Posts Tagged ‘SF’

Musings on The Death of Cinema, Part Two: you know, the fact that You Were Never Really Here is (famously) only showing at four Odeons in the UK neither surprises nor concerns me, particularly – both the film and its director have art-house critical darling written all over them. What it says about our culture, that we are so ready to accept that such a superbly talented artist is essentially only of interest to a niche audience, is another matter and probably too substantial to be resolved on a humorous film review blog.

What is, perhaps, slightly more worrying are signs of a tendency for films to bypass cinemas entirely and get their first introduction to the world via the bold new frontier of streaming sites. We are here – and I find myself obliged to abandon my usual principled circumlocution and refer to the site by name – in the world of the Netflix Original. Now, some of Netflix’s own films are cheap-ass potboilers, and even when they do spend a lot of money the results are not always impressive (Bright, for instance, apparently had a budget of $90 million). But this is to some extent a whole new ball game, for – unlike a traditional studio – Netflix is not concerned with individual ticket sales, and they seem more prepared to take risks.

Which brings us to the strange case of Paramount Pictures, Netflix, and Alex Garland’s Annihilation. The story goes as follows: Paramount agreed to back Annihilation, an SF-horror movie based on a book by Jeff VanderMeer, to be directed by Garland (also responsible for the well-received but – if you ask me – slightly overrated Ex Machina). $55 million was spent; the movie was made, and previewed to some punters. The punters had issues with it, and Paramount demanded changes. The film-makers refused (I suppose there’s another discussion to be had about the pernicious influence of preview screenings on films: I think it was Mark Kermode who said that if they’d preview-screened Casablanca, no-one today would remember it at all).

At this point Netflix swooped in and a deal was struck: Paramount would distribute the movie in cinemas in the US and China, but as far as the rest of the world was concerned, Annihilation would effectively be a Netflix Original, despite having been made with that big-screen experience in mind.

Certainly I would imagine seeing Annihilation on the big screen would be a memorable experience, for this is a visually lavish movie, if nothing else. Natalie Portman plays Lena, an ex-soldier-turned-biology-professor (go with it) who as the story starts is struggling to come to terms with the loss of her husband Kane (Oscar Isaacs) on a classified mission some time earlier.

But then Kane returns, apparently from the dead, seemingly a changed man, unable to say much about his experiences, and rapidly falling extremely ill. The armed forces descend and both Lena and Kane are taken into custody, under the oversight of Dr Ventress (Jennifer Jason Leigh). The truth is explained to Lena: an uninhabited region of swampland on the southern coast of the USA is now host to ‘the shimmer’, a mysterious, rapidly expanding zone which appears to defy the normal laws of physics. Numerous teams of soldiers have been sent into the zone to try and find the source of the phenomenon; Kane is the only one to return.

Lena joins another mission heading into the zone, a primarily scientific one led by Ventress herself. But the zone is a realm of mutation and chaos, where the laws of nature seem to be breaking down – can the team members even preserve their sanity, let alone their lives?

Annihilation is clearly the work of the same sensibility as Ex Machina: it takes some classic, maybe even well-worn SF tropes, and handles them in a stylish, cerebral way. Garland’s familiarity with classic science fiction has been clear ever since his script for 28 Days Later, which is in many ways loosely adapted from The Day of the Triffids; he also wrote the screenplay for the 2012 Judge Dredd movie. While Annihilation is ostensibly based on VanderMeer’s novel, suggestions that the movie draws on a range of other sources seem to me to be on the money.

It seems to me that Gareth Edwards’ Monsters has had some influence on the film, with its scenes of weirdly-hybridised ecosystems and urban desolation; you can also, perhaps, discern a more distant inheritance from the likes of The Thing. The film certainly sits comfortably within a wave of modern SF films which are visually striking but somewhat obscure in their storytelling – here I’m thinking of movies like Under the Skin, Midnight Special, and The Signal.

A number of people have said that Annihilation has at least as much in common with H.P. Lovecraft’s The Colour Out of Space as it does with VanderMeer’s book, and this strikes me as a very good call. The short story in question concerns the fall to Earth of a strange meteorite, and the insidious and gradual effects it has on the ecology of the surrounding area, to say nothing of the inhabitants. In addition to having very similar premises, both stories have the same queasy feeling of wrongness, of a world being twisted out of shape.

That said, while Annihilation does feature some interesting viscera, it is hardly visceral – as with Ex Machina, it is altogether too cool and measured for genuinely powerful emotions to manifest themselves. There’s no real feeling of tension of threat; even though the team are very likely heading into the zone on a suicide mission (no-one else has returned), there is no apprehension or foreboding involved.

(I suppose I should comment on the fact that the exploration team is made up entirely of women, although this is one of the elements inherited from the novel rather than an innovation of Garland’s. Does it feel like the movie is trying to make a slightly ostentatious and contrived pitch to a certain type of progressive audience? Well, maybe; for me it may just be that it feels a bit odd that the members of a science team are all packing assault rifles, as if this is necessary in order to make it clear that they are strong and independent women – I find the ass-kicking warrior woman to be as tedious a stereotype as her male counterpart. I suspect the film would feel quite different with differently-gendered characters; there is a lot to unpack here. I must further note that despite the predominantly female cast, the film has still been criticised on the grounds that Portman’s character should be Asian, and Leigh’s should be partly Native American, which if nothing else is a reminder that there is no-one more relentlessly uncompromising than the virtuous.)

Apart from its spectacular visuals, Annihilation‘s main virtue is its icy weirdness, for it never quite gets you where you live, and there’s not enough going on for it to qualify as an action-horror either. It is a film of ideas, and most of those ideas are fairly rarefied ones, about the nature of identity and what it means when this starts to disintegrate. Opinion, I suspect, will be divided by this film, especially by the closing section, which will either be a bravura exploration of complex themes or a borderline-absurd piece of pretentious artiness, depending on your point of view.

