman.

This is really a case of a movie which has all the right ingredients – good cast, interesting premise, strong set of genre conventions – but which fumbles putting them together. It’s watchable, but the story is too often unclear, and arguably not really strong enough to justify the various excesses of the film’s violence.

Then again, I suppose we should talk about the whole emphasis of a film like The Snowman. The treatment of women, especially attractive young actresses, is a talking point as I write, with an industry culture that seems to accept their exploitation and objectification increasingly coming under scrutiny. There is not, to my knowledge, any suggestion that the makers of The Snowman have been accused of any wrongdoing or suspect behaviour. But even so, this is a movie in which male-on-female violence is both graphic and endemic. Every major female character is a victim at some point or other; the only significant nudity in the film is that of a young, female actor, and it’s gratuitous. Which would be worse, I wonder, to be a serial abuser of women who makes films that are classy and morally unimpeachable, or a decent human being who nevertheless makes films which shows women primarily as sexual objects to be used and abused? It’s an artificial distinction, I know, but it seems to me that if you got rid of every grasping studio executive, along with all the others who exploit their position of power, you would still be left with a lot of misogynistic exploitation in the actual movies themselves. If the movies seem to have a problem with their treatment of women, it’s arguably because the fact we still buy tickets sends the message that this is what we really want.

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Seeing as we were discussing the change in fortunes of Marvel movies over the years just the other day, we might usefully consider the question of what, exactly, it will take for them to actually produce another proper turkey (yes, yes, I know a lot of people didn’t like Iron Man 3 – didn’t stop it becoming one of the biggest hits in history). Well, I would say that on paper, the omens for Thor: Ragnarok are a little worrying, simply because when Marvel head Down Under to make their films (Ragnarok was filmed in Australia), the results are frequently not pretty.

Exhibit A is the 1989 version of The Punisher, transplanting Frank Castle from New York to Sydney and turning him into Dolph Lundgren, and I would argue that Exhibit B is Brett Leonard’s 2005 take on Man-Thing. On this occasion the movie at least purported to be set in the swamps of the southern USA, but it was actually made, once again, in the Sydney area.

Rather surprisingly for a Marvel movie, the story gets underway with a reprise of the opening of Jaws, as a young couple sneak off into the bayou for a little illicit whoa-ho-ho. Things are going nicely, until the male participant is gorily impaled through the chest and dragged off into the undergrowth, leaving his partner a screaming wreck. (The character who gets killed is named Steve Gerber, who was a writer on the Man-Thing comic back in the 1970s – several other writers and artists get characters named after them, too. I suspect all of these people would have felt more honoured if the scriptwriters had tried harder to make a better movie.)

Next we meet the new sheriff in the area, Kyle Williams (Matthew Le Nevez), whose incipient male pattern baldness cannot disguise the fact that he is improbably young for such a big job (Le Nevez was only in his mid-20s when the film was made). Top of his in-tray, apart from the mysterious disappearance of his predecessor, are the various problems besetting the local oil company, which has been putting up various rigs in the swamp and annoying environmentalists and local Native Americans. Williams decides to open communications with the protestors by getting to know the blondest and comeliest protestor he can lay his hands on (Rachael Taylor, who has since gone on to a more successful Marvel connection, playing Hellcat in the Netflix series).

It turns out lots of people are vanishing into the swamp and then turning up dead, and Sheriff Kyle’s somewhat rudimentary investigations turn up two possible suspects – local ne’er-do-well Laroque, and the legendary guardian spirit of the swamp, which supposedly hosts the mystical Nexus of All Realities. Hang on a minute – does that mean Man-Thing is actually the bad guy in his own movie?!

Reader, I’m afraid it does. Now, we are of course dealing with a third-string Marvel character here, basically an ambulatory pile of muck with a philosophical temperament and a tendency to set fire to people (‘Whatever knows fear burns at the Man-Thing’s touch!’). There’s also the issue that Man-Thing, who lives in a swamp, is very prone to being confused with DC’s Swamp Thing, who used to be a man (well, kinda: it’s complicated) – Alan Moore basically said both characters were ‘Hamlet covered in snot’.

The movie version of Man-Thing is a very different proposition, resembling a grumpy Ent covered in CGI vines and creepers, much given to murdering innocent passers-by in a surprisingly graphic style. This is much more of a horror movie than anything else that has been produced under the Marvel marque, and contains a lot of other non-family-friendly material – F-bombs, nudity, and fairly graphic sex, too (perhaps the writers heard the comic was briefly titled Giant-Size Man-Thing and got the wrong end of the stick).

