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Posts Tagged ‘post-apocalyptic’

The legend of Robert Rodriguez began with the circumstances surrounding the making of his first film, El Mariachi, over twenty years ago now. Rodriguez said he only had a guitar case and a tortoise and so was obliged to make the best of what he had available. One suspects he was being somewhat disingenuous but it was generally accepted that the whole film was made on a budget of about $7,000, some of which the writer-director supposedly raised by allowing experimental medical research to be done on him. The path from a $7,000 micro-budget thriller to a $200 million special-effects blockbuster is probably not a well-trodden one, but here Rodriguez is, in charge of the long-gestating film adaptation of Battle Angel: Alita. (This project was overseen for a long time by Jim Cameron, who eventually departed as director when the umpty-tump Avatar sequels in the works demanded too much of his attention, and Rodriguez apparently insisted on a change of name to Alita: Battle Angel because Cameron’s last two films beginning with an A were massive critical and popular successes.)

Quite early on in Alita: Battle Angel one gets either a comforting sense of being in familiar territory or a sinking feeling that the film is just a load of repurposed old spare parts. We are in another one of those post-apocalyptic futures, some time in the 26th century, with most of the Earth laid waste by interplanetary war. One vast floating city has endured, and living in its shadow a grimy, lawless sprawl has sprung up, the population trapped in poverty, kept docile by watching violent combat sports, and all dreaming of a better life in the sky-metropolis.

One of the locals is cyber-surgeon and part-time bounty-hunter Dyson Ido (Christoph Waltz), who while picking over the junkheap beneath the sky-city discovers a preserved human brain in a cybernetic skull. He pops this into a full-body prosthetic chassis and the result is Alita (Rosa Salazar), a saucer-eyed waif with (naturally) superhuman reflexes, agility and ass-whupping skills. Alita has movie amnesia, presumably as a result of spending many decades as a brain in a can.

Well, it eventually turns out that someone is after Alita, who finds herself involved in various bounty-hunting exploits and a big set-piece sequence concerning the sport of Motorball, which is basically a gladiatorial variation on roller-boogie. Alita gets a love interest in the form of the non-threatening Hugo (Keann Johnson), and together they recycle many favourite old lines from the Big Book of Old Sci-Fi Chestnuts – ‘Does it matter that I’m not human?’ ‘You’re the most human person I know’, etc – during lulls in the plot. But what is Alita’s mysterious past? Who is her enigmatic nemesis? What is his beef with her, and just what is she prepared to do to stop him?

There are many things to be said about Alita: Battle Angel, but probably the most significant one is that after 122 minutes, with the closing credits rolling in front of me, I still really had no clue about the answers to most of these questions. The screenplay doesn’t contain a plot so much as a collection of scenes roughly connected to one another, without much sense of focus or direction. Obviously this is a comic book adaptation, and it does feel like one – in some of the more cartoony elements of the story, but also in the way that the writers have clearly taken a huge corpus of stories, concepts, ideas, and characters and tried to include every single one of their favourites in a single script. The film strains to accommodate all of them, and one of the things that gets pushed out is traditional narrative development and structure.

A good point of reference for Alita would be Ghost in the Shell from a couple of years ago – both big-budget effects-driven American-made adaptations of Japanese manga, with a cybernetic heroine having an identity crisis, although Alita seems to have dodged the usual wave of venom about whitewashing (the word ‘adaptation’ just doesn’t register sometimes, it would seem). Ghost in the Shell is apparently considered a box office bomb, and regular readers will recall I did predict the same fate in store for Alita, a forecast I am not inclined to alter having seen the finished film. If you’re going to spend $200 million on a movie, you need to be pretty sure that audiences are going to turn out in force to see it (ideally several times each), and there doesn’t seem to be that much excitement about Alita: Battle Angel.

(Given that Jim Cameron’s career has often revolved around his gambling large sums of money making projects that industry insiders and commentators were vocally dubious about, which then went on to be immensely successful, one wonders if this has been a factor in his being able to get Alita funded. If so, I suspect the backers are in for a nasty shock this time.)

Certainly the film is light on all the things that a film needs to have in order to justify such a large budget – the story is not well-known outside the cult ghetto, and the well-known faces who appear in it are really character actors in supporting roles (in addition to Waltz, Jennifer Connelly and Mahershala Ali turn up in unrewarding, mostly-villainous parts). Ghost in the Shell didn’t make an impact despite the fact it prominently featured Scarlett Johansson in a body stocking (if they’d actually called the movie Scarlett Johansson in a Body Stocking I suspect it might have done better business), and I am not sure a heavily CGI-modified version of the comparatively little-known Rosa Salazar will have quite as much appeal.

