Feeds:
Posts
Comments

Posts Tagged ‘SF’

The buzz has been building around Denis Villeneuve’s adaptation of Frank Herbert’s Dune for some time now, even taking into account the fact that this is yet another of 2020’s big films which finds itself emerging into the world rather later than originally intended. This is no doubt partly because Arrival and Blade Runner 2049 have given Villeneuve a claim to the title of the most important science-fiction film director working in the world today, but also because, well, it’s Dune, isn’t it?

If you know your science fiction history, Dune isn’t just one of those things which dominates the landscape, in many respects it is much of the landscape. The DNA of the book, and of the early attempts to film it, have been filtering into the culture for decades now, all without a genuinely satisfying screen adaptation ever being forthcoming. The TV miniseries from twenty years ago is now largely forgotten, while the 1984 David Lynch film, though retaining a cult following, is at best a horribly flawed and deeply confused take on the material.

Comparisons with The Lord of the Rings follow Dune around like seagulls after a trawler, but it’s easy to see why Villeneuve and his team decided the book could only be done proper justice as a series of films, rather than a single movie. Hence (although not billed or advertised as such) the new film is essentially Dune: Part One.

The story unfurls itself on a suitably epic scale, although it is ambitiously thin on the kind of non-diegetic exposition that has become such a cliché of this kind of film – there is no opening crawl, or prefatory monologue, or even much in the way of captions explaining where the various scenes are taking place. We are often in the distant future, when the known universe has reverted to a form of techno-feudalism and vicious and bloody galactic politics occupies the various Great Houses and the organisations that connect them.

As the film opens, the House of Atreides, who seem to be a generally benevolent lot, have just been assigned the job of overseeing the desert planet Arrakis, source of the most important substance in the universe – a psychedelic spice which facilitates interstellar travel and thus allows the empire to function. Control of Arrakis grants immense power and wealth, but are the Atreides being handed a golden opportunity or a poisoned chalice? Certainly, the arch-enemies they are displacing, the brutal House of Harkonnen, don’t seem that worried…

Nevertheless, Duke Leto Atreides (Oscar Isaac) sees this as an opportunity, for Arrakis is also home to fierce native warrior culture, the Fremen, who he is keen to make an alliance with. His son Paul (Timothee Chalamet) is also excited to visit this new world, partly because he is having strange precognitive dream concerning the place. Paul is disturbed to learn that he is the product of generations of selective breeding to produce a superhuman with immense psionic powers, and that the people of Arrakis have been primed to recognise him as their long-awaited messiah or Mahdi – but is this a destiny he is prepared to accept?

The challenge in adapting Dune for other media is basically one of balance: the richness of the setting is fundamental to the novel, but it’s how one retains this without swamping the story so it grinds to a halt or becomes unintelligible. The decision to chop Dune in half for the new film is probably a good one (always assuming the concluding movie gets the green light): the narrative gets room to breathe, retaining all the key incidents of the story, while at least a sense of the detail and texture of the wider universe is still communicated.

Of course, something’s still got to give, and one does receive only a vague impression of some elements of the background. There are a lot of characters, and some of them are in the film only quite briefly: Dave Bautista, for instance, is near the top of the bill as Count Rabban, but probably only on screen for less than ten minutes. The same is true of many others; the film is more about striking miniatures than in-depth characterisations, though Jason Momoa is more prominent than one might expect as the Atreides warrior Duncan Idaho and the same is true of Sharon Duncan-Brewster as Liet-Kynes (yes, the Progressive Agenda Committee have had a word).

The whole film feels like it’s operating on a greater-than-human scale, anyway: there are immense vistas, ships the size of small cities hanging in the sky, colossal sandworms lurking under the surface of the deserts, and more. As a spectacle it is never less than impressive, the visuals backed up by an extraordinary score from Hans Zimmer, almost more like musique concrete in places than a conventional piece of orchestration (that said, the soundtrack album also contains a Pink Floyd cover, which can’t be a coincidence considering that over forty years ago the band were on board to provide the music for an earlier attempt at the novel).

