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Posts Tagged ‘Harvey Keitel’

It falls to few people, no matter how naturally talented they are, to be good at everything. (This feels entirely just and comes as something of a relief to those of us who frankly often struggle to be good at anything.) And so there is surely something reassuring about the fact that, despite a massively successful and influential career as a novelist, author, essayist, critic, and memoirist, Martin Amis will still be remembered as a crappy writer of SF movie screenplays.

To be fair, he only had one go at this, and the experience seems to have been sufficiently unpleasant to put him off having another try. The film in question is Saturn 3, directed by Stanley Donen and released in 1980 under the auspices of Lew Grade’s ITC Entertainment. Amis apparently used his experiences on the movie as material for his novel Money, which I haven’t read; Saturn 3, on the other hand, I have experienced, as both a movie and a tie-in novel.

saturn 3

(Not that it matters much, but I once interviewed the writer of the Saturn 3 tie-in – this was not the major focus of our chat – who was a fellow named Stephen Gallagher. Gallagher, a bit like Amis, went on to do many much more distinguished and interesting things, but as he is primarily a genre writer he is not nearly as celebrated for them. His main recollection of the Saturn 3 job was that he was writing the novelisation before the film was actually finished – I think this is standard practice – and had only a copy of the shooting script to work from, along with a photo of one of the sets and another of the film’s robotic antagonist. My recollection is that the book changes the end of the film subtly but considerably, but as I’ve observed before it’s not unheard of for tie-in writers to quietly try and improve on the original script.)

Your first sense that things are going somewhat adrift with Saturn 3 comes very early on, when it is revealed that Kirk Douglas, superstar of the Golden Age of Hollywood, is only second billed on the movie. The coveted top spot is given instead to Farrah Fawcett, star of TV’s Charlie’s Angels. Hmmm. Rounding out the cast is Harvey Keitel, sort of (yes, this is another of those British movies which recruited an almost entirely American cast in an attempt to secure a US release).

In time-honoured post-stellar conflict post-Alien style, the film begins with a hefty model spaceship crawling from the top of the screen to the bottom, more than slowly enough for the viewer to discern that they are in for some duff special effects in the course of the next 88 minutes. All is not well inside the ship, either, for Captain Benson (Keitel), disgruntled at being barred from a mission on the grounds of mental instability, decides to murder his replacement and impersonate him on the job. (As this is the premise for the whole movie, you just have to accept how ill-thought-through and implausible it seems.)

Benson is soon rocketing off to Saturn’s third moon, Tethys, which is the location of a hydroponics research station operated by a couple named Adam (Douglas) and Alex (Fawcett). Both of them have been isolated for a long time – Alex has never been to Earth – and perhaps don’t notice that Benson is acting a bit strangely (nor that Keitel is obviously, and rather distractingly, having all his dialogue dubbed by Roy Dotrice).

The couple, who to judge from the film spend much more time in bed together than actually doing any hydroponics research, are displeased to learn that Benson’s mission is to oversee the construction of a shiny new robot which will make the station much more efficient and allow one of them to be reassigned elsewhere. But it turns out they have bigger problems. Hector the robot, who appears to be half-Terminator, half-anglepoise lamp, is programmed by Benson using a direct brain interface, and is inadvertently getting all of the captain’s homicidal tendencies and lustful thoughts about Farrah Fawcett in addition to his basic training. Trouble is bound to ensue…

Hard to believe it may be, but there was once a time when a film like Saturn 3 (current Rotten Tomatoes rating: 18%) could be broadcast as the BBC’s big Saturday night film. I should know, I was there: 8.20 p.m. on September 6th, 1986. My main memory is of acute surprise when the film turned out to have much more nudity and gore in it than I had expected (this must have been before they instituted the 9 o’clock watershed on UK TV). Apparently Lew Grade envisioned Saturn 3 as being a slightly disreputable exploitation movie (you can see how the plot might lend itself to this sort of approach), but Stanley Donen (who took over when original director John Barry was dismissed) presumably wanted something a bit more high-minded.

