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Posts Tagged ‘Robert Wise’

The reimagining of Westworld as a proper, mature, hide-granny’s-eyes TV series might, you would have thought, have ensured a little attention for the director of the original movie, but this has turned out not to be the case. Perhaps this is because the one of the creators of the new Westworld is Jonathan Nolan, a notable figure in his own right; perhaps the fact that Michael Crichton died nearly ten years ago may also be significant. Even so, it’s surely a shame – Crichton didn’t create the kind of books or films that get a lot of critical respect, but they’ve certainly had an impact on modern culture, and some of them were actually pretty good.

Of course, it helps if you have the right people involved, and in the history of film-making there have been few pairs of hands safer than that of Robert Wise, who directed the 1971 film version of Crichton’s novel The Andromeda Strain. It seems to me that some people dismiss Wise as just another studio journeyman, reliably knocking out the likes of The Sound of Music and West Side Story, but on their own terms, these are still exceptionally accomplished films. The Andromeda Strain was the second of Wise’s three SF movies, the others being The Day the Earth Stood Still and Star Trek: The Motion Picture (they are a peculiarly disparate trio).

The story opens with the team sent to retrieve a US satellite that has just returned to Earth discovering a silent, still small town in Arizona. Everyone there has dropped dead, apparently simultaneously – as the team discover in the very final moments of their own lives.

The government responds by activating a team of scientists prepared for just this contingency: the arrival on Earth of a lethal extraterrestrial pathogen. Two of them, Stone (Arthur Hill) and Hall (James Olson), venture into the dead town in spacesuits to locate the missing satellite, while Dutton (David Wayne) and Leavitt (Kate Read) proceed directly to the team’s secret facility beneath the Nevada desert.

Stone and Hall join them shortly, bringing with them two people who have inexplicably survived the alien pathogen – the town drunk and a small, understandably distressed child. Everyone proceeds to the lowest and most secure level of the base, while a strong recommendation is made that a nuclear weapon be used to obliterate the town and remove any chance of the infection spreading to more densely populated regions. Work gets underway on the process of locating, analysing, and neutralising the deadly agent, code-named Andromeda – the ultimate sanction being the presence in the base of another nuclear device, which will be used to sterilise the area if Andromeda shows any signs of escaping into the outside world…

When you watch The Andromeda Strain these days, you’re never very far away from a reminder that this is a film made in the early 1970s. That doesn’t mean it’s a bad film; far from it. But it is one very much of its era. Partly this is reflected in the way it is filmed and edited: Wise reveals a fondness for split-screen effects, which were briefly modish in the late 60s and early 70s. Mostly, though, the film is simply very obviously part of a whole lineage of rather grim American films from this period, all concerned with technology and existential threats to human existence. It’s second cousin to The Forbin Project, for instance, sharing that film’s preoccupation with underground facilities and the dubious wisdom of putting computers in charge of nukes. But, as I said, virtually every major studio SF film of the early 1970s was at least a little bit dystopian, and The Andromeda Strain comes off this way too.

The odd thing is that this isn’t really because of the threat of the Andromeda life-form itself, but a consequence of the antiseptic and inhuman environment the characters have created to contain it. The Wildfire project does not seem like a fun place to work – everyone there is po-faced, to say the least (although, with the exception of Kate Reid’s character, the whole movie is notably humourless). There’s something oddly conflicted about a film which, on the one hand, spends a huge amount of time fetishising the technology on display in it – waldos, computers, scanners, laser guns, and so on – but at the same time is obviously fundamentally disquieted by all of this gleaming, inhuman power.

(As a side note, it also occurs to me that The Andromeda Strain – if not the movie, then certainly the book – was surely a key influence on the British TV show Doomwatch, which I wrote about recently. The Andromeda Strain is marginally more SF, but both deal with teams of experts attempting to tackle unusual scientific threats to human life, with the emphasis much more on ideas and science than on the characters as people. Stone’s initial declaration that the town must be isolated and destroyed to prevent Andromeda from spreading recalls one episode of Doomwatch, but the smoking gun, surely, comes when the alien organism mutates into a form which eats plastic, causing a jet which encounters it to disintegrate in mid-air – suffice to say, the first episode of Doomwatch was entitled The Plastic Eaters and features jet planes having similar in-flight difficulties.)