Has the cinema-going world beyond the US and China been deprived of a treat, given that Annihilation is only available over the internet? Um, well, maybe: certainly this film is frequently stunning to look at, and that would only be emphasised on the big screen. Worse films than this one will certainly get a major cinema release this year. But then it’s not really an issue of quality, is it, but rather one of how commercial a movie should be. Annihilation is somewhere on the outer limits of mainstream genre cinema, and I think it might have struggled to find an audience if it had received a conventional release.

I suppose in the end it is just the nature of cinema as a commercial undertaking: films are defined as successes or failures by their box-office take at least as much as by their creative achievement; studios don’t produce films to support the arts, they do so to make a profit. I suppose it is preferable to have the film-makers’ cut of Annihilation available to a wide audience by whatever means, than for it to be loitering on a shelf somewhere, or slipped out direct-to-DTV as a famous flop, or savagely recut to turn it into something more comfortingly conventional. I don’t think Annihilation is a truly great film, but it is well-made, full of ideas, reasonably well-performed, and has a very strong sense of what it wants to be; we need more films like this, and less designed-by-committee lowest-common-denominator movie-making. The fact that Annihilation hasn’t got a cinema release is a bit of a shame; if it came to be the case that films as quirky and unusual as this could only get an internet release – well, that would be very bad news indeed.


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Well, here’s something which has kind of snuck up on me: having recently watched Takao Okawara’s Godzilla Vs Mechagodzilla II, I find myself in the position of having seen all thirty-two of Toho’s Godzilla movies. This has been a long road, to be perfectly honest: there were only seventeen when I started, back in 1990, and the fact that most of the recent films are very difficult to track down in the UK did not help much. Thank the stars for the internet. It seems quite appropriate that this should form the basis of the landmark 1002nd film review on the blog (look, I do literature, not mathematics).

Godzilla Vs Mechagodzilla II was released in 1993, and was apparently intended at the time to mark a pause in production for films in the series: the first big-budget American Godzilla was believed to be imminent at the time (in the end it was another five years before it arrived, so Toho made another two movies before finally putting the series on hold). Watching the movie now I suppose you can just about discern the suggestion that things are being concluded, but for the most part it resembles the films around it, not least in the way it reintroduces famous characters from the films of the 60s and 70s.

The film gets underway with the United Nations Godzilla Countermeasures Centre unveiling their new weapon to sort the big lizard out once and for all: the severed robotic head of Mecha-King Ghidorah has been fished out of Tokyo bay (where it ended up at the climax of 1991’s Godzilla Vs King Ghidorah) and reverse-engineered so its futuristic technology can be employed in two new vehicles: Garuda, one of those flying tanks which seem to be common in tokusatsu movies, and Mechagodzilla, which is, um, a mecha which looks like Godzilla.

(There is a bit of a departure here from the original incarnation of Mechagodzilla, which – if memory serves – was basically a robot. Here it is essentially a somewhat outlandishly-designed vehicle. This take seems to have gained some traction, for the third incarnation of Mechagodzilla – the Kiryu version, from Tokyo SOS – sticks very close to the same concept. On the other hand, this may have something to do with the same guy, Wataru Mimura, writing all the recent Mechagodzilla movies.)

Flying Garuda, to begin with at least, is lovable lunk Aoki (Masahiro Takashima). In a piece of foreshadowing about as subtle as being hit by a truck, we are informed that Aoki is a huge fan of pteranodons, not that this particularly informs the plot much. However, quite early on he is redeployed to elsewhere in the anti-Godzilla corps, which if nothing else means he gets to wear a snappy cravat with a big G on it (this is actually part of the uniform).

From here we cut to a bunch of scientists on one of those remote Pacific islands which are such a common feature in these films. They are excited to have discovered some impressive pteranodon fossils, and also an actual intact egg. Excitement shifts to alarm when they realise that another egg has already hatched, and a giant pteranodon is roosting in the vicinity. The unlikely size of this beastie is explained by one of the boffins as the result of nuclear waste irradiating the island, though I’m not sure this entirely explains what pteranodon eggs are doing on a Pacific island in the 1990s.

(Now, the pteranodon is – obviously! – a new take on Rodan, one of the A-list Toho kaiju with a long and distinguished career which extends back to his own 1956 movie and is due to continue next year in a new Hollywood incarnation. The American dub of Godzilla Vs Mechagodzilla II is unique in that it reverts to using Rodan’s Japanese name, Radon. I’m going to stick with Rodan, however, as it would feel odd not to.)

The scientists go beyond alarm into actual panic when the sea erupts and Godzilla himself appears on the scene. Godzilla and Rodan catch sight of each other and promptly begin to party like it’s 1964, laying waste to most of the island in the process of their rumble. The scientists take this as a cue to make a swift departure with the egg. Being such a pteranodon nut, Aoki turns up to check out the egg in the Kyoto lab where it ends up, meeting nice young scientist Azusa (Ryoko Sano) in the process. Psychic Miki (Megumi Odaka), a regular character in these movies, is also hanging around and discovers that – fasten your seatbelts, friends – some moss sticking to the egg is actually telepathically singing to it. (Well, of course it is.)

As a result of the discovery of the singing telepathic moss, the egg hatches out, not into another pteranodon but a baby godzillasaurus, which everyone refers to as Baby Godzilla. Baby Godzilla seems essentially benign and doesn’t appear to be especially irradiated, which just adds to his cuteness. It’s never really confirmed that Baby Godzilla and the full-sized version are closely related, but big Godzilla certainly seems to take an interest in the newborn and starts heading for Kyoto. There’s only one thing to do: stand by to launch Mechagodzilla!

