Feeds:
Posts
Comments

Posts Tagged ‘post-apocalyptic’

After some reflection, I am going to do something I generally try to avoid, and slap a general ‘Spoiler Alert‘ on these reviews of the Big Finish Survivors audio plays. These are, as I’ve said before, comparatively new pieces of work, unlike the 40-year-old TV show on which they’re based, and there are probably people out there who’d be interested in them who aren’t familiar with the details of the plots yet. Yet it’s quite difficult to write about them without going into at least a little detail concerning the stories and characters. So, be warned: key revelations lie ahead.

The most obvious difference between the first couple of stories on the initial boxed set and the concluding pair (with which we shall concern ourselves today) is that Revelation and Exodus were largely about new characters, with only a comparatively small cameo from Lucy Fleming as Jenny. Episodes three and four (for this does ultimately resolve itself into a single story, albeit a slightly rambling one) feel very different, mainly because they’re largely focused on Jenny and Greg (played, of course, by Fleming and Ian McCulloch). We even get a bookending sequence with a cameo from Carolyn Seymour as Abby.

As Andrew Smith’s Judges begins, we have jumped forward from somewhere in the middle of the first TV episode, The Fourth Horseman, to around the end of episode twelve, Something of Value, and Greg and Jenny are heading to the south-east of England in search of much-needed supplies for the community at the Grange. Abby is dead set against this, of course, but it’s not like Greg to pay much attention to her, is it?

On the outskirts of London they meet another party of survivors looking to get out of the city, led by Phil, a former policeman. Could they be new recruits for the Grange community? Before they can find out, however, they encounter a patrol from the enclave led by former lecturer Gillison, and are taken in for questioning.

By now the listener is well aware that Gillison is a prime example of that prominent Survivors archetype, the small man turned post-apocalyptic despot, but none of the other characters know his capacity for ruthlessness – yet. Gillison quite reasonably clocks that Greg is an extremely handy and resourceful fellow to have about, and ropes him into a plan to survey the area using helicopters from Heathrow and make contact with any other communities they may find. But is that really what he’s up to?

On first listening, my response to Judges was heavily coloured by the simple fact that it has McCulloch and Fleming in it, playing Greg and Jenny again after all these years. As I’ve already said, the recreation of the characters is almost uncanny – it takes no effort at all to imagine Greg’s parka and that little cap he used to wear, even if he probably wouldn’t actually be wearing them (the episode is set in early summer). The script captures the characters superbly – Jenny is perhaps a touch stronger than she was at this point on TV, but that’s no bad thing.

The bulk of the story inevitably recalls Lights of London a little, in that it deals with an encounter with an urban settlement under the control of suspect leadership. Once again, no bad thing, but on reflection you do wonder what’s going on with the whole helicopter plan, given it’s eventually established that Gillison has a paranoid hostility towards any other group of survivors. Presumably he just wants to know where they are so he can move against them later. There’s also a very slight loose end, in that Smith wheels on some shotgun (more likely rifle)-toting raiders at one point, simply to service the plot.

Andrew Smith started his career as the youngest-ever writer on Doctor Who, responsible for the really-not-too-bad-at-all story Full Circle in 1980 (also its equally really-not-too-bad-at-all novelisation a couple of years later), but then decided to pack in writing for a successful career in the police (he has since retired from the fuzz and become something of a Big Finish regular). You get a sense of this background in the scenes with Phil, the ex-copper who still feels a sense of social responsibility even though society is in ruins. At one point there’s a genuinely interesting discussion of what it means to talk about law and order in a post-apocalyptic world, and it’s clearly the work of someone who has devoted serious thought to the concept of justice, as well as one who’s spent serious time at the business end of law enforcement. Unfortunately it doesn’t really inform the plot, which eventually turns out to be a mixture of drama and action-adventure about Gillison being a despotic control freak.

Episode four is John Dorney’s Esther, which continues along the same lines: Gillison is refusing to let Greg and Jenny (or indeed anyone else) leave, fearing they will come back with reinforcements and try to unseat him. The atmosphere in the community is growing more and more fraught as Gillison becomes more openly autocratic and authoritarian. Can our heroes make it out alive in time to get back to the Grange for the final episode of the first TV season?

It sounds like I’m suggesting that Greg and Jenny’s script immunity is the biggest problem in creating drama in Esther, which is not actually the case – you’re interested in the fates of the new characters, too, and they have no such guarantee of survival. The main issue with Esther is that it ultimately turns out to be a bit, well, melodramatic.

If there’s an ongoing theme throughout this first audio series, it’s that of the gradual transformation of Gillison from a slightly irritating polytechnic lecturer to a totally unhinged tyrant. And, largely as a result of the last episode, I’d say this doesn’t really work, because Gillison goes just too mad too quickly for it to feel credible – it’s happening more because the plot requires it than for any other reason. This is particularly awkward because Dorney makes a point of including flashbacks to his pre-plague life in an attempt to explain just why he has turned out in this way. It’s these flashbacks, by the way, that provide the sole pretext for titling the episode Esther – the theme of naming the episodes after books of the Bible is fair enough, but they have to stretch with this one, and it inevitably ends up feeling a little bit contrived as a result.

It’s well-played by all concerned, and you can never find much fault with Big Finish’s sound design, but in the end I would have to say that this is a set which starts off strongly but wobbles significantly towards the end. There are still more than enough strengths here to make me want to stick with this range, however.