If only the film was as interesting as that makes it sound. The problem is that it isn’t; it’s just dull. This is a Man-Thing movie in which Man-Thing himself doesn’t appear in the flesh – sorry, muck – until near the end, and the script doesn’t seem to have much idea what to fill the monster-shaped hole at its centre. What it eventually plumps for is the kind of scenario that would sustain a filler episode of The X-Files, with a lumberingly unsubtle environmentalist message and cartoonishly evil oil-men bad guys, driven along by occasional monster attacks. It might just have been enjoyably silly and camp over a period of 45 minutes. Stretched out to feature-film length – it really does feel stretched – it’s just dull, lacking in tension or new ideas, brought to the screen by actors who are for the most part not especially charismatic.

One criticism that occasionally gets slung at the Marvel Studio films these days is that they are all a bit samey, written to a formula, and overly micro-managed by the producers – hence the departure of Edgar Wright from Ant-Man, for instance. Marvel’s response to this is basically to point at a movie like Man-Thing and say ‘this is what happens when we don’t keep tight control on our projects’, and it’s hard to argue with them.

You can’t really talk about ‘the current boom in superhero and comic-book movies’, as it’s arguably been underway since the late 1990s (a very long boom), and you could even argue that there was a brief period in the mid-2000s when the bad old days made something of a come-back – as well as Man-Thing, there was the Tom Jane version of The Punisher, Ben Affleck’s Daredevil, Nic Cage’s Ghost Rider, and Halle Berry’s take on Catwoman. I suppose it just shows that doing this kind of film well is never as easy as you might think it is – also that getting the tone right is hugely important, and really understanding the character that you’re bringing to the screen. Man-Thing certainly constitutes a dropped ball, and that’s mainly because it doesn’t feel like a Man-Thing movie, and whatever kind of film it does want to be, it’s a poorly scripted and ineptly made one.

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I don’t want to appear to be misjudging the situation, because I suspect that at least one friend of mine already believes that I am biased when it comes to the great opposition of our day – but I have to say that all the omens for Justice League do not lead me to be optimistic. Even a friend and colleague, who is one of the very, very few people I know who actually enjoyed Batman Vs Superman, declared ‘That looks awful’ when we saw the trailer for the new movie on our last cinema trip.

What comfort can one offer to DC at moments like this, except to say that the great wheel turns, even if it sometimes turns slowly. Back in the 70s and 80s it was DC who made successful movies and TV shows, while Marvel languished in the netherworld of trash TV, for the most part. (As recently as the mid-2000s, Marvel were still turning out the likes of the Thomas Jane version of The Punisher and the big-screen Man-Thing.) So you never know.

American trash TV from the 1980s is not normally in my wheelhouse, but I will make an exception for the 1988 TV movie The Incredible Hulk Returns. This is partly because this movie is a curious addendum to the Kenneth Johnson-produced Hulk TV show, which is very much not trash TV and a classy piece of work, but also because of the curious way it prefigures exactly the sort of thing with which Marvel Studios have scored such a massive success over the last decade or so. (Kenneth Johnson was not invited back for the Hulk TV movies, towards which he has a rather dismissive attitude.)

To start off with The Incredible Hulk Returns works very hard not to disappoint fans of the original TV show, reusing elements of the original title sequence (although the lettering and so on is now a lurid gamma-green shade). Presumably this is because retained as the writer and director of this opus was Nicholas Corea, a prolific contributor to the series.

Anyway: years have passed since the end of the show. It has been two full years since Banner (Bill Bixby, of course) even turned into the Hulk (Lou Ferrigno, of course). Adopting a typically impenetrable false identity (currently David Banner is living under the name of David Bannion), our man is working as a technician at an LA-based research institute, where in return for using his scientific genius to build the ‘Gamma Transponder’, a potential source of cheap, clean energy (I really should pen a paper on the history of this trope in superhero movies), he is allowed unfettered access to the labs in the evening, no questions asked. The Gamma Transponder has a second function, of course, which is to dehulkify Banner and let him move in with his lovely and predictably understanding lady friend.