Well, if nothing else, I feel like I’m beginning to understand why so many of the sub-par Godzilla movies of the 1990s and early 2000s feel so samey – it’s because most of them were written by Wataru Mimura (Tokyo SOS, which is the best of the post-1992 Godzilla films, was the work of someone else). Quite apart from a rather Gerry Anderson-esque take on Mechagodzilla, what these films have in common is a tendency to treat Godzilla like bad weather – one of those annoying facts of life people just have to come to terms with – rather than the terrifying menace he is in some of the other films. Godzilla just turns up and attacks places in this film whenever the plot slows down a bit.

I say ‘plot’, but the main problem with Godzilla Vs Mechagodzilla II is that in a very real sense it doesn’t actually have a plot – not to the extent that it feels in any way structured or thought-through. Things just happen one after the other, frequently without much in the way of explanation or causality, to say nothing of occasional odd tangents. The film is reliant on things happening without any real explanation – where do the eggs come from? What the hell is the deal with the singing telepathic moss? Why does Baby Godzilla seem to have psychic powers? How come Rodan mutates into a more dangerous form halfway through the movie? I could go on.

One result of this is that something rather odd happens with audience sympathy in the course of the film. To begin with, Godzilla is the same ambiguous anti-hero as in all the movies since the 1984 relaunch of the series, and the operators of Mechagodzilla are heroic defenders of Japan. But by the end of the film, one finds oneself rooting for Godzilla – or at least expected to do so – as he takes a beating from characters who are theoretically the protagonists. The only catalyst for this is the fact that the bosses at G-Force are unspeakably cruel to Baby Godzilla, using him as bait even though he is so small and cute. I suppose if nothing else this speaks volumes about the famous Japanese vulnerability to anything cute with big eyes.

Oh well. There are a few good things about this film – Megumi Odaka, perennial second banana in this series, gets some good material, and the monster suits are generally excellent. The Rodan puppet in particular is extremely impressive. The initial battle between Godzilla and Rodan is also boisterously good stuff. Apparently this was choreographed as it was due to complaints that too many monster battles in the previous few films just consisted of monsters standing off and zapping breath-rays at each other – which makes it slightly odd that the other battles in this film consist of pretty much that exact same thing. (Although the traditional scene where the massed model planes and toy tanks of the JSDF trundle out to engage Godzilla and have no effect whatsoever also makes an appearance, and it’s like seeing an old friend when it does.)

In the end, though, one has to remember that this film is predicated on the idea that, having salvaged priceless technology from the future, the best thing the UN can think of doing with it is to build a giant cybernetic dinosaur with laser-beam eyes. Normal standards of logic and sanity are clearly not in effect. In the past I have spoken of the special pleasures of a Good Bad Movie – Godzilla Vs Mechagodzilla II is not quite a Good Bad Movie, but it is at least an Okay Bad Movie, and the dedicated Godzilla audience it was clearly made for will probably find stuff to enjoy here.

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I think it makes a certain kind of sense to stick to what you’re good at. If so, then I am surprised there has not been more of an outcry about the British film industry’s enthusiasm for making syrupy-soft allegedly life-affirming comedy dramas aimed at old people, fairly insipid rom-coms, and dour costume dramas, for our record in this area is not much better than that of many other nations. No, what we should be producing more of – and I think a target of two or three a year is not unreasonable – is apocalyptic science fiction films, because there was a time when we led the world in films of this kind (well, good ones, anyway). Nowadays we barely even seem to bother: the last proper one I can think of is 28 Days Later, which is not far off being twenty years old (the boom in zombie movies it kick-started is still going, of course: see what I mean, we’re good at this stuff).

Near the top of any stack of British doomsday films is Val Guest’s 1961 movie The Day the Earth Caught Fire (NB: title may be figurative). It sounds like a rather excitable B-movie made in the wake of The Day the Earth Stood Still – and there are plenty of these, such as the Italian film The Day the Sky Exploded – but, being a British film, it is made with healthy amounts of thought, restraint, and good old-fashioned phlegm.

The film’s main gimmick, inasmuch as it has one, becomes apparent from the start: in the sequences that frame the story, the black-and-white picture has been tinted ochre, representing the burning heat throughout these scenes. We find journalist Pete Stenning (Edward Judd) wandering through the streets of a near-deserted London: the Thames has virtually dried up in temperatures of over a hundred degrees. Stenning goes into the offices of his newspaper and (his typewriter ink having turned to paste) proceeds to dictate the story of what has befallen the world…

In flashback, we return to more conventional times, with the men (and they are virtually all men) of the press preoccupied with a string of apparently unconnected natural disasters: floods and earthquakes, mostly. Some planes are also reporting navigational problems. Amidst all this news of the Americans and Soviets both having recently tested enormously powerful nuclear weapons at opposite ends of the globe are only a minor item. But all the news seems trivial to Stenning, who is having something of a breakdown – his marriage having ended, he is concerned for the future of his son, and is drinking too much. His job is in peril and it is only the connivance of his friend and colleague Maguire (Leo McKern) that keeps him employed.

The authorities at the air ministry and the meteorological office stonewall any attempts to find out what’s going on, and Stenning’s own enquiries only put him on the wrong side of secretary Jean Craig (Janet Munro). But strange events continue: there is an unheralded, unscheduled lunar eclipse, then a protracted heat-wave. Then a stifling heat-mist blankets much of the world, followed by savage hurricanes and typhoons. Stenning has (almost inevitably) got it together with Jean by this point, and it is from her that he learns the reality of what is really going on – the nuclear tests have toppled the world on its axis, and caused it to shift its orbit, taking it much closer to the sun…

There is a sense in which watching The Day the Earth Caught Fire is like looking back into a very different world, which has now almost vanished. These are the sixties before they really started to swing: the mood is still stolid, post-war, sensible. Most importantly, newspapers are still the dominant media, and most of the film is centred around the offices of Stenning’s rag. Normally when a film focuses on a paper, it’s a fictitious one (unless we’re talking about a based-on-fact movie like The Post); one of the possibly-startling elements of this film is that Stenning works for the Daily Express, an actual newspaper (one guesses that the Express movie critic was rather positive about this film). Even more surprising, the editor of the Express in the film is played (not especially well, it must be said) by Arthur Christiansen, who was the real-world editor of the paper for over twenty years. These days it is customary to dismiss the Daily Express as being one of the more excitably nutty organs of the right-wing media, so there is a degree of cognitive dissonance in seeing its staff portrayed so heroically; a scare story about the Earth falling into the sun would probably qualify as a quite a subdued piece by the paper’s current standards – no doubt it would turn out to be the fault of the EU, or Tony Blair. (An unintentionally funny moment, from a modern perspective, comes when Christiansen declares – even as the fall of civilisation takes a big step closer – ‘We must keep the tone of the paper optimistic!’)

