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Something notable happened to the perception of SF and fantasy in the UK in the middle of the 1980s: when I was very young, SF programmes like Star Trek were on in prime time on one of the main channels – this is the main reason why original Trek acquired its cultural traction in the UK. On the BBC at least, there seemed to be relatively little stigma attached to the science fiction genre prior to the late 80s – the network produced Survivors, Blake’s 7, and Star Cops all in the preceding ten years or so.

After this, however, the BBC largely stopped making SF, and the imported programmes that it did broadcast usually turned up on its minority network in an early-evening slot. This happened to re-runs of The Invaders and the Gerry Anderson programmes throughout the 1990s, and also to every episode of Star Trek the BBC has broadcast since about 1986. (The Beeb has never had the rights to Enterprise, but at one point in 1997 they were showing Voyager on Sundays, Next Generation on Wednesdays, Deep Space Nine on Thursdays, and the original series on Fridays.)

As you can see, in the UK all Star Trek was treated equally – as disposable cult-fodder – and so we never got the sense that some iterations of the show might be more popular or successful than others. Certainly, I was a little surprised last year to discover that most general-audience histories of the franchise focus primarily on the original series and TNG, treating the last three shows as being rather obscure and only of minority interest. Still, at least it explains why there was never serious talk of doing DS9 or Voyager movies, and also the slightly odd, semi-detached relationship between the Next Gen movies and the TV shows that were in production simultaneously with them.

This is most noticeable in Star Trek: First Contact, directed by Jonathan Frakes and released in 1996, when there were two other TV series running which were ostensibly set contemporaneously with the movie. I remember going to see this movie on its opening night with a group of other people, some of whom knew their Trek, some of whom didn’t, and I seem to recall we all had a pretty good time: we concluded it worked well as both a Trek film and an SF action movie. These days – well, sitting down and watching the movie more thoughtfully, I’m inclined to be just a little more critical.

I suppose some of this is simply down to my unreasonable fondness for sprawling fictional universes and my expectation that they try to stay coherent and plausible, on their own terms at least. Certainly there are very sound real-world reasons why the Enterprise has retained the virtually the exact same senior staff for nine years, but from an in-universe perspective one is forced to wonder why the Federation flagship is crewed by people whose careers seem to have ground to a halt. (At least Worf (Michael Dorn) seems to be getting on with his life, although this does require the movie to ‘spring’ him from Deep Space Nine in rather the same way the rest of the A-Team were frequently required to extract Murdock from a mental hospital.)

In the same way, the opening of the movie does feel a little peculiar. Picard (Patrick Stewart) and the gang are safely ensconced aboard the shiny new Enterprise-E, when alarming news comes in of a new attack by the Borg (an implacable cyborg menace to civilisation as we know it, who may or may not be knock-offs of the Cybermen from Doctor Who). Picard has history with the Borg, which forms the basis of his arc in the movie – but this also means Starfleet consider him a bit suspect, so the ship is packed off to the Neutral Zone in case the Romulans try to take advantage of the havoc wreaked by the Borg incursion.

Quite apart from the very rum decision-making on the part of the Admiralty – if Picard is considered likely to go fuzzy round the edges in a pressure situation, what is he doing commanding the flagship of the fleet? – and the fact that this bit of script is obviously just here to give the captain a big hero moment where he decides to disobey orders and go to the aid of the fleet, doesn’t the Federation have more pressing concerns than the Romulans at this point in time? Pointedly not mentioned at all is the ongoing cold war between the Federation and the Dominion, which was the basis of DS9 episodes around this time. Which in turn leads one to wonder what the Enterprise-E was doing throughout the Dominion War. It is almost as if the movies and TV shows operated in slightly parallel universes, rather in the same way as Marvel’s movies and TV shows do at the moment.

Well, anyway. Picard and the Enterprise, along with the rest of the fleet, manage to destroy the invading Borg cube by cunningly, um, shooting at it a lot, but not before it disgorges a Borg sphere (big on geometrical designs, these Borg) which promptly disappears back in time. Realising the Borg are planning on conquering Earth in the past (no respecters of temporal integrity, either), it’s up to Picard and the others to follow them and save history.

