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Posts Tagged ‘SF’

There was a point, during the Great Late Summer Interesting Movie Drought, that I took to hanging around the local library in the afternoons while waiting for the evening Almodovar revival to get under way. One of the books I dipped into was The Greatest Movies Never Made, an account of just exactly what went wrong with the production of Brazzaville, Superman Lives, The Defective Detective, and many others. Of course, ‘never’ is a big word, and I must admit I took derived some amusement from the fact that at least two of these ‘never made’ projects had of course either been finished or were well on course to make it to the screen – Orson Welles’ The Other Side of the Wind, long a near-mythical enigma, is currently available on Netflix, while Gemini Man, for decades a resident in Development Hell, is out at the moment, finally dragged to the screen by Ang Lee.

A list of all the people at one time tipped to star in this movie reads like a who’s who of Hollywood leading men and action stars: Sean Connery, Clint Eastwood, Schwarzenegger, Mel Gibson, Harrison Ford, and so on. The fact that we have eventually received a version starring Will Smith… well, I suppose it depends on what your opinion of Will Smith is, but I can’t help feeling that he does not have quite the same legendary status as someone like Connery or Eastwood, at least. One must try not to dismiss a film just because another possible version sounds more interesting.

For once, this is not a TV remake and has nothing to do with Ben Murphy turning invisible for 15 minutes a day. Smith plays Henry Brogan, one of those either very trusting or morally flexible chaps who has had no problem with making a career out of being an assassin for the US government, on the understanding he only has to shoot baddies. However, now Brogan is knocking on a bit and decides to retire, rather to the dismay of his handlers. It turns out he has left this just one job too late, as he discovers his last target was not a terrorist as advertised, but a genetic scientist. Dark forces within the military-industrial complex, chiefly personified by private security contractor Clay Varris (Clive Owen), decide that he knows too much to be allowed to live. But how are they going to take out the world’s greatest killer?

Well, it turns out that Varris has got just the man for the job: he’s young, gifted, and black, not to mention the owner of an impressive set of ears. But hang on just a minute here! What can this possibly mean? Well, you’re probably way ahead of me, or have read the publicity for the movie: Owen has sneakily had Smith cloned, and is sending the younger version out to eliminate his progenitor. Older Smith is obliged to go on the run in the company of friendly agent Danny Zakarewski (Mary Elizabeth Winsome) and an old comedy-relief buddy (Benedict Wong). Will the day be won by age and experience or youth and commitment?

As noted, the script for Gemini Man has been doing the rounds since the late 1990s, and the finished movie does have a weirdly old-fashioned vibe to it – perhaps that’s just because it stars people whose years of greatest star wattage do seem to be rather behind them – before Aladdin this year, Will Smith hadn’t had a significant hit in a long time, Clive Owen’s years of being talked of as a potential Bond-in-waiting are long over, and even Mary Elizabeth Winstead seems to have been focusing on her TV career of late. But perhaps it’s more than just the personnel choices – the script is functional enough, but the whole film feels glib and superficial, about surfaces rather than details.

This is, by any reasonable metric, an SF movie of sorts, but the opening section at least feels much more like a slightly hackneyed action film about an aging hitman beginning to grow a conscience. In this respect it has a definite Bourne Identity feel to it, with rather less grit – the presence of Owen probably adds to this. As such it trundles along quite cheerfully. But the clone element is badly fumbled in all sorts of ways – the big reveal that Smith’s pursuer is, well, him, has minimal impact, the revelation sort of seeping into the film rather than being a significant, discrete plot point. The script fails to engage with any of the potential of the idea of being confronted with your own double – it doesn’t address nature versus nurture, the desire for second chances, the potential for resentment, and so on.

The script may not be much cop but what I must concede is that Will Smith does give an unexpectedly good performance – as the older Brogan, anyway. He manages to find some soul and depth and is probably rather better than the script deserves. Everyone else struggles a bit – Owen plays a cartoon baddie, while Winstead is stuck in a largely decorative, transactional role: box office considerations mean there is no prospect of her and Smith, er, getting jiggy with it.

As for the junior Smith – well, the special effects involved in rejuvenating him are somewhat variable, to be honest. In places they are astonishingly good – at one point Smith engages in a complex fight sequence with himself, and the deep-fakery involved is virtually flawless. Other scenes, particularly ones with the two of them wandering about in wide shot, are less than fully convincing. This may also be a consequence of the way the film’s been made – it is available in super-high-frame-rate-3D (I gave it a miss and saw the regular version, as six dimensions of Will Smith is far too many for me), and to make this work it has been shot on special cameras. The end result is crisp and bright and colourful but also strangely lacking in atmosphere. The fact the whole screen is in pinpoint focus all the way through is also strangely distracting and unnatural – it’s not just Smith who spends half the time in the Uncanny Valley, the whole film is there throughout.

Still, as noted, it does work quite well as a weirdly old-fashioned thriller, and there is some well-choreographed action at several points in the movie, even if the climax is vaguely unsatisfactory in a couple of ways. Gemini Man isn’t exactly a bad film, it’s just that given the premise and the talent involved, you would be forgiven for expecting something rather more substantial.

