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Regular readers may recall my trip a couple of months ago to the excellent Ghost Stories, in the company of a couple of young Russian women who – in defiance of all logic – were unaware they were actually going to see a horror movie. Well, as they say in the more gothic-influenced parts of Switzerland, mein Gott, ich habe ein Monster erschaffen, for – while her friend Yekaterina returned to Russia alarmed and trembling – Olinka, it seems, has developed a real taste for this sort of thing. ‘Can we go and see Hereditary? Can we can we can we?’ ran the general tenor of her messages to me for quite some little while, until we, um, went to see Hereditary, directed by Ari Aster. Filling in for Yekaterina was me good mate and occasional contributor around here Next Desk Colleague, which if nothing else made me hope that there would be less jumping onto and grabbing at each other in the dark on this occasion.

We saw the trailer for Hereditary before Ghost Stories, of course, and were not unimpressed by its unsettling weirdness. Less positive was the response of another group of people who also saw the trailer, according to the media, but as they were a group of small children and their parents waiting to watch Peter Rabbit, this is not really surprising. Oh, the horror! Oh, the outraged screams! Oh, the parents desperately dragging their youngsters out of the theatre! Mind you, I don’t understand why this doesn’t happen during every screening of Peter Rabbit, regardless of which trailers precede it, but there you go – it’s a funny old world.

‘It’s a funny old world’ is not the prevailing ethos on display in Hereditary. ‘It’s a horrendous, bleak, nightmarish existence’ would probably be closer to the mark. The main character is Annie (Toni Collette), a successful artist, who lives with her husband (Gabriel Byrne), son (Alex Wolff), and daughter (Milly Shapiro). As the film opens they are preparing to bury Annie’s recently deceased mother, with whom she had a fraught relationship, to say the least. It soon becomes fairly clear that this is not exactly what you would call an entirely functional family: tensions and resentment, between mother and children at least, seem to be constantly simmering away not far from the surface. And as far as daughter Charlie is concerned – well, the kid just ain’t right, somehow, choosing to spend lots of time alone in a somewhat spooky treehouse, with hobbies that include scissoring the heads off dead birds. Hmmm.

And here we kind of run into a problem, which leads us back to the trailer to Hereditary. This is definitely one from the atmospheric, impressionistic end of the spectrum – it does a very good job of giving you an idea of how you’re going to feel while watching the movie, but in terms of telling you what the actual plot is, or even what the movie is really about… not so much. Let’s just say that something happens, the nature of which is significant, and the rest of the film is about the family’s response to this and the various ways in which things go awry as a result.

So what is Hereditary about? It’s not at all clear at first. If you’re watching a zombie movie, there’s a certain grammar and set of tropes in the storytelling that you know to expect; the same is true with werewolf movies, haunted house films, and all the other odd little subgenres. But for the first hour or so Hereditary offers no hints, at least not openly. The film really seems to be about the dysfunction of an affluent family – you only really know it’s a horror film because the soundtrack makes it clear that there is an ominous significance to many of the events on screen (lots of heavy cello and occasional outbursts of unsettling noise). This, together with the sheer darkness of what occurs on screen, results in a first half to the movie which is genuinely extremely uncomfortable – there is an almost chokingly oppressive sense of darkness and unease. It is not at all easy or pleasant to watch. I have to say it’s not actually very scary, either, as this is traditionally understood, and I did wonder if this was going to turn out to be another one of those post-horror movies we are having so many of currently.

Well, it turned out that Hereditary isn’t a post-horror movie after all, for it turns into a very different film in the second half and a rather more familiar one. Once again, there does seem to have been some deliberate obfuscation on the part of the film-makers as to what audiences should expect, so I don’t feel I can really go into too much detail except to say that it involves seances not going according to plan, conspiracies, the desecration of graves, one of the kings of Hell, a cult, numerous severed heads, spontaneous combustion, and quite possibly a demonically-possessed kitchen sink. In other words, we are very much back in mainstream horror territory, with the important caveat that it still isn’t particularly scary.