They find the Borg have gone back to 2063 and are trying to avert Earth’s first contact with an extraterrestrial civilisation (hence the title), which was triggered by the first flight of Zefram Cochrane’s prototype warp-drive ship. (Cochrane is played by James Cromwell, at the time most famous as the dancing farmer from Babe.) Fixing the prototype and getting a reluctant Cochrane to stay off the sauce long enough to fulfil his destiny is tricky enough, but somehow the Borg have managed to infiltrate the Enterprise, and the crew also have to battle to stop them from taking over the ship…

We shall skip over the nagging questions of why it is that the Borg don’t just travel back to 2063 near their home planet and make the whole journey to Earth in the past, thus avoiding Starfleet’s response entirely, and the convenient way in which they establish a foothold on the Enterprise so easily, and think about more general matters. You can kind of see the thinking that went into the general shape of this movie – I think everyone assumed that with the original series crossover movie done and dusted, the next one would concern itself with Round Two between the Enterprise and the Borg, while after the success of Star Trek IV and many other time-travel episodes of Trek, it’s understandable that the studio should want a film built around that sort of premise.

But having said that, this is (as far as I can remember) pretty much unique in being a mass-audience SF movie in which characters time-travel from one made-up future world to another (as opposed to something recognisable as the present day, or a point in history). This is not necessarily a terrible choice, but it is a peculiar one – I’m reminded of the current discussion of ‘incorrect’ song writing. If the concept has any validity, then I would suggest that Star Trek: First Contact has touches of incorrect scriptwriting about it. (Earlier drafts of the story went by the title Star Trek: Renaissance and saw the Borg going back in time to assimilate Leonardo da Vinci in 15th century Italy, but this more ‘correct’ idea was apparently vetoed by Patrick Stewart, who refused to wear tights in a movie.)

Once you get past the byzantine complexities of Star Trek continuity and the slight oddness of the premise, this is an undeniably solid movie, and certainly the best of the Next Gen films. Alien invasion movies were back in fashion in 1996, most notably in the form of the all-conquering Independence Day, and this is very much in tune with the zeitgeist even if it can’t quite match Roland Emmerich’s epic roller-coaster for thrills, scale, or sheer entertainment value – something of that slightly staid and worthy Next Gen sensibility persists throughout.

Then again, the moves away from the Hollywood SF movie formula do provide some of the film’s most memorable moments. The business on Earth with Cochrane provides a good-natured change of pace when set against the rather grimmer goings-on on the ship, the obscurely kinky scenes between Data (Brent Spiner) and the Queen of the Borg (Alice Krige) are distractingly odd, and all the various space battles and ray gun fights are well-mounted. But the heft of the film comes from Patrick Stewart, and Picard’s struggle to overcome his own rage and desire for vengeance against the Borg. The moments you remember are Picard ferociously tommy-gunning Borg drones while howling in fury, accusing Worf of cowardice for not being willing to fight to the death, lashing out in anger when confronted by his own irrationality and helplessness. All credit due to Patrick Stewart, of course (and also to Michael Dorn, whose ability to create memorable character moments from the slightest material is almost miraculous) – but this is also interesting in the wider context of Star Trek as a whole.

Gene Roddenberry’s vision for the future of humanity, inasmuch as it became a defining feature of the Star Trek he was involved in during the final years of his life, was that human beings were somehow perfectible, and that the people of the Federation had moved on beyond their recognisable human hang-ups. Writers on TNG came to call this notion ‘the Roddenberry box’ as it limited the possibilities of interpersonal drama so much – any script built around the idea of conflict between the regulars got spiked, for example. And yet First Contact seems to be commenting on this idea in a manner which I’m not at all sure the Great Bird would have been happy with – never mind the fact that Picard has clearly been left significantly damaged by his previous experiences with the Borg, the film presents Cochrane, architect of the bright future which the Federation will come to exemplify, as a rather ambiguous character – overly fond of a drink, motivated by self-interest, unwilling to face up to responsibility. Is the whole notion of perfectible humanity built on rather shaky foundations? The movie is wise enough not to go too far with this.

It adds a welcome, if subtle piece of heft to what is otherwise much more of a straightforward action movie than most of the other good Star Trek films. The tendency of Star Trek films to turn into action movies has been bewailed by others in the past, not just me, but if you’re going to turn Star Trek into an action movie it should at least be a good one, with some interesting ideas and strong characterisation still somewhere in the mix. Judged by this standard, First Contact is certainly a success, if not quite up to the standard of the very best films in the franchise.

 

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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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If you think of British film companies of the 60s, particularly makers of genre movies, then of course you think of Hammer, then probably Amicus, and perhaps Tigon in third place. It might be quite a long time before you remembered Planet, a much smaller outfit these days best remembered for a couple of Terence Fisher films – Island of Terror, from 1966, and Night of the Big Heat, from 1967. Island of Terror was a moderately successful monster movie, rather let down by ropey monster props and a slightly stuffy tone. Night of the Big Heat (also known by the rather more promising title Island of the Burning Damned) almost looks like an attempt at a remake with these things fixed.

