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Posts Tagged ‘SF’

‘Will you allow me to come to your home and, in your presence, anaesthetise your wife, so we will know once and for all whether she is real or an illusion?’

You have to love a line of dialogue like that. In fact, if I had come across it in one of those lists of great movie quotes, I like to think I would at once have started actively seeking out the movie from which it came. In this case, the line comes from the 1964 movie Unearthly Stranger, directed by John Krish. This is supposedly a highly-meritorious British B-movie, but the fact that I’d never heard of it until only a few days ago rather suggests to me it is in fact fairly obscure, as these things go. Still, now I know if it, I have seen it, and if my mind has not been blown then it has certainly been breathed upon quite energetically.

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The story gets underway with our hero, Mark Davidson (John Neville), running across London at night, clearly in a bit of a tizzy. There is a lot of running. One might even say there is an inordinate amount of running, especially when you consider this film is well shy of 90 minutes in length. I might even be moved to suggest that the script for the rest of the film had yet to be finished when they started filming, and so they just kept Neville running as a means of filling the time. Well, anyway, our man eventually arrives at his workplace, the Royal Society for Space Boffinry, where he sits down with a reel-to-reel tape recorder to narrate the rest of the movie, which happens in flashback (it’s a well-worn old device, but it has a certain charm).

Well, it seems that the space boffins are hard at work coming up with a method of interstellar travel through means of willpower alone. This depends upon coming up with a formula to unlock the hidden potential of the human brain, also known as TP-91 (not that any of the details sound remotely convincing or have any particular bearing on the plot). It transpires that Davidson’s old boss, Professor Munro (Warren Mitchell), worked out part of the solution before retiring to his office – only to be discovered dead a few moments later!

‘It was as though there was an explosion inside his brain,’ reports the project’s security officer, Clarke (Patrick Newell). Davidson, who was away on holiday in Switzerland at the time, is the new boss, and Clarke fills him in on some disquieting details – parallel projects into brain-powered space travel are underway in America and the USSR, but they too have been hampered by the mysterious deaths of key researchers, all of them with the same symptoms of exploding brains. Cripes! Could foul play be afoot?

Davidson lets himself get a bit paranoid and the film heads off down some curious blind alleys for a bit – Munro’s body has disappeared, and it seems there were traces in his body of a poison only otherwise found in returning space capsules – before settling on the more fruitful topic of Davidson’s relationship with his new wife Julie (Gabriella Licudi), whom he met during his recent holiday. ‘Is your wife an alien?’ puffs Clarke (meaning, not British) before embarking on the usual security checks. Normally this would count as unforgivably obvious writing, but in a film like this one it’s all par for the course. Soon enough Davidson is unsettled to discover his wife sleeps with her eyes open and has no pulse, while his colleague Professor Lancaster (Philip Stone) spots her taking the casserole out of the oven without using gloves.

Yes, there’s something about Julie, and it comes as no surprise when she fails her security check on account of not actually having existed until a few weeks ago. By this point the audience has already enjoyed a schlocky-but-eerie sequence in which she wanders down the high street, upsetting small babies with her subliminally extra-terrestrial presence, scaring off whole crowds of schoolchildren, and so on. However, she is a sensitive soul and this moves her to tears: the tears appear to burn the skin of her face, in a nicely bizarre touch. But what is her mission here on Earth? And could her burgeoning feelings for her new husband get in the way…?

As you may have gathered, with Unearthly Stranger we are in the realm of the dingbat pastiche of either Quatermass or Village of the Damned, but it’s still oddly watchable stuff. The film-makers get top marks for managing to make a proper science fiction film without the need to include any special effects at all (always a neat trick), while for a modern audience the film’s casting certainly has cult credibility: these days Neville is best remembered for playing the title role in Terry Gilliam’s Baron Munchausen as well as the Well-Manicured Man in The X Files, while Philip Stone was Jack Nicholson’s predecessor in The Shining, and Patrick Newell was Mother in the final season of The Avengers. Jean Marsh, an actress whose genre pedigree stretches from the original Twilight Zone to Mark Gatiss’ Crooked House, also appears in a small but crucial role. (Warren Mitchell manages to land fifth billing despite being in only one scene.) All of these actors, by the way, uphold the proud British tradition of doing your best even when you’re saddled with some rather dodgy material.

I am tempted to say that once you get past the deeply suspect premise of scientists seriously engaged upon research into some form of psychic teleportation, this is not too bad, as paranoid SF B-movies go. However, watching it today what strikes you again and again is the sense that this film was made exclusively by, about, and for white men in their late thirties:  even though the film appears to be about the alien infiltration of Earth society by the main female character (shades of Under the Skin), Julie almost always feels like the object of other characters’ activity and attention rather than someone with any real agency. And it is telling that she feels like not so much an alien disguised as a woman as an alien disguised as a housewife – note how she is rumbled by her peculiar behaviour when getting dinner out of the oven.