 

Advertisements

Read Full Post »

It falls to very few people to single-handedly create a new subgenre, and fewer still to come up with one which goes on to dominate the media landscape for over a decade. And yet this was the main achievement of George A Romero, the writer and director who passed away last week. Romero was a film-maker who dabbled in the studio system, amongst other things working on North by Northwest as a teenager (along with the great Martin Landau, also recently departed), but he is best known for the films he made working independently. While his filmography does contain oddities like the 1981 movie Knightriders (essentially a drama about the death of the hippy dream), Romero is – of course – best known as a director of horror movies.

He did a movie about a vampire, a movie about a coven of witches, and a movie about a homicidal assistance monkey, but George A Romero’s reputation really rests upon the movies he made about zombies. Other people had made zombie movies before Romero came along and unleashed Night of the Living Dead on the world in 1968, but it was he who conceived of the notion of the zombie apocalypse as we currently know it – inspired, apparently, by both I Am Legend and the Hammer horror film The Plague of the Zombies. Romero was fond of the zombopocalypse as it was both cost-effective (a boon to the cash-strapped independent film-maker) and offered great potential for social satire, but it has proven to be an almost endlessly flexible form in the hands of other creators. Since the release of 28 Days Later in 2002 (itself a mash-up of the classic Romero formula with John Wyndham’s Day of the Triffids) the zombopocalypse has basically conquered the world, with endless riffs and variations on the basic idea of an unstoppable tide of walking corpses. Romero was able to finance his final three films, Land…, Diary…, and Survival of the Dead simply because his ideas finally seemed to have wide commercial appeal.

It is, however, his earlier movies that show Romero’s talent at its most effective and inspired. Night of the Living Dead may have invented the modern zombie movie, but it was the 1978 sequel Dawn of the Dead that elevated it to the realms of something truly special. This is one of those virtually perfect movies that shows you don’t need big bucks to create magic – you just need a helicopter, a pile of guns, a van full of zombie make-up, several tanker-trucks full of fake blood, and free access to a massive out-of-town shopping mall.

Dawn of the Dead opens with a character waking from a nightmare, and the audience being plunged into one. The recently dead have begun rising and attacking the living (the cause of this appears to be viral in nature), and society is beginning to disintegrate as the situation spins out of control. Everyone can see which way this is heading, and the issue of personal survival is becoming paramount. Two TV news employees, Fran (Gaylen Ross) and Stephen (David Emge), team up with a couple of cops, Roger (Scott Reiniger) and Peter (Ken Foree), and together they flee the city of Philadelphia in the TV network’s helicopter.

Seeing the country descending into anarchy and with zombies seemingly everywhere, the quartet take refuge in a huge shopping mall (in reality the Monroeville Mall, in Pennsylvania). Although this is initially intended as only a rest stop, Peter realises the mall constitutes a huge stockpile of resources that could potentially help them survive for a very long time. All they have to do is secure the huge building against the encroaching undead swarms, kill the creatures already inside, and be prepared to defend it against the human marauders who are already appearing now civilisation is beginning to collapse…

George Romero was wont to lament that several of his earlier films were victims of what he called ‘undercapitalisation’ – i.e., a shortage of money – but this is not a criticism you could sensibly direct at Dawn of the Dead. For a film made for only about a million and a half dollars, this is a movie with a real scope and epic feeling to it, with some huge action set pieces sprinkled through it. There have been many films made about the end of the world and the collapse of society, but none of them depict the actual break-up of civilisation with the same sense of immediacy and realism as this one. The opening scenes set the tone – there is chaos at the TV station, no-one seems to know what’s happening, useless information is being broadcast just to keep the viewing figures up, while outside, rogue police are running out of control and the authorities are engaged in pitched battles with their own citizens. You instantly sense that we are sliding past the point of no return.

The director continues to orchestrate the movie with the same confidence as the story proper gets going – an ominous journey across zombie America, the introduction of the mall as the central location, the various escapades of the characters as they explore it. And then a deft change of mood – no sooner have they begun to take control of the place than the mood changes to a more sombre and brooding one, before picking up pace ahead of a typically ambiguous conclusion (the scripted ending had all the surviving characters commit suicide in various ways, but the one in the movie is surely better – still far from upbeat, but not without a tiny glimmering of hope for the future). Romero barely puts a foot wrong in his handling of character, pacing, and action – the only significant issue with the movie is some of the stock music cues which it employs. The electronic soundtrack itself (provided by Italian horror director Dario Argento and the group Goblin) is terrific, though.

What really makes the film exceptional is the way in which it effortlessly marries remarkable wit, intelligence, and black humour with a palpable delight in astoundingly graphic and gory violence. Romero serves notice early on with the notorious moment where a nameless character has his head literally blown off by a shotgun, and continues with a series of legendary gags involving helicopter rotor blades, screwdrivers, machetes, and lots and lots of entrails. At the same time the film is razor sharp in its commentary on what is really causing all the problems – the zombies are really a secondary menace, compared to the selfishness, distrust, and acquisitiveness displayed by virtually all the human characters – Peter and the others are very open about their willingness to lie and steal in order to get what they want, and the film is bookended by battles not between the living and the dead, but between human groups with differing agendas.