The film is also very much of its time in its concern over the proliferation of nuclear weapons – something it shares with another great British film from about ten years earlier, Seven Days to Noon – but it also seems almost prophetic in the way it depicts wide-scale climate change as a result of human foolishness. Everything is rather exaggerated for dramatic effect, naturally, but many chords are struck – the authorities initially refuse to be pinned down on the exact cause of the punishingly hot weather, and the characters seem almost overwhelmed by the immense implications of what is happening in the film. There is also something chillingly plausible about the various reactions as the situation worsens – there are mentions of black market water dealers, severe rationing, outbreaks of typhus in London, and so on.

It’s all handled in a downbeat, naturalistic style which serves to keep the story unsettlingly credible. However, the script (by Guest and Wolf Mankowitz) isn’t quite wall-to-wall doom and despair – woven in there, alongside the main plotline, is the story of Stenning and Jean’s romance, which is equally plausible and smartly written. Edward Judd gets the ‘introducing’ credit in this film; he gives a great leading man’s performance of the kind he would continue to produce in a number of other British SF and fantasy films in the 1960s. Munro inevitably has a rather more secondary role, but she is also appealing and plausible. Leo McKern is saddled with the gravitas-provision and exposition-delivery character part in this film (the kind of thing someone like Paul Giamatti does nowadays), but also manages to find some interesting stuff to work with there. For modern audiences, there’s also a nice moment when a pre-stardom Michael Caine (aged 27) has an uncredited cameo as a police officer: his face is never clearly seen, but that voice is unmistakable.

This is one of those films which is not especially celebrated nowadays, but which seems to me to cast an extremely long shadow – it certainly anticipates several of the effects-driven SF disaster movies that Roland Emmerich and Dean Devlin have been regularly producing for many years now, but I can also discern something of its tone and imagery in many other pieces of British and American SF – not just films, but also TV shows and even comic books. This is a smart, serious film, even if the print in wide circulation via DVDs and so on diffuses Guest’s original, carefully ambiguous ending to create something a little more hopeful. The Day the Earth Caught Fire isn’t about hope; it’s about anger, and fear, but in that very reserved British way. Not just a great British SF film, but a great British film, full stop.

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One of the subtle pleasures of adulthood that they don’t tell you about as a youngling is the opportunity to revisit things from your childhood many years later and see how they match up to your fond recollections. Sometimes they do; sometimes they don’t – c’est la vie, as we say in the language classroom. The modern world being what it is, you don’t even have to spend hours and months trawling through second-hand bookshops in order to track down some half-remembered volume from your youth: chances are it’s already available for Kindle download. So it proved when some half-formed impulse made me return to Douglas Hill’s The Last Legionary books, nearly 35 years after I first encountered them.

At the time I didn’t get to the library that often, so my long-suffering mother would trundle off there every couple of weeks and return with a pile of sci-fi and fantasy books selected almost at random from the municipal library’s impressive collection. Most of these were pretty unmemorable and I remember labouring through a lot of them quite joylessly; I seem to recall (though, caveat lector, this was 35 years ago) that Monica Hughes’ The Keeper of the Isis Light was a particular ordeal (in the interests of balance I should probably have another look at that, too). Douglas Hill’s books were different, however: they were snappily written and easy to read, an absolute pleasure at the time.

The story concerns the adventures of Keill Randor, the last surviving inhabitant of the planet Moros (not surprisingly, Keill’s isolation does mean he tends to be quite morose, ha ha). This being pulp SF, he is an exceptional member of a planet of superb warriors, the greatest fighters in the Inhabited Galaxy (who, needless to say, only hire out their services to the virtuous and deserving). Evil forces are at work behind the galactic scenes, however, and as the first book in the main series (Galactic Warlord) opens, Moros has been cleansed of all life by a devastating radiation weapon. By a fluke, Keill Randor was not killed along with everyone else, but left with a progressive, eventually fatal dose of radiation, and he is doing his considerable best to find whoever killed his planet before he succumbs to his condition.

Well, it doesn’t quite work out that way, as Keill is gathered up by a secret cabal of benevolent geniuses who have determined the existence of a malevolent being attempting to plunge the galaxy into conflict and bloodshed; this individual they have christened the Warlord, though they have no idea who or where he is. Their plan is for Keill Randor to act as their agent in the galaxy, and he is initially reluctant, even after they have cured his terminal condition (by replacing his irradiated bones with a synthetic alloy, naturally).

By the end of the first volume Keill has come to accept the existence of the Warlord and his role in slaughtering the Legions of Moros; he has also discovered the existence of the Warlord’s elite cadre of followers, the Deathwing, and sorted one of them out (with extreme prejudice). The next two books in the series, Deathwing over Veynaa and Day of the Starwind, move the story along in unflashy style – while investigating a planetary rebellion, Keill encounters the man directly responsible for the death of his people, and then later discovers a plan to breed legions of clone warriors in the Warlord’s service, happening on a planet with the worst weather in the galaxy.