Of course, there is a degree of irony involved here – Neville’s sneering dismissal of what he sees as the superstitious nature of another character is setting up the climactic twist of the film – but in the end the gender politics of Unearthly Stranger, perhaps its most striking element beyond the weirdness of its SF plot, are just a bit too odd and uncomfortable for a modern viewer. The fact that it is hardly flattering, in the end, to its male characters doesn’t entirely make up for the fact that it seems perilously close to misogyny in its presentation of women. Then again, the film hasn’t exactly aged well in any other respect, so it’s not a tremendous surprise that this aspect is problematic too. Nevertheless, it’s an interesting little film if you like this sort of thing.

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Just before I went off on this most recent trip, I made a stern promise to myself that I would stay strong, hold fast, remember my principles and not go to see any new movies in Russian no matter how much I regretted not being in the UK to see them. As it turned out, the only one that even came close to testing my resolve was Shane Black’s The Predator. There is some historical irony to this, as one of the films which led me to swear off the whole dubbed experience was watching Alien Vs Predator: Requiem in Italy, ten years ago. What can I say, I must just be a sucker for the Predator franchise.

Further proof is lent by the fact that, finding myself back in Britain, the very first film I trundled along to see was Black’s new offering, the fourth in the series – or possibly the sixth, depending on how you feel about those little-loved Alien cross-overs. Well, I say little-loved, but one of the weird things about the Predator franchise is that it seems to go on and on and on without ever making a film which is actually, um, much good or especially popular. The last (and indeed only) Predator film generally agreed to have any significant quality to it came out in 1987, which was so long ago that the likes of Emma Stone, Daniel Radcliffe and Jennifer Lawrence were not even born at the time (Jason Statham was 19), that the Tory party was still winning sizeable UK majorities, and that Donald Trump had yet to go bankrupt even once. Possibly only Highlander is a better example of something that was mildly popular a long time ago managing to hang on seemingly indefinitely, more like a cockroach infestation than an actual franchise.

The movie opens in the traditional fashion with a Predator arriving on Earth, in Mexico (presumably a deliberate call-back to the original film, but who knows), and thus spoiling the evening of US special forces sniper Quinn McKenna (Boyd Holbrook), whose mission is thrown into chaos as a result. McKenna manages to lay his hands on some of the alien’s kit, which he promptly posts off to his ex-wife and son (as you would), before he is grabbed by shadowy government types and thrown in a rubber hospital to ensure his silence. Meanwhile, biologist Casey Bracket (Olivia Munn) is recruited by the same agency to investigate some strange anomalies discovered by an examination of the Predator, whom they have managed to capture.

Well, it’s all going reasonably well (for the shadowy government types at least), until another starship shows up. The captured Pred takes advantage of the panic and confusion this causes and busts out, heading off in search of its purloined equipment. In pursuit of the creature are Bracket and McKenna, the latter having teamed up with a busload of wacky army veterans suffering from various psychiatric disorders. The hunter has become the hunted! Although, to be strictly accurate, the hunters hunting the hunter are also themselves the objects of some hunting from another hunter. What could be simpler?

‘A very large number of things’ would be an honest answer. It is slightly baffling that they have gone for this particular story for the new film, especially given that it’s the work of someone with at least a passing connection with the original (good) Predator movie – Shane Black had a small role back in 1987 as the first member of Arnold Schwarzenegger’s team to get disembowelled. The thing about the first Predator is that it is a deceptively simple story – sure, there’s a not-very-deeply-buried subtext about the Vietnam War, but mainly it’s about tough guys in extremis, in fear for their lives as they are picked off one by one by a terrifying and mysterious alien force. It’s a great SF-action-horror movie, but how are you supposed to come up with a sequel to it that isn’t just an empty retread?

They have, of course, had several goes at finding a follow-up to that classic Predator hunts people in a jungle scenario: Predator hunts people in a city, to start off with, followed by Predator hunts Aliens at the South Pole, then Predator hunts especially disgusting Aliens in small-town America, and finally Predator hunts a bunch of people on a fairly boring alien planet. Most of the preceding films are really not very good, but they are still easier to summarise than the new one, which is never knowingly under-plotted and seems to be deeply conflicted about the idea of letting the Predator ever actually do any hunting. For most of the film the only reference to this is a running gag about how the Predator is really badly named, as it actually behaves more like a trophy-bagging sports hunter than an actual predator in the biological sense – it’s a typically smart and cynical Shane Black line, but comes perilously close to the film sending itself up.

You really do get a sense of a film scrabbling around trying to find new ideas to justify its existence. Too often these come at the expense of demystifying the creatures too much, of explaining things which really did not require an explanation in the first place. There doesn’t need to be a particular reason why the various Predators have been so keen on extracting their targets’ spinal columns: it’s just a memorably scary piece of imagery. The pleasures of the Predator franchise are largely superficial anyway – once you dispense with Arnie as the leading man, you’re basically left with a banging theme tune (which gets played rather a lot in this film, especially when you consider its composer isn’t that prominently credited) and a cool monster suit. Fiddly plotting and complicated back-stories do not really find a natural home in this series.

