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There are a number of noteworthy and unusual things about Everything Everywhere All At Once, directed by ‘Daniels’ (this is the working name for the duo Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert); the film has apparently done unexpectedly well across a long and carefully-managed release, it is an (almost unprecedented) star vehicle for a leading lady a quarter-century on from her turn as a Bond girl; and there is the simple fact that the film is so damn weird. What is not so noteworthy or unusual is the film’s theme, which concerns an infinite multiplicity of closely connected parallel worlds and the main character’s perception of them. This is pretty standard story material at the moment, as we have already noted.

Michelle Yeoh, whose star has waxed impressively in the last five or six years despite her appearing in some (to my mind) decidedly iffy projects, plays Evelyn, a Chinese immigrant to America who has devoted her life to running a not especially successful laundrette with her husband Waymond (Ke Huy Quan, making what is surely one of the most impressive comebacks in recent years). But her relationship with her daughter (Stephanie Hsu) and father (James Hong, a veteran actor with a remarkable CV) is not good.

Worst of all, the business is being audited by the IRS, requiring all of them to go to the local tax office and contend with a not entirely sympathetic official (Jamie Lee Curtis). But strange things begin to occur as they arrive: Waymond in particular starts acting very oddly, writing strange notes to Evelyn giving her rather peculiar instructions. When she eventually follows them, she finds her consciousness transported into the janitor’s closet, which contains another version of her from a parallel universe. Or is the whole closet in another parallel universe? (It’s probably best not to worry too much about this kind of minor detail – and the thing about Everything Everywhere All At Once is that which universe the characters are in at any given moment really does constitute a minor detail.)

Well, it turns out that a parallel-universe version of Waymond is looking for Evelyn; or, to be exact, looking for an iteration of her with the potential to defeat a tyrannical multiversal despot named Jobu Tupaki (‘You’re just making up noises,’ complains Evelyn when told of this, not unreasonably). Jobu Tupaki has created a bagel with the potential to destroy the infinity of the multiverse (I promise you that this really is the plot), which interested parties are obviously keen to stop.

Fairly soon parallel-universe minions of Jobu Tupaki and members of other factions are possessing the bodies of their counterparts in Evelyn’s universe, intent on causing her some mischief, and so it falls to her to borrow the skills of some of her other iterations in order to fend them off (given Yeoh’s pedigree in Hong Kong action cinema you can probably imagine how this turns out). But what is the secret of Jobu Tupaki and can the apocalyptic bagel be neutralised before the whole of creation suffers?

Having just read that back I am aware that Everything Everywhere All At Once sounds like one of the stupidest, or at least most bloody-mindedly whimsical films ever made – and it does contain many moments which are finely-crafted pieces of absurdism and surrealism: quite apart from doomsday baked goods, there are transcendental paper cuts, dialogue scenes between rocks, and people doing things with trophies that defy genteel description. Not for the first time, the essentially cautious nature of the Marvel project is thrown into sharp relief by a smaller movie – the Dr Strange sequel suddenly looks very restrained indeed compared to the relentless frantic daftness of this film, both of them of course playing the idea of a multiplicity of parallel worlds. (What briefly resembled a spat between the two films on Twitter is rather peculiar given that talent both behind and in front of the camera on Everything Everywhere All At Once has been involved in Marvel Studios projects.)

It’s not quite as arbitrarily silly as it sounds, for there are rules and reasons for nearly everything that happens. What it really feels like, and I’m aware I don’t usually like this kind of reductionist comparison, is The Matrix blended with an offbeat indie comedy-drama: the kung fu stuff is great, even if it is quite daft, there’s a fairly solid rationale behind it all (though you do have to hang on really tight to keep track of all of the plot), and – somehow – underpinning everything is a relatively serious story about a woman coming to terms with her life and her relationships with her family.

It takes a while to get here, naturally, and one of the criticisms I’d make is that the endless possibilities that the film explores turn out to be just a bit too endless: I’d say it was about 15-20% too long, with most of the fat coming in the second and third acts. There are still some good jokes and inspired ideas, but I found myself flagging as the film bounced through yet another new take on its characters and concepts without much going on in the way of forward motion.

This being, at least in part, a film about the Chinese-American experience, it’s not entirely surprising that it eventually resolves as a kind of family saga – this is one of those films where colossal mayhem and an apocalyptic threat proves to be mainly a pretext for the protagonist to sort out their domestic relationships. But it’s a bit deeper than that – rather as with the TV series Life After Life, it eventually tackles concepts of existentialism and nihilism – if you can have or be everything, then ultimately you reach a point where nothing means anything. I’m not entirely convinced by the film’s solution to this particular philosophical quandary, but it at least does present some kind of answer to it.

Everything Everywhere All At Once is the kind of film which looks brilliant and inspired in the trailer; the challenge is how to take such a soaringly high concept and turn it into a functional and satisfying narrative. The Daniels do a pretty good job with it, in the end, although this is not a film which is especially strong on coherence. Nevertheless, there are so many good individual bits to enjoy that I am very happy to overlook the flaws in the overall story. It’s a mad and challenging film, but I mean that in the most positive way.

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I’m starting to think that my whole thinking on the which-early-episodes-of-Blake’s-7-are-filler issue has been somewhat coloured by the collected works of Trevor Hoyle, the (one suspects) main writer of the Blake novelisations that appeared around the time of the series’ original transmission. This was not a comprehensive project: there were only three, two covering the first season and one the opening episodes of the final year, and even then Hoyle was selective in which material he covered – not The Web, and not episode seven, Mission to Destiny. (Breakdown and Bounty likewise go un-adapted from this first year.)

You can kind of see why: these episodes don’t link into the rest of the series particularly, and they’re not concerned with either Blake gathering his crew or their various clashes with Travis and Servalan. Still, this isn’t to say that Mission to Destiny is a bad episode as such – it’s a little atypical, for sure, but not necessarily in a bad way.

Much of it occurs on the spaceship Ortega, where right at the top of the episode a crewmember played by Brian Capron (later a sympathetic Grange Hill schoolteacher and a less sympathetic Corrie serial killer) is murdered by a bang on the head. The Liberator later comes across the ship, which is going round in circles and not responding to their hails. As Jenna is still not allowed to do anything interesting, Blake teleports over with Cally and Avon to see what’s up.

Well, all the crew are asleep, thanks to someone putting knockout gas in the air supply, but Blake overcomes the urge to have a nap and sees to it that everyone wakes up. The controls have been damaged and the ship will be stuck on its circular flight-path until someone can fix it. The ship is under the command of one Dr Kendall (Barry Jackson) and they are heading home to the planet Destiny, an independent world noted for its voluminous collars, which is currently experiencing a grave crisis. The problem can only be solved using a neutrotope, an immensely valuable and important plot device which they have just spent all of Destiny’s money on.