Everything comes to an appropriately rousing conclusion in Planet of the Warlord, in which Randor discovers the true nature of his opponent, is briefly brainwashed by him into becoming one of his agents, and then recovers his identity so a final reckoning with the Warlord can take place.

The series also contains a further prequel volume, Young Legionary, which is basically a series of very loosely linked short stories concerning the teenage years of Keill Randor on Moros. I would advise reading these ahead of the main series, not least because they do flesh out the society and culture of Moros – well, a bit at least – making it seem like an actual place, rather than the vague piece of backstory from the other books.

So how does this series stand up to the harsh light of 2018? Well, you can’t really get away from the fact that these are juvenile pulp SF books, aimed at an audience of (most likely) pre-adolescent boys. Characterisation is minimal, the plots are pretty simplistic, and the emphasis is very much on non-stop action and adventure – the books have subheadings like ‘Betrayal in Space’ and ‘Asteroid Apocalypse’. They were written between 1979 and 1982, so very much qualify as being part of the post-stellar conflict boom in this sort of thing. Some people have suggested they are basically a simplified version of the same sort of story as in the Lensman series; I wouldn’t know about that (my to-read list keeps getting longer), but the books enthusiastically make use of all sorts of Golden Age SF tropes – needle guns, vibro-knives, mutant telepaths, cloning, and so on.

Keill himself is a protagonist in the classic mould, with his secret special power (his unbreakable bones usually save him at least once a book), and his alpha-male peak human strength, stamina, reflexes, and unarmed combat skills (‘a cybernetic Bruce Lee’ in the words of one not-wholly-impressed reviewer at the time). He’s a man on a mission with no time for soppy stuff like feelings or romance – just as well, because there’s only one major female character in the whole sequence, and that’s Keill’s alien sidekick Glr, a sort of psychic pterodactyl. Keill Randor doesn’t muck about: he’s an action man.

The books are regularly punctuated by sequences of Randor leaping into action against one or many opponents, and reading the whole series back-to-back one inevitably becomes a little fatigued by all the references to ‘flashing chops’, ‘crushing elbow smashes’, and so on. The level of violence is much greater than I recalled back at the time – fight scenes invariably conclude with someone having a crushed larynx or an impacted cranium, described in so many words. All good clean fun for the kiddies, I suppose.

One inevitably finds oneself wondering if Hill is attempting to insert any particular subtext into these books. There certainly appears to be an implicit message about self-discipline, self-reliance and rugged individualism. The notion of a superior warrior elite isn’t necessarily a political one in the usual sense of the word, but the opening sequence of Young Legionary in particular inevitably recalls the start of 300, as a pre-teen Keill is left in the wilderness by his people and required to make a hazardous journey, alone and unequipped, in order to qualify to begin his training as a full legionary. The Legions of Moros do seem very similar to the Spartans of antiquity, and – again thanks to 300 – the Spartans are now almost synonymous with a certain kind of muscular right-wing ideology. The tendency for Keill’s featured opponents to be mutants of various kinds – departures from the human norm of which he is such an exemplar – also feels slightly suspect.

It comes as a bit of a surprise, therefore, to learn that Hill was the literary editor of the left-wing newspaper Tribune throughout the period he was writing the Legionary books. I suppose this may just prove that if you move far enough away from the political centre ground, you eventually find yourself approaching it again from the other side. On the other hand, Hill is always at pains to point out that the Legions were not truly acquisitive, not imperialistic, not aggressors: the people of Moros are explicitly identified as collectivists. Even so, it is curious that the final movement of this series reveals it to be a story concerning an individual locked in a death struggle with a truly collectivist entity, a being with the power to consume identity and individualism. Or maybe it isn’t: Hill was apparently a socialist, not a raving communist.

None of the above occurred to me when I was first reading the Legionary books (you may not be greatly surprised to hear), and I’m not sure any of it is really important now. The values of these stories are traditional and – it seems to me – wholly commendable ones: loyalty, honour, restraint, responsibility. You can perhaps take exception to the fact they are so obviously books for boys, and to some of the subject matter (specifically the lovingly-detailed violence), but that’s about all. Looking at them again now, they remain as pacy, diverting and entertaining as they were back in the early eighties. I suppose I should call them a guilty pleasure, but to be honest I’m really struggling to feel at all guilty.

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‘No imprint lingers so indelibly on the face of modern fantasy film as that of this obscure yet brilliant artist. All his films, no matter how tawdry, were marked with a brilliant personal vision,’ wrote the Australian critic and novelist John Baxter, referring to the American director Jack Arnold. There is, indeed, no reason for normal people to have any idea who Arnold was, but for the fact that he was responsible for some of the most vivid and memorable SF and fantasy films of the 1950s – films which are still hugely influential, to judge from the fact that The Shape of Water, currently enjoying thirteen Oscar nominations, seems to owe a distinct debt to Arnold’s Creature from the Black Lagoon, and Alexander Payne’s Downsizing likewise seems to have very much been made under the influence of Arnold’s The Incredible Shrinking Man. Can a remake of Tarantula by Werner Herzog be very far off?

Downsizing stars Matt Damon as Paul Safranek, a mild-mannered occupational therapist who is as surprised as everyone else when Norwegian scientists announce they have discovered the secret of ‘cellular reduction’ – a process where living creatures can be permanently and irreversibly shrunk, without suffering any ill-effects in the process. The benefit of this to the planet is an enormous reduction in the resources they consume and the waste they produce. The personal advantage to the shrunken folk is that their money stretches much further, allowing them to enjoy a luxurious standard of living within the sealed communities in which they live.

