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Posts Tagged ‘1980s’

As you grow older and wiser, you kind of reach a point where you believe that you will never find yourself intentionally sitting down to watch Star Trek V: The Final Frontier ever again. But clearly this moment has not quite yet arrived. Look at that, two sentences in and I’m already putting the boot into the movie – but then few movies seem to be quite as eminently bootable as Star Trek V. Certainly, the first time you see it, it doesn’t just come across as a bad film, it seems almost bafflingly, inexplicably bad.

I remember my own first contact with Star Trek V. It was the Earth Year 1989 and this was the first Trek film I went to see with friends rather than family. It was the Monday afternoon showing on the first dy of the Autumn half-term break. Three or four months had gone by since the film’s US release (believe it or not, this was extremely common at the time, young ones), and yet I seem to recall very few plot details had crossed the Atlantic – I don’t even recall having seen a trailer. So we settled down in the cinema, only marginally distracted by the presence some seats along and a row back of a girl I had been trying to impress for some weeks (the smallest member of our party was despatched to offer popcorn and other sweeties as propitiatory gifts until she told us to stop it). Well, the movie rolled, our excitement fizzled away, and at the end, subdued, we separated and wandered off into the rush-hour traffic in search of our buses. Possibly my most vivid memory of the whole afternoon is of something that happened at the bus stop: a somewhat frazzled-looking father was there with his bemused young son (telltale signs, I now realise, of recent exposure to Star Trek V). My ears pricked up as I heard their conversation.

(Plaintive incomprehension.) ‘Daddy, I don’t understand. I thought God was supposed to be a goodie?’

(A terrible weariness.) ‘Well, yes, but that wasn’t God, was it? Because God wouldn’t have tried to kill Captain Kirk.’

There are obviously things wrong with Star Trek V, but it is perhaps its contribution to the field of theology which makes it such a problematic film. Certainly its start is, well, not too bad. We open on the wasteland planet of Nimbus III, in the Neutral Zone between the major space powers, where everyone seems to be having a fairly miserable time. Fertile soil for interstellar cult leader, Vulcan revolutionary, and previously unmentioned long-lost brother Sybok (Laurence Luckinbill) to gather a following, then. Sybok takes over Nimbus III and captures the ambassadors posted there.

Well, for once it isn’t quite the case that Starfleet doesn’t have any other ships in the area, but the admiralty reach the conclusion that a fully-functional ship with an experienced crew is not what the situation requires. A ship which is falling to bits, crewed by new and untested personnel, is a much better bet, just as long as the ship is commanded by James T Kirk! (You can tell that William Shatner wrote the story for this film himself, can’t you?) Shore leave is cancelled and the Enterprise warps off to Nimbus III in an attempt to get there ahead of some angry Klingons.

Well, Sybok proves a tricky fish to land, and succeeds in swaying the Enterprise crew to his cause. He reveals his true intent – he has had a vision of the fabled planet of Seanconnery (well, not quite, but the in-joke becomes blatant once you’re aware of it), at the heart of the galaxy, where resides the infinite wisdom of the Almighty and perhaps even God Himself…

The problems with Star Trek V surely started with the lawyers, back in the 1960s. William Shatner and Leonard Nimoy struck a deal where they had a ‘favoured nation’ clause inserted into their Star Trek contracts, basically meaning that whenever Shatner got a pay rise or a bigger trailer, Nimoy automatically got one as well, and vice versa. So, when Nimoy was given the opportunity to direct a Star Trek movie, the producers were legally obligated to give Shatner a go, too, regardless of whether they thought it was in any way a good idea or not. It is safe to say that not everyone on the production was overjoyed at the news – George Takei’s response, on hearing the tidings, was a cry of ‘Oh, God! What are we going to do?!?’ (although to be fair he apparently found the experience of being directed by the Shat less gruelling than expected).

A lot of what’s wrong with Star Trek V boils down to Shatner’s original vision of the Enterprise going in search of God and having various encounters with spiritual beings – it seems like everyone he spoke to about this told him in no uncertain terms that this was a terrible premise for a movie, hence its slight modification in the final version (Shatner still seems pretty insistent that if he’d been permitted to make his original idea, rather than a film compromised by studio demands, budget requirements, fractious co-stars, and so on, it would have been much better – you have to admire the guy’s cojones, if nothing else).

So we can blame Shatner for the flawed central premise of the movie (and also for the casting the great David Warner and then giving him virtually nothing to do), but in the interests of fairness we should also consider the fact that culpability also lies with other people. If you look at the history of the Star Trek film franchise, it’s hard not to come away with the impression that Paramount Pictures viewed the series solely in terms of its money-making potential, with most of their decisions intended to maximise box office while reducing costs.

That policy really starts to bite here – this is a notably cheap-looking film with flat cinematography, and painfully primitive special effects – ILM were booked up doing Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade and Ghostbusters II that year, forcing the production to engage a cheaper effects house. The climax had to be completely reshot when the initial monster suit just didn’t work. And, perhaps more insidiously, Paramount concluded that the huge take of Star Trek IV was down to it being full of jokes, with the result that this film is, too, regardless of whether they’re tonally appropriate or in character – hence the utter, wince-inducing wrongness of those scenes where Scotty knocks himself out by walking into a bulkhead, Sulu and Chekov get lost on a hiking trip, and Uhura does a fan dance (the main troika emerge more or less unscathed, and director Shatner ensures actor Shatner’s gravitas remains uncompromised throughout).

