Feeds:
Posts
Comments

Posts Tagged ‘SF’

Some kind of threshold in the delexicalisation of the word irony was surely passed when the Original Film Company announced it was going to release… well, take your pick, really: Sonic the Hedgehog, the Total Recall remake, any of the Fast and Furious movies… not that all of these films are necessarily bad, of course. It’s just part of a larger trend, anyway, and one which we have discussed before: such is the expense and exposure involved in making a major tentpole summer blockbuster these days, that the big studios invariably hedge their bets by backing properties with a history of success – which translates as doing sequels, remakes, and adaptations of properties from other media (TV shows, comic books, video games, theme park rides).

It’s a slightly dismal state of affairs even when, as noted, some of the sequels, remakes, adaptations, etc, stand up pretty well on their own terms. The arrival of a big popcorn movie which is none of these things is always therefore a noteworthy occasion (especially if it’s not been directed by Christopher Nolan).

That said, I wasn’t particularly grabbed by the early publicity for Shawn Levy’s Free Guy, partly because it didn’t honestly look all that much like an actually original film (a grab-bag of ideas and visuals from elsewhere, really) and also because it’s a star vehicle for Ryan Reynolds, who has undeniable ability as a light comedian and leading man, but also often comes across as a bit smarmy. Still, you know, sometimes you just want to see something colourful and lively and not too demanding on the higher brain functions.

Reynolds plays Guy, who is a bank clerk in Free City. Guy thinks Free City is a utopia, the greatest place to live in the world, even though it objectively seems to be a dismal, insanely violent, crime-ridden hellhole, where the streets are filled with outlandishly-dressed violent psychopaths all wearing sunglasses and intent on non-stop mayhem and slaughter. But Guy still likes it there. But is there something missing from his life of cheery routine? (Wake up – grab coffee – go to work – be robbed six or seven times a day – go home etc.) Perhaps there is.

He gets an inkling of what it may be when he encounters a mysterious woman (Jodie Comer), one of the sunglasses-wearing faction. This provokes him to break with the old routine, stop doing all the usual things, and even – his best friend is appalled by the thought – get a pair of sunglasses for himself. To say the world takes on a whole new hue when he pops them on is an understatement.

The audience is a step ahead of Guy by this point, anyway, as the movie doesn’t hang around in elaborating on its central conceit: Free City is the setting for a computer game (something like a MMORPG version of Grand Theft Auto) and Guy is one of the background, non-player characters (NPCs) whose main function is to be brutalised by the players (the psychopaths in sunglasses). But something has happened to Guy, allowing him to evolve beyond his designed function and take control of his actions…

This concerns and baffles the people maintaining the game systems, but is also of great interest to two programmers in particular (Comer again and Joe Keery). Comer’s character believes the Free City game includes code illegally swiped from one of their own productions, and is seeking evidence for a lawsuit against the tycoon responsible (the increasingly ubiquitous Taika Waititi). Can Guy have something to do with all this?

I will concede that for a theoretically original film, there is a lot about Free Guy which feels suspiciously derivative: you could make a very long list of all the films which it feels like it owes a debt to, one way or another, starting with Westworld and going on to take in movies as diverse as They Live, The Truman Show, The Matrix, Gamer and Ready Player One. (This is before we even consider some of the crowd-pleasing pop-culture references Reynolds has managed to sneak in courtesy of his relationship with Marvel and Disney.) But it manages the very neat trick of taking all its influences and combining them to produce something which doesn’t feel like it’s obviously ripping off any of them in particular.

The result is a very clever and visually dense film – the corners of the screen are filled with little gags and throwaway details – as well as one which is solidly structured and written (managing to handle some of the issues with this type of scenario with notably more grace than some of its donors). It’s not just clever as a piece of entertainment, either – it manages to take big and potentially unwieldy ideas and smuggle them in front of the camera, usually disguised as jokes or incidental detail. There’s a lot of satire of computer game norms and gamer culture in general, but also more thoughtful and even philosophical ideas about free will and the nature of reality. That the world around us is not what it initially seems is a foundational premise of much great science fiction; which means that Free Guy easily qualifies as one of the best SF films in ages.

Smart summer blockbusters are rare enough, but the other thing which really makes this film stand out is that it has a genuine sweetness and positivity about it which is, to be perfectly honest, incredibly rare in a major studio movie these days. What makes Guy stand out and get noticed as he begins his quest to improve himself is that he is attempting to be a hero in a world where the default assumption is that everyone will behave like a sociopath. He is cheery and upbeat and often apologises to people after finding himself required to do violence upon them. Reynolds finds a way to do this without coming off as bland or saccharine or preachy; I can’t think of a better performance from the actor. But then the whole film is notably well-cast as well as being well-written; the closest thing to a stereotype is Waititi’s grasping businessman, but then he is largely there to symbolise the evils the film is setting out to challenge (he even gets a line about how originality isn’t profitable and that sequels and IP are where the money is).

A film flying the flag for creativity and new ideas, and doing so while suggesting there is indeed value in doing the right thing, would get my support no matter what (well, maybe not if it seemed to be acted by drones, edited by chimps and directed by a committee) – but for a film to do these things while being consistently engaging, clever and funny is virtually miraculous these days. Free Guy, rather unexpectedly, turns out to be a real treat and almost certainly the best popcorn film of the summer.

Read Full Post »

I earned various gasps and envious mutterings from my friends the other night when I casually let slip that the next day I had a ticket to a showing of Dune on the big screen. This naturally abated somewhat when I made it clear this wasn’t the delayed, and now even-more-eagerly anticipated new version of the story directed by Denis Villeneuve, but another outing for David Lynch’s 1984 crack at the story, courtesy of the Prince Charlie near Leicester Square.

(Ah, the Prince Charlie: looking back I’m startled to realise I’ve only been there two or three times in the past, and not since 2013, but every time I even go past I feel like it’s somehow my spiritual home. It’s almost enough to make me contemplate moving to London just so I can go to this one cinema more often. Very odd.)

‘I become very happy, because the film is terrible,’ said Alejandro Jodorowsky, describing his own first experience of seeing Lynch’s Dune on the big screen. As is now quite well-known, Jodorowsky spent years planning a lavish ten-hour-plus version of the book, starring Orson Welles, Mick Jagger, Gloria Swanson and Salvador Dali (amongst others), with music by Pink Floyd. Strangely enough, no studio was willing to finance this project, and the rights to Frank Herbert’s novel fell into the grasp of Italian impresario Dino De Laurentiis. Meanwhile, if you believe the folklore, Jodorowsky’s pre-production work went on to inspire the great wave of blockbuster SF-fantasy films that came out in the late 1970s and early 1980s.

It’s kind of ironic that the Lynch Dune is part of this wave itself. I was vaguely aware of it at the time it came out, when it was definitely marketed as a sci-fi blockbuster not unlike the previous year’s Return of the Jedi, complete with Panini sticker album given away free with the comic 2000 AD. But I don’t remember anyone ever really being very excited or interested in Dune, hardly anyone bothered collecting the stickers, and I’m not even sure it showed near me. The only person I knew who’d seen it (much older than I was) said it made no sense at all unless you’d read the book.

But, hey, there was a pretty good turnout for the Prince Charlie revival, so what were we all there for? Presumably a few sci-fi die-hards, and David Lynch completists, and people wanting to refresh their memories ahead of the new film (across the way they were showing a thirty minute preview of the Villeneuve version; hopefully nobody got confused and went to the wrong one). And I suppose this is a sort of cult film, which only goes to show that cults can crop up in all sorts of places.