Oh, they manage a few mechanical jump scares, and there are bits which will make the average person go ‘eww’ and no mistake, but it won’t get into your head and mess you up in the way that a truly great horror film will. The best it can manage is some so-so gore and other old favourites: when a shot is composed so that the main character in it is off to one side in front of an open doorway, you don’t have to be Thelma Schoonmaker to figure out that something spooky will be ‘unexpectedly’ appearing in the frame behind them in the not too distant future. And the problem is that all this doesn’t even seem to be there in support of a story which makes sense. There are a lot of ominous red herrings which don’t seem to go anywhere: Next Desk Colleague observed that it looked like a film where they were making up the story as they went along. Maybe they were.

Not surprisingly, by the end people were openly laughing at Hereditary in the screening we attended, and not the nervous-tension-diffusing kind of laughter either. I myself found I was more inclined to look at my watch, but I did emit the odd derisory snort as things went on. As the credits rolled I looked around at the rest of the team, wondering if they would agree with my snap ‘what a load of cobblers’ judgement. Apparently so: ‘terrible,’ was NDC’s response, while all Olinka had to say was ‘I’m so sorry for making you watch that.’

This does seem to be one of those films which everyone loves apart from the audience, though – I note that Hereditary currently enjoys a 92% approval rating from your actual professional film critics, but only a D+ from paying audiences. I do have to say it would be remiss of me to give the impression that this is an entirely worthless experience – the way in which the atmosphere of the first half is created and maintained is extremely impressive, highly unpleasant though it is to experience. Also, while all the main actors are good, the film has a particular virtue in Toni Collette’s performance, which is often mesmerising, and manages to engage and affect the viewer even when the film is beginning to unravel. So there is lots of promise and potential here, but for this to be realised it would need a film which is more coherent and original. There are certainly things of interest in Hereditary, but if this is the future of the horror movie, we are looking at a genre heading into serious trouble.

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I first saw James L Conway’s Hangar 18 when it showed up on prime-time UK TV in the summer of 1986 (the film itself came out in 1980). I seem to recall I was more pleased than anything else, at the time – it wasn’t that often that a new sci-fi movie turned up at a time I could actually watch it – and the movie itself seemed engaging. Looking at the movie again now, however, I am somewhat astonished that, even thirty-two years ago in the dog days of summer, the BBC actually put this sucker on in the middle of the evening. As far as the development of my critical faculties go – well, we were all young once.

 

Hangar 18 was the product of Sunn Classic Pictures, an outfit which is indulgently remembered as a producer of a series of rather credulous sensationalist drama-documentaries, with names like In Search of Historic Jesus, In Search of Noah’s Ark, Beyond and Back (a movie about near-death experiences which made it onto Roger Ebert’s most-hated films list), The Bermuda Triangle, and The Mysterious Monsters. Hangar 18 has a go at whipping up the same kind of ‘could it be true?’ vibe, but is nowhere near up to the task.

Things get underway and we find ourselves watching the inaugural mission of the space shuttle (which presumably gave the film a near-future kind of vibe on release, as the first shuttle launches lay in the future in 1980). Aboard the ship are astronauts Steve (Gary Collins) and Lew (James Hampton). I would say they are the world’s least convincing astronauts, but then almost nobody in this film is convincing as their character. The crew are in the process of launching a satellite when they find themselves joined by another space vessel of extra-terrestrial origin. Despite their enormous technological prowess, the aliens prove themselves unable to get out of the way of the satellite and there is what orbital mechanics experts would describe as a bit of a ding.

The UFO falls out of orbit, landing in Texas, and the third crewman on the shuttle is beheaded by flying debris (the unconvincing special effect of the floating corpse seems to be one of the things about this movie that everyone remembers). Steve and Lew land back on Earth safely, but find themselves being blamed for the accident, with the presence of the alien ship not mentioned. What on Earth is going on?

