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Posts Tagged ‘Peter Hyams’

It’s never a good sign when you sit down to watch a movie and then, several minutes in, discover you’re actually watching an entirely different movie to the one you were thinking of. Sometimes things just blur together and get mixed up in the great pop cultural pond we all, to some extent, swim in. Mind you, sometimes film-makers hardly seem to be doing themselves any favours.

Peter Hyams’ The Relic opens with some South American tribespeople doing their ritual thing, while being observed by a concerned-looking foreign anthropologist. He is John Whitney (Lewis van Bergen), and after the tribe feed him their special sauce and show him an interesting-looking statue Whitney becomes rather agitated and heads for the docks, where his various finds and samples are being loaded for shipment back to the USA. But there has been a mix-up, leaving him in apparent despair…

Hmmm, all very ominous, and when the ship arrives in the port of Chicago six weeks later the police are bemused to find that the entire crew seems to have disappeared. Closer investigations led by boss cop D’Agosta (Tom Sizemore) uncover a few dismembered corpses and severed heads floating in dingy recesses of the ship. As is apparently SOP, the Chicago PD dismisses this as some kind of drug-related incident. (No wonder South American people get so annoyed about their continent always being stereotyped as a lawless gang-ridden hell.)

Yet another week goes by and we finally arrive at the setting for most of the rest of the movie: the Chicago Museum of Natural History, which employed Whitney. We meet whip-smart evolutionary biologist Margo (Penelope Ann Miller), who, this being a Hollywood movie, looks like a model, and various other characters about the place. One of them is a crusty but lovable old scientist played by James Whitmore, but if he has indeed been cast just as a call-back to Them! it’s not dwelt on at too great a length. Whitney’s boxes have finally arrived but just seem to be full of funny leaves and bits of a broken statue.

Then, and you might think about time too for a lot of setting-things-up has gone on, one of the night security guards at the museum is discovered with his head ripped off and the brain inelegantly extracted and partly devoured. Even in Chicago this is not normal, and D’Agosta quickly spots a connection with what happened on the ship. The museum is locked down and a search launched – but the board of the place have powerful friends and want it reopened in a hurry, mainly because they are having a gala to celebrate the launch of a new exhibition and the great and the good of the city will be there. Can the police guarantee their safety with a brutal, possibly inhuman killer lurking somewhere on the premises? (Clue: no.)

I have to confess, I only watched The Relic because it was on a free streaming site and because Guillermo del Toro and Mira Sorvino are people who tend to do interesting work. Hang on, A, you may be saying to your screen, what the hell have Guillermo del Toro and Mira Sorvino got to do with any of this? A very good and fair point. Could it possibly be that I have got the 1997 monster movie The Relic, directed by Hyams and starring Miller, mixed up in my head with the 1997 monster movie Mimic, directed by del Toro and starring Sorvino? It would explain why I was sort of expecting giant beetles which never really appeared, but beyond this I will maintain a dignified silence.

Mind you, The Relic is fairly generic stuff even in its better moments: I kept having flashbacks to other movies like Arachnophobia and Q: The Winged Serpent (too many severed heads will have that effect on a person) – also, and this may sound weird, films like The Poseidon Adventure. One of the things that keeps The Relic from being an entirely formulaic monster mash is that it attempts a rather unexpected genre fusion with the classic disaster movie formula – it’s not just about a brain-eating monster on the loose in a big museum. It’s about a brain-eating monster on the loose in a big museum during a ritzy opening gala with various important and wealthy people on the premises, for whom being devoured is not normal.

And to be fair, once the movie reaches this point, it does acquire a certain sort of energy and interest, and it perks up a good deal. The problem is that this point arrives about 60% of the way through the movie. Can you imagine what Die Hard would have been like if the terrorists had only arrived 60% of the way through? Or The Thing, if the dog had only turned into an alien well into the second half of the movie? Perhaps you begin to see the problem.