Most of the obituaries of George Romero identified him as one of the great satirists of modern cinema, and I think that would have gratified him. Certainly this is his most celebrated and effective comment on modern life, perhaps even more relevent now than it was in 1978. The zombies shuffling mindlessly round the mall are there because it ‘was an important place in their lives’. Some dim memory persists. The main characters are likewise unable to accept that in their new world, material possessions will be rather less valuable – ‘Let’s just get the stuff we need! I’ll get a television and a radio!’ cries Peter, drawing a reply of ‘Ooooh, lighter fluid! And chocolate!’ from Roger. It is the characters’ own acquisitiveness and greed that menaces them, as much as the walking dead outside. We are the zombies – that was Romero’s message in this film. In a very real sense, we are our own worst enemy. To call this the greatest zombie movie of all time is accurate, but still considerably understates the scale of George Romero’s achievement in it.

Read Full Post »

I was sitting at my desk the other other day, trying to look busy, as usual, when one of the very senior fellows from where I work sidled up. This in itself is fairly unusual, and at this point in my career I’ll grasp at any straw that floats past, so I sat up straight and braced myself for whatever was coming.

‘Have you seen the new Planet of the Apes film yet?’ To say this came totally out of left field would be a bit of an understatement.

‘Er, not yet. What they’ve done is – stop me if you find your eyes starting to close – you know how they say that nothing succeeds like success? Well, apparently the best way to have a successful film is to have a successful film; I mean, if you have a really good opening weekend, then you can put that in the publicity and it will make people go and see it on the second weekend. So what they’ve done is release it on a Tuesday, because that means they have Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, Saturday, Sunday -‘ I believe I may have been counting on my fingers ‘- a six day opening weekend, to guarantee a good total.’

‘That’s just fraud.’ (Amused incredulity.)

‘That’s showbusiness. But all the early showings are in 3D, which I don’t like, so I’m seeing it on Friday.’

‘Really? I like 3D. A Planet of the Apes film in 3D is one of my guilty pleasures.’

I tell you what, you get a better class of afficionado around the Planet of the Apes films, that’s for sure. (All the more dismaying that 20th Century Fox should find it necessary to indulge in such sharp practice when it comes to the release strategy.) Yes, here we are with Matt Reeves’ War for the Planet of the Apes, the kind of title to make a cinema give up and list it on the ticket as simply WFTPOTA (with an extra 2D in my case).

The new film continues the story begun in Rise of the Planet of the Apes and continued in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes. For a couple of years, elements of the surviving human military forces have been attempting to hunt down and destroy Caesar (Andy Serkis) and his tribe of genetically-uplifted apes. Caesar has been attempting to make peace overtures, but the human commander, known as the Colonel (last name not Taylor, sadly), is implacable in his hostility and a raid on the ape settlement kills several of Caesar’s loved ones. (The Colonel is played by Woody Harrelson, who is on top form.)

Consumed by rage and the desire for revenge, Caesar sets out in search of his enemy, accompanied only by a few of his closest lieutenants. In the wilderness they find evidence of a transformed world – a young girl who has lost the ability to speak (Amiah Miller), and a zoo ape who has risen to intelligence and acquired the power of speech independently of Caesar’s group (Steve Zahn). There are also strange signs that the humans are starting to fight amongst themselves. But all Caesar is interested in is the Colonel, who he learns has made his base in an abandoned military facility. The looming conflict will settle the destiny of the planet forever…

I do wonder sometimes why I’m not more enthusiastic about the new Planet of the Apes series, because these are by any metric highly intelligent, well-made genre movies, that certainly honour the classic Apes series from the 1960s and 70s (those who know their Planet of the Apes will certainly find little touches to reward them here and there in the new film). I’m not sure – maybe it’s just that the new series doesn’t have quite the same epic scope or loopy imagination as the originals, or indeed their willingness, at their best, to tackle big issues – animal and civil rights, the inherent self-destructiveness of man, the morality of self-protection, and so on. The new films may be technically more proficient and possibly more credible, but they are essentially just superior action-adventure movies, strongly characterised, but rarely very innovative.

The new movie continues this trend, albeit in an even bleaker and more intense vein: this is a dark, brooding film, full of characters driven to do the most terrible things in the name of that which they believe. There’s a very Heart of Darkness-y vibe going on – the Colonel has clearly been inspired by Brando’s performance as Kurtz, and I would have entitled this review Ape-Ocalypse Now had the gag not already been used in the movie itself. It adds up to a pretty full-on experience, with most of the leavening moments of lightness coming from Zahn’s character (who is interesting, but the notion behind his origins doesn’t really go anywhere).

And, once again, there’s nothing actually wrong with it, but at the same time it is never irresistibly surprising or thrilling, nor does it fully engage the brain. It is being suggested that this is the concluding entry in this particular incarnation of Planet of the Apes, which is fair enough. However, ever since Rise I’ve kind of felt this series was promising to build up to the big moment of revelation, when we got to see something akin to the actual planet of apes from the original 1968 movie – a dominant, technologically-advanced ape civilisation, feral, speechless humans, and so on. Key plot points in this movie just added to that impression while I was watching it, and got me quite excited about what seemed to be on the way. In the end, though, we’re told about all this but never shown it. I was expecting something along the lines of a fade to black, the caption ‘1950 YEARS LATER’, and then a shot of a spacecraft re-entering the atmosphere. But no, nothing like that, not even post-credits. So in the end I have to say I feel slightly cheated – this series of films still hasn’t made good on its promises.

Then again, while the end of this movie does have a definite finality about it, apparently plans for at least one further episode are apparently afoot, so we may yet get our shot of a famous landmark, half-buried on a beach somewhere. This is a quality movie, intelligently made and very well performed, and fans of both SF in general and Planet of the Apes in particular should find much here to enjoy. Perhaps my problem is that my own personal expectations are just too high, because by any reasonably standard this is a distinctly superior blockbuster.