The sabotage of the ship and the murder of the pilot are clearly connected to one of Kendall’s Seven wanting to nick the neutrotope and retire to a life of luxury. Avon is supremely unmoved by the plight of Destiny, but does confess to a desire to see this mystery solved – which is just as well, because the damage means the Ortega can no longer travel at superluminal speeds, meaning someone else will have to deliver the neutrotope if it’s to be there in time to save the planet. Naturally, Blake volunteers and zips off in the Liberator, leaving Avon and Cally behind to complete repairs and ponder about the times and velocities implied by the script and their implications for the rest of the series.

(The shade of Terry Nation will probably rise screaming from the grave if I even start down this route, but: we are told that, travelling at sub-light speed, the Ortega is five months from home. The Liberator, apparently, can do the trip in four days travelling at ‘standard by six’ (which seems to be, as the name suggests, a fairly standard speed).

Assuming that ‘sub-light speed’ is a fairly high fraction of C, some fairly basic maths reveals that the Liberator can travel 971,327,563,920 km a day at standard speed. This means that the trip from Earth to Alpha Centauri, at four light-years only a hop and a skip in astronomical terms, would usually take the Liberator roughly five weeks.

This meshes fairly well with the long flight times indicated in some of the other episodes of the series – the eight month trip from Earth to Cygnus Alpha mentioned a couple of times – but it does seem a bit on the long side, all things considered. The characters fly from one planet to another fairly casually, after all: Travis goes back and forth between Kentero and Servalan’s HQ multiple times in one episode, and this is on a Federation ship which is slower than Blake’s. I think we are obliged to assume that there are some other factors in play.)

Yes, we are in Agatha Christie pastiche territory here – an area which, I should say, Blake script editor Chris Boucher had previously displayed considerable aptitude for. The main downside to doing this kind of story is that, obviously, you need a fairly extensive guest cast for the whole whodunnit angle to have any interest to it – which means that many of the regulars get less to do than usual; Vila, Gan and Jenna are all minimally served in this episode.

‘You’re probably wondering why I’ve called you all here today…’

The upside, however, is that Paul Darrow gets to play Inspector Avon and crack the case aboard the Ortega, which he does with his usual sardonic panache. Darrow is clearly having great fun throughout the episode; you can almost see the writers and production team waking up to what a felicitous combination of character and performer they’ve stumbled upon here. He gets all the good lines, up to and including the unacceptable-but-still-great-the-way-Darrow-delivers-it ‘You’d better get her out of here, I really rather enjoyed that’, after punching out the villainess of the piece.

The exigencies of time mean this is only really a vague wave in the direction of an actual whodunnit – only a couple of characters are properly developed, the only motive Avon discusses (correctly, as it turns out) is financial gain, there’s only one red herring worth mentioning. It’s also notably a whodunnit in an SF setting, rather than an SF whodunnit – by which I mean a story where the murder is achieved or the killer’s identity obscured by some science-fictional means. SF whodunnits are tricky to do at the best of times, and attempting one inside fifty minutes for a BBC 1 audience would really be a big ask.

Nevertheless, it’s a solid episode that hangs together rather well – mainly around the central armature of Paul Darrow’s performance. This first appearance of a dominant Avon may be its main significance in the history of the show, but that doesn’t stop it from being rather engaging, even if many of the regulars hardly appear and the actual murder-mystery is only handled with the broadest of strokes. It’s hardly essential, but it’s hard to dislike, too.

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Smaller studios and mid-budget mainstream films scatter and run for cover as the dominant force in popular cinema makes its presence felt once more: yes, Marvel return with Sam Raimi’s Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness, a somewhat baroque title which nevertheless is certainly appropriate for the film. That said, there are a number of factors which may combine to have some viewers expecting things which aren’t quite there in the movie: given the striking level of ambition some other Marvel productions have shown, perhaps this is only to be expected.

Benedict Cumberbatch is back in leading-man mode as surgeon-turned-sorcerer Stephen Strange, who is generally acclaimed for his role in saving the universe a few movies back but still not entirely happy in his personal life (as is practically obligatory for a Marvel character). The doc is also afflicted by bad dreams, specifically one about a young woman being pursued by malevolent supernatural forces while being aided by a slightly different version of him.

Well, the girl from the dream crashes a wedding reception Strange is at, pursued by a big gribbly demon, and naturally he saves the day and rescues her (with a little help from Wong (Benedict Wong), whom these movies have done an impressive job of making into much more than just a sidekick). She turns out to be America Chavez (Xochitl Gomez), a unique individual in that there is only one iteration of her in the entirety of the multiverse of parallel worlds, and she has the gift of being able to travel between the different worlds almost at will. Naturally this makes her a person of interest, especially to a powerful and ruthless supernatural being who wants to kill America and steal her power.

Well, Strange and his various allies (in addition to Wong, he goes to the Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen) for help) aren’t going to stand for that sort of thing, but needless to say they find themselves hard-pressed and Strange and America have to flee through a series of other parallel worlds, some of them jarringly odd, others rather familiar. But can they find a way of saving America’s life and defeating their adversary for good?

As noted here passim over the last decade or so, it’s quite rare for Marvel to turn out a movie which is not a solidly constructed and imaginative piece of entertainment – crowd-pleasers are what they do, and anyone who usually enjoys a Marvel film is likely going to enjoy this one too. Expectations are probably higher than usual for this one, partly because it’s directed by Sam Raimi (who has previously made some of the best Marvel superhero films ever), but also because it’s following on the heels of Spider-Man: No Way Home, another film with Cumberbatch which was deeply involved in matters multiversal.

Well, there are elements of Multiverse of Madness which certainly seem to be informed by Raimi’s CV as a director, but rather further back than his Spider-Man trilogy: there’s much more of a horror movie vibe to this film than anything else Marvel have done on the big screen recently. Some moments in the film are unexpectedly grisly and macabre, although I wouldn’t describe it as actually being any more scary than most mainstream films.

The multiversal element of the film is likely to be one of the things that may throw and possibly disappoint especially ardent viewers: following the cameo-stuffed pleasures of No Way Home, there has been a lot of excitable on-line chatter about just who could be turning up in this film. It’s tricky to talk about this without risking spoilers, obviously, but expectation management might not be a bad idea here – the closest thing the film has to a big gosh-wow moment won’t really come as a surprise to anyone who’s been paying attention to the publicity for it. The rest of its surprises are clever, but you really need to be a devotee to get all the references and jokes, to the point where a Disney+ subscription is almost obligatory. This is certainly the case with a major element of the film’s plot, which is arguably lacking in the dear old objective correlative if you haven’t seen the applicable streaming series.