The thing about The Relic is while it does have a reasonably good monster design, decent performances and a script with moments of inventiveness and wit, there’s something fundamentally cack-handed about the script. The pacing, structure, and exposition are all a bit fluffed, and it may just be that the film is trying a bit too hard to be clever. Most monster films like this one just start off with someone finding an egg somewhere remote, but The Relic is all over the place talking about genetics and viruses and hormones and the hypothalamic region and tribal customs. Is it all strictly necessary for a film in which the sweet spot is watching anonymous actors have their skulls munched upon? If it is, then The Relic doesn’t do a good enough job of convincing me of that.

You know, I like The X Files and I like Kolchak: The Night Stalker, which are really the things that the early sections of The Relic reminded of the most – but in the end I didn’t really like it as much as either of those. The problem in the end is that a lot of it feels so generic and written-by-formula that it’s almost stale, while its innovations just end up a bit confusing and maybe even a bit silly. The odd good moment, but I’m betting that Mimic must be at least a bit better than this.

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Now that First Man has provided us with an exemplary movie account of the Apollo programme and the Moon landings, all we are waiting for, surely, is for someone to do the same and make the definitive movie about the faking of the same events. (That’s how impartiality works these days, isn’t it? No matter how unsupported or ridiculous an idea is, no-one in the media is actually allowed to say so as long as there is someone who genuinely believes in it.)

I joke, sort of. The weird thing is that people have been making films referencing the idea that the Moon landings were faked in a film studio since… well, since the time of the Moon landings themselves, perhaps. It’s curious that the first major book proposing this theory, We Never Went to the Moon, came out in 1976, while (arguably) an oblique suggestion of the same thing turns up in Diamonds Are Forever in 1971 – attempting to sneak out of a SPECTRE installation midway through the movie, James Bond finds himself on a soundstage mocked up to resemble the lunar surface, where a moon walk is apparently being filmed. The film offers no explanation for what’s supposed to be happening here and just carries on with the chase sequence in progress.

The list also includes Room 237, which features an extended disquisition on Kubrick’s role in the hoax and the way that The Shining is really a lengthy attempt by the director to come clean about it, and Moonwalkers, a French comedy film again focusing on Stanley Kubrick’s alleged involvement in faking the footage supposedly sent back from the Moon. Even Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar cleverly subverts the idea by suggesting that in the future the US government will start to claim the landings were indeed faked.

Top of the pile, though, is surely Peter Hyams’ 1978 film Capricorn One, which appeared just as the moon hoax theory was beginning to gain traction, and may have played a significant role in cementing the notion in the public imagination. The subject matter and cast could not be more all-American, but this is another film owing its existence to Lew Grade’s ITC Entertainment – and, I must say, one of the better ones.

The film opens with Capricorn One, the first manned mission to Mars, on the launchpad. NASA director James Kelloway (Hal Holbrook) is overseeing the countdown; the astronauts (James Brolin, Sam Waterston and O. J. Simpson) are in the capsule. An audience of politicians, other dignitaries, and members of the public has gathered to watch the take-off. But then, with minutes to go, the crew are quietly extracted from the vehicle, placed on a plane, and flown to a clandestine government installation. The spacecraft launches without them. What is going on?

Kelloway explains. Cut-backs in NASA’s budget resulted in the Capricorn programme inadvertently buying a cheap-ass life support system for the spacecraft, one which would have killed the crew in a matter of weeks (the film suggests the round-trip to Mars will take about eight months, which strikes me as rather optimistic, but I digress). Not wanting to give Congress an excuse to shut the manned space programme down, Kelloway and his backers (there seem to be shadowy, deep-state forces in play) have decided to cover this up. The mission will take place as planned – it’s just that it will really be unmanned. All the TV footage of the crew in the capsule and on the surface of Mars will be filmed in studios on Earth and inserted into the broadcasts without anyone being any the wiser.

Mission commander Brubaker (Brolin) isn’t sure about this at all, but when it is made clear that the backers of the cover-up are quite prepared to threaten his family and those of the other astronauts, he allows himself to be blackmailed into playing along. And so the mission proceeds, and also the hoax. There are problems – a young NASA tech notices irregularities between the mission telemetry and the TV footage, and is promptly disappeared by the conspirators. However, he has already passed on his discovery to cynical journalist Robert Caulfield (Elliott Gould), who launches his own investigation, placing his life in peril as a result.