 

Read Full Post »

As soon as the theatre doors opened in the dark I felt my heart sink. Sometimes it feels like I get premonitions when it comes to this sort of thing. It had all been going so well – all the way through the adverts and then the trailers there had been only two or three of us in there, sitting far apart, obviously there to watch the film. And then they came in: four of them, young, male, juggling popcorn and drinks, muttering to each other. They had made two terrible mistakes, not that they realised it at the time: this was not their kind of film. And they had chosen to sit immediately behind me.

I went to see Hugo in 2012 and was forced to prevail upon someone at the back of the cinema to stop singing along to his smartphone in the middle of the movie. I went to Now You See Me in 2013 and found myself obliged to be quite astringent with some children who were throwing food and drink at each other a few rows behind me. I am quite prepared to put myself out there in this kind of situation. For all that I respect the quality of his thought, I would even have taken Peter Hitchens to task for not switching off his smartphone during Ex Machina, had it gone off one more time.

The whispering and rustling continued behind me, at an unreasonable level now the film was underway. I gave them Stage One, also known as a good shush. There was a brief reduction in the noise level, for a bit. But only for a bit. Subsequent shushings were followed by sniggering and ironic shushings back at me. At one point the whisperings became quite audible, along the lines of ‘this is a stupid movie, and anyone who wants to watch it is stupid, too’.

Eventually smartphone lights started flicking on and off behind me, drinks bottles were being juggled, and the noise escalated even further. It was time for Stage Two, also known as the hard word – ‘Are you going to talk all the way through this? Turn the phone off, shut up, and watch the film,’ I said, unprintably. ‘Stop swearing at us,’ said one of the confederacy of morons behind me. I was pretty sure at this point that they had not stumped up the extra couple of quid for the premium seats they were in and asked to see their tickets. ‘You don’t work here so we don’t have to.’

‘Then I’ll get someone who does,’ I said. I don’t recall ever having to go up to Stage Three before, because it really is the nuclear option, and involves missing part of the film (thus kind of defeating the point of the exercise). When I returned we had a degree of toing and froing around the cinema, but my playmates were fatally overconfident and were eventually ambushed by the manager and his minions. They were expelled into the outer brightness and the rest of us were left to enjoy the last twenty minutes or so of the film as best we could (I found myself wondering what my chances of being beaten up by the gang of them on the way to the bus stop were).

Is there a moral to this story? Not really. Except, perhaps, to say that the response of the cinema staff was pretty much exemplary, and it is a sadly necessary reminder that if you want a good cinema experience, sometimes you have to fight for it. It is also a bit regrettable that this was the only showing of the movie I could get to all week, but then I’m not entirely sure it’s a film I’d care to sit through again anyway, for all of its definite quality.

You know, in the circumstances I’m kind of wondering about my ability to give a completely objective review of Trey Edward Shults’ It Comes At Night. But hey ho, I’ll just have to do my best, I suppose. As you may know, I’m not averse to a spot of viral apocalypse, and It Comes At Night is a particularly cheery (this is not true) new entry to this particular subgenre.

The spread of a particularly nasty disease (a bit like smallpox, a bit like bubonic plague) has led to the collapse of civilisation as we know it. Paul (Joel Edgerton) and his family are leading lives of extreme seclusion in their remote home, which he has virtually fortified. He is relentless in his attempts to ensure their safety – the very first thing we see is his enforcing his cordon sanitaire in frankly hair-raising fashion when another member of the group becomes infected.

This is a hard lifestyle, to say the least, and it is taking its toll on the members of the family – especially Paul’s son Travis (Kelvin Harrison Jr), who is having grisly nightmares. But the pressure just gets worse and worse, when a stranger (Christopher Abbott) breaks into their house one night. When captured, he claims to be looking for food and water for his wife and child. After tying him to a tree for a few days and thinking things over, Paul decides to invest a little trust in the man, whose name is Will. The two of them will go and check out his story, and perhaps bring the new family back with them, amalgamating the two groups. But with trust in such short supply, can even a social group as simple as this survive?

No doubt about it: this is a horror movie more than anything else, with bits aplenty that viewers of a delicate disposition will find somewhat challenging. However, while it does include moments which attempt to function as jump scares – Travis’s nightmares are a slightly hokey device for this sort of thing – it is not really in the quiet-quiet-quiet-LOUD tradition which to some extent epitomises the modern mainstream horror movie. Instead, this is a brooding, rigorously paced movie, which is reliant for most of its effects on an atmosphere of almost palpable unease and disquiet.

Partly this is down to the performances – Edgerton appears to be doing most of the heavy lifting in this department, but Harrison is a good example of someone contributing much more than initially appears to be the case – but it’s also the result of the direction, as the camera drifts silently around the claustrophobic interior of the fortress-house. In the end it’s much more the case that the film is uncomfortably tense and unsettling to watch, than actually scary as such.

This is the kind of film which starts off with things in a very bad way, and the promise that they are only going to get worse and worse as the end of the film approaches. The script  does a good job of almost making you believe that things may actually improve, as the two families come together and there are moments of warmth and hope between them. The strophe (ooh, get me – I mean the moment when everything turns and starts to quickly unravel), when it comes, is perhaps not quite rigorously plotted enough, but on the other hand I was out of the screen summoning the management around this point so I can’t be 100% sure about that.