This is possibly a problem for the film, as it makes a big deal out of seeing alt-universe versions of familiar characters, certainly at the expense of other possible ways of exploring the multiverse concept. Strange is repeatedly asked if he’s really happy, and you might expect the film to explore the possibility of a world which has a Strange-iteration who genuinely is content. There’s dramatic potential here, obviously, but the idea is never really gone into – a typhoon of CGI and fan-friendly death-matches are what the script plumps for.

Long-term viewers might also be inclined to raise an eyebrow at how a character who was originally presented as powerful but not exceptional has, over the course of their last few appearances, become a virtually unstoppable force of reality-warping cosmic power, but that’s what the script here requires, I guess: in the same way, while the comics version of Doctor Strange is so nebulously omnipotent he’s often sidelined, treated as a plot device more than a character, the movie character is much more fallible and limited much of the time. He spends a lot of this film looking worried and running away – but, as I say, it’s all about the requirements of the story.

Nevertheless, the movie has a charm and energy of its own, especially in its weirder moments. This is what you hire Sam Raimi for, after all. What’s perhaps a little unexpected and quite pleasing is the fact that – for all its metaphysical extravagance – the impulse driving the plot is firmly rooted in recognisable human emotions and drives. This gives the actors something they can really work with – and while Cumberbatch is as good value as ever at the centre of the film, what’s really eyecatching is a very impressive performance by Elizabeth Olsen, almost certainly the best she’s given in a Marvel movie. The various ghoulies and spectres the film summons up are very insignificant compared to the moment of genuine emotional anguish at the heart of the story. It’s this which holds the film together and keeps it satisfying even when some of its peripheral pleasures threaten to become rather unravelled.

This even extends to the ending of the film, which comes close to being a less-than-fully-satisfying cliffhanger (maybe even more than one). If this latest phase of Marvel films is heading in a particular direction, what that direction is is by no means clear yet. Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness is a mid-table entry for this franchise (perhaps just a little higher than average), but I don’t imagine the huge audiences Marvel movies routinely attract will be disappointed by it.

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Seek-Locate-Destroy hardly gets off to an impressive start, with another Federation installation that looks like a gasworks, guarded by such a naff security robot that the director feels the need to put a tannoy announcement in the story confirming that this is indeed what the wobbly prop is supposed to be. But it soon turns into pacy and involving stuff, with Blake and the gang embarking upon what is – by their standards so far – a carefully planned and crisply executed raid on the place. (We don’t get to see the various scenes of Blake persuading Vila and Avon to risk their lives in his cause, but that would get rather dull extremely quickly.)

The plan is to break into another communications centre and blow it up, but the real objective is to steal a Federation cypher unit which will allow them to monitor all the Federation signals traffic. Things go well until there is a rather contrived setback and a guard escapes: Vila has, for some reason, not been issued with a gun, and ends up having to chase the man down on foot, only catching him after he raises the alarm. Despite the this, the crew are working together with unusual smoothness and everyone fulfils their role – Vila gets them into the security zone, Avon identifies the unit and does most of the disconnecting, and Gan tears it the rest of the way out of its socket with his bare hands. Cally doesn’t get to do anything so interesting, but at least she’s allowed to beam down – Jenna’s only been off the ship once so far, and that was to another ship.

There is a bit of a prisoner rebellion and in the struggle Cally’s teleport bracelet comes off, meaning she is still there when the complex blows up. Luckily she is saved from the force of the blast and the hundreds of tons of collapsing rubble by being partly covered by some metal shelves (even in a good episode of Blake, which is what this is, the plot contrivances do pile up a bit). The others are duly appalled by their loss – although they seem more embarrassed by not having noticed they left her behind than upset at her apparent death.

So far, so capable and efficient, but the episode earns its status as a landmark by what comes next: a kind of narrative reverse-angle, as the scene shifts to Federation Space Headquarters, where the supreme commander is taken to task by a couple of politicians over exactly what she’s going to do about the Blake situation. The answer is that a senior officer is to be appointed whose sole responsibility is to hunt Blake down and eliminate him. This being a Terry Nation script, the officer in question is not called Commander Travis, but Space Commander Travis; he is played (at this point, anyway) by Stephen Greif, who makes a tremendous impression in his first appearance on the show.

We’ve talked before about Blake‘s slightly peculiar status as a partly-episodic, partly-serialised show; the format does shift, the relationships do change, some of the characters do develop – not for nothing has J Michael Straczynski acknowledged it as an influence on Babylon 5. The trap you can fall into is assuming that the series was always written with a particular end-point in mind; that it was all planned out in advance. I’ve probably been guilty of this myself in describing some episodes as ‘filler’, the implication being that others are moving on some putative continuing storyline. Nevertheless, Seek-Locate-Destroy is a game-changer for the series, in that it is intended to introduce the main villain of the series. The ironic thing is that everyone involved was mistaken about who that actually was.

Which is not to say that Travis doesn’t dominate the episode: Greif plays him as a fierce, driven, dangerously intelligent man, savage and ruthless even by the standards of the Federation military. (There’s an interesting character bit where a young officer complains about having to work alongside a man like Travis – the shades of grey in this series just keep coming.) But he’s strongly favoured by the script throughout. What’s interesting is the extent to which he finds himself obliged to share many of his scenes with Jacqueline Pearce, who is (of course) playing Supreme Commander Servalan.

We’re still in the Blake-and-Travis show, not the Avon-and-Servalan show (which is, needless to say, a much more interesting beast), but even so: Pearce takes what could have been quite a dull, transactional part, as Travis’ straight-laced boss, and finds really interesting things to do with it: she invests Servalan with unexpected glamour and sensuality. I should say that she’s helped by the script here: there’s a clear implication that Servalan is knocking off her office staff. But Pearce takes this and runs with it – lifting a supporting role and turning it into what’s as close to being a three-dimensional character as you’re going to find on this show.

Nevertheless, Servalan’s ascent to maximum power still lies some way off in the future; Travis is still centre-stage as far as the bad guys go. In this episode he’s challenging Blake for prominence. But of course it can’t last, and Travis succumbs to recurring villain syndrome harder and faster than most: the more they appear, the more reliably they can be defeated. He’s a frighteningly capable villain right up until the point where he is obliged to lose, which of course comes at the end of the episode, and from this point on, no matter what Stephen Greif tries to do with the part, he inevitably becomes a diminished and increasingly absurd figure. The seal is set on this in the moment that Blake can’t even be bothered to kill Travis – on one level this is because you can’t have the hero murdering someone in cold blood in a space adventure show that goes out early in the evening on BBC 1, but it’s also because recurring villains have to be alive in order to recur. And so Blake concludes that Travis, despite everything we’ve seen, just isn’t that much of a threat to him or the crew. If the hero doesn’t feel challenged by the villain, the audience isn’t going to feel too much concern about them either.