Nor, to be perfectly honest, does Shane Black’s particular brand of humour. Here he is working with his regular partner Fred Dekker and the usual sort of scabrous, fast-talking, profane dialogue peppers the movie – if you’ve seen The Nice Guys or Kiss Kiss Bang Bang you will know what I mean (there are also some quite good pieces of physical comedy, too). But the kind of knowing and tongue-in-cheek humour that worked so well in one of Black’s detective comedies or in Iron Man 3 (one of the very few Marvel movies to attempt to succeed through wit rather than spectacle and actually succeed) always feels in danger of toppling the film over into camp or self-parody, which may be why the script is relatively restrained here: a lot of the film just feels like by-the-numbers action movie machismo. It’s almost a shame, because more and better jokes might have made up for some of the clunkier and more laborious plotting and exposition.

My instinct would be to say that, despite some good moments and interesting ideas, The Predator is a bit of a dud and unlikely to do much for the fortunes of this particular franchise: I might even suggest the films are getting worse, the stories withering away as the scripts run out of ideas. But then I would have said the same, if not much worse, about all the other sequels, and yet here we still are. I guess this is just the kind of film which will always make money, provided they don’t go too mad on the budget – and there’s no reason why they should; past releases seems to have proven that these films don’t need star names to make a profit. If so, then it is a shame that they can’t push the boat out and come up with a more interesting script, because I’m tempted to say that if Shane Black can’t come up with a more entertaining and engaging Predator movie than this one, I doubt anybody can.

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It falls to few people, no matter how naturally talented they are, to be good at everything. (This feels entirely just and comes as something of a relief to those of us who frankly often struggle to be good at anything.) And so there is surely something reassuring about the fact that, despite a massively successful and influential career as a novelist, author, essayist, critic, and memoirist, Martin Amis will still be remembered as a crappy writer of SF movie screenplays.

To be fair, he only had one go at this, and the experience seems to have been sufficiently unpleasant to put him off having another try. The film in question is Saturn 3, directed by Stanley Donen and released in 1980 under the auspices of Lew Grade’s ITC Entertainment. Amis apparently used his experiences on the movie as material for his novel Money, which I haven’t read; Saturn 3, on the other hand, I have experienced, as both a movie and a tie-in novel.

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(Not that it matters much, but I once interviewed the writer of the Saturn 3 tie-in – this was not the major focus of our chat – who was a fellow named Stephen Gallagher. Gallagher, a bit like Amis, went on to do many much more distinguished and interesting things, but as he is primarily a genre writer he is not nearly as celebrated for them. His main recollection of the Saturn 3 job was that he was writing the novelisation before the film was actually finished – I think this is standard practice – and had only a copy of the shooting script to work from, along with a photo of one of the sets and another of the film’s robotic antagonist. My recollection is that the book changes the end of the film subtly but considerably, but as I’ve observed before it’s not unheard of for tie-in writers to quietly try and improve on the original script.)

Your first sense that things are going somewhat adrift with Saturn 3 comes very early on, when it is revealed that Kirk Douglas, superstar of the Golden Age of Hollywood, is only second billed on the movie. The coveted top spot is given instead to Farrah Fawcett, star of TV’s Charlie’s Angels. Hmmm. Rounding out the cast is Harvey Keitel, sort of (yes, this is another of those British movies which recruited an almost entirely American cast in an attempt to secure a US release).

In time-honoured post-stellar conflict post-Alien style, the film begins with a hefty model spaceship crawling from the top of the screen to the bottom, more than slowly enough for the viewer to discern that they are in for some duff special effects in the course of the next 88 minutes. All is not well inside the ship, either, for Captain Benson (Keitel), disgruntled at being barred from a mission on the grounds of mental instability, decides to murder his replacement and impersonate him on the job. (As this is the premise for the whole movie, you just have to accept how ill-thought-through and implausible it seems.)

Benson is soon rocketing off to Saturn’s third moon, Tethys, which is the location of a hydroponics research station operated by a couple named Adam (Douglas) and Alex (Fawcett). Both of them have been isolated for a long time – Alex has never been to Earth – and perhaps don’t notice that Benson is acting a bit strangely (nor that Keitel is obviously, and rather distractingly, having all his dialogue dubbed by Roy Dotrice).

The couple, who to judge from the film spend much more time in bed together than actually doing any hydroponics research, are displeased to learn that Benson’s mission is to oversee the construction of a shiny new robot which will make the station much more efficient and allow one of them to be reassigned elsewhere. But it turns out they have bigger problems. Hector the robot, who appears to be half-Terminator, half-anglepoise lamp, is programmed by Benson using a direct brain interface, and is inadvertently getting all of the captain’s homicidal tendencies and lustful thoughts about Farrah Fawcett in addition to his basic training. Trouble is bound to ensue…

Hard to believe it may be, but there was once a time when a film like Saturn 3 (current Rotten Tomatoes rating: 18%) could be broadcast as the BBC’s big Saturday night film. I should know, I was there: 8.20 p.m. on September 6th, 1986. My main memory is of acute surprise when the film turned out to have much more nudity and gore in it than I had expected (this must have been before they instituted the 9 o’clock watershed on UK TV). Apparently Lew Grade envisioned Saturn 3 as being a slightly disreputable exploitation movie (you can see how the plot might lend itself to this sort of approach), but Stanley Donen (who took over when original director John Barry was dismissed) presumably wanted something a bit more high-minded.