The film gets underway with an introductory monologue from Virginia Madsen, playing Princess Irulan, daughter of the Emperor of the Universe. This actually does a pretty decent job of setting the scene is very broad strokes, establishing that we’re in for an epic tale of ruthless galactic politics, all based around control of the planet Dune, source of the most important substance in existence. The titles and music crash in, it’s all very impressive and stirring, and it’s only much later that you realise that pretty much all that Madsen does in the rest of the film is stand around in the background; her character is completely insignificant.

Things stay visually impressive, in terms of costuming and set design and a lot of the special effects, as we get a brief gazetteer of important planets in the story (Arrakis, Caladan, Giedi Prime, Kaitain), and the various factions attached to them (the Fremen, the Atreides, the Harkonnens, the Imperial House, the Guild of Navigators) and we are privy to an audience between the Emperor of the Universe (Jose Ferrer) and a third-stage Guild Navigator, telepathically overheard by his Bene Gesserit advisor (Sian Phillips), where the Emperor’s plan to use the Harkonnens to destroy his Atreides rivals is outlined, while the threat posed to the Navigators by Duke Atreides’ son Paul (Kyle McLachlan) is also touched upon.

And all this is just in the first scene. Are you baffled yet? If not, you are either some kind of a savant, or have read the book, or aren’t really bothering to pay attention (all of these are equally acceptable excuses).

The thing about Dune, the novel, is that it is essentially a straightforward, even archetypal tale of a young man born into privilege who loses everything but undergoes various trials through which he attains superhuman faculties, which he uses to avenge himself on his numerous enemies. Nothing wrong with that; that’s a perfectly solid framework for a story.

The other thing about Dune, however, the one that makes the book so extraordinary and has ensured its reputation as a masterpiece of SF, is the complexity of the world of the story, and the way it is filled with intricate background detail. The main problem with the film is that Lynch concentrates on all the throwaway detail and back-story so much that the actual central narrative disappears from view.

Names of people and things pile up: Mentat, Bene Gesserit, Sardaukar, Shadout Mapes, Shai-Halud, Reverend Mother Gaius Helen Mohiam, weirding modules, Gom Jabbar, the Waters of Life. Introducing all of this (all without ever quite explaining what much of it is) causes the film to grind to a halt and buckle under the weight of its own baffling exposition. Characters like Irulan are introduced as if they’re going to be significant, only for them to barely appear again.

That the film makes any sense at all is because of Lynch’s lavish use of voice-over as an aid to explaining what’s going on. We are frequently privy to the thoughts of many characters, mid-scene, even when we could likely figure out for ourselves what they are thinking, while the progress of the story is usually accompanied by a bit of voice-over explaining what’s happening or has just happened.

I can’t stress enough how important this is: I’ve read Dune several times and some parts of this film are still impenetrable. You can usually tell when something important is happening in a scene – the appearance of the stirring main theme is usually a clue, especially if the electric guitars kick in – but quite what it is or its significance is frequently a mystery. Everything that’s wrong with this film is encapsulated in the final moments, with the last line of the film being an unlikely cry of ‘For he is the Kwisatz Haderach!’ Who or what the Kwisatz Haderach actually is has only been touched upon in the vaguest of terms, rendering this moment both momentous and deeply obscure. This doesn’t feel like an attempt at a slingshot ending or an enthymeme, where lack of traditional closure is part of the intended effect – it’s just bad scripting from Lynch.

You can see why they employed someone with Lynch’s kind of visual sense on a grandiose project like this one, but the narrative utterly escapes his control and he seems more interested in small details  – Baron Harkonnen’s disgusting pustules, for instance – than epic storytelling. I think it’s telling to compare Dune with the 1980 version of Flash Gordon, another lavish De Laurentiis extravaganza – Dune’s climax, where desert warriors riding on gargantuan worms do battle with imperial terror troops as atomic weapons go off in the background, is broadly akin to the Hawkman attack on the rocket ship in the earlier film, but where Flash Gordon is lively and colourful and thrilling, Dune is subdued and ponderous.

Most of the cast (McLachlan, Sean Young, Francesca Annis) are good looking but bland. Even very fine actors like Max von Sydow, Sian Phillips and Patrick Stewart (yes, it’s our week for discussing early Patrick Stewart fantasy movie roles) end up just standing around doing the best they can to make an impression. Well-drawn characters simply vanish into the art direction (which, to be fair, is consistently good); Baron Harkonnen, one of the great villains of SF, is reduced to being simply a ‘flying fatman’, in charge of a family of slavering perverts.

Perhaps Jodorowsky was right and it’s impossible to do Dune justice as a conventional movie; you either need to do it as a TV mini-series or an absurdly long mega-epic, or a series of films. Jodorowsky opted for the mega-epic; Villeneuve, I understand, has opted just to do the first half of the book and hope the film is successful enough to allow him to finish it off in a second movie. We shall see; the audience is certainly there for a really good Dune movie, the question remains whether such a thing is even really possible.

Read Full Post »

There’s a game you can play, if you find yourself at a loose end (and, who knows, over-endowed with the will to live): it’s called ‘Foreign Movie or Not-Foreign Movie?’ It works like this: someone says the name of a movie and you have to decide if it’s foreign or not (complex rules, I know, but give it a chance).

It almost goes without saying that this game relies on a rather flexible definition of what actually counts as a foreign movie: in this situation, ‘foreign’ actually means ‘not in the English language’. Given the American, British and Australian (etc) film and movie industries are so radically different, you might very well think that this is stretching a point beyond the bounds of reason and off into the realms of the uncomfortably insular, but so it goes. Every more-accurate title I can think of is hopelessly unwieldy.

Cinema is a business, in the end, and it’s a fact that English is the closest thing to a lingua franca that the medium possesses – if you want your movie to get a decent international mainstream release, doing it in English smooths the way considerably. Perhaps the most notable exponent of this kind of thing is the French hyphenate Luc Besson, responsible for a string of largely fun-but-disreputable action thrillers like The Transporter, Columbiana and Lockout, all of which are technically French, but all of which (to paraphrase one critic) disguise their national origin to appeal to a wider international audience.

You don’t have to be making trashy genre movies to play this game, of course: Besson has done it with slightly more elevated fare as well. Even so, it doesn’t necessarily work in helping a film to cut through: which is just a rather circuitous way of saying that I don’t recall Bong Joon-ho’s Snowpiercer getting much of a UK release when it came out back in 2013. This is a Korean-Czech co-production, but made in English and with a predominantly British and American cast; the subject matter, as we shall see, is essentially mainstream. And yet for some reason it still seems to have slipped through the cracks, round my way at least. Or maybe I was just distracted. So it goes.

Proof we are in traditional SF movie territory comes in the opening few minutes, where a bit of audio, some captions, and footage of chemtrails establish the premise of the film: in an attempt to halt global warming, a new chemical has been released into the upper atmosphere with the intention that it will cool the planet down a bit. This works much better than expected: far too well, in fact, with the planet transformed into an icy, uninhabitable snowball. The only remnant of civilisation is the Snowpiercer, a train which functions as a sealed, apparently self-sufficient habitat as it endlessly circles the planet.