All is set, but Banner’s dehulkification is delayed by the appearance of a figure from Banner’s pre-irradiated days, an old acquaintance named Don Blake (Steve Levitt). Blake is a medical doctor and a somewhat hapless, disreputable figure, and he has a strange tale to tell (perhaps even one of a journey into mystery, but let’s not overdo it). As a life-long fan of all things Viking, Blake jumped at the chance to be expedition doctor on an archaeological trip into the wilds of Scandinavia (was Scandinavia really that wild, even in 1988?), where he discovered an ancient Viking tomb. As any archaeologist would, Blake relates, he broke into the tomb and found a pile of bones and a mysterious war-hammer. No sooner did he pick up the hammer than a mighty Norse warrior appeared out of thin air, calling himself the mighty Thor…

Yeah, we should probably just clarify what’s going on here. ‘Don Blake’ was Thor’s Clark Kent-ish alter ego in the early years of the comic, a doctor with a gammy leg who turned into Thor by bashing things with his magic walking stick (initially it seemed like Blake was a random guy whom fate gifted with the power of Thor, but… well, they retconned this quite a lot as time went by). But in this movie, Blake and Thor (played by Eric Kramer) are entirely separate individuals, though linked in some usefully vague manner. If anything, they kind of resemble Johnny Thunder and his Thunderbolt from DC’s Justice Society comics, in that Blake is kind of a useless wimp who is obliged to whistle up Thor whenever the plot kicks in.

As it does here. Blake is not happy about the burden of being saddled with this responsibility, given that Thor will only exert his powers in a good cause. ‘It’s the eighties, I don’t even know what a good cause is,’ complains Blake, probably the best line in the movie. Banner assumes Blake is delusional, and so to prove his tale Blake summons up Thor, the shock of which does not do Banner’s blood pressure any good. Thor assumes that Banner’s lab is a bar, for some reason, and starts trashing the place in search of a drink. Banner strenuously objects, the inevitable happens, and we’re all set for the first ever live-action Hulk-Thor barney in media history…

Well, manage your expectations, pilgrim: it was 1988, after all, and once Lou Ferrigno’s body-paint and Thor’s rubber Viking armour had been paid for, there was only a bit left for electrical sparkles on Thor’s hammer and a few broken windows. Even so, everyone throws themselves into the fight enthusiastically enough, and it has a definite goofy charm if you’re prepared to be charitable.

What it doesn’t have is any tonal similarity to the original TV show, and the rest of the movie continues the decline into thick-headed cops-and-robbers nonsense. Someone decides to steal the Gamma Transponder, hiring a tough-talking squash-playing Cajun mercenary (Tim Thomerson, a prolific actor with a dizzying diverse, if somewhat variable CV) to do so. Thomerson decides to kidnap Banner’s girlfriend and hold her to ransom in the hope this will get them to hand the thing over. Could it possibly be down to Thor and the Hulk to save the day…?

Apparently The Incredible Hulk Returns was a smash hit on its initial broadcast, which I suppose we can only attribute to the enduring popularity of the original TV show, and the fact that the general standard of genre TV shows at the time was subterraneanly low. Even so, there’s something a bit dispiriting about watching a generally classy act like The Incredible Hulk TV show get quite so comprehensively dumbed-down and sillied-up. Possibly the most depressing thing about the whole extravaganza is the fact that Jack Colvin is dragged back as McGee the reporter – he gets nothing much of significance to do, and rather than the nuanced and rather sympathetic character McGee had become by the end of the original run, here he is largely played for laughs.

Oh well. At least Bill Bixby, who produced the movie through his own company, is as reliable and warm a presence as ever, very recognisably the same character as in the TV show. Banner just can’t resist helping those around him, even Blake and Thor, who spend most of the movie squabbling like a stereotypical married couple. (While we’re touching on – presumably unintended – grace notes of homo-eroticism, there’s also a bizarre scene in which McGee interviews a towel-clad Thor, who’s passing himself off as Banner for somewhat contrived reasons.)

The thing about some of these Hulk TV movies is that they also functioned as back-door pilots for other potential series featuring famous Marvel properties. You can kind of envisage the Thor series that might have spun off from this, basically a version of Automan with more shouting and chain-mail. There’s a scene in which Blake decides to ask Thor important questions about the reason they’ve been manacled together, so to speak, and Thor insists he won’t talk until he has eaten, and drunk, and fought, and generally caroused like a man! So Blake takes him to a biker bar.