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There has been some concerned muttering amongst the commentariat of late, brought on by some unusual statistics from the global box office – while this year has indeed seen the most successful movie of all time, attendance in general seems to be on a downward trajectory. People are going to the cinema less, and when they do go, it’s probably to something funded by Disney. Coupled to this is the fact that, of the top twenty films at the US box office so far this year, only two of them have not been a remake, adaptation, or some form of sequel, and barely any of them have been star vehicles in the traditional sense. Perhaps it is the case that the old star system is withering away – I have commented here in the past that while audiences have turned out in droves to the last two or three movies featuring Thor, Chris Hemsworth is not capable of opening a movie playing any other character. Why this should be of genuine concern to anyone other than millionaire movie stars I’m not quite sure, but there you go.

All of this makes James Gray’s Ad Astra more than usually interesting, for it looks very much like an attempt at an old-school big movie – it’s not a sequel, a remake, or an adaptation (though this is a point we shall be returning to), and it’s built around a big star performance from Brad Pitt, a leading man of the old school. (I do recall stories from about fifteen years ago, when Marvel were just setting up their operation, about them hiring big names to play all their characters – Tom Cruise was in talks for Iron Man, Brad Pitt was mentioned as a candidate for Captain America, and so on. Clearly either these guys all asked for too much money or Marvel figured out very early on that the appeal of these films would lie in the characters, not the performers.) Nowadays, as noted, this is noteworthy, and the fact it looks like another attempt at making the ‘proverbial really good science fiction movie’ (S. Kubrick, March 31st 1964) only makes it more interesting to those of us who love the genre.

The movie is set in an unspecified near future (technology has advanced to the point where they can get a spacecraft to the outer planets in well under a year, but Subway are still in business), and Pitt plays top astronaut Roy McBride, renowned for his eerie calm in stressful situations. One of these comes at the top of the film, where a strange power surge results in him falling off what’s essentially an orbital tower and having to keep it together long enough to open his parachute. It turns out there have been a string of such incidents, which the powers that be have determined to be the result of cosmic rays emanating from somewhere in the vicinity of Neptune. It is feared that this is the result of the long-lost Lima project, which was sent to this region to use anti-matter to search for alien intelligences. As Roy’s dad Cliff (Tommy Lee Jones) was in charge of the mission, and is missing presumed dead in space, the authorities have decided it would be a good idea to get Roy to send him a message, presumably in the hope this will make him knock it off with the cosmic rays.

For important and serious plot reasons, Roy has to go to Mars in order to talk into a radio set, and so off he sets, accompanied part of the way by one of his dad’s old colleagues (Donald Sutherland): first to the Moon, then to the red planet itself. Along the way there is a moon buggy chase with laser guns and an encounter with killer baboons (I did wonder what the killer baboons were doing in space, but then I had misheard the name of McBride Sr.’s mission as the Lemur project, and assumed there must be some primate-based connection).

Now, if you’re anything like me, you will probably be thinking something along the lines of: killer baboons? Laser gun moon buggy chases? What kind of movie is this, exactly? Well, quite. The thing about Ad Astra is that it may not actually be a sequel, adaptation, or remake, but it is certainly a highly derivative movie – there’s more than a touch of Apocalypse Now to the structure of the plot, but mostly it draws upon the better space and SF movies of recent years. There’s a lot of Interstellar to this tale of a lengthy voyage in supposedly realistic spacecraft, but also the basic premise and subtext of the movie is that of Gravity, inasmuch as the external adventures undergone by Pitt’s character mirror the way in which he comes to terms with more personal, psychological issues as the story progresses. This makes for a thoughtful, stately, and arguably often portentous movie.

Hence the buggy chase and the baboons, I guess: they have the feel of something inserted, not especially credibly or organically, just to pep the movie up a bit whenever it gets a bit too slow. I suppose I shouldn’t complain too much, as they did jolt me back into paying full attention when I was honestly flagging a bit. We seem to have arrived back at point where new SF films are either good-looking, but entirely cerebral and humourless, or almost wholly camp fantasy; Ad Astra sorely needed to be a bit more fun.

It would be remiss of me not to say that this is still a lavish, very good-looking film, and Brad Pitt gives an excellent, subtle performance that is honestly rather better than the script deserves. The world created by the film doesn’t make a very great deal of sense (as mentioned, it features Subway and laser pistols in close proximity), but it’s not without interest, even if the director’s intentions are occasionally difficult to make out (flying to the Moon is explicitly likened to air travel nowadays, which is an odd approach to a film supposedly about the mystery and wonder of going into space).

In the end the script just isn’t good enough, and the film feels compromised by the need to include obvious action beats to break up Pitt’s introspective monologuing. What was left implicit in Gravity is gone over very heavy-handedly here; there’s a slightly clunky plot device where Pitt has to keep making log entries recording his psychological state, just to facilitate the subtext of the movie. The fact it is also essentially about a troubled father-son relationship also feels like a hoary old chestnut. I mean, fair play to the film-makers for having the guts to make a film like this one, and Pitt carries the movie well. But good intentions alone won’t necessarily carry you very far, let alone to the stars.