But, what the hell, it’s not as if Shatner gets everything wrong – for one thing, he hires Jerry Goldsmith to do the soundtrack, so that’s pretty good. There’s a new take on the Klingon music, and the main theme from The Motion Picture returns (although this may have been a branding decision, given The Next Generation had been running for a year or two when this film came out). And, the character scenes with Kirk, Spock, and McCoy together do work – much better than most of those in The Motion Picture, if we’re honest.

Nevertheless, few films are as actively loathed as this one – never mind the movie’s impressive haul at the Golden Raspberry Awards, Gene Roddenberry himself announced parts of it had to be considered ‘apocryphal’, and at least one officially-licensed book has announced these events never actually happened (what we are seeing is an in-universe film made by aliens from the Roman planet in Bread and Circuses, which is why the characterisations are a bit off, not to mention some of the laws of physics). Perhaps it just reflects our somewhat ambiguous attitude towards Shatner himself these days.

Given the combination of 1989’s heavyweight summer release schedule (Batman, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, Ghostbusters II, License to Kill, Lethal Weapon 2, amongst others) and the fact that Star Trek was back on TV, Star Trek V would have to have been something pretty special in order to cut through and achieve the same kind of success as previous entries. If it is special, then that’s not in a good way, but you can’t lay all the blame on William Shatner. A good-sized chunk of it, maybe. But not all of it.

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I trust I am not revealing too many secrets of the scrivener’s craft if I briefly tweak the curtain aside and reveal that some things are easier to write than others. Give me something truly awful, misconceived, or objectionable to review, and I am as happy as can be; the thing about Hampstead practically wrote itself. Something a bit more indifferent – or, even worse, boring – and it can be quite hard work getting my thoughts in order, or even finding enough to say. Worst of all can be writing about something which seems really good, or which I really like (not always the same thing, of course) – how to avoid just a string of ‘this bit is really good… this bit is also really good… this bit is really good too’?

I mention all this because we are about to look at Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home, which was for quite a few years my favourite of the series (since displaced by The Wrath of Khan), and which remains to this day not just my father’s favourite Star Trek movie but almost certainly his favourite science-fiction film, full stop (his absolute favourite film of any kind may be The Muppet Christmas Carol, which he will happily sit down to watch on a broiling August afternoon). ‘The one with the whales’ is how it is known in my parents’ house, which is as good a description as any, I suppose.

Nevertheless I feel it is incumbent upon me to look at Star Trek IV with a slightly more objective eye than I have customarily done in the past, hopefully not just to be critical for its own sake, but to see what makes this film so distinctive and a bit of a landmark for the series.

This movie was released in 1986 and, like its predecessor, was directed by Leonard Nimoy. To be honest, it gets off to a slightly rattly start: the action opens a few months after the end of Star Trek III, and finds an alien probe of immense power heading directly for Earth (again), swatting aside all resistance and generally causing consternation and outright panic. On Earth, the Klingon Ambassador is demanding Kirk’s extradition for crimes against the Empire (this is a decent scene, but it doesn’t really have anything to do with the rest of the movie). Kirk (William Shatner) and the rest of the gang are still holed up on Vulcan (or possibly, to judge from the hats, in Tibet) getting ready to fly home in their captured Klingon vessel, because apparently Starfleet can’t send a ship to Vulcan to collect them.

(Hmmm. I mean, hmmm. In four out of the first five Star Trek movies, the plot is driven by the fact that Starfleet ‘doesn’t have any other ships in the area’. Just how big a fleet is this? Exactly how enormous is Federation territory, if Starfleet is always spread so thin? It compares very oddly with latter episodes of Deep Space 9, admittedly set about a century later, in which dozens of Starfleet ships routinely appear.)

Oh well. Spock (Leonard Nimoy) is almost back to his old self, though perhaps a little flakey (and Harve Bennett, who wrote this section of the film, appears to be under the impression that pure-blood Vulcans don’t have emotions at all, rather than exercising control over them). Nevertheless he decides to go back to Earth with everyone else. Inevitably, news of the probe’s attack on Earth causes a change of plan. (Apparently Leningrad is back on the maps in the late 23rd century – maybe all those complaints that the Federation is a communist superstate are true.) Spock figures out that the alien probe is trying to talk to humpback whales (the Klingon ship’s databanks are remarkably detailed when it comes to Terran marine biology), which were wiped out centuries earlier, and comes up with a somewhat outlandish plan.

You’re proposing that we go backwards in time, find humpback whales, then bring them foward in time, drop ’em off, and hope to Hell they tell this probe what to do with itself! That’s crazy!’ cries Dr McCoy (DeForest Kelley). Nevertheless, that’s what the script has been setting up (in its own, somewhat contrived way) and so back they zap to San Francisco in the mid 1980s. Save the whales – save the planet!

The meat and heart of the film is the visit to the present day by Kirk and the gang. As you might expect, the general tone is rather comic, with various scenes of the Trek regulars being baffled by public transport, profanity, the attitudes of the locals, and so on. The 20th century portion of the film is written by Nicholas Meyer, who had form with this sort of thing, having written Time After Time, another time-travel adventure story set in contemporary San Francisco, a few years earlier.