Really, though, Thor as he is presented here is a slightly ridiculous man-baby with zero grasp of subtlety, very poor impulse control, and a wholly ridiculous pile of absurdly blond hair atop his bonce. What kind of hero would he really make for the American people? At least they didn’t have Twitter in 1988.

Oh, this is a silly, silly, predictable film, but it’s often very funny (not usually on purpose, I should say), and the sheer enthusiasm of it, plus the positive elements inherited from the Hulk TV show, keep it watchable. You can see why Kenneth Johnson refuses to acknowledge its existence. But look at Marvel now! Try to stay hopeful, DC: sometimes all it takes is the passage of nearly thirty years, a complete change of creative personnel, and the injection of obscene amounts of money. So you never can tell.

 

 

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The thing about a big new studio blockbuster coming out is that it does tend to occupy more than the standard number of screens. When that blockbuster is a hefty three hours plus in length (taking trailers and such into account), the opportunities for a good range of other new films to get proper exposure become depressingly limited. Sometimes you just want to enjoy the experience of going to the movies. Sometimes you just have a free afternoon and literally nothing else to do. So you occasionally find yourself watching a movie which you probably wouldn’t have bothered seeing if anything more promising was available. This was how I ended up spending a couple of hours in front of Hany Abu-Assad’s The Mountain Between Us.

Beau ‘He’s not Jeff’ Bridges plays Walter, an ageing ex-fighter jockey and now charter pilot running his business in Utah. Walter lives a happy life with his dog, reminiscing about his experiences in Vietnam and elsewhere. All is well until two strangers, whose commercial flight has been cancelled due to a looming storm, hire Walter to fly them to Denver. Easy peasy for an old hand like Walt! He doesn’t even bother filing a flight plan. Unfortunately, while in the air, Walter suffers an unfortunate cerebral event and the plane crashes in what is apparently called the High Uintas Wilderness, killing Walter stone dead.

Yes, what Walter has never realised is that he is nothing but a plot device character, there to enable the stranding of the actual stars of the movie in the sticky situation they will spend most of the rest of it trying to get out of. They are Ben (Idris Elba), a buttoned-up surgeon rushing off to an operating theatre in Baltimore, and Alex (Kate Winslet), an impulsive photojournalist who is, you guessed it, getting married in the morning. Discovering that Walter has crashed in what appears to be Middle-Earth, or possibly the planet Hoth, is not promising news, nor is the fact that their distress beacon is in another part of the plane which fell off and landed some way away.

Well, Ben wants to stay with the wreckage, citing the dangers of falling off the mountain and being attacked by a mountain lion (for some reason I was surprised to discover mountain lions live on mountains, but I see now that it makes a certain amount of sense), to name but two – the fact Alex has a mildly broken leg is also a consideration. But Alex just can’t bring herself to sit around and starve to death, so when the food starts to run out (the possibility of eating Walter’s corpse is quite properly never even mooted), off she toddles down the mountain, with a reluctant Ben drawn to follow her.

Luckily Idris Elba is clearly unaware of what happens to dudes who hang around with Kate Winslet in a post-disaster-type scenario. Exactly what kind of film is this? Well, partly it is one of those ‘figures in a landscape’ type things, with lots of helicopter shots of people staggering across bleak wastelands and confronting the terrible beauty of nature in all its glory, etc etc – these films tend to be somewhat light on incident and also to go on for a while, and this is all true to some extent of The Mountain Between Us as well. But on the other hand it does have a slightly Titanic-y vibe to it, as the focus is at least as much on their relationship as it is the plight they are in. Not that you are ever allowed to really forget the plight, of course. I suppose if I had to coin a name for this sort of extravaganza it would be either ‘survival romance’ or more likely ‘romantic tragedy’.

As opposed to ‘romantic comedy’, of course. To be honest just a sprinkling of comedy, or even anything of a slightly lighter tone, would have helped this movie a lot, for it feels terribly leaden and heavy-going for much of its length. Elba and Winslet seem quite unaware they are starring in a piece of life-affirming, crowd-pleasing cobblers, and attempt to give serious Proper Actor performances, which are more than the script deserves. I know I’m an indoorsy type – if it wasn’t for cinema trips and the need to work, I expect I’d hardly ever leave the house – but this seemed to me to be a really rather dull film. Oh, look, they’re on top of a mountain. It is snowy. Now they have staggered partway down the mountain. It is still snowy. Now they are in a forest. Is that snow everywhere? I suspect it is. Whatever next?