Encouraged by an old friend, Paul persuades his wife Audrey (Kristen Wiig) to sell up and move down to Leisureland, one of the largest of the communities of small people. All is set fair for them to commence the new existence of their dreams. But, of course, events conspire to sabotage Paul’s dream. Though there are new friends to be made in Leisureland (Christoph Waltz and Hong Chau amongst them), it turns out the place has a darker side, one which causes him to question his assumptions about life…

Alexander Payne may not personally have the secret of miniaturisation, but he certainly seems to have figured out how to polarise an audience: Downsizing is one of those films which seems to have received a very lukewarm reception, judging by the critical aggregation sites. Looking a little closer indicates that this is one of those films which people seem to love or hate in pretty much equal numbers.

I can understand why some people might respond negatively to this movie: beyond the fact that it’s obviously a science fiction film, it’s quite difficult to say with complete certainty what kind of story it is telling. Is it a satire? Is it pure comedy? Is it a drama? Is it something more philosophical? Certainly at times it seems to be all of those things. The lengthy running time is also probably an issue, especially when coupled to the apparent lack of focus: negative reviews of this movie often include words like ‘rambling’ and ‘meandering’.

I have to say that I am in the other camp, and found Downsizing thoroughly enjoyable and absorbing entertainment, not least because of the way it defies easy categorisation, beyond SF. Now, I have to say that as actual serious science fiction the movie is on very shaky grounds. While the script quite sensibly declines to go into the details of just how cellular reduction works, I’m still pretty sure that if you did shrink someone down to roughly 0.03% of their natural size, not only would they have severe difficulty in maintaining their body temperature without constantly snacking, they would also be unable to breathe (their lungs would be unable to process the now relatively-giant air molecules).

Once you get past that, however, this is an impressive and rather commendable attempt at a proper piece of genuine SF. One of the reasons for the unusual structure of the film is that it takes a particular concept – in this case, the notion of human shrinking – and explores it in a relatively systematic and comprehensive way. Just how would the world be changed? The film eschews the action-horror staples generally associated with size-change in SF and thinks in wider terms – how would it affect society? How could the technology be used and abused? (Despots start shrinking dissidents, for instance, who then start trying to enter the USA via some fairly unusual routes.) Once again, the economics as posited by the movie strike me as a little wonky, but I am prepared to cut it some slack: very often, SF ideas in films come with a single metaphor baked in, which the film then laboriously articulates over and over.

Downsizing treats the shrinking process as a piece of technology, rather than a metaphor-made-real, and one of its most drolly amusing sequences is the one in which we see Damon being processed – exactly how the mass-miniaturisation of new residents takes place has been worked out in some detail. The question is rather one of what the process reveals or illuminates about the human condition and our society in general, and the shift in perspective is enough to make one see the situation inside the shrunken colony in a new light. There are some striking moments of revelation, the heady stuff of proper science fiction.

In the end, though, the film seems to me to be mainly about the nature of life and particularly what it means to live well. Several possibilities seem to be offered in the course of the film – does a good life mean the absence of every little inconvenience and problem? Is it the luxurious materialistic hedonism promised by Leisureland’s advertising programme? Is it in taking a longer view and acting in the best interests of humanity as a whole? In the course of the film, the different characters make their choices, and I can easily imagine viewers emerging with differing opinions as to who is right and who is wrong.

The film is well-realised, with some striking visual moments, and Matt Damon gives a quietly impressive performance as something of an everyman, someone struggling to find his place in the world. The support from the likes of Waltz, Chau, and Udo Kier is also good. The film has a consistent inventiveness which means it is frequently thought-provoking and occasionally very funny. As you can tell, I was rather charmed by it, and willing to go along on the journey even when it sometimes seemed unclear where the film was taking me. There is much here to enjoy and think about; this is one of the best SF movies of recent years.

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Like many people of my generation from the UK, my first exposure to the Godzilla franchise came from the Hanna-Barbera cartoon series that first aired in the late 70s and early 80s. It was diverting enough at the time, I suppose, but watching an episode a few years ago was a somewhat disconcerting experience: the animation was rather primitive, and, most jarring of all, Hanna-Barbera inexplicably chose not to license the sound of Godzilla’s roar, with the result that the King of the Monsters spent most of the time sounding like a gargling dog. The series took a few liberties with peripheral matters – Godzilla was an almost wholly benevolent figure, with laser-beam vision, accompanied by a comic-relief mini-me named Godzooky – but at least managed to hang on to the core experience of the franchise, which was a regular succession of monster smackdowns. It was a decent gateway to the full Godzilla experience, in other words.

Having been somewhat spoilt by some really good live-action Godzilla movies over the years, the news that Toho’s animation division was hard at work on an animated addition to the franchise was interesting, rather than a source of unconditional delight. Now the project in question has appeared, most likely, on a market-leading streaming site near you – originally entitled Monster Planet, it’s ended up being called Planet of the Monsters, which if nothing else gives you a decent sense of what to expect. It is directed by Kobun Shizuno and Hiroyuki Seshita.

This is another total reboot of the series, which appears to have become Toho’s preferred option for Godzilla movies these days. The backstory goes as follows: in the last months of the 20th century (yup, you read that right), the human race found itself bedevilled by attacks by a series of giant monsters, culminating in the appearance of an invincible behemoth known as Godzilla. All attempts to defeat this menace having failed, the human race took advantage of an offer of help from two passing groups of alien refugees, the religious Exif and the technologically-advanced Bilusaludo, to abandon Earth and look for a new home on another planet.

Well, the story proper kicks off twenty years later, sort of: things look grim for the refugees, who are leading a gruelling existence of scarce resources and existential misery, with their continued survival doubtful and little prospect of their discovering a new home planet. Main character Haruo Sakaki is in really a permanent strop about all of this, convinced that humanity gave up Earth too easily. He even publishes an anonymous paper arguing that Godzilla could be killed using recent technological advances.