Everything takes place on the island of Fara, which we are told is somewhere off the coast of the UK. The film actually has a very unpromising opening, with no dialogue for ages and no real sense of what’s going on: someone’s radar set explodes in his face, a young woman (Jane Merrow) drives around in her convertible, and a stern-looking man (Christopher Lee) is engaged upon some mysterious experiments involving cameras and mirrors and bits of wood. (One of these scenes turns out not to have happened yet, and is just a teaser for much later on.)

Eventually we get some sense of the set-up here. Key locations on Fara include the weather station and the gravel pits (a useful location for staging mysterious deaths and the climax), but most of the action takes place in the pub, which is run by slab-faced alpha-male novelist Jeff Callum (Patrick Allen) and his wife Frankie (Sarah Lawson). Lodging in the pub is mysterious outsider Dr Hanson (Lee), while constantly propping up the bar is genial GP Dr Stone (‘guest star’ Peter Cushing). New on the scene is Jeff’s latest secretary, Angela (Merrow), who is a bit of a naughty minx: she and Jeff have history together, if you know what I mean, and she’s come to Fara intent on resuming their liaison. A torrid time is in prospect.

Especially torrid given the island is sweltering in the grip of a tremendous, unseasonal heatwave, which is making TV sets and bottles of beer spontaneously explode. (All the men have had ridiculous sweat-patches applied to their shirts by the costume department.) What’s going on? Does it have anything to do with Dr Hanson’s experiments?

Well, sort of. It seems that space probes from Earth have attracted the attention of alien creatures composed of ‘high frequency heat’ and they are using Fara as a beachhead for their invasion of Earth. Anyone who crosses their path – sheep, supporting characters, those old tramps who are such a regular feature of this kind of movie – is rapidly incinerated. Is everyone doomed?

The least you can say for Night of the Big Heat – you know, I do think Island of the Burning Damned is a better title – is that it more or less avoids the key problems that Island of Terror had: the alien monsters are kept off-screen for most of the movie (and the monster props are marginally better when they do appear), and the general tone of the thing is pepped up by some mildly saucy business between Allen and Merrow (not to mention Merrow providing some cheap PG-rated cheesecake thrills). And yet this is still a worse movie than the previous Planet production.

How can this be? Well, firstly, all the stuff about Jeff being unable to keep his hands off Angela, and her scheme to have her way with him, scarcely informs the main plot of the film – it’s filler, basically, and very melodramatic filler too. The characterisation of Angela is, shall we say, problematic: she is a one-dimensional Bad Girl, who functions primarily as a sex object, and she’s the first one to lose it completely as the situation grows increasingly dire. (On the other hand, at least she can type.)

However, at least this makes a vague sort of sense, which is more than you can really say for the alien monster invasion storyline, which starts off as slightly dubious and rapidly becomes very silly indeed; this is the kind of film you can imagine inspiring the Monty Python ‘Sci Fi movie’ sketch. As ever, you are left filled with admiration for Christopher Lee’s ability to treat this kind of material with a gravity and intensity it doesn’t remotely deserve. By the end of the film Lee is participating in expository scenes explaining how the alien invasion has happened which are basically utter gibberish, before running outside to implement his character’s ridiculous plan to see off the invaders (this involves many shots of Lee setting fire to haystacks with a flare pistol), and he genuinely seems to be taking it completely seriously. What a legend. Peter Cushing is, of course, equally good, though not in the film enough – though we do get a marvellous example of Cushing’s wonderful ‘death-spasm’ acting (let’s see Disney’s CGI Cushing do that).

Most of the film is fairly competently made, but the script is so thick-headed that it’s more or less impossible to take seriously as a piece of drama, and it’s not even particularly enjoyable as camp entertainment. Night of the Big Heat came out in 1967, coincidentally the same year as In the Heat of the Night. One of these films is a timeless classic that deservedly won critical acclaim and several Oscars. The other one is a dim-witted B-movie with Jane Merrow in a bikini and aliens defeated by their poor grasp of meteorology. You can kind of see why Planet Film Productions never achieved a higher profile.

 

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The late Gerry Anderson was quite unapologetic about the fact that his TV shows and movies, made by a British producer, using mostly-British writers and crews, in British studios and locations, almost always concerned American characters and settings, portrayed by American lead actors. If international sales are really that important to you, was his thinking, better to go down that route than to make an ostensibly British show with a single imported American star (he was particularly dismissive of Dempsey and Makepeace, as I recall). Not sure I see the distinction myself, but anyway.