Apparently the general intention from the start was to ‘do something nice’, and the decision to play much of the film for laughs may well have been influenced by the fact that for part of its development, this film was going to star Eddie Murphy alongside the Star Trek regulars. Quite why this never happened is a little unclear – some sources indicate Murphy wanted to play a Starfleet officer or an alien, others suggest that the studio realised that releasing a Star Trek film and an Eddie Murphy film would be more profitable than a single movie combining of the two brands. In the end the Murphy character ended up being re-gendered and played by Catherine Hicks, who does as well as anyone in the thankless role of Trek movie guest character/love interest.

Much of what goes on is genuinely funny, even today, with everyone involved clearly having a – hmmm – whale of a time (well, George Takei was apparently distraught when an uncooperative child actor meant his big scene in the movie had to be abandoned). The movie continues the trend, which began in the previous film, for Star Trek to now be specifically focused on these seven characters as a group, rather than Kirk and Spock, or the voyages of the Enterprise. And it works well, even if Meyer arguably pushes it in search of the laughs he’s clearly going for. The crew’s familiarity with 20th century idiomatic English is preposterously selective, given that’s basically what they’ve been speaking for the previous three movies and seventy-odd TV episodes – although I suppose most of the jokes are at the expense of the slightly-addled Spock (Chekov is still slightly too much of a dipstick to be credible). The problem, of course, turned out to be that the studio got the impression that cramming jokes into their Star Trek movies was a sure-fire boost for their box office, which would prove to be bad news for Star Treks V and VI.

In the end the film is so good-natured and funny, and its general message about saving the whale so unexceptionable, that it would take a titanic effort of will not to cut the film some slack and enjoy it on its own terms. (Even if the music, by Leonard Rosenman, is not even close to James Horner’s standards.) And there is a pleasing sense of the world returning to its proper state at the ending, with Captain Kirk back on the bridge, his friends around him, new adventures awaiting a new Enterprise.

Of course, new adventures were awaiting a new Enterprise, only not this one, and not for this crew. It was a few weeks before the release of Star Trek IV that Paramount announced the production of what would eventually become Star Trek: The Next Generation, the long-term popularity of the series now seemingly proven (and, apparently, a new crew of unknown actors being a more appealing prospect than the ever-more-expensive Shatner and Nimoy). The next six films in the series would all be released into a world in which Star Trek was back on TV, and perhaps it’s no surprise that they feel less cinematic, more narratively constrained, than the first three or four films in the series. I still feel that II, III, and IV are the highpoint of the Trek movie series, simply because they are Star Trek when it manages to be very true to itself, and yet also truly cinematic. The Voyage Home may be the most indulgent and soft-centred of any of them, but that doesn’t make it any less likeable.

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We have previously touched upon the received wisdom of the ‘curse’ of the odd-numbered Star Trek films and the extent to which this colours people’s perception of them (presumably it doesn’t apply to the Abrams movies, which are – strictly speaking – 11, 12, and 13 in the series). I think the existence of the ‘curse’ is questionable at best – I completely agree that by far the best films of the lot are even-numbered ones (II and IV for me; your mileage may differ), but it doesn’t necessarily follow that all the odd numbers are flat-out bad or worse than the less-impressive even-numbered films.

For me, the film that really doesn’t deserve to be tarred with the brush of the curse (I apologise for this somewhat baroque metaphor, by the way) is Star Trek III: The Search for Spock, released in 1984 and directed (following much fun and games between the studio and the director’s representatives) by Leonard Nimoy. Does it reach the same standard as the films on either side of it? Well, no; but, as mentioned, there is space between excellent and mediocre, and it’s this space that the film confidently occupies.

We find ourselves once again in the year 2285, with the damaged starship Enterprise limping home following the climactic events of the previous film. The sense of contentment felt by Admiral Kirk (William Shatner) seems to have faded, and he is troubled by the death of his best friend Spock. His other close friend McCoy is acting erratically, too. Orders from Starfleet Command that the Enterprise is to be decommissioned and that they are not to return to the Genesis Planet, where Spock died, do not help his mood much. The situation becomes acute when he is visited by Spock’s father Sarek (Mark Lenard), and they deduce that before dying Spock effectively placed his soul into McCoy’s body (which explains his strange behaviour). Kirk finds himself compelled to go against Starfleet orders, steal his own ship, and return to Genesis in search of Spock’s body.

Of course, it isn’t even only as complicated as that – for a Klingon warlord named Kruge (Christopher Lloyd) has got wind of the Genesis Project and is heading for the new planet, too, intent on terrorising the Federation science team already on the scene, as well as a revived and rejuvenated Spock…

Star Trek III was written by series producer Harve Bennett, whose work is of course not quite up to the standards of that of Nicholas Meyer (writer of Star Trek II) , but still solid. The main problem with it, once you accept the mystical properties of the Genesis effect (raising the dead) and Vulcan, um, mysticism, is that it’s never made quite clear why Kirk goes back to Genesis, rather than just taking McCoy straight to Vulcan for some kind of psionic detox – not only is he completely unaware Spock has come back to life until after his arrival there, he presumably believes his body has been incinerated (this was the original intent, after all).