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There is a sub-genre of science fiction known as the ‘cosy catastrophe’, which I almost think qualifies as one of those great and useful categories only slightly let down by the fact that there’s virtually nothing to go into it. It was coined by Brian Aldiss for his history of SF, Billion Year Spree, with particular reference to the work of his near-contemporary John Wyndham, his definition running as follows: ‘The essence of cosy catastrophe is that the hero should have a pretty good time (a girl, free suites at the Savoy, automobiles for the taking) while everyone else is dying off.’ In later life he was particularly scathing about conclusion of The Day of the Triffids, in which the main characters find themselves compelled to go and live on (oh, the horror!) the Isle of Wight.

The thing is, that for all that Aldiss confidently pegs Wyndham as ‘the master of the cosy catastrophe’ it’s not as if this is a genre in which he was particularly active. Day of the Triffids probably qualifies, although there is a case to be made that this book is much less cosy than it initially appears to be (there are multiple suicides throughout the story), and there is a touch of it to The Kraken Wakes, too, although the catastrophe here is a protracted one and not especially comfortable for the protagonists (one should also probably mention the original, unpublished ending of the story, in which they are implied to die off-page and the book ends on an ominously ambiguous note). But The Chrysalids is post-apocalyptic, not catastrophic, The Midwich Cuckoos concludes with a potential disaster averted, and Trouble with Lichen, The Outward Urge, Chocky and Web don’t come close to resembling Aldiss’ metric.

Things get to the point where articles listing ‘Ten Great Cosy Catastrophe Novels’ end up stretching to include the likes of The Time Machine and Childhood’s End, two (great) books which are surely only linked by their interest in the future evolution of human beings (an idea which they take in radically different directions). Neither of them remotely resemble Aldiss’ idea of what a cosy catastrophe is, and one finds oneself wondering if this is a genre with a single bona fide exponent.

And then one stumbles across the bibliography of John Christopher (one of the pen names of Samuel Youd) and it initially looks like the motherlode. I first became aware of Christopher as a writer of what we nowadays call ‘dystopian YA fiction’ – perhaps most famously the Tripods books, but also the really excellent Prince in Waiting trilogy. Both of these are kind of post-apocalyptic – the Tripods story is set about a century after an alien invasion, while the Prince in Waiting books take place centuries after some kind of immense natural disaster has toppled civilisation – but they are just the tip of the iceberg. Christopher himself cheerfully admitted in later life to being the greatest serial killer in the history of literature, having at various points killed off civilisation through famine (The Death of Grass), a new ice age (The World in Winter), and a plague causing premature ageing (Empty World). It looks like we have found, at the very least, a pretender to Wyndham’s unasked-for throne.

And then one reads the books. Catastrophes? Certainly. Cosy? Well, there is the issue, isn’t it? Frankly, they are not: the writer Christopher Priest once produced his own take on the genre, entitled (if memory serves) The True Nature of the Catastrophe, suggesting that the real devastation was psychological, not social or physical. Christopher’s books are not cosy, because they are to a large extent about the effects of the calamities on the minds and personalities of their protagonists – John Custance in The Death of Grass starts off as a nice middle-class chap, but is willing to condone cold-blooded murder by the end of the book – civilisation has been lost forever, in more senses than one.

wits

Christopher tackles this theme most directly, I think, in his 1965 book A Wrinkle in the Skin (the title is not the book’s strongest feature). The story opens on the island of Guernsey in the English Channel, with a glimpse of the life of Matthew Cotter, reasonably contented small-holder. Cotter is almost totally self-sufficient in emotional terms, not feeling the need to develop strong attachments to anyone – the only exception being his grown-up daughter, who has moved to the mainland. The opening chapter features a dinner party, and a discussion of a series of immense earthquakes which have afflicted New Zealand and other remote places – discussion of a casual, disinterested kind.

But at the end of that first chapter, a colossal earthquake strikes the island – and, we are invited to infer, most of the world. Cotter survives through a sheer fluke, but virtually all buildings are levelled, the lie of the land itself is shifted, and – to Cotter’s initial disbelief – the English Channel is drained, exposing most of the sea-bed.

However, Cotter is not the only survivor, digging a pre-teenaged boy from the ruins of one house, before encountering another group under the thuggish leadership of a man named Miller. Cotter is a useful lieutenant to Miller, but Cotter doesn’t much care for the role, especially when he is constantly thinking of the possible fate of his daughter, somewhere on the mainland. In the end he and the boy gather their supplies and set off, walking across the sea-bed to England in search of her. But what awaits them there? Isn’t he just risking their lives in the futile pursuit of a fantasy?