Seriously, one of the questionable decisions Cameron and Rodriguez have gone for is the one to put Salazar’s performance through the computer and turn her into something not entirely unakin to Gollum, but with better skin and hair. Quite apart from whether the CGI is photo-realistic or not (I still don’t think we’re quite there yet), someone with eyes quite so big is just intrusive and distracting, and a constant reminder that you’re watching a big effects movie – it just makes the film less immersive. Salazar’s actual performance is functional – she possibly overdoes the breathless innocent bit in the early part of the film, but copes reasonably well with many scenes where they weigh down a bit too heavily on the exposition and back story pedals. The central romance remains thoroughly unimpressive, though.

The film is not outright bad, but it only really shows signs of life and energy when it comes to the action sequences – the highlight is probably the Motorball match, which manages to be genuinely exciting despite all the CGI, even in 3D. But even here Alita is seldom really exceptional, and once again I just can’t see it cutting through to make much of an impact on the cinema landscape today. Every time I go to an SF film with this much hype around it – as previously noted, the publicity for Alita has been inescapable – I’m hoping for that extraordinary, giddy sense of being taken to a world totally unlike any I’ve seen before, and the accompanying feeling of breathless delight. This almost never happens – obviously it happened with the first stellar conflict movie, and also with The Matrix and to some extent with Inception. But most films inevitably fall short, and just prove to be a bit too obviously derivative or lacking in the basic storytelling virtues. Alita: Battle Angel is obviously the work of people with a high level of technical proficiency, but it isn’t the work of original, visionary brilliance that its publicity appears to be suggesting it is – certainly not to the point where it excuses poor storytelling. It’s okay – but no more than that.

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When the Royal Society of Abyssinia discovered ‘The Hopkins Manuscript’ two years ago in the ruins of Notting Hill it was hoped that some valuable light would at last be thrown upon the final, tragic days of London. – the opening words of the book

There’s a quote from the writer Angus Wilson that frequently pops up on the back of Michael Moorcock books, praising Moorcock for his leading role in breaking down ‘the artificial divisions that have grown up in novel writing’. You might wonder just what it is that Wilson is on about – aren’t these ‘artificial divisions’ just another way of talking about genre, which is an inherent part of fiction?

Well, maybe, maybe not. But then I wandered into the local bookshop the other day and came across a copy of RC Sherriff’s 1939 novel The Hopkins Manuscript, which I’d never heard of. It was in the general fiction section, presumably because Sherriff is best-remembered as a mainstream writer – these days, for the much-adapted play Journey’s End and the screenplay for that classic tale of British stoicism, ingenuity and inappropriately-christened dogs, The Dam Busters (his script for Dracula’s Daughter was apparently rejected) – but it is unquestionably science fiction, and unquestionably part of a great tradition of British SF. Back in the 1930s you could write SF without ending up in the ghetto, it would seem. I am reminded of the great Olaf Stapledon, who wrote several of the greatest SF novels of the first part of the century (most notably Last and First Men and Star Maker) without ever properly being aware of science fiction as a genre, and perhaps even John Wyndham, who hit upon a way of writing SF that was liked by people who didn’t like SF. No-one seems to think about this kind of crossover any more; even the great Iain Banks seemed to be quite careful to distinguish between his SF and non-SF output.

But The Hopkins Manuscript is SF, and part of the lineage that includes such famous stories as Shiel’s The Purple Cloud and Doyle’s The Poison Belt, not to mention films like The Day the Earth Caught Fire. These days, when we imagine the end of the world we tend to assume that the Horseman of the Apocalypse doing all the heavy lifting will be Pestilence, but there was a time when cosmic forces were more commonly the instrument of armageddon, and so it proves here.

The novel opens with a brief description of the circumstances in which the text was discovered: expeditions from civilised lands have begun to venture into the wastelands of the former Europe, and the manuscript is the only surviving document from the long-since vanished ancient civilisation of Britain (there are a couple of other artefacts, a ‘Keep Off the Grass’ notice amongst them). The editors lament the general poor quality of the text and uselessness of the author, and conclude that virtually everything that elapsed in the British Isles between Julius Caesar’s invasion and the collapse of civilisation has been obliterated, lost to posterity forever. It is an opening by turns both drily funny but also oddly haunting.

It soon becomes clear that the editors have a point, for we soon get to know the main narrator of the book – Edgar Hopkins, a middle-aged retired schoolteacher living in rural Hampshire. He is a settled bachelor, his life concerned with his various hobbies – stamp-collecting, metallurgy, but above all else, breeding poultry for show. Another interest is astronomy, which is how he comes to be one of the first people in the country to learn of a staggering, appalling discovery – some cosmic upheaval has dislodged the moon from its orbit, and in a mere seven months it will collide with the Earth.