Up to this point, however, Seek-Locate-Destroy is probably the best episode since the series opener: not a very great deal of explicit world-building goes on, but you do get a sense of the wider universe, a setting that isn’t simply defined by the extent to which it imposes on Blake and the others. The individual set-pieces and character scenes are also generally very well handled. In a way it’s almost a shame that Stephen Greif’s performance is so good in this episode, as he’s allowed to reach peaks of competency and menace he (and Travis) are never allowed anywhere near throughout the rest of the series. But where recurring villains are concerned, this is the nature of the beast.

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A £194 million return on a £20 million budget, when combined with a built-in audience and established name recognition, means only one thing: guaranteed sequel! So here we are with Downton Abbey: A New Era, directed by Simon Curtis, written by Julian Fellowes (the creator of the TV show) and starring all the usual suspects.

I find myself sort of wondering about what it is exactly that makes this a ‘new era’, as to me it all looks very similar to the old era, or at least the first film. I was taken along to see this by the family when it came out in 2019, and – to save you the bother of going back and re-reading the original review – found it rather perplexing. This is mainly because I’ve never seen an episode of the TV show, which is obviously a disadvantage when it comes to a film series which is essentially a direct continuation of it.

The general sense of bemusement persisted as the new film got underway. It opens with a wedding which basically the entire principal cast attend – with a few exceptions (genial peer Hugh Bonneville, demonic matriarch Maggie Smith, redoubtable butler Jim Carter) I had no recollection of who any of them were. But the thing to remember about Downton is that all you really need to understand is the key division between the toffs upstairs and the plebs downstairs. The toffs are delighted being waited on hand and foot; the plebs seem equally delighted to be doing the waiting, though the reasons why are more obscure.

Paying close attention to the details of the film reveals we are in the year 1928, where the two main plotlines are jolted into motion by a letter from a French lawyer, revealing that Maggie Smith has inherited a villa within spitting distance of the Riviera from a mysterious man from her past, and a request from the film company British Lion to make a movie on location at the mansion itself. (Dearie me, from producing and distributing films of the calibre of The Third Man and The Wicker Man to providing background verisimilitude in a Downton Abbey movie – sic transit gloria mundi.)

Well, mainly because the mansion needs a new roof, they agree to let all the ghastly film-making people move in for a month, but only because many of the characters will be off in France discussing the new property with its former owners, not all of whom are particularly inclined to honour the bequest. Needless to say all the below-stairs plebs get tremendously excited by the prospect of mixing with film stars (Dominic West and Laura Haddock do the honours) and even sensible-but-quietly-naughty Lady Something-or-Other lets herself get dragged into helping the production out. Meanwhile, the visitors to France struggle to cope with their alien continental ways while revelations about Maggie Smith’s past threaten to bring on an existential crisis for the earl himself…

It’s possible that the makers of the first Downton Abbey movie got a bit stung by criticisms that it was not really a film after all, but basically a double-length episode of the TV show released into cinemas. Certainly one of the trailers for the new one banged on at great length about how ‘cinematic’ it is, and how it cries out for the big screen experience. Well, there’s certainly something you could describe as cinematic about Downton Abbey: The New Era, even if it’s just the fact that it cheerfully knocks off elements from a bona fide movie like Singin’ in the Rain – there’s a plotline about an actress who looks fabulous but doesn’t have the voice for a career in talkies which feels awfully familiar. The everyone-goes-on-a-foreign-holiday storyline, on the other hand, is more of a staple of less distinguished fare like the big-screen versions of Are You Being Served? and The Inbetweeners (which Laura Haddock was also in, funnily enough).

Comparisons to the ignoble tradition of the big-screen sitcom spin-off movie seem to me to be justified, as one of the odd things about Downton Abbey: The New Era is the general tone of the thing. We’re talking, essentially, about a soap opera, which in theory should have a mixture of tones – lighter storylines mixed with more serious material. And in theory this is happening here too. But the strange thing is that everything feels like it’s being pitched as comedy: broad, knockabout comedy in the case of the plebs, something marginally more refined and sophisticated in the case of the toffs. At one point a character is given cause to doubt their parentage, their heritage, their very identity, a moment of absolute shock. And (at the screening we went to) it got a laugh. Someone dies, and – despite a bizarre, bathos-laden moment where someone performs a soliloquy from King Lear – their death scene is built around a series of zingy one-liners.

Some of the cast members are good enough to make this stuff work, but a lot of the time I think the film is trading on the existing affection the audience is presumed to have for these characters: there is, needless to say, a degree of sentimentality going on throughout. Not much effort is made to keep things accessible for newcomers, anyway – beautiful scenery and architecture only goes so far, and the structure of the film feels odd. I expected the film to start wrapping up when everyone came back from France, but it continues for a good half-hour longer wrapping up various plot elements and dealing with a whole new development that, again, won’t necessarily mean much to new viewers.

Although you do wonder what the target audience for this film actually is. I watched it with someone who has requested their identity be kept a secret, and their view – and I feel the need to stress that they really liked this film a lot more than me – was that it was ‘like a film made for people with dementia’. I know exactly what they meant – time after time, once a scene has concluded the next scene features a bunch of the supporting characters convening as a kind of Greek chorus to tell each other, in considerable detail, what has just happened in the previous scene, discuss the significance of it, and wonder about what’s going to happen next. ‘On-the-nose’ barely begins to do justice to the kind of dialogue involved in these interludes, and it’s not as if the plot is even that complicated in the first place.

Then again, as I suggested when writing about the first film, this is all an exercise in comfortable familiarity and more-of-the-same. It’s a Downton Abbey movie, and the Downton Abbey part of that formulation is vastly more important than the movie part. I thought this film was interestingly weird, but it would be a stretch to say that I honestly enjoyed any of it. Then again, I’m not sure I was ever really supposed to.