A Wrinkle in the Skin doesn’t stint on the catastrophe, but it is one of the least cosy novels imaginable. One of the strong points of Christopher’s other books is the convincing detail used to depict the gradual falling away of the old order as civilisation gradually collapses – but in this one, everything is destroyed overnight, virtually in a matter of minutes. The majority of it takes place in a physical, social and moral wasteland, as Cotter and the boy encounter various other survivors and Cotter reflects on human nature and how people are responding to what eventually gets christened the Bust.

Once again, it’s the strength of the book’s characterisation and the articulation of its moral premise that make it memorable: there are at least two things going on throughout most of it, the first being the gradual erosion of Cotter’s sense of detachment from the people around him (in favour of his absent, idealised daughter) – he discovers the capacity to take responsibility for them, to genuinely care and achieve empathy and understanding. What gives the novel its distinctive flavour is the dark counterpoint to this theme – the building awareness that the humanity Cotter is starting to appreciate is essentially base and brutal. Cotter encounters a handful of lunatics, a few decent middle-class people, but mostly ruthless and amoral scum (it’s doubtless a sign of the book’s 60s origins that only one of the female characters has any agency worth mentioning or is characterised in more than the most superficial manner – but the character that is, is probably the strongest in the story). One character suggests the catastrophe has brought on a form of mass psychosis. For much of the book Cotter is ambling along relatively comfortably, and assumes the same is true for the others – but then April, the female character I just mentioned, quietly informs him that rape (of one form or another) is a fact of existence for all the women who’ve survived the Bust: five times, so far, for her, in a matter of only a couple of weeks.

Would things really be so bad? Pray God we never find out for real, but Christopher makes it all horribly and emphatically plausible. The book is fairly bleak throughout, but this sets the tone for the final section, which bears an uncanny resemblance to The Road as a man and a boy make their way through the desolation on a futile quest. Christopher’s writing does a good job of pointing up the distinction between the depressing and the tragic (this book is both, not always at the same time though); it gets so dark I almost considered bailing out before the end.

Perhaps it’s all a bit too close to reality – at least with triffids and the like, you can reassure yourselves that it’s never going to happen. But even Christopher backs away from what feels like the logical conclusion to the story. In the end Cotter repents of his foolish attachment to the dream of his daughter (not least because circumstances force him to) and there is the prospect of a somewhat happier life for the survivors in the time come. Only a prospect and a suggestion, though – it’s as though Christopher is aware this would be a total about-turn in the theme and tone of the book, and can only imply it as a possibility. Actually showing it would turn the novel into a rather hokey melodrama, and he’s too good a writer for that.

This is a pretty tough read, and conventional SF ideas are thin on the ground; it’s a lot less reserved and cerebral than a book by Wyndham, but grittier and more humane than some of the similar works that J. G. Ballard was producing at around the same time. It’s not the same kind of blitz of a thriller that The Death of Grass is, but it still shows off Christopher’s skill as a writer. Even so, you do come away wondering if we really would prefer our catastrophes to be just a bit cosy.

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Watching Japanese tokusatsu movies, you almost instantly get a sense that these are films made in accordance with a very different cultural and artistic sensibility: non-naturalistic, stylised, more concerned with visual appearance than absolute realism. You see a few of these films and decide you’ve managed to get your head around this – you watch Mothra Vs Godzilla and Ebirah, Horror of the Deep and start to relax, feeling you’ve got the basics down. This may not in fact be the case – sure, you may have become acclimatised to the Godzilla series, but this is a distinct set of films with its own tropes and conventions; it is not the beginning and end of wacky Japanese genre cinema.

Which brings us to a film like Dogora (aka Dagora the Space Monster and Giant Space Monster Dogora), directed by Ishiro Honda. Honda, of course, is synonymous with the Godzilla series, and the rest of Toho’s A-team is also in the building for this film: it is produced by Tomoyuki Tanaka, the script is by Shinichi Sekizawa, the music is by Akira Ifukube, and the special effects are by Eiji Tsuburaya. The crew were being worked pretty hard in 1964, starting the year with Mothra Vs Godzilla, moving on to this film, and concluding with Ghidorah, the Three-Headed Monster. It is startling to consider that the period when these films were basically being made on a production line also marks the time of some of Toho’s greatest successes in the genre.

Should we include Dogora in this group, though? Well, the most obvious thing about it is that there is a distinct whiff of Hamlet without the prince going on here, in that it looks and sounds almost exactly like a Godzilla movie, even including many of the same repertory cast members, but there is never even a glimpse of a man in a suit. This is the first way in which the film marks out its own rather peculiar territory.

Events get underway at the ‘Electric Wave Laboratory’, where scientists are overseeing orbital satellites. But then the instruments begin to register strange blobby shapes in the path of one of the satellites. Cue credits and a slow zoom from orbit down into urban Tokyo. Are we about to see some more scientists? Or perhaps a tenacious reporter?

