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I am given to understand that there were some grumbles that the TV schedule for the festive season just past was in some way sub-standard, with rather fewer ‘treats’ than people have become used to. It may not come as a surprise if I reveal that I am not the kind of person to be particularly stimulated by Christmas specials of Call the Midwife, Strictly Come Dancing or (God help us) Michael MacIntyre’s Big Show, and lavish all-star Christie adaptations don’t really do it for me either. However, on reflection, I must admit to a little surprise and mild disappointment, for at one point all the signs were that one of the BBC’s Christmas offerings was going to be a new adaptation of The War of the Worlds.

Now, when I think about it, I’m actually quietly certain that this thing is going to be a disappointment to me whenever it actually appears, because the BBC, which is usually pretty faithful when it comes to bringing Jane Austen or Anthony Trollope to the screen, has historically shown no such fidelity when it comes to classic genre fiction – see, for instance, the atrocious version of The Day of the Triffids they inflicted on the world at Christmas 2009. But such is my fondness for The War of the Worlds that I will stay optimistic until it actually arrives.

I should make this clear – The War of the Worlds, the novel? Love it. The radio version? Love it. The concept album? Love it. Stephen Baxter’s authorised sequel? Love it. The Spielberg movie? I can appreciate its merits. The 1980s TV show – well, now, let’s be sensible. I watched pretty much the whole first season, which many would say was going above and beyond the call of duty. One of the (many) problems with the War of the Worlds TV show is that it’s operating two steps removed from H.G. Wells, in that it is basically a small-screen sequel to the 1953 movie produced by George Pal and directed by Byron Haskin. You will not be terribly surprised to learn that I really like this movie, too, even though it has an extremely liberal attitude towards the source novel.

After a slightly frantic set of credits, the film gets underway, as any self-respecting iteration of The War of the Worlds must, with the famous ‘No-one would have believed…’ passage from the book, updated to reflect the film’s 1950s setting. Through the wonders of gorgeous special effects and rather dubious astronomical exposition, we learn that the planet Mars is dying, and its inhabitants have only one option when it comes to migrating to another planet – it’s Earth or bust!

Everyone on Earth is oblivious to this, of course, even after what seems to be a rather unusual meteorite lands in the California hills. The locals are delighted, thinking that their ship has come in and a new tourist attraction has arrived, but rugged scientist Clayton Forrester (Gene Barry) is less convinced – the new arrival seems to be radioactive, and didn’t behave like a normal meteorite. He goes off to the local square dance with impressively-banged local girl Sylvia (Ann Robinson – not that one) to pass the time while the rock cools down.

Needless to say, the town is in for a surprise, for the meteorite unscrews and a death ray on a stalk proceeds to obliterate the locals left to keep an eye on it, while a powerful magnetic field knocks out the town’s electricity. The army is called in, with a view to containing the Martian invaders – for other Martian cylinders have begun landing all over the world, with reports of chaos and destruction filtering through – and the kindly local priest makes a brave attempt to establish peaceful contact with the aliens. Naturally, the Martians smoke him. The US military aren’t about to let this sort of behaviour carry on unchecked, and unleash their might at the alien war machines, only to find them impervious to earthly weapons. The authorities are forced into a desperate, futile rear-guard action as the Martians expand their terrestrial dominion, and all seems hopeless for the human race…

My general feeling about both The War of the Worlds and The Time Machine are that they are foundation stones of science fiction, but also books which are now sort of dated: both of them are driven by social and philosophical concerns and are indeed essentially topical satire – of the British class system, in the case of The Time Machine, and the British empire with The War of the Worlds. Unsurprisingly, the satirical and allegorical element of the novel does not survive into the film, which is instead almost as pure a piece of Red Scare thrill-mongering as you can find. It is telling that, for all the indications that this is a global catastrophe (we are shown the Eiffel Tower toppling, and Martian war machines in front of a ruined Taj Mahal), there is not one mention of the Martians attacking the Soviet Union, or indeed that the USSR even exists. Wells’ concerns have been extracted and replaced by those of 1950s Hollywood.