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One of those genuinely gritty and realistic New Avengers episodes we have heard so much about but so rarely seen shows up in the form of To Catch a Rat, not written by either of the show’s main scribes but Terence Feely. It opens with a flashback to Germany in 1960, where British agent Irwin Gunner (Ian Hendry) is laying a trap for a mole within the organisation. It doesn’t quite come off, but he still manages to put a bullet in the traitor’s leg. Gunner’s cover is as a trapeze artist (possibly inspired by Hendry’s own circus background, which also informed the first-season Avengers episode Girl on the Trapeze) and, rather unfortunately, the man whose job it is to catch Gunner, Cledge (Barry Jackson), is in league with the mole. Gunner plunges to the ground, suffering serious injuries and amnesia.

Nevertheless, he somehow makes his way back to Britain (his banged-up body turns up on a ship for some reason) and ends up in a nursing home for the perpetually confused – until, sixteen or seventeen years later, a random bump on the head makes his memories come back. Gunner is determined to expose the mole, but still isn’t sure which of his old colleagues he is – the leg wound is the only clue.

Nevertheless, he is still trying to make radio contact, using outdated call-signs and other protocols, which is how Steed and the others come into the story. What ensues is basically them trying to find Gunner, while Gunner tries to find the traitor, and the traitor and his minions try to get to him first. It’s not quite as much of a runaround as that probably makes it sound, but it is notable as the first episode that doesn’t easily lend itself to a ‘this is the episode where…’ summarisation, unless you go for ‘this is the one where Ian Hendry comes back’, which doesn’t tell you much about the plot but at least communicates the main point of interest for long-term watchers of the show.

Those long-term watchers are often wont to regret the fact that Hendry isn’t playing David Keel, which from a certain perspective would have been the logical thing to do with him. Then again, maybe the script was written first, or Hendry refused to countenance the idea, or the producers made the reasonable decision that the majority of The New Avengers‘ audience wouldn’t have been familiar with the first season of the parent show. Apart from depriving the fans of their little thrill, the only problem with casting Hendry as Gunner is that he’s a slightly unhinged character with an odd accent, neither of which really play to Hendry’s natural strengths as an actor. I can imagine him being equally good in, say, Edward Judd’s role (this episode is a bonanza for British movie stars of a certain vintage). Judd is also quite as good as you might expect given his work elsewhere.

This time it’s both Steed and Gambit who get pushed into the background just a little bit, and it surely is a huge missed opportunity that Patrick Macnee and Ian Hendry only get one very short scene together. It’s a push to call To Catch a Rat a flat-out bad episode, but it feels a little flat and unimaginative compared to what the series has already done.

Another low-concept runaround happens along in the form of Brian Clemens’ The Tale of the Big Why, which is basically a fun-in-the-countryside romp with a slightly harder edge than would have been the case in the 60s (I’m put in mind of the Rigg episode Dead Man’s Treasure, which would also have been a decent title for this one). It also sees the inauguration of the animated title sequence where the figures of the lead trio eventually morph into a slightly jingoistic Union Jack-hued British lion.

A man named Brandon (frequent heavy George A Cooper, third of three) is due to be released from prison after a lengthy sentence for spying; he has been trying to make a deal all this time, claiming he has something valuable to trade with. Everyone naturally wants to know what it is; Steed has Gambit inserted into the prison as Brandon’s cellmate but doesn’t learn much. Also on the trail are a couple of nasty pieces of work known as Roach and Poole (Roach is played by Gary Waldhorn, an actor best remembered as stuffy authority figures in various sitcoms, but an effective villain here) – there is a bit of fluff about them being Russian agents who have gone native – ‘Capitalism rubs off’ says Roach – but this hardly informs the plot.

Anyway, Brandon leaves prison, clearly having some kind of a plan to capitalise on the mysterious leverage he possesses, pursued by all the interested parties (Purdey doesn’t seem to have entirely grasped the concept of undercover work, as she is wearing a jumpsuit with her name written on the back). This doesn’t stop Roach and Poole from ambushing and killing him – but there’s no sign of the package he previously retrieved. Where has has it gone, and – more importantly – what’s in the box?

Once again, I feel this episode misses the strong ‘the one where…’ hook that the most memorable instalments possess, but it looks great, is very nicely directed, and has an interestingly twisty-turny narrative to it. You do have to cut the story some slack: Steed and the others know quite early on that Roach and Poole killed Brandon, and are now shadowing them, but do absolutely nothing about this simply because the structure of the episode demands events unfold this way. And it does allow for some decent set-pieces: the bad guys attack Steed in his lovely home, and Steed avoids being blasted by Poole’s shotgun by the simple expedient of sticking his armoured bowler over the end of the barrel (the backblast sends the villain flying). It’s not good for the hat, though – ‘He should see a phrenologist,’ says Gambit. ‘He needs a phrenologist like a hole in the head,’ counters Purdey. (I feel I haven’t acknowledged how consistently good the repartee between the three regulars is on this show, both in terms of the writing and their performance of it.)

It’s entertaining stuff, but – as is the case with the previous episode – I’m not just watching The New Avengers for rolling countrysides and twisty plotting and the three stars being witty; I’m also here for the borderline fantasy and SF elements which were present in the earlier episodes of the season. These more ‘realistic’ episodes always pale in comparison to them, for me.

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No movie this year is likely to have a more impressive or gorgeous soundtrack than Guiseppe Tornatore’s Ennio. The title itself is a dead giveaway as to the reason why: this is a documentary about the life and career of Ennio Morricone, the – and here one must pause for a moment to express regret that the language has become so debased, and some words so overused – legendary musician and composer. (The Italian title of the movie is Ennio – The Master.) Morricone departed from this frame of existence in 2020, a fact the film does not acknowledge despite it being completed after this happened. But on the other hand it does suggest that Morricone’s music will always be with us, and so to what extent can we really say that he has gone?

There is a good deal of gushing about Morricone’s work before the film is over, but this is not just a puff piece or a hagiography – it’s a film which strives to take both itself and its subject seriously. Given the sumptuous treasures of Morricone’s back catalogue, the film opens with the somewhat bold choice of no music whatsoever, just a ticking metronome. This plays over film of the 90-odd Morricone going about his daily fitness regime with great seriousness. (Exercise the Ennio Way was never released as a workout DVD, but I don’t think this is a great loss to the sum total of human culture.)

Various contributors say nice things about Morricone and it soon becomes clear that this documentary is not going to be indulging in any great formal innovations or stylistic surprises. We learn about Morricone’s childhood in occupied Rome, and his relationship with his father, who insisted he learn to play the trumpet. This led to studies at a conservatoire by day, and jazz trumpeting by night, and so on. By the early 1960s he was in enormous demand as an arranger of material in the Italian pop industry, which eventually led to a commission to write a film score – and ultimately a series of collaborations with his old school friend Sergio Leone, resulting in a series of movies which would change the face of cinema forever.