Was Michael Crichton trying to make a serious point when he wrote the original novel, or was he just going for maximum verisimilitude by adopting such a down-to-earth tone? It’s hard to say, but The Andromeda Strain takes itself very seriously, even for an early 1970s SF movie. Wise later spoke of it having an almost documentary quality, which is helped by the fact it is filled with obscure character actors rather than movie stars. You have to keep your mind on the job while you’re watching it, too, given so much of it takes the form of actors playing scientists talking very earnestly to each other about matters of methodology, procedure, and their various hypotheses.

That said, of course, they have to produce a suitably exciting climax from somewhere, and The Andromeda Strain manages it rather neatly – not only does Andromeda eat its way through the plastic filters sealing the lowest level of the base, starting the countdown on the bomb, but the team realise that life-form is so alien that the nuclear blast will just provide it with an energy source that will let it multiply and infest the whole planet. Much scrambling up ladders and dodging automated laser guns ensues, as a desperate attempt to disarm the nuke is undertaken. In retrospect all of this seems more than a little bit contrived, but it does result in a genuinely tense and exciting conclusion to the film.

Even so, it’s not exactly an upbeat ending – not only has the gleaming apparatus of the installation come up short in several respects, mostly due to human frailty, but Stone admits to a government enquiry that there is no guarantee that any future incursions from space can be contained in this way. Still, this is pretty much par for the course, and in fact The Andromeda Strain is rather more cheerful than many of its contemporaries – Earth isn’t cracked open like an egg, or left a sterile industrial hell, or depopulated by a lethal virus. Maybe the movie makes the mistake of taking itself just a bit too seriously, but it’s still an impressively well-made, rather unusual SF film.

 

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It was late in the Earth Year 1979 (or possibly early 1980) and my father announced that he was taking me to the cinema. This was unusual enough to be noteworthy, but to my father’s credit, most of the films I remember him taking me to without my having to ask were generally pretty good – the first couple of Christopher Reeve Superman movies, for instance. On this occasion, I remember hanging around outside a Blackpool seafront cinema for a bit on a rainy day (there may have been a queue), and then taking our seats to enjoy the latest movie by Robert Wise, a man who I have since come to regard as one of Hollywood’s greatest directors. The good news was that Wise was helming a lavish and ambitious epic SF movie. The bad news was that it eventually turned out to be Star Trek: The Motion Picture.

I found the movie somewhat baffling, but my father’s dissatisfaction was both palpable and loud. Ever since that day, TMP has had a toxic reputation in our house for being long, slow, boring, and dry, and it’s a view I suppose I automatically stuck with myself for many years. Not that we were alone, of course: I suspect the received wisdom that ‘odd numbered Trek films are no good’ is largely the result of TMP‘s perceived flaws.

Of course, the movie has picked up its defenders in the meanwhile – ‘much to enjoy,’ says the Encyclopedia of SF, noting that the subsequent movies are a ‘sentimental mishmash’ whose popularity is ‘mystifying’. Well, I’m not sure I’d go that far, but I think that if you look more closely at TMP you can see most of its problems arise from a clash between very different agendas and creative sensibilities. Is to understand really to forgive? I’ve never been completely convinced, but it can’t hurt.

Two and a half years have passed since the return of the Enterprise from its original mission (or so it is strongly implied). Kirk (William Shatner) has been promoted to the Admiralty, Spock (Leonard Nimoy) has gone into retreat and is attempting to join the Vulcan Logic Club, McCoy (DeForest Kelley) has retired from Starfleet, Scotty (Jimmy Doohan) has been busy rebuilding the ship, and so on. Then an alien object of incredible power appears, on a direct course for Earth – despite the Federation becoming aware of it while it’s still on the other side of the Klingon border, the only ship that can be scrambled to intercept it is the Enterprise, which suggests to me that Starfleet need to start building a lot more vessels.