I could easily fill the rest of this piece by cataloguing all the other numerous and comprehensive differences between the original novel and this adaptation: most obviously, there is the shift in setting, from southern England in the early 20th century to California in the 1950s, and there’s also the fact that the Martians in this movie cruise around in sleek manta-ray hovercraft, rather than the iconic tripedal fighting machines of the book. It’s really the case that virtually none of the specifics of the novel’s plot survive into the film, which concerns itself almost exclusively with the first half of the book.

This concerns the initial Martian landings, their crushing of the forces sent against them, and the panic and chaos that convulses human society. Other than the conclusion, the second half of the novel – which deals with the Martian occupation of England, and goes into slightly more detail about their nature and technology – is entirely absent. This is no doubt partly due to the technical limitations of the period – it’s hard to imagine how the special effects of the 1950s could have rendered the spread of the red weed, for instance – but Wells’ more philosophical musings are not really the stuff of an American sci-fi movie, while in another key respect the film is entirely at odds with Wells’ conception.

Whether you consider the end of The War of the Worlds to be an outrageous deus ex machina or a subtly-foreshadowed denouement entirely of a piece with the rest of the book is probably a matter of personal taste, but it survives in the movie more-or-less intact. However, Wells intent has been comprehensively subverted, in another fundamental change. Wells’ atheism is discarded, and – like many classic SF movies from this period – the themes of the film are presented in almost spiritual terms. People take refuge in churches; there are many references to prayer and miracles; when one boffin gravely announces the Martians will conquer the world in six days, Ann Robinson reminds us all that this was the same length of time it took to create it. In short, the film is basically reminding the audience that technological superiority is all very well, but victory only comes by the grace of God – the death of the Martians here isn’t simply a matter of biological process, but presented as divine intervention. The end of the film, with church bells tolling and a grateful population flocking to give thanks, appears to have been an influence on at least two other films – the film version of Day of the Triffids, and the British catastrophe movie The Day the Earth Caught Fire.

It seems, therefore, that very little of the actual substance of the novel survives into this adaptation. Why, then, am I so fond of it? Well, quite apart from the fact it often has a kind of hokey charm unique to itself, it’s also the case that while the film changes virtually every detail of the book, it captures its tone and spirit with an accuracy which is hugely impressive. The Martian onslaught against the US army, death rays slashing in all directions as the human guns fail to hit their targets, is absolutely of a piece with the novel; the eerie scenes with Forrester and Sylvia trapped in a ruined house, Martians all around them, are also closely inspired by the similar section in the book. The climactic sequence depicting the breakdown of law and order and near-rioting in the streets as the Martians advance on downtown Los Angeles also catch the essence of Wells’ description of ‘the rout of civilisation… the massacre of mankind’ extraordinarily well, in the circumstances.

In the end I’m almost moved to describe the movie of The War of the Worlds not so much as an adaptation as a cover version – it retains only the most basic outline of Wells’ book, changing virtually every detail of narrative and theme. And yet it also seems to have locked onto the most vivid and powerful segments of the story and retained them, in terms of their emotional impact and effectiveness. It’s a fairly irregular way to go about adapting a book, but the result is a movie that still somehow does credit to the source material. Not many adaptations of classic SF novels stand up as well as this one.

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Is it just me, or was the back end of last year particularly busy when it came to the kind of big commercial studio releases that tend to guzzle up multiple screens at the typical multiplex? The reason I ask is that a couple of films which I would have expected to make at least some kind of appearance on the big screen in central Oxford seem to have been squeezed out entirely. It’s not unheard of for this to happen when it comes to a certain kind of low-brow action-thriller, but here we’re talking about much more distinctive pieces of work – as I mentioned, I missed Bad Times at the El Royale UK release entirely and had to go to Berlin to see it, while Boots Riley’s extravagantly well-reviewed Sorry to Bother You likewise barely seemed to trouble either the big chains or my art-house cinema of choice, and I only just managed to catch it at the Ultimate Picture Palace (doing sterling work in its function of providing exactly this sort of last chance saloon).