Now, when it comes to the giant monster movie genre, there is a long and distinguished (well, about as distinguished as you can get when making traditionally cheap-assed movies about silly-looking monsters treading on toy tanks) tradition of the International Version, where a whole new alternate version of a movie is assembled for foreign sales purposes. This goes back, effectively, to the very birth of the genre – the version of the original Godzilla which went on release in the USA featured new scenes in which an American journalist (played by Raymond Burr, of all people) basically looks out of the window and relates what’s going on down a phone line. (Imported American stars are also quite common in the original version of a lot of 60s Toho movies, too.)

But at what point does this sort of sales-related re-editing produce something which is essentially a whole new movie? The thought occurred to me after watching Shim Hyung-Rae’s Yonggary, which is ostensibly a South Korean kaiju movie from 1999. The thing is, however, that Yonggary apparently underwent extensive re-editing and re-shoots in order to be released in the USA in 2001, under the title Reptilian, and this is the only version of the film which is widely available.

yonggary

The story goes as follows: hostile aliens, who appear to be played by glove puppets, turn up aboard a so-so looking spaceship, intent on conquering the world. Nobody notices this at first, and the story instead concerns the palaeontological dig of the sinister and arrogant Dr Campbell (Richard B Livingston). It’s never actually referred to as a palaeontological site, by the way (and it does indeed resemble a building site more than anything else), but this may be because none of the writers knew how to spell it. Also hanging around is a photojournalist (Brad Sergi) and the doc’s comely young assistant Holly (Donna Philipson). Campbell is intent on digging up a giant dinosaur skeleton, ‘fifty times bigger than a t-rex’, and isn’t about to let a string of mysterious deaths stop him.

However, who should turn up but Campbell’s old mentor Dr Hughes (Harrison Young), making wild claims that this will bring about the end of the world, for the beast (which he calls Yonggary) will soon come back to life and devastate the planet. His source for all this is some ancient hieroglyphics which he discovered in a rather confusing prologue (perhaps that should be ‘especially confusing prologue’, for – as you may have guessed – narrative coherence is not Yonggary‘s strong suit).

Naturally, everyone assumes Hughes has gone off the deep end, but then the aliens launch their scheme and the dinosaur skeleton transforms into a living, breathing Yonggary, who promptly treads on Dr Campbell. The aliens start teleporting Yonggary all over the place, attacking Los Angeles, a nuclear reactor, and so on, and making it quite tricky for the armed forces, who have finally figured out what’s going on, to send in the troops to fight him. So it goes sometimes…

The kaiju genre was in fairly rude good health in the late 90s, when Yonggary was originally conceived and produced: Toho were knocking out a not-bad Godzilla movie every year, Shusuke Kaneko’s awesome Gamera trilogy was coming to a conclusion, and the Sony-Centropolis American remake of Godzilla had been a pretty big hit the year before. I think you can detect the influence of all of these things on Yonggary to some degree or other – there’s a sequence where a squadron of helicopter gunships takes on Yonggary which seems particularly indebted to the Emmerich movie, for instance (not to mention a bit where someone says of Yonggary, ‘Godzilla is a pussy compared to this guy!’). And this is, by any rational assessment, a plot assembled from fairly classic kaiju movie tropes: alien invasion, alarmed and impotent military, monster with a heart of gold, third-act evil monster, and so on. The film even comes up with some innovations which sit quite comfortably in this kind of movie – at one point special forces soldiers with jetpacks and ray-guns are deployed to fight Yonggary, and it’s a fairly cool scene.

Of course, it would be a bit cooler if the special effects of the movie were better, because – for all that this was apparently the most expensive movie in South Korean history – it does look cheap compared to Godzilla 2000, very cheap compared to Gamera: Incomplete Struggle, and incredibly cheap compared to the Centropolis Godzilla. The CGI of Yonggary and Cycor (the enemy monster) looks only marginally competent, although to be fair the monster designs themselves are dull and unengaging.

I suspect many viewers may not even have made it to the monster fights in Yonggary, for the first third of the movie is also its weakest part. There is, as I mentioned, an unengagingly baffling prologue, followed by a long section in which the main characters are Campbell and the photographer. Neither of these people appear after the first act of the film, which suggests a script which was just being written as it went along. The shockingly poor standard of the writing and much of the acting doesn’t help much, either.

Perhaps the oddest thing about Yonggary is the fact that this was a huge production by South Korean standards, a remake of a 60s South Korean kaiju film (Yongary: Monster from the Deep, in case you were wondering), directed by a South Korean film-maker, and yet you could watch the whole thing and remain blissfully ignorant of any of this. There are no prominent Korean actors, the film has been made in English, and it is supposedly set in California. What gives?