In the end, things resolve in about as bleak and horrible a way as could be, as the lurking tensions in the household hatch out, fed by the fear of infection, and… well, find out for yourself. It Comes At Night proves ultimately to be a film about death: the death of the body, the death of society, the death of trust, and in the end the death of hope. And it’s a very well-made one, though obviously this won’t be everyone’s cup of tea. Definitely worth seeing if you enjoy a spot of gut-wrenching paranoid misery, but maybe take your electric stun gun if you’re going to an early evening showing and they’re going to let juveniles in.

Read Full Post »

And here we go again: no, we are not finished with Terry Nation’s Survivors quite yet. One thing about revisiting these old genre TV shows in earnest: it sometimes leads to you uncovering stuff you’d never known about them before. I was completely oblivious to Babylon 5: The Lost Tales for five years, until I bought the complete boxed set. And did I ever actually hear that Big Finish were doing their own series of Survivors plays? I suppose it’s possible, but if so it was one of those things that never really registered – Big Finish’s output is so prolific these days it’s difficult to keep track of everything they’re doing.

I go back with Big Finish (creators of high-quality audio drama) to the end of last century, when they launched their range of Doctor Who stories. I bought dozens of these, didn’t miss a single one between 1999 and mid-2006, but since I went off to Japan I’ve only partaken of their wares very, very sparingly. (Perhaps I am subconsciously keeping all these hundreds of stories as a potential supply of new Doctor Who ahead of that moment when Chris Chibnall or whoever casts a woman in the part and I finally part company with the TV show.) The best of their output is quite brilliant; the bad stuff is still rarely painful to listen to. These days, it seems that they have expanded their scope, and as well as doing a vast number of Doctor Who-related plays, they’re also tackling everything from The Avengers to Terrahawks. So Survivors feels like a natural fit for them.

The first installment of the series, Revelation (also available as a free download), is written by Matt Fitton. I suppose it’s notable that Big Finish managed to negotiate the rights to the actual TV version of Survivors, which is something the BBC either couldn’t or chose not to do ten years ago when they were preparing the new version of the series. The most striking thing about Revelation is how little use it makes of those rights. None of the characters from the TV series appear, nor are there any references to specific on-screen events; it could just as easily be a spin-off from New Survivors, or a completely original drama. All that survives (no pun intended, probably) from the TV production is the theme tune, which sounds like it’s been recreated using a synthesiser and given a key change in the process – I can’t decide whether this is just about acceptable or slightly painful to the ear.

The story itself is a, brace yourself, paraprequalel (i.e., a parallel prequel) to the bulk of the TV show, depicting events happening around the time of The Fourth Horseman, but featuring different characters. Some interesting creative choices here: Big Finish have decided that the virus hit its peak during the run-up to Christmas, which seems equally as valid as my own feeling it might be early to mid January. If nothing else this expands the gap between the end of Gone Away and the beginning of Corn Dolly, quite useful if you’re looking to find places to insert Further Adventures not shown on TV. (The Big Finish version of the plague virus causes a lot more coughing than the TV one, but then it is audio, after all.)

The story advertises itself as that of a pair of journalists who uncover the story to end all stories (quite literally), and while one of the story threads does concern these characters (portrayed by John Banks and Caroline Langrishe), it doesn’t quite dig into the potential here in the way I might have expected: they just get overwhelmed by the chaos the outbreak causes like everyone else. The other major element of the story concerns a Loud American Lawyer (something of a stock type, I would suggest), stuck at a British airport and unable to get home as the transport system simply breaks down. This is largely a two-hander between Terry Molloy as a civil servant struggling to follow his instructions in defiance of all common sense, and Chase Masterson as the lawyer. (I was once standing three feet away from Chase Masterson while she shouted ‘There are no men around here! I have no-one to flirt with!’ and I hope you appreciate that I’m working very hard to be fair and objective in this review despite that.) Minor plotlines concern a polytechnic lecturer and a woman who works on a farm.

This episode is all set-up and hardly any resolution, but needless to say it functions efficiently enough. The plotline with the two journalists recalls The Fourth Horseman most clearly in its more domestic elements (one of the character’s family is stricken with the virus), but probably the most memorable parts of the story are the scenes at the airport between Molloy and Masterson, as they do give just an inkling of a sense of the international scale of the crisis, not to mention an insight into the handling of it by the government.

The Fourth Horseman, of course, took us from peak virus, through the collapse, and then to the very beginning of the reconstruction. Revelation operates a little differently, in that the collapse still seems to be very much in progress as the episode concludes; certainly not many people seem to be thinking in terms of how they are going to survive the secondary kill yet (with the possible exception of Adrian Lukis’ sociologist). The story is notably free of Terry Nation’s proselytising for more self-sufficiency and the need to rediscover traditional skills. If there is a thematic underpinning to the new series, it probably gets its best elaboration from Lukis as James Gillison: early on, before the collapse, he delivers a lecture about how it is only the construct of society that forces people to keep their baser natures and desires under control. As a foreshadowing of the rest of the Big Finish version of the series, it is rather ominous.

The biblical nomenclature continues with Jonathon Morris’ Exodus, a slightly odd title for an episode about characters going to a place rather than leaving it. This is very much part two of the same story as Revelation, dealing with most of the same characters as they begin to come together. The focus is on the London-based community set up and overseen by the lecturer Gillison, and the increasingly authoritarian methods he uses to maintain it. To say much more would be to start unloading spoilers, and as this is still such a relatively new series (at least compared to the episodes it is based on) I don’t feel I can really do that.