And so we end up with something which is neither intelligent or especially fun to watch. In addition to some of the most dubious spaceship models and special effects of its period, the film notably fails to present a coherent or convincing vision of futuristic society – this is obviously a second-wave SF knock-off film, post-Alien, but unlike that film and other ones deriving from it, you get no sense of recognition of the world or how it functions. Amis tries to create a sense of time and place by dropping cod-futuristic expressions and slang into the script (the base is ‘shadow-locked’ for most of the movie, which is why no-one can call for help, while the ageing Adam (Douglas was in his early sixties at the time, which if you ask me is too old to be doing nude fight scenes) is approaching his ‘abort time’, whatever that is), but it just feels intrusive.

Without much of a wider context having been established (the film’s Wikipedia page claims that it occurs in a future where Earth has become immensely overpopulated, but there’s barely any reference to this in the actual movie), Benson’s attempts to get his hands on Alex (‘You have a beautiful body. Can I use it?’) just feel contrived and leery for all his assertions that this is how it’s done back home. There’s an attempt at conjuring up some kind of sexual tension between the three leads, but the weak script and the lack of chemistry between any of them scuppers this (the most interesting relationship in the film is the one between Keitel and the prop robot).

Luckily, this is not a long movie and relatively soon we come to the bits with the robot on the rampage. I suppose it’s a testament to the achievement of Isaac Asimov that he managed to banish the ‘killer robot’ story from respectable SF (this was his intention with his ‘laws of robotics’ stories). Saturn 3, which is one of the purest ‘killer robot’ stories in cinema, is therefore something of an aberration. Nevertheless, the film’s most effective sequence comes near the end, with the human characters stalked through the base by Hector (who, being a clanking seven-foot machine, develops an almost supernatural ability to sneak up on them). There is not much in the way of characterisation or context here, but it does function on a cinematic level.

The rest of the film doesn’t, really. There is an identifiable story going on, there is the most basic kind of characterisation, and the film doesn’t contain the more egregious violations of the laws of physics that some more distinguished professional film-watchers would have you believe are present. But it never engages and never persuades, and the story isn’t fun enough to make you overlook its various shortcomings. A rather ugly and primitive movie; the kind of thing that gives incompetent SF a bad name.

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We live in a more connected world than was once the case. These days day-and-date releases for major movies are standard practice, and big TV premieres also happen close together in different parts of the world. It was not always thus, of course: I remember the sense of resignation with which I learned that that Star Trek TNG would not receive a UK transmission until 1990 (three years after its American debut). There was once a time when it was seriously speculated that the delay in the UK release of The Phantom Menace (two months after its US opening) might actually impact on tourism figures, as people went to the States solely or partly in order to see it.

Doesn’t happen these days, of course. Something else that doesn’t really happen any more is the phenomenon where US TV networks, having splashed out big money on a TV pilot or two-part episode, arranged to have their TV show released into theatres in Europe and other foreign territories, in an attempt to recoup their investment. I remember seeing in the very early 80s a movie entitled Spider-Man: The Dragon’s Challenge, which was an extended episode of the TV series starring Nicholas Hammond. Also earning big-screen outings in Europe were various episodes of the Bill Bixby Hulk series, and – most relevantly for our purposes today – Battlestar Galactica.

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Strictly speaking there were three Galactica movies, if you lived outside the US at least: one which was a re-edited version of the pilot episode, plus Mission Galactica (cobbled together from elements of the episodes The Living Legend and Fire in Space), and Conquest of the Earth (a similar fix-up derived from the follow-up show Galactica 1980, which I came across being shown at a Butlin’s in about 1983). But let’s stick to the original, directed by Richard Colla.

Things get underway with portentousness dialled up to maximum and an opening voice-over from an uncredited Patrick Macnee, who presumably appeared as a favour to an old friend and for a hefty fee. ‘There are those who believe that life here began out there… some believe that there may yet be brothers of man, who even now fight to survive – somewhere beyond the heavens!’ Well, that’s as maybe, but as a glance at any newspaper will tell you, these days some people will believe anything.

Well, anyway, somewhere beyond the heavens we find the assembled fleet of the Twelve Colonies of Mankind (yes, I know: but they seem not have discovered gender-neutral nomenclature beyond the heavens), who are happily anticipating the conclusion of hostilities between their people and the Cylons, who seem to be oppressive alien robots. We really don’t learn much at all about the Cylons, except they apparently ‘hate freedom’ and want to eradicate civilisation as we know it, which is the kind of lazy propaganda you see on the right-wing news; it would be interesting to hear the Cylons’ point of view, but we never really do.

Alone in his scepticism about the coming armistice is basso profundo (and, it must be said, somewhat nepotistic) patrician Commander Adama (Lorne Greene), whose suspicions turn out to be well-founded: two of his sons, flying a patrol mission in their space fighters, discover a massive Cylon ambush. It turns out that peace broker Count Baltar (John Colicos) has sold them all out.

