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Posts Tagged ‘really bad science’

Richard Fleischer’s Fantastic Voyage (1966) starts off looking like a conventional thriller of its era: a plane makes a night-time landing, someone in a hat that screams ‘spy’ observes a distinguished-looking older gentleman getting off, pausing to shake the hand of Stephen Boyd as he does so, a motorcade zooms away, enemy agents attack it, and so on, and so on. Only with the onset of the opening credits does one get a sense that this movie is going to be a little further out there: the camera zooms in on the egg-like dome of the older gentleman, now receiving medical attention, teletype rattles across the screen, there are radiophonic pinging and boinging noises. It’s still very sixties, but in a rather different mode.

Soon enough we are back in the plot, with Boyd being picked up by some spooks and delivered to a secret underground base. Keeping the underground base a secret is no small feat (literally) as it is a whopper, as secret bases go. Most people working there travel around on little buggies rather than walking about: that’s how big it is. This is particularly ironic as it turns out it is the secret base of the Department for Shrinking Things (they have another name in the script, but it basically means the same thing). Too bad the Department for Shrinking Things couldn’t shrink their own HQ a bit.

Well, it turns out the chief problem with the Department for Shrinking Things’ shrink-ray is that it only works for an hour before things revert, potentially messily, to their original size: one of those conveniently precise drawbacks one so often finds in pulp SF. The secret of extending the miniaturisation period has been discovered by the older gentleman, but a blood clot in his brain threatens to kill him before he can share his breakthrough with the west.

All this proves to essentially be maguffinery, designed to get us to the high concept for this particular movie:  to remove the clot and save the patient’s life, a small submarine is going to be made considerably smaller and injected into the man’s bloodstream, this allowing a brilliant brain surgeon to carry out an operation as an inside job, so to speak. The brain surgeon is Arthur Kennedy, his winsome young assistant is Raquel Welch (in her movie debut), commanding the mission is Donald Pleasence, and Stephen Boyd will also be going along to keep an eye on things (there are some suspicions that there could be a traitor on the team).

And off they all go: the shrink ray even works on Raquel Welch’s hair, although it remains proportionately about three times bigger than one would expect for a woman her height and build. This is one of those SF movies aimed at a general audience for whom, it seems to be assumed, the simple fact of something science-fictional going on will be endlessly fascinating. So the actual shrinking sequence lasts about ten minutes, for no very obvious reason.

Then, before you can say ‘whoosh’, they are underway, cruising through the bloodstream. Needless to say, things do not go according to plan: one so rarely comes across Hollywood movies where a fistula is crucial to the plot, but this is one of them. Given the batty nature of the story, it hardly seems fair to single any particular moments out as being especially contrived, even though they seem it: they have to travel through the heart, which has to be briefly stopped while they do so; there’s a stop-off in the lungs to refill the air tanks; a detour through the lymphatic system results in the sub being covered in loft insulation. Raquel Welch is attacked by antibodies which cover her in plasticky crystals – she is nearly trampled in the rush as the rest of the crew surges forward to peel the stuff from her wet-suited person. And so on, and so on. In the end the traitor is revealed; his identity should come as no great surprise, given the presence of Pleasence, who sometimes seems to have a genuine problem not being icily sinister in any of his roles.

There was a popular misconception floating around, for a number of years at least, that Isaac Asimov was somehow involved in scripting Fantastic Voyage. Apparently the limit of his involvement was writing the tie-in novelisation, in which he duly did his best to fix some of the problems with scientific accuracy and various other plot holes. There are, as you can probably imagine, many of these, the main one being that come the end of the film, no-one has bothered to extract the submarine from within the patient – which means it should revert to normal size somewhere inside his head, with presumably messy results. Apparently there was a line supposedly explaining this which didn’t make it into the final edit – the operation turns out to be successful, in that the defector survives, but he suffers minor brain damage from having a wrecked submarine in his skull and forgets the bit of information everyone was after to begin with.