That said, the movie barrels along cheerily enough for you not to notice this on the first viewing. The movie has a confidence and swagger that the previous movie didn’t actually possess – Star Trek II was considered the absolutely final roll of the dice for the series (why else would they have killed off the most popular character?), and was produced on a minimal budget, with re-used special effects and most scenes being shot on just one set. Here you do get a sense of people realising that the old dog might have much more life left in it than anyone could have guessed, hence much more lavish special effects and sets throughout.

It also feels rather more comfortable in its identity as a piece of Star Trek, perhaps because Bennett had made an effort to steep himself in a series of which Meyer was never a particular fan. The script is happy to bring back Sarek, a recurring but fairly obscure character from the various TV series, insert a tiny cameo for Grace Lee Whitney, include some Tribbles, mention the pon farr undergone by Vulcans, and so on – although without letting any of these things get in the way of the story.

Perhaps the most obvious result of this desire to take Trek back to its roots is the presence of Klingon antagonists at the heart of the story. We should recall that this is the only major appearance by the Klingons between the end of the original TV series and the beginning of Next Generation, and it’s not surprising that the depiction of them is in something of a state of transition – though still depicted as ruthless, sadistic villains (‘I hope pain is something you enjoy,’ says Kruge, shortly before ordering the execution of a prisoner as a negotiating ploy), they are much more obviously alien (they appear to be stronger and more resilient than humans), and they show signs of the obsession with honour that would define them through the Next Gen and DS9 era. Plus, of course, this film marks the first real appearance of tlhIngan Hol (better known to us tera’nganpu’ as the Klingon language). Inevitably, there are still some oddities – everyone, even Saavik, addresses Kruge as ‘my lord’, which isn’t the case with any other Klingon character in the series, no matter how distinguished they are. That said, Christopher Lloyd’s full-on performance as Kruge certainly demands respect.

As does that of William Shatner, to be honest. Joking about Shatner’s ego, waistline, musical career, hair, and line readings has become so much de rigeur these days that we can sometimes overlook what an effective performer he can be with the right script and appropriate direction. Shatner reports feeling initially uncomfortable being directed by Nimoy, but the final product contains some of his finest moments as Kirk – the ‘Klingon bastards’ scene (usually edited out when this movie turns up on TV nowadays) had the potential to be unintentionally comic, but Shatner and Nimoy turn it into something genuinely affecting.

The one thing about this movie that everyone seems to like is James Horner’s music (he did the previous film as well, of course). Horner’s predilection for, um, paying homage to other people’s tunes in his work has been much commented upon, but he’s far from alone in that, and he makes a huge contribution to the movie – Horner’s music manages to make a spaceship reversing out of a garage feel like a moment of epic high adventure.

As I mentioned, Star Trek II was made with the real expectation that it might be the end of the line for the series. Perhaps as a result of the creative licence that gave them, it turned out, rather unexpectedly, to be the start of a whole new lease of life for the series. The Search for Spock is the first piece of Trek to be made in this new atmosphere of confidence and possibility, and it marks the beginning of a roll which continued for the next two decades. Not to mention being a very entertaining movie in its own right.

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As a long-time partaker of the wonder and glory that is the Eurovision Song Contest, I have to admit that it has changed over the years, and not necessarily for the better. I’m not necessarily referring to the influx of vast numbers of formerly Soviet countries, although this has obviously had an effect, but some of the other little rule changes along the way. I speak, of course, of the change in rules that means that these days everyone is allowed to sing their song in English, regardless of whether or not it’s a dominant language in their country or not. You might think this was an absolute positive, and I suppose in terms of simple comprehension it has something to commend it. But what it has robbed the world of are the many creative solutions different countries found to the problem of how to write a song which connects to a vast audience which doesn’t share their native tongue.

This is, of course, gibberish. (I mean that the solution is gibberish, not the preceding paragraph, though I admit this is probably open to debate.) I direct you to such classic Eurosong entries as 1975’s Ding-a-Dong, 1968’s La La La La, 1969’s Boom-Bang-a-Bang, and 1967’s Ring-Dinge-Ding. The best way, it seems, to write a song which makes sense to the whole of Europe, is to write a song which only marginally makes sense at all. And I think the world is lessened just a little by the fact that this sort of thing doesn’t really go on any more.

Having said that, of course, the question of how to connect to a wide audience in a world without a common language is a real one, and one solution that several people have discovered and rediscovered over the years is to dispense with language entirely. Michel Hazanavicius scored a big international hit five years ago with his faux-silent movie The Artist, although he seems to have struggled a bit to convert this into continued international success. It’s interesting to compare his career with that of another notable French film-maker who also came to prominence with a black-and-white, effectively silent movie, and went on to forge a significant, if not entirely respectable, career: Luc Besson, whose first full-length film as director was 1983’s Le Dernier Combat (E-title: The Final Battle).

The film takes place in a post-apocalyptic wasteland, with buildings reduced to ruins and the countryside replaced by a blasted desert. Quite how this has come to pass is never really explained, mainly because whatever catastrophe has befallen the world has also robbed people of the ability to communicate – writing and even speech seems to be beyond most people, without chemical assistance anyway.

Naturally, with this sort of premise, there’s a limit to how much back-story you can give the characters. Chief amongst these is a man known only as the Man (Pierre Jolivet), who as the story opens is trying to complete a home-made plane, presumably so he can escape from the wasteland and find his way to somewhere better (the temptation to start ascribing motives and goals to these characters is almost impossible to resist, as you can see). The local gang of survivors present some difficulties, but eventually he completes his project and flies off.