Well, there’s a presidential election only two weeks away, and Machiavellian White House chief-of-staff Gordon Cain (Robert Vaughn, on autopilot) has decreed that all information relating to the saucer be kept under wraps until the votes are in (his reasoning here is a bit complicated but essentially spurious). This is almost certainly the least convincing cover-up in history, or possibly the worst thought-through. Steve and Lew get hung out to dry for the death of their crewmate, but there seems to be no attempt to keep tabs on them, as they are allowed to wander about doing some fairly inept sleuthing with no real difficulty.

Meanwhile the saucer itself has been whisked off to Hangar 18, which is not the same as Area 51, of course: Hangar 18 is in Texas, for one thing, and looks like a beat-up old aircraft hangar rather than a state-of-the-art government installation, although they try to get round this by suggesting it is cunning camouflage. ‘Don’t let the outside fool you!’ cries NASA boss Harry (Darren McGavin), introducing his team to the site, which is about as close to inventiveness as the film gets.

Mind you, the alien ship looks even more cruddy than the hangar, resembling a collection of vacuum-formed plastic boxes glued together, and it has not-terribly-interesting black-with-black-highlights décor, too. (On the other hand, it does seem to be bigger on the inside than the outside, so maybe one shouldn’t be too critical.) Harry and his team set about studying the ship and the bodies of the dead aliens inside, uncovering the odd abductee, translating the alien language with almost unseemly speed, and so on.

All this time, however, Steve and Lew are closing in on the heart of the cover-up, threatening to expose the secret of Hangar 18 and potentially really mess up the presidential election result. How far will Cain go to keep the situation under control…?

It’s not very far into Hangar 18 that you realise that, for whatever reason, you have sat down to watch what is fundamentally a bad movie. It is not quite the case that it is a comprehensively bad movie, for Darren McGavin works his usual magic and manages to lift many of the scenes he appears in to the level where they are relatively engaging. The film has a decent premise and is somewhat revealing as a post-Watergate, pre-X Files conspiracy thriller. But most of it is very heavy going. Partly this is because it has clearly been made on a punitively low budget, with minimal special effects.

However, a low budget does not excuse the suckiness of much of the script, which is the kind of thing that gives melodrama a bad name. The main driver of the plot is the sheer ineptness of the government cover-up, which allows Steve and Lew to roam the country gathering evidence and following tenuous leads almost with impunity. It is not one percent convincing as a depiction of the intelligence services in action, and as a result the film is almost impossible to take seriously as a drama.

The stuff with Harry and the others investigating the saucer is somewhat more interesting, though there is little original to be found here, either: it turns out the aliens have been abducting people, and also possibly armadillos (it’s not entirely clear); the ancient astronaut ideas of Swiss hotel manager and convicted fraudster Erich von Däniken are also dusted off and wheeled out. It barely qualifies as proper science fiction, to be honest, and I can imagine many modern commentators having issues with the fact that this is a movie almost wholly populated by middle-aged white dudes.

In fact, I have to say that possibly the most interesting thing about Hangar 18 is the ending, or perhaps I should say endings, for there are two: the original theatrical one, and another one cobbled together for the film’s TV broadcasts (some of which took place under the spoiler-tastic title Invasion Force). Now, it seems to be the case that it’s the second ending which is in general circulation at the moment. The difference between the two, so far as I’ve been able to find out, is as follows. Both versions conclude with Cain deciding to make the problem of Hangar 18 go away by blowing it up in a faked plane crash (listen to the 9/11 conspiracy nuts squeal). Meanwhile, Harry and the others have just discovered that the alien ship is an advance scout for an imminent invasion. But before they can raise the alarm generally, the hangar is blown up and Cain’s machinations leave humanity unprepared! (In the theatrical version anyway.) In the TV version, the ending is somewhat recut to suggest the alien ship survived intact, along with everyone who was inside it. It’s a bit of a cop-out, to be honest, concluding a rather bland movie in a very bland way. So I suppose it has consistency to commend it, but at least the darker original end would have been more memorable. Even so, I’m not even sure Hangar 18 really has any particular claim to be remembered.