Set in a sort of version of present-day San Francisco, this film retells the curious odyssey of Cassius ‘Cash’ Green (Lakeith Stanfield), a young African-American man struggling to establish himself financially: he and his girlfriend Detroit (Tessa Thompson), a performance artist and sign-twirler, are having to live in his uncle’s garage, for example. He seems to be making some kind of progress when he gets a job as a telemarketer with a company named RegalView, although the work is initially challenging. Success comes when an older colleague (Danny Glover) suggests that he use his ‘white voice’ when making calls as this will be more reassuring for his clients (in the first of many quirky choices, when using the white voice Stanfield is dubbed by David Cross).

This leads to great success for Cash, even as his fellow employees are agitating and trying to organise for better working conditions. Eventually he is promoted to ‘Power Caller’, handling extremely lucrative and important business transactions, especially for a company named WorryFree. Owned by the visionary tycoon Steve Lift (Armie Hammer), WorryFree has become greatly successful by playing on people’s stress and uncertainty about modern life – by signing away all rights to self-determination, they are provided with work and the essentials for living. Is this exploiting a gap in the market or simply a clever re-branding of slavery? Cash does his best not to worry about it and concentrates on the material rewards his new success is bringing him, until Steve Lift himself approaches him with a proposition that could change both his life and the world to an almost inconceivable degree…

I suspect that Boots Riley won’t thank me for saying so, but the shadow of Charlie Kaufman does seem to me to hang rather heavily over Sorry to Bother You – this is the same kind of wildly absurdist comedy that Kaufman made his name by writing: the structures of modern urban life are present, but have had their normal contents emptied out and been refilled with things which are almost palpably ridiculous. The sheer inventiveness of the film is impressive, not to mention the strike rate of its jokes – there are some unforgettably funny moments in the course of the story.

However, this is the kind of satirical comedy which is setting out to draw blood, and while Charlie Kaufman often seems to me to be playing with ideas for the fun of it, Riley clearly has serious social and political points to make throughout this film. The element of this film which most of the early coverage settled on was the gimmick of the ‘white voice’, which as well as being a striking cinematic gag is a convenient metaphor for the different modes of behaviour many people, perhaps especially those from ethnic minorities, are obliged to adopt. That said, it’s still a relatively minor element of the film, which is about… well, lots of different things, to be honest, perhaps even a few too many for it to be entirely coherent as a narrative. Many of these are, admittedly, about the somewhat-vexed question of race in America – I thought that one sequence, in which Cash, as one of only two black men at a party for the super-rich, is commanded to rap for his hosts, manages to be funnier, more provocative, and say more about cultural appropriation than all of Get Out.

That said, I think this is much more a film about economics than race, although Sorry to Bother You is naturally smart enough to acknowledge that the two things are inseparably linked in modern America. Riley has said that the title itself doesn’t just refer to a telemarketer’s usual opening line, but also the film’s intention to confront the audience with some uncomfortable truths which they may habitually try quite hard to ignore. Well, maybe so, but I wonder who he imagines the audience of this film will be – I imagine that most people seeing it will already be aware of the immense social and financial inequities in western civilisation, the immense power wielded by the wealthy, the dehumanising effects of many modern jobs, and so on – these things are not secrets, they’re just treated as facts of life. Once you look past the larger-than-life characterisations and ridiculous gags, the parable of Cash’s socio-economic awakening is actually fairly straightforward, as the young man has to make a choice between getting very rich very quickly or doing the right thing. It’s only the relentless onslaught of outlandish jokes and ideas that makes the film so memorable and entertaining. Similarly, the only real solution the film has to offer basically seems to be for workers to unionise, which some might consider a little anticlimactic (well, there’s a suggestion that a violent uprising might also solve some problems, but given its context in the film it’s hard to see this is a serious proposal).