This is before we get to the romantic element of the plot, which is arguably torpedoed by the palpable lack of chemistry between Elba and Winslet. The moment at which they finally come together feels like some kind of contractual obligation, and occurs under what seem to me to be unlikely circumstances. Then again, perhaps malnutrition, bone fractures, first-stage frostbite and incipient gangrene are what get some people in the mood for a spot of the old rumpy – I don’t judge in these matters. Even so, what ensues is a notable example of a Bad Sex Scene, though this is more down to the director overdoing it than any fault of his stars. At least it’s not too prominent an element of the story, or they might have had to retitle the film The Mounting Between Us.

At first it looks like this movie isn’t going to outstay its welcome and get off the screen after a relatively snappy 100 minutes or so, with the duo staggering back to civilisation in an appropriately overwrought way (yes, they don’t freeze to death; I trust this doesn’t constitute a spoiler). But the thing drags on for a lengthy coda as they go back to their lives, don’t answer each other’s phone calls, and generally obey the plot imperative to resist the inevitable for as long as possible. However, I wasn’t looking impatiently for the moment where they admit their feelings for each other, I was looking impatiently at my watch.

I would imagine that Idris Elba and Kate Winslet are well-established enough as actors for this piece of tosh not to damage their careers significantly. A film which was just a little lighter on its feet would have worked much better. As it is, The Mountain Between Us is competently assembled for most of its duration, but ultimately almost wholly inert as either a drama or a romance. Outdoorsy types might find something to enjoy, I suppose, but there’s not much for the rest of us.

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In all my years of going to the cinema, I have seen an enormous variety of Dicks. I have seen disturbingly malformed Dicks. I have seen insignificant and forgettable Dicks. I have seen the occasional moderately impressive Dick. But, I feel it must be said, currently showing on a screen near you is what’s almost certainly the biggest Dick in the history of cinema, Denis Villeneuve’s very expensive and equally lengthy Blade Runner 2049. (I use ‘Dick’ in this case to mean a film derived from a novel or short story by the SF writer Philip K Dick, and also to facilitate some very cheap double entendres.)

It is doubtless time for gasps and glares as I once again reveal that I’m lukewarm at best about the original 1982 Blade Runner. What can I say, maybe it was the circumstances in which I first saw it, which was split in two at either end of a school day when I was 14, after it showed in the graveyard slot on TV. Subsequent viewings didn’t do much to make me reassess the movie, either, not least because in the meantime I read the source novel, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, which has that atmosphere of quotidian weirdness which for me is quintessentially Phildickian, and which is nearly always the first thing that disappears when Hollywood gets their hands on one of the master’s works.

At least this means I have not spent the last couple of weeks having kittens about the prospect of having one of my very favourite films smeared by an incompetent reimagining (sometimes it feels like all my favourite things have already been screwed up over the last few years, anyway; hey ho) – I know several people who have been in this unenviable position. Given the way the last couple of Alien prequels worked out, I suppose they had a point, but then I was never much of an Alien fan either.

Anyway, off we went to the cinema on the first day of release for Blade Runner 2049 (yes, I missed the first 2047 sequels too, ha ha). The obligatory (and rather dauntingly detailed) prefatory captions fill in the somewhat complicated goings on which have occurred since the first film, which was set (somewhat quaintly, these days) in 2019, but basically things are much the same: the environment and society are going to hell in a handbasket, and everyone has become somewhat reliant on synthetic people known as replicants. The Wallace Corporation, which manufactures the replicants, has naturally become immensely wealthy as a result, but their use is controlled and unauthorised models are hunted down and ‘retired’ (i.e. violently terminated) by specialist cops known as blade runners.