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Maintenance of aim is terribly important in any undertaking: if you’re a surgeon doing heart-surgery, for instance, it is generally accepted that changing your mind halfway through and embarking on a tonsillectomy is not best practice. This kind of goes without saying in most walks of life, and is not normally a problem when it comes to film-making, anyway; any decent movie, once it enters serious production, has all the agile manoeuvrability of a fully-laden oil tanker – it’s just too complicated and expensive to start changing things. (Many a famous flop is the result of clashing creative visions causing a bad movie to go soaring over budget.)

Movies are a bit more vulnerable at the scripting stage, of course, and a spectacular example of just how badly things can go wrong at this point appears to be John Hough’s 1986 film Biggles (released in the US a couple of years later, under the title of Biggles: Adventures in Time). Now, anyone familiar with W.E. Johns’ famous boy’s-adventure hero could probably have guessed that the producers of this movie had set out on a slightly rocky path: doing Biggles authentically would involve dealing with a lot of problematic material, mainly due to the character’s origins during the dying days of the British Empire – there are some fairly unreconstructed attitudes on display from time to time, if not outright racism.

Nevertheless, you could certainly imagine a Biggles movie kind of working, provided it was sensibly scripted to catch the spirit of the stories – lots of courageous aerial derring-do, all in the cause of righteousness, naturally – in fact, you could imagine the 1983 Tom Selleck movie High Road to China serving as a template for a fairly successful Biggles film. And apparently Hough’s movie started life as just such a rousing period adventure, in the Raiders of the Lost Ark style. However, and this is the point at which the catastrophe started to unfold, while the film was being scripted – it may even have been while it was in production, such are the timescales involved – key figures on the project noted the success of various science-fiction films, particularly Back to Future, and the decision was made to try and attract the same audience to the Biggles movie.

So it is that Biggles, a film supposedly about a British First World War flying ace, is primarily about Jim Ferguson (Alex Hyde-White), a New York City yuppie living in the middle 1980s. Ferguson’s job is running a company that produces fairly rancid-looking ready meals (he keeps getting dragged out of meetings by people declaring ‘there’s a glitch with the mashed potatoes!’) but his life is generally quite ordinary, except for the fact he is being stalked by a mysterious old man (a frail-looking Peter Cushing, giving it all he’s got).

Well, all this changes one night when Jim, apropos of nothing much, finds himself in 1917, saving the life of a British airman when his biplane crashes (this, needless to say, is Biggles, played moderately well by Neil Dickson). And then he’s back in New York, none the wiser. This happens a number of times, until he decides to sort it all out by tracking down the old man, who seems to be connected to this odd phenomenon. Cushing’s character actually lives inside Tower Bridge in London, for no very good reason, and turns out to be Air Commodore Raymond, Biggles’ commanding officer during the war. This would make him about a hundred years old, and the uncharitable would say Cushing possibly looks it, but the film skips daintily over such things.

Well, Cushing is saddled with the exposition, and reveals that Ferguson and Biggles are ‘time twins’ and that apparently ‘time travel is much more common than people think.’ This is the sole rationale for the movie, and not even Peter Cushing can sell it, I’m afraid. Anyway, every time Biggles is in danger, Ferguson finds himself plucked back through time to help him out, and spends most of the film ping-ponging back and forth. There is a plot about the Germans having developed a new weapon that delivers a devastating sonic attack (all together now: ‘You will feel dizzy, you will feel the urge to vomit’, and so on), which most of the action revolves around.

