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Posts Tagged ‘1970s’

The reimagining of Westworld as a proper, mature, hide-granny’s-eyes TV series might, you would have thought, have ensured a little attention for the director of the original movie, but this has turned out not to be the case. Perhaps this is because the one of the creators of the new Westworld is Jonathan Nolan, a notable figure in his own right; perhaps the fact that Michael Crichton died nearly ten years ago may also be significant. Even so, it’s surely a shame – Crichton didn’t create the kind of books or films that get a lot of critical respect, but they’ve certainly had an impact on modern culture, and some of them were actually pretty good.

Of course, it helps if you have the right people involved, and in the history of film-making there have been few pairs of hands safer than that of Robert Wise, who directed the 1971 film version of Crichton’s novel The Andromeda Strain. It seems to me that some people dismiss Wise as just another studio journeyman, reliably knocking out the likes of The Sound of Music and West Side Story, but on their own terms, these are still exceptionally accomplished films. The Andromeda Strain was the second of Wise’s three SF movies, the others being The Day the Earth Stood Still and Star Trek: The Motion Picture (they are a peculiarly disparate trio).

The story opens with the team sent to retrieve a US satellite that has just returned to Earth discovering a silent, still small town in Arizona. Everyone there has dropped dead, apparently simultaneously – as the team discover in the very final moments of their own lives.

The government responds by activating a team of scientists prepared for just this contingency: the arrival on Earth of a lethal extraterrestrial pathogen. Two of them, Stone (Arthur Hill) and Hall (James Olson), venture into the dead town in spacesuits to locate the missing satellite, while Dutton (David Wayne) and Leavitt (Kate Read) proceed directly to the team’s secret facility beneath the Nevada desert.

Stone and Hall join them shortly, bringing with them two people who have inexplicably survived the alien pathogen – the town drunk and a small, understandably distressed child. Everyone proceeds to the lowest and most secure level of the base, while a strong recommendation is made that a nuclear weapon be used to obliterate the town and remove any chance of the infection spreading to more densely populated regions. Work gets underway on the process of locating, analysing, and neutralising the deadly agent, code-named Andromeda – the ultimate sanction being the presence in the base of another nuclear device, which will be used to sterilise the area if Andromeda shows any signs of escaping into the outside world…

When you watch The Andromeda Strain these days, you’re never very far away from a reminder that this is a film made in the early 1970s. That doesn’t mean it’s a bad film; far from it. But it is one very much of its era. Partly this is reflected in the way it is filmed and edited: Wise reveals a fondness for split-screen effects, which were briefly modish in the late 60s and early 70s. Mostly, though, the film is simply very obviously part of a whole lineage of rather grim American films from this period, all concerned with technology and existential threats to human existence. It’s second cousin to The Forbin Project, for instance, sharing that film’s preoccupation with underground facilities and the dubious wisdom of putting computers in charge of nukes. But, as I said, virtually every major studio SF film of the early 1970s was at least a little bit dystopian, and The Andromeda Strain comes off this way too.

The odd thing is that this isn’t really because of the threat of the Andromeda life-form itself, but a consequence of the antiseptic and inhuman environment the characters have created to contain it. The Wildfire project does not seem like a fun place to work – everyone there is po-faced, to say the least (although, with the exception of Kate Reid’s character, the whole movie is notably humourless). There’s something oddly conflicted about a film which, on the one hand, spends a huge amount of time fetishising the technology on display in it – waldos, computers, scanners, laser guns, and so on – but at the same time is obviously fundamentally disquieted by all of this gleaming, inhuman power.

(As a side note, it also occurs to me that The Andromeda Strain – if not the movie, then certainly the book – was surely a key influence on the British TV show Doomwatch, which I wrote about recently. The Andromeda Strain is marginally more SF, but both deal with teams of experts attempting to tackle unusual scientific threats to human life, with the emphasis much more on ideas and science than on the characters as people. Stone’s initial declaration that the town must be isolated and destroyed to prevent Andromeda from spreading recalls one episode of Doomwatch, but the smoking gun, surely, comes when the alien organism mutates into a form which eats plastic, causing a jet which encounters it to disintegrate in mid-air – suffice to say, the first episode of Doomwatch was entitled The Plastic Eaters and features jet planes having similar in-flight difficulties.)

Was Michael Crichton trying to make a serious point when he wrote the original novel, or was he just going for maximum verisimilitude by adopting such a down-to-earth tone? It’s hard to say, but The Andromeda Strain takes itself very seriously, even for an early 1970s SF movie. Wise later spoke of it having an almost documentary quality, which is helped by the fact it is filled with obscure character actors rather than movie stars. You have to keep your mind on the job while you’re watching it, too, given so much of it takes the form of actors playing scientists talking very earnestly to each other about matters of methodology, procedure, and their various hypotheses.