The finished movie isn’t big on this kind of irony, or indeed humour of any sort. It takes itself very seriously, and I imagine the makers would say that this is the only approach to be taken with this kind of outlandish story – you can’t run the risk of appearing to send yourself up. Well, there is something to be said for dour naturalism, but it is not the easiest of bedfellows when put next to the visual component of this film: naturalistic is hardly the word for this.

There’s a difference between presentational and representational storytelling: the representational kind apparently ignores the audience and strives for absolute realistic naturalism. Presentational storytelling acknowledges the presence of the audience (and, implicitly, its own existence as a piece of fiction), either explicitly or implicitly. Musical theatre and pantomime are usually presentational; so, arguably, is a lot of genre fiction, simply because it adheres to genre conventions. The script and performance style of Fantastic Voyage are both working hard to be representational and naturalistic (or as close as they can manage in a genre movie). The visuals and special effects, however, are something else again – the garish, surreal visions of the interior of the human body may have won an Oscar fifty years ago, but they just seem trippy today. The consequence is that the film feels camp more than anything else – not intentionally camp, but nevertheless camp.

In the end, it’s a watchable kind of camp, and it does help you overlook all the various plot holes in the story. Most of the performances are not especially memorable (Pleasence is the predictable exception), and Raquel Welch is about as ornamental as you would expect, although she does seem to be working hard to find places to act. Fantastic Voyage passes the time agreeably enough, but whatever reputation it has derives more from its memorable visuals and the strength of its concept than any real distinction in the rest of the film.

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I have an embarrassing and possibly hard-to-credit confession to make: I have a tendency to get some of these 60s and 70s apocalyptic SF movies jumbled up in my head. I think this is partly the fault of the writers, who could have been a big more imaginative in their titling sometimes: the names of these things are a bit formulaic. Following the success of The Day the Earth Stood Still, we end up with The Day the Earth Caught Fire, and a bit after that The Day the Sky Exploded (I suppose you could also add The Day of the Triffids to the list, though that’s not quite the same thing, of course). For a long time I thought there was another film entitled The Day the Earth Cracked Open, but this is not actually true; the film in question actually trades under the name Crack in the World. I suspect I was getting The Day the Earth Caught Fire mixed up with the Hammer project When the Earth Cracked Open, which is no small achievement considering the latter film was never even made.

I should know better, for Crack in the World enjoys outstanding sci-fi B-movie credentials. Director Andrew Marton may not have much form in the genre, but the cast list scores highly on the Rocky Horror opening number bing-o-meter, with Dana Andrews and Janette Scott playing the two leads. Scott’s Day of the Triffids co-star, Kieron Moore, also turns up; this probably isn’t a coincidence as the two films are from the same producers (one of whom, Philip Yordan, surely deserves more recognition within the fantasy genre considering he contributed to the scripts of The Time Machine, Horror Express, and Psychomania, amongst others). Art direction is handled by Eugene Lourie, who directed The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms, Behemoth the Sea Monster and Gorgo, which might possibly lead you to expect a different kind of film to what this is.

We get underway with a delegation of important folk trundling across the African savannah in jeeps. Apparently we are in Tanganyika (Tanzania these days); natives with spears look on gravely as the jeeps go by, but make no other contribution to the film (which was actually made in Spain anyway). Soon enough everyone arrives at a remote scientific outpost where a big derrick, of sorts, has been put up. There to greet the important folk is Maggie (Scott), who is married to the boss, Sorenson (Andrews). Sorenson can’t be there as he is busy getting secret treatment for secret Movie Cancer, but Maggie shows them around until he turns up.