And it is all almost indescribably awful. It’s not as infuriatingly, wilfully ugly as the Peter Rabbit movie, but this is the kind of film that made some people spend most of the eighties announcing the death of the British film industry. Cushing is the only person connected with this film who had any kind of movie career of note, and it was his last role. Everyone else has a solid background in duff TV, for it is full of faces from things like Allo Allo! and Roland Rat. Well, maybe I’m being a little too harsh on John Hough, who in addition to doing various episodes of The New Avengers and similar things also made Twins of Evil for Hammer and the original Witch Mountain movies for Disney. There’s a bit of a Hammer thread running through this movie, for in addition to the presence of Cushing and Hough, a Hammer subsidiary part-financed the film. It just shows the extent of the company’s fall from grace in the 1980s, I suppose.

I mean, the film verges on the downright incompetent when it comes to things like editing and pacing, to say nothing of the tranquilised quality of most of the performances – Hyde-White is a particular offender in this department. All this just compounds the flaws inherent in the basic conception of the film, which crassly hedges its bets by attempting to combine swashbuckling adventure with time-travel fantasy and broad comedy: Ferguson keeps time travelling at inappropriate moments, so his friends discover him dressed as a nun (ho ho!) or he finds himself inadvertently machine-gunning the London police (ha ha!). The casual profanity in this film, to say nothing of the gags about breast implants, just feels horribly wrong for a Biggles movie, but the uncertainty of tone is pervasive – we go from moments of near-slapstick to a bit where Ferguson’s girlfriend (Fiona Hutchison), for no very good reason, claws an incinerated corpse’s eye from its socket. Even in the bits which seem vaguely historically accurate, the synth-pop soundtrack destroys any chance of atmosphere (this film contains Queen bassist John Deacon’s only recordings outside the band, which may mean it is of marginal interest to obsessive fans).

The real problem with Biggles is that it doesn’t have an audience: I don’t mean that no-one would be interested in a film based on this character (I think that a serious film based on the earliest stories, which are darker and grittier, could be really interesting), but that the structure of the story is so slip-shod and weak it appears to be aimed at undemanding children, while much of its substance is clearly pitched towards a much older age-group. The result is a strikingly incompetent film with a very broad lack-of-appeal; other than Queen aficionados, it’s only likely to be of interest as Cushing’s final (non-CGI) big screen appearance, and even in those terms it’s a horribly unworthy valediction for the great man.

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I was commenting to a colleague just the other day that, when it comes to the great Gothic horror novels of the 19th century, the ones which came to dominate large swathes of popular culture, we are talking about books which are largely unread (and, in the opinion of some people, largely unreadable). And yet we still know the stories, or think we do. To be fair, film-makers have been diligently trying to smuggle elements of the original novels back into films, in defiance of audience expectations, with honestly quite variable results. It’s getting to the point where you have to think quite hard about which elements of (for example) Frankenstein are original to Mary Shelley, and which were inserted into the story by James Whale, Terence Fisher, Kenneth Branagh, Jack Smight, et al.

So how do you approach a new version of Frankenstein these days? Do you go for the ultra purist approach and try to stay completely faithful to the novel, risking audience ennui and having to contend with the fact that it’s hardly structured like a modern screenplay? Or do you decide to be a bit more adventurous, running the risk of losing any trace of what makes this story distinctive in the first place?

On reflection, I would say the former is a much safer bet, but then I did watch Paul McGuigan’s Victor Frankenstein quite recently and it may have had an effect on me. Responsible for the script was Max Landis, who rose to prominence with the rather good Chronicle but has only really had his name on dud films ever since. (Am I giving away the end of this review too early? Hey ho.)

First indications that this is a slightly different take on Frankenstein come right at the start, when the film decides to eschew the traditional setting of central Europe in favour of a circus in Victorian London. Here we meet a nameless hunchback (Daniel Radcliffe), employed as a clown by the circus proprietor. Despite having no formal education or proper materials, the hunchback grows to become an awesomely talented self-taught doctor, anatomist and surgeon. No, honestly he does. The whole film is kind of predicated on this. (I did warn you.)