Then again, I did watch the 2001 version of Yonggary (aka Reptilian), which – as noted – was extensively modified for its international release. How much of the original version has survived? Was the South Korean Yonggary a bit more accomplished? To be honest, I kind of doubt it: the CGI would still have been bad, the plot would still have been silly-verging-on-the-stupid. Director Shim Hyung-Rae seems to specialise in this sort of thing – a few years ago I came across his 2007 movie Dragon Wars, in which the CGI was actually quite impressive, but the plot still baffling gibberish – and that while that one did contain some distinctively Korean bits, they felt odd and incongruous given the American milieu of the film.

Anyway: hats off to South Korea for having a go at making a proper giant monster movie, even if they didn’t quite manage it in the end. This is a pretty bad movie by any reasonable standard – even if you are a very keen follower of kaiju movies, you may find it only really passes the time, at best.

 

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The continents drift along in their stately way, the zodiac processes across the heavens, and the cinematic calendar continues its own slow evolution. When I first got into this ‘paying serious attention to cinema’ game, it was all much simpler: you had serious movies as the majority of releases right up until Oscar Night, at which point the more lightweight fare and genre movies would pop up to fill the gap until the big blockbusters appeared round about the time of Memorial Day in the States. These days, of course, everything is up in the air: the genre movies have been joined by blockbusters much earlier in the year, some of them even before the Oscars have been handed out. It doesn’t help matters that the line between the two appears to become a bit blurred – was Deadpool a genre film or an aspiring blockbuster? How about the imminent Logan, or the new King Kong movie?

Or, for that matter, Zhang Yimou’s The Great Wall? The film’s $150 million budget, along with the presence of an A-lister like Matt Damon, would seem to suggest a film with the biggest of ambitions. Set against that, on the other hand, is… well, decide for yourself.

great-wall

The film appears to be set around the 11th century, and opens with European mercenaries William (Damon) and Tovar (Pedro Pascal) leading a small group of adventurers into the remote wilds of the east. (Pascal is allowed to use his native Spanish accent, Damon attempts a rather optimistic, not to mention variable, Irish brogue.) Things look grim when the rest of their party is killed by a weird and mysterious beastie, and hostile local horsemen drive the duo onwards until they encounter something awesome – the imposing sight of the Great Wall of China (which still isn’t visible from space in the 11th century, despite what everyone says)!

The Wall is manned by a huge force of soldiers, apparently getting ready to enact some serious slaughter, but exactly what’s going on is not immediately clear, not least because the only senior officer who speaks English, Commander Lin (Jing Tian), is clearly suspicious of them. Her concerns are quite justified, as the Europeans have only come to China to steal the recipe for gunpowder – nor are they the first, for hanging around the place handing out exposition is Ballard (Willem Dafoe), survivor of a previous expedition with the same aim.

It turns out that the Great Wall is being manned to fend off an invasion of monsters which (the subtitles assure me) are called the Tao Te, a terrifying horde which arises once or twice every century to eat everything in their path. If the monsters are able to overrun the wall and devour the population of the Chinese capital, they will be well-fed enough to conquer the world! Things look bleak – can William put aside his mercenary, capitalistic principles long enough to join forces with the Chinese warriors in a proper piece of collective effort?

This is another one of those films which has received a bit of a savaging from the Diversity Enforcers, on the grounds that it supposedly perpetuates a slightly dodgy trope where a Caucasian protagonist swoops in to save the day for a bunch of incompetent supporting characters of a different ethnicity – the so-called White Saviour stereotype. On paper, you can see why this could be so, but I would argue that fears of this sort are groundless, for two main reasons.

Firstly, the film is largely the work of Chinese film-makers, with the distinguished director Zhang Yimou in charge, and Matt Damon is in this film for basically the same reason that Donnie Yen and Jiang Wen showed up in the last stellar conflict franchise brand extension (it shares one of the same writers, by the way) – to guarantee global ticket sales. The Caucasian presence is a business decision, not anything ideological.

And, secondly, IT’S MATT DAMON ON TOP OF THE GREAT WALL OF CHINA FIGHTING ALIEN MONSTERS WITH A BOW AND ARROW. GET A GRIP ON YOURSELVES AND STOP TAKING THIS FILM SO SERIOUSLY. I mean, really. There’s a time and a place to get righteously indignant, but doing it with this film just makes you look silly.