Somehow this persuades the ruling committee to take everyone back to Earth, either to resupply or – the best case scenario – resettle the planet. Due to time dilation, or whatever (this is basically a plot device, obviously), twenty thousand years have gone by on Earth while the refugees have been in deep space and the planet has reverted to a primeval state. But probes indicate that Godzilla is still present and still as implacably hostile, and so Sakaki joins the mission to take back the planet…

I don’t necessarily have a problem with Godzilla movies that allow themselves to be somewhat influenced by other bits and pieces of pop culture from around them – there’s an element of James Bond to some of the later films from the original series, Godzilla vs King Ghidorah owes a lot to The Terminator, there’s a large chunk of The Matrix in Final Wars‘ curious mixture of influences, and so on. But there’s definitely something odd about the way that you could watch Planet of the Monsters and in effect catch up on much of what’s been going on SF and fantasy movies and TV over the last decade so. In other words, there’s a bit of Interstellar here, a bit of Battlestar Galactica, a lot of After Earth, even a smidgeon of Skull Island. Which would all be fine, but the problem is that they seem to have left Godzilla completely out of the mix.

There are two basic ways of doing a story about Godzilla: either he’s the living-engine-of-destruction walking-metaphor-for-something-or-other bad guy, or he’s the possibly-misunderstood defender-anti-hero. This film tends towards the first position, but never completely adopts it. It’s not quite the case that this is one of those films that isn’t really interested in or even actually about Godzilla – he is the central driver of the plot throughout – but at all times it seems more about idea of Godzilla than a living, active monster. Godzilla is always just looming over the horizon somewhere, or being discussed, but other than occasionally nuking something with his atomic breath he is oddly passive, never doing much (well, there are no buildings around for him to crush), a cypher rather than a character or a metaphor.

The movie’s two innovations both have definite potential – there’s the idea of Godzilla taking on an army of sci-fi jet bikes, walking tanks and soldiers in power armour, and also the notion that over the course of twenty millennia, a whole new Godzillafied ecosystem has developed to cover Earth (in other words, everything’s a little bit Godzillaish). But not much is done with the latter, and former is just superficial, contributing only visual spectacle. You never really care about the action or feel invested in it.

This is, of course, largely the fault of the script, which features some laborious and rather baffling plotting. Why do they include not one but two distinct races of friendly aliens? Neither of them contributes much to the story. Much of the movie seems precision-tooled to generate maximum confusion, not to mention gloom. I sense some of this may have originated from quite high up in the production. Here is co-director Seshita discussing the ‘new’ version of Godzilla (heavily influenced by the Gareth Edwards version if you ask me, but whatever): ‘With his masses of muscle fibres and unique body tissue to support his enormous bulk, this is an extraordinarily rugged-looking physique. It was an overwhelming presence that reverberated through the whole project, like a fearsome deity that even we who created it must prostrate ourselves before.’ Hmmm, yeah. This sort of thing seems to have filtered through into dialogue like ‘When those fleeting lives destined to die, become arrogant and sing praises of their own narcissistic glory, such will shake the very heavens and split the earth.’ Well, quite (and this is relatively easy to follow, compared to some of the lines). It’s hard to tell whether this was written by a teenage poet, or Google Translate, or some odd combination of both.

The one thing mitigating in favour of Planet of the Monsters’ casserole of pretentious cobblers and joyless, confusing gloom is the look of the thing, which is certainly distinctive, although not completely consistent. The film goes from near-photorealism to scenes which look rotoscoped and then on to more traditional anime action and carnage. The look of the film isn’t actually bad and is certainly atmospheric, even if the atmosphere created is the one of dour oppressiveness which is arguably one of the film’s problems.

In a great (or even good) Godzilla film, you want the following things – a clear sense of who or what Godzilla is supposed to be, interesting and sympathetic human characters, masses of property damage, a worthy opponent for Godzilla to take on, a proper theme tune for the big guy, and at least a little bit of positivity, one way or another. Some good new ideas never hurt. Planet of Monsters falls down so badly because it seems to have viewed this venture into the unknown for the franchise as a chance to dispense with all the accumulated wisdom about how to make these movies work, and includes none of the above. All its innovation is visual, with the story a barely-functional stack of contrivances populated by anonymous characters. Still, it seems to have been successful enough to earn a sequel (current title something like Godzilla: Living Robot City Final Battle, which hardly bodes well even if it is supposed to have Mechagodzilla in it), and we can only hope that some lessons will have been learned. As it is, the less than stellar lineage of animated Godzilla projects continues, alas.

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As chance would have it, just the other day I passed several fairly agreeable hours watching Euston Films’ 1979 pre-apocalyptic drama Quatermass, even as the telly was full of pre-launch publicity for Euston Films’ 2018 pre-apocalyptic drama Hard Sun, currently showing on BBC One. The media has also been marking the fact that it’s forty years since the TV debut of Blake’s 7, with some unusually complimentary retrospectives concentrating on the programme’s dystopian sensibility and paranoia rather the overacting and spaceships made out of hair-dryers.

I mention the last because Hard Sun is, by some metrics, an SF show for adults, a genre which the BBC has been reluctant to take a chance on since the failure of Outcasts in 2011. (Yes, yes: I know there is what remains of the world’s greatest fantasy series, which I no longer talk about, but here we speak of actual proper science fiction.) BBC disquiet about doing an SF series appears to have been assuaged by the fact that this is only really nominally science fiction, squatting on the border with the police procedural/conspiracy thriller genre. (The show is the brainchild of Neil Cross, who created cop show Luther and also wrote a couple of middling episodes of that fantasy series.)

The first episode establishes the tone for much of what follows, as we meet DCI Cockney Geezer (Jim Sturgess), who seems like a devoted family man despite the fact he’s quietly knocking off his dead best mate’s wife. The circumstances in which the dead best mate passed on are sufficiently suspicious for Geezer’s boss, DCS Annoying Pen-pusher, to believe Geezer may have done him in, and to this end DI Cynical Gamine (Agyness Deyn) has been planted on Geezer’s team to secretly investigate him. (I like shows which have a bit of Agy, but I’ve never seen one with as much Agyness as this one.) Gamine is doing this so her unhinged son, whom she appears to have given birth to when she was about seven, does not go to prison for attempting to murder her. One thing you can say about Hard Sun: it’s never knowingly under-plotted.