No, we’re going to be spending a lot of time in this film with a gang of very unconvincing jewel thieves, some of whom have highly eccentric wardrobe preferences (one guy spends the whole film in a white suit with a black bowler hat). We find the gangsters attempting to break into a bank vault while the female member of their gang keeps watch outside in the car. She is played by Akiko Wakabayashi, best known to western audiences for her role in You Only Live Twice, and as breathtakingly beautiful in this film as usual. No wonder the local cops are so easily fobbed off. But then something else grabs their attention – a drunken salariman floats past, with no visible means of support. Shortly afterwards, the gangsters around the vault also find themselves having seemingly gravity-related issues and drifting off the floor.

In the midst of all this chaos some diamonds disappear from the bank, part of a string of diamond robberies taking place around the world. On the case is Inspector Komai (Yasuke Natsuki), who in addition to chasing the gangsters finds his time also taken up talking to expert crystallographer Dr Munakata (Nobuo Nakamura) and chasing around after Mark Jackson (Robert Dunham), a foreign diamond broker who also seems to be mixed up in all this. There is a lot of chasing about between the cops and robbers, to be honest, including a fair number of double-crosses and various characters not proving to be whom they initially claimed.

Meanwhile, other weird events continue, most of them concerning unlikely objects being drawn up into the sky: coal-heaps, trucks, factory chimneys, and so on, all to the bemusement of whatever cops or scientists happen to be in the vicinity at the time. Someone eventually has a brainwave and figures out the connection: all of this mysterious levitation is somehow connected to carbon – coal and diamonds, most obviously, but also other things associated with them. Komai comes up with his own theory as to why all this is going on – ‘I’m not one to jump to conclusions,’ he says, ‘but I think a giant space monster could be responsible for this.’

Naturally, this being a tokusatsu movie, he is correct, and soon enough Dogora itself materialises in the skies over Japan, pseudopods trailing menacingly downwards as it guzzles all the carbon in sight. Apparent it is the result of floating space cells being exposed to radioactivity (just for a change). Cue the usual scenes of the JSDF opening up with their full arsenal at the monster and it having no effect whatsoever, while scientists and their other associates stand around looking concerned.

Now, the danger when writing about Dogora is that you focus too much on all the stuff with the giant floating monster and the wacky pseudo-science, as this is the most immediately striking and outlandish element of the film. You would expect Honda and his team to do the same thing, after all. But no. The really weird thing about Dogora is the way in which all the material about the monster is essentially shuffled into the background while the film maintains a firm focus on the frantic convolutions of the cops and robbers plot about the Japanese police and the gang of diamond thieves. It is almost as if the creative team of the movie were determined to do their thriller runaround and only included the scenes with the levitation and the tentacles under duress.

It can’t really have been this way, though, for if nothing else the effects show no trace of being the work of people who don’t really care about their craft – the special effects in Dogora are amongst the best of any Toho film from the 1960s. Now, the fact the film doesn’t include any suitamation probably helps, as far as a modern audience is concerned, but the model-work, cel animation and optical effects are all excellent, even when the subject matter is as weird as it often gets here.

It certainly helps to keep the film engaging even when the plotting with the gangsters and cops becomes a bit, well, corny (perhaps I should say ‘even more corny’). But Shinichi Sekizawa’s script deploys his usual cheerful inventiveness and wit, which helps here too. That said, by the time of the climax everyone involved seems to be off their medication – the scientists cook up a plan to petrify or crystallise Dogora using wasp venom fired from tanks (no-one seems to have thought that petrifying a giant monster while it’s floating over your country might just lead to some collateral damage), while the cops and robbers have a gunfight that turns into a dynamite-throwing contest. Just another day in Japan, I guess.

Dogora is such a weird movie that it’s actually quite hard to compare it to anything else – the reliable monster-rasslin’ pleasures of the Godzilla series are not quite there – but it’s colourful and good-natured and knows not to out-stay its welcome. It’s probably not for everyone, but if you like oddball Japanese movies, oddball sci-fi, and weird stuff in general it’s a fairly safe bet for an entertaining hour and a half.

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I have occasionally written in the past of the distinct pleasure of going to see a film knowing very little in advance about it, especially in a genre I particularly enjoy. This is why there are a bunch of Russian SF movies lined up on my hard-drive, waiting for a day when it is too sunny for me to comfortably move around outside, and also why my interest was piqued when the UPP’s vintage slot was taken up by Czech director Jindrich Polak’s 1963 film Ikarie XB-1, which it billed as a ‘pioneering and much-imitated cornerstone of contemporary sci-fi’. This was particularly intriguing, as this is a film I had never been aware of before.

One thing about old SF movies from behind the Iron Curtain is that they seem a bit more likely to be based on a respectable piece of literature than their American equivalents – you still get terrible, low-budget knock-offs like Space Cop, but also lots of movies based on the works of the Strugatsky brothers and especially Stanislaw Lem. Ikarie XB-1 is apparently a loose adaptation of a Lem novel entitled The Magellanic Cloud, but it seems to me to have a much greater and somewhat surprising significance within SF as a cinematic genre.