Well, anyway, the hunchback is in love with the circus trapeze artist (Jessica Brown Findlay), and as a result is quite upset when she falls off one night and nearly dies. However, the hunchback is able to save her with the help of a brilliant medical student who happens to be in the crowd, who goes by the name of Victor Frankenstein (James McAvoy).

Frankenstein instantly spots his new friend’s potential and recruits him as an assistant, freeing him from the circus, fixing his hunch, and employing him to do various fiddly bits of stitching to help his private medical research. To make life a bit easier, Frankenstein gives him the name of his suspiciously elusive flatmate, Igor, and the duo embark on a quest to uncover the deeper mysteries of life and death…

It’s a bit difficult to know where to start with Victor Frankenstein, except to say that you have to be somewhat amused by a film which opens with the voiceover line ‘You know this story’ before going on to depart almost entirely from Mary Shelley’s actual plot. Or, to put it another way, any Frankenstein movie in which the actual animation of the creature doesn’t take place until ten minutes before the end has obviously got serious issues.

What on Earth is it about for the first hour and a half, then? Well, this being a modern movie, it doesn’t really want to saddle itself with a lot of baggage about sin and hubris and the arrogance of man trying to supplant God in the cosmos, even though this is to a large extent what Frankenstein is actually about. Instead, we get a never-knowingly-underwrought tale of the friendship between Frankenstein and Igor. It’s true that this is an aspect of the Frankenstein story which has never before been explored in detail. On the other hand, this may just be because doing a Frankenstein movie where Igor is the hero is a bafflingly stupid idea.

If nothing else it does suggest a certain familiarity with the James Whale version of Frankenstein from 1931 – although, if we’re going to be strictly accurate about this, the first time a character called Igor appears as Frankenstein’s hunchbacked assistant is in Mel Brooks’ spoof version of the story from 1974. The script seems to treat the whole Frankenstein canon as fair game, anyway, stealing bits from many different versions: Frankenstein needing someone to do the fiddly work for him comes from a couple of the Hammer movies, for example, while the fact that Victor had a brother named Henry Frankenstein is another nod to the 1931 film (in which Frankenstein’s name was changed).

When it starts trying to be its own thing, though, the film generally becomes exasperatingly odd very quickly. Landis seems to be under the impression that the key difference between Victorian London – the exact period is obscure – and the present day is that people wore big hats and cravats and long frocks. Uneducated circus folk are able to pass in high society with no difficulty at all, for instance. There’s also frequent tonal uncertainty – Frankenstein’s initial project is a homuncular beast largely made from bits of chimpanzee, and to be fair it’s an unsettling creation – until you’re reminded that Frankenstein has christened it ‘Gordon’ for no very obvious reason.

One of the main influences on this film is nothing to do with Frankenstein, anyway: Paul McGuigan was the initial director on Sherlock and this is really reminiscent of that show at its most self-consciously stylish. McAvoy’s performance is very much like Cumberbatch at his most shoutily eccentric, while possibly the best thing in the film is Andrew Scott’s performance as a police detective in pursuit of Frankenstein for his own reasons. Even Mark Gatiss turns up, although he only gets one line (you can’t help thinking that Gatiss must have a great Frankenstein adaptation in him somewhere).

I suppose I shouldn’t be too unpleasant about McAvoy, as he’s only playing the character as it was written. You can tell that, in a ‘straight’ adaptation of Frankenstein, he would probably be brilliant. The thing is that I suspect the makers of this film would argue that it is really is a ‘straight’ Frankenstein, and sincerely mean it. But it isn’t. It’s the kind of film where there’s an outbreak of slo-mo or CGI every five minutes, just to stop the audience getting bored, where all of the original ideas have been purged in favour of ‘character-based personal drama’ (i.e. soapy nonsense). The movie’s big idea is that Frankenstein created Igor every bit as much as the more famous creature – well, in this film he does, but then (as we’ve discussed) Igor is hardly a core element of the Frankenstein story, especially not as he’s presented here. So what is the point of this film? What is it actually about? Apart from a few scenes here and there, what has it honestly got to do with Mary Shelley’s story? I can see very little connection, and it’s not even imaginative or competent enough to be as much fun as some of the wackier Hammer Frankenstein sequels. A waste of talent, potential, and time.