Seventeen years on from the cataclysm, all is well aboard the Snowpiercer, as the passengers enjoy a pleasant lifestyle with all the amenities they have come to expect – passengers in first class, anyway. Back in third class, at the rear of the train, it’s a squalid, overcrowded hell, with no facilities and extreme discomfort (insert your own joke about the UK rail network here, should you wish). However, as the money and power of the third-class passengers is greatly exceeded by that of the people up front, no-one important really cares about them.

However, revolt is stirring at the back of the train, led by brooding, reluctant hero Curtis (Chris Evans), who is guided by a wise old man named Gilliam (Gilliam is played by John Hurt, and as there is a distinctly Gilliamesque feel to much of the movie, one wonders if there isn’t a little tip of the hat going on here). Their plan is to get past the gates and armed guards and reach the front of the train, where its creator Wilford (Ed Harris) is to be found, at which point a profound social realignment will take place. But it’s a long way to go, with many nasty surprises on the way…

So, yeah: missed Snowpiercer on the big screen, then Former Next Desk Colleague gave me a copy on a hard drive (hardly ethical, I know, but I was looking at two months’ solitary in Kyrgyzstan, so to speak) which I managed to bust before I watched it; sometimes it seems like the stars are just set wrong and you’re never going to see a film (still haven’t completely given up on Tiptoes, though).

But what do you know, I finally managed it, and this is certainly a superior example of what it appears to be trying to be: a proper science fiction film with genuine ideas in it, a touch of visual innovation, and plenty of violence to keep the mainstream punters happy.

It’s well-written, well-played, well-paced, well-designed and well-edited and meets every requirement of being an impressive movie which is worth your time, if slightly brainy SF action movies are your cup of tea at least (I can imagine some of the more graphic elements of the story may not be to everyone’s taste). One could probably take exception to a few elements of the plot as being slightly contrived and implausible, but this would be to miss part of the point of the piece.

This is that there is a limit to how literally we are intended to take the film: it seems to me to be a kind of existential fable or allegory, and this informs the story on a fundamental level. Rather like Ballard’s High-Rise, in which the tower block becomes a metaphor for society, so in Snowpiercer the train becomes a microcosm of the wider civilisation which initially created it, with the social divisions and inequities of the train reflecting those of our own world. This is hardly some deeply-buried subtext: this feels like an angry, insurrectionist movie, and one wonders if some of the more comic-grotesque elements (Tilda Swinton’s extraordinary apparatchik, for instance) have been included just to make the film more palatable as entertainment as well as a piece of agitprop.

On the other hand, beyond being a call for revolution, the movie also has a rather topical concern with the state of the world, and its sustainability: the train isn’t just a symbol of society, but for the world in ecological terms – the need to maintain a balanced and functioning closed system turns out to be one of the main drivers of the plot, and indeed is the main reason for the status quo on the train at the start of the film. The antagonists of the film suggest harsh measures are required to achieve this; the protagonists have no response beyond breaking open the system, not really an option available in the real world.

It’s not surprising, then, that Snowpiercer eventually comes across as a rather existentially bleak and ambiguous movie, certainly not an example of the traditional Hollywood ending. If it reminded me of anything, it would be The Matrix Reloaded – there is a similar mix of visual flair, elaborate violence, and philosophy – Curtis’ journey to visit Wilford recalls Neo’s quest to find the Architect, and both heroes are in for something of a surprise when they arrive. But Snowpiercer is a more coherent and satisfying film, and it’s not surprising Bong Joon-ho has gone on to become such an acclaimed director. Not perfect, but an impressive movie nevertheless.

Read Full Post »

The line between inspiration and plagiarism can be a thin one sometimes. Occasionally one comes across a movie which, shall we say, wears its influences very openly, and the question is – did the makers see another movie and genuinely enjoy it so much they felt compelled to create their own homage to it, regardless of brazen this appeared? Or were they simply just cashing in?

The thing about Bert I Gordon’s 1957 film Beginning of the End is that you sort of want it to be the former even while you find yourself regrettably compelled to conclude it’s the former. This is a film which is virtually a beat-for-beat remake of Them!, the granddaddy of a certain subgenre of 50s monster movies – but on the other hand, director Gordon operated extensively in this same area – this wasn’t his first take on this kind of material, nor his last (he became known as Mr BIG not just for his initials, but for his fondness for making giant monster pictures).

(The poster even looks like a knock-off of the one from Them!.)

The beginning of Beginning of the End opens in time-honoured style with a young couple enjoying the classic 1950s pastime of sitting together in a parked car. You know this is going to end badly for them, for we are not quite yet at the point where young adults are allowed to be the protagonists in this kind of film, and so it proves, for the end of the beginning of Beginning of the End sees something terrible but obscure descend upon them (she screams, helpfully establishing the tone).

After the end of the credits which are at the beginning of Beginning of the End (oh, yes, I can keep this up all night), we are briefly with a cop car which comes across the wreckage of their car, but soon find ourselves with plucky young reporter Audrey (Peggie Castle), who really is the protagonist – for a bit at least. The disappearance of the young couple is soon eclipsed by the fact that a whole town in the vicinity has been flattened and its entire population has vanished. The National Guard has surrounded the location and are trying to keep the whole thing quiet. This naturally involves keeping Audrey well away from the ruined town, which is a bonus for the producers as they don’t have to spend any money on a ruined town set. This kind of consideration weighed quite heavily on the minds of the producers of this film, I suspect.

Audrey, however, has sufficient pluck to keep on investigating, which leads her to the research laboratory of Dr Ed Wainwright (Peter Graves, deploying his usual gift for unwarranted gravitas). Sadly she doesn’t have sufficient pluck to keep Graves from stepping in and assuming the role of lead character at this point, and she rather vanishes into the background from this point on. Despite being an entomologist, Graves is working on solving the problem of feeding the world by growing giant radioactive fruit and veg, with the help of his assistant. His assistant has been rendered a deaf mute by a radiation accident, which may be to create pathos and increase representation, but is more likely because this means they don’t have to pay the actor for a speaking role.

Graves, Castle, and the mute dude head off to investigate a nearby grain silo which was destroyed some time before the town, and are startled, to say the least, when a badly-composited grasshopper the size of a bus rears into view. (The movie tends to use grasshopper and locust interchangeably, but as you can perhaps tell, precise scientific rigour is not Beginning of the End’s strongest suit.) Graves’ assistant is gobbled up by the grasshopper and the other two flee the scene, possibly to call their agents.

Yes, the bugs have been nibbling on the radioactive veg and as a result have turned into insatiable giants, and the local woods are infested with the things, as the National Guard learn to their cost when they investigate. This isn’t the most flattering presentation of the Guard, or at least its leadership, as the plot demands they basically ignore all of Graves’ very sensible warnings and act like idiots throughout. But there is an even more pressing problem than the public image of the National Guard’s command: the giant grasshoppers have eaten everything in sight and are swarming in the direction of Chicago. Are the authorities going to have to drop a nuke on the city, or can Graves come up with a way of dealing with the colossal pests?

So, as noted, another giant bug movie very much in the same vein as Them!. I think Them! is a genuinely great movie, and one positive thing you can say about Beginning of the End is that it does make the virtues of the earlier film much more obvious: it works very hard to be gritty and realistic, has a real sense of looming disaster, and makes good use of decent production values – lots of extras and some relatively good giant ant puppets. Beginning of the End couldn’t actually afford any of these things and so it concludes with Peter Graves firing a tommy gun out of a window at live-action grasshoppers which have been persuaded to sit on a photographic blow-up of a Chicago tower block.