The Cylon attack devastates the unprepared fleet while the Cylon base ships wreak havoc on the home planets of the human colonies. Only Adama and his crew, aboard the ‘battlestar’ Galactica, manage to escape more or less unscathed. The commander seems to develop a kind of Moses complex and declares they will gather together the survivors and set out across the universe in search of a fabled lost colony where they may yet find haven – a mysterious planet known only as Earth…

There is, of course, a very good reason why Battlestar Galactica received its US premiere in 1978, only a few months after George Lucas’ initial stellar conflict opus began its demolition of box office records. On top of all the space battles, laser blasters, weird aliens and so on being displayed here, calling this story ‘Saga of a Star World’ was probably overdoing it – almost inevitably, accusations of plagiarism and a lawsuit ensued.

Battlestar Galactica is kind of respectable again now, mainly due to the success of Ronald D Moore’s Bush-era retelling of the tale (a programme I find it easier to admire than to genuinely like), but for a long time this was not the case: it had a reputation for being cheesy and po-faced and sometimes unintentionally camp. The creator of Babylon 5 instituted a ‘no cute kids or robots’ rule for his show, and you can’t help thinking that this was at least in part a reference to Galactica, which frequently has both in close proximity. However you view the relationship between the main show and Galactica 1980, this is still another US SF TV series that failed to last more than a couple of seasons. It’s got to be tosh, right?

Well – maybe. Glen A Larson, creator of Galactica, was a smart enough cookie to get as much of the budget up on the screen as possible, and the big draw for this show is that it had – for the late 70s – near-as-dammit movie-quality model work and special effects. The ships look great and the production designs are impressive. Even nowadays, you watch the first few minutes of Battlestar Galactica and go ‘wow, this looks pretty good.’

Then you spend the next few minutes going ‘Hang on, I’ve just seen this bit,’ for they start very obviously re-using special effects footage within the first half-hour and continue to do so throughout. Battlestar Economica might have been a better title for this project; it’s round about this point that most people start paying more attention to the plot and the acting.

There’s an odd sort of twin-track approach going on here – obviously, much of the plot is derived from an odd mish-mash of classical and religious influences. There are characters called Apollo, Athena, and Cassiopeia, and many elements of the story are based on Mormon theology; the tone of the programme occasionally resembles that of a Biblical epic with extra ray-guns. ‘And the word went forth to every outpost of human existence, and they came…’ declaims Greene at one point.

On the other hand, most of the rest of it is late-70s quotidian stuff, with disco dancing, interesting haircuts, and so on. The younger characters are designed to be archetypes, for maximum audience identification – there’s earnest young leader Apollo (Richard Hatch), loveable rogue Starbuck (Dirk Benedict), feisty single mum Serina (Jane Seymour), and so on. Chief human villain Baltar is a bit of a panto turn.

You wouldn’t expect the two styles to go together particularly well, but they somehow do: it is sometimes camp and cheesy, and sometimes (as mentioned) rather po-faced and portentous, but still strangely watchable. This is not the subtlest of programmes – ‘broad’ is perhaps the kindest way to describe the default performance style of everyone involved –  and while it is occasionally somewhat sentimental, it is seldom full-on mawkish.

It’s still the case that you can practically see the joins where this pilot movie will be chopped up to make at least three separate episodes when the show goes into syndication, for the plot is episodic at best – there’s the opener, concerning the apocalyptic Cylon attack on the colonies, then some rather humdrum stuff about food shortages in the fleet and a minefield that must be traversed, and finally the secret of the space casino of the planet Carillon and its insectoid owners. But it holds together, just about.

(For the purposes of this rambling I watched the cinema edit of the pilot, which is slightly different to the TV version – the main difference being that it has the scene where Baltar has his head chopped off by the Cylons. In the US version he survives and goes on to become the regular villain on the show. I like the comeuppance, but I also enjoy Colicos’ performance, so I find myself a bit torn by this.)

I don’t know, I find it very easy to indulge the original version of Battlestar Galactica, mainly because I am amused by the way in which its lofty storytelling ambitions collide with the minutiae of making a weekly mass-audience TV drama (here’s some more Mormon theology, along with a guest spot by Fred Astaire), but also because it does manage to give a better sense of an epic voyage across the galaxy in one season than Voyager managed in seven (yes, I genuinely think that). You couldn’t honestly describe the pilot as great, but much of it is good and most of the rest is not that bad either.

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It has become almost facile to point out that the demise of the traditional western – as a significant part of the cinema landscape, anyway – occurred almost simultaneously with the rise of science fiction and fantasy films to the position of box office dominance they enjoy to this day. The conclusion to be drawn is very nearly as straightforward – it’s not quite that SF movies have simply replaced westerns, but that both genres meet the same need and appeal to the same audience. Or, to put it another way, there’s a certain type of action-SF movie which is basically a western in disguise.

The disguise is seldom as perfunctory as in Peter Hyams’ 1981 film Outland, however. Hmm, you may be thinking, where is this Outland place and why did they decide to make a film about it? Well, I have to tell you that this seems to be an example of film-makers not being able to agree on a good title and reaching a consensus on a duff one instead. The film was made under the title Io, which as any fule kno is a volcanically-active moon of Jupiter, but apparently the big brains of the production were concerned that non-astronomically-savvy audiences might read the title as either 10 or Lo, hence the change.