Well, Kirk decides to lead the mission himself, royally ticking off the Enterprise‘s new captain, Decker (Stephen Collins), and gets the old gang back together for this crucially important mission. Can they rediscover that old chemistry before the whole planet is toast?

The first thing to be said about TMP is that it was, after all, directed by Robert Wise, he of The Day the Earth Stood Still and West Side Story fame, and he really does seem to have been trying to make a proper SF movie. The movie has a scope and a willingness to visually innovate that you don’t really find in the rest of the series, and there are some wonderful sequences – the opening battle between the alien probe and the Klingons being one of them, although I do recall being thrown by this at the time – while this sequence played a huge role in reimagining the Klingons for the 1980s and beyond, it’s only in retrospect that we are aware of this.

Of course, Wise’s own ambition, coupled to the unorthodox way in which this film was made, trips him up just as often. The special effects sequences for this movie were completed heart-stoppingly late and could not be re-edited or modified in any way before being inserted into the final print, and the result is sequences like Kirk’s trip to the Enterprise in spacedock via a cargo pod: this takes nearly five minutes, with no dialogue, just long, slow shots of the Enterprise, Kirk looking lovingly at it, the pod slowly flying past the Enterprise a bit more, Scotty looking with indulgent fondness at Kirk, more long, slow, shots of the Enterprise… the music is not too bad, but you inevitably start huffing and looking at your watch. Elsewhere, like many other ‘serious’ 70s films, the yardstick is obviously 2001: A Space Odyssey, with journeys into the heart of the alien probe obviously designed to recall the star gate sequence from Kubrick’s film.

On the other hand, you wonder how much of the pseudo-mysticism and laborious philosophy in this movie has been put there by its producer and co-writer, Gene Roddenberry. Roddenberry by this point was keen to be viewed as some kind of visionary thinker as well as a TV and movie writer-producer, and this is perhaps why, every time he got his hands on Star Trek after the cancellation of the original TV show, he was very keen to impose his vision of the future on it, in an unadulterated form. So much of the life and lightness and wit of the TV series came from the work of writers like DC Fontana and Gene L Coon; you can draw a fairly solid line from The Cage (Roddenberry’s original pilot for the show) to TMP and then on to early episodes of Next Generation – none of these are light and zippy entertainment, all of them feature main characters who (initially at least) are best described as ‘stolid’, and the first two take place largely in shades of grey and brown – one wonders if the maroon command uniforms in Next Generation are only there to suggest continuity with the similar hues on display in the movies around that time.

These days it is well-known that TMP was, for part of its tortuous development process, intended to be the introductory episode of a TV series to be entitled Star Trek: Phase II, in which Kirk and a mixture of old and new characters (not including Spock) would set off on a series of new adventures. If you ask me, many of the problems with TMP become much more comprehensible if you consider that this was originally intended to be a TV pilot rather than a feature film.

For one thing, the key characters of the movie are not really recognisable – Kirk starts off driven and chilly, and only very gradually starts to warm up and become a sympathetic hero as Spock and McCoy slot into place around him. Spock himself is distant and conflicted for most of the movie. Only at the end of the story, in the concluding tag scene on the bridge, do the trio seem to have rediscovered the chemistry which made them so magical in the TV show. This would make perfect sense in the pilot for a new weekly TV show – the story shows them getting back together and remembering who they are, preparatory to further adventures in the rest of the series – but in a one-off movie, not having characters more identifiable from the original show is a serious misjudgement. Needless to say, Decker and new navigator Ilia (Persis Khambatta) were also intended to be regulars in Phase II; Roddenberry appears to have been very attached to these characters and their relationship, seeing as he gave them the lightest of reworkings and stuck them in Next Generation under the new names of Riker and Troi.

Much of the creative DNA of The Motion Picture comes from its origins as a TV pilot, while the cinematic ambition of Robert Wise is a competing, rival influence. (I suppose we must also mention the way in which the movie recycles plots and ideas from TV series episodes, too, particularly The Changeling, though this is probably more an issue for your hard-core Trekkies than the average viewer.) No wonder it is a bit of a mess in may ways. Parts of it feel like the lavish, thoughtful movie it was clearly intended to be; other parts of it feel like a bad TV show. The main difficulty is that very little of it actually feels like original Star Trek, and that’s an immense problem for this kind of movie.