That said, of course, they have to produce a suitably exciting climax from somewhere, and The Andromeda Strain manages it rather neatly – not only does Andromeda eat its way through the plastic filters sealing the lowest level of the base, starting the countdown on the bomb, but the team realise that life-form is so alien that the nuclear blast will just provide it with an energy source that will let it multiply and infest the whole planet. Much scrambling up ladders and dodging automated laser guns ensues, as a desperate attempt to disarm the nuke is undertaken. In retrospect all of this seems more than a little bit contrived, but it does result in a genuinely tense and exciting conclusion to the film.

Even so, it’s not exactly an upbeat ending – not only has the gleaming apparatus of the installation come up short in several respects, mostly due to human frailty, but Stone admits to a government enquiry that there is no guarantee that any future incursions from space can be contained in this way. Still, this is pretty much par for the course, and in fact The Andromeda Strain is rather more cheerful than many of its contemporaries – Earth isn’t cracked open like an egg, or left a sterile industrial hell, or depopulated by a lethal virus. Maybe the movie makes the mistake of taking itself just a bit too seriously, but it’s still an impressively well-made, rather unusual SF film.

 

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‘…I only wanted to create a vision of a human encounter with something that certainly exists, in a mighty manner perhaps, but cannot be reduced to human concepts, ideas or images. This is why the book was entitled “Solaris” and not “Love in Outer Space“.’ – Stanislaw Lem

As someone growing up interested in SF and SF cinema, Andrei Tarkovsky’s Solaris, released in 1972, was one of the films I inevitably became aware of at a relatively young age. It is a film with a somewhat forbidding reputation – lengthy, subtitled, oblique, cerebral. It is a cliche to say that Solaris is the Soviet equivalent of 2001: A Space Odyssey, but there is some truth to that – but while 2001 is distinguished enough to have earned itself at least one prime-time showing on a major BBC network, the same was never going to happen with a nearly-three-hour-long Russian philosophical SF film. While I was growing up, Solaris was always banished to the outer darkness of small-hours screening on the minority channels – middle of the night stuff.

If you’d asked me if I’d ever seen Solaris, until recently I would have said no, definitely not. And yet, having finally watched it, I’m not sure that’s the case. I certainly hadn’t watched the whole thing, but there were definitely moments I recalled. Could it be that this is one of those movies I recorded but never got around to actually watching all the way through? (This certainly happened to Frequency and Dark City, to name but two.) You need to have a certain intellectual fortitude to launch yourself into Solaris for the first time, to say nothing of three hours’ uninterrupted access to the household TV.

Anyway – finally, Solaris. As is fairly common with allegorical SF movies, Solaris is set in a world which in some ways closely resembles our own even though it is clearly meant to be decades in the future. For many years a manned space station has orbited the alien world of Solaris. Solaris is covered by an immense ocean, which scientists have concluded may in fact be a single alien life-form, possibly a sentient one. However, reports from the station have become disturbingly nonsensical , and the future of the mission is in doubt. Psychologist Kris Kelvin (Donatas Banionis) is to be dispatched to Solaris to make a determination as to how to proceed – carry on as before, withdraw the mission, or attempt to get a response from the planet by bombarding it with heavy radiation.

But something strange seems to happen to people who visit Solaris – Kelvin encounters a former member of the mission, who seems a haunted man, speaking of seeing grotesque figures on the surface of the planet, representing people still on Earth. Nevertheless, Kelvin leaves his terrestrial existence behind and makes the journey to the station orbiting the alien world.

Only a handful of scientists remain there, and Kelvin is a little shocked to learn that one of them, a former acquaintance, has recently committed suicide. The others are acting weirdly, too. And there are others present, too, half-glimpsed individuals whose being on the station is inexplicable. And then Kelvin has a visitation of his own – a woman who seems to be his dead wife Hari (Natalya Bondarchuk), appearing just as he remembers her. Appalled, he ejects her from the station, only for her to reappear, just as before.

The truth becomes clear. The ‘guests’, as the mission personnel refer to them, emanate from Solaris in some unfathomable manner. The sentient ocean has the power to read the memories of the human observers and create replicas of the people therein – hence some of the oddities of their existence, and their near-immortality. But are they genuinely conscious entities or just shades created by the planet? Do they offer a hope of real communication with Solaris, or are they just a distraction? For Kelvin, consumed with guilt over the real Hari’s death, it definitely seems to be the latter…

Well, I hadn’t seen the Russian version of Solaris until quite recently, but I did have the pleasure of going to see the American version of the story, where I was the only person who hung in there until the end of the screening. Looking back at my review of Soderbergh’s Solaris, I am slightly embarrassed by my attempts to sound knowledgeable about Tarkovsky’s film, which of course I’d never seen at that point, not least because – well, despite my suggestion otherwise, one thing both versions of Solaris do have in common is their focus on the central relationship between Kelvin and Hari: both films are on some level love stories, but are they love stories between a man and a woman or a man and something completely alien?