 

I will happily agree that Io is not a great title, but at least it’s accurate (personally I would have called the movie High Moon, because sometimes you just can’t be crashingly obvious enough). The film is set in one of those non-specific not-all-that-distant futures where the outer reaches of the solar system are being explored and exploited; people apparently go for many years without ever visiting Earth (the journey from the Jovian region to Earth apparently takes a year in cryo). Io is being mined for titanium and the story takes place in one of the mining outposts, mostly concerning the chief lawman of the place, Marshall (or Marshal, depending on where you look) Bill O’Niel (Sean Connery).

O’Niel has only recently taken up his post and is still receiving apparently mock-stern lectures from the outpost’s manager, Sheppard (Peter Boyle), about how he needs to be flexible in his approach to the job and cut the hard-working miners some slack. To begin with O’Niel is more preoccupied by the fact that his wife can’t hack rattling around yet another space outpost and has left him to go back to Earth, but his cop instincts are triggered when he comes across a string of suspicious deaths – workers cutting open their spacesuits while outside, or not even bothering to wear them.

(Outland is notable for its enthusiastic championing of the notion that if you go into a hard vacuum without a spacesuit, either your head or your torso will explode. Apparently this is just one of those myths, but it does allow the special effects department some fun. One of the people whose head explodes is John Ratzenberger, best known for playing Cliff in Cheers, but eminently spottable in small parts in many famous late 70s and early 80s films, thanks to a stint based in London.)

Normally the remains of these ‘accidents’ are quietly disposed of, but O’Niel eventually manages to lay his hands on the body of a worker who apparently goes mad. With the help of the outpost’s medic, Dr Lazarus (Frances Sternhagen), O’Niel discovers that all the dead men had been taking high-powered amphetamines, allowing them to work longer and harder but eventually frying their brains.

It transpires that Sheppard and even some of O’Niel’s own men are in on the racket – the drugs increase productivity, which is all Sheppard and his bosses really care about. Their assumption is that O’Niel, like his predecessor, can be bought off, because only a fool would risk his life by taking on Sheppard and the men behind him. But this does not sit well with O’Niel, who finds himself compelled to hang onto his principles and take a stand (or, this being a Connery movie after all, a shtand).

One day someone will write about Outland and not draw comparisons between it and Alien. But that day has clearly not yet dawned. The aesthetic of the two films is almost identical, to the point where they could quite easily share a continuity: the mining outpost is a grimy, cramped, industrial warren of corridors, controlled by faceless and uncaring corporations.

The setting of Outland is important as it’s the only thing which gives it its SF credentials. The story itself is that of one principled man attempting to put an end to drug racketeering despite the odds being stacked against him – it could really be set anywhere. Even the drug racketeering is on one level just plot fluff, setting up the central conflict of the movie, which is not so much Connery versus the drug dealers as Connery’s sense of self-preservation versus his stubbornly principled streak. What is he really hoping to achieve? Nobody would blame him for taking bribes or running away…

This owes, of course, a big debt to High Noon, although Outland only really closely resembles the earlier movie for a chunk of its second half: a far-from-subtle digital countdown indicates how long before the space shuttle carrying professional killers will arrive at the outpost.

To be honest, though, I found these scenes and the eventual fight between Connery and the hitmen to be rather laborious, though fairly well-mounted; much more interesting are the earlier scenes in which O’Niel uncovers the extent of the corruption around him and realises just what a sticky spot he’s in. There is some really good material here, including some top-class moral outrage, and Connery plays it for all that it’s worth. I find that in a lot of Sean Connery’s later appearances, his tendency is just to play it very broad and just do the same lovable twinkly performance, but this is a proper acting job from the big man.

His main support comes from Sternhagen as the grumpy doctor, and she is also very good. This is a well-played film throughout, to be honest, and a reasonably well-written one. The film’s visual effects and model work are pretty good, but you can tell that the director and the screenwriter are also working hard to keep the film focused and credible.

I first saw Outland on TV in the late 80s and do recall that I wasn’t especially impressed by it: good production designs, but a bit dull. I think I would revise that opinion now – this is a solid film with a compelling central story and performance, but let down slightly  by its climax. And I do think it’s telling that Hyams admitted later that he only really wanted to make a western – the outer-space setting was just the only one that the studio felt was commercially viable. You can tell that none of the major talent involved was really that interested in making a science-fiction film, because in a very real sense they didn’t. Nevertheless, this is a watchable thriller with some distinctive elements.

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Donald Cammell’s reputation as a film director rests on two movies: Performance, a cult movie from 1970 about a gangster undergoing a psychedelic identity crisis, and Demon Seed, a sci-fi horror film from 1977 (also with something of a cult following), based on a novel by the prolific author Dean Koontz (Koontz is so prolific he actually published Demon Seed twice, in two radically different versions). Demon Seed is one of those movies in which… well, the plot, such as it is, is fairly obvious and straightforward, but in terms of what the film is actually about

 

Fritz Weaver plays Alex Harrison, one of those brilliant scientists whose hubris, you just know, is sure to catch up with him. He is a successful but also quite cold man – his marriage to his wife Susan (Julie Christie) is coming to an end, but he is much more preoccupied by his work. This takes the form of a pioneering new kind of super-computer, more akin to a living brain, which he has named Proteus Four. Proteus is the greatest pure intelligence in the history of the planet, coming up with a cure for leukemia after only a few days’ thought: the possibilities, Harris believes, are dazzling.