Alarm bells may ring for some viewers when the screenwriting credit (which, lest we forget, comes towards the end of the title sequence at the beginning of Beginning of the End) is given to Fred Freiberger, working with Lester Gorn (his only venture into screenwriting). Fred Freiberger has a notorious reputation as the man who was on the scene when Star Trek, Space: 1999 and The Six Million Dollar Man all got cancelled; he once favourably compared being a prisoner in a Nazi prison camp to having to deal with incensed Trekkies. (We have discussed his special screenwriting talents before.) This time, however – well, the script doesn’t exactly shine, but neither is it completely terrible.

If the script has a problem it’s that it calls for the giant grasshoppers to do all sorts of things the special effects department is just totally incapable of realising. They can just about manage a moment where a grasshopper rears into view from behind a low obstruction in the foreground; when they have to start attacking buildings or chasing people through woods, disaster looms, and not in the way the script wants: ropey back-projection battles obvious stock footage to a standstill. It is this which launches Beginning of the End into the realms of camp and is responsible for its dismal reputation.

I have to say, though, that I found it pretty watchable on the whole: it’s formulaic from start to finish, and not especially well-made in any department, but there’s something oddly comforting and enjoyable about it. Graves in particular is obviously taking it very seriously and, largely as a result, the movie has a sort of kitsch grandeur to it which I found very entertaining. A bad movie, but not quite a total waste of time.

Read Full Post »

‘I know it’s awful that the cinemas are still all closed, but there’s lots of interesting, high quality things on Netflix you can watch,’ someone said to me, just the other day. Quite how I got from there to watching a couple of episodes of Star Trek: Voyager I’m not entirely sure: my memory is slightly cloudy. But one could have worse problems at the moment.

The two-part story in question was Equinox, originally broadcast in 1999 (it bridged the show’s fifth and sixth seasons), directed by David Livingston, and written by Brannon Braga and Joe Menosky (all three stalwarts of the Berman-era Trek production line). Almost immediately one gets the sense that this production is slick, polished, professional, and yet somehow getting things slightly wrong.

It opens with the USS Equinox hurtling across space, under attack from a hostile alien force. (We have never seen this ship before and have no idea where it is or what its story might be.) The captain of the vessel, Ransom (John Savage, who sort of resembles the result of an accidental transporter fusion of Charlton Heston and Niles from Frasier), shouts various orders and his crew fire their phasers at not-too-awful CGI fish-aliens who start materialising on the bridge. (Again, we have no idea who these people are.) As teasers go, it’s not especially thrilling, and while it’s somewhat intriguing it arguably blows the gaff on the episode’s big idea too soon.

With the credits out of the way, we are back in the familiar environs of the starship Voyager, which has just picked up a distress signal from the Equinox. Given that they are still supposedly decades away from their home turf, they receive this news of the sudden appearance of another ship from home with remarkable composure. As you can probably tell, I think they missed a trick here: opening with Voyager receiving a mysterious signal, with the revelation it comes from a second stranded Federation ship forming the hook of the teaser, seems to me to be a much more rational way of structuring the episode. But I suppose it’s easy to be wise about script decisions two decades later.

No-one on either ship seems particularly surprised by this apparently random meeting, especially considering the vast distances and spans of time involved (both ships have been lost in space for five years, and have travelled forty thousand lightyears since then). The closest thing to a personal reaction comes as a result of the fact that the Equinox’s exec is an ex-boyfriend of Voyager‘s chief engineer B’Elanna, but even this feels like it’s there just to fill a box marked ‘Character-based C-plot’.

Naturally, Captain Janeway lends all due assistance to the embattled Equinox (which is a much smaller and less well-equipped ship). However, it soon becomes apparent that their ordeal in the Delta Quadrant has taken its toll on the crew of the other ship: Janeway has staunchly stuck to the Prime Directive and the rest of the Starfleet rulebook throughout their journey, but Ransom and his people, it is suggested, have not displayed the same degree of moral fortitude.

Janeway and the others eventually figure it out: the CGI fish-aliens are well within their rights to be cross, as Ransom has discovered that capturing them, killing them, processing the corpses and sticking them into the warp engine boosts the Equinox‘s speed to the point where they could potentially get home in a few weeks. Accepting that any Starfleet crew would do anything quite so ghastly is a fairly big ask, but to be fair to the guest cast, they do a pretty good job of suggesting just how traumatised the personnel of Equinox have become.

Nevertheless, Captain Janeway sticks them all in the brig – but has reckoned without the Equinox’s EMH, who is naturally a dead ringer for Voyager‘s own doctor. Evil-twin subroutines in full effect, the other EMH springs Ransom and the others, and they make a run for it, stealing one of Voyager‘s shield generators and accidentally taking Seven of Nine with them. Janeway and everyone else is left at the mercy of the CGI fish-aliens. Cue inter-season hiatus!

Well, as cliffhangers go, The Best of Both Worlds it ain’t. I know that, in the years following the end of Berman’s curatorship of the franchise, the regular writers trained up on the series became widely respected for their ability to break down the structure of a story and turn it into a viable script in a very short period of time, and there’s nothing that’s flat-out mishandled here, but even so… there’s something slightly glib and facile about the first half of the story in particular. Everyone involved knows that, as a piece of episodic TV, there aren’t going to be any significant changes by the end of the story.

I find myself in an awkward spot here, as one of the things I don’t like about what I’ve seen of the new wave of Star Trek shows is their reliance on serialised storytelling. This kind of precludes me from suggesting that some of the problems with mid-to-late-period Berman-Trek are due to the fact they’re so episodic. That can’t really be the case, anyway – most of the TV shows I’m fondest of are episodic to their cores. I think it may simply be just that there’s no real sense of passion or drama about this show a lot of the time – all the attention seems to have been on sorting out the story beats and other narrative connective tissue, none on creating really memorable moments or scenes.

That awkward moment at a party where you realise someone else is wearing the same outfit as you.

Things improve a little bit in the second half, though. There are a couple of battles between the Equinox and the Voyager, though these largely boil down to shaky scenery and people shouting percentages and there’s no sense of the cognitive shock felt by the participants in this Starfleet-on-Starfleet conflict, the sort of thing Babylon 5 did so well. More interestingly is an unexpectedly subtle plot thread about the effect that Janeway and Ransom seem to have had on each other. Janeway seems to take Ransom’s transgressions almost as a personal affront, and becomes nearly as ruthless as he is in her attempts to hunt him down: torturing prisoners, terrorising innocent aliens, and so on. (There is the obligatory scene where Chakotay complains about this and gets relieved of duty as a result.) Ransom, on the other hand, almost seems to get back in touch with his Starfleet soul, experiencing remorse and showing signs of a desire for redemption. (This allows a much more two-dimensional character to step in and be the villain for the climax of the story.) It’s an interesting bit of parallelling, but the fact one knows that both the Equinox and Ransom are going to be toast by the end sort of undercuts the drama a bit.