There’s a huge amount to admire about Dune, but perhaps that’s the problem with the film – it’s a film which impresses and provokes admiration, but never really excitement or delight.  Frank Herbert himself thought he had identified fourteen separate clear points of identity between Dune and George Lucas’ own tale of a young man on a remote desert planet discovering his own mystic heritage and battling the forces of a corrupt imperium, but this film doesn’t have the same kind of swashbuckling, eye-catching verve: it’s much less a piece of pulpy space opera. Villeneuve works so hard to keep the story focused, relevant to contemporary concerns, and naturalistic that the sense of wonder which is a central part of the appeal of science fiction is never quite there when you’d expect it to be.

Nevertheless, this is a film which easily eclipses its predecessors and is likely to define this story in the minds of generations to come – especially if the concluding episode, which we are assured is almost a done deal, matches the virtuosity of this one. I am very curious to see how Villeneuve handles some of the more metaphysical aspects of the story, and the epic spectacle which to some extent is only promised at here. Perhaps no movie of Dune could ever really live up to expectations, but this one comes impressively close.

Read Full Post »

Just as every family has its oddballs, its black sheep, and its estranged relations, so every long-running film franchise has its weird outliers – its equivalent of Licence to Kill, or Godzilla’s Revenge, or Terminator Salvation. In the case of the Halloween series, the film that probably never gets invited round to dinner by the others is the third one, Halloween III: Season of the Witch, simply because they have so little in common.

What makes it even odder, perhaps, is that this was the intention all along – nine sequels further on, it seems hard to believe, but John Carpenter and Debra Hill had concluded there was no further mileage to be extracted from the doings of Michael Myers. Their idea was for Halloween to become effectively an anthology franchise, each film introducing new situations and characters.

Hence this film, which is not a slasher movie, and only refers to the original diegetically (characters in Halloween III are seen watching Halloween on TV, where it is modestly referred to as a ‘classic’). Looking for a new angle, Carpenter made the inarguably smart move of hiring Nigel Kneale (writer of The Stone Tape, amongst other things) to produce a script – but an intervention by the producers to add more gore and violence led to Kneale disowning the film, and the screenplay is credited to director Tommy Lee Wallace.

Perhaps this was a typically smart move by the veteran scribe. The film opens a week or so before Halloween and counts down towards the night in question. We initially see a man being pursued by sinister figures in grey suits, from who he barely escapes, wandering into a man’s shack and then collapsing. The man has one of those handy exposition TVs, which only shows things which have some bearing on the plot of the film, and so we soon learn that Halloween masks made by the Silver Shamrock company are important to whatever’s going on, along with the fact that someone has apparently managed to pinch one of the blocks from Stonehenge (yes, I know your disbelief is turning a funny colour, but just keep it suspended anyway).

The man who was being chased is whisked off to hospital where he is placed in the care of Daniel Challis (Tom Atkins), a slightly boozy doctor with a failed marriage behind him. One of the grey-suited men manages to sneak into the hospital and crush the patient’s skull, which I would describe as evidence of negligence, but Challis at least chases after him – the grey man immolates himself in the hospital car park.

It turns out the murdered man was a toy store owner, who was last seen heading to the small town of Santa Mira to collect a load of – oh, is that a bell ringing? – Halloween masks. So Challis, largely because the plot requires it, goes up there to investigate, in the company of the victim’s rather striking young daughter Ellie (Stacy Nelkin, who as a teenager was in a brief relationship with Woody Allen and claims Manhattan is partly based on this). Despite there being no discernible chemistry between them, Challis and Ellie get it on: this happens like someone turning a switch, and is presumably just there to meet some kind of assumed audience expectation. Needless to say, Nelkin gets a couple of nude scenes, Atkins (thank God) doesn’t.

I’m guessing the setting of Santa Mira is one of Wallace’s amendments to the original Kneale script, as it’s a very obvious call-back to the original Invasion of the Body Snatchers, which this seems in part to be a rather clumsy homage to. The parallels between the two films become much more pronounced as it continues, anyway, not that there isn’t always a lot of other stuff going on.