Well, in their first day on the job together Geezer and Gamine find themselves working on the case of a conspiracy-theory obsessed hacker with ASD (oh, sigh) who has turned up dead. One of his mates has got his hands on the dead guy’s USB stick, which is disguised as a Saturn V rocket but may as well just be a box with PLOT DEVICE scrawled on it. Our heroes recover the USB but find themselves pursued by the security services, intent on killing everyone who comes into contact with the information on the stick. But why?

Needless to say, Geezer and Gamine can’t resist taking a peek, hoping this will give them leverage to get the homicidal spooks to back off. It turns out that – well, here’s the thing: we never get to see what’s on the stick beyond a few blipverts of graphs and suchlike, but everyone who does look at it properly confirms that it concerns the government’s advance planning for the end of the world (codenamed Hard Sun), which is due in five years time.

Cheer up, it might never happen. Oh, hang on a minute…


I have to admit to being somewhat bemused by this, because the government appear to have managed to plan their response to the end of the world without ever letting on exactly what’s going to happen. Even after they’ve looked at the stick, Geezer and Gamine are left speculating as to just what is heading their way – is a comet going to hit Earth? Is it some kind of environmental catastrophe? They seem to be in the dark. Presumably this is just to maintain a sense of foreboding mystery; it also gives them a ready-made opportunity for a big reveal come the last episode of the series.

Well, the first episode reached fairly deep into the bag of Modern Cop Show cliches, but I do like a bit of apocalyptica, and I was curious to see just how the rest of the series would play out (episode one concludes with Gamine taking a redacted set of the information to the media), and just how strong the SF element would be in the mix.

Courtesy of iPlayer’s box set function and the fact I had a day with not much going on (not to mention the fact that Hard Sun is the kind of show you can put on in the background while doing something else and honestly not miss much), I ended up having watched the rest of the first series within the next day. And the answer to the ‘how SF is it?’ question is: really not very much.

Hard Sun boils down to being another of those bleak and bloody cop shows, with the difference being that this time it’s understandable why the leads are so glum all the time: the world’s apparently going to end, after all. The thing is, though, that the impending apocalypse is primarily just a mood-setting thing – the various killers that Geezer and Gamine find themselves contending with are all nutters who’ve been drawn out of the woodwork by the release of the Hard Sun info, but it’s established at the top of episode two that nearly everyone has been convinced this was a hoax. Life goes on as normal for nearly everyone; you could rewrite the middle episodes of this series to extract the impending doom/science fiction element very easily. It’s mainly just there to provide an atmosphere of existential misery – Hard Sun‘s signature bit is a scene where Gamine and Geezer sit down together in the middle of a case and wail ‘But what does any of it matter anyway? We’ve only got five years left!’, which happens in nearly every episode.

Subsequent episodes are mostly competent but fairly undistinguished takes on the kind of story you’ve seen before – a barking ex-husband takes his children hostage, a man outraged by the cruelty of the world starts killing nice people and challenges God to intervene and stop him, a serial killer preys on suicidal people, and so on. There are lots of people in hoodies stalking darkened streets, and so much knife-related violence that it’s easy to imagine the BBC being forced to pull Hard Sun on taste and decency grounds, given the current plague of knife crime in London.

What’s really absent is any kind of moral centre, for as the series proceeds Geezer and Gamine reveal that they are prepared to do just about anything to further their cause, which only occasionally involves catching criminals. When they’re not actively beating each other up with their collapsible truncheons, the doom-conscious duo are forever disregarding standard procedure, obstructing or perverting the course of justice, or plotting the cold-blooded murder of a government employee. This sort of thing reaches its most uproarious extreme in a scene in which Geezer seems to be actively considering waterboarding a priest (one story revolves around that old chestnut of a priest not being able to reveal the identity of a killer due to the seal of the confessional being sacrosanct).

I say ‘uproarious’ because so much of Hard Sun really beggars credibility – there’s the peculiarly vague contents of the USB stick, along with the behaviour of the leads and their byzantine back-stories. Coupled to the fact that the show clearly takes itself very seriously indeed, the result is a programme which is just an unintentional black comedy more than anything else.

I suppose I could imagine the BBC making a show like Hard Sun and it being more, um, good, about twenty years ago, when even the best of us were not immune to the odd pre-millenial jitter. Nowadays, though? Not so much. One plot thread which feels like a particular misstep concerns the ominous dark apparatus of the Security Services, who pursue Geezer and Gamine throughout the series in order to get the USB stick back (despite the fact that everyone is supposedly convinced the apocalyptic data is fake). Playing their nemesis is Nikki Amuka-Bird, who played the curiously inept government minister in New Survivors and plays a somewhat more competent spook here. That’s the thing, I would say: these days we’re not worried that our governments are up to brilliantly-conceived and ultra-secret machinations behind our backs. In the time of Donald Trump and Theresa May, our main concern is that our governments really are as hapless, clueless, and incompetent as they routinely seem to be.

It would be great if the BBC actually had the nerve to make a proper SF TV series, rather than just smuggling a few SF elements into what’s essentially a very dark, very silly cop show. But there you go: such is the world we live in today. Every episode of Hard Sun concludes with a countdown timer, ticking down the days before armageddon’s arrival, and one can only conclude that the BBC and their co-producers Hulu have half an eye on this actually running for five years. Well, I’ll be surprised – but if it even makes it to a second season, the manner in which this one concludes suggests that in any subsequent outings this show will become a rather different beast. That can only be a good thing, because at present there’s at least as much daftness as darkness in Hard Sun.

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