This visit has been thoughtfully timed to deliver maximum exposition in the most discreet way. We, and the important folk, learn that Sorenson has been drilling through the Earth’s crust in search of a new source of geothermal power, but the last bit of crust has proved to be unexpectedly resilient and the plan, which he needs the important folk to assent to, is to detonate an atomic bomb at the bottom of the shaft to make the final breakthrough. Sorenson’s demonstration is very good in the visual aid department (in fact, all the pseudo-scientific bits in this film are very carefully and vividly explained; it’s just a shame much of the actual science is deeply iffy), even when it comes to the theories of his youthful rival Ted Rampion (what the hell kind of name is that for a sci-fi B-movie lead character?). Ted’s concern is that multiple nuclear tests have already fractured the crust and one more big blast will have dire consequences for the integrity of the planet. Ted’s ideas make a lot of sense, even when it’s Sorenson explaining them, but you know he’s going to be ignored as there’ll be no story otherwise.

Well, the important folk say yes, of course, and Ted (Moore) resigns in a huff, though not before we have a few scenes sketching out the simmering love triangle between the three leads. Ted goes off to London to try and persuade the important folk to change their decision, while Sorenson goes full speed ahead with the insertion of the bomb. There is a lovely hokey quality to the way that the bomb is sent down the shaft, attached to a missile with its engines blazing even though it’s going straight down; presumably gravity just wouldn’t do the job quickly enough.

Everything seems to go well, with magma spouting out of the borehole, but it soon becomes apparent that Ted was right and Sorenson was an insane, hubristic fool; the Earth’s crust has indeed been severely sundered by the blast, which hit a pocket of subterranean hydrogen that magnified its intensity several-fold. Now a ravening fault is opening up, heading eastward across the Indian ocean at over seventy miles a day, causing massive earthquakes wherever it goes. If the crack circumnavigates the Earth, the enormous pressure of the core will cause the planet to split in two – the scientists had better get their thinking caps on!

You can kind of recognise Crack in the World as a sort of remote ancestor of the kind of films Roland Emmerich has made such a success of – outrageous sci-fi disaster movies, with enormous property damage in the background and trite human-interest melodrama going on closer to the camera. The main problem with this is the simple fact that Crack was made in 1965, for a budget of less than a million dollars. The special effects, such as they are, are not too bad in a slightly sub-Gerry Anderson way, but for the most part the film steers clear of showing the immense devastation we are assured the crack is causing: characters just get told about it over the phone or radio. As a result this feels like an oddly bloodless calamity until quite close to the end of the film.

The whole thing would indeed feel like an extended episode of Thunderbirds were it not for the melodrama subplot. It has to be said that while this is also quite hokey, the characterisation in this film is unexpectedly solid and intelligently handled – the multiple layers of rivalry between Sorenson and Ted do inform the plot, while Sorenson’s Movie Cancer isn’t just a plot device: his desperation to complete his life’s work while he still can is one of the things driving him to ignore Ted’s concerns. Janette Scott, on the other hand, just gets to be decorative and concerned about the two guys; she is also issued with one of those costumes which instantly becomes very fragile once the climax of the film arrives and she finds herself in actual jeopardy.

The film is a bit dry and earnest, and could probably use a few more funny lines, but it moves along well despite the limitations of the special effects and the slightly preposterous science – the further you get into the film, the dafter the science gets. Still, the climax is well-mounted, for all it is over-the-top, and the three leads do good work with the material they are issued. The overall theme of ‘don’t let scientists mess about with A-bombs’ is hardly original, and it doesn’t grip or convince in anything like the same manner as The Day the Earth Caught Fire, but this is a decent mid-range sci-fi movie by 1960s standards.

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In the past I have occasionally commented on the subtle way that improvements in computer technology have impacted on the film-making process. Specifically, it’s not that difficult now to make high-quality CGI come out of commercially-available hardware, which means that high-concept SF visuals are no longer beyond the reach of the cash-strapped independent film maker (what a hyphen-heavy first paragraph this has turned out to be).

Such an indie project is Mike Cahill’s Another Earth, although if anyone’s name belongs above the title it’s that of Brit Marling. Indeed, this is definitely A Brit Marling Film, as the young woman in question writes, produces and stars in the movie. Not that there’s necessarily anything wrong with this, of course.