Suffice to say the secondary kill starts to kick in with a vengeance, and Big Finish fully exploit the possibilities that come from having almost an entirely new slate of previously-unknown characters – by the end of Exodus you are fully conscious of the fact that anyone could potentially die at any moment in this series. Making a particular impression this time around is Louise Jameson as Jackie, a woman struggling to come to terms with the loss of her family. There will always be a special place in my affections for Louise Jameson – I have known she was since before I could read or write, after all – and this episode shows just what a talented actress she has always been. This is probably the bleakest and darkest version of Survivors yet, and the wrenching quality of Jameson’s performance sells this as much as the grimness of events as the story unfolds.

In contrast, what could have been the episode’s most significant moment passes off almost unheralded – Daniel (Banks) and Jackie are driving across London when they encounter a young woman walking out of the city. Her name is Jenny, and she is heading for the countryside, on doctor’s orders. I expect I shall be saying this a lot, but the ease with which Lucy Fleming recreates a performance from forty years ago is utterly astonishing – she does literally sound as though she’s just walked off the set of The Fourth Horseman. But, as I say, this is very much a minor moment in a story which is notably confident of its ability to survive on its own terms – confidence, I have to say, which seems entirely justified. If this is the quality they can produce with a new cast and characters, then the possibilities when all of the original trio get a chance to go to work in earnest are incredibly exciting. I am aware I am well behind the times when I say this, but just in case you haven’t heard it before: if you like the 1970s version of Survivors, this new version from Big Finish is sounding very much like an essential purchase.

Read Full Post »

You have to admire Viggo Mortensen – not necessarily in the mouth-open, eyes-wide, posters-on-the-wall way that my mother used to demonstrate so well for a few years in the first half of the 2000s, but certainly for the guy’s integrity as an artist and a human being. I mean, there he was, suddenly – and perhaps a little improbably – elevated from jobbing actor to massive international and star and, for ladies of a certain age, heartthrob, with Hollywood beating a path to his door, and what did he decide to do? Well, he made one slightly dodgy mainstream adventure movie, 2004’s Hidalgo, but since then he has concentrated on challenging, critically-acclaimed movies that have nevertheless not exactly filled up the multiplexes on a Saturday night.

He hasn’t proven completely averse to genre movies, however, although most of the thrillers and so on he’s done have been a little bit skewed one way or another. Also John Hillcoat’s 2009 film The Road, which is not quite the film it initially appears to be. This is not a remake of the lost Nigel Kneale TV drama of that title, nor indeed a movie of Jim Cartwright’s celebrated play with a definite article added, but an adaptation of the award-winning novel of the same name by Cormac McCarthy.

Something terrible has happened, and civilisation as we know it has collapsed. Most of the world’s animals have died, and the plants are gradually dying. Soon everything will be dead. Making their way through the ruins of the USA are a man (Mortensen) and his son (Kodi Smit-McPhee). They are heading for the coast, but their ultimate destination remains obscure. The boy’s mother (Charlize Theron) gave birth to him shortly after the disaster, but committed suicide when he was much younger, seeing the man’s determination to stay alive for as long as possible as foolish and futile. Yet he persists in his desperate attempts to keep the pair of them alive and raise his son well, drumming into him that they have to be good guys and ‘carriers of the fire’.

Staying positive at all is a heroic undertaking in the hellish wasteland which the duo find themselves. Food is almost impossible to procure, and bands of cannibalistic survivors are a constant menace. The duo often find themselves on the verge of starving to death. What, quite frankly, is the point of any of it?

So, as you may have surmised, not a lot of laughs in this one. It seems to me very telling that exactly what has befallen the planet is never really made clear – was it a nuclear war? An asteroid strike? Something more esoteric? – for the movie is not really concerned with the details of what has happened. The apocalypse is a necessary backdrop for the story’s concerns, which are those of paternal love and the degree to which the desire to be a good person can turn you into something quite different.

I’m not averse to something post-apocalyptic but The Road makes most films and TV shows in this kind of setting look incredibly frivolous. This is a setting in which not having enough bullets to kill everyone in your family, when the moment finally comes, is a serious problem and source of domestic strife. People just seem to be clinging on hopelessly for as long as they possibly can – and by any means necessary. The film depicts people hunting each other across country, and larders filled with human bodies. Any sense of common humanity seems to have dissipated, replaced by self-interest or the law of the pack or tribe. In short, this movie gives Grave of the Fireflies a run for its money in the bleak and depressing stakes.

As you may have figured out, it takes a fairly serious movie to be quite so downbeat, and for all that it contains moments that any horror movie would be proud of, The Road generally eschews the action-adventure stylings of films in this kind of genre for a more sober, introspective tone. This is matched by the muted, grey-brown tones of most of the movie, and the understated music provided by Nick Cave and Warren Ellis. When the film jumps back to a flashback from before the catastrophe, the screen bursts into life and colour and it’s like a sudden vision of heaven – which was surely the intention of the director.

Mortensen, as you might have expected, carries the movie with another intensely committed performance, but he is well supported by Kodi Smit-McPhee (he was also notably good in the Nu-Hammer horror Let Me In, but these days seems to have become marooned in the X-Men franchise). Robert Duvall briefly appears, as does Guy Pearce (this is probably another of those movies that everyone has forgotten Pearce has been in – of course I know Pearce is a movie star, but I’ll be blowed if I can think of more than a couple of the actual films he’s made).