When word of The Great Wall first reached me, the impression I received was that this was going to be a genuine historical epic, supposedly concerning the fate of some of the Roman soldiers captured by Parthia at the battle of Carrhae in 53BC, who ended up working as mercenaries on the Chinese border. It’s one of the great ‘could it have happened…?’ stories of history, with some tantalising evidence (there is, for instance, apparently a village in western China where, once in a generation, a child is born with curly hair, as those Italian genes resurface). Needless to say, if this was ever the case, it ain’t true now, for this is… this is…

Actually, I’m genuinely unsure what kind of film this is supposed to be. It starts off not a million miles away from The Man Who Would Be King, in terms of the two main European characters and the tone of their relationship. But as soon as we reach the Wall itself, with its battalions of primary-coloured troop-types and CGI as far as the eye can see, it starts turning into something rather less interesting and more superficial. And once the major VFX sequences start rolling, with Starship Troopers-style swarms of monsters scuttling over the horizon (the script suggests these may genuinely be aliens), and female soldiers bungee-jumping off the top of the Wall to stab the monsters with spears… well, it’s like a cross between some kind of garish computer game and a comic book, and not an especially interesting one.

The characterisation is pretty thin, the CGI about as persuasive as Damon’s Irish accent, and it has none of the class or sophistication of the other films I’ve seen from Zhang Yimou, for all that it has the same underlying principles and fascination with colour as movies like Hero and House of Flying Daggers – I’m kind of reminded of Ang Lee’s Hulk, as another example of a director best known as an art-house darling taking a crack at something much more mainstream and just not quite being able to hack it. Not that this is Matt Damon’s finest hour, either: there may be a Chinese expression that describes just how far out of his comfort zone Damon visibly is for most of this film, but it certainly doesn’t exist in English.

To be honest, this looks like the kind of knowingly silly, CGI-heavy piece of fluff that should be starring a wrestler or possibly Gerard Butler, so the presence in it of proper actors is one of the most bemusing things about it (Andy Lau is also in the cast, by the way). But it’s just an odd, odd film overall, not really compelling as an American action movie or a Chinese fantasy. It neither convinces nor persuades, nor does it grip or thrill. But on the other hand, it’s mostly just silly rather than being actually bad, and of all the great walls currently being unleashed on the world, this is not the one people should really be complaining about.

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In the Earth Year 1965, Toho Pictures were on a bit of a roll with their loosely-connected series of mostly-knockabout, usually-underbudgeted SF and fantasy films. What had started off with a heartfelt and very serious film about the tribulations of Japan in the closing stages of the Second World War had by this point transmogrified into something with much more of a focus on pure entertainment, with a strong element of comedy often in the mix. A tendency to go a little bit crazy was always inherent in these movies, but it was to become much more apparent as time went on, and you could argue that it is particularly in evidence in Ishiro Honda’s entry in the series from that year, Invasion of Astro-Monster (also variously known as Monster Zero and Godzilla on Planet X).

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As things get under way, we are informed that scientists of the near future have been startled by the discovery of Planet X, a mysterious new world which is a satellite of Jupiter. Packed off to check the place out is rocketship P-1, piloted by astronauts Fuji (Akira Takarada) and Glenn (Nick Adams, imported to help with getting an American release). Planet X turns out to be a grim and unattractive place, with constant bad weather (suspiciously familiar-looking golden lightning crackles across the sky). Much to the Earth men’s surprise, however, Planet X turns out to be inhabited by aliens possessing strange unearthly powers and even stranger and more unearthly ideas about fashion:

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But the folk of Planet X (lore ascribes them the name ‘Xiliens’, though this isn’t used on screen in any of the versions I’ve seen) have a problem – their civilisation is constantly being raided by the three-headed space monster King Ghidorah, who they refer to as Monster Zero (‘Here on Planet X, we use numbers, not names,’ says the alien Commandant, helpfully, and no-one points out to him that ‘Planet X’ itself is actually a name). The Xiliens (oh, go on, it’s convenient) want to do a deal with Earth whereby they ‘borrow’ nuclear sea-dragon Godzilla and supersonic pterodactyl Rodan and use them to drive Ghidorah off, the pair of them having form in this department. In return they will provide humanity with a cure for cancer.

The lure of this to a 1960s world where everyone smokes like a chimney is sufficient to make everyone on Earth overlook how ridiculous and illogical the Xilien plan is, and at a meeting of the World Council not only the medical representative but the spokeswoman for the globe’s housewives are both all for loaning out the Earth monsters to Planet X.

