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Posts Tagged ‘Nigel Davenport’

The Island of Doctor Moreau tends to lag somewhat behind The War of the Worlds, The Time Machine and The Invisible Man when it comes to cultural profile, but if nothing else I suppose this puts it marginally less at risk of truly dreadful modern ‘re-interpretations’ (BBC non-adaptation of War of the Worlds, I’m looking at you). The disaster of the Marlon Brando-starring adaptation probably means we won’t see another big-screen version for a good long while, and while on one level this is a relief, it would be nice to at least consider the possibility of someone coming along and doing the story justice.

Taking a decent swing at the challenge is Don Taylor’s 1977 take on the novel (title marginally shortened to save on typesetting, I guess), which was probably the most distinguished entrant in a brief H.G. Wells cycle from American International (other movies in this ‘series’ were The Food of the Gods and Empire of the Ants). This is not an exceptional film in any respect, but its approach to the source material is interesting.

We open in the middle of the Pacific, where we find Michael York and his cheekbones in a lifeboat, along with two other men, one of whom has just carked it (thus we are signalled what dire straits they are in). York and his friend throw the corpse over the side, while the audience is inevitably distracted by the way that the lifeboat seems to be surging along at a fair old clip (mainly because it is being towed by the camera boat). Eventually they wash up on a rather substantial tropical island. York goes to explore, gets spooked by something in the undergrowth and ends up falling into a pit trap, while his companion is set upon by mysterious figures and killed (off camera). (There are, to be honest, various plot holes and unanswered questions here, based on what we later learn about how the island is set up, but these do not occur to us until much later, if at all.)

Well, York wakes up in the slightly dingy hacienda-style home of the owner of the island, Dr Paul Moreau (Burt Lancaster), which he shares with his dissolute factotum Montgomery (Nigel Davenport) and a beautiful young woman named Maria (Barbara Carrera) – not to mention some rather ugly servants. It seems York will be stuck there for a bit, but Moreau offers his hospitality, while warning him not to leave the compound after dark. York discovers that Moreau was briefly celebrated as a scientist of genius, but has since become a recluse here on the island. Taking York’s curiosity as a sign he is possibly a kindred spirit, Moreau reveals his collection of bottled embryos and informs York he is searching for the secret of what gives living creatures their form, and why this morphological destiny seems so inflexible. ‘Can we change that destiny?’ ponders Moreau. ‘Should we?’ responds York, quite properly for the hero of this sort of film.

It turns out, of course, that Moreau has been putting his ideas into practice by injecting different animals with human genetic material and creating a collection of hybrid creatures, most of which are roaming around on the island looking not unlike extras from Planet of the Apes (director Taylor helmed one of the best Apes movies, and John Chambers did both sets of make-up). York is appalled, especially when Moreau indicates to him that the position of the ‘true’ humans on the island is precarious – one sign of weakness and the beast-men may rise up and kill them all. In order for any of them to survive York will have to be as brutal and ruthless with Moreau’s creatures as his host is…

When I wrote about The Island of Doctor Moreau a few years ago, I admitted to being left a little troubled by the arguably racist dimension of the colonial interpretation the book lends itself to: Moreau’s genetic uplift of the animals into something approaching human form as a metaphor for the ‘civilising’ efforts undertaken by colonial powers during the century in which Wells was writing. It’s to the credit of the film that this kind of idea lingers on here, though by implication more than anything else – it also occurs to me that the film’s take on this is more explicitly critical of Imperial power structures, anyway, suggesting that the ‘masters’ are brutalised and diminished by their role as much as anyone. It’s a shame the film doesn’t explore these kinds of ideas further.

The other thing I noted about the book is the extent to which it falls down if assessed in terms of standard narrative dogma: the story takes a while to get going, the protagonist doesn’t actually have any influence on the story, events would have played out the same way if he’d never actually been there, and so on. As regular readers will know, I am quite wary of adaptations which only treat the original text as a set of general suggestions, but I can understand why people might think there was room for improvement here. The screenwriters certainly come up with a strong idea for the final act of the movie: annoyed by the persistent failure of his attempts to turn animals into men, Moreau decides to approach the problem from the other direction and turn York into an animal. It’s this which leads directly into the climax of the movie (providing a few quite effective scenes along the way). On the other hand, this does remove the creepier and more downbeat aspects of the book’s conclusion, but you can’t have everything.

On the whole, though, the movie is well-mounted, and most of the performances are very decent: Burt Lancaster certainly looks the part as Moreau, and York makes the most of what’s a fairly underwritten role. Even when it’s departed from the substance of Wells (which happens quite frequently) the film has the sense and atmosphere of what’s ultimately one of the great pieces of Gothic SF (though not often described in those terms, I note). The only bit of it which really falls down in the love-interest subplot featuring Carrera’s character, which is presumably there in deference to the diktat that All Films Must Have Romance In Them (Or At Least Some Soft-Focus Sex). Nearly all of these scenes feel like a graft taken from somewhere else, and the operation is not a complete success. You keep expecting a twist ending where Carreras starts turning into a mongoose, or something, but it never happens. (Apparently such a conclusion was scripted, but Michael York refused to film it on grounds of taste and decency.)