 

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It is once again that difficult time in the cinematic calendar, when the fruit of the creative loins of Michael Bay has been loosed upon the world, and – more to the point – is filling all the multiplexes. As you might expect, I would more cheerfully drill through my own toenails than actually pay to watch Transformers: Age of Extinction, but I can hardly ignore it entirely, can I? Luckily enough, it turned out that one of Michael Bay’s own favourite films was enjoying a brief revival at the local art-house, so I think in the circumstances this is an acceptable replacement. Given that only the other week I was singing the praises of the non-diegetic musical, it also makes a certain sense to revisit one of the greatest ever examples of the form: 1961’s West Side Story, directed by Robert Wise and Jerome Robbins.

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Yes, it’s a bit of a shock, isn’t it? Bay, the maestro of overblown and incoherent excess, a fan of one of the most perfectly formed films ever released. Just goes to show you never can tell. The scene is laid, as the title suggests, on New York City’s west side, some time in the early 60s, where tensions are rising between the different street gangs – principally, in this case, the ‘indigenous’ Jets, and the Sharks, who are Puerto Rican immigrants.

Jet leader Riff (Russ Tamblyn) comes to the conclusion that things need sorting once and for all, and resolves to challenge Shark head honcho Bernardo (George Chakiris) to a grand combat to settle the conflict. Things become unexpectedly complicated, however, when Riff’s lieutenant Tony (Richard Beymer) happens to meet Bernardo’s sister Maria (Natalie Wood) at a neighbourhood dance, and the pair fall passionately in love virtually on the spot.

Tony and Maria wisely keep quiet about their relationship and battle plans are drawn up by the two gangs. But when Maria learns of the planned confrontation, she implores Tony to intervene, and he agrees, not realising that his presence will only lead to a deadly escalation in hostilities…

So, a movie about gang violence, juvenile delinquency, racism, and urban deprivation (for all that the basic plot is swiped from Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet) – not, you might think, the most obvious material for all-singing, all-dancing musical theatre. For a long time I was always rather amused by the somewhat bizarre source material of many musicals – race riots, totalitarian coups, anti-semitic pogroms, and celebrity murders being just a few examples. I am starting to think, though, that perhaps I’m getting this backwards, and that the musical is in reality the most natural way for mainstream cinema to tackle these tough topics. The overt non-naturalism and glamour of the musical form to some extent takes the hard edges off the subject matter, and gives the creative people involved a little more latitude than a straight drama might have.

I think this is certainly the case with West Side Story. There are two main strands to the plot – Tony and Maria’s romance, and the gang war, and the songs punctuating the former are fairly traditional musical numbers with people singing about love and hope and their emotions. I should point out that these are still brilliantly executed pieces of work, of course, but for me all the real show-stoppers come from the other side of the film – the Puerto Ricans get the justly famous ‘America’, about the contrast between their hopes and the reality of the immigrant experience, while the Jets are served with ‘Gee, Officer Krupke’, a blackly funny dig at society’s inability to come to terms with the issue of juvenile delinquency. These songs are superbly performed and choreographed – there may be other musicals with equally good songs, but the dancing in West Side Story is surely unmatched – but they’re not just catchy tunes, they’re cynical and very, very smart pieces of social commentary. The end results are really breathtaking.

Then again, this is a film that makes bold choices from its opening moments. Following the overture, the movie starts naturalistically enough, with the Jets holding court over the neighbourhood playground. But slowly their swagger takes on a more graceful, choreographed quality, until they start breaking out into ballet steps, and the film manages to sell this idea. Throughout, the film is doing careful, striking things with colour – at the dance, the Jets are all subtly decked out in yellows and greens, the Sharks in blacks and purples – sound, and the image – observe the way the rest of the dance fades to a muted blur as Tony and Maria first set eyes on each other. The contrast between the grittiness of much of the narrative and the almost impressionistic quality of its realisation is perfectly achieved.