I would happily have turned up to the cinema just to listen to a selection of Morricone’s greatest hits for two and a half hours – this film is not afraid to go into some detail – and so it was a little disappointing that few of his most celebrated compositions get played at length. But I suppose being able to listen to Ecstasy of Gold whenever you like is one of the things that justifies the existence of the internet, and the documentary is not just here to remind you of things you probably already know about.

I’ve seen at least one documentary on the topic of film composition in general which suggested that the distinctive thing about Morricone’s work is not that he was particularly interested in innovation, but had a mastery of melody unparallelled even amongst other famous film composers. Ennio rather implies that all of this is actually complete balderdash, as it takes pains to give proper credit to Morricone’s other career as a composer of what he called ‘absolute’ music, music for its own sake, much of it highly experimental and avant garde (pieces where tape recorders and typewriters are instruments, and so on). It’s suggested that Morricone was rather dismissive of melodic music, which is a huge surprise given this is the man who wrote (for example) Gabriel’s Oboe.

Then again, one of the themes that recurs again and again throughout the film is Morricone’s own ambivalence about devoting so much of his energy to film music – one contemporary, who chose to work solely as a classical composer and musician, recalls how Morricone referred to to him as a purist, but to himself as a traitor. There are several moments when directors recall offending Morricone by expecting him simply to repeat or debase himself and his craft, usually drawing a fiery response as a result.

However, the film also chronicles Morricone’s ascent from simple movie composer to internationally revered artist, and in the process it touches upon all the things you might expect – his work on the Eastwood-Leone spaghetti westerns, culminating in his titanic score for The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, and then eventually moving on to the extraordinary period in the 1980s where he provided scores for Once Upon a Time in America, The Mission, and The Untouchables in the space of a few years. The creation of the score for The Mission is covered in particular detail, a section which concludes with an especially irascible Morricone complaining that the eventual winner of the Oscar for Best Score (Morricone’s lack of success at the Academy Awards does seem like one of those bizarre historical anomalies) should not in fact have been eligible for the category.

Of course, Morricone worked almost until the end of his life, and – rather charmingly – eventually received a competitive Oscar nearly ten years after being given an honorary lifetime achievement award. It’s on this note that the film chooses to conclude, mentioning in passing the abiding popularity and influence of Morricone’s music.

As I say, it’s a serious piece of work, seeking to inform as much as entertain – there’s a lot of relatively technical music theory mentioned in passing. On the other hand, one thing which happens over and over again is Morricone (and others) attempting to talk about music, finding that the human voice fails them, and resorting to going dee-de-dah-de-tumpty-tump as an expression of what they’re trying to say, which is oddly endearing. Music does seem to spill out of Morricone throughout the film; one contributor suggests that his work constitutes prima facie evidence for the existence of God, the kind of assertion which might give one pause if it were said about almost anyone else.

Needless to say, the film is not short of people willing to come on and sing the Maestro’s praises, including film directors and musicians of all stripes. One almost gets the sense that Tornatore was simply collecting big-name contributors, some of whom just come on for a few seconds. It would certainly have been interesting to hear more from John Williams (surely the only person to seriously challenge Morricone for the title of most celebrated movie composer of all time) and Hans Zimmer (one of the dominant figures in the genre these days), but the film chooses quantity over depth.

At over two and a half hours, this is a substantial piece of work, and the sheer seriousness and comprehensiveness of it may also make it challenging for some viewers (as noted, it’s not just the well-known tunes, but more obscure phases of Morricone’s career and some of his avant garde work). But it comes back again and again to the fact that Ennio Morricone spent decades making some of the most beautiful art of the twentieth century. Much of it is there in the documentary, which makes it a wonderful reminder as well as an impressive guide to the great man’s career. Worth watching for anyone interested in music, or cinema as an art form.

 

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Every once in a while a film comes along which you can tell that the usual channels of publicity and distribution are struggling to cope with – it’s a bit left-field, in other words, possibly doing something weird with genres, and it’s not at all clear who the actual target audience is. One pretty reliable sign of this is that the trailer for it starts showing up in all sorts of odd places, as the result of a ‘enough mud sticks’ advertising strategy.

The current case in point for this sort of thing is Tom Gormican’s The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent. The title itself is perhaps a bit indicative as it sounds like it might be a reference to something else, but it’s not clear exactly what – The Unbearable Lightness of Being? Incredibly Loud and Extremely Close? Something else entirely?

Things start off conventionally enough, as a young woman is kidnapped at gunpoint. The film pays an unusual level of attention to the film she’s watching at the time, however (it is the rather good 1997 action movie Con Air), particularly its star, Nicolas Cage. However, we are soon off into the strange netherworld where The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent takes place.

We find ourselves at a meeting between film director David Gordon Green (David Gordon Green) and actor and movie star Nick Cage (Nicolas Cage). Cage is, it seems, an insecure, self-obsessed, and almost pathologically needy egomaniac, who insists on performing selections from Green’s latest script in the restaurant where they are having lunch. (Nick Cage is haunted by the spectral figure of his own uninhibited younger self; the actor credited in this role is ‘Nicolas Kim Coppola’.) Barely credibly, he does not get the part, which has an unfortunate influence on Cage’s contribution to his teenage daughter’s birthday party. His latest ex-wife (Sharon Horgan) throws him out as a result, sending him into a bit of a slump. (I feel the need to make it clear that Nicolas Cage and Sharon Horgan have never actually been married in what is generally agreed to be real life.)

Salvation, financially at least, comes when Cage is invited to Mallorca for the birthday party of an immensely rich super-fan, Javi (Pedro Pascal) – basically a paid personal appearance. It doesn’t do much for his mood, however, and Javi is appalled to discover that Cage is considering giving up acting – especially as he hasn’t even read the screenplay Javi has written for him yet.

But Nick Cage finds he has bigger problems, when he is picked up off the street by the CIA. Lead agent Tiffany Haddish reveals that Javi isn’t just an innocuous multi-millionaire, but the head of an international criminal cartel which has recently kidnapped the daughter of an influential politician. The CIA needs someone on the inside of Javi’s compound to locate and free the missing girl – could this be the role that Cage has been waiting for?

Well. Deciding whether this film is for you or not is a fairly straightforward question, and that question is ‘Do you want to spend one-hundred-and-seven minutes watching Nicolas Cage send himself up?’ Clearly someone believes there is a large enough audience that does, although this same someone may also have spent too much time on the internet and listening to the dozens of podcasts which concern themselves with the actor and his career. It is quite hard to imagine this film being made with any other actor in the lead role, mainly because Cage has become such an outlandish and mockable figure over the few years or so – stories abound about his ‘nouveau shamanic’ acting method, while his career trajectory over the last few decades (from Oscar-winning Hollywood A-lister to a string of DTV movies with titles like Jiu Jitsu and Kill Chain) would also indicate a career experiencing a degree of crisis. (I should perhaps mention that a Cage renaissance may well be in progress: Cage’s most recent movies have received favourable reviews and – perhaps more importantly – played in theatres.)