Our hero is KD/3:6-7 (Ryan Goosey-Goosey Gosling), a blade runner who is himself a replicant (presumably from a production run where the eyes didn’t quite turn out symmetrical, but I digress). During a routine case, K stumbles upon evidence of something almost unbelievable – the remains of a replicant who died in childbirth. The supposed inability of replicants to reproduce themselves is one of the things that enables the uneasy settlement between the synthetics and natural people, and K’s boss (Robin Wright) is very clear that K is to make very certain the now-grown replicant offspring is found and made to disappear, even as the head of the Wallace Corporation (Jared Leto) and his factotum (Sylvia Hoeks) take an interest of their own in the investigation. One of the few leads that K has is a connection between the mother and another, long-since-vanished blade runner, named Rick Deckard…

Yes, as you’re doubtless already aware, Harrison Ford does indeed reprise his role from the original movie (he’s not the only one to do so, but he gets most screen-time). That said, he doesn’t show up until quite late on, and when he does it is as a fragile, largely passive figure, only ever waiting to be found, or interviewed, or rescued. The focus is only ever on Gosling as K (even so, this is possibly not the vehicle for the star that some of his fans may be hoping for – a couple of vocally keen Gosling devotees were sitting in the row behind us, but left halfway through the film), and the actor is customarily good in the role.

That said, this is a notably accomplished movie in most departments, with Villeneuve handling a reasonably complex SF narrative with same kind of skill he showed with Arrival last year, and a hugely impressive piece of scoring and sound design from Hans Zimmer and Benjamin Wallfisch. The combination of striking images and music is quite immersive, and (I suspect) will not disappoint fans of the original film.

And it faithfully continues the themes and ideas of the original film. The most recent trailer doing the rounds makes Blade Runner 2049 look rather like a non-stop action blockbuster, but this is not really the impression given by the actual movie. Instead, it is a combination of thriller and dystopian SF, handling some very Phildickian ideas to do with the nature of what it means to be human, the whole concept of authenticity, and the ethics of treating people as property. One expression of this comes in the form of K’s girlfriend (Ana de Armas), who is a self-aware hologram, and the film’s treatment of their slightly unusual relationship. (We agreed this element of the film clearly owed a huge debt to Spike Jonze’s Her.) Again, the SF content is handled deftly and reasonably subtly.

I can really find very few grounds on which to criticise Blade Runner 2049: it may even impel me to go back and give the original movie yet another chance. And yet I still find this film easier to admire than to genuinely like, and I’m wondering why – it doesn’t seem to be quite as in love with its own stylish prettiness as the typical Ridley Scott film, certainly. I think in the end it is because the new film, while extremely clever in the way it manipulates story threads from the original and also audience expectations, doesn’t really apply the same degree of intelligence to the ideas at the heart of the story. The plot has various twists and turns, some of them properly startling, but the film itself has no genuinely surprising new ideas to offer.

But, hey, Blade Runner 2049 is a big-budget Hollywood SF movie, so you have to manage your expectations accordingly. This is an extremely good-looking and well-made film which develops its inheritance of ideas and characters ingeniously and convincingly, even if it never quite finds the spark it would need to become something really special. Denis Villeneuve made the most impressive SF film of 2016; it looks like he’s in with a very good chance of repeating that feat this year, too.

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One of the particular pleasures of infiltrating my family’s parties, as I do a couple of times a year, is the opportunity to catch up with my semi-cousin, His MBEship. In addition to being the only person even vaguely connected with the clan to have been honoured by HRH, His MBEship is a well-read fellow and seldom lets a visit go by without pushing a book in my direction and saying ‘take a look at this.’ Many of these are things which would not necessarily show up on my radar in the usual course of events, but they have always turned out to be interesting and worth taking a look at. Back in July, His MBEship’s pick was Gregory David Roberts’ Shantaram, which is such a substantial tome (nearly 950 pages) that I’ve only just finished reading it.

It’s a little difficult to pin down exactly what kind of book this is. A brief summary of the plot makes it sound like a thriller: the protagonist, an Australian escaped convict whose real name we never learn, arrives in Bombay on a stolen passport at some point in the early 1980s. He finds he rather likes the place, makes friends with a comic-relief local guide, falls in love with another member of the expat scene, becomes a black-market fixer, slum doctor, prisoner, gangster, peripheral member of the Bollywood scene, and unwilling mujahideen, all over the course of about five or six years.

However, one must also bear in mind that this rollicking tale of an Aussie bank robber and former heroin addict who ends up living in India for years has been written by an Aussie bank robber and former heroin addict who ended up living in India for years, and one of the questions floating around this book is just to what extent it is some sort of roman a clef, and how much of it is based on stuff which actually happened to Roberts. ‘They’re novels – it doesn’t matter how much of it is true or not,’ is the author’s official position on the topic, and whatever else you can say about his writing, he hides the joins supremely well. My personal suspicion (apologies to the author if I’m wrong) is that he did not, in fact, nearly die of frostbite in Afghanistan after being hit by a mortar shell while fighting the Soviets, but he tells this part of the tale with all the vividness and detail that he does the rest of it.