The film has a slightly disconcerting in media res opening, with a clearly troubled and somewhat disfigured crewman (Otto Lackovic) in the process of running amok on the ship with a blaster, wailing about the Earth never having existed. The stark black-and-white photography and camerawork instantly puts one in mind of continental art cinema from around the period, even though the sets and costumes are still to some extent in the glitzy pulp SF tradition. From here we launch into opening credits powered along by a memorably jangly and discordant musical score.

We flash back to the beginning of the mission which the film is concerned with, and the departure into deep space of the Ikarie XB-1, effectively a small space colony dispatched on a decades-long mission to the Alpha Centauri system – however, due to the mysterious effects of time dilation, only a couple of years will pass for the crew. The craft is mostly crewed by strapping young men and young women with a certain exotic something about them; there are also a couple of distinguished-looking character actors in command, most obviously Zdenek Stepanek as Captain Vladimir Abajev. There is also the ship’s robot, an extraordinarily clunky and unconvincing prop – this is the single biggest weakness in the whole picture.

The ship heads out into the great darkness, and various members of the crew reflect on their position, some in an existential sort of way, others contemplating more personal concerns – one of them, for instance, has left their pregnant partner back on Earth, and is struggling to get his head around the fact his daughter will be fifteen when they meet, even though for him only a fraction of that time will elapse. They also encounter various hazards, such as derelict spaceships from the 20th century (this film does that thing of being set exactly 200 years into the future, with the XB-1 setting off in 2163), and a ‘dark star’ emitting lethal radiation.

If the slightly episodic nature of the plot is an attempt to evoke the feeling of an epic journey across space, then this scheme is somewhat undercut by the fact the film is just shy of being 90 minutes long: as a result it just feels like a movie which is lacking in a strong central narrative. Now, it is certainly possible to try and do this kind of SF film as a mood or character piece, but it is unusual to find it being attempted in Czechoslovakia in the early 1960s, regardless of whether or not this is a film based on a novel.

Watching the movie, you are much more aware of it as a piece of cinema anyway – I have occasionally wondered about the extent to which Communist film-makers were influenced by their western counterparts, especially when it came to genre movies, and Ikarie XB-1 suggests they were certainly aware of what was going on. Quite apart from the fact that some of the effects shots come perilously close to evoking 1930s Flash Gordon serials (the XB-1 is just a little bit too wobbly on its plunge across the stars), it seems a no-brainer that the makers of this film had watched Forbidden Planet, if nothing else – the plot bears no real similarities to that of the American movie, but there is something there in the aesthetic of the film, especially in that awful robot, which has an exposed brain like an miniature fairground attraction, obviously based on Robbie the Robot.

Despite all that, Ikarie XB-1 never actually feels like a piece of kitsch, derivative B-movie cinema – not in the Czech-language version, anyway. It has a rather downbeat, naturalistic quality that I wasn’t expecting at all, the performances are serious, and it isn’t afraid to touch on some more thoughtful ideas  and psychological issues along the way. The ending does come a bit out of nowhere, but it concerns humanity making unexpected contact with a totally unknown, clearly very alien civilisation or intelligence, and this is epochal event is presented not as something to be terrified of, but a source of wonder. Perhaps one is looking too hard for connections which don’t actually exist, but it is not really surprising to learn that when Stanley Kubrick was assimilating the SF genre in the early 1960s, looking to make ‘the proverbial good science fiction film’, this was apparently one of the films that really influenced him.

It is a bold move to suggest that Ikarie XB-1 is, in fact, the missing link in the development of the SF movie between Forbidden Planet and 2001: A Space Odyssey, but I do think there is an element of truth to it. I suspect most of this is obscured in the US version of the film, which was inaccurately re-titled Voyage to the End of the Universe and had a different, feeble-sounding, Twilight Zone-ish ending foisted on it by the American distributor. As usual, the original version is much more interesting. I still think the Czech version has issues when it comes to the script, but in many other ways this film lives up to the claims made for it as a significant entry in the genre’s history.

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Having an orderly brain, I noted a few years ago that the gap between the first Men in Black film and the second one was five years, and further that the gap between the second and the third was ten years. It seemed a fairly reasonable assumption that there would be a twenty year gap between the third and the fourth, presumably with Will Smith moving into the role of the grizzled old veteran and someone as-yet-unheard-of providing the youthful glamour. Friends, I am shocked to have to relate this, but I was wrong. The new Men in Black film has come out thirteen years early, and I have to say that some might suggest it shows.

The title of the thing is Men In Black International, concerning the global doings of the secret agency which, for the purposes of this franchise, polices alien activity on the planet Earth. (‘But… but…’ anyone who was paying attention back in 1997 might be spluttering, ‘wasn’t it kind of established then that aliens were really just limited to the New York area?’ Good point. But shush.) The story gets going, chronologically speaking, with a young girl named Molly witnessing the Men in Black in action and wiping her parents’ memories afterwards. She grows up to be a massive over-achiever (Tessa Thompson) and through diligence and ingenuity manages to track the agency to its secret base, where she persuades the director (Emma Thompson, mostly phoning it in) to recruit her.