Santa Mira is a company town for a Halloween mask-making outfit run by wealthy old Conal Cochran (Dan O’Herlihy), and he and various other characters turn up to pad out the plot a bit. Cochran is obviously a bad ‘un and the other characters are there to meet sticky ends of various kinds – someone gets zapped by the maker’s tab off the back of a Halloween mask and their face falls off, someone complaining about Cochran has their head removed by two grey men, and so on. Cochran clearly has special plans for this year’s Halloween…

The act of reviewing some films does make demands upon your critical judgment and ability to articulate complex philosophical concepts. Halloween III is not one of those films. Halloween III is the kind of film that only really requires you to describe what happens in it, in order to provide a very clear picture of the kind of quality involved.

That said, simply describing the plot does not quite do the film justice. As the plot concerns an insane toymaker with an army of android duplicate henchmen, who steals part of Stonehenge and grinds it up to hide the dust in Halloween masks, which will then respond to a particular TV commercial by killing the wearers and causing poisonous vermin to erupt from their corpses, all because of a sentimental fondness for the traditions of Halloween, this is no small thing. The basic synopsis does not cover the quality of the playing, which is basic, to say the least: the closest thing to an acting performance comes from Dan O’Herlihy, who seems to have nicked it from Alec Guinness in The Ladykillers. Tom Atkins resembles someone who has wandered onto a film set, possibly to make a delivery or do some maintenance, and accidentally ended up being cast in the lead role. Stacy Nelkin is better, but grievously underused.

I can imagine a version of this film in which the sheer lack of narrative cohesion worked in the film’s favour – where it had something of the accelerating quality of a hideous unfolding nightmare, with a succession of bizarre images (mutilated faces, masks erupting with snakes and insects, characters revealed to be androids) piling up on top of one another to a disorienting cumulative effect, rather as in Hellraiser II. Unfortunately, Tommy Lee Wallace doesn’t have the skill or narrative control to pull something like that off, and he takes a very meat-and-potatoes approach to the material. At the very end, when the film’s debt to Body Snatchers is clearest, it does acquire a certain kind of energy, but it’s really too little, too late.

It would be interesting to speculate on a parallel world where Halloween III was, well, good, and the series went off on the anthology tangent Carpenter and Hill originally envisaged (in our world, the relative failure of the film meant that every subsequent episode has been firmly Michael Myers-centric). But it’s hard to imagine that world, based on this film. Halloween III isn’t just poorly assembled, it’s weird and tonally inconsistent, often mixing unintentional camp with stodgily-presented B-movie staples. This may have been quite a good idea, but it’s also an extremely poorly executed one.

Read Full Post »

My usual line when it comes to John Carpenter and his career (as previously articulated here, quite a few times I expect), is that he basically did it backwards – starting with the acclaimed, massively influential studio films and then going on to make a range of eclectic movies, which only really have in common the fact they are exasperatingly inconsistent. The consensus is that Carpenter started to go off the boil after making The Thing in 1982, though I am aware that Starman (1984) has its champions and some of the other later films have achieved cult status too (Carpenter probably qualifies as a cult director, full stop).

One of those later film is They Live, from 1988, although it is a divisive and provocative work. The director Alex Cox has described it, essentially, as being halfway brilliant – which I’m not sure I’d entirely agree with. I’m fully in accord with Cox when it comes to the many flaws of the film, which are substantial, I’m not sure the rest of it is quite as good as he thinks.

The movie opens with the usual sort of Carpenter-penned theme music (my niece has been known to complain that the music of Sparks is repetitive, but they have nothing on Carpenter in this respect) and a blue-collar drifter arriving in Los Angeles; he is (initially at least) a taciturn, thoughtful chap, and also a strapping lad (he is played by wrestling heel par excellence ‘Rowdy’ Roddy Piper). Our hero is never actually named on screen, but he’s credited as Nada (meaning ‘nothing’). Nada is part of a growing underclass of people struggling to make ends meet, though he manages to find work on a construction site. In Carpenter’s usual sparse way, he establishes a situation not unlike an 80s-set update of The Grapes of Wrath – the majority desperately struggling to survive as a tiny elite grow richer, although there is the very non-Steinbeckian motif of the poorer members of society being placated by an endless diet of cable TV.

But then, as this is a Carpenter movie, another element appears: pirate TV broadcasts seemingly ranting about a conspiracy to subjugate and exploit the population, railing against the mysterious group responsible for the economic and social divisions in the country. It turns out the rebellious group are based in the church next to the camp for homeless people that Nada is living in; the police arrive and brutally deal with the group.