I must confess to finding more stand-out moments in the first half of the film than the second, but then this is really the nature of the beast where versions of Romeo and Juliet are concerned – the young lovers almost inevitably end up being a bit too wholesome and drippy. Certainly the departure of Tamblyn and Chakiris from the narrative doesn’t really do the film any favours. But it would take a harder man than me to argue against the sheer winsomeness and charm of Natalie Wood (the fact that she – and Beymer, come to that – is dubbed for all her songs somehow doesn’t seem to matter, nor does the fact that she’s clearly not actually Hispanic), nor the sincerity and emotion the romantic leads bring to their roles. (Perhaps the dubbing issue is why the acting Oscars for this film went to Chakiris and Rita Moreno instead.)

Superficially, West Side Story has not aged well, with all its buddy-boys and daddy-Os seeming rather quaint. But, even leaving aside the quality of the music and dancing (Leonard Bernstein and Stephen Sondheim are responsible for the former, Jerome Robbins the latter), the film’s concern with issues of racism, immigration, and urban alienation still mark it out as relevant to the modern world. Part of me thinks this will always be the case, and that this is one of those films that will endure as long as the medium of cinema does, because in so many ways it is as close to perfect as any film I’ve seen. If they’d only included some robot dinosaurs, it would really be an essential film.

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From the Hootoo archive. Originally published October 18th 2001:

A few years ago a major British newspaper ran one of those regular filler pieces on ‘The (X-Number) Greatest Movies Ever Made’. In addition to this they got some celebs to suggest amendments – overlooked classics, over-rated turkeys, that sort of thing. Imagine my pleasant surprise when Kenneth Branagh plumped for Robert Wise’s 1951 The Day The Earth Stood Still as an addition to the list. You may have seen it – is it really as good as all that?

It’s a deceptively simple story: life on Earth is shattered when a flying saucer descends on Washington DC, not far from the White House. From it emerge humanoid alien Klaatu (Michael Rennie in a role he could’ve been born to play) and hulking robot Gort (Lock Martin). Klaatu is shot and wounded by the trigger-happy army that have surrounded the ship, and ends up in hospital. He reveals he’s come to Earth to deliver a very important message – but Terran politics make the World Summit he insists upon impossible. Wishing to learn more about the world, Klaatu escapes from the hospital and taking the name Mr Carpenter moves into a boarding house where he befriends a young widow and her son (Patricia Neal and Billy Gray). The army continue their increasingly desperate hunt for the alien visitor, not realising that his death will trigger a planet-busting rampage from the implacable Gort…

Watching TDTESS these days is to be transported back to another age, so different is this from any modern genre movie. By modern standards it might seem incredibly sentimental and square – but it has a conviction to it, and the performances are so good, that you really never care about whether it’s old fashioned or not. Michael Rennie’s trademark reserved detachment was never better utilised. It’s a remarkable performance, mixing compassion, optimism, exasperation, and – above all – gravitas. In many ways it’s the foundation of the film, setting the serious tone essential to its success. This is helped by the direction, which is semi-documentary in places – there are frequent montage sequences displaying the impact of the film’s events on ordinary people around the world (a very refreshing change from modern Hollywood’s belief that the world stops at the US’s borders). It’s not all doom and gloom – there are many effective lighter moments, often lampooning the parochial attitudes of the US itself.

Technically, it’s a very accomplished piece of work by 1951 standards. The optical effects are more than adequate to tell the story, and the ‘big scenes’ – the army on the move, Klaatu’s neutralisation of the world’s electricity – are well staged. Special mention must be made of Bernard Herrman’s ear-opening score, making significant use of the thelemin (an early synthesiser). Truly eerie in parts, it’s been much imitated, but never bettered.

And yes, for those who look for such things, the parallels with the Christian story are clear and frequent. But they neither add to nor detract from the message at the heart of the movie: that the human race must learn to live peacefully – or face the prospect of not living at all. Maybe it’s a trite and obvious message, but it’s one that as relevant today as it was fifty years ago. More’s the pity.

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