I would say that the film possibly outstays its welcome by just a few minutes, and the third act in particular shows signs of becoming completely unravelled, but the film is a satire and heavily allegorical, so this is less of a problem than it could have been. It is, in any case, quite bracing to discover a film which is so smart, so energetic, and so willing to be openly political in its comedy. I’ve heard Sorry to Bother You described as the best SF film of 2018 – I can see how someone might think it qualifies, but the science fiction elements are just part of a brew which defies conventional genre descriptions. A very funny, very sharp film, driven along by great performances from Stanfield and Hammer; one could perhaps reasonably take exception to its politics, but not to the skill with which it has been made.

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The Pegasus, an instalment of Star Trek: The Next Generation first shown in January 1994, is one of those episodes of a TV show which didn’t receive much in the way of particular attention on its first appearance, but found itself on the outskirts of severe fannish opprobrium over a decade later. This is because it’s also one of those episodes which has another episode going on inside it, in this case the supremely unpopular series finale of Enterprise, These Are The Voyages. (How does this work? Well, in the course of The Pegasus, Riker finds himself wracked by a crisis of conscience and – not being able to talk to anyone about it – decides to resolve this problem by talking to holodeck simulations of the crew of the NX Enterprise. It is an odd, slightly contrived conceit and – one might argue – a fairly transparent attempt to boost the ratings for the Final Episode of Star Trek by arranging guest appearances by stars of the much more popular Next Gen.)

I don’t think These Are The Voyages quite deserves all the hatred directed at it by both Trekkies and many of its own cast and crew, but it’s certainly unfair for The Pegasus to get tarred with this particular brush, as it is a solid episode (written by Ronald D Moore) which touches on a few interesting points and manages to do things which Next Gen usually struggles at.

A case in point is the opening scene, which manages to be charming and understatedly funny, all without compromising the regular cast. Preparations are underway for the Enterprise’s annual ‘Captain Picard Day’ (the ship’s children have all been making pictures and models of Jean-Luc) when a priority signal comes in sending them off on a new mission to be carried out under the auspices of Starfleet Intelligence. Quite apart from setting up the plot, the scene neatly carries out a couple of other functions, emphasising the close and warm relationship between Picard and Riker before it comes under severe strain later in the story, and also giving Troi some actual lines in an episode where Marina Sirtis otherwise appears to have been on holiday.

Well, Admiral Pressman of Starfleet Intelligence beams aboard (a strong performance by guest star Terry O’Quinn, possibly best known for playing Locke in Lost) and announces that they are off to locate and ideally salvage the Pegasus, a ship believed lost in slightly obscure circumstances twelve years earlier. Pressman was commanding the shop at the time, with a youthful Riker as his helmsman: Riker is quite shocked by this, although it isn’t immediately apparent why (sensors detect an Incoming Plot Point, Captain).

The search takes them to an asteroid-filled system near the Neutral Zone, and they discover a search is already underway by a Romulan ship. Another rather nice scene ensues, in which Picard and the Romulan Commander engage in the best traditions of diplomacy by being very courteous and pleasant to each other, even though they both know the other is lying through their teeth about why they’re there.

A search gets underway, with everyone aware that they are in a race with the Romulans to find the Pegasus. As this proceeds, it becomes apparent that we are in for a Riker-centric episode, as Jonathan Frakes is in nearly every scene, and even when he’s not there the other characters (essentially Picard and Pressman) are talking about him. Pressman believes Riker’s great virtue was his unquestioning loyalty to the chain of command, while Picard thinks his best quality is his ability to prioritise doing the right thing over more personal concerns. The episode basically comes down to a conflict between these two principles.

The Pegasus turns up, inside one of the asteroids of the system, although the Enterprise can’t mount a salvage attempt for a few hours without tipping off the Romulans to this. This delay gives everyone time for another cracking scene, this one between Riker and Picard. The captain has been doing some digging and turned up a classified report concerning an attempted mutiny on the Pegasus immediately before it was believed destroyed, something Riker (who assisted Pressman in resisting the mutineers) has never spoken of before. Given everything that’s going on, Picard is smelling a rodent of unusual size, and is not best pleased when Riker is forced to admit he’s under orders from Starfleet Command not to discuss the matter, even with his own commanding officer. Picard breaks out the righteous anger, at one point even intimating he may sack Riker as first officer. Patrick Stewart gets to do moral outrage and show Picard’s sense of personal betrayal in this scene, and it must be said that Frakes also gives a fine performance, in the sense that he’s not blasted off the screen by Stewart.

