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As regular readers may recall, not too long ago I shared my thoughts on David A Goodman’s The Autobiography of Jean-Luc Picard, which is hardly a great book, but still hardly deserves some of the venom heaped on it by dedicated Trekkies. What caught my eye was the fact that Goodman wasn’t actually being dissed for writing a bad book, but for ignoring what was apparently a much better one: namely, Christopher L Bennett’s The Buried Age. Now, I don’t much go in for tie-in fiction these days, but I was somewhat intrigued, so I decided to check out Bennett’s novel and see if it was as good as everyone seemed to think.

The Buried Age differs from the Goodman book in that it only seeks to cover one interlude in the life of Jean-Luc Picard, albeit a significant one: namely, the almost decade-long gap between the loss of the Stargazer to a Ferengi ambush and his assuming command of the Enterprise in the early 2360s. Bennett discharges his responsibilities with great punctiliousness – the book opens with Picard on one bridge, minutes before the attack, and concludes on another, just as the TNG pilot is getting underway. The question is whether the author does so in a way which is both satisfying and entertaining.

Anyone criticising Goodman for disregarding other tie-ins in his ‘autobiographies’ has a point, but then again he is equally wont to disregard generally-accepted parts of the canon if he doesn’t like them (the animated show and at least one of the movies, for instance). It’s certainly true that there is no way to reconcile the two books, for all that they cover the same events and the same period – the Stargazer has different bridge crew, just for starters, and The Buried Age depicts Picard taking a lengthy sabbatical from Starfleet, whereas Goodman just has him piloting a desk for many years.

It’s actually rather peculiar to compare the two books. Obviously both authors have done their research when it comes to the TV show, and are aware of certain established points of history which they have to abide by – Picard first saw Tasha Yar negotiating her way through a minefield, for instance, and met Geordi LaForge when he was on a piloting assignment – and as a result there are weird moments of them echoing each other, momentarily coming into synch.

But for the most part The Buried Age follows a wildly different path. It opens with an extended prologue, not having much to do with the rest of the story, depicting the Ferengi ambush, the loss of the Stargazer, and the subsequent court martial of Picard.

Following this, our man leaves Starfleet and becomes a mature student of archaeology at the University of Alpha Centauri, where he seems well on course to get his doctorate and become an academic. Guinan, of course, has reasons of her own for wanting to get Picard back in a captain’s chair, and beguiles him with tales of artifacts left behind by lost alien civilisations from two hundred and fifty million years ago, in the hope this will stir his spirit of adventure.

It does, but there are inevitably unintended consequences, chief amongst them the resurrection of the Manraloth, a frighteningly advanced and subtle alien civilisation from the ancient past of the galaxy, and an existential threat to the Federation as Picard knows it. Feeling responsible for the appearance of this new menace, Picard dedicates himself to ending it – but what will the cost to him be?

I don’t read much tie-in fiction, as I say, partly because I can’t help thinking of it as second-order stuff, and there’s still a lot of original fiction I’d like to get through in the comparatively few decades left to me. Also, so much of it is undemanding stuff – I used to write fan fiction myself, and I quickly learned that all you needed to do to be acclaimed as a ‘master storyteller’ was to have a reasonably competent prose style and insert the requisite number of continuity references for other fans to spot and feel smug about understanding.

Well, Bennett seems to have got this part of the job down pat, for The Buried Age is shotgunned with references to various bits of Trek, ranging from fairly obscure Enterprise episodes to song lyrics from the original series. There are doubtless many I didn’t even notice, what with me not being a Trekkie and all. However, they don’t get in the way, and many of them are there because they serve the plot.

One level, the book serves as an answer to one of those questions about the Trek world it never occurs to most people to ask – just why are there so many dysfunctional godlings knocking about the place? It also attempts to reconcile the different versions of Picard from the TV show, and explain just why he’s initially so aloof and withdrawn as TNG is getting underway (no spoilers, but let’s just say he’s been through a rough time) – also why, for such a keen archaeologist, it’s a couple of years before he even mentions this on the show.

Suffice to say that, yes, Bennett does a much more satisfying job of this than Goodman, and writes the Star Trek universe much more deftly too – I knew I was going to have a good time reading this novel when Bennett’s extrapolation of Ferengi culture included the fact that the commanders of their ships have to bribe the rest of the crew to do their jobs properly. He writes an excellent, authentic Picard, a superb Data, and pretty good versions of Troi, Yar, and Worf, too. How he deals with Janeway probably depends on how much you like Voyager: here, she’s a smirking cleverclogs.

However, The Buried Age goes beyond this and into the realm of what I would describe as genuinely classic literary science fiction – not just because the book attempts a higher standard of scientific rigour than most Trek, although it does (there’s a lot of stuff about quantum physics, and the intersect with how this influences and is influenced by transporter function), but also because it has clearly been influenced by the likes of Olaf Stapledon’s cosmic myths and Iain Banks’ Culture stories – in some ways, the book is about the difference between the Federation (a society still recognisably based on our own) and a genuinely transhuman milieu not entirely unlike the Culture itself.

There are well-drawn characters here, thought-provoking ideas, and well-written action sequences. Picard is, perhaps, written as a little too gullible in places, but then the point of the story is that he’s dealing with intelligences vastly older and more experienced at manipulation than he is, so perhaps this is forgiveable. On the whole, however, this is an enormously satisfying book, both as a Star Trek novel and a piece of science fiction. At the very top end of the tie-in genre; highly recommended.

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The idea that Starfleet might make a first strike was a terrible precedent and undermined the philosophy of peace that the Federation had lived under for centuries. – Captain Jean-Luc Picard (who would presumably be as surprised by the new show as everyone else)

Hmm, well, quite. When David A Goodman and Titan Books published The Autobiography of James T Kirk a couple of years ago, the entity that is Star Trek had been coasting along amiably enough for many years, keeping a nice low profile most of the time, with only the occasion trial of an Abrams-directed movie. No-one would have suspected that the power converters would come off the warp core quite as spectacularly as has been the case over the last eighteen months or so, with the most recent movie underperforming at the box office and the release of Discovery being scorned, mocked and reviled by various elements of the fan base (personally, I’m a mocker, and I’m not even that big a Trekkie).