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As chance would have it, just the other day I passed several fairly agreeable hours watching Euston Films’ 1979 pre-apocalyptic drama Quatermass, even as the telly was full of pre-launch publicity for Euston Films’ 2018 pre-apocalyptic drama Hard Sun, currently showing on BBC One. The media has also been marking the fact that it’s forty years since the TV debut of Blake’s 7, with some unusually complimentary retrospectives concentrating on the programme’s dystopian sensibility and paranoia rather the overacting and spaceships made out of hair-dryers.

I mention the last because Hard Sun is, by some metrics, an SF show for adults, a genre which the BBC has been reluctant to take a chance on since the failure of Outcasts in 2011. (Yes, yes: I know there is what remains of the world’s greatest fantasy series, which I no longer talk about, but here we speak of actual proper science fiction.) BBC disquiet about doing an SF series appears to have been assuaged by the fact that this is only really nominally science fiction, squatting on the border with the police procedural/conspiracy thriller genre. (The show is the brainchild of Neil Cross, who created cop show Luther and also wrote a couple of middling episodes of that fantasy series.)

The first episode establishes the tone for much of what follows, as we meet DCI Cockney Geezer (Jim Sturgess), who seems like a devoted family man despite the fact he’s quietly knocking off his dead best mate’s wife. The circumstances in which the dead best mate passed on are sufficiently suspicious for Geezer’s boss, DCS Annoying Pen-pusher, to believe Geezer may have done him in, and to this end DI Cynical Gamine (Agyness Deyn) has been planted on Geezer’s team to secretly investigate him. (I like shows which have a bit of Agy, but I’ve never seen one with as much Agyness as this one.) Gamine is doing this so her unhinged son, whom she appears to have given birth to when she was about seven, does not go to prison for attempting to murder her. One thing you can say about Hard Sun: it’s never knowingly under-plotted.

Well, in their first day on the job together Geezer and Gamine find themselves working on the case of a conspiracy-theory obsessed hacker with ASD (oh, sigh) who has turned up dead. One of his mates has got his hands on the dead guy’s USB stick, which is disguised as a Saturn V rocket but may as well just be a box with PLOT DEVICE scrawled on it. Our heroes recover the USB but find themselves pursued by the security services, intent on killing everyone who comes into contact with the information on the stick. But why?

Needless to say, Geezer and Gamine can’t resist taking a peek, hoping this will give them leverage to get the homicidal spooks to back off. It turns out that – well, here’s the thing: we never get to see what’s on the stick beyond a few blipverts of graphs and suchlike, but everyone who does look at it properly confirms that it concerns the government’s advance planning for the end of the world (codenamed Hard Sun), which is due in five years time.

Cheer up, it might never happen. Oh, hang on a minute…

 

I have to admit to being somewhat bemused by this, because the government appear to have managed to plan their response to the end of the world without ever letting on exactly what’s going to happen. Even after they’ve looked at the stick, Geezer and Gamine are left speculating as to just what is heading their way – is a comet going to hit Earth? Is it some kind of environmental catastrophe? They seem to be in the dark. Presumably this is just to maintain a sense of foreboding mystery; it also gives them a ready-made opportunity for a big reveal come the last episode of the series.

Well, the first episode reached fairly deep into the bag of Modern Cop Show cliches, but I do like a bit of apocalyptica, and I was curious to see just how the rest of the series would play out (episode one concludes with Gamine taking a redacted set of the information to the media), and just how strong the SF element would be in the mix.