(It’s not really clear at what point Riker pops down to the holodeck for his These Are The Voyages guest spot, as he does seem quite busy throughout this episode. But I digress.)

On with the adventure-intrigue plot: the Enterprise is taken inside the asteroid itself, against Picard’s explicit objections, and they discover the remains of the Pegasus, which has weirdly ended up merged with the solid rock of its surroundings (the Pegasus is a rather venerable Oberth-class starship, one of those models where you wonder how they get from the saucer section to the secondary hull, unless there are actual lift shafts running through the nacelle supports). Riker and Pressman go aboard and the mysterious doohickey Pressman has been so keen to recover is located – forcing Riker to finally make a decision – obey orders or do the right thing?

Many of these Next Gen episodes do feel rather formulaic, not that this is necessarily a bad thing, and while watching this one I concluded that Moore had decided to an episode about Riker’s moral dilemma first and come up with the lost ship plot-line later. But apparently not: it seems Moore encountered one or other version of Raise the Titanic! and decided to Trek it up a bit. Apparently Moore was also sick of being asked why the Federation didn’t use cloaking devices, when the Klingons and Romulans are so keen on them, and wrote an explanation into the episode in the form of it being one of the provisions of a treaty between the UFP and the Romulans.

Prior to this the closest thing to an explanation was Gene Roddenberry’s declaration that sneaking about in a cloaked ship was against the principles of the Federation and Starfleet. Moore’s explanation is a little more credible, though once again one doubts the Great Bird would have been particularly enamoured of this episode’s presentation of black operations and illegal experiments carried out secretly by Starfleet Intelligence – the episode kind of foreshadows the more morally grey and pragmatic depiction of Starfleet which would become increasingly common as DS9 progressed. As it is, with the various conflicts and arguments between the three main characters, the episode is (at the very least) pushing up against the limits of the Roddenberry box.

Given that the episode is concerned with illegal attempts to develop a Federation cloaking device, one does have to wonder why Starfleet Intelligence were apparently field-testing the thing just around the corner from the Romulan Neutral Zone, the location where the Romulans would be most likely to notice if there were any problems. Oh well – the imperatives of plot, I suppose. The same is true of the fact that this is apparently a ‘phasing cloak’, which makes the ship on which it is operating not just invisible but intangible, able to pass through solid objects. One wonders just what additional advantage this would present in the normal course of ship operations on top of the standard invisibility, although I expect I am showing a dreadful lack of imagination.

Another issue that would only occur to the troubled: at the end of the episode, Riker is placed under arrest and slung in the brig, presumably for his role in the initial Pegasus experiments twelve years earlier and the fact he never spoke up about their existence. Vulcan lawyers would no doubt argue that, logically, the Other Riker whose existence was revealed in the episode Second Chances should also be arrested, as he is equally at fault (he was there at the time, too). And if, as it is implied here, Riker’s exemplary service on the Enterprise is one of the reasons why he’s not more severely punished (in Moore’s first draft he got a month in the brig and his chances of further promotion were effectively ended), one wonders what would happen to Other Riker, who doesn’t have these mitigating circumstances in his favour? It’s easy to imagine Other Riker having a very hard time as a result of Enterprise Riker’s actions here, which (it is tempting to think) may explain why he eventually goes rogue.

Let us emerge from the rabbit hole. I would say this was a solid episode, good but not quite great, and a very fair representative of this series when it is functioning well: it has an engaging plot, strong characterisation, and makes a point of giving Picard the opportunity to exercise his moral authority (good TV though this is, one wonders if one of the reasons Picard is still out there commanding a ship rather than working in the Admiralty is because the other admirals don’t want him around, causing trouble by taking a principled stance on everything: he can almost come across as a bit of a prig sometimes). It’s certainly one of the better Riker-centric episodes, too; well worth revisiting.

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‘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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