However, Nada does some poking around in the lab that the rebels were operating and finds a pair of sunglasses. He pays them little heed until he puts them on and sees a world transformed: TV screens, billboards, signs, the covers of books and magazines – all of them projecting subliminal messages along the lines of OBEY, CONSUME, DON’T QUESTION AUTHORITY, and so on. Even more disturbingly, the glasses reveal that many of the wealthiest members of society are in fact skull-faced green-skinned aliens…

It’s They Live’s one great moment of inarguable brilliance, and such a neat idea it has been co-opted by other films since (most recently Free Guy). Of course, it’s a good science fiction idea, but it’s also an openly allegorical and subversive one (Slavoj Zizek discusses the film at some length in The Pervert’s Guide to Ideology) – you have to give Carpenter some credit for managing to get such an anti-capitalistic message into what was a fairly mainstream film.

(Of course, Carpenter is on slightly treacherous ground here – as far as he’s concerned, They Live is metaphorical, suggesting that the elite of society have alien values and treat everyone else like a different species (possibly contentious, but defensibly so). The problem is that some people have interpreted the film as an actual allegory in support of a wide range of crackpot (and objectionable) conspiracy theories about the world being secretly run by aliens or lizards or alien lizards, which usually end up heading off into anti-Semitic territory or somewhere even nastier. Carpenter has said this wasn’t his intention, and I have no reason to disbelieve him, nor do I think that a film is necessarily bad just because it can be interpreted to support offensive views.)

Unfortunately, making a truly great film isn’t just a matter of having a good idea, you have to do something with it too – and the problem with They Live is that, having finally pulled off his big reveal (and not before time – we’re quite a long way into the film by now), Carpenter doesn’t seem to know what to do next in terms of developing his idea or exploring it further. So he falls back on cheesy B-movie action tropes and cliches.

Up to this point Nada has been depicted as a more or less normal, decent, reasonable, reserved kind of guy; probably a Republican voter, but you can’t have everything. Having been attacked by two aliens disguised as police, however, he arms up with their weapons, walks into a bank, delivers a cheesy one-liner and starts blowing away every alien he sees with a stolen shotgun. The action is reasonably well-mounted, but it still feels like a film which initially showed compassion and a flash of real intelligence and wit has suddenly become gleefully stupid and a tiny bit crass.

It gets worse (in every sense). The screenplay was written by Carpenter himself (under the Lovecraftian pseudonym of ‘Frank Armitage’, which is also the name of Nada’s sidekick, played by Keith David), although ‘written’ probably suggests a degree of structure and coherence which it doesn’t really deserve. Many of Carpenter’s creative decisions are, well, very odd indeed, and seem poorly thought-through (if thought-through at all) – for instance, most films start fairly slow and then pick up the pace as they continue, but this one plods along steadily from beginning to end. Even the film’s most celebrated sequence – a brawl between Piper and David in an alleyway, adding very little to the plot, which goes on for six ridiculous minutes – has a weirdly stately and unhurried quality to it.

They Live doesn’t just become a cheesy B-movie action film, it turns into a really bad cheesy B-movie action film. By the end, characters and locations are appearing and disappearing simply to serve the meanderings of the story, with their personalities and agendas changing to suit. The main female character, played by a third-billed Meg Foster, initially comes across as a steely Howard Hawks-type dame, but in each of the three short sequences she appears in she has a different attitude and set of priorities – she’s very obviously a plot device rather than a character.

Some have suggested the sheer badness and incoherence of the second half of They Live is intentional, that it’s a deconstruction of the kind of pap commercial cinema the big studios routinely pump out, and that as it a result it’s part of the film’s subversive thesis. But it just seems like a bad movie to me, and – regrettably – much of a muchness with a lot of later Carpenter movies. Perhaps it’s because the film has that one really great cinematic moment of revelation that the rest of it feels so very disappointing in comparison. But what is certain is that the opening section of the film promises a very great deal, which the conclusion dismally fails to deliver.

Read Full Post »

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Read Full Post »

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Read Full Post »

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Read Full Post »

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Read Full Post »

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Read Full Post »

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Read Full Post »

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Read Full Post »

Older Posts »