Courtesy of iPlayer’s box set function and the fact I had a day with not much going on (not to mention the fact that Hard Sun is the kind of show you can put on in the background while doing something else and honestly not miss much), I ended up having watched the rest of the first series within the next day. And the answer to the ‘how SF is it?’ question is: really not very much.

Hard Sun boils down to being another of those bleak and bloody cop shows, with the difference being that this time it’s understandable why the leads are so glum all the time: the world’s apparently going to end, after all. The thing is, though, that the impending apocalypse is primarily just a mood-setting thing – the various killers that Geezer and Gamine find themselves contending with are all nutters who’ve been drawn out of the woodwork by the release of the Hard Sun info, but it’s established at the top of episode two that nearly everyone has been convinced this was a hoax. Life goes on as normal for nearly everyone; you could rewrite the middle episodes of this series to extract the impending doom/science fiction element very easily. It’s mainly just there to provide an atmosphere of existential misery – Hard Sun‘s signature bit is a scene where Gamine and Geezer sit down together in the middle of a case and wail ‘But what does any of it matter anyway? We’ve only got five years left!’, which happens in nearly every episode.

Subsequent episodes are mostly competent but fairly undistinguished takes on the kind of story you’ve seen before – a barking ex-husband takes his children hostage, a man outraged by the cruelty of the world starts killing nice people and challenges God to intervene and stop him, a serial killer preys on suicidal people, and so on. There are lots of people in hoodies stalking darkened streets, and so much knife-related violence that it’s easy to imagine the BBC being forced to pull Hard Sun on taste and decency grounds, given the current plague of knife crime in London.

What’s really absent is any kind of moral centre, for as the series proceeds Geezer and Gamine reveal that they are prepared to do just about anything to further their cause, which only occasionally involves catching criminals. When they’re not actively beating each other up with their collapsible truncheons, the doom-conscious duo are forever disregarding standard procedure, obstructing or perverting the course of justice, or plotting the cold-blooded murder of a government employee. This sort of thing reaches its most uproarious extreme in a scene in which Geezer seems to be actively considering waterboarding a priest (one story revolves around that old chestnut of a priest not being able to reveal the identity of a killer due to the seal of the confessional being sacrosanct).

I say ‘uproarious’ because so much of Hard Sun really beggars credibility – there’s the peculiarly vague contents of the USB stick, along with the behaviour of the leads and their byzantine back-stories. Coupled to the fact that the show clearly takes itself very seriously indeed, the result is a programme which is just an unintentional black comedy more than anything else.

I suppose I could imagine the BBC making a show like Hard Sun and it being more, um, good, about twenty years ago, when even the best of us were not immune to the odd pre-millenial jitter. Nowadays, though? Not so much. One plot thread which feels like a particular misstep concerns the ominous dark apparatus of the Security Services, who pursue Geezer and Gamine throughout the series in order to get the USB stick back (despite the fact that everyone is supposedly convinced the apocalyptic data is fake). Playing their nemesis is Nikki Amuka-Bird, who played the curiously inept government minister in New Survivors and plays a somewhat more competent spook here. That’s the thing, I would say: these days we’re not worried that our governments are up to brilliantly-conceived and ultra-secret machinations behind our backs. In the time of Donald Trump and Theresa May, our main concern is that our governments really are as hapless, clueless, and incompetent as they routinely seem to be.

It would be great if the BBC actually had the nerve to make a proper SF TV series, rather than just smuggling a few SF elements into what’s essentially a very dark, very silly cop show. But there you go: such is the world we live in today. Every episode of Hard Sun concludes with a countdown timer, ticking down the days before armageddon’s arrival, and one can only conclude that the BBC and their co-producers Hulu have half an eye on this actually running for five years. Well, I’ll be surprised – but if it even makes it to a second season, the manner in which this one concludes suggests that in any subsequent outings this show will become a rather different beast. That can only be a good thing, because at present there’s at least as much daftness as darkness in Hard Sun.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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