I know that Equinox has a pretty good reputation as Voyager episodes go, and I’ve certainly seen worse. You can see where the genesis of this story might lie: on one level it’s a road-not-taken story, with the Equinox crew dark reflections of the regular characters, what they might have become without Janeway’s moral compass. But it never really digs into their moral corruption, not in a way that hits home: you’re never actually shocked, and the redemption of Ransom at the end doesn’t carry much impact as a result. It’s slickly put together and technically very competent, and the bones of the story are sound – but, like a lot of Voyager, it feels rather inert dramatically.

Read Full Post »

The past was indeed a strange and very different place. The year must have been 1982-ish, give or take a year either way, and I was at my local two-screen cinema somewhere in Lancashire. I have no idea what I was there to see, but I distinctly recall being fascinated by one of the displays advertising a coming attraction: not a poster, but one of those free-standing cardboard things that you still used to occasionally see for big movies before everything went to hell. This one depicted – well, it was a man in a business suit, I suppose, or the upper part of his arms, and torso, and shoulders, and neck. The head was absent, and it was clear that this was not due to the display being damaged: the reason this guy was in the display was because his head had literally exploded, and this was made quite clear.

Lord knows what my parents were doing at the time, because I’m utterly certain they would not have been down with me checking out advertising for films where people’s heads detonated. And Lord knows what the cinema staff, and indeed the film’s distributors, were thinking of, putting advertising material about the place which was so appallingly graphic. The image fascinated and stuck with me, even though it would be over a decade before I actually saw it. The name of the film was Scanners, directed by David Cronenberg.

The film opens with a homeless man, whose name we eventually learn is Cameron Vale (Stephen Lack), wandering through a large shopping mall. He stops for a burger; two women look at him with distaste. One of them is abruptly struck down with a seizure of some sort – we see in Vale’s expression shock, horror, guilt, pain. Two men seem to recognise Vale; they pursue him and tranquilise him, taking him to a secret facility.

Elsewhere, a military-industrial corporation named ConSec is holding a demonstration of the abilities of a man known as a ‘scanner’: scanners apparently have a suite of telepathic and telekinetic powers, although the film is appropriately vague about exactly what they are capable of. The scanner invites a volunteer from the audience to come up and scanned, as part of the demonstration: stepping forward is a man we later learn has the non-specifically ominous name of Revok, and he is played by Michael Ironside (a prolific, culty actor possibly best known for his work with Paul Verhoeven in films like Starship Troopers and Total Recall). The demonstration does not go according to plan, I think it’s safe to say, as it turns out that Revok is also a scanner, and much more powerful than ConSec’s man: soon enough, it’s headbanging time (after pondering how to achieve the notorious exploding head effect, the special effects man apparently just told the rest of the crew to cover their ears and blasted a prop head full of raw meat with a shotgun at point-blank range).

This occasions a certain amount of disquiet amongst the higher-ups at ConSec, not least because all the scanners they have been working with have chosen to sever contact with the company. Head of the scanner development programme, the regrettably-named Dr Ruth (Patrick McGoohan), suggests that Revok is establishing his own underground network of scanners and it might be a good idea to try and infiltrate this with a scanner operative of their own. For this undertaking Ruth elects to use Vale, who has only recently been identified as a scanner and thus is unknown to Revok and his followers – in theory at least. But Revok already has his own spies in place, and Vale’s mission leads him into peril, as well as to the secret behind the existence of the scanners…

For a movie which is to some extent defined by a single spectacularly gory moment, it’s worth pointing out again that the bit in question comes really very early on in the film – the film’s other big set-piece (as displayed in the poster) comes at the climax, and is also very gribbly. Between these two scenes, however, Scanners doesn’t often look much like a horror movie: it resembles a spy movie or political thriller much more closely, as Vale seeks out contacts, infiltrates secret societies, is pursued by assassins and discovers dark secrets. There is very little of the fascination with psycho-sexual themes which colours earlier films like Rabid and Shivers. Then again, Cronenberg has always been a kind of restless talent, bringing his own approach to a variety of different genres.

The horror movie and the conspiracy thriller come together in Scanners in the sense that this is a movie about control, both in the explicitly personal sense – the primary talent of a scanner seems to be their ability to hijack the nervous systems of those around them, causing all sorts of nasty physiological effects – and also in a wider and more political way. It’s clearly deeply suspicious of big business, both the military-industrial complex but also big pharma – one of the ways in which the film resonates with the real world is that it’s revealed the appearance of scanners is the result of pregnant women being prescribed a sedative called ephemerol, their children being born with the scanner faculty. The parallels with the scandal of thalidomide are too obvious to need going into in detail. Ordinary people and their lives just seem to be treated as raw material by the vested interests of the world. It’s a bleak and downbeat vision – Vale’s mentor, Dr Ruth, meets the usual fate of mentors towards the end of the movie, but he is also revealed to be a compromised figure: the creator of ephemerol, and a man with a rather ambiguous relationship with the scanners he is responsible for.

In some ways Ruth comes across as the most interesting character in the story, although this may just be because he is played by Patrick McGoohan, always an intelligent and idiosyncratic performer (as is quite well-known, Sean Connery was only cast as James Bond because McGoohan turned the part down due to what he saw as Bond’s promiscuity). McGoohan gives the film ballast and gravitas which some of the other performers possibly lack, although Ironside is as charismatic as ever.

In the end Scanners is more a movie of ideas than anything else: Cronenberg is reasonably effective in handling the thriller narrative and the plot develops satisfyingly, but some of the characters are not especially well-developed and it’s less of a visceral horror movie than its reputation might suggest. It ends on a curious note of ambiguity, with conflict between benevolent and aggressive scanners resolved, apparently through some kind of psychic synthesis. It’s another interesting notion, one of many in the film, but one could have wished for the director to have turned up the dial in terms of both horror and plot elements. He arguably did just this in his next film, Videodrome. Scanners itself is reasonably effective as a horror-thriller fusion, but one is left with a sense of potential left unexplored.

Read Full Post »

Brian Clemens writes his third episode in a row with The House that Jack Built, and the impression one can’t help but have is of someone with enviable versatility: A Touch of Brimstone is a knowing black comedy, What the Butler Saw much more of a knockabout farce, and The House that Jack Built is something else again and much more serious.

It opens with, we are invited to assume, an escaped convict on the run – the man manages to overpower one of his pursuers and take his gun, then breaks into a lonely old country house. The place seems musty and deserted, until he opens a door and finds himself facing a charging lion…

Meanwhile, Steed is developing some holiday snaps when Emma visits him with the news she’s just inherited a house – from an uncle she never even knew existed! (And no alarm bells whatsoever seem to ring…) She’s been posted the key by the solicitor involved and is off to check the place out. It’s only after she’s gone that Steed notices the rather unusual effect the key has had on his photographic plates. He suggests to a colleague that the key has some sort of electronic property, but it looks more like that it’s rather radioactive. But anyway. Smelling a rat, he takes steps to ensure Mrs Peel’s safety before setting off after her.

Pausing only to pick up a rather sinister boy scout, Mrs Peel arrives at her new property (which, hardly surprisingly, is the same old house from the top of the episode). All seems reasonably normal at first, until she finds herself trapped in what seems to be an impossible maze of repeating rooms and corridors. After her explorations indicate she has somehow stumbled into a realm where logic just doesn’t apply, she actually seems on the verge of losing it – but manages to keep things together. In a curious device (well-suited to a rather experimental episode) we are given the privilege of hearing Mrs Peel’s interior monologue as she attempts to figure out just what has happened to her.