This was what impelled Stanislaw Lem, author of the original novel, to make his somewhat astringent comments on the film versions – though apparently he hadn’t seen Soderbergh’s film at that point. Lem’s complaint was that the movies focused on the relationships at the expense of the novel’s philosophical and scientific ideas. Lem is one of the great, perhaps somewhat underrated SF writers, whose work I regret not being introduced to earlier in my life, but in this instance I’m not sure his objection is a reasonable one. The issue of contact with a truly alien form of life, and the question of how we might communicate with it, is a profound one, and some very fine films have been attempted on the subject – Arrival is an example, and arguably also 2001. But how do you put this on the screen in an intelligible form? Cinema is in a sense a superficial art form in a way that a book is not. Lem complained that the films reduce Solaris to little more than a mirror, reflecting the human characters, rather than it being something utterly beyond the realm of prior human existence. But how would you represent that cinematically, except by an almost totally abstract series of images? (I’m suddenly reminded of the original ending to Phase IV, a film not totally unlike Solaris in some ways.) When faced with something totally new and unknown, we inevitably project our own ideas onto it – I think the film-makers’ approach is certainly justified.

And it’s not as if the theme of the movie is particularly glib or simplistic – Solaris deals with topics such as memory, guilt, and the nature of what it means to be an individual human being – and if this is not the absolute essence of all real science fiction, then no such essence exists. This is still a challenging, thought-provoking movie, both in its themes and in its execution. There are clearly things going on here that are not immediately apparent – I don’t doubt that this is a film which gives up more and more layers of meaning with repeated viewing – there must surely be some significance to the shots of vegetation on the surface of a lake which virtually book-end the film, and some connection between them and the mesmerising images of the world-ocean of Solaris which punctuate the story. What, also, is the significance of a long sequence depicting a car ride through a futuristic city (in reality Tokyo), which concludes with a jump cut from a crowded urban landscape to a peaceful countryside scene? Is there some oblique meaning to this, or is it just the director drifting off on a tangent?

It’s difficult to be sure, but then perhaps this is part of what makes Solaris such a considerable film in every way. It is not an easy watch, I suspect, even if your Russian is much better than mine, but it is clearly a highly intelligent, highly influential film, with its own distinct identity. One to mull over and come back to again and again, I suspect.

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In the late 1970s and early 1980s you couldn’t move for hot young directors having a go at making SF and fantasy movies – George Lucas made the first of his stellar conflict movies, Spielberg made Close Encounters of the Third Kind, E.T., and Raiders of the Lost Ark, Paul Schrader made Cat People, John Milius made Conan the Barbarian, and Ridley Scott made Alien. Now some of these were a bit (or more than a bit) derivative, or adaptations of works in other media, but hardly any of them were straight remakes of earlier films. Perhaps this was because most films in this genre prior to only a few years prior to that point had been a little simplistic, not offering much potential to work with.

The exception, in both respects, is Invasion of the Body Snatchers, originally directed by Don Siegel in 1956 and remade by Philip Kaufman in 1978. Kaufman was later involved in the early stages of scripting Raiders of the Lost Ark, while this is (of course) one of the great immortal bankers of SF and horror cinema, with Jack Finney’s novel spawning four big-screen adaptations so far – the 1956, 1978, and 1993 movies all have their supporters, but on the other hand the 2007 film (retitled simply The Invasion and starring Nicole Kidman) was such a critical and popular failure that we may be waiting a good few years for another remake.

Kaufman’s take on Body Snatchers gets to the nub of the issue more quickly than most, opening with a sequence on a bleak alien world where strange, amorphous life-forms cluster and ripple, releasing tiny spores. We follow the spores as they drift through space, finally landing on Earth in the city of San Francisco. Here they colonise, or perhaps parasitise, the local plant life, producing tiny flowered pods.

One of the people so attracted to these new arrivals that they take them home is Elizabeth (Brooke Adams), a researcher with the city government. However, this proves to be a mistake, as very soon her boyfriend, previously laid-back and hedonistic, becomes inexplicably cold and stern. Understandably confused, Elizabeth tells her friend Matthew Bennell (Donald Sutherland), a public health inspector for the city. All Bennell can do, at first, is suggest she see a pop-psychiatrist friend of his (a rare non-Vulcan big-screen appearance for Leonard Nimoy).

But the weird phenomena seem to be spreading: casual acquaintances also report the sensation that friends and loved ones have been mysteriously replaced by imposters. Matthew and Elizabeth encounter an apparently-deranged man who warns them that ‘They’re here! You’re next!’ (this is Kevin McCarthy, reprising his role from the end of the original film – Don Siegel also makes a cameo appearance). And two of Bennell’s friends (Jeff Goldblum and Veronica Cartwright) discover something grotesquely resembling a half-formed human body – something that gradually seems to become more human as time passes.

Bennell and his friends realise that all the stories of mysterious imposters are not hallucinations – something from out of deep space has come to Earth, and is replacing human beings with emotionless duplicates that emerge from the pods. But can they persuade the authorities of the truth? And – even more disturbingly – who can they trust? The pod people are everywhere…

As I mentioned, this seems to be one of those endlessly flexible stories that each new generation of film-makers seems to be capable of taking on and reinterpreting (even if the film-makers of the 2000s made a bit of a hash of it). The original small-town setting, with its Red Scare subtext, is gracefully transformed into an equally resonant piece about big city angst and dysfunctional society.