Such is the world that The Autobiography of Jean-Luc Picard finds itself sent forth into, once again by Goodman (presumably with just a little help from the man himself, I’m not an expert on how these things are done). Once again, the aim of the book is to tell us Picard’s side of the story and basically join together all the dots that the various TV episodes and movies laid out over the years.

Before we go any further, let us take a moment to consider who is most likely to be reading the autobiography of a fictional character from Star Trek. If you are completely unfamiliar with Trek, especially the late 80s and early 90s version of it, then you are unlikely to give this book much time (also, what the hell are you doing reading this blog? Is there no paint drying or grass growing near where you are?). The pleasure of this kind of thing, surely, is not necessarily that of learning anything new, but of feeling rewarded for all those hours and days spent watching TNG episodes again and again: specifically, that moment of slightly smug recognition when the book covers an event only mentioned as a tiny aside on the actual show.

Goodman potentially has a bigger job on his hands than he did when dealing with Kirk’s memoirs, for a couple of reasons. First of all, Kirk was still a young man when his TV career got underway, and the general details of the second half of his life were established fairly clearly by the TV show and the movies. With Picard it’s different: the show makes it quite clear that Picard had a long and distinguished career prior to the start of TNG – one way and another, he spent more time on the Stargazer than he did on any version of the Enterprise – and naturally the book has to reflect this. Also, the history of the Alpha Quadrant during Kirk’s younger life is generally quite vague (or was, if you still think Discovery actually happens in the original timeline, in which case the Kirk book instantly becomes apocryphal), but for this one Goodman has to make some sense of the occasionally confused references to relations between the Federation, the Klingon, and the other main powers in the mid-24th century, not to mention the peculiar fact that the Federation has supposedly been at war with the Cardassians for years prior to TNG‘s fourth season, yet this was never mentioned in any of the previous episodes.

To be fair to him, Goodman does a pretty decent job of trying to get it all straight, although a couple of very obscure continuity points still manage to trip him up (he implies that it’s a youthful Picard who makes first contact with the Cardassians, which seems unlikely given that the episode Destiny reveals that a Cardassian exile was apparently on Vulcan prior to 2250) – and hey, this kind of thing is surely forgiveable, it’s not like he retcons a new magic warp drive that runs on mushrooms, or something. And it’s not as if the series itself is exactly consistent about everything – for the record, Goodman seems to go with the TV series’ suggestion that Picard went bald while captain of the Stargazer, rather than as a very young man (as implied by Nemesis).

Certainly every major reference to Picard’s past that I can think of is picked up on rather deftly, the only time it becomes laborious is when the fact of his presence at Spock’s wedding has to be explained. Given that we know nothing else about this event, Goodman is obliged to turn it into low comedy, with Picard never quite managing to find out who Spock is getting hitched to, not even her name, despite being in the front row of the ceremony.

To be honest, the book has bigger problems than this. There is, for one thing, the fact that there are at least three different versions of Picard that have to be reconciled in order for this book to really work – there’s the young, ambitious, rakish officer who we hear a lot about, the dry and stiff-necked functionary of the early years of the TV show, and finally the warm, subtle, witty man of enormous moral authority whom Picard eventually developed into.

The thing is that none of these guys really show up in the book, or at least not consistently. Goodman just isn’t a good enough writer to make you believe you’re actually reading something from Picard’s own hand (you’d expect Jean-Luc to have a more elegant prose style, for one thing). It’s all a bit pedestrian, not helped by the same simplistic and slightly gloomy cod-psychology that was a feature of the Kirk book – Picard’s life is dominated firstly by the fact of his poor relationship with his father, and secondly by the fact that he is quietly and deeply in lurve with Dr Crusher throughout his screen career. Goodman is palpably much more enamoured of this second notion than Picard ever seemed to be of Crusher on screen, to be honest, but there you go (the book seems to suggest that the possible future of All Good Things is largely how things will turn out).

This is one of the reasons why this book has picked up some fairly toxic feedback on everyone’s favourite on-line site named after a big river – this, and the fact it apparently disregards an actually pretty good novel someone wrote about the decade or so between Picard losing the Stargazer and being given command of the Enterprise. To be honest, none of the things that Goodman suggests happen to Picard and the rest of the gang after the end of Nemesis strike me as remotely convincing (including his role in the back-story of the first Abrams movie, but that’s another set of gripes).

I would have to say the bad reviews are onto something, for the reasons mentioned above, although it would be unfair to say the book has no merit at all. It’s technically competent and very readable, and Goodman pulls off one big moment that the TV show never managed, by making the captains of many of the ships that Picard/Locutus destroys at the battle of Wolf 359 old friends and colleagues previously established and fleshed out in the earlier sections of the book. This gives the battle emotional stakes and sense of personal horror that just wasn’t there in an event which was talked about much more than seen, in TNG at least (I suspect we will not be seeing future volumes on the other Trek captains, and will have to settle for brief appearances by Sisko and Janeway in this one – Picard describes Sisko as ‘ferocious’, which is just, well, odd).

I suppose the book will also be helped by the sincere affection many people have for Jean-Luc Picard as a fictional character – the most nuanced and interesting of the Trek captains, in many ways. The same goes for his crew – reading this book, I was suddenly aware of how well-rounded and textured his senior staff are as characters, much more so than the supporting members of the original crew. I mean, Scotty’s a beloved character, but even Riker or Troi seem closer to three dimensions than he does. If nothing else, The Autobiography of Jean-Luc Picard will remind a lot of people of just how fond they are of TNG.

