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Posts Tagged ‘Michael Ironside’

The past was indeed a strange and very different place. The year must have been 1982-ish, give or take a year either way, and I was at my local two-screen cinema somewhere in Lancashire. I have no idea what I was there to see, but I distinctly recall being fascinated by one of the displays advertising a coming attraction: not a poster, but one of those free-standing cardboard things that you still used to occasionally see for big movies before everything went to hell. This one depicted – well, it was a man in a business suit, I suppose, or the upper part of his arms, and torso, and shoulders, and neck. The head was absent, and it was clear that this was not due to the display being damaged: the reason this guy was in the display was because his head had literally exploded, and this was made quite clear.

Lord knows what my parents were doing at the time, because I’m utterly certain they would not have been down with me checking out advertising for films where people’s heads detonated. And Lord knows what the cinema staff, and indeed the film’s distributors, were thinking of, putting advertising material about the place which was so appallingly graphic. The image fascinated and stuck with me, even though it would be over a decade before I actually saw it. The name of the film was Scanners, directed by David Cronenberg.

The film opens with a homeless man, whose name we eventually learn is Cameron Vale (Stephen Lack), wandering through a large shopping mall. He stops for a burger; two women look at him with distaste. One of them is abruptly struck down with a seizure of some sort – we see in Vale’s expression shock, horror, guilt, pain. Two men seem to recognise Vale; they pursue him and tranquilise him, taking him to a secret facility.

Elsewhere, a military-industrial corporation named ConSec is holding a demonstration of the abilities of a man known as a ‘scanner’: scanners apparently have a suite of telepathic and telekinetic powers, although the film is appropriately vague about exactly what they are capable of. The scanner invites a volunteer from the audience to come up and scanned, as part of the demonstration: stepping forward is a man we later learn has the non-specifically ominous name of Revok, and he is played by Michael Ironside (a prolific, culty actor possibly best known for his work with Paul Verhoeven in films like Starship Troopers and Total Recall). The demonstration does not go according to plan, I think it’s safe to say, as it turns out that Revok is also a scanner, and much more powerful than ConSec’s man: soon enough, it’s headbanging time (after pondering how to achieve the notorious exploding head effect, the special effects man apparently just told the rest of the crew to cover their ears and blasted a prop head full of raw meat with a shotgun at point-blank range).

This occasions a certain amount of disquiet amongst the higher-ups at ConSec, not least because all the scanners they have been working with have chosen to sever contact with the company. Head of the scanner development programme, the regrettably-named Dr Ruth (Patrick McGoohan), suggests that Revok is establishing his own underground network of scanners and it might be a good idea to try and infiltrate this with a scanner operative of their own. For this undertaking Ruth elects to use Vale, who has only recently been identified as a scanner and thus is unknown to Revok and his followers – in theory at least. But Revok already has his own spies in place, and Vale’s mission leads him into peril, as well as to the secret behind the existence of the scanners…

For a movie which is to some extent defined by a single spectacularly gory moment, it’s worth pointing out again that the bit in question comes really very early on in the film – the film’s other big set-piece (as displayed in the poster) comes at the climax, and is also very gribbly. Between these two scenes, however, Scanners doesn’t often look much like a horror movie: it resembles a spy movie or political thriller much more closely, as Vale seeks out contacts, infiltrates secret societies, is pursued by assassins and discovers dark secrets. There is very little of the fascination with psycho-sexual themes which colours earlier films like Rabid and Shivers. Then again, Cronenberg has always been a kind of restless talent, bringing his own approach to a variety of different genres.

The horror movie and the conspiracy thriller come together in Scanners in the sense that this is a movie about control, both in the explicitly personal sense – the primary talent of a scanner seems to be their ability to hijack the nervous systems of those around them, causing all sorts of nasty physiological effects – and also in a wider and more political way. It’s clearly deeply suspicious of big business, both the military-industrial complex but also big pharma – one of the ways in which the film resonates with the real world is that it’s revealed the appearance of scanners is the result of pregnant women being prescribed a sedative called ephemerol, their children being born with the scanner faculty. The parallels with the scandal of thalidomide are too obvious to need going into in detail. Ordinary people and their lives just seem to be treated as raw material by the vested interests of the world. It’s a bleak and downbeat vision – Vale’s mentor, Dr Ruth, meets the usual fate of mentors towards the end of the movie, but he is also revealed to be a compromised figure: the creator of ephemerol, and a man with a rather ambiguous relationship with the scanners he is responsible for.

In some ways Ruth comes across as the most interesting character in the story, although this may just be because he is played by Patrick McGoohan, always an intelligent and idiosyncratic performer (as is quite well-known, Sean Connery was only cast as James Bond because McGoohan turned the part down due to what he saw as Bond’s promiscuity). McGoohan gives the film ballast and gravitas which some of the other performers possibly lack, although Ironside is as charismatic as ever.

In the end Scanners is more a movie of ideas than anything else: Cronenberg is reasonably effective in handling the thriller narrative and the plot develops satisfyingly, but some of the characters are not especially well-developed and it’s less of a visceral horror movie than its reputation might suggest. It ends on a curious note of ambiguity, with conflict between benevolent and aggressive scanners resolved, apparently through some kind of psychic synthesis. It’s another interesting notion, one of many in the film, but one could have wished for the director to have turned up the dial in terms of both horror and plot elements. He arguably did just this in his next film, Videodrome. Scanners itself is reasonably effective as a horror-thriller fusion, but one is left with a sense of potential left unexplored.

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Quite a few years ago, I saw Shekhar Kapur’s adaptation of The Four Feathers, which was one of those films that almost dropped through the net completely – it didn’t get much of a release, received lukewarm reviews, and didn’t recover its budget. The reason why, I suspect, is that The Four Feathers is a stirring tale of imperial bravery, whereas Kapur’s movie was intended as a deconstruction and critique of colonial attitudes – almost a wilful subversion of the source material.