While all this is going on, there are some slightly soapy goings on between Fuji, his sister, and her inventor boyfriend Tetsuo (Akira Kubo, a personable young actor who plays various roles in this series). He has invented what he calls the ‘Lady Guard’, which is basically a rape alarm, but is concerned that the corporation who has bought the rights to his gizmo isn’t doing anything with it. His main contract, the beautiful and enigmatic Namikawa (Kumi Mizuno), is also the girlfriend of astronaut Glenn, which in any other film would count as an outrageous plot contrivance. Different priorities apply here, of course.

Fuji and Glenn grow increasingly suspicious of the Xiliens’ intentions, but not to the point of actually telling anyone or doing much about it, and the transfer of Godzilla and Rodan to Planet X goes off without a hitch. Ghidorah is sent packing with his tails between his legs (Godzilla appears to do the Highland Fling to celebrate his victory) and everyone can celebrate!

Or can they? It turns out that all the women on Planet X are clones, and they look just like Glenn’s chick Namikawa! Why are the Xiliens so interested in suppressing Tetsuo’s rape alarm widget? And what are they going to do with Godzilla and Rodan now they’re on Planet X? Well, it may not come as a total surprise if I tell you that the Xiliens are planning on taking over Earth and enslaving everyone, and if the Earthlings don’t do as they’re told, King Ghidorah (who was secretly under their control all along), Godzilla, and Rodan will be unleashed on the hapless planet…

It is customary to refer to Invasion of Astro-Monster as part of the main sequence of Toho’s Godzilla movies (as opposed to movies like Mothra and King Kong Escapes, which appear to take place in the same continuity but obviously aren’t Godzilla movies per se), but I think this is really one of those benefit-of-hindsight things. If you watch this movie expecting a proper kaiju movie, I suspect you will be rather disappointed – the three monsters get very little active screen-time and the scrapping between them is commensurately abbreviated. I think it makes rather more sense to view this movie as part of the flying saucer alien invasion genre, which just happens to include extended cameos from various members of the Toho monster stable.

Not that this actually makes the film better, or more logical, of course. Even while you’re watching it, the various incongruities of the plot leap out at you and you’re constantly going ‘What? Hang on a minute… Surely…?’ The plot of Invasion of Astro-Monster disintegrates as soon as you breathe on it, even if you don’t have nuclear rays or gravity lightning coming out of your mouth, and the film-makers seem to be under the impression that if they keep things rattling along at a fairly decent pace then no-one is going to complain too much.

Maybe they have a point, for this is a hard film to really dislike, for all of its rampant eccentricities and unanswered questions. Two things keep Invasion of Astro-Monster from becoming the hallucinogenic fever-dream of a movie it often feels like it’s turning into – first, the fact that things like cancer cures and rape alarms – both with all manner of rather downbeat real-world associations – are central to the plot, and second, Ishiro Honda’s inability to completely shake off the ‘proper’ sci-fi tone the film starts with. (The model work and special effects in this movie are fairly decent in a slightly sub-Gerry Anderson way.)

I used to think of Invasion of Astro-Monster as a sort of mid-range entry in the Toho monster  series, and it is an influential movie in its own way (the ‘aliens use monsters as invasion weapon’ idea was endlessly recycled in movies all the way up to Final Wars, where the Xiliens also appear). But looking at it again now, the sheer bizarreness of the plot, and its multiple inadequacies, mean I think this is a film you really can only view as an extended, unintentional piece of deadpan comedy. And as such it’s a bit of a triumph.

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The 1971 Godzilla movie, Godzilla Vs Hedorah (aka Godzilla Vs The Smog Monster), was a) a heartfelt parable about the importance of protecting the environment and b) hallucinogenically bonkers. Longtime series overseer Tomoyuki Tanaka wasn’t keen on it at all, banished director Yoshimitsu Banno from the series, and set about producing something a bit more traditional for the 1972 film, which eventually emerged in the form of Jun Fukuda’s Godzilla Vs Gigan.

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(Banno probably got the last laugh, as he is the Japanese exec producer of the current run of American Godzilla movies.)

I first came across this film in the summer of 1990, when one of the British TV channels ran a short season of some of the Showa Godzilla films (the 1954-75 run). Even as a relative newcomer to the canon it was still pretty clear that the early 70s films suffered from limited budgets (and limited imagination), although this is to some extent offset by the vaulting weirdness that also ensues. Godzilla Vs Gigan is a pretty good showcase for all of this.