Living in cities is stripping people of their empathy and emotion anyway, or so the film seems to suggest, and we are spending all our lives surrounded by strangers. Is it any wonder if people start to get a bit paranoid? The signs of an ongoing alien invasion are almost completely masked by the usual neuroses of urbanites. It’s never really made clear at what point Leonard Nimoy’s character is replaced by his duplicate, so it’s entirely possible his initial certainty that everyone’s concerns about the ‘imposters’ are misplaced is sincere. Of course, the flip side is that watching the movie you do become rather concerned that, if something like this were to actually happen, it does seem like it would be virtually unstoppable. This makes the film even creepier.

And it is a very creepy film. You can, of course, suggest that the film’s paranoia, and the byzantine uselessness of the government (it’s implied the pods may already have struck here), are both elements of a post-Watergate commentary on American society, but this also works superbly well as a horror movie in its own right – a subtle one, of course, very dependent on a superbly-evoked atmosphere of low-key unease. The unsettling discordant soundtrack is superb. Despite being second-cousin to a zombie film, the movie is relatively light on visual shocks and gore for most of its duration, although there is one very jarring moment when the characters encounter the product of a botched duplication, in the form of a dog with a human head. As well as being well-played, the film is superbly paced and highly intelligent – quite apart from its in-jokey references to Velikovsky (whose theories on the influence of cosmic events on human history seem very apposite), it’s the only movie I know that name-checks Olaf Stapledon’s criminally obscure Star-Maker.

Great though the 1956 movie is, it does seem very dated now, whereas Kaufman’s version still stands up extremely well – quite an achievement when you consider that it manages to incorporate virtually every key story beat of the original film, while arguably fixing a few flaws in the story (the mystery of what happens to the original people after their duplication is explained), along with completely changing the setting and subtext of the film. But then that’s the essential magic of Invasion of the Body Snatchers – we seem to be hard-wired for this kind of creeping paranoia. Do this story right and no matter where or when you set it, it provides a slow slide into nightmare like few others.

 

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It falls to very few people to single-handedly create a new subgenre, and fewer still to come up with one which goes on to dominate the media landscape for over a decade. And yet this was the main achievement of George A Romero, the writer and director who passed away last week. Romero was a film-maker who dabbled in the studio system, amongst other things working on North by Northwest as a teenager (along with the great Martin Landau, also recently departed), but he is best known for the films he made working independently. While his filmography does contain oddities like the 1981 movie Knightriders (essentially a drama about the death of the hippy dream), Romero is – of course – best known as a director of horror movies.

He did a movie about a vampire, a movie about a coven of witches, and a movie about a homicidal assistance monkey, but George A Romero’s reputation really rests upon the movies he made about zombies. Other people had made zombie movies before Romero came along and unleashed Night of the Living Dead on the world in 1968, but it was he who conceived of the notion of the zombie apocalypse as we currently know it – inspired, apparently, by both I Am Legend and the Hammer horror film The Plague of the Zombies. Romero was fond of the zombopocalypse as it was both cost-effective (a boon to the cash-strapped independent film-maker) and offered great potential for social satire, but it has proven to be an almost endlessly flexible form in the hands of other creators. Since the release of 28 Days Later in 2002 (itself a mash-up of the classic Romero formula with John Wyndham’s Day of the Triffids) the zombopocalypse has basically conquered the world, with endless riffs and variations on the basic idea of an unstoppable tide of walking corpses. Romero was able to finance his final three films, Land…, Diary…, and Survival of the Dead simply because his ideas finally seemed to have wide commercial appeal.

It is, however, his earlier movies that show Romero’s talent at its most effective and inspired. Night of the Living Dead may have invented the modern zombie movie, but it was the 1978 sequel Dawn of the Dead that elevated it to the realms of something truly special. This is one of those virtually perfect movies that shows you don’t need big bucks to create magic – you just need a helicopter, a pile of guns, a van full of zombie make-up, several tanker-trucks full of fake blood, and free access to a massive out-of-town shopping mall.

Dawn of the Dead opens with a character waking from a nightmare, and the audience being plunged into one. The recently dead have begun rising and attacking the living (the cause of this appears to be viral in nature), and society is beginning to disintegrate as the situation spins out of control. Everyone can see which way this is heading, and the issue of personal survival is becoming paramount. Two TV news employees, Fran (Gaylen Ross) and Stephen (David Emge), team up with a couple of cops, Roger (Scott Reiniger) and Peter (Ken Foree), and together they flee the city of Philadelphia in the TV network’s helicopter.