But the biggest problem is yet to come. With the actual Martian landings successfully faked, the ship returns to Earth – only for the heat shield to disengage too early and the craft to disintegrate on re-entry. The crew of Capricorn One have died as heroes – except that they are still sitting around in the secret government installation, wondering why their flight to the splashdown site has been cancelled. Quickly figuring out that there has been a problem, and that their very existence now poses a threat to the hoax, they decide to make a break for it and tell the world the truth. Always assuming the conspirators don’t catch up with them first…

The first thing to say about Capricorn One is that this is a pretty good thriller, with an engaging premise, nice performances and dialogue which is rather sharper and smarter than you might expect. It’s not especially deep or lavish, but it’s fun to watch, especially in the first half, which is more concerned with the establishment and running of the hoax. It addresses the issue of just what the value of the manned space programme is, and whether it warrants all the funding it receives. Would NASA in fact be justified in mounting this kind of deception, if the alternative was the dissolution of the agency and the end of space exploration?

The second half is not as strong, as these ideas and themes get dropped in favour of the stuff of a more conventional thriller – the astronauts are pursued through the deserts of the American southwest by black helicopters (Hyams develops this into a very effective image, again perhaps fuelling conspiracy theories), while Caulfield picks up on tiny clues and slowly begins to unravel what’s been going on. In the end there is a rather effective chase between the helicopters and a biplane piloted by Telly Savalas, before a slightly abrupt ending is reached (we don’t get to see the political consequences of the film’s conclusion).

Capricorn One is entirely up-front about its subtext – the film’s poster directly asks ‘Would you be shocked to find out that the greatest moment of our recent history may not have happened at all?’, next to a picture of what looks very much like an Apollo lunar module; the Capricorn mission profile appears to closely resemble that of Apollo, more than is actually credible. Hyams appears to have come to the idea of an Apollo hoax independently, speaking in interviews of how it occurred to him that this was an event witnessed only by TV cameras, and thus more than usually susceptible to fakery.

Ironically, though, if anything the film debunks the idea of a Moon hoax rather than promoting it, simply because the conspiracy as presented here is just so implausible and inept. The suggestion is that most of NASA isn’t even in on the plot, which makes one wonder just exactly how it’s functioning – there’s a glib mention of ‘recordings from practice sessions’ being used, but who’s actually landing the spacecraft on Mars? How is this even possible? The ‘dark forces cover-up’ is also rather preposterous – after trying to kill Gould in a sabotaged car, the conspirators apparently lose interest in him entirely for weeks, before starting to take pot-shots at him and then finally having him framed for possession of drugs.

So in the end this is a film which is entertaining and briefly interesting in terms of its premise, but in the end it doesn’t quite hang together and it never really convinces. I am tempted to add that all this is true of the Apollo hoax theories, as well, but for the fact that many people still genuinely seem to believe that there is some truth to them. Maybe they also believe that there is some truth to Capricorn One. It is, as they say, a funny old world.

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It has become almost facile to point out that the demise of the traditional western – as a significant part of the cinema landscape, anyway – occurred almost simultaneously with the rise of science fiction and fantasy films to the position of box office dominance they enjoy to this day. The conclusion to be drawn is very nearly as straightforward – it’s not quite that SF movies have simply replaced westerns, but that both genres meet the same need and appeal to the same audience. Or, to put it another way, there’s a certain type of action-SF movie which is basically a western in disguise.

The disguise is seldom as perfunctory as in Peter Hyams’ 1981 film Outland, however. Hmm, you may be thinking, where is this Outland place and why did they decide to make a film about it? Well, I have to tell you that this seems to be an example of film-makers not being able to agree on a good title and reaching a consensus on a duff one instead. The film was made under the title Io, which as any fule kno is a volcanically-active moon of Jupiter, but apparently the big brains of the production were concerned that non-astronomically-savvy audiences might read the title as either 10 or Lo, hence the change.

 

I will happily agree that Io is not a great title, but at least it’s accurate (personally I would have called the movie High Moon, because sometimes you just can’t be crashingly obvious enough). The film is set in one of those non-specific not-all-that-distant futures where the outer reaches of the solar system are being explored and exploited; people apparently go for many years without ever visiting Earth (the journey from the Jovian region to Earth apparently takes a year in cryo). Io is being mined for titanium and the story takes place in one of the mining outposts, mostly concerning the chief lawman of the place, Marshall (or Marshal, depending on where you look) Bill O’Niel (Sean Connery).