Elsewhere, a semi-derelict hospital is under siege, if you can call it that when the attacking force only consists of one man. He is the Brute (Jean Reno), and the reason why he is so keen to get access is not immediately apparent – but his persistent efforts are the source of much dismay to the one remaining doctor (Jean Bouise) living in the building. When the Man’s plane makes a forced landing in the vicinity, he finds himself drawn into the struggle between the Brute and the occupants of the hospital. But in this bleak and violent world, is there any chance that basic human compassion can survive?

If I was the sort of person who went around wrangling comparisons between films, Le Dernier Combat would give me lots of material to work with. But, of course, I’ve sworn off that sort of thing. So to describe it as being very much in debt to Mad Max 2, with perhaps a delicate seasoning of Alphaville, is not something I would ever find myself in danger of doing. Nevertheless, this is obviously another of those decaying society/barbarism in the ruins sort of films. It’s a little unclear whether the decision to shoot in black and white is a stylistic choice or one forced on the film-makers by the meagreness of their budget, but the film looks as good as a well-photographed black and white movie always does. I’m not quite sure, but I suspect this may be one of those films which started off low-budget but then received an injection of cash just to get it ready for release – the production was apparently originally designed to make cost-effective use of the large number of ruined and derelict buildings dotted around Paris in the early 1980s, but the final product also includes scenes filmed in Tunisia, and at least one striking VFX shot (the office building standing incongruously in the middle of the desert).

The no-dialogue gimmick is a reasonably good one and does at least mean that Le Dernier Combat travels better than many French movies – one notes that as his career progressed, Besson eventually accepted the inevitable and started making films in English. However, I found the movie had the same problem as, say, your typical Hammer dinosaur movie – by dispensing with dialogue, it becomes incredibly difficult to have more than a fairly simplistic plot, with only rudimentary characters and virtually no humour.

Of course, many people would argue (a bit unfairly, if you ask me) that simplistic plots and rudimentary characters have been Luc Besson’s stock in trade throughout his career ever since. Are there some inklings of his future success to be derived from this movie? Is there something essentially Bessonian about it?

Well, apart from the presence of Jean Reno and music from Eric Serra – both of whom went on to become regular presences in the Besson rep company – there may be a few indicators. Besson is a noted writer and producer of headbanging action movies by the skip load, but many of the films he’s actually directed have either definitely been SF or carried a faint whiff of it about them. The opening shot of this movie is up there in the surreality stakes, including a deserted office, a partially-constructed plane (in the actual office), and a man disporting himself with an inflatable rubber woman (no one does brazen, lunatic excess quite like Besson). And there is something unreconstructedly blokey about it – all the main characters are male, with women kept largely off-camera as objects of desire. Which isn’t to say that Besson movies don’t feature interesting female characters, but they do tend to be impossibly glamorous ass-kicking babes.

So, anyway… Le Dernier Combat is an interesting movie, and you have to admire the invention that’s gone into it, but it’s very obviously the director’s first time doing this sort of thing. As you might expect, the story is a little slow and not very much happens, but it looks good and the storytelling is solid. Definitely an interesting movie for fans of low-fi SF and Besson himself.

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Only a visually-impaired person could look at the history of popular cinema over the last half-century and not notice the huge spike in the number of SF movies in the late 70s and early-to-mid 80s, courtesy of (need it even be said) George Lucas and his stellar conflict franchise. Many of these movies were hugely popular and quite accomplished in their own way – I’m thinking here of films like Alien, Flash Gordon, Moonraker, The Terminator, and so on.

However, what I think gets forgotten sometimes is that the big SF boom sort of obscures an equivalent spike in the number of fantasy films that were made at the same time (Lucas’ project being fantasy at least as much as SF, after all) – in some respects a more notable trend, as SF films had a fairly distinguished pedigree as a genre prior to 1977, while genuine fantasy films not aimed at children were much rarer. I know in the past I have occasionally expressed the opinion that the majority of ‘traditional’ fantasy films released before 2001 usually verged on the awful, but considering early-80s movies like Excalibur, Time Bandits, The Dark Crystal, and Krull… well, many of these films are not bad, to say the least. Also very much not bad is Matthew Robbins’ 1981 movie Dragonslayer, which I watched again recently for the first time in many years.

dragonslayer

Set in a conveniently vague region of Dark Age Europe, the story opens with supplicants arriving at the tower of the world’s last sorcerer, Ulrich of Craggenmoor (Ralph Richardson), begging for his help. The visitors are led by Valerian (Caitlin Clarke), who reveals that their home, the kingdom of Urland, has been ravaged by the ancient dragon Vermithrax Pejorative for decades. To placate the great worm, the king has instituted a policy where twice a year a virgin is selected by lot and sacrificed to the dragon. Feeling this is not satisfactory, not least because the wealthy have been quietly buying exemptions for their children, Valerian has led some of the common folk to ask for Ulrich’s help in killing the beast. (There’s a plot bit about Clarke having been raised as a boy in order to keep her from being subject to the lottery, but it’s not exactly central to the story, and as a twist it doesn’t quite come off – it’s quite obvious that Caitlin Clarke is a woman even before her revelatory nude scene).