Seeing the country descending into anarchy and with zombies seemingly everywhere, the quartet take refuge in a huge shopping mall (in reality the Monroeville Mall, in Pennsylvania). Although this is initially intended as only a rest stop, Peter realises the mall constitutes a huge stockpile of resources that could potentially help them survive for a very long time. All they have to do is secure the huge building against the encroaching undead swarms, kill the creatures already inside, and be prepared to defend it against the human marauders who are already appearing now civilisation is beginning to collapse…

George Romero was wont to lament that several of his earlier films were victims of what he called ‘undercapitalisation’ – i.e., a shortage of money – but this is not a criticism you could sensibly direct at Dawn of the Dead. For a film made for only about a million and a half dollars, this is a movie with a real scope and epic feeling to it, with some huge action set pieces sprinkled through it. There have been many films made about the end of the world and the collapse of society, but none of them depict the actual break-up of civilisation with the same sense of immediacy and realism as this one. The opening scenes set the tone – there is chaos at the TV station, no-one seems to know what’s happening, useless information is being broadcast just to keep the viewing figures up, while outside, rogue police are running out of control and the authorities are engaged in pitched battles with their own citizens. You instantly sense that we are sliding past the point of no return.

The director continues to orchestrate the movie with the same confidence as the story proper gets going – an ominous journey across zombie America, the introduction of the mall as the central location, the various escapades of the characters as they explore it. And then a deft change of mood – no sooner have they begun to take control of the place than the mood changes to a more sombre and brooding one, before picking up pace ahead of a typically ambiguous conclusion (the scripted ending had all the surviving characters commit suicide in various ways, but the one in the movie is surely better – still far from upbeat, but not without a tiny glimmering of hope for the future). Romero barely puts a foot wrong in his handling of character, pacing, and action – the only significant issue with the movie is some of the stock music cues which it employs. The electronic soundtrack itself (provided by Italian horror director Dario Argento and the group Goblin) is terrific, though.

What really makes the film exceptional is the way in which it effortlessly marries remarkable wit, intelligence, and black humour with a palpable delight in astoundingly graphic and gory violence. Romero serves notice early on with the notorious moment where a nameless character has his head literally blown off by a shotgun, and continues with a series of legendary gags involving helicopter rotor blades, screwdrivers, machetes, and lots and lots of entrails. At the same time the film is razor sharp in its commentary on what is really causing all the problems – the zombies are really a secondary menace, compared to the selfishness, distrust, and acquisitiveness displayed by virtually all the human characters – Peter and the others are very open about their willingness to lie and steal in order to get what they want, and the film is bookended by battles not between the living and the dead, but between human groups with differing agendas.

Most of the obituaries of George Romero identified him as one of the great satirists of modern cinema, and I think that would have gratified him. Certainly this is his most celebrated and effective comment on modern life, perhaps even more relevent now than it was in 1978. The zombies shuffling mindlessly round the mall are there because it ‘was an important place in their lives’. Some dim memory persists. The main characters are likewise unable to accept that in their new world, material possessions will be rather less valuable – ‘Let’s just get the stuff we need! I’ll get a television and a radio!’ cries Peter, drawing a reply of ‘Ooooh, lighter fluid! And chocolate!’ from Roger. It is the characters’ own acquisitiveness and greed that menaces them, as much as the walking dead outside. We are the zombies – that was Romero’s message in this film. In a very real sense, we are our own worst enemy. To call this the greatest zombie movie of all time is accurate, but still considerably understates the scale of George Romero’s achievement in it.

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If you were going to nominate someone as the exemplar of the Great Cult Movie Director, you could do a lot worse than choose John Carpenter, I would suggest. This is not to suggest that Carpenter never had any kind of mainstream career, or indeed commercial success, but if you make a list of all his best films – including, I would suggest, The Thing, Escape from New York, Halloween, The Fog, Assault on Precinct 13, They Live, the list goes on and on – they are all cult favourites. That’s a Moviedrome season right there, in fact, perhaps a little heavy on the SF and horror, but those are the genres in which Carpenter routinely worked his particular magic.

As I’ve said before, the thing about John Carpenter’s career is that you have seven or eight really good years at the start, and then things start to go increasingly wrong as time goes by – of the films mentioned above, only They Live was made after 1982. Were it not for the fact that one of his very best movies, The Thing, came out in that year, you might even suggest that the law of diminishing returns was in effect right from the very start.

Carpenter’s first fully professional movie was the original version of Assault on Precinct 13, in 1976, but two years earlier he managed the notable achievement of getting a project he started as a student film released in theatres. The film in question is Dark Star, which in its final version is basically a combination of SF spoof and stoner comedy.

The film follows the mission of the Earth scoutship Dark Star, on its mission to prepare the galaxy for human colonisation. It does this by blowing up potentially hazardous planets with enormously destructive artificially-intelligent bombs. The mission has been in progress for twenty years (it’s suggested this may be on Earth, with relativistic dilation meaning the crew has experienced much less elapsed time), and time has taken its toll on things – the original commander has been killed in an accident with a faulty chair, leaving the reluctant Doolittle (Brian Narelle) in charge, there have been various other system failures, and the ship’s entire supply of toilet paper has self-destructed.