As I say, it’s unlikely that we’ll be seeing any further books in this series (the consensus seems to be that DS9, Voyager, and Enterprise-related books are less commercially viable), and I would have to say that on balance it’s less successful than the one about Kirk. But then it has a harder job to do, covering more ground and dealing with a much more complex central character. Even so, Trekkies should find something to engage them here, one way or another.

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If you’re going to do a classic horror movie revival, then the chances are it’s going to happen on Halloween, and this year in particular it feels especially appropriate to disinter a movie by the late George A Romero, who passed away a few months ago. So it was that the main screening last night at the Ultimate Picture Palace (I’m virtually certain the name is intended ironically – if not, someone needs to have a quiet word) was of Jim Sharman’s The Rocky Horror Picture Show. Oh well, you can’t have everything.

Nevertheless, clawing itself a place on the schedule in the teatime slot was, indeed, a showing of Romero’s 1968 film Night of the Living Dead, although technically this was not Halloween-related: the owner of the UPP has been running a series of her favourite films, just ‘cos, and apparently Night of the Living Dead is one of them. So there you go.

There’s a bit in Tim Burton’s Ed Wood where the hapless director declares that if you want to establish yourself as a commercially-successful film director, the place to start is with a horror movie, as – historically speaking – no other genre has the same kind of budget-to-profit ratio. The long tradition of micro-budget horror movies turning out to be massive money-spinners found one of its greatest expressions with Night of the Living Dead (the fact it in parts resembles one of Ed Wood’s own Z-movies does not seem entirely coincidental, somehow).

Romero was making TV commercials in his native Pittsburgh but wanted to branch out, and this was the result: largely filmed at weekends, funded by members of the production company, and featuring a largely non-professional cast, it is almost the definition of guerrilla film-making – the premise is hardly very original, either, owing various bits of narrative DNA to sources as diverse as I Am Legend (the author of which thought Romero’s movie was ‘kind of cornball’) and Hammer’s The Plague of the Zombies (Romero thought that employing zombies in your workforce was bad business practice and would inevitably lead to problems).

The movie opens on a Sunday evening in Spring, as siblings Johnny and Barbra (Russell Streiner and Judith O’Dea) visit a rural cemetery to pay their respects at their father’s grave. Barbra finds the place creepy, which Johnny mocks her for, but the joke is soon on him as he is savagely attacked by a total stranger who wanders into the area. Barbra flees, taking refuge in a remote farmhouse not far away.

There she is joined by Ben (Duane Jones), a young man who has also been a target for mysterious, random violence. Soon people, or creatures, like the one from the cemetery are clustering outside the house and looking for a way in. Having attempted to fortify the place single-handed, Ben is somewhat disgruntled to learn that another five people have been hiding in the cellar all the time, and a tense atmosphere develops between the different survivors.

TV reports indicate that radiation brought to Earth from space is causing the recently deceased to reanimate and devour the living, and that the safest course of action is to get to a rescue centre where medical support and armed protection is available. But can the group work together long enough to escape from the house, with the numbers of the living dead growing outside?

So, here we are, at an epochal moment in modern culture: the very first zombie apocalypse (even if they’re never actually referred to as zombies, and at the end of the film the authorities seem to have matters well under control). It would be great to be able to report that this is a film which lives up to its place in history, transcending its low-budget Z-movie origins with skill and subtlety.

Alas, that isn’t quite the case: during the screening I was at, the silence was more frequently broken by laughter than cries of alarm or distress, and I could kind of understand why. To a modern audience coming in fresh off the street, Night of the Living Dead doesn’t resemble a great horror movie so much as a parody of bad horror movies, with dubious special effects, sub-professional performances from most of the cast, and somewhat overwrought music and direction.

Apparently, at one point Romero’s intention was to hedge his bets by making a genuine horror-comedy, and to begin with it looks like he is deliberately playing with audience expectations and the tropes of the genre – a young couple drive out into a remote part of the countryside, which is how a thousand cautionary tales begin, but they turn out to be brother and sister, and illicit hanky-panky is the last thing on their minds. The first of the monsters to appear does so quite understatedly, wandering around in the back of shot for some time. Elsewhere Romero seems to be deliberately playing to cliche, with Barbra a stereotypical damsel in distress, unable to cope with the situation – almost to the point where she disappears out of the plot, present but barely participating.

(Seriously, Barbra is absolutely the last person you want to be stuck with in the middle of a zombipocalypse, as she is almost literally useless and rather annoying to boot. Ben certainly seems to find her rather hard work: the biggest laugh at the UPP showing came at the moment where all the sobbing and complaining and general hysteria gets too much and he punches her out.)

You really have to bear in mind that this film was made at a time when American horror movies consisted to a large extent of Vincent Price brooding over his late wife’s portrait, with additional dialogue provided by Edgar Allen Poe. There’s a low-fi rawness about Night of the Living Dead that is wholly new to the genre at this point, and you can almost sense Romero finding his voice as the film goes on: the real drama is not really focused on the ghouls outside, but the fraught relationships between the human characters. The hackneyed stock music cues fade away during the movie’s more exuberant moments of gratuitous nastiness, replaced by pulsing radiophonic growls and shrieks.

However, if Romero was trying to make some kind of satirical statement with Night of the Living Dead, it’s not entirely clear what it is – it’s certainly much less self-evident than the subtext about consumerism in Dawn of the Dead, for instance. Is it on some level about American society at the height of the Vietnam war? Is it about the Civil Rights struggle? It’s genuinely hard to tell – although it is striking that, for most of the film, the fact that the tough, bright and capable male lead is African-American is not commented on at all. Only the nihilistic twist at the very end of the film seems to acquire any additional significance from Duane Jones’ ethnicity.