She is then packed off to the London branch, where there are suggestions of something not being quite right in the ranks of the persons with a wardrobe of a limited chromatic range. It seems that a few years ago there was a showdown atop the Eiffel Tower, which contains some sort of hyperspace gateway built by M. Eiffel, who was also a Man in Black. (‘But.. but… wasn’t it kind of established that the Men in Black came into existence as an exclusively American agency, in 1961?’ Another good point. But shush again.) The two agents involved (Liam Neeson and Chris Hemsworth) saved the world from an invasion by shape-shifting alien horrors, but Hemsworth’s character has been acting rather erratically ever since.

And there is some more plot following this, but I will not trouble you with the details as they are unlikely to linger much in your head, even if you see the movie. The general recipe for the film is kind of the same as before: there’s a gentle send-up of some of the tropes of B-movie sci-fi, mixed with some spy and cop movie clichés, and also a few potentially slightly scary bits with an almost Lovecraftian sense of gribbly tentacled unpleasantness pressing in on the margins of the mundane world.

The thing is that this time around… well, here’s what I have been led to understand about this film. Apparently director Gray was keen to make a film with a bit of a satirical edge to it and some social commentary on the topic of immigration (you can imagine how that would work, along with some of the more obvious gags – one wonders what kind of dismal alien hell-world could have spawned the current US administration). Producer Walter Parkes (who I feel obliged to mention has some pretty decent movies on his CV) wanted something a bit more middle-of-the-road and proceeded to start rewriting the script while the film was actually in production. Chris Hemsworth and Tessa Thompson, who reputedly signed on on the strength of the Gray script, were understandably bemused and independently recruited writers of their own to polish their dialogue.

(Yes, I know, it is utterly baffling that films are made this way, and we have to assume that it is not standard practice in the industry. Even so, this is a production with a budget of somewhere in the region of $100 million, yet the creative process involved seems to have primarily been based around squabbling and bemusement.)

When you consider all this, not to mention the producer and the director both assembling their own edits of the finished film (the producer’s version won out), one does have to say that Men in Black International is a staggering achievement in the way it still manages to be a more or less coherent story without a large number of holes in the plot. This is not to say that there aren’t any – there are still a few, and to be honest they are biggies, but it is unlikely to bother most members of the audience as the clash of different visions has resulted in a film with very little sense of what it’s supposed to be beyond a brand extension and franchise instalment. No one is likely to care or be engaged enough to worry too much about whether it makes any sense.

I mean, look, there is virtually wall-to-wall CGI for most of the film, and it is all very professionally done; fights and chases turn up on a regular basis; there are plot reversals and so on too. But none of it feels as if it means anything – it is all very mechanical and uninspired. It feels like a Men in Black film produced by some sort of artificial intelligence, or a joke written by a computer – all the structural elements are present and correct, it’s just completely flat and lifeless.

Now, of course, with this kind of film, winning chemistry from charismatic leads can go a long way towards taking up any bagginess in the other departments, but the film is also afflicted with, if this isn’t too harsh a way of putting it, the Chris Hemsworth problem. I have certainly enjoyed many Chris Hemsworth films and Chris Hemsworth performances in the past (mostly the ones where he has been playing Thor, to be honest). I have no beef with him as a person, not least because I have no personal relationship with him. However, he is in the awkward spot of being someone whose films make hundreds of millions, if not billions of dollars, but only when he plays that one character he’s famous for. So just how big a star is he really? Opinion seems to be divided on the topic, especially if you consider the stories that one of the reasons the fourth Bad Robot Star Trek movie folded was Hemsworth’s involvement being judged not to be worth his very hefty asking price (he was due to reprise his before-he-was-famous role as Captain Kirk’s dad). Hemsworth’s attempts to establish himself as a leading man in his own right are not helped by the fact he is essentially giving a lightweight version of the same performance he delivered in his last couple of MCU movies (here the ratio is about 70% swagger to 30% smug), or the fact he’s paired with Tessa Thompson, one of his regular foils from those same movies, or the fact that the film brazenly includes cheesy in-jokes alluding to Hemsworth having played Thor for the last eight years. As for Thompson herself, I have to say I’m not entirely sure she has the chops to be co-lead in a big aspiring blockbuster like this one. She’s not actually bad. But you’re still perhaps a little surprised to see her there, vaguely feeling that you were expecting someone else.

This is cinematic entertainment as disposable, mechanical product. It is rarely actually dull, for at least it has been edited together to provide a good deal of pace. But it is just a succession of sounds and pictures that makes sense in a transactional sort of way. It has no resonance, no subtlety, no depth, nothing new to say or do. It almost feels like it is aspiring to be mediocre. Anything which made the first couple of films in this series memorable and entertaining has been scraped out of the carcass and what remains lurches across the screen in an almost wholly affectless way. It doesn’t engage the emotions, the brain, or the sense of humour. Nobody was demanding this film, I suspect, but it could still have potentially revitalised and updated the series. Instead, I think that in a sane world it would constitute the final swift blow to its throat. So we can probably expect a reboot at some point in the next ten years.