The wonders of space and the possibilities of the infinite universe no longer hold any appeal for the crew – ‘Don’t give me any of that intelligent life crap, just give me something I can blow up,’ snaps Doolittle, when informed of the possibility of non-human civilisations in their vicinity. Instead the crew bury themselves in obsessive pastimes. Even the alien creature they have brought on board to boost morale has become not much more than an extremely annoying nuisance.

Things start to come to a head when, en route to another bomb delivery, the ship is further damaged and the detonation sequence for one of the AI bombs is started by mistake. The bomb itself does not take kindly to constantly being ordered to power up and then stand down, and decides that it’s not going to be messed about any more like this…

Dark Star was made in the early 70s and eventually released in 1974, following the addition of extra footage to bring it up to feature length. It surely goes without saying that at the time, the SF genre was still overwhelmingly influenced by Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey – most films, whether consciously or not, were either trying to emulate it or reacting against it. Dark Star is obviously in the latter camp, and intentionally so – the film’s poster suggests it is ‘the spaced out odyssey’. Certainly the way in which the main plot (for want of a better word) is resolved by an epistemological discussion between an astronaut and a talking bomb feels very much like a parody of the cerebral concerns shot through the Kubrick film.

That said, Dark Star itself turned out to be a hugely influential film in its own right, thanks not just to Carpenter but his main collaborator on the film, Dan O’Bannon (O’Bannon plays the luckless crewman Pinback, in addition to co-writing the script, doing the special effects, and providing various additional voices). If Dark Star ultimately feels like a slightly atypical Carpenter movie – he’s not noted for making flat-out comedies, and it doesn’t have the synth score you’d expect either, but a rather catchy country and western number as its main theme – then it’s almost certainly down to O’Bannon’s contribution.

O’Bannon was hired off the back of Dark Star to do computer animation on George Lucas’ first stellar conflict movie, but rather more significant was another film directly inspired by Dark Star. In the centre of the movie is a long and improbably amusing sequence in which Pinback is tormented by the ship’s alien mascot (the creature is cost-effectively realised using an inflatable beach-ball and a pair of flippers), which lures him down various air and elevator shafts. Audience response was somewhat muted, and it occurred to O’Bannon that there was the basis for a serious film here. Five years later, Alien was released, co-written by O’Bannon, and you can see Dark Star was a huge influence – the shabby, blue-collar astronauts of the Nostromo are a less eccentric version of the Dark Star‘s crew, and the two useless computers in the films could be identical.

Not that it’s only Alien which owes this film a huge debt – any film which suggests space is simply a dull or dangerous place to work is operating in the Dark Star tradition. Is it stretching a point to suggest that the ‘used galaxy’ aesthetic which is so central to the look and feel of Lucas’ stellar conflict films was also taken from this movie? Whatever your thoughts on that, it’s very difficult not to see the long-running sitcom Red Dwarf as simply Dark Star retooled as a TV show – it has bored, slovenly crewmembers, less than helpful AIs, a dead crew member as a key character, and a ridiculous ship’s ‘pet’. It’s not even as if they try that hard to hide it – a red dwarf is a dark star, after all.

For a new viewer today, Dark Star is not quite the polished production one might expect from a contemporary SF movie, simply because it is ultimately a student movie given a cash injection – ‘the world’s most impressive student film… became the world’s least impressive professional film’ O’Bannon somewhat ruefully observed, many years later. It does look primitive, and the fact that none of the performers involved went on to have any real acting career afterwards should tell you something. But the film is still funny and charming, in an offbeat way – almost certainly still worth watching on its own merits, and absolutely worth watching as an enormously influential film in the history of the SF genre.

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It was late in the Earth Year 1979 (or possibly early 1980) and my father announced that he was taking me to the cinema. This was unusual enough to be noteworthy, but to my father’s credit, most of the films I remember him taking me to without my having to ask were generally pretty good – the first couple of Christopher Reeve Superman movies, for instance. On this occasion, I remember hanging around outside a Blackpool seafront cinema for a bit on a rainy day (there may have been a queue), and then taking our seats to enjoy the latest movie by Robert Wise, a man who I have since come to regard as one of Hollywood’s greatest directors. The good news was that Wise was helming a lavish and ambitious epic SF movie. The bad news was that it eventually turned out to be Star Trek: The Motion Picture.

I found the movie somewhat baffling, but my father’s dissatisfaction was both palpable and loud. Ever since that day, TMP has had a toxic reputation in our house for being long, slow, boring, and dry, and it’s a view I suppose I automatically stuck with myself for many years. Not that we were alone, of course: I suspect the received wisdom that ‘odd numbered Trek films are no good’ is largely the result of TMP‘s perceived flaws.