And so we end up with something which is neither intelligent or especially fun to watch. In addition to some of the most dubious spaceship models and special effects of its period, the film notably fails to present a coherent or convincing vision of futuristic society – this is obviously a second-wave SF knock-off film, post-Alien, but unlike that film and other ones deriving from it, you get no sense of recognition of the world or how it functions. Amis tries to create a sense of time and place by dropping cod-futuristic expressions and slang into the script (the base is ‘shadow-locked’ for most of the movie, which is why no-one can call for help, while the ageing Adam (Douglas was in his early sixties at the time, which if you ask me is too old to be doing nude fight scenes) is approaching his ‘abort time’, whatever that is), but it just feels intrusive.

Without much of a wider context having been established (the film’s Wikipedia page claims that it occurs in a future where Earth has become immensely overpopulated, but there’s barely any reference to this in the actual movie), Benson’s attempts to get his hands on Alex (‘You have a beautiful body. Can I use it?’) just feel contrived and leery for all his assertions that this is how it’s done back home. There’s an attempt at conjuring up some kind of sexual tension between the three leads, but the weak script and the lack of chemistry between any of them scuppers this (the most interesting relationship in the film is the one between Keitel and the prop robot).

Luckily, this is not a long movie and relatively soon we come to the bits with the robot on the rampage. I suppose it’s a testament to the achievement of Isaac Asimov that he managed to banish the ‘killer robot’ story from respectable SF (this was his intention with his ‘laws of robotics’ stories). Saturn 3, which is one of the purest ‘killer robot’ stories in cinema, is therefore something of an aberration. Nevertheless, the film’s most effective sequence comes near the end, with the human characters stalked through the base by Hector (who, being a clanking seven-foot machine, develops an almost supernatural ability to sneak up on them). There is not much in the way of characterisation or context here, but it does function on a cinematic level.

The rest of the film doesn’t, really. There is an identifiable story going on, there is the most basic kind of characterisation, and the film doesn’t contain the more egregious violations of the laws of physics that some more distinguished professional film-watchers would have you believe are present. But it never engages and never persuades, and the story isn’t fun enough to make you overlook its various shortcomings. A rather ugly and primitive movie; the kind of thing that gives incompetent SF a bad name.

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From the Hootoo archive. Originally published October 17th 2002:

He’s back in the public eye again, even when confined to his prison cell: a literary phenomenon, a cultured gentleman, and an iconic figure of the dark side of humanity and its most depraved appetites. But that’s enough about Jeffrey Archer, let’s focus instead on the infinitely more amiable Dr Hannibal Lecter, back on the big screen once again in Brett Ratner’s Red Dragon.

In Ratner’s movie Edward Norton plays Will Graham, a retired FBI agent who formerly specialised in the profiling of serial killers. He’s persuaded to take on one more case by his boss (Harvey Keitel) – two families have already been slaughtered by an unstable psychopath (Ralph ‘Mr Sunbeam’ Fiennes, who should really think about doing a comedy or something – although if the results are anything like The Avengers, maybe not) with another set of killings due in a matter of days. As time ticks away Graham agrees to draw upon the assistance of a brilliant forensic psychologist – the only drawback being that he’s currently incarcerated in a secure facility for the criminally insane, put there by Graham himself years earlier…

It’s hard to get past the idea that this is simply one last attempt to cash in on the popularity of Anthony Hopkins’ portrayal of Hannibal the Cannibal. Red Dragon is the second film version of Thomas Harris’ novel in sixteen years, the first being Michael Mann’s Manhunter (the two films actually share some of the same behind-the-camera personnel), a clinically stylish thriller featuring Brian Cox as Lecktor (sic). Cox made a big impression in what was a fairly small part, because Lecter is very much a marginal figure in the story as written.