In the end this is a decent film rather than a great adaptation – it’s never quite as visceral or as disturbing (or, indeed, as Gothic) as you would really like it to be, but the basic shape and concerns of the book survive at least as well as in some other, rather more celebrated Wells movies. If the film really has a flaw, it’s that it seems a little too interested in playing it safe in the name of commercial viability, but you can’t blame the film-makers for the nature of their industry. Worth a look, anyway.

 

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There was a time when any science fiction film that wanted to be taken seriously found itself helplessly caught up in the wake of 2001: A Space Odyssey – SF wasn’t SF unless it was cerebral, austere, and concluded on a note of either pessimism or wilful obscurity. This tendency is visible in movies from the late 60s until about a decade later – even the coming of George Lucas’ stellar conflict franchise didn’t quite kill it off, with Disney’s 1979 entry to the robots-and-ray-guns subgenre, The Black Hole, concluding with a bafflingly surreal sequence.

Even so, very few of these movies are quite as out there as Phase IV, a 1974 film directed by Saul Bass. Bass is best remembered as a legendary graphic designer and creator of some of the most memorable credit sequences in cinema history, and this was his only feature film: it’s clear throughout that as a director his focus is overwhelmingly on the visual element of the movie.

This is an early example of a film which dispenses with a conventional title sequence entirely (somewhat ironic, given who the director is), simply opening with the caption ‘Phase I’. Ten full minutes elapse before we actually see a human being, with the story being told via montages and voice-over. Some kind of cosmic event has occurred (the film is unspecific about what it actually is), but its key terrestrial consequence goes unnoticed by almost everyone: across the world, different species of ants, normally in competition with each other, cease their hostilities and begin to work together. But to what end? Strange geometrical structures, constructed by the ants, appear in the desert of Arizona, along with crop circles (the film predates the modern crop phenomenon and may in fact, it’s been suggested, have been one of its inspirations).

Entomologist Dr Hubbs (Nigel Davenport, best known to a generation of British viewers as fruity-voiced tycoon Edward Frere in Howard’s Way) cottons on to what the ants are up to and persuades the powers that be to fund an investigation into what exactly is going on. A lab is set up in a geodesic dome out in the desert (this is the kind of SF movie lab where the equipment includes grenade launchers, but, you know, go with it) and Hubbs sets about annoying the ants in the hope of learning what has happened to them, and ideally teaching them not to get uppity with the human race. Hubbs’ assistant, mathematician Lesko (Michael Murphy), is more cautious and inclined to take a moderate approach, but soon enough the scientists are besieged by hostile ants, along with a young local woman (Lynne Frederick) whose farm was destroyed by the formic hordes. Can Lesko find a way of communicating with the ants, whose collective intelligence is no longer in doubt, or is this just the first stage in a battle that will decide the fate of the world?

Fairly heavy stuff, I think you’ll agree. The film would probably agree, too, considering the intense and very serious way the story is handled – there are no moments of lightness or humour and the actors are all playing it absolutely dead straight. The result is quite a bleak and austere film, rather cold in tone despite the desert setting.

This isn’t the man-vs-killer-ant movie you might be expecting – I vaguely recall it turning up on TV in a double-bill with Them! at some point in my youth – and the striking central image of the movie’s poster, that of an ant gnawing its way out of the centre of a human palm, occurs relatively early on, and not quite as a moment of full-on horror, either. There’s less death-struggle and more philosophical and mathematical discussion as the two scientists discuss what’s going on in fairly abstract terms.

Even so, the most memorable parts of the film don’t concern the human characters but the ants themselves. There are numerous weird, long sequences of ants rattling around in the nests, doing significant but obscure things, clambering around inside human machinery, and so on. It’s a masterclass in editing skill, I suppose – the way the footage of the ants is assembled manages to suggest intention and a vague sense of what is supposed to be happening – but also betrays Bass’s fascination with playing with images and storytelling on a purely visual level. There is, obviously, a lot of miniature photography of ants in this film; there is also time-lapse photography, slow-motion filming, and various other optical effects too.

Many of these are accompanied by an expository voice-over from Murphy, and I wonder if this was something the studio insisted on as the movie started to take shape – the voice-over adds to the impression that this is a rather odd B-movie, but it does stop the film from becoming completely oblique and wilfully enigmatic. As it is, much is left for the viewer to decide – are the ants being actively controlled by some cosmic force to reshape the nature of life on Earth? Or has some random influence caused the ant hive-mind to experience a form of uplift, and it’s the ant superbrain itself which is responsible for everything that happens?

It’s all left very unclear – not least because the studio cut about five minutes from Bass’s preferred climax, leaving it a very brisk 84 minutes in total. If the extant film is off the wall, then the original would have been downright freaky – a reconstruction of the original ending exists on the internet, apparently depicting what the world will be like after Phase IV is completed, and the bizarre impressionistic symbiosis of human and ant that is shown in it is not quite like anything else I’ve ever seen.

Despite all the fascinating and unique things about Phase IV, however, this is still one for the ‘novel but deeply flawed’ category. The B-movie premise and characterisations don’t help the film when it comes to achieving the level of rarefied sophistication it’s clearly aiming for, while the visual storytelling, while innovative and memorable, is just a bit too slow and abstract for the film to work as a thriller or conventional drama. The film’s visual distinctiveness and general air of weirdness mean it is worth watching, if you like abstract SF movies or maybe even art movies generally, but as a conventional piece of movie entertainment this is basically a tough and probably not especially rewarding watch.

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