In the end, Night of the Living Dead is one of those movies which is massively important without actually being especially accomplished – personally, I can appreciate its role in the development of the horror movie, but I think Dawn of the Dead is a technically much superior film in every respect. But context is everything. This clumsy, primitive thing crawled out of the wilds of Pennsylvania nearly fifty years ago, and the virus it was incubating has gone on to become a major part of the cultural landscape. For all its obvious flaws, this remains the index case, and it still retains its power to disturb.

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There’s no such thing as a job for life these days, so it’s as well to branch out, even in the movie industry. Actually, this sort of diversification has been going on for ages – models become actresses, actors and actresses become directors, writers become directors, producers become directors… hmm, it seems like everyone wants to be the director – except for the odd director who decides to become a producer, anyway.

You can see why – the director gets to make all the big decisions and all the artistic cachet when a movie turns out to be good. All the producer gets to do is count beans and, perhaps, pick up the Best Picture gongs when awards season rolls around. How hard can it be? You get to tell everyone else what to do, in accordance with your creative vision, and wear a pair of Cuban-heeled boots, too. Matthew Vaughn started off as Guy Ritchie’s producer and has gone on to have the kind of directorial career which Ritchie himself would probably quite like nowadays. All in all, it’s enough to tempt anyone to give it a try.

Even Dean Devlin, who is best known as the producer and writing partner of director Roland Emmerich, has fallen prey to this dubious impulse. Now, I’m fully aware that Devlin and Emmerich and their movies are hardly cool, and are never going to win any of the noteworthy Oscars, but I honestly really like Independence Day, and I didn’t really have an actively bad experience watching Stargate, or their version of Godzilla, or The Day After Tomorrow, or 2012. As you can see, if there’s a running theme through the work of these guys, it’s that of special-effects-facilitated catastrophes – nothing too serious, just a lot of running and screaming and the occasional one-liner and moment of unmitigated schmaltz. Devlin’s new movie as co-writer and director, Geostorm, is very much one of these, so at least he’s in his comfort zone.

We open, of course, with a voice-over explaining everything. ‘People were warned. People should have listened,’ laments a grave voice. Yes, but they went ahead and bought tickets to Geostorm anyway, ha ha. Ahem. Following murderously bad weather in the distant year of 2019, a global weather-control network has been set up, code-named ‘Dutch Boy’. Hmmm, I suppose people shouting ‘Dutch Boy is out of control!’ (as they inevitably end up doing) sounds marginally snappier. Anyway, the system is the brainchild of maverick alpha male climatological engineer Jake Lawson (GERARD! BUTLER!), who proceeds to annoy all the politicians in charge of it and gets himself kicked out and replaced by his kid brother Max (Jim Sturgess). (It is just one of those unfortunate things that the heroes of a movie about bad weather should share their surname with a particularly ridiculous British climate-change denier.)

Very early on you get a sense of what a special movie Geostorm is going to be. Jake Lawson turns up at a hearing and is greeted thusly by the security guard: ‘Hey, you’re JAKE LAWSON! Jake Lawson! What a great guy you are! You invented Dutch Boy! Any bad weather in the world, you can stop it! You saved everyone! You’re a hero, Jake Lawson.’ Do you know, I get the impression the audience is supposed to like him.

Well, anyway, years go by and preparations to turn over the weather-modifying gadgets to international control are underway, but then a village full of Afghans turn up, transformed into corpsicles by unknown means (presumably they casually kill off some Afghans because, well, they don’t matter as much as Americans or Europeans or Chinese people, do they?). Could something be up with the weather satellites? Hmmm. Max is obliged to drag a rather grumpy Jake back from exile and pack him off to the ludicrously large space station where the weather network is run from. Soon both brothers are turning up evidence that the system has been interfered with, and lots more absurdly bad weather is on the way…

It is a source of mild embarrassment to me that I was such an enthusiastic promoter of Gerard Butler’s career ten or fifteen years ago, back when he was turning up in things like Timeline and Reign of Fire. It is indeed true that he has scaled the peaks of Hollywood stardom and become a proper leading man. But it is also the case that any Gerard Butler-led movie you stumble upon these days is likely to be – how can I put this delicately? – absolutely bloody awful. Just what kind of advice is he being given?

The trailer for Geostorm promises a full-on bonkers apocalypse in the true Emmerich style, but it actually starts off by looking more like one of those ‘peril in orbit’ movies that have become somewhat modish since Gravity came along. Butler spends most of the movie in space (which many might say was the best place for him these days) – luckily, in space everyone can still hear you growl, and quite possibly sweat – leaving Sturgess to run around on Earth trying to uncover the conspiracy. Once again, every time he meets a new character there’s a lovely scene where they tell each other at great length who they are and how they know each other, even if they’re both already aware of this. What a script this is.

Well, in the end the person behind the conspiracy turns out to be exactly the one you thought it was all along (honestly, only a tree would be surprised by the revelation), and there are various scenes of good-looking extras being chased down the street by bad weather. The Kremlin melts in the sun, but in the name of balance, the Democratic National Convention is struck by lightning and blows up (they really missed a trick by not getting Al Gore to come on and shout ‘I did warn you-‘ at the last minute), and the International Space Station blows up too – it has a rather odd self-destruct device where it blows up a tiny bit at a time over the course of about an hour and a half. Fortunately, the President escapes: the thankless task of playing the leader of the Free World falls to Andy Garcia.

No, really, how are you supposed to include the President in a movie these days? It was easy when Clinton was in power – just get someone young and a bit roguishly charming, easy peasy. During the Obama administration, you could just hire someone like Danny Glover or Jamie Foxx to be grave and inspiring. But who do you hire these days? Isn’t the reality just too bizarre even for a movie like Geostorm? I suspect CGI would be required.

Garcia isn’t the only person who seems to have wandered in from a rather more sensible film – Ed Harris phones in his performance stoically, while Abbie Cornish – a pleasing but peripheral presence in dodgy movies for some years now – plays a Secret Service agent who ends up kidnapping the President (in case you hadn’t noticed, it’s that sort of film). Giving quite possibly the best performance in the whole thing is Talitha Bateman as Butler’s daughter: one to watch, methinks.