Of course, the movie has picked up its defenders in the meanwhile – ‘much to enjoy,’ says the Encyclopedia of SF, noting that the subsequent movies are a ‘sentimental mishmash’ whose popularity is ‘mystifying’. Well, I’m not sure I’d go that far, but I think that if you look more closely at TMP you can see most of its problems arise from a clash between very different agendas and creative sensibilities. Is to understand really to forgive? I’ve never been completely convinced, but it can’t hurt.

Two and a half years have passed since the return of the Enterprise from its original mission (or so it is strongly implied). Kirk (William Shatner) has been promoted to the Admiralty, Spock (Leonard Nimoy) has gone into retreat and is attempting to join the Vulcan Logic Club, McCoy (DeForest Kelley) has retired from Starfleet, Scotty (Jimmy Doohan) has been busy rebuilding the ship, and so on. Then an alien object of incredible power appears, on a direct course for Earth – despite the Federation becoming aware of it while it’s still on the other side of the Klingon border, the only ship that can be scrambled to intercept it is the Enterprise, which suggests to me that Starfleet need to start building a lot more vessels.

Well, Kirk decides to lead the mission himself, royally ticking off the Enterprise‘s new captain, Decker (Stephen Collins), and gets the old gang back together for this crucially important mission. Can they rediscover that old chemistry before the whole planet is toast?

The first thing to be said about TMP is that it was, after all, directed by Robert Wise, he of The Day the Earth Stood Still and West Side Story fame, and he really does seem to have been trying to make a proper SF movie. The movie has a scope and a willingness to visually innovate that you don’t really find in the rest of the series, and there are some wonderful sequences – the opening battle between the alien probe and the Klingons being one of them, although I do recall being thrown by this at the time – while this sequence played a huge role in reimagining the Klingons for the 1980s and beyond, it’s only in retrospect that we are aware of this.

Of course, Wise’s own ambition, coupled to the unorthodox way in which this film was made, trips him up just as often. The special effects sequences for this movie were completed heart-stoppingly late and could not be re-edited or modified in any way before being inserted into the final print, and the result is sequences like Kirk’s trip to the Enterprise in spacedock via a cargo pod: this takes nearly five minutes, with no dialogue, just long, slow shots of the Enterprise, Kirk looking lovingly at it, the pod slowly flying past the Enterprise a bit more, Scotty looking with indulgent fondness at Kirk, more long, slow, shots of the Enterprise… the music is not too bad, but you inevitably start huffing and looking at your watch. Elsewhere, like many other ‘serious’ 70s films, the yardstick is obviously 2001: A Space Odyssey, with journeys into the heart of the alien probe obviously designed to recall the star gate sequence from Kubrick’s film.

On the other hand, you wonder how much of the pseudo-mysticism and laborious philosophy in this movie has been put there by its producer and co-writer, Gene Roddenberry. Roddenberry by this point was keen to be viewed as some kind of visionary thinker as well as a TV and movie writer-producer, and this is perhaps why, every time he got his hands on Star Trek after the cancellation of the original TV show, he was very keen to impose his vision of the future on it, in an unadulterated form. So much of the life and lightness and wit of the TV series came from the work of writers like DC Fontana and Gene L Coon; you can draw a fairly solid line from The Cage (Roddenberry’s original pilot for the show) to TMP and then on to early episodes of Next Generation – none of these are light and zippy entertainment, all of them feature main characters who (initially at least) are best described as ‘stolid’, and the first two take place largely in shades of grey and brown – one wonders if the maroon command uniforms in Next Generation are only there to suggest continuity with the similar hues on display in the movies around that time.

These days it is well-known that TMP was, for part of its tortuous development process, intended to be the introductory episode of a TV series to be entitled Star Trek: Phase II, in which Kirk and a mixture of old and new characters (not including Spock) would set off on a series of new adventures. If you ask me, many of the problems with TMP become much more comprehensible if you consider that this was originally intended to be a TV pilot rather than a feature film.

For one thing, the key characters of the movie are not really recognisable – Kirk starts off driven and chilly, and only very gradually starts to warm up and become a sympathetic hero as Spock and McCoy slot into place around him. Spock himself is distant and conflicted for most of the movie. Only at the end of the story, in the concluding tag scene on the bridge, do the trio seem to have rediscovered the chemistry which made them so magical in the TV show. This would make perfect sense in the pilot for a new weekly TV show – the story shows them getting back together and remembering who they are, preparatory to further adventures in the rest of the series – but in a one-off movie, not having characters more identifiable from the original show is a serious misjudgement. Needless to say, Decker and new navigator Ilia (Persis Khambatta) were also intended to be regulars in Phase II; Roddenberry appears to have been very attached to these characters and their relationship, seeing as he gave them the lightest of reworkings and stuck them in Next Generation under the new names of Riker and Troi.

Much of the creative DNA of The Motion Picture comes from its origins as a TV pilot, while the cinematic ambition of Robert Wise is a competing, rival influence. (I suppose we must also mention the way in which the movie recycles plots and ideas from TV series episodes, too, particularly The Changeling, though this is probably more an issue for your hard-core Trekkies than the average viewer.) No wonder it is a bit of a mess in may ways. Parts of it feel like the lavish, thoughtful movie it was clearly intended to be; other parts of it feel like a bad TV show. The main difficulty is that very little of it actually feels like original Star Trek, and that’s an immense problem for this kind of movie.