In the end, however, this is a very personal story, one about the precise nature of the catastrophe which the characters have suffered – the loss of security, the loss of hope, the loss of their names, even. The man has become so obsessed with doing the right thing by his son, and teaching him to be a good person, that he has it transform him into someone who has lost track of essential human decency. ‘We’re not going to eat anyone, are we?’ asks the boy, worried, but the man is quite prepared to steal from others and kill in order to protect him. Society has crumbled, but without society what morality can there be?

The movie doesn’t really attempt to answer the question, which is in keeping with the general tenor of the place. The general mood of grim awfulness is so consistently maintained that it’s those moments when the film offers up a morsel of hope which seem oddly incongruous. Nevertheless, an extremely powerful and well-made film, if not an especially easy one to watch.

Read Full Post »

I’m starting to wonder if I haven’t been letting my acquired prejudice against most modern TV colour my attitude towards New Survivors. I mean, it’s a modern mainstream drama, so I feel that managing ones’ expectations downwards is probably a good idea, and most of the writing in Episode Nine is fairly risible, but even so… Once you factor in the sentimental focus of a modern TV show, and the great subtlety drought, Episode Ten at least becomes not uninteresting.

To recap: having decided to forsake conventional notions of morality in favour of a ‘let’s just look out for our own, no matter what’, our heroes are intent on springing Greg and Tom from the slave camp they were packed off to at the end of the previous episode (on the principle that ‘Tom may be a murderous psychopath, but he’s our murderous psychopath’).

Unfortunately, they have no idea where said slave camp is, and have to resort to driving around trying to find Billy the secret slave-trader, on the off-chance he knows where it is. As the episode is less than an hour long, this is required to happen improbably quickly, and Billy (scenting the chance to enslave them all) takes them back with him to his base of operations, just around the corner from the slave-operated coal mine.

We are, I suppose, obliged to accept that the country is in a state where there is sufficient demand for a coal mine to be a going concern, and the various communities (none of which we’ve never seen on-screen) have enough of a food surplus for this to be viable. It feels a little implausible, but – as mentioned – we haven’t seen much of the state of the wider country. (It occurs to me that the first phase of the original show, in which the core trio basically wander the wasteland meeting different other survivor groups, performs an invaluable service in terms of world-building.)

The slave mine is the brainchild of Smithson (Christopher Fulford), a former Oxford don and expert in classical history who is such a fan of the slave-based economies of ancient Greece that he has decided to reinstitute slavery in the post-viral world. Well, I suppose it is just about possible. Greg and Tom get put to work down t’pit, giving them a chance to grumble at each other some more, and then Greg comes up with a cunning plan to escape by pretending to be an expert on mining. Good luck with that one, Greg.

Meanwhile, despite their record in the whole ‘rescuing people’ department being frankly questionable, the others attempt to rescue them, although not before allowing themselves a little moral outrage at Smithson’s vision of the new world. Fairly predictably, Greg’s escape plan and Abby and Anya’s rescue attempt bang into each other, resulting in everyone ending up down t’pit, apart from Tom, who has managed to escape all by himself in the meantime. (Honestly, the plotting in this episode…) Will he come back and save his former companions? (Clue: yes.)

Well, one thing about New Survivors which wasn’t the case with the old show is that it’s not afraid to be political in a fairly specific way: the new series is much more interested in the post-apocalyptic economy, specifically in the way it mainly seems to function by people exploiting one another, whether it be explicitly in the form of slave labour, as depicted here, or the trading of favours for sex (touched upon in a few episodes), or the exploitation of children as labourers (Episode Six). It’s all very firmly anti-capitalist, which I don’t necessarily have a problem with, and it may just be that the new show is a product of its time (this series was in production during the immediate aftermath of the financial collapse which was, I think, one of the defining events so far this century).

The episode is surprisingly uncompromising in its handling of the aftermath of the climactic slave rebellion, with quite brutal retribution being handed out to the various oppressors, and on top of this there’s a scene where one of the prisoners, who’s mortally injured and dying in agony, is euthanised (in a fairly back to basics manner) by Tom. It may be the programme is sincerely trying to depict people trying to make sense of a post-morality world, where conventional notions of good and evil no longer apply – but many of the characters are still framed in terms of the moral outrage they express about slavery and the treatment of the various prisoners. Smithson is an out-and-out villain, there’s no attempt to give his philosophy any real credibility. So I rather fear this is just a case of a confused production which can’t quite make up what its central emphasis should be. Still the best episode of the second series so far, though.

I would say Episode Eleven continues this upwards trend, but for the fact it’s an incredibly mixed bag. The A-plot is quite strong – our heroes rescue a bunch of other survivors from some raiders, and go back with them to their idyllic community. (Even Pointless Al and Dim Sarah, who’ve been getting it on in the back of a moving lorry, finally do something useful in helping drive the raiders off.) Pointless Al and Dim Sarah are so loved up you just know a Major Development is on the cards, while Maybe-Gay Anya takes a break from her UST with Tom to feel that certain spark with the girl in charge here. Needless to say, this puts Tom into brutish thug mode.

(I have to say that for all the weaknesses in this series – and attentive readers may have noticed I think there are plenty – Max Beesley’s performance is consistently solid, perhaps even surprisingly so. Then again I do mainly know him from playing the bongos in the title sequence of The Word and supporting roles in things like Torque.)