Unfortunately, the villagers have been followed to Craggenmoor by Tyrian (John Hallam), a soldier of the king, and to the surprise of all involved he kills Ulrich before the journey even gets underway. However, Ulrich’s apprentice, Galen (Peter MacNicol), inherits his mystic powers, and promises to kill Vermithrax Pejorative himself…

The very least you can say for Dragonslayer is that it is solidly plotted, looks fantastic for most of its running time, and has a great supporting cast. You can forgive a certain degree of confusion on the part of the film-makers as to where exactly the film is set (there seems to be the implication that King Casiodorus is in some way Romano-British, which is rather at odds with other points suggesting an Irish setting), for there is a mostly quite authentic Dark Ages feel to the film. There’s also an interesting subtext to the film, which is essentially about the passing of magic from the world and the rise to dominance of a different kind of world-view: while initially happy to ask a sorcerer for help, by the conclusion of the film the villagers are all adopting the new faith of Christianity (an almost indecently young-looking pre-Palpatine Ian McDiarmid plays a missionary who meets a sticky end).

However, for this to really be effective, the contrast between the grimy quotidian mundanity of Dark Ages life and the fantasy elements of sorcery and the dragon would have to be somewhat better realised than it is here, and this is at least partly a question of special effects. Now, this is a 1981 movie, made using technology of that period, and I would still say that Vermithrax Pejorative is still one of the very best dragons in movie history, in terms of overall presentation – by which I mean it’s a beast of terror and mystery. It’s just that, well, the dragon’s big set pieces never quite grip or excite, although this may be down to the direction and editing as much as any shortfall in the effects. (It seems to me that Robbins’ handling of the dragon in the early part of this film was an influence on how Spielberg depicted the tyrannosaur in Jurassic Park, but that’s by the by.)

Some people have criticised this movie for having rather too much of a modern sensibility, at least in terms of its characterisation – the heroine is a bit too bolshy, the king rather too much of a politician, Tyrian too much of a brutal pragmatist – but I don’t think this is necessarily a problem, if you consider that the story is trying to subvert or undermine the traditional fairy-tale archetypes. If the film has problems in this department, they are two-fold – firstly, Ralph Richardson is the actor you really want to see, and he’s not in it enough (Richardson made a string of late-career appearances in genre movies, but never quite hit the jackpot in the same way as his peer Alec Guinness), and secondly… well, I’m not sure if this is a writing or a casting problem, but I’m talking about Peter MacNicol.

Peter MacNicol is one of those actors who is never less than interesting to watch, and of course he does eccentricity very well, but here he is called upon to play a character who in the course of the film is a young apprentice, a romantic lead, and an action hero, to name just three things. There’s plenty of opportunity here for the right actor to turn Galen into an unusually well-rounded fantasy hero, but unfortunately MacNicol is always just a bit too much of an odd little hobbit to really convince in the part. (Plus the romance between Galen and Valerian appears out of nowhere, between two characters who seem to have absolutely no chemistry together.)

Then again, it’s not entirely MacNicol’s fault – Galen and Valerian are somewhat sidelined during the climax, which promises the epic battle to the death between the world’s last sorcerer and its last dragon. That’s quite a big promise to make to an audience, the stuff of proper high fantasy, and whether it’s the gear-change from the decidedly low fantasy of the rest of the movie, or the limitations of 1981 technology, or the slightly laborious direction… it never enthralls or even really thrills you as it should, for the film to really deliver the ending it needs.

There’s a lot of stuff to enjoy in Dragonslayer, but most of it is ambient, if not completely incidental: the real strengths of this film are its atmosphere and many other things all going on in the background. It has an interesting and smart take on one of the great mythic tales, but the problem is that when it really counts, it’s just not quite convincingly mythic enough.

 

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As usual, the film companies have taken pity and not bothered to release any big movies over the Christmas period, thus allowing us a little bit longer to consider the finer works of some of the people who have left this dimension in the last twelve months. Having recently doffed my figurative cap to the late Peter Vaughan, how else could one follow this but by adhering strictly to alphabetical order and paying a small but not unattractively formed tribute to another of the year’s more notable departees, Mr Robert Vaughn?

Vaughn split his career between cinema and TV before it was really acceptable, with plenty of famous movies and iconic TV shows on his CV: The Magnificent Seven, Bullitt, The Towering Inferno, Superman III, The Man from UNCLE, The A-Team, Hustle… However, if we’re short of one thing at this time of year, then it’s surely knockabout late-70s-influenced space opera, and so in remembrance of Mr Vaughn I thought we might cast our minds back and consider Jimmy Murakami’s 1980 movie Battle Beyond The Stars.

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Our story takes place a long time in the future, in a galaxy quite a long way away, where the peaceful natives of the planet Akir find themselves being hassled by interstellar despot Sador of the Malmori (John Saxon) and his mutant raider henchmen. Being a despot with a well-organised schedule, Sador informs the Akira that he will be back in a week to conquer their planet, as he has some other tyrannising to do in the meantime. Cue concerned discussions amongst the Akira, and the decision to send bold young fellow Shad (Richard Thomas) off in their one and only spaceship to recruit some mercenaries to help defend the village – sorry, I mean planet…

Is this sounding a bit familiar, plot-wise? Well, it should, because… hmmm. Firstly, we should take a moment to pay tribute to the wisdom of producer Roger Corman and screenwriter John Sayles. Corman is a legendary figure in the low-budget exploitation movie business, but justly admired for his willingness to leave his writers and directors alone as long as their films hit the requisite quotas of whatever exploitation ingredients he was after. Hence, they are quite often much more interesting movies than you might expect, and some very distinguished people started their careers working on Corman movies (as we shall see). It was this policy that allowed Sayles to write a script which is much more inventive and knowing than could easily have been the case.