The secret is kept back from the general population for a while, as preparations are made to mitigate the looming cataclysm as much as is possible: shelters are prepared, and so on. Unfortunately, Hopkins himself is supremely poorly-equipped as a recorder of these events, as he is unfailingly pompous, pre-occupied with his chickens, and unable to consider the wider picture. (When summoned to an emergency meeting of his astronomical society and told of the falling moon, Hopkins’ first response is enormous relief, as he has assumed the secret meeting concerns a risky venture he has foolishly volunteered to underwrite.) There is something of The Diary of a Nobody in Hopkins’ self-regard and petty frustration and resentment of the attitudes of the people around him, and the fact that not only does he not become an important man in his village when the truth is revealed, but it has a serious impact on the poultry show calendar as well.

Time passes, and the cataclysm comes. Obviously the world is not destroyed, as some feared – the moon strikes in the Atlantic Ocean and then collapses, forming a new landmass. Tidal waves and hurricanes devastate Britain. But, obviously, Hopkins survives, and lives through the initial aftermath of the catastrophe – before realising, too late, that the cosmic impact of a falling planetoid may pose less of a menace to the human race than human nature itself…

As I say, this is clearly part of a British SF tradition, but in another way it is equally obviously a book of its time. It was written in 1939, but it often seems to have an eerie prescience when it comes to what was to follow in the next few years. The story opens in 1945 – a startling coincidence – and there is obviously talk of people digging shelters, taking refuge in the London underground, and so on. Rationing is introduced at one point, and there is a brief mention of a war being fought in Normandy. Resonating through all this, and transcending the tragi-comic figure of Hopkins himself, is a sense of terrible sadness, an anticipation of tumult to come and the mortal wound it will inflict on a certain version of England. The night before the catastrophe, the villagers assemble to play cricket under the baleful light of the vast moon – the last time, for most of them. Hopkins laments the loss of many of the social niceties and is desperate to cling onto the others, particularly the class system – in the post-apocalyptic community he helps to found, he is palpably relieved when the only member who is working class offers to sleep in the shed rather than the house. Sherriff seems to have sensed that something terrible was on the horizon, and the England he knew would not survive it, and this book is frequently a desperately sad and moving lament for a doomed way of life.

That said, of course, there is a sense in which it also feels disturbingly timely today. There are some parts of the book which are rather simplistic (and the astronomy and astrophysics have not aged at all well), but the widespread inertia and indifference which greets the announcement of the coming disaster rings true, as people simply don’t pay attention to the world around them. Following the cataclysm, there is a brief rebirth of civilisation, and for a while it seems that Sherriff has invented the cosy catastrophe subgenre well before John Wyndham thought of it, but this is only a temporary respite, and it is a grotesquely warped sense of national pride and arrogant British jingoism which is ultimately responsible for the final downfall of civilisation. Perhaps some of the voices of an elder England which Sherriff captured so well here are still with us.

As I say, this is a profoundly sad and deeply moving book, for all of its grace notes of comedy. The only thing which leaves a sour note these days is the appearance, late on, of a plot element about a vast horde of Asians who invade the stricken lands of Europe and hasten the final end. These days it inevitably reads as racist, but again it’s a fairly common motif in a certain flavour of SF – Europe being supplanted by African nations following a global catastrophe is a key plot point in John Christopher’s The World in Winter, while Moorcock himself plays with the trope in The Land Leviathan, and as late as the mid-1990s Ian McCulloch apparently proposed using the notion in a revived version of the TV series Survivors. Perhaps the best we can say of this idea is that it arises from a deep, perhaps even subconscious awareness of how the imperial European powers abused their colonial possessions, and the guilt resulting from this.

Apart from this, and assuming you cut the book some slack with regard to a few elements that feel a little naïve nowadays, The Hopkins Manuscript is a very fine book, no matter which shelf of the book shop it ends up on. It doesn’t offer very much new as an actual piece of science fiction, but as a character piece and a snapshot of anxieties at a certain key moment in recent history, it is a book of a very high quality. An excellent novel, and one that deserves to be much better known.

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Even in our confuzzling world of social media and streaming-on-demand, some things, it seems, will never change. A few months ago I looked at the early 80s space western Outland, a film which was known for most of its production as Io. The name-change was made mainly because people kept looking at paperwork relating to it and mis-reading the title as ‘Ten’. Someone should have mentioned this to the makers of the shiny new rhymes-with-Get Clicks SF film IO: I googled this movie and the first comment I found on it was along the lines of ‘Shoulda changed the name I thought it was called 10 like the number LOL’. So it goes, I suppose – I have more of an issue with the all-caps styling of the title (just a bit shouty, if you ask me), but to each their own.