This sort of approach is very difficult to pull off. Unless you are Paul Verhoeven, apparently, for he does something very similar in his 1997 adaptation of Robert Heinlein’s Starship Troopers. Over ten years earlier Verhoeven had made one of the best SF films of the 1980s in RoboCop, and while I’m not sure I’d make the same kind of claim about Starship Troopers, it’s still a typically provocative and accomplished piece of work.

Some time in the future, Earth has become a gleaming utopia; rather Americanised too, it seems, for even Buenos Aires looks like somewhere in California. Here we find Johnny Rico (Casper Van Dien), handsome high-school jock, his more academic girlfriend Carmen (Denise Richards), and Diz (Dina Meyer), a girl who has a bit of a thing for him. Carmen wants to fly spaceships, so she enlists in the military of the Terran Federation, as this is her best chance of doing so. Johnny follows her into the service, largely to impress her, and Diz joins up to stay close to him.

Carmen gets her wish and ends up in the space fleet, while Johnny and Diz become members of the infantry. Their training proceeds, with only a moderate level of maiming and crippling amongst the recruits, but events are progressing in the wider world, with tensions growing between the Terran Federation and the Arachnids, an arthropod race from the other side of the galaxy. A devastating Arachnid attack on Earth results in Johnny and the others going to war with the invertebrate menace…

Starship Troopers, the movie, has a very strange relationship with its source novel, but this becomes a bit more understandable once you learn that it started existence as a wholly separate entity entitled Bug Hunt at Outpost Nine. When various similarities with Heinlein’s book were noticed, the decision was made to buy the rights to it and retrofit the script to be even closer to the story.

If nothing else, this explains one of the most noticeable differences in the substance of the movie – the novel’s most lasting SF innovation was the invention of powered armour battle-suits, as worn by Rico and the others as they take on the Bugs. Power armour is completely absent from the film, which mainly concerns foot infantry carrying automatic rifles and rocket launchers.

The more significant change is subtler and arguably more interesting. Heinlein’s novel is largely a vehicle for the author’s political views, and as a result the book is very right-wing, to the point where some have accused it of open militarism (written as a piece of SF for younger readers, the original publisher refused to accept it for this reason). However, what is sincerely and seriously presented in the novel is outrageously satirised in the movie – the movie is to some extent parodying the book it is based on.

As a result, Verhoeven and his scriptwriter Ed Neumeier have been criticised for wilfully misrepresenting Heinlein. The movie depicts an implicitly totalitarian, arguably fascist society, where public executions are broadcast live on TV and having a child requires a license, and one of the key points of the book is that its world is still a democratic one. There’s something to this, but on the other hand the book does contain a sequence in which Heinlein argues the case for aggressive war as a moral imperative, on apparently racial grounds.

The important thing is that whatever political commentary Verhoeven is making, it’s entirely implicit: it’s possible to watch Starship Troopers and just come away thinking you’ve watched a lavish SF action-adventure with a somewhat hackneyed story, and this does in fact seem to be what happened on the film’s original release, given the extent to which it apparently baffled audiences and divided critics. Personally I find the nature of the film as another piece of stupendously violent SF satire impossible to miss, no matter how tongue-in-cheek it is (and it is extremely tongue-in-cheek in places) – I’ve even heard it argued that the casting of Denise Richards, an actress whose dramatic range means she is really best qualified to appear in shampoo commercials, is a flag to the audience that this is not meant to be taken seriously.

The difference between RoboCop and Starship Troopers, I suppose, is that at the heart of RoboCop is a genuine and powerful human story, which Verhoeven surrounds with various elements of topical satire, whereas the story of Starship Troopers is a deliberately superficial and corny tale, solely intended as a delivery system for the satire which is what the film is really about. One striking thing about Starship Troopers is the eerie way in which it seems to anticipate American politics and foreign policy, and media coverage of them, in the years immediately after the September 11th attacks. Watching the movie now, it seems resonant and relevant in a way it didn’t at the time it was released.

That said, of course, while the movie may only superficially be an SF action movie, it’s still an extremely accomplished one – Verhoeven knows when to play it straight and pull out a superb set-piece action sequence, and does so at various points in the movie – the Them!-meets-Zulu battle at the outpost is as good as anything in Aliens. He’s helped, of course, by a score from Basil Poledouris, the best composer in the Hollywood if you want to make bombast sound fun (also the only one to play a redshirt in Star Trek), and special effects which still stand up well today. In terms of the casting, Verhoeven seems to have been actively searching for blandly good-looking young actors (see comments on Denise Richards above), but he also finds a chunky role for veteran genre actor Michael Ironside, who delivers a perfectly-pitched performance – I can’t imagine anyone else delivering a line like ‘His brain has been sucked out!’ with quite the same degree of ambiguity – is he playing it absolutely straight or engaged in a deadpan send-up of the whole thing? It’s impossible to tell. Perhaps he’s doing both.

Then again, the same is true of all of Starship Troopers – it’s both an exploitation movie and a vicious parody of exploitation movies, a lavish war film and a parody of war films – apparently hugely excessive and dumb, but at the same time very subtle and clever. The one thing it’s not, except on the most superficial level, is a genuine attempt at an adaptation of Heinlein’s novel. No-one else has made SF movies with the same level of wit and sense of gleeful mischief than Paul Verhoeven, and few people have matched his level of technical ability as a storyteller. Starship Troopers requires you to engage your brain in a way that few other Hollywood SF action movies do, but that’s hardly a criticism, especially when this is what makes it such a rewarding piece of entertainment.

 

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