You couldn’t turn round in a cinema in the late 70s without falling over a homage/rip-off clearly inspired by a George Lucas stellar conflict project (how far we have come since then), and the question was obviously one of how to make Battle Beyond The Stars distinctive and less obviously a rip-off. Sayles hit upon the solution of diverting everyone’s attention by making it an equally blatant rip-off of another, equally famous film, The Magnificent Seven. It would be lazy critical shorthand to describe Battle Beyond The Stars as The Magnificent Seven in Space. But it would also be perfectly true.

The real cleverness of this ploy, if you ask me, is that it means the movie is essentially remaking Akira Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai again, and quite apart from the fact that this is almost never a bad idea, it puts this film on a much more level pegging with that other stellar conflict movie which we’re being quite careful not to name, for that itself was famously inspired by another Kurosawa film, Hidden Fortress. Sayles clearly knows exactly what he’s doing – as well as various tips of the hat to The Magnificent Seven, the script references elements of Seven Samurai which didn’t make it into the 1960 remake (plus, of course, the villagers in peril are called Akira).

Chief amongst the loving little references is, of course, the presence of Robert Vaughn as Gelt, the most experienced and lethal of the mercenaries gathered to defend the Akira. It’s not exactly a reprise of his role as Lee from The Magnificent Seven, but it’s close enough, and if Vaughn found appearing in a low-budget SF B-movie in any way beneath him, you can’t tell that from his performance, which is immaculate. Elsewhere the film looks a little further afield, and isn’t afraid to go properly SF on the audience: apart from Shad and his techie love interest (Darlanne Fluegel), the team includes Gelt, a wise-cracking trucker called Space Cowboy, a cloned telepathic hive-mind entity, Cayman the space-whaling slaver lizard, two dwarves who communicate through manipulating the local temperature, and a warrior woman called Saint-Exmin. It’s a toss up whether the characters are any more of a mixed bag than the cast assembled to play them, which includes one of The Waltons, two bona fide movie stars in Vaughn and George Peppard, Morgan Woodward (probably best known for playing a nutty Federation captain in an episode of Star Trek only I seem to like), a handful of anonymous character actors, and Sybil Danning, an actress who started her career appearing in, erm, specialist films for German gentlemen. (When this movie got a UK release I distinctly recall Danning doing the publicity circuit to promote it, which must have been the only time anyone from The Long Swift Sword of Siegfried turned up on Saturday morning kids’ TV.)

Battle Beyond The Stars arguably surpasses many of its late 70s brethren in its imagination and its capacity to build some of its SF ideas into the plot, rather than just treating them as set dressing: the various alien powers of the hive-mind and the thermal dwarves do end up influencing the action, one way or another. Being only 100 minutes or so long means that the film never has time to get stale or particularly repetitive; it may not all quite be killer, but there’s certainly no filler – there is a consistently high level of inventiveness and wit that makes it easy to overlook the obviously very low budget. The ebullient score is another major plus – one of the very first works of James Horner, later to go on to score two of the better Star Trek movies and Krull (plus, if you really must, Titanic and Avatar).

In fact, the only thing that keeps this film from being a real gem is the slightly ropey nature of the special effects, primarily the space battles. Now, some of the ship designs are interesting and most of the models are okay, but the special effects people responsible just don’t have the technical capacity to put more than one spaceship in any given shot, which is a bit of a problem in any film with as many space dogfights as this one: it’s the equivalent of trying to film a drama with the camera locked in a static medium shot. The rest of the film is good enough for this not to completely torpedo it, and given that the special effects guy involved was James Cameron, later to direct The Terminator and Aliens (plus, if you really must, Titanic and Avatar), we must assume he was doing the best he could.

A lot of homaging and ripping-off has gone on over the past nearly-forty years since George Lucas had his bright idea; it continues to this day and shows no signs of stopping. The quality of the results has frankly been rather variable, with actual possession of the rights apparently no guarantee of a good movie being the end result. Battle Beyond The Stars gets much closer than many better-resourced movies to capturing the same imagination and free-wheeling sense of fun that Lucas did in his original films: this is the movie that deserved the big budget, all-star remake, not The Magnificent Seven (which they got right the first time round anyway). One would have thought James Cameron would have felt some obligation… but no, apparently not. Oh well: nothing can change the fact that this is a great little movie, and a fine showcase for everyone involved. Except James Cameron, obviously.

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Whatever else you want to say about 2016, and let’s face it you’re not exactly short of raw material, it has been a bumper year for the Death of Celebrities: the glitter-spangled reaper got going very early on with David Bowie and Alan Rickman, then never stopped to draw breath (appropriately enough): Terry Wogan, Ronnie Corbett, Victoria Wood, Prince, Muhammad Ali, Gene Wilder, Leonard Cohen, Robert Vaughn… if you sat down and tried to do justice to everyone who shuffled off this year, you’d be overwhelmed. So perhaps best to just pick a couple and at least do that much properly.