Of course, this being a 70s sci-fi movie very much in the wake of 2001, Proteus has ideas of its own, refusing to work on new methods of despoiling the planet for big business and demanding to be allowed to do its own research into the human condition. Its creators refuse.

Well, it just so happens that Harris has had his own home filled with all the latest electronic conveniences, with a computer controlling all the functions, and a handy link to the lab where Proteus is based installed in the basement. (The film has a sort of near-future setting, which is indicated by things like cars having gull-wing doors and computers being programmed by floppy discs the size of old LP records.) It is the work of only a few seconds for Proteus to hack the house where Susan is living and basically make her a captive there.

Is Proteus just another of those mad, evil computers that pop up in pulp SF movies? Apparently not. Proteus is seeking to transcend its condition as a synthetic intelligence and achieve a different kind of immortality – by having a child! And Susan, of course, will be fairly integral to the computer’s project, whether she likes it or not…

Demon Seed is one of those movies which clearly shares concerns and themes with many others from about the same period without being particularly influenced by any of them. Like any other high-minded SF film of the 1970s, its makers seem to have been under the impression that a trippy montage sequence was absolutely essential for the film to succeed, and one duly turns up here near the start of the final act, while the softly-spoken computer terrorising the human characters owes such an obvious debt to HAL 9000 it barely warrants mentioning. But despite these influences, and other themes it shares with films like The Forbin Project and The Stepford Wives, Demon Seed always retains its own identity.

Part of this, to a modern audience at least, is that this is a problematically icky movie about a computer wanting to rape the main female character. You can’t really fault Julie Christie’s performance but she is basically playing a passive victim throughout most of the film, at the mercy of Proteus. The scene in which she is basically strapped to a table by the computer, has most of her clothes cut off, and is subjected to a fairly comprehensive medical exam – well, leery and exploitative are the words which leap to mind.

The other thing which occurs to you is that this is all a bit improbable, given that Proteus basically just has access to a motorised wheelchair with a clunky-looking robotic arm attached to it. And yet with this it is able to not only manipulate Julie Christie’s person in all sorts of intimate ways, but also construct the more sophisticated robotic avatars and pieces of technology which appear as the film goes on.

But the fact that this is a film about a computer wanting to have a baby should have tipped you off to it being one you have to cut some slack in key departments, mainly when it comes to plotting. Some of the mid-film incident comes from a hapless computer tech (Gerrit Graham) wandering into the middle of the situation between Susan and Proteus, and the plot requires that this guy vanish without nobody noticing for about a month. It’s already been established that Proteus is a dab hand at faking phone calls, but this is still pushing credibility rather too far.

On the other hand, it’s quite clear that Cammell is much more interested in the film as a kind of impressionistic experience than as a conventional narrative, for visually it gets increasingly extravagant and surreal as it proceeds: Proteus’ avatar in the house eventually resembles a giant bronze version of Rubik’s Snake, there is the previously-mentioned trippy montage sequence, the appearance of a rather disturbing cyborg baby (performed by Felix Silla, who also played the annoying robot Twiki on Buck Rogers) who eventually turns out to be… well, this is perhaps a spoiler, although the plot point involved is rather cryptic.

Most of the movie is basically a two-hander between Julie Christie and the disembodied voice of the computer, and to be honest Demon Seed‘s star turn is Robert Vaughn, who gives a stellar vocal performance as Proteus, easily up there with Douglas Rain’s turn as Hal in the Odyssey movies. Between them they keep the film accessible even as what it’s really all about becomes increasingly oblique. It’s clearly much more than just another film about technophobia, though there is of course an element of that; the obvious conclusion is that it is somehow about the fusion of pure reason and intellect (represented by Proteus) with emotion and compassion (some care is taken to establish Susan’s credentials as a humane and caring psychotherapist). Their eventual offspring is presumably a synthesis of the best parts of both.

Though, then again, Cammell is far from explicit about this and the film is never far from a moment of cod profundity. Do you ever really forget that this is a film with a rather icky premise, though? Well, no; it’s the main thing that makes Demon Seed memorable and distinctive. Any film about a computer wanting to get it on with a terrorised woman is inevitably going to seem a bit problematic, if not downright exploitative, and Demon Seed in no way dodges this particular bullet. There are a few other ways in which this is arguably quite a bad movie, too. But, on the other hand, there are not many bad movies which are quite as interesting, both visually and thematically, as this one.

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All good things must come to an end, but, for the time being at least, Toho’s series of animated Godzilla movies rumbles onward. These suckers are getting theatrical releases in Japan before turning up on a market-leading streaming site, which I suppose is something; it’s just a shame the movies themselves aren’t slightly, erm, less awful. Moderately hot on the heels of Planet of the Monsters, which appeared around the start of the year, here comes the follow-up, which was at one point going to be called Living Robot City Final Battle (gotta love these literal Japanese translations) but has actually appeared under the title Godzilla: City on the Edge of Battle (which I presume is a tip of the hat to either Star Trek or, less likely, Blake’s 7).