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In the UK we are used to genre movies being given distinction and a touch of gravitas by the presence of classy actors who you wouldn’t automatically associate with low-budget horror and fantasy – the most famous examples being, of course, Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee. This famous duo top a list of first-rate performers which includes people like Andre Morell, Oliver Reed, George Sanders, Ralph Richardson, Patrick Troughton, and many more. When it comes to American films, however, it feels like this doesn’t happen nearly so much. The blazingly obvious exception is Vincent Price, of course (an actor who also made films in Britain, of course), but apart from him, who else is there? Mostly just people at the very beginnings (Jack Nicholson) or ends (Boris Karloff, Basil Rathbone) of their careers.

And then there is Ray Milland, an A-list star for many years, and Paramount’s highest paid performer as well. In his later years Milland turned up in various made-for-TV fare, some of which got theatrical releases over here (he is in the first Battlestar Galactica movie, for example), but in the 1960s he followed in Vincent Price’s footsteps and made a handful of films with Roger Corman. One of these was an entry into Corman’s cycle of Poe adaptations; the other, X: The Man with the X-Ray Eyes, is slightly trickier to pin down when it comes to its pedigree.

The film was released in 1963. Milland plays James Xavier, a scientist and surgeon who is brilliant to the point of actual arrogance. The particular bee in Xavier’s bonnet is his dissatisfaction with the fact that the human eye can only perceive 10% or so of the spectrum. Feeling we should do better, he has obtained funding to develop some hormonal eyedrops to expand the range of human vision, and happily demonstrates them to a representative of the funding body, Diane Fairfax (Diana van der Vlis), by testing them on a monkey. The monkey indeed appears to briefly acquire the ability to see through sheets of card, which is good, but then it appears to die of shock, which is not. Having skipped the same class on hubris and nemesis as Dr Frankenstein, Seth Brundle, and every other SF-horror movie scientist you care to mention, Xavier cheerfully ignores the deceased simian and, facing a review from the money men, takes the eyedrops himself.

Well, the results are mixed, as his funding is suspended as the committee holding the purse strings have grave doubts about his work – but looking on the bright side, he can now achieve miracles of surgery, and also see everyone naked at parties (of course, as the movie was made in 1963, so this is all presented very innocently). However, an uneasy colleague, disturbed by Xavier’s arrogance, assures him he will be tried for malpractice, and a friend’s attempt to make an intervention results in the friend falling out of a window many stories up (this bit is not fantastically well presented).

Xavier is forced to drop out of sight (no pun intended), taking up residence first as a theme park novelty act, and later as a kind of faith healer, encouraged in both of these by an unscrupulous associate, Crane (a really nice performance by Don Rickles) – it’s the only way he can make any money to fund further research, for his sight is continuing to change. But when Diane finds him, he resolves to use his special faculties to fund his research – by going to Las Vegas and taking on the casinos. However, his vision is continuing to expand, causing him no small psychological stress, as reality itself literally unravels before his eyes…

So, on one level this is obviously another of those cautionary tales about Misguided Scientists Meddling In Things Of Which Man Was Not Meant To Know, although some commentators have found more interesting and subtle elements to it – Stephen King, in Danse Macabre, suggests that it is one of the few American horror films to conjure up an authentically Lovecraftian sense of dreadful cosmic horror, which I suppose is arguably the case: Xavier gibbers of catching sight of a great, all-seeing eye at the heart of the universe, which certainly sounds like the sort of thing Lovecraft would have come up with. (King also writes of a supposedly lost ‘original ending’, in which Xavier despairingly wails ‘I can still see!’, even after [spoilers redacted]. Roger Corman denies this ever existed, but acknowledges it is a better conclusion than the one in the film.)

Whatever you think of the story – and personally, I find it to be just a bit too linear and obvious, and by no means rushed even at less than 80 minutes in duration – the film works as well as it does mostly because of Milland’s terrific central performance. You can see why this guy was a major star for decades – in the early part of the film in particular, it’s like watching Cary Grant making a sci-fi B-movie: Milland has the same effortless suave charisma, he even sounds a bit like Grant. As the film goes on, he handles Xavier’s descent into haunted despair and then mania equally well, wringing every drop from a script, which (naked party scenes aside) handles its subject matter with commendable seriousness. With the possible exception of Rickles, no-one else really gets a look in.

Of course, you can pretty much guarantee that a film subtitled The Man with the X-Ray Eyes is going to include some ambitious point-of-view shots, and for a film of its time this one produces some interesting effects as it goes on. They are striking and lurid, for the most part, especially the psychedelic cityscapes that Xavier witnesses towards the end of the film. On the other hand, they are to some degree expressionistic – Corman has spoken of updating the film with more modern optical effects, and you can understand why. Whether this would include taking a second look at the final shot of the film, which for me doesn’t really work, I don’t know.

In any case, this is a solid, well-scripted film, interesting to look at and with a clear sense of what it wants to be. It’s Ray Milland’s performance, though, which really makes it memorable and distinctive.

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