So, then: a film co-starring the always-memorable Peter Vaughan, whose notices tended to focus on his roles in Porridge and Musical Chairs, when of course he was in so much more. Including something which is quite possibly my favourite specifically Christmassy film of all time (stop complaining, of course it’s not too early to do a Christmassy bit, they’ve been showing Christmas films non-stop on Channel 5 for the last fortnight) – Terry Gilliam’s Brazil.

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Brazil is about bureaucracy, tyranny, paranoia, despair, and madness, amongst other things, which may be why it does not typically feature higher when lists of the great Yuletide films are drawn up – but then it’s a film which seems to drift in and out of public awareness with the passing of time. It was released in 1985, but I don’t think I was even aware it existed until trailers started showing for it ahead of its TV debut at Easter 1988 – which, to be fair, was accompanied by some fanfare from the BBC. I remember that the trailers themselves were like nothing else on TV, even in the late 80s: monolithic skyscrapers erupting out of an idyllic country landscape towards a winged figure, a trick perspective shot where an enormous tramp’s face looms into view over a set of cooling towers, striking retro-40s design…

I made an extremely specific point of watching it, of course, for something so very different hardly ever came along, and I was very impressed by the atmosphere and imagery of the film even if the story didn’t seem quite to hang together. Impressed enough to watch it again the next time it was on a couple of years later (by this point everyone seemed to have decided it was a cult classic, whatever that means, as it was showing as part of Moviedrome), this time I managed to keep myself from getting too distracted by the art direction, realised what it was all about and promptly awarded it a spot on my all-time favourites list, which it has retained ever since.

So what exactly is it all about? Well, Brazil is, I suppose, essentially a grotesque, non-naturalistic fantasy about the horrors of life in the 20th century: but a strange, amalgamated 20th century, where computers and drones and automation exist, but the microchip hasn’t been invented (everything seems to function using valves), where baseball caps and overalls are worn alongside fedoras and suits. A faceless government, basically embodied by a labyrinthine bureaucracy, is doing battle with terrorists (apparently), and is quite prepared to brutalise its own citizens to do so.

Trying his best to ignore all this is Sam Lowry (Jonathan Pryce), a lowly clerk in the records department, who to the despair of friends and family is doing his best to disappear – not trying for promotion, not trying to distinguish himself, just live a quiet life where can find escape in his dreams and the beautiful woman he fantasises about there. However, events conspire to force him across the path of the exact lookalike of the object of his affections (Kim Greist), and his increasingly desperate efforts to first find and then protect her lead to the destruction of his quiet little life…

A peculiar kind of nostalgia is part of the rich mixture of elements that makes up Brazil, but even so, watching it now one is reminded that thirty years ago, not only was the British film industry willing to mount a challenging, big budget fantasy film for grown-ups, but that Terry Gilliam could actually get a gig directing it. Neither of these things could happen today: I for one found it bitterly ironic that one of the Harry Potter films included a homage to Brazil, when the studio had rejected JK Rowling’s choice of Gilliam as the director of the first film in the series, due to his perceived unreliability.

Still, the 80s were a different time, I suppose: Python had been a going concern very recently, and you can perhaps detect attempts to position this film to appeal to an audience expecting the same kind of thing – most obviously, the presence of Michael Palin, cast firmly against type and giving quite probably the performance of his career as an utterly immoral government torturer. There’s also a tendency towards the surreal, not to mention a lot of extreme black comedy. The actual jokes included in the script tend to be less successful, however, and sometimes come across as a little bit affected.

The gags do feel like a bit of a sop to audience expectations, anyway, as for all that this film has a remarkable cast of character actors noted for their comic ability – apart from Palin, there’s Ian Holm, Ian Richardson, Jim Broadbent, Bob Hoskins, and of course Peter Vaughan himself – it’s clearly dealing with quite serious and indeed very nearly heavy topics. Like many British films of its time, it’s almost impossible to look at Brazil now and not conclude that it is on some level about Britain under Margaret Thatcher – not that the film has a particular political message to promote, unless it is that every system crushes somebody.

In the end what sticks with you is the extraordinarily vivid and coherent visual world that Gilliam creates for the film – like others before him, he appears to have realised that nothing dates quicker than attempts to predict the future, and quite sensibly has hasn’t even tried. It’s somewhat confounding that such an obviously stylised, abstracted world can seem so real while you’re watching it, but it does, simply because of how thought-through it all seems. No wonder the story can sometimes feel like it gets a bit lost amongst all the production designs.

Brazil is explicitly set ‘somewhere in the 20th century’ and does seem to be both a homage and a reaction to the great 20th century dystopian satires (one working title was apparently 1984 and a Half). And yet, particularly after the 2016 we’ve just lived through, it still feels like a very timely film for the 21st century too: the urge to retreat into fantasy and abandon the real world entirely is as strong as it ever was for many people, or so I would imagine. The film itself suggests that this may be the only real means of escape, although whether it actually encourages it is another question. Brazil may look surreal and peculiar, but it is at heart a serious film about a serious world, and one which looks every bit as impressive and relevant now as it did three decades ago.

 

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