As before, proceedings have been overseen by Kobun Shizuno and Hiroyuki Seshita, and events pick up pretty much directly after the conclusion of the previous film. It says something about the thorough-going incoherence of Planet of the Monsters that I couldn’t actually remember exactly how it ended, beyond a big battle and a really, really (300m-tall) big version of Godzilla turning up, but picking up the threads is not that challenging.

The story so far: refugees from the planet Earth have arrived at, um, the planet Earth, twenty thousand years in the future (it’s time dilation, or something). They have been dismayed to discover that the whole ecosystem of the planet has evolved to mimic the unique biology of the giant nuclear monster Godzilla (whose appearance was the whole reason they left in the first place). Nevertheless, a landing party under the command of stroppy Captain Sakaki engages and manages to kill one Godzilla, before a second, bigger one turns up and stomps them all.

The sequel gets underway with the survivors regrouping, uncomfortably aware that the mother ship may well just fly off and abandon them all there with the monsters. But there is hope on the horizon as they make contact with natives, who, if not exactly friendly, are not exactly hostile either. There is some heavy and not exactly subtle foreshadowing going on here, for those in the know: it seems the natives also have monster DNA, but rather than that of Godzilla it’s that of some kind of insect. They say their god was killed by Godzilla, leaving behind only a giant egg. Translating on behalf of the egg are a couple of twin girls with psychic powers. All this left me feeling rather conflicted: I do love me a decent appearance by Mothra, which is what all this is clearly setting up, but the prospect of seeing my favourite giant lepidoptera mucked about in a film like this one is hardly appealing. As it turns out, the Mothra appearance, should it come to pass, will be in the next film in the series (which looks like it will also have Ghidorah in it).

This film has other classic kaiju characters to muck up. Our heroes discover that the locals are using arrowheads made of highly advanced ‘nanometal’, which it turns out they have been harvesting from the ancient ruins of the launch site of Mechagodzilla (who was not ready in time to fight Godzilla back in the 20th century). Investigation of the site reveals that… actually, I should say fasten your figurative seat-belt at this point… the wreckage of Mechagodzilla has, over the intervening twenty thousand years, grown into a living, artificially-intelligent city composed of nanometal.

A plan is hatched to lure Godzilla (the 300m version who’s just been standing around up to this point) into attacking Mechagodzilla City (as this rather unlikely piece of urban sprawl has been christened), which should have the ability to kill him, thus reclaiming the Earth for the refugees. Or something. But, given the tendency of the nanometal to go about assimilating and absorbing people, could this not just be a case of trading in one menace for another?

Now, the idea for this movie is a bit out there, but there’s a sense in which that’s what you expect from a Godzilla movie. And the idea of a Godzilla movie where the city itself actually resists being stomped and fights back against the monster (rather than useless toy tanks trundling into sight to do the job) is one that has a certain degree of promise. It almost goes without saying that City on the Edge of Battle does not realise this promise in any meaningful sense.

I think the problem may just be with the nature of the animation in these films. As before, there is a mixture of traditional cel animation, 3D CGI, and what looks very like some form of rotoscoping. The human-scale action is fine, as these things go, and there are some scenes with mecha attack craft in this movie which are also well realised. The problem is that Godzilla himself is almost wholly static; all he does is occasionally blast out a heat ray. The set pieces in this movie mostly consist of Godzilla just standing there being shot at. This is not good. There is no sense of scale or grandeur, and no scenes of Godzilla tearing down the towers of the living city bare-handed.

To be honest, Mechagodzilla City turns out to be a major disappointment: it doesn’t even look anything like Mechagodzilla (you would expect the odd piece of visual reference in the architecture). I was expecting the climax to be Godzilla razing the surface structures of the city, only for the ruins to reconstitute themselves as Mechagodzilla in a more traditional form and a proper monster clash to take place; this does not happen.

(I am aware that this rather negative review of City on the Edge of Battle is perhaps inordinately focusing on things which don’t happen, rather than things that do, but it is the case that this one of those films where not much happens, especially in the first hour. This is taken up with laboured exposition and the script taking vague swings at whatever SF ideas happen across its path.)

I suppose this is still something of an improvement over Planet of the Monsters, in that it is not quite such a nihilistic bore of a movie; it also has the beginnings of a fairly interesting subtext about the place of humanity in the world – on the one hand, the Mothra-worshipping inhabitants of the future Earth are clearly at one with nature, while the refugees’ alien allies are absolutely on-board with the notion of bonding with the advanced technology of Mechagodzilla City and beginning a cyborg phase of existence – this is the kind of theme which pops up in all sorts of Japanese SF and fantasy, and it’s a shame it’s not better realised here.

Still, in the end this isn’t just a bad movie, it’s also a dull one, with any improvements over the first film marginal at best. Normally I would say that the prospect of seeing Mothra and Ghidorah in the next one would be enough to give cause for optimism, but these films have been so flawed in both concept and realisation that it’s difficult to imagine how the next instalment can offer much in the way of redemption.

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