Whatever else this film has going for it, it is built around an immensely game and extremely funny performance by Cage himself, although of course it’s hard to be sure just how much of a stretch it is for Nicolas Cage to play Nick Cage. (Fictional-Cage’s personal history is slightly different from real-Cage’s.) It’s probably also worth mentioning that this is an essentially generous film, with no sign of any desire to really mock or deride its star (it’s doubtful whether Cage himself would have been dumb enough to sign up for such a role.

Beyond that, it’s a little unclear exactly what the idea behind this film is, beyond perhaps just being the Nicolas-Cage-iest movie ever made. There’s something quite meta and undeniably clever about the way the film manages to combine elements of the sort of semi-experimental film Cage was occasionally appearing in twenty years ago – he played a fictionalised version of Charlie Kaufman, not to mention Kaufman’s entirely fictional twin, in Adaptation – with the kind of action-movie nonsense which has bulked out his career since parting company with the mainstream last decade. But the emphasis is always on knockabout, broad comedy and Cage hamming it up; there’s a suggestion of something cleverer and more subtle – Nick Cage and Javi start collaborating on a screenplay, which as it develops takes on a suspicious resemblance to the plot of The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent – but this extra layer of self-referentiality is not as central to the movie as it would be if this really was a Kaufman script.

Nevertheless, it’s all ridiculous enough to be consistently entertaining, and Cage is well supported by Pascal and Horgan (who is as majestic as ever). The Javi role is a tricky one, as it calls for someone who can work opposite Cage without being completely overshadowed, but who still isn’t what you’d call an actual star in the same way he is. Pascal is a shrewd choice for this, as he’s currently experiencing a bit of a career moment, but also best known for a role where he has a bucket on his head most of the time. He is clearly a smart enough actor to figure out that he’s here to support Cage rather than actually co-star in the movie, but manages to do so in a way which should earn him some credit.

In some ways a knockabout, acutely self-referential comedy is the last film you would expect to find Nicolas Cage appearing in – but then this actor’s cult has largely been born of his willingness to make unusual choices. It would be nice to think that such a distinctive and charismatic performer has another act left in his career that will see him return from the DTV wilderness and do some genuinely interesting work again. It’s quite hard to tell whether The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent is a step on that journey or just another nail in the coffin of the whole idea of Nicolas Cage as a serious actor, but – always assuming you enjoy watching Cage – it’s a lot of fun while it lasts.

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There’s something oddly familiar about the opening sequence of Robert Eggers’ The Northman, and it took me a moment to figure out what it was: smoke belches from the bowels of the earth into an ominous sky, thunder rumbles, and a gravelly-to-the-point-of-being-impossible-to-understand voice-over proclaims we are about the hear the legendary story of a prince and his quest for a terrible revenge in a long-past mystic era…

And I was a bit thrown when a thunderously bombastic Basil Poledouris score didn’t crash in and drive the movie on through the opening credits (like an increasing number of modern movies, it doesn’t even have a title card until the very end). The opening of The Northman recreates the beginning of John Milius’ version of Conan the Barbarian so carefully that it doesn’t seem possible that this is a coincidence – in fact, you could argue that in some ways this is the most authentic recreation of the original Conan stories brought to the screen for many years, right down to individual scenes recreating moments from the text (provided you ignore the fact the film has no explicit links to Robert E Howard’s creation and is specifically set in a different time and place).

Ethan Hawke plays King Aurvandill War-Raven, a Dark Ages king from modern Norway, who is knocking on enough to be thinking about the succession issues that will inevitably occur when he eventually takes an axe to the guts he just can’t walk away from (it comes to us all eventually). He duly takes his young son Amleth down into the cavern beneath the local shrine to Odin where, together with Willem Defoe, they put on leather shorts and bark like dogs for a while (this is by no means the last unexpectedly startling scene in the movie). It turns out that Aurvandill was right to be concerned, as not long after he is murdered by his brother Fjolnir (Claes Bang), who seizes the title and also his brother’s widow (Nicole Kidman).

Well, the only option left for young Amleth is to swear to avenge his father, rescue his mother and kill his uncle, and make his escape across the North Sea by rowing boat until he’s big and strong enough to mount a decent roaring rampage of revenge. He ends up, as luck would have it, somewhere in eastern Europe, becoming a member of a band of berserker warriors and turning into the strapping figure of Alexander Skarsgard somewhere along the way.

All the howling at the moon and tearing people’s throats out with his teeth seems to have distracted Amleth from his oath of vengeance, but luckily a passing seeress with a very impressive hat made of corn (she is played by Bjork, who may well have provided her own costume) reminds him of the destiny that awaits him, and obliging reveals that Fjolnir has been booted out of Norway and settled down in Iceland. Instantly deciding to get on with the whole avenging deal – in fact, so instantly one is almost inclined to raise an eyebrow, but there are many things about The Northman you just have to sit back and go with – Amleth sneaks aboard a boat taking slaves off to Iceland, where he meets Olga (Anya Taylor-Joy), who is not just a slave but also a Slav. However, etymology is not key amongst the topics they discuss during the trip, just her potential usefulness to his plans and the prospects for a Scandi-Slav hook-up before the movie is over…

As you can perhaps tell, this is the kind of historical epic that Hollywood used to regularly make not very well, frequently starring people like Tony Curtis or Alan Ladd. Those old movies tended to be enjoyable only as pieces of camp; The Northman is a bit melodramatic in places but in general it seems to expect to be taken seriously. Whether or not this is possible is another question – it’s certainly an impressive-looking and powerfully atmospheric movie but in its best moments it is so outrageously and concertedly over-the-top it can be a little difficult to keep a straight face while watching it.

The on-the-ball reader will already have figured out that the legend of Amleth, his dead father and his usurping uncle has already inspired not just Hamlet but also The Lion King, so it’s not like we’re dealing with a bold new story idea here (although the treatment is obviously different – ‘to behead or not to behead, that is the question’). However, in many ways the story structure keeps on ringing bells – the treatment of a pagan, viscerally brutal world is powerful, but the underlying narrative keeps on hitting very traditional beats. Supporters of the film will probably say that this is the point – it’s an archetypal story drawing on the same folk-legends that have inspired many previous writers (Robert E Howard amongst them). Nevertheless, I think it’s a shame that a film which is obviously the work of people with real vision and creativity should also be quite so predictable.