Marling plays Rhoda, a bright teenage girl with a glittering future – until she makes the mistake of driving under the influence one night, and smashes her car into that of composer and music professor John Burroughs (William Mapother), putting him briefly into a coma and killing his wife and child. Emerging from prison some years later, Rhoda struggles to find a reason to live, consumed with regret over her past actions. She finds herself drawn to Burroughs’ house, intending to apologise, but her nerve fails her and she instead starts working as his cleaning lady. Completely unaware of who she really is, Burroughs accepts her into his life and the two find themselves becoming close…

That’s all very well, Awix, you may be saying, but why is this movie called Another Earth? A good question, well asked. Congratulations. Well, in tandem with all this going on is another plotline about a new planet being discovered in the solar system. As it approaches Earth, scientists realise that the two worlds are identical, twins in every respect, and communications with this mirror world are soon in place. (Meanwhile, people with socks over their faces and lamps on their heads turn up at the South Pole and start causing no end of trouble… only kidding.)

You can look at this movie in a number of ways. In its combination of art-housey character drama and big-concept SF it bears a striking resemblence to Melancholia – there are a couple of scenes which are practically identical (though Marling is less forthcoming than Kirsten Dunst was in the basking-in-planetlight sequence), and both films gaily disregard the realities of celestial mechanics. But on the whole this is a much less accomplished film than von Trier’s.

The SF element is, for one thing, cobblers, with no explanation given as to why there happens to be two planets floating around which are exact duplicates of each other. I know I mentioned this up the page, but the film flatly ignores the laws of physics when it comes to things like tidal forces and gravitational shear: another Earth floating close to ours would cause a global catastrophe, not provide the occasion for soul-searching that it does here.

This isn’t even really proper SF, which at its best is about introducing a completely new element into a recognisable world and then exploring the ramifications of that in a vaguely systematic way. The twin planet idea here is just a way of articulating this film’s central theme, albeit in a grindingly obvious way. It’s very clear that this film is about the desire for second chances and the mysteries of roads not travelled: sticking another planet into the story and making the theme literal just makes the film seem simple-minded. Apparently this film won an award for Best Film with a Scientific Theme: steam probably came out of my ears when I read that.

This movie would probably have worked better as a more down-to-earth drama – the other planet has very little impact on the plot proper until near the end – though it’s still quite heavy-going in its early stages. Bashingly unsubtle dialogue and am-dram performances from the supporting cast are one thing, but there’s also the fact that we’re clearly intended to see the full depths of misery to which Rhoda has sunk. This takes the form of a lot of cleaning, in various venues: we see her scrubbing a set of school toilets, mopping the corridors of the same institution, wiping down Burrough’s kitchen table, folding his laundry, and so on. A little of this goes a long way, and the audience is generously provided with these domestic goings-on, along with more surprising material concerning the two leads playing on a Wii at what feels like great length, and Mapother serenading someone on a musical saw (one should not mock: the film implies this instrument has remarkable aphrodisiac powers).

At this point I was ready to dismiss Another Earth (well, kick it out the door, if we’re honest) as another example of preposterous arthouse pretension, overpraised for simply being different. But, as the story goes on the relationship between Marling and Mapother becomes rather engrossing and affecting – both of them equally messed up by the same accident, and stumbling towards some kind of redemption or renewal through their contact with the other. Both the leads are rather good at this point and it’s clear that some thought has gone into the movie: not necessarily good thought, but still.

Inevitably, of course, the plot resolves itself through some shenanigans involving the other Earth – I say resolves itself, but it doesn’t, quite. Many more questions are raised than the film even begins to answer and the conclusion itself borders on the actively irritating. Still, there are just – just! – enough interesting things about this film to stop it from being a dud and a waste of time. As I say, it would probably have worked much better without the SF – but as it is, Another Earth is an interesting failure, nothing more.

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