A friend of mine is also a connoisseur of the Butler canon and his advance word on Geostorm probably lifted my expectations too high – ‘this film makes London Has Fallen look like The Dark Knight,’ he promised. Well, no it doesn’t, I have to say, because Geostorm is just very, very stupid, rather than actually being offensive to the soul. In terms of just this year’s films, it’s less actively irritating than Hampstead, and has strong competition in the stupidity stakes in the xXx sequel. This still makes it a very bad film, of course.

What it reminds me of most, to be honest, is one of those dimwit TV disaster movies that Syfy churn out by the dozen – as a single man in middle age who’s often at home in the afternoons, I end up watching a lot of these on the Horror Channel – movies like Tornado Warning, Solar Storm, Christmas Icetastrophe, Stonehenge Apocalypse, and so on. If you gave the makers of one of these films a $120 million budget and blackmail material on several major stars, I imagine the result would be something like Geostorm. Only the scale of this movie makes it particularly noteworthy.

But hey, at least Dean Devlin has got to direct a big Hollywood movie, which is more than most of us can say we’ve ever done. Well done, Dean; I would just focus on that and not worry too much about the reviews or the box office returns. Geostorm is pretty much what you’d expect from a movie about Gerard Butler having a fight with the weather, but the fact it’s so exactly what you think it’s going to be is almost a little surprising. Not actually morally offensive, but still not a film which sensible adults should really go anywhere near.

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The business of proper big-screen revivals of classic movies can be a funny old thing sometimes. It’s quite normal for the two slightly art-housey cinemas in my area to regularly show something like The Graduate or West Side Story of a Sunday afternoon, the main selection criterion seeming to be that the film is just old and good. In terms of an old movie getting a more general showing, well, having a major anniversary certainly seems to help. Even so, things are often not quite as one would expect: if you’d asked me which blockbuster Hugo-nominated fantasy film would be getting a spruced-up revival for its fortieth birthday in 2017, my first guess would not have been Close Encounters of the Third Kind.

(Then again – and I hope you will forgive the digression – there is always something slightly nostalgic about a revival, and I get the impression that nostalgia is only allowed near the stellar conflict franchise nowadays under strictly controlled conditions. To do otherwise might end up suggesting that there was something genuinely magical and innovative about those first couple of films, while the current sequence are just machine-tooled product. Other opinions are, of course, available.)

Close Encounters, directed and (in theory – many hands were involved) written by Steven Spielberg, is one of those movies which has shifted into the cultural background somewhat over the years, no doubt as a result of its ideas, themes, and images being so extensively reworked in other venues. Long before seeing the actual movie, I remember watching the parody of it on The Goodies (Bill Oddie, in a Superman costume, playing a trombone duet with an alien spacecraft), and not being at all confused by the various references. Hard to imagine The X-Files without Close Encounters; impossible to imagine E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial at all, for obvious reasons.

The film opens on a black screen, over which an unsettling wail of white noise rises, before a smash cut to the heart of a sandstorm. One group of the film’s protagonists emerges from this: Lacombe (Francois Truffaut), a French scientist, who meets a group of American colleagues. Together they make a disturbing discovery: a flight of torpedo-bombers has been deposited in the Mexican desert. The planes seem to be a squadron that disappeared off the coast of Florida in 1945, but they appear to be brand new, as though thirty years has not happened. A witness speaks of the sun rising in the middle of the night and singing.

More strange phenomena occur over Indiana: strange lights in the sky are reported by airline pilots. A blackout spreads across the countryside. Electrical engineer Roy Neary (Richard Dreyfuss) leaves the domestic chaos of his home in an attempt to track down the source of the power cut – he is an ordinary guy, a little harassed, but generally happy in his life. Then something happens to him on a lonely country road in the middle of the night that changes everything. He encounters a UFO, which wreaks havoc with his truck and gives him severe sunburn before heading off. Neary goes in pursuit, encountering others who have had similar experiences. Amongst these are Jillian Guiler (Melinda Dillon) and her infant son, who were visited in their home by an unseen presence. A flight of several UFOs swoops by, hotly pursued by the cops. Neary’s world has been transformed.

From here the movie follows both Lacombe and Neary. Lacombe is a scientist, following a trail of evidence: long-since-disappeared ships return, in rather improbable locations. From India there come reports of strange noises from the sky. Signals are received from deep space, providing map co-ordinates. Government preparations are made. Something is coming to Earth.

Meanwhile, Roy and the other eye-witnesses are struggling to make sense of their own experiences. They find themselves compelled to draw or sculpt a particular mountain. A particular five-note sequence of music has mysteriously lodged itself in their brains. Roy’s newfound obsessions cost him his job, and eventually drive his family away. He is irresistibly drawn to the mountain from his dream – as Lacombe observes, Roy has been invited to a very special occasion…

Close Encounters is part of that sequence of early movies which established Spielberg as probably the most famous and financially successful director in the world – Jaws, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Raiders of the Lost Ark, and E.T.. (Rather more obscure is his 1979 knockabout comedy film 1941, which was less successful but which I find very hard to dislike. Apparently the experience burned Spielberg when it came to doing pure comedy, which is a shame, as legend has it his next project was going to be, almost unbelievably, a big-screen blockbuster movie version of The Goodies. Strange how all these things link up together in different combinations.) Of all of them, Close Encounters is the one which has slipped furthest from the public consciousness, perhaps in part because it hasn’t been sequelised or exploited to death, and also because it has to some extent been eclipsed by E.T..