Red Dragon retells the story in an approximation of the style of Silence of the Lambs – it makes much use of the iconography of Jonathan Demme’s film, recreating Lecter’s cell, the image of him in the mask, and concludes with a pointless foreshadowing of the 1991 movie1. But above all it makes as much use as it possibly can of Anthony Hopkins. This isn’t very much, though, and it’s one of the film’s major problems. When Lecter’s not on the screen things often seem a bit dry, and you impatiently await his next appearance – but when he does appear, Hopkins’ startlingly camp and rather over-the-top performance, while magnetic to watch and very funny, does seem rather out-of-place in a movie that’s trying to sell itself as a straightforward psychological thriller.

Hopkins virtually steals the movie, and you get the impression he was heartily encouraged to. But Fiennes is also very good in a complex role, as is Emily Watson as a girl he befriends. (The two younger Brits seem to have modelled their performances on that of the great man, inasmuch as none of them ever seems to blink, and the array of fixed, glassy eyeballs rather reminded me of The Muppet Show). Norton spends rather too long talking to himself and wandering around crime scenes to be really engaging as the hero, and Keitel’s part is horribly underwritten and two-dimensional. It falls to Philip Seymour Hoffman to keep the US end up with a nice turn as a sleazy reporter.

The plot is quite engaging, though the climax seems a bit contrived and there are a few implausibility’s – about half way through Graham and Crawford make a mistake that has quite horrific consequences, but no-one, not them, not their superiors, not even the media, seems particularly bothered by this. But it’s neither especially scary or suspenseful, and Ratner seems a rather limited director – his main achievement is to keep a film with some very nasty subject matter down to a box-office-friendly 15 certificate (fantastic actor though he is, the most disturbing sight in the film is that of Hoffman in his y-fronts). Its finest moment by some way is the opening, a piece of black, grand guignol comedy reminiscent of a Vincent Price horror movie – but one that’s over all too soon.

Actually, this has much more in common with the horror genre than that of the thriller. Lecter is a fantastical figure, refined, aloof, fearsomely intelligent, his only weakness being his dietary peculiarities. Is there really that much difference between him and the horror icon for much of the last century, Dracula? I don’t think so. Fiennes’ character, on the other hand, is depicted as almost superhumanly strong and resilient, deformed, haunted by an abusive female relative, and drawn helplessly to a young blind girl: there are echoes there of both Frankenstein’s monster and Norman Bates (himself a split personality, a condition with its own fantastical mirror in the form of the werewolf). These are old friends in new skins, and a sign of where this movie is really rooted.

The other way in which this is a very traditional horror film is that in it, evil is presented as being synonymous with sexual ‘deviancy’. Norton must choose between traditional family life and the twisted world of the serial killers for which he has such an uncomfortable empathy, as embodied by Lecter – whose effete, preppy turn of phrase and double entendres (‘I’d love to get you on my couch’ he simpers to Graham at one point) mark him out as the ultimate predatory gay, looking to either turn or destroy his happily married adversary. Fiennes’ character, on the other hand, specifically targets the traditional, nuclear family and is portrayed as a shy, repressed mummy’s boy (another vaguely unpleasant gay stereotype) whose possible redemption comes in the form of a decent ‘normal’ relationship with a woman. Did the film-makers intend to include this homophobic subtext in their movie? I don’t know, but it’s not exactly deeply buried and I’m surprised it hasn’t drawn more criticism.

Unpleasant or not, hackneyed or not, it’s still the most interesting thing about Red Dragon. This is a reasonable thriller, with some good performances, and I quite enjoyed it (though I still think Manhunter is by far the better film). But as a film that’s being marketed and will be judged as an addition to the Lecter franchise, it’s inevitably disappointing. An entirely new outing for the doctor might have been a better idea – but as Hopkins has announced himself retired from cannibalistic service, we’ll never know.

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