And there is rather a lot of it, as I mentioned before. Well, there’s nothing wrong with a good epic, and the author mixes things up and varies the tone rather deftly – the narrative goes from a nerve-wracking visit to the chilling madam of a high-class brothel, to a considered discussion of the nature of good and evil with an Afghan crime lord, to a comic vignette about trying to get a bear bailed out of jail, in the space of as many scenes. Some of the transitions are so outrageous it’s hard to believe they’re not based on true events.

And as a thriller it’s a good story, set in a world not much covered by mainstream western media – you can see why a film version has been in the works for years (it is such a no-brainer that Joel Edgerton will be playing the protagonist that even I was able to guess as much), although I wish the screenwriter luck in getting the story down to under six hours of screen time.

The thing is, though, that Shantaram (the title is Marathi for ‘Man of peace’, and it’s not clear whether this is meant to be ironic or not) seems to have aspirations to be more than just a hefty airport novel and actually become Proper Literature. It tries really, really hard on this score; so hard that I would say the strain occasionally shows.

Well, look, there are lots of books and movies about gangsters – it’s one of those genres that never seems to go out of fashion. Roberts’ protagonist cloaks himself in the dubious glamour of the outlaw, the gangster, the wanted man, in addition to the various other ways he arguably self-aggrandises himself – he talks a lot about guilt and regret but it never feels particularly palpable. The subtext seems to be ‘Yeah, I was a bank robber and a gangster, but it’s not as if there’s much wrong with that, because I did it as honourably as I could, never personally killed anyone, and I came away with all these valuable life lessons which I will now proceed to share with you.’ Gee, thanks, I think.

One of the reasons His MBEship was so impressed with Shantaram is the sheer level of detail and local colour woven into the text. Well, yes, Roberts clearly knows Bombay well, but I suspect there was less research involved – when you live in a place even for a short time, you do pick this stuff up surprisingly quickly. Nevertheless, you do learn a lot of practical bits and pieces from reading the book: how to win a knife fight in the prison laundry, how to make a fortune by dealing in stolen passports, various philological and geographical tidbits too.

For me the problematic stuff comes when Roberts decides to start waxing eloquent about the important truths of life. He writes naturalistic dialogue and action scenes very well, but whenever he gets his descriptive hat on you get a sense of someone slightly overreaching himself – we get lots of mentions of ‘the psalm of her hair’ and ‘the archery of her mouth’, and my gut reaction was ‘what on Earth are you on about.’ Roberts’ slightly overenthusiastic approach to this sort of thing gets its fullest expression in the Bad Sex Scenes he occasionally includes – ‘our tongues writhed and pulsated in their caves of pleasure,’ he helpfully informs the reader, as one amorous interlude gets underway. Maybe that gets you in the mood; I just want to go ‘ugh’.

Beyond this, not a chapter goes by without Roberts making multiple portentous declarations about What It Is All About – Every dead body is a temple in ruins. Every door is a portal to both the past and the future. Now, he does occasionally come up with some very good lines – ‘some truths don’t make us love the world more, but they help us to hate it less’, for instance. But I found a lot of this wisdom to be Reader’s Digest-standard and not nearly as profound as Roberts appears to think it is: things frequently get just a bit pretentious. It also seems to smack of a certain level of self-regard – we are frequently reminded that Shantaram‘s semi-autobiographical hero is an outlaw, a gangster, a tough man, a man of peace, a writer (other characters occasionally come up to him and tell him what a good writer he is, even though this has zero bearing on the plot) – luckily we’re never told what a humble and modest chap he is, because that really would be pushing it.

So I was never really able to fully commit to Shantaram – ‘to enfold my heart in the quiet wisdom of its many pages’, as Roberts might possibly put it – even as I enjoyed its colour and vibrancy. It’s an interesting and extremely readable book, very funny in places and occasionally quite moving. But too often it almost feels like Paulo Coelho trying to write Goodfellas – a promising epic adventure-thriller frequently sidetracked by philosophical and poetic discursions which are not really all that insightful. But the ratio of impressive storytelling to pretentious waffle is good enough to make this worth a look, I would say.

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