O’Niel has only recently taken up his post and is still receiving apparently mock-stern lectures from the outpost’s manager, Sheppard (Peter Boyle), about how he needs to be flexible in his approach to the job and cut the hard-working miners some slack. To begin with O’Niel is more preoccupied by the fact that his wife can’t hack rattling around yet another space outpost and has left him to go back to Earth, but his cop instincts are triggered when he comes across a string of suspicious deaths – workers cutting open their spacesuits while outside, or not even bothering to wear them.

(Outland is notable for its enthusiastic championing of the notion that if you go into a hard vacuum without a spacesuit, either your head or your torso will explode. Apparently this is just one of those myths, but it does allow the special effects department some fun. One of the people whose head explodes is John Ratzenberger, best known for playing Cliff in Cheers, but eminently spottable in small parts in many famous late 70s and early 80s films, thanks to a stint based in London.)

Normally the remains of these ‘accidents’ are quietly disposed of, but O’Niel eventually manages to lay his hands on the body of a worker who apparently goes mad. With the help of the outpost’s medic, Dr Lazarus (Frances Sternhagen), O’Niel discovers that all the dead men had been taking high-powered amphetamines, allowing them to work longer and harder but eventually frying their brains.

It transpires that Sheppard and even some of O’Niel’s own men are in on the racket – the drugs increase productivity, which is all Sheppard and his bosses really care about. Their assumption is that O’Niel, like his predecessor, can be bought off, because only a fool would risk his life by taking on Sheppard and the men behind him. But this does not sit well with O’Niel, who finds himself compelled to hang onto his principles and take a stand (or, this being a Connery movie after all, a shtand).

One day someone will write about Outland and not draw comparisons between it and Alien. But that day has clearly not yet dawned. The aesthetic of the two films is almost identical, to the point where they could quite easily share a continuity: the mining outpost is a grimy, cramped, industrial warren of corridors, controlled by faceless and uncaring corporations.

The setting of Outland is important as it’s the only thing which gives it its SF credentials. The story itself is that of one principled man attempting to put an end to drug racketeering despite the odds being stacked against him – it could really be set anywhere. Even the drug racketeering is on one level just plot fluff, setting up the central conflict of the movie, which is not so much Connery versus the drug dealers as Connery’s sense of self-preservation versus his stubbornly principled streak. What is he really hoping to achieve? Nobody would blame him for taking bribes or running away…

This owes, of course, a big debt to High Noon, although Outland only really closely resembles the earlier movie for a chunk of its second half: a far-from-subtle digital countdown indicates how long before the space shuttle carrying professional killers will arrive at the outpost.

To be honest, though, I found these scenes and the eventual fight between Connery and the hitmen to be rather laborious, though fairly well-mounted; much more interesting are the earlier scenes in which O’Niel uncovers the extent of the corruption around him and realises just what a sticky spot he’s in. There is some really good material here, including some top-class moral outrage, and Connery plays it for all that it’s worth. I find that in a lot of Sean Connery’s later appearances, his tendency is just to play it very broad and just do the same lovable twinkly performance, but this is a proper acting job from the big man.

His main support comes from Sternhagen as the grumpy doctor, and she is also very good. This is a well-played film throughout, to be honest, and a reasonably well-written one. The film’s visual effects and model work are pretty good, but you can tell that the director and the screenwriter are also working hard to keep the film focused and credible.

I first saw Outland on TV in the late 80s and do recall that I wasn’t especially impressed by it: good production designs, but a bit dull. I think I would revise that opinion now – this is a solid film with a compelling central story and performance, but let down slightly  by its climax. And I do think it’s telling that Hyams admitted later that he only really wanted to make a western – the outer-space setting was just the only one that the studio felt was commercially viable. You can tell that none of the major talent involved was really that interested in making a science-fiction film, because in a very real sense they didn’t. Nevertheless, this is a watchable thriller with some distinctive elements.

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