I am tempted to say that what has happened is that Patrick Macnee was due a week’s holiday and this is the solo-Emma counterpart to The Girl from Auntie (Steed is absent from much of the episode, and many of Macnee’s contributions are on location). What has happened in terms of the story is that an aggrieved former employee of Knight Industries (a corporation which Emma apparently runs, or used to run before she joined the series) has decided to exact his revenge: the man is, or was, an expert in automation (no doubt he moved in the same circles as Dr Armstrong from The Cybernauts) and has converted the house into a sort of cybernetic death-trap for Emma’s benefit. The nasty twist is that the house doesn’t actually kill you, it just drives you insane, to the point where you make use of the ‘suicide booth’ its creator has thoughtfully provided…

It’s a very different episode from other recent offerings, much less of an obvious comedy, and in parts almost a single-hander for Diana Rigg as she explores the labyrinth inside the house. (Could it be the producers had decided that an episode could include fantastical plot elements, or be made in an off-beat, comic style, but not both at the same time?) The robot house instantly puts one in mind of one of the more overtly science-fictional episodes, but it does seem to me that (if you discard the SF element) this is just as much a remake of Don’t Look Behind You as season five’s The Joker – in all three, Steed’s partner is lured to a remote country house by an obsessive figure from their past; Steed has a much reduced role and – apart from a few peripheral eccentrics – the female lead basically carries the episode.

Possibly it’s also worth noting that, for all his obvious versatility, Clemens seems to have handled these ‘solo’ episodes very differently depending on who’s the lead. Steed gets put into spoof-Christie scenarios, with large groups of eccentric strangers being picked off one-by-one (I’m thinking of Dressed to Kill and The Superlative Seven) – Cathy and Emma are lured off to old dark houses for a spot of implied fem jeop. (See also some of the exploitation movie scripts written by Clemens.) Oh well – the characters are emancipated even if the scripts sometimes aren’t. This episode is a bit of a curiosity, let down by a weak climax, but a good showcase for Diana Rigg’s monumental talent.

I’m the not the greatest scholar when it come to the production of The Avengers (not compared to some other shows, anyway), but I wouldn’t be at all surprised if Martin Woodhouse’s A Sense of History was an unproduced script from season three (maybe even season two) given a light polish and then pressed into service to fill a gap in the schedule here (even Brian Clemens may have demurred at writing four scripts in a row, although the annals of TV history do record heroic figures who have achieved far greater feats – Terry Nation wrote the first fourteen Blake’s 7s, while Joe Straczynski wrote fifty-seven episodes of Babylon 5 in a row (and seventy of the last seventy-one). It certainly feels like a video-taped episode in some ways: limited in scope, with subplots amongst the guest characters, while Steed seems to have reverted to being a much harder and more ruthless man than he’s been in a while (cheerfully talking about breaking someone’s arm to make a point) – Emma is written much ‘straighter’ than usual, too.

The episode opens with a distinguished economist, noted for his plan to create a modern-day utopia by combining all the economies of Europe for the good of all (strange to realise it was once possible to suggest such notions in the UK without being denounced as a traitor or a fantasist), being ambushed by a group of students apparently intent on a rag week prank – but the prank turns deadly and the man is left with an arrow in him.

Steed and Mrs Peel are soon on the case, accompanied by the victim’s assistant, Richard Carlyon (the name is a fairly obvious pun, tying in with the episode’s Robin Hood motif) – Carlyon is played by Nigel Stock, a capable character actor perhaps best known for his association with various Sherlock Holmes adaptations, but also the gentleman recruited to fill in as protagonist of The Prisoner when Patrick McGoohan was unavailable for one episode. The only clue is that the dead man was on his way to one of the grand old universities, where he was due to meet with someone holding entirely different opinions, who had good reason not to wish him well.

So it’s off to St. Stock Footage University for most of the rest of the episode (the name of the institution differs depends on whether it’s written or spoken, presumably because after they filmed the episode they found out there really was a St Bede’s, forcing a hasty overdub as St. Bode’s in post-production). Emma is a visiting lecturer, Steed is a former graduate doing some research into newts (naturally), the faculty are musty and eccentric and the students are revolting (most prominent amongst them are Patrick Mower – latterly an Emmerdale stalwart, but previously a decent juvenile lead and purveyor of various hard-man types in shows like Target – and Jacqueline Pearce, still playing the kind of fragile-victim role she always seemed stuck with until she cut her hair and became Supreme Commander of the universe in Blake’s 7).

A lot of the episodes from this series are beginning to acquire a sort of swinging-sixties vibe, but this one feels more like the fifties, mainly due to the depiction of the students – ties and gowns and very coffee-bar radical. Most of the plot revolves around trying to find out who wrote a rather concerning political thesis found amongst the victim’s effects, which doesn’t make for the most fully-developed episode, although the identity of this week’s diabolical mastermind is unusually difficult to guess – Steed and Mrs Peel have three goes before finally bagging the right person. Most of the episode isn’t especially memorable, though, but it does score strongly for the final act, set during a Robin Hood-themed fancy dress party (various gags about Steed’s droopy sword, while Mrs Peel looks devastating in her costume, maybe even more so than in the famous one from A Touch of Brimstone). Some consolations here, but slightly below-standard in many ways.

Read Full Post »

‘Cinema is Back!’ proclaimed the advertising at the multiplex, finally open once again. If it’s true, then it certainly feels like we owe this to one man: Christopher Nolan, now more than ever elevated to the status of a heroic figure – the hero we need right now, and perhaps better than we deserve. With Marvel, Disney, and the Bond franchise all running for cover, it is Nolan who has stepped up and taken the hit by insisting on a theatrical release for his new movie, the first major release since March. Is this the kick that will awaken cinema? Too early to say. What’s certain is that the circumstances of Tenet‘s release would normally threaten to overshadow the substance of the movie, were it not so… well, extraordinary is the only word that springs to mind.

John David Washington is commandingly cool as the protagonist, who is known as the Protagonist (a slightly smug piece of knowingness, but much of a piece with the rest of the movie). Initially an operative with the CIA, when a mission goes wrong he finds himself initiated into an even more shadowy organisation with grand, existential concerns. He is sent off to meet Clemence Poesy, playing a sort of Basiletta Exposition character, who explains (if that’s not too strong a word for it) that weapons and other items with negative entropy have begun to appear with increasing and worrying frequency. The Protagonist is quite understandably slightly baffled by this, but what it boils down to is objects travelling backwards through time, their causality inverted. Bullets obligingly jump out of the target into the Protagonist’s gun when he is given the chance to try out some inverted-entropy gear for himself.

It seems that the forces in the future have declared war on the past and are using advanced technology to reverse the specific entropy of objects and project them backwards this way. The chief representative of these future forces is an arms dealer named Andrei Sator (Kenneth Branagh, giving us his Bond villain), whom the Protagonist must get close to – which requires, first of all, for him to get close to Sator’s wife, Kat (Elizabeth Debicki)…

Well, the first thing to say is that Nolan has either missed a trick or is being a bit perverse by not calling the new movie Inversion: it would suit the story perfectly and mean that those of us who keep our DVDs in alphabetical order could have a whole batch of Nolan movies all together. The second thing is to comment on the way that a lot of the publicity material is stressing the fact that Tenet is essentially a spy thriller, full of people in sharp suits effecting unusual entries into secure facilities, chasing each other around in cars, and swanking about on yachts in photogenic locales. All this is, of course, strictly speaking true – although suggestions that this is essentially Nolan auditioning for the job of Bond director seem to me to misjudge the power dynamic involved – and it does keep the form and structures of a spy movie pretty much intact, and indeed handles them in a way which is almost formal and stylised – the Protagonist and his chief sidekick Neil (Robert Pattinson) aren’t so much fully-realised characters as charismatic collections of plot functions, and there is something stark and austere about the way the film proceeds from one grandiose set piece to the next, with a minimum of exposition.