The similarities between the two are obvious – the relationship between Neary and Lacombe clearly parallels that of Elliot and Keys in the latter film, which had its earliest origins as a Close Encounters follow-up – but it seems to me that Close Encounters is a rather subtler and more thoughtful film, in addition to being less sentimental and cutesy. It feels much more of a piece with other films being made in America in the mid-to-late 1970s, when the country was still trying to process the tarnishing of the government in the Watergate affair and the implications of the conclusion of the Vietnam War. People were looking for something that would allow them a chance to escape, and perhaps even give them something to believe in, and it seems significant to me that so many of these late 70s and early 80s films conclude with an explicit act of faith on the part of the protagonist – switching off a targeting computer and relying on instinct, or averting their eyes from the wrath of God. Close Encounters of the Third Kind is perhaps the fullest realisation of this theme of all of these films, for it is surely primarily about the finding and following of faith.

I find it now a little ironic that my parents are fond of declaring that E.T. is actually some form of Christian allegory (they said the same about the first stellar conflict movie for a while, if memory serves) – for one thing, Spielberg is not exactly noted for his Christian background. But Close Encounters does have that spine-tingling sense of human beings coming into contact with the deeper mysteries of the universe, and so often the imagery used is religious: there are signs and portents in the sky. A ship appears, ark-like, in the middle of dry land. When John Williams’ famous five-note motif first appears, it is as a mantra, endlessly chanted by what appears to be a choir of Indian mystics. At one point Roy Neary demands of the sky what all of this means.

Neary’s story itself practically qualifies as a conversion narrative: he’s an Everyman, transformed into a true believer by a chance encounter. From this moment on he finds he has no other choice than to follow his new faith, despite the efforts of friends and the authorities to dissuade or convince him otherwise. He loses his job, and his wife and family leave him too (the movie is perhaps a little hard on Neary’s wife, played by Teri Garr). But he presses on, makes his pilgrimage, and in the end it appears to be him, the true believer, who is chosen ahead of all the government-approved candidates to be taken up into the heavens by otherworldly forces. (The sensation is presumably one of pure rapture.) Spielberg has said that he now finds it unimaginable that Neary could abandon his children and go off into space, but in the context of the movie, and given its theme, it would feel very strange if he didn’t: the movie is about shedding those kinds of Earthly connections in favour of the spiritual kind.

That said, it’s not a cosy or sentimental spirituality: Close Encounters‘ aliens may be otherworldly, but they are also enigmatic and strange, and often frightening as a result – the visitation of alien forces on Jillian in her home is a genuinely frightening sequence, rather at odds with the rest of the movie. (Almost enough to make one regret the fact that Spielberg hasn’t really directed a horror movie since Jaws; one imagines it would be utterly terrifying.) There is a real sense of the unknown and perhaps unknowable touching life on Earth.

Perhaps this is rather odd material for an SF movie, then: but then I suppose this is a case of a film being declared SF simply because it isn’t obviously anything else, and besides, it has aliens in it. (It’s noteworthy how rare in-the-flesh aliens are in ‘serious’ SF movies prior to 1977, also this movie’s role in creating the assumption of friendly alien life which would persist until Independence Day once again inverted the stereotype.) Science fiction and ufology are distant cousins, I suppose, but no more than that, simply because ufology is only marginally science (it’s still more respectable than Bermuda Triangle lore, which is also touched on in this movie). While there’s obviously something going on with the UFO phenomenon, I doubt it admits to a single, simple solution, and not the one suggested by Spielberg here – but as I’ve suggested, the UFO element of the story is simply a metaphor that allows Spielberg to talk about something else. (Slightly ironic, then, that the 40th anniversary showing I attended was followed by a serious talk by a couple of university professors about the prospects of intelligent life in the universe and our chances of communicating with it.)

Spielberg’s casual mastery of cinema is already well-developed in this movie, which includes several of his most memorable bits of legerdemain – the moment where the lights in Neary’s rear-view reveal themselves to be not headlights, but something rather more exotic, for one, and the one where a TV set in the foreground flashes up an image replicating the vast sculpture dominating the room behind it, for another. He also manages to keep a film which could easily have become a bit airy and earnest grounded and accessible, inserting many bits of humour and action. Not that he gets everything completely right – quite apart from the handling of Mrs Neary, one is struck by the sheer number of people (virtually all men) at the Devil’s Tower arena who seem to have nothing to do but stand around looking on in awe: spectacle trumps logic here, I suppose. Fairly prominent in the crowd is a young Lance Henriksen – there’s a guy with an interesting CV – and also J Allen Hynek, the formulator of the ‘close encounters’ scale (which never gets elaborated upon in the actual movie, oddly enough).

The late 1970s and early 1980s have left us with a lot of significant SF and fantasy movies, not all of which get the attention they deserve. Close Encounters of the Third Kind is probably the least action-adventure oriented of all of them, and the least escapist (as escapism is generally understood, anyway). It’s also much more obviously a film about personal themes, but one which handles them in a very accessible way. That it manages all this while still looking very much like a modern special-effects blockbuster is by no means the least of its achievements. Probably not Steven Spielberg’s best film, perhaps not even the best of his early films – but still a significant one, and worth remembering. Good to see it back on the big screen.

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I don’t want to appear to be misjudging the situation, because I suspect that at least one friend of mine already believes that I am biased when it comes to the great opposition of our day – but I have to say that all the omens for Justice League do not lead me to be optimistic. Even a friend and colleague, who is one of the very, very few people I know who actually enjoyed Batman Vs Superman, declared ‘That looks awful’ when we saw the trailer for the new movie on our last cinema trip.

What comfort can one offer to DC at moments like this, except to say that the great wheel turns, even if it sometimes turns slowly. Back in the 70s and 80s it was DC who made successful movies and TV shows, while Marvel languished in the netherworld of trash TV, for the most part. (As recently as the mid-2000s, Marvel were still turning out the likes of the Thomas Jane version of The Punisher and the big-screen Man-Thing.) So you never know.