 

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I’m always on the lookout for a chance to do something new and innovative on the blog, not to mention a chance to showcase my freakish ability to identify obscure actors in minor roles. And so, hot on the heels of our look at Lust for a Vampire, featuring David Healy in the small but relatively important role of Raymond Pelley (aka Angry Father of Early Victim), I thought we would move on and examine another Healy movie from 1971 – Guy Hamilton’s Diamonds are Forever, in which the actor treats us to his take on Vandenberg Launch Director (an uncredited performance). (Other movies featuring the work of Mr Healy which are reviewed on this blog include You Only Live Twice, Phase IV, and The Ninth Configuration.)

Oh, who am I kidding, it’s just a coincidence (I’m still quite proud to have spotted him though). When you’ve spent nearly seven years reviewing virtually the entire canon of Eon Bond movies, you do start to run out of ways to start them off, but as this is the very last vintage Bond to cross off my list, that’s one problem I probably won’t have to worry about much in future.

Diamonds are Forever is one where Connery came back, for an enormous fee and for one film only, after an arguably rather overconfident George Lazenby decided not to stick around in the part. Fleming’s original novel provides about a third of what happens on screen, as Bond finds himself mixed up in diamond (well, duh) smuggling in Las Vegas, taking on sundry gangsters including the gay hitmen Wint and Kidd. Fairly soon, however, it all mutates into much more standard Bond movie fare, to wit Bond Plot 2: evil mastermind has nefarious scheme involving satellite-based superweapon. Other points of interest include the scene where Q uses his talents to defraud a casino, the one where Blofeld (Charles Gray) dresses up as a woman, and the one where Natalie Wood’s kid sister gets thrown out of a hotel window in her pants.

In the past I have commented on how the addition of SPECTRE and Blofeld to films based on books in which they did not appear often resulted in the improvement of the story. I’m not sure the same can be said in this case; while the presence of Blofeld in this movie was probably inevitable given how the previous one ended, all that results is a fairly bland piece of by-the-numbers Bond – the boxes of the formula get dutifully ticked, but not much new gets added to the recipe.

You could view Diamonds are Forever as the conclusion of the first phase of Bond movies, which nearly all concern themselves with Connery’s Bond taking on SPECTRE in various ways. From being virtually ever-present in the early films, neither SPECTRE nor Blofeld would really feature again for over forty years after this point, and I have to say that while this may have been forced on the film-makers for legal reasons, making most of the Roger Moore movies standalones with new villains does give them more variety and life. I’m always much more entertained by the blaxploitation or chop-socky stylings of the early Moore films than by anything in Diamonds are Forever.

One way in which Diamonds are Forever does set a precedent for the rest of the series is that it establishes that it is perfectly acceptable for Bond to be an older gentleman. Connery was in his early 40s by this point, and the part wasn’t played by anyone younger than this until the advent of Craig (who was only a couple of years shy of 40). Fleming’s Bond is said to be 37 at one point in an early novel, so it’s not as if this is wildly at odds with the source material. Quite what one should make of Connery’s performance here is another matter – as someone pretending to be a smuggler, he certainly has the ‘smug’ part down pat. One never gets the impression that Sean Connery has a problem with a lack of self-belief, and in this film he’s practically a battering ram of entitled self-satisfaction.

This is not especially good news for a film which has an odd tonal problem – there’s some quite hard-edged violence at a couple of points (there are sequences which trouble the TV censors more than most older Bond films), but coupled to a slightly camp tone. All the Bond films are essentially masculine wish-fulfilment fantasies, but it somehow feels more obvious here than in many other cases, and in a particularly unappealing and slightly sleazy way. Connery gets the dodgy ‘collar and cuffs’ gag (to be honest, I’m not sure he or Blofeld has an interaction with a woman in this film which isn’t basically patronising, although Bond is pretty patronising to most of the men, too), and there’s the very dated and frankly dubious (if not outright offensive) material with Wint and Kidd to consider as well.

One of the dated elements of the movie which occasionally draws attention is the rather peculiar sequence in which Bond, having infiltrated the enemy base, discovers what appears to be the filming of a fake moon landing in progress. This was 1971, after all, when the Apollo programme was an ongoing thing, and it has been suggested that this is a not terribly deeply coded signal as to what was really going on at the time. Quite how Eon got wind of the lunar hoaxes and why they decided to blow the gaffe in this slightly oblique way is never really adequately explained, though.

It would be nice to find more genuinely positive things to say about Diamonds are Forever – I suppose I’ve always enjoyed Charles Gray’s performance, and the theme song is good too. In the end, though, this is Bond as an almost totally mechanical, formulaic spectacle, and entirely lacking in the lightness of touch and charm which the best films of the series possess. A bit of a disappointment however you look at it.

 

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