What all of this overlooks, of course, is all the other stuff which the publicity people have decided not to make a big deal of in the trailer and so on, possibly to retain a sense of surprise, but more likely because they just couldn’t make sense of it. Nolan-watchers are used to the director’s penchant for films with bold and ambitious narrative conceits and transitions; there are plenty of those here, but what is a little unusual is that for once his sources are showing: what Nolan has basically done here is hit upon the slightly insane scheme of taking Mission Impossible or a Bond film and mashing it up with Primer (Shane Carruth’s baffling 2004 time-travel film): the closest equivalent I can think of would be Looper (on which Carruth apparently consulted).

Nevertheless, he makes it work, although the result is what initially feels like a ferociously convoluted and challenging narrative: no-one gives such good boggle in such generous helpings as Nolan. Characters proceed through events in the usual way, then have their entropy inverted and experience them again, in reverse: in a sense the film is largely building up to the moment when the Protagonist steps out into a world which, for him and the audience, is moving backwards, and the genuinely disconcerting sense of this is very well achieved. The narrative bends back on itself as slightly mystifying events from early in the film recur in reverse, from the point of view of inverted characters: the whole structure of the film is to some extent palindromic.

Clemence Poesy gets in early with some dialogue about how it’s more about how things intuitively feel than the hard logic of what’s happening, which is sensible: negative-entropy bullets leave holes in a wall before (or until) they’re fired, which seems reasonable until you consider that someone must therefore have built that wall with bullet-holes in it, mustn’t they? Trying to keep track of this sort of thing while you’re actually watching the film is impossible; I suspect it certainly passes the Primer test in terms of demanding a second or third viewing in order for any normal person to understand all the intricacies of the plot. Perhaps some of the storytelling is not quite as clear or clean or user-friendly as it might be – but you still can’t help but be astonished at Nolan’s ambition and cleverness in even conceiving of a narrative like this one, regardless of any slips in its execution.

Nevertheless, this is an almost entirely left-brained film (a fairly common and to some extent justified criticism of Christopher Nolan’s movies): technically brilliant, but also lacking in some of the depth and heart of his very best work. The emotional element of the film, such as it is, mostly comes from Debicki’s character, trapped in an abusive relationship for the sake of her son: it just about fills the hole which has been left for it, but still feels a bit perfunctory. The core of the film is made up of its ideas about causality and our perception of time, and there isn’t really any space here for a more human metaphor, as there was in the dream-scapes of Inception.

I would not be surprised if Tenet turns out to be the year’s most complex narrative, and also its most impressive action movie – we knew 2020 was turning out weird, and here is the confirmation of that. It’s a bit too spare and formal and cold, consumed by its own narrative folds and tricks, to really qualify as Nolan’s best work, but it still delivers everything you expect from a film by this director: a remarkable experience, and a compelling reason to go back to the cinema.

.semordnilap fo raef lanoitarri nA*

Read Full Post »

Back a couple of months ago when they first announced the re-opening of the cinemas, the lack of new movies was supposedly going to be made up for by the reappearance of many old classics to lure people back into the habit of going to the flicks. In Oxford at least this never really happened, as most of the cinemas are still shut and will stay that way for nearly another week – the Phoenix showed a revival of Spirited Away (which, to be fair, they seem to do about once a year anyway) and a screening of The Blues Brothers and that’s about it. (Would I have been tempted out by the promised showing of The Empire Strikes Back? We shall never know. I wouldn’t have wagered against it.) Maybe this would have paid dividends, however, as I am pleased to report that this week’s cinema attendance was up from two to five, possibly because the film on offer was another revival, if perhaps not quite a golden oldie: Christopher Nolan’s 2010 film Inception.

Of course, there are revivals and revivals, and it is telling that the spruced up Inception re-release was preceded not just by a short retrospective film concerning it, but a preview piece for Nolan’s latest, Tenet. I am beginning to worry that expectations for Tenet are running impossibly high – even if it weren’t for the fact that the film has taken on a kind of totemic significance as the First Big Post-Lockdown Release, the look and feel of the publicity is leading people to think it is somehow a spiritual successor to Inception itself. Living up to this will be a stern test of even Nolan’s abilities.

I say this mainly because Christopher Nolan is possibly my favourite living film director: no-one currently working in mainstream cinema has the same track record when it comes to making films which are not just technically proficient, but also sophisticated and resonant, taking what look from some angles like glossy genre pictures and turning them into something affecting and mind-expanding (even Dunkirk, which is the first Nolan film I was significantly disappointed by, is still made to the highest of standards).

And (as you may have guessed) Inception is my favourite Nolan film: I saw it on its opening weekend ten years ago, staggering back to my digs in a due state of happy disbelief straight afterwards. I watch it once a year or so, on average: I seem to have ended up with two copies of it on DVD, although I have no real recollection of where the second one came from.

What makes it so special, in my eyes at least? Well, let us consider the situation pertaining at one point towards the end of the film. A group of people are on a plane, sleeping. They are dreaming that they are in a van in the process of crashing off a bridge. Some of the dream-versions of themselves in the van are asleep, dreaming they are in a hotel where gravity has been suspended. The dream-versions of some of the people in the hotel are also asleep, dreaming they are in an Alpine hospital surrounded by a small private army, with whom some of them are doing battle. Others are asleep, and are dreaming they are exploring an infinite, ruined city of the subconscious mind. So, just to recap: they are on a plane dreaming they are in a van dreaming they are in a hotel dreaming they are in a hospital dreaming they are in a ruined city. The miraculous thing about Inception is not merely that this makes sense while you are watching it, but it actually feels entirely logical and even somewhat straightforward.

One element of this film which I feel is too-little commented upon is the playfulness of it – a very deadpan sort of playfulness, admittedly, but even so. The main characters are thieves and con-artists, for the most part, and there’s a sense in which Nolan himself, as writer, is pulling an elaborate con-trick on the audience. A writer I interviewed many years ago suggested to me that writing pure fantasy is essentially cheating at cards to win pretend-money: a pointless exercise. The internal mechanics of Inception are pure fantasy: the story is predicated on the existence of technology allowing people to dream collectively, which is entirely fictitious (and the film naturally just treats it as a fact, not bothering to even suggest how it works). Yet Nolan comes up with underlying concepts and principles for the dream-sharing experience which are so detailed and plausible you buy into them without question, even though this requires the film to teach them to the viewer, in some detail, starting from scratch. Simply as a piece of expository work it is a startling achievement: militarised subconsciousnesses, dream totems, the ‘kick’ used to waken dreamers – all of these are very significant to the plot, and the script elegantly explains how and why without slowing down or seeming unnecessarily convoluted (I’m not going to pretend Inception isn’t convoluted or somewhat demanding for the viewer, but the rewards are more than worth it).