American trash TV from the 1980s is not normally in my wheelhouse, but I will make an exception for the 1988 TV movie The Incredible Hulk Returns. This is partly because this movie is a curious addendum to the Kenneth Johnson-produced Hulk TV show, which is very much not trash TV and a classy piece of work, but also because of the curious way it prefigures exactly the sort of thing with which Marvel Studios have scored such a massive success over the last decade or so. (Kenneth Johnson was not invited back for the Hulk TV movies, towards which he has a rather dismissive attitude.)

To start off with The Incredible Hulk Returns works very hard not to disappoint fans of the original TV show, reusing elements of the original title sequence (although the lettering and so on is now a lurid gamma-green shade). Presumably this is because retained as the writer and director of this opus was Nicholas Corea, a prolific contributor to the series.

Anyway: years have passed since the end of the show. It has been two full years since Banner (Bill Bixby, of course) even turned into the Hulk (Lou Ferrigno, of course). Adopting a typically impenetrable false identity (currently David Banner is living under the name of David Bannion), our man is working as a technician at an LA-based research institute, where in return for using his scientific genius to build the ‘Gamma Transponder’, a potential source of cheap, clean energy (I really should pen a paper on the history of this trope in superhero movies), he is allowed unfettered access to the labs in the evening, no questions asked. The Gamma Transponder has a second function, of course, which is to dehulkify Banner and let him move in with his lovely and predictably understanding lady friend.

All is set, but Banner’s dehulkification is delayed by the appearance of a figure from Banner’s pre-irradiated days, an old acquaintance named Don Blake (Steve Levitt). Blake is a medical doctor and a somewhat hapless, disreputable figure, and he has a strange tale to tell (perhaps even one of a journey into mystery, but let’s not overdo it). As a life-long fan of all things Viking, Blake jumped at the chance to be expedition doctor on an archaeological trip into the wilds of Scandinavia (was Scandinavia really that wild, even in 1988?), where he discovered an ancient Viking tomb. As any archaeologist would, Blake relates, he broke into the tomb and found a pile of bones and a mysterious war-hammer. No sooner did he pick up the hammer than a mighty Norse warrior appeared out of thin air, calling himself the mighty Thor…

Yeah, we should probably just clarify what’s going on here. ‘Don Blake’ was Thor’s Clark Kent-ish alter ego in the early years of the comic, a doctor with a gammy leg who turned into Thor by bashing things with his magic walking stick (initially it seemed like Blake was a random guy whom fate gifted with the power of Thor, but… well, they retconned this quite a lot as time went by). But in this movie, Blake and Thor (played by Eric Kramer) are entirely separate individuals, though linked in some usefully vague manner. If anything, they kind of resemble Johnny Thunder and his Thunderbolt from DC’s Justice Society comics, in that Blake is kind of a useless wimp who is obliged to whistle up Thor whenever the plot kicks in.

As it does here. Blake is not happy about the burden of being saddled with this responsibility, given that Thor will only exert his powers in a good cause. ‘It’s the eighties, I don’t even know what a good cause is,’ complains Blake, probably the best line in the movie. Banner assumes Blake is delusional, and so to prove his tale Blake summons up Thor, the shock of which does not do Banner’s blood pressure any good. Thor assumes that Banner’s lab is a bar, for some reason, and starts trashing the place in search of a drink. Banner strenuously objects, the inevitable happens, and we’re all set for the first ever live-action Hulk-Thor barney in media history…

Well, manage your expectations, pilgrim: it was 1988, after all, and once Lou Ferrigno’s body-paint and Thor’s rubber Viking armour had been paid for, there was only a bit left for electrical sparkles on Thor’s hammer and a few broken windows. Even so, everyone throws themselves into the fight enthusiastically enough, and it has a definite goofy charm if you’re prepared to be charitable.

What it doesn’t have is any tonal similarity to the original TV show, and the rest of the movie continues the decline into thick-headed cops-and-robbers nonsense. Someone decides to steal the Gamma Transponder, hiring a tough-talking squash-playing Cajun mercenary (Tim Thomerson, a prolific actor with a dizzyingly diverse, if somewhat variable CV) to do so. Thomerson decides to kidnap Banner’s girlfriend and hold her to ransom in the hope this will get them to hand the thing over. Could it possibly be down to Thor and the Hulk to save the day…?

Apparently The Incredible Hulk Returns was a smash hit on its initial broadcast, which I suppose we can only attribute to the enduring popularity of the original TV show, and the fact that the general standard of genre TV shows at the time was subterraneanly low. Even so, there’s something a bit dispiriting about watching a generally classy act like The Incredible Hulk TV show get quite so comprehensively dumbed-down and sillied-up. Possibly the most depressing thing about the whole extravaganza is the fact that Jack Colvin is dragged back as McGee the reporter – he gets nothing much of significance to do, and rather than the nuanced and rather sympathetic character McGee had become by the end of the original run, here he is largely played for laughs.

Oh well. At least Bill Bixby, who produced the movie through his own company, is as reliable and warm a presence as ever, very recognisably the same character as in the TV show. Banner just can’t resist helping those around him, even Blake and Thor, who spend most of the movie squabbling like a stereotypical married couple. (While we’re touching on – presumably unintended – grace notes of homo-eroticism, there’s also a bizarre scene in which McGee interviews a towel-clad Thor, who’s passing himself off as Banner for somewhat contrived reasons.)

The thing about some of these Hulk TV movies is that they also functioned as back-door pilots for other potential series featuring famous Marvel properties. You can kind of envisage the Thor series that might have spun off from this, basically a version of Automan with more shouting and chain-mail. There’s a scene in which Blake decides to ask Thor important questions about the reason they’ve been manacled together, so to speak, and Thor insists he won’t talk until he has eaten, and drunk, and fought, and generally caroused like a man! So Blake takes him to a biker bar.

Really, though, Thor as he is presented here is a slightly ridiculous man-baby with zero grasp of subtlety, very poor impulse control, and a wholly ridiculous pile of absurdly blond hair atop his bonce. What kind of hero would he really make for the American people? At least they didn’t have Twitter in 1988.

