Feeds:
Posts
Comments

Posts Tagged ‘SF’

The final three episodes of Sapphire and Steel were the only ones I watched on their original transmission (I only came across the second episode of this final four-parter by chance – we weren’t a TV Times household) and I think it is a testament to the striking originality of this series that elements and images from them have remained with me ever since. I was already aware of the programme, mainly from – I think – a Look-In annual with a heroically inaccurate guide to the series and its main characters – I kept waiting for Steel to use his power to turn his enemies into metal (this completely untrue factoid may have resulted from a misreading by the annual writer of the Sapphire and Steel comic strip, in which Lead demonstrates the bizarre ability to turn people into metal toy soldiers). Watching again now, they are amongst the most atmospheric of the series, and also the most cryptic: so not at all unrepresentative of the series at its best.

The setting appears to be a motorway service station somewhere in England in the early 1980s (the programme makers have learned their lesson and don’t specify an exact year). The reason for the presence of Sapphire and Steel (and Silver, rather unusually) is that the whole place seems to be stuck in a moment it can’t get out of: the same few seconds at 8:54 in the evening repeat themselves endlessly. It certainly looks like the kind of time anomaly they usually concern themselves with, and there is a further mystery – a couple (Edward de Souza and Johanna Kirby), claiming to be from 1948, have arrived by Rolls Royce. They seem strangely unconcerned about having inexplicably slipped forward by three decades, and are uncooperative and hostile towards the operators, refusing to give their names or any other details about themselves.

The mystery intensifies: time starts to jerk forward, ten and twenty minutes at a time. They encounter an older man (John Boswall), who says it is 1925, and a younger one (Chris Fairbank), who believes himself to be in 1957. None of it seems to make any rational sense, even to Sapphire and Steel. Other strange details take on an unexpected significance in the circumstances – why was Silver sent here six hours before them, when specialists like him are normally only assigned after a request from ‘regular’ agents? Why was their ‘briefing’ on this situation so vague and general? The suspicion dawns that nothing here is what it seems, and no-one can be trusted…

None of the participants seem to be able to agree on whether or not this was intended from the start to be the end of the series, or indeed why the series concluded: ITV franchise politics may have been a factor, along with the issue of David McCallum and Joanna Lumley’s availability. There is also a suggestion that P.J. Hammond was tired of doing the programme, but this jibes somewhat with his recollection that he originally wrote a method of escape for the characters into the final episode, only for it to be removed at the request of McCallum (it involved Silver, and McCallum felt the final scene should focus on the two title characters only).

The big twist of this story is that, as the fanon title ‘The Trap’ suggests, the whole situation has been contrived to target Sapphire and Steel (and, possibly, Silver) for death and destruction (Sapphire uses the two words interchangeably, which is curious and perhaps indicative): this is why it is so bizarre and inexplicable. Of course, the problem with this from a writing point of view is that every situation in Sapphire and Steel seems bizarre and inexplicable, so how do you communicate the special nature of this one to the audience? Wisely, Hammond chooses to do so through the main characters’ reactions: Sapphire and Steel start to smell a rat as early as the second episode, and their increasing unease and concern at what’s happening around them communicates very well to the viewer.

If this was intended to be the final story, you would expect it to be the point at which some of the mysteries of the series were explained: but of course they’re not. Quite the opposite, in fact: the creatures working against the operatives are transient beings, supposedly trapped in the past normally, who seem to be more powerful than them (one of the transients overpowers Steel very easily, no mean feat considering some of the stunts he has pulled off elsewhere in the series). The transients are apparently ‘agents of a higher authority’ which Sapphire and Steel have antagonised by refusing to work for it. While they have been marked for destruction, Silver apparently still has a chance of survival.

The questions inevitably pile up. If Sapphire and Steel are the guardians, or possibly regulators of Time, then they are surely connected with the great cosmic principles of the universe – what ‘higher authority’ can there be? (Especially one which seems to be rather malevolent.) The implication is that the operatives have an existence separate from their roles when assigned – that this is, in some way, just a job for them. It also seems rather peculiar, given the vast cosmic forces apparently involved, that the transients are so dependent on the time box they have been equipped with (then again it is, almost literally, a plot device).

It’s a different kind of story, particularly in the final episode, but this doesn’t mean it’s any more conventional than usual. It still works, of course, partly due to the performances (the leads are as good as usual, while Edward de Souza and Johanna Kirby are impressive as the main guest stars), and partly because the director understands pacing and the power of a good image: the moment at the end of the third episode, where the transient beings drop their human guises and reveal themselves to be hostile analogues to the operatives, is one of the most effective in the series (there’s something very British about the agents of higher cosmic authority appearing in the form of men in grey suits).

As we approach the end of the very tense final episode, it almost looks as if Sapphire and Steel have managed to dodge the trap their enemy has prepared for them – but, of course, there is one last twist to come. The end of the series comes abruptly, almost anticlimactically, and the final fate of the operatives is all the more downbeat for coming so abruptly and inexplicably. The ending of Blake’s 7 almost seems cheery by comparison: death is one thing, but eternity trapped in some surreal cosmic oubliette is surely much, much worse. No wonder it stuck with me so clearly. Perhaps not the ending one would have hoped for, but one which feels entirely appropriate for this series – after all, if Sapphire and Steel had been