Our main character (who isn’t thirty storeys high and radioactive, anyway) is Gengo Kotaka (Hiroshi Ishikawa), an artist looking for a gig. With the help of his girlfriend he lands a job at the corporation responsible for the building of Children’s Land, a new theme park – although there appears to be some confusion over whether the theme in question is ‘peace’ or ‘giant monsters’ (maybe time to get the brand consultants in). The wunderkind chairman of the place insists on the former, but the centrepiece of the park is a life-size Godzilla Tower filled with offices and so on. The chairman even goes so far as to suggest that once the park is finished Monster Island (where Godzilla and his associates live happily, thanks to the wonders of reused footage) should be blown up. Clearly he is a bad ‘un.

Well, despite Gengo’s own ideas for new monsters being rubbish (he comes up with the Monster of Homework and the Monster of Over-attentive Mothering), he lands a job at Children’s Land. However, he soon finds himself caught in a web of intrigue, for there are rum doings going on behind the scenes at Children’s Land. Another employee seems to have disappeared and is being looked for by his sister and her weird hippy friend, and their investigations have turned up a mysterious spool of tape. Meanwhile their investigations reveal that the chairman and secretary of the park both apparently died in an accident the previous year, so what are they still doing walking around running a corporation?

Eventually the tape gets played, which answers a few questions and also provides one of the moments this movie is remembered for: the electronic bibbling that ensues just confuses the human characters, but it really annoys Godzilla over on Monster Island (much clutching of ears ensues). Having a busy schedule that day (we are invited to imagine what this may involve) Godzilla packs his fellow monster Anguirus (also known as Anguillas and various similar names, due to the wonders of English-Japanese transliteration) off to investigate. (Anguirus is a veteran monster from the Toho stable, but in this film he’s essentially Godzilla’s kid sidekick.)

Yes, this is the movie where Godzilla gets dialogue. How do you go about writing lines for a giant nuclear dragon? I’ve no idea, but I would suggest that making Godzilla say things like ‘Something funny going on! Go check it out!’ is probably not the best way to proceed. Anyway, Anguirus swims off to Japan, where he is promptly shot at a lot by the army and driven off (this probably constitutes the greatest single achievement in the history of the JSDF’s monster defence division), going back to Monster Island having found out pretty much nothing. Nice work, Anguirus.

In the end we find ourselves dealing once again with the spectre of an alien invasion, for the park is secretly being run by giant alien cockroaches from another planet, the humanoid inhabitants of which polluted themselves to death. The cockroaches (who can disguise themselves as dead people, it would appear) are going to use the mysterious tapes to control two space monsters, King Ghidorah and Gigan, and use them to devastate Japan as part of their conquest of the world. They are also planning to off Godzilla, naturally. Can our hero and his unprepossessing gang of friends do anything to help?

Oh, well: as I say, this is a pretty standard late-Showa Godzilla movie, with aliens trying to invade and Godzilla firmly ensconced in his position as a wholly non-threatening defender of Japanese society, complete with (as mentioned) kid sidekick. The monster suit is of the googly-eyed kind, and it does seem like the film is sometimes in a race against time to complete the story before the suit actually falls to bits, but as I say this is par for the course at this point.

Key opposition this time around is, of course, Gigan, who gets even less back-story than most antagonist monsters: he just turns up working for the giant cockroaches, the most distinctive thing about him being that he has a buzzsaw mounted in the front of his torso. I suppose this must count for something as Gigan has gone on to make a bit of a rep for himself, reappearing in Godzilla Vs Megalon and as the second villain in Final Wars. Certainly the buzzsaw makes for some striking moments: huge, Peckinpah-esque sprays of blood erupt as Gigan carves up Godzilla and Anguirus.

If the Godzilla and Gigan fight isn’t exactly prime stuff, at least it’s original to this film, which is more than can be said for a lot of the other monster action, which is recycled from other films in the series – one might even suspect that the main reason Anguirus and Ghidorah are in the film is because of their extensive stock-footage back-catalogues. It’s not exactly hard to spot, either, given the earlier films were differently lit and with higher production values.

In the end it boils down to the usual tag wrestling shenanigans – Godzilla gets the crap kicked out of him at extraordinary length before suddenly recovering to vanquish the opposition with startling ease – while the human characters dispose of the aliens and their Godzilla Tower with a deeply stupid plan (it involves hippies sneaking into the tower carrying big boxes clearly marked ‘TNT’). ‘Everything was going so well!’ wails a giant cockroach as it expires, and the Earth is safe again.

Many Japanese monster movies operate close to the intersection between fun/bonkers/silly/stupid, but Godzilla Vs Gigan crosses the line into ‘stupid’ more often than most of them. If you like Godzilla movies, then there is probably enough going on here to make the film a worthwhile and entertaining watch. If you’re still agnostic about the Big G, this really isn’t the best place to start.

 

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