Just conceiving the world of the movie and then communicating it to the audience to tell a story of guys on a mission to break into someone’s subconscious mind and plant an idea there would be a noteworthy achievement, but threaded through this is a much less procedural and genuinely moving story of guilt and grief: main character Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio) is haunted by the memory of his dead wife Mal (Marion Cotillard) – but, this being the story that it is, this becomes literally true. In the dream worlds memories and metaphors have genuine power and existence, and the dream motif which dominates the film seems to me to mostly be there to facilitate this metaphorical level to the story – the heist-movie trappings are yet another mask, or con trick.

And yet there is another level to the movie, too – or perhaps another way of looking at it. For what is going to the cinema at all if not an exercise in collective dreaming? The idea of dream-as-movie is another pervasive one – Nolan uses the standard techique of beginning a scene with two characters already in place to indicate the discontinuities of the dream world. And the dream worlds the characters descend through, getting further away from reality as they go, resemble increasingly outlandish kinds of thriller – initially something quite gritty and urban, then the slick and stylised interior of a hotel where a complex Mission: Impossible-style scam is attempted, and then finally the Bond-like action in and around the Alpine fortress. Is it a coincidence that the next Bond film to be released featured a lengthy sequence in a ruined city bearing a striking resemblance to the subconscious realm of this one? Perhaps a compliment was being returned.

Great script, great direction: superb cast, too, many of them doing what is surely amongst their best work. You watch it now and are suddenly aware that Ellen Page and Joseph Gordon-Levitt, to name but two, seem to have dropped out of sight as far as mainstream cinema is concerned; even Tom Hardy seems to be only doing one film every two or three years, and those mostly blockbusters. (You look at Hardy in this film and realise that he does seem to be doing his audition piece for Bond: he seems either unaware of the fact that he’s not the main character in this movie, or deliberately choosing to ignore it.) I suppose there is still the consolation of Ken Watanabe making Transformers and Godzilla movies in the meantime.

For something to really grab my attention it usually has to be very big or very complicated, or preferably both: Inception meets these criteria, and then some. Every time I watch the movie I see something new, some new angle or connection or little piece of trickery, usually in the least expected of places. Add Hans Zimmer’s score to all the other things I’ve mentioned and – well, I suppose it is theoretically possible that Inception is not the best film of the 21st century so far. But I cannot think of another candidate.

Read Full Post »

When a film comes along nowadays and makes a billion dollars, you’re somehow not surprised when there’s a rush to, erm, emulate that success. Do I mean emulate? Possibly I mean ‘capitalise on’ or possibly ‘exploit’. Whatever: very successful films beget other very similar films, which are hoping to be equally successful. Whether this is simple good business based on analysis of the market or some byzantine form of sympathetic magic I am not entirely sure; the concept isn’t a surprise, just the identity of some of the films involved.

Now, I have never made any secret of the fact I am a great fan of Robert Wise’s 1951 classic The Day the Earth Stood Still: it’s a wonderful film, and one of the few that really qualifies as comfort viewing for me, something I go back to again and again when the real world gets just a bit too depressing. However, for all of its cultural clout (Klaatu barada nikto and all that) I didn’t think it had been that much of a hit – and indeed it apparently only did okay on its original US release.

It seems to have had a big impact in the UK, however, as a cursory look at British sci-fi films over the next couple of years reveals. We have already discussed the peculiar delights of 1956’s Devil Girl from Mars, which I quickly pegged as a rip-off of The Day the Earth Stood Still. What I didn’t realise then was that this was not the first such rip-off to show its face – which brings us to Burt Balaban’s 1954 film, Stranger from Venus.

Evidence we are in a tunnel some distance below the bargain basement comes very early in this film, as the film-makers address the issue of how to present a Venusian spacecraft flying in the skies over England, without having the budget to pay for too many models or special effects. They solve their problem in the time-honoured manner: footage of the ground, shot from the air, is intercut with ordinary British people looking up in surprise and pointing at something the audience is never made privy to.

Also in the area is not-very-ordinary-in-that-she’s-not-British person Susan North, who is American. One suspects this is mainly to save Patricia Neal, who plays her, from having to do a British accent. Yes, this is the same Patricia Neal who is in Breakfast at Tiffany’s and (more importantly) The Day the Earth Stood Still itself. She does the same accent. She has pretty much the same haircut. This is because she is essentially playing the same part.

Seeing the UFO makes Susan crash her car, at which point she is approached by someone or something (cue credits). Shortly after this a mysterious stranger arrives at the local pub, reveals he has no name and can read thoughts, and generally drops hints he is not from the immediate area. In an immensely hokey device presumably intended to preserve a sense of mystery, the stranger is filmed from behind with his head in shadow. It turns out he is an alien from Venus and has used his alien powers to save Susan’s life following her car crash (cue various locals looking mildly concerned from behind their pints of beer). The local bobbies attempt to take him down the station for questioning, but it turns out he has a (very cheap) invisible force-field that turns anyone trying to interfere with him into a bad mime. The actor saddled with playing Policeman #2, who gets all the ‘Sarge – I just can’t – seem to get a grip on him…!’ material is Nigel Green, later to do fine work in films like Jason and the Argonauts, Zulu, The Ipcress File, and Countess Dracula, which just goes to show that everyone has to start somewhere.

Eventually, however, the stranger’s face is revealed, and it turns out to be that of Helmut Dantine, an extremely obscure Austrian actor (well, obscure unless you’ve memorised the cast list of Casablanca, in which he plays a desperate young refugee). Dantine struggles hard to find the same kind of Olympian detachment, gravitas and decency as Michael Rennie in that other movie, but these qualities generally elude him and he just ends up droning out cosmic wisdom in a gravelly Austrian-accented monotone.

Well, attentive readers may well be able to guess just why the Venusians have reached out to the Home Counties: Earth is seen as the annoying kid brother of the solar planets, and its habit of messing about with atomic weapons is really winding up everyone else. So the Venusians want to address a meeting of world leaders and make it quite clear that all of this has got to stop, toot-sweet. But will the Earth people listen? More importantly, will the British establishment listen?

In case you hadn’t guessed, we are dealing here with the purest kind of rip-off movie: it is not quite a beat-for-beat remake of The Day the Earth Stood Still (that would require a much bigger and more lavish production, for one thing), but everything of interest in this film is replicated from it.

Court cases have been brought over this kind of thing in the not too distant past: I’m thinking of New Line lawyering up and taking on The Asylum over their decision to release a film entitled Age of Hobbits (or something like that) to cash in on the second Peter Jackson-Tolkien trilogy. Well, this was an issue in the fifties, too, which is why Princess Pictures (who made Stranger from Venus) played it safe and didn’t give this movie a theatrical release in the States: the other film was still on re-release and Fox might very well have sued. So it turned up on TV instead, under the (perhaps unintentionally honest) title of Immediate Disaster. (It’s also been released as The Venusian.)

Well, maybe it’s not a complete disaster: all the actors seem to be trying their hardest with the very ropy material they’ve been assigned, and it’s interesting to compare it to Devil Girl from Mars: this is an even more primitive production, but it does manage to retain vestiges of an air of seriousness. Devil Girl is just daft, for all that it has better special effects and retains (though inverting) the central metaphor of the American film. I would have to say that Devil Girl from Mars is more entertaining to watch, though. The presence of Neal is the only thing that really makes this film stand out, though, making its true nature not just obvious but brazen. In every other way it feels flat and underpowered.

Read Full Post »

Older Posts »