That said, the kind of audience that seems most likely to respond to The Northman probably won’t be going along in search of great narrative subtleties. Anyone without much of an appetite for crunching violence, heavy gore, and frequent mutilation may find the film tough going, for all that the film also has visual imagination in spades. Eggers himself was apparently a bit concerned before taking the project on that the film would tap into too many stereotypes of white supremacist culture: a particularly bonkers flavour of Caucasian hetero-normativity.

Certainly the film is striking in its adherence to a particular vision of life in the Dark Ages. All the things that usually get slipped into this kind of film when they’re made by a big studio are absent – there’s no comedy relief, no attempt to import modern sensibilities or present past cultures as somehow analogous to modern societies. This is the sort of thing that almost sounds logical, given we’re talking about a historical drama, but it marks The Northman out as niche rather than mainstream entertainment, and potentially controversial entertainment at that.

Let’s just say it likely has cult status in its future. There is a lot here to enjoy – Nicole Kidman gives one of her best performances in ages, and the rest of the cast are also strong; the action is often superbly mounted; and Eggers creates a coherent and convincing world for the story to unfold in. It’s just that it’s all a little bit too predictable, almost coming across as another headbangingly macho action movie even though it’s clear that Eggers has slightly more elevated concerns. In the end there remains a question mark over whether it’s possible to take The Northman seriously as a drama, given the setting and the subject matter. Some people may be able to – but I’m not sure I can, at least not completely. But I did have a good time watching it.

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Bert I Gordon’s 1977 film Empire of the Ants kicks off with some close-up footage of leaf-cutter ants going about their business, while a basso profundo voice-over does its best to make them seem menacing. The nature-documentary tone of most of the commentary doesn’t help its cause much, and it winds up by pushing the dangers of ant pheromones particularly hard, which initially seems like a stretch. To anyone not familiar with the Bert I Gordon oeuvre it gives the impression that we’re in for one of those nature-strikes-back eco-horror movies.

Indications that things may be a bit more out there come during the opening credits, which depict barrels of radioactive waste being dumped into the sea off the Florida coast. At more than one point the credits stress that this movie is based on an H. G. Wells story, which is technically true, but also in a very real sense completely fraudulent. One of the barrels of gunk (which resembles silver paint) washes up on beach, where the local ants clearly find it very tasty.

From here we find ourselves pitched into what feels like a very different kind of story. Joan Collins, in the midst of the career slump to end all career slumps, plays Marilyn Fryser, a thrusting young property developer intent on attracting new investors for her new project Dreamland Shores, a resort community on the Florida coast. (All incredibly authentically Wellsian, I think you’ll agree.) Various people duly turn up to be shuttled about by Collins, her assistant, and grizzled old boat captain Robert Lansing, and it gradually starts to feel like a conventional disaster movie, albeit one made on a punitively low budget with a cast of obscure and generally uncharismatic performers working with a pedestrian script.

A lot of horror and SF movies have to negotiate this kind of slow start and they generally do it by establishing the characters and building up atmosphere, or at least a sense of mystery. Empire of the Ants fumbles this (although I think the low budget may be at least partly to blame), which makes the opening section of the movie pretty hard going. I was rather put in mind of Frogs, another American International horror movie from a few years earlier which also concerns itself with nature getting stroppy while rich people squabble dully in the foreground.

However, this being a Bert I Gordon production (the man behind Beginning of the End, Earth Vs the Spider, The Amazing Colossal Man, War of the Colossal Beast, and other works in a similar vein), when Empire of the Ants finally kicks into gear it does so with an insane level of ambition for a low-budget film from the late 1970s. After various badly-done POV shots of compound eyes balefully watching the bickering potential investors, two of them wander off only to find themselves confronted by ants the size of horses with appetites to match. The ants themselves are realised by a mixture of composite shots mixing blown-up footage with the live actors, and – when some close-up mauling is required – giant ant puppets which are waggled in the direction of the cast.

The results are bad, but quite often not nearly as bad as you might be expecting, and the sheer guts of the film for attempting this kind of storytelling do deserve a grudging respect of sorts. In any case, I would say it’s still the case that the script and acting in this movie ends up letting down the special effects – though you should take that as more of a sign of just how awful the writing and performances are than any indication of genuine quality in the visual effects department.

Collins and the other survivors end up staggering through the jungle trying to reach a boat that will take them to safety, and at this point I did find an icy sense of horror beginning to consume me – not because the film was particularly frightening, but because I’d just looked at my watch and realised this sucker still had the best part of an hour to go.  However, the script has a bizarre left turn up its sleeve, which you might consider Exhibit B in defence of Empire of the Ants – it may be a terrible, trashy movie and an unrecognisable travesty of Wells, but it’s not entirely without some interesting ideas.

The investment party survivors pitch up in a small town not far from ant territory, where they tell their tale to the local sheriff (the ubiquitous character actor Albert Salmi) and the other townsfolk. They seem strangely unconcerned and tell them all to just calm down and relax. When they attempt to leave town under their own power, a police roadblock is in their path. The sheriff orders them dragged off to the local sugar refinery, which appears to be working flat-out.

Yes, here’s where all that opening guff about ant pheromones pays off: the queen ant of the giant brood has installed herself in a booth at the sugar refinery where she is spraying chemicals at the local people (they queue up obediently) which turn them into brainwashed slaves of the giant ants. The townspeople are producing sugar by the ton, which the giant ants turn up to munch several times a day. The ants have this in mind for Collins, Lansing and the others, of course.

Of course it doesn’t make sense in any coherent way, but it at least takes the film off in a new direction, and it sets up the conclusion – without going into details, there is a lot of running around and screaming and ant puppets on fire, and while a handful of our heroes manage to escape it is still not really clear what actually happens to Joan Collins (beyond her miraculously getting a second act to her career courtesy of Dynasty, of course). It’s a trashy ending to what’s essentially junk cinema – I suppose you could argue this is another of those cautionary tales about not messing with the environment, but that’s hardly touched upon throughout most of the story. Most of it has no moral premise or depth to it; it’s purely and simply about people running away from unconvincing giant ants.

There is surely a place in the world for stories about people running away from giant ants (convincing or otherwise). I like to think there is also a place for films which don’t let things like budget shortfalls or lack of special effects equipment get in the way of their storytelling. But Empire of the Ants is not really a great advertisement for any of these things. There is something undeniably impressive about the film’s uncompromising approach to a task for which is manifestly very poorly equipped. But that doesn’t mean the resulting movie is any less staggering to watch.

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