At least Outland had a good reason to be called Io, as it is set on the volcanic moon of Jupiter which has that name. IO‘s reason for being called IO is more tenuous. I suppose the plot just about justifies it, but I still think it’s mainly because the producers thought it was a cool-sounding name. Certainly no-one ever goes to Io, although they certainly talk about it a lot; the significance of the moon is largely emblematic in a script which is clearly trying hard to be about Profound Things.

The film is directed by Jonathan Helpert, and is set in a post-apocalyptic not-too-distant future. Something has caused a profound change in the composition of the Earth’s atmosphere, rendering it toxic for most forms of animal life; we are told of people dropping dead in the street at the time this happened. Now the planet is mostly wrapped in a poisonous veil, with only a few areas of high ground left habitable. Most of the surviving population has decamped to a space colony orbiting (wait for it!) Io.

However, our main person of interest, Sam (Margaret Qualley), has not. She is one of the few people left on the now empty and silent planet – the daughter of a scientist (Danny Huston), she is attempting to complete his work by creating a genetically-modified species of bee capable of surviving in the new atmosphere of Earth. She divides her time between working on this and making trips into the nearest city, which is of course deserted, and in her spare time exchanges email messages with her off-in-space boyfriend Elon (presumably named after the well-known litigant).

This early, world-establishing section of the film is mildly intriguing and certainly interesting to look at – this is one of those SF films with minimal ‘overt’ special effects and a tiny cast, so they can really put the budget to work in realising the empty city, which is rapidly becoming overgrown by mutant vegetation. The look of the thing is always impeccable, although you are always aware that this is a film trading in ideas and images already established by other, more prominent movies. I’m not sure whether it’s entirely fair to say that IO is very visually derivative – perhaps it is better to suggest that it mostly operates in terms of imagery which has acquired a sort of archetypal quality in recent years.

Anyway, everything changes for Sam (i.e., the plot kicks into gear) when word comes in over the radio that another Earth-like planet has been discovered only ten years away and a mission to it is being launched. One consequence of this is that shuttle traffic between Earth and Io is going to cease, and if Sam is going to escape she needs to get to a launch site in a matter of days. Matters are further complicated by the arrival by balloon of a stranger named Micah (Anthony Mackie), who says he’s come to see her father. Can they make it to the shuttle in time? Are they sure they even want to?

Hmmm – perhaps I was trying too hard to be generous when I suggested that IO isn’t actually as derivative as it seems, because on reflection it does feel very much like something stitched together from ideas and imagery from a bunch of other recent science fiction films, some of them quite distinguished, others definitely not. There’s an odd smorgasbord of Interstellar, The Martian, Oblivion and After Earth going on here, although I should make it quite clear that IO wants to be a serious and thoughtful movie – basically, there are no monsters in it.

I suppose we should be grateful for this. I myself am wont to grumble that all mainstream science fiction films tend to be action adventure movies (another reason why the Star Trek movie franchise is much less interesting than it should be), and occasionally trot out the related statistic that – a few years ago at least – around 50% of all SF movies were also, by any reasonable metric, horror films. So the fact that IO has such noble ambitions is obviously laudable.

It’s therefore simply a shame that the actual movie isn’t more palatable, because unfortunately the words that leap to mind when describing it are ones like ‘stodgy’, ‘dull’, and ‘predictable’. There is not a single plot development that isn’t easily guessable, which really just turns watching the film into an exercise in checking your answers. The tone of the thing is just barren – it has none of the leavening humour of The Martian or the vaulting metaphysical ambition of Interstellar. Now, to be fair to IO, it never quite topples over into outright silliness, which is no small achievement for an SF film that takes itself quite as seriously as this one does, but after a while you start to lose patience with the endless scenes of abstract dialogue and the film’s obsession with using Greek mythology as a metaphor for something-or-other obscure.

Oh well, there is a long and honourable tradition of SF films which aspire to be thoughtful, even profound, and basically just end up being impenetrably obscure and rather hard work to sit through, and IO is a decent enough 21st century addition to their number. But I have to say that, other than the general look of the thing, there is not a single element of the film I can single out as being particular distinctive or praiseworthy – not the plot, not the dialogue, not the performances, not the direction. It is like a study in hitting the targets of minimal competence – this is a movie which is not actually bad in any respect, but it really has nothing to commend it beyond that.

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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.

 

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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.

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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 reasonable standard this is a distinctly superior blockbuster.

 

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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.

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