It all goes epically wrong, of course, when the occupants of a remote part of the community fall victim to what seems to be bird flu – it turns out this is a mutant form of the plague, from which the survivors’ genetic immunity does not protect them. Poor old Dim Sarah blunders in on the afflicted, catches the new flu, and cops it, although not before there are many opportunities for longing looks between her and Pointless Al, long speeches and declarations, and the sadness music soaring as it has seldom soared before.

It’s quite well-played (though, needless to say, the 21st century subtlety drought is in full effect), although (broken record time) wasn’t New Survivors supposed to be less depressing? In the end Abby gets to burn another corpse while someone recites that ‘A time to live…’ bit of the book of Ecclesiastes. They should probably have stressed that ‘a time to refrain from embracing’ part more, seeing as Tom and Anya decide to mark Dim Sarah’s passing by having frantic doomsday rumpo on top of a hill (even Tom has figured out that the new flu is eventually bound to kill everyone but Abby and her Magic Immune System).

So far so good, but as far as the B-story goes… I know I’ve been hard on the plotting of this series so far, but we’re into a whole new world of nonsense here. Basically it goes as follows: for no very particular reason, Greg decides to go back to his former home, taking Abby with him. There he comes across a mysterious postcard he received before the pandemic hit, which has a mysterious map reference on it. For no particular reason, Greg and Abby decide to visit the map reference, which is conveniently local, and find an airfield. There they find an unhinged businessman who received a similar postcard and has been hanging around waiting for a mysterious flight ever since the plague struck. When he realises the flight really isn’t coming, the businessman tops himself. Greg figures out that this was all part of a secret evacuation plan to save certain individuals from the apocalypse, and assumes his mysteriously-vanished ex-wife must have added his name to the list. As you may have guessed, this is all laying in plot ahead of the final episode of the series, but the incredibly clumsy way it is done is difficult to credit.

Anyway, to the final episode: realising the new flu may finish the job of wiping out humanity, Abby decides to go back to the boffins in their lab and let them finish work on their vaccine using her tissue. She gets back to discover that the manner of her earlier escape breached security there and the virus has got in and killed nearly everyone – but, looking on the bright side, her son Peter has been brought here by Roger Lloyd Pack (don’t ask, it’s a bit involved). Now the chief boffin, who’s survived using a semi-vaccine derived from Abby’s blood, has secreted Peter somewhere and is awaiting extraction by his mysterious superiors. (Yes, months after the end of civilisation, Skype is still working, apparently.)

Well, one thing that follows is the quest for a vaccine, which ends up being tested on Pointless Al (maybe I’ve been too hard on him). It’s a close thing, but he survives, thanks in part (it’s implied) to a visit by the ghost of Dim Sarah (quite how Dim Sarah’s ghost was bright enough to find her way to the right bedside is not explained). (This looks very much like one of those things where a performer was contracted for every episode of the series despite dying before the end, hence some odd flashbacks/spectral appearances, etc.)

Elsewhere, Greg and the others manage to capture the chief boffin, and Abby gets Tom to try and torture the location of Peter out of him. When the cultural history of the 2000s is written, scenes like this one – where the good guys reluctantly admit that torture is sometimes necessary – will surely be recognised as a trope, for they turn up in so many different programmes. They seem to me to very obviously be an expression of western liberal angst over the measures governments felt compelled to employ to protect themselves, following the September 11th attacks: if it’s okay for these characters we’ve come to empathise with and care about, it must surely be okay for us too, sometimes. (Not that the torture actually works in this case, but that’s just down to plot requirements.)

Everything concludes with a big chase, some shooting, and a proper appearance by the fine actor Patrick Malahide as the boffin’s boss. Again, interesting cultural stuff going on,  as (of course) it turns out the evacuation flights are connected to the boffins, who decided to save the elite of society from the disaster. A disaster it turned out they caused. So, we have a global disaster, which the architects of which have managed to escape using their wealth and influence: not the most subtle allusion to the financial crisis, but it does fit in with the general theme of this second and final season of the new show.

Let us speculate as to what may happen next: Abby and her friends have ‘enough’ vaccine to protect themselves from the new flu, but it’s strongly implied that mass production is required in order to save the rest of the world. Slightly ominous, then, that the series concludes with Tom, still quite possibly a virus carrier, stowing away on the plane to the secret enclave where civilisation still endures. It is easy to imagine this not ending well – Tom infecting the elite, wiping the overwhelming majority of them out, and the vaccine never being produced, resulting in Abby and Greg and the others eventually wandering about as the last survivors of an almost completely depopulated world. Hey, but it can’t be as depressing as all that – if we’re shown one thing in the course of this show, it’s that all these people really, really love each other, so it can’t be all that bad.

Well, New Survivors turned out to be a bit more authentic than I expected – just my luck to choose to watch the very worst episode as my first exposure to the show. I don’t much care for the manipulative sentimentalism of the new show, nor the atrocious plotting of many of the episodes, and the absence of subtlety also irks me – but then I could say all those things about Moffat-era Doctor Who, and I’ve still stuck with that, although it does sometimes feel like a contest between myself and the show to see which one of us dies first. If nothing else New Survivors is sometimes rather well acted, and offers an interesting mirror of the period in which it was made. That latter point is equally true of the old show, of course. I suppose that, in the end, I am just a man of the 1970s at heart.

 

 

 

 

Read Full Post »

Older Posts »