Oh, this is a silly, silly, predictable film, but it’s often very funny (not usually on purpose, I should say), and the sheer enthusiasm of it, plus the positive elements inherited from the Hulk TV show, keep it watchable. You can see why Kenneth Johnson refuses to acknowledge its existence. But look at Marvel now! Try to stay hopeful, DC: sometimes all it takes is the passage of nearly thirty years, a complete change of creative personnel, and the injection of obscene amounts of money. So you never can tell.

 

 

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In all my years of going to the cinema, I have seen an enormous variety of Dicks. I have seen disturbingly malformed Dicks. I have seen insignificant and forgettable Dicks. I have seen the occasional moderately impressive Dick. But, I feel it must be said, currently showing on a screen near you is what’s almost certainly the biggest Dick in the history of cinema, Denis Villeneuve’s very expensive and equally lengthy Blade Runner 2049. (I use ‘Dick’ in this case to mean a film derived from a novel or short story by the SF writer Philip K Dick, and also to facilitate some very cheap double entendres.)

It is doubtless time for gasps and glares as I once again reveal that I’m lukewarm at best about the original 1982 Blade Runner. What can I say, maybe it was the circumstances in which I first saw it, which was split in two at either end of a school day when I was 14, after it showed in the graveyard slot on TV. Subsequent viewings didn’t do much to make me reassess the movie, either, not least because in the meantime I read the source novel, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, which has that atmosphere of quotidian weirdness which for me is quintessentially Phildickian, and which is nearly always the first thing that disappears when Hollywood gets their hands on one of the master’s works.

At least this means I have not spent the last couple of weeks having kittens about the prospect of having one of my very favourite films smeared by an incompetent reimagining (sometimes it feels like all my favourite things have already been screwed up over the last few years, anyway; hey ho) – I know several people who have been in this unenviable position. Given the way the last couple of Alien prequels worked out, I suppose they had a point, but then I was never much of an Alien fan either.

Anyway, off we went to the cinema on the first day of release for Blade Runner 2049 (yes, I missed the first 2047 sequels too, ha ha). The obligatory (and rather dauntingly detailed) prefatory captions fill in the somewhat complicated goings on which have occurred since the first film, which was set (somewhat quaintly, these days) in 2019, but basically things are much the same: the environment and society are going to hell in a handbasket, and everyone has become somewhat reliant on synthetic people known as replicants. The Wallace Corporation, which manufactures the replicants, has naturally become immensely wealthy as a result, but their use is controlled and unauthorised models are hunted down and ‘retired’ (i.e. violently terminated) by specialist cops known as blade runners.

Our hero is KD/3:6-7 (Ryan Goosey-Goosey Gosling), a blade runner who is himself a replicant (presumably from a production run where the eyes didn’t quite turn out symmetrical, but I digress). During a routine case, K stumbles upon evidence of something almost unbelievable – the remains of a replicant who died in childbirth. The supposed inability of replicants to reproduce themselves is one of the things that enables the uneasy settlement between the synthetics and natural people, and K’s boss (Robin Wright) is very clear that K is to make very certain the now-grown replicant offspring is found and made to disappear, even as the head of the Wallace Corporation (Jared Leto) and his factotum (Sylvia Hoeks) take an interest of their own in the investigation. One of the few leads that K has is a connection between the mother and another, long-since-vanished blade runner, named Rick Deckard…

Yes, as you’re doubtless already aware, Harrison Ford does indeed reprise his role from the original movie (he’s not the only one to do so, but he gets most screen-time). That said, he doesn’t show up until quite late on, and when he does it is as a fragile, largely passive figure, only ever waiting to be found, or interviewed, or rescued. The focus is only ever on Gosling as K (even so, this is possibly not the vehicle for the star that some of his fans may be hoping for – a couple of vocally keen Gosling devotees were sitting in the row behind us, but left halfway through the film), and the actor is customarily good in the role.

That said, this is a notably accomplished movie in most departments, with Villeneuve handling a reasonably complex SF narrative with same kind of skill he showed with Arrival last year, and a hugely impressive piece of scoring and sound design from Hans Zimmer and Benjamin Wallfisch. The combination of striking images and music is quite immersive, and (I suspect) will not disappoint fans of the original film.

And it faithfully continues the themes and ideas of the original film. The most recent trailer doing the rounds makes Blade Runner 2049 look rather like a non-stop action blockbuster, but this is not really the impression given by the actual movie. Instead, it is a combination of thriller and dystopian SF, handling some very Phildickian ideas to do with the nature of what it means to be human, the whole concept of authenticity, and the ethics of treating people as property. One expression of this comes in the form of K’s girlfriend (Ana de Armas), who is a self-aware hologram, and the film’s treatment of their slightly unusual relationship. (We agreed this element of the film clearly owed a huge debt to Spike Jonze’s Her.) Again, the SF content is handled deftly and reasonably subtly.

I can really find very few grounds on which to criticise Blade Runner 2049: it may even impel me to go back and give the original movie yet another chance. And yet I still find this film easier to admire than to genuinely like, and I’m wondering why – it doesn’t seem to be quite as in love with its own stylish prettiness as the typical Ridley Scott film, certainly. I think in the end it is because the new film, while extremely clever in the way it manipulates story threads from the original and also audience expectations, doesn’t really apply the same degree of intelligence to the ideas at the heart of the story. The plot has various twists and turns, some of them properly startling, but the film itself has no genuinely surprising new ideas to offer.

But, hey, Blade Runner 2049 is a big-budget Hollywood SF movie, so you have to manage your expectations accordingly. This is an extremely good-looking and well-made film which develops its inheritance of ideas and characters ingeniously and convincingly, even if it never quite finds the spark it would need to become something really special. Denis Villeneuve made the most impressive SF film of 2016; it looks like he’s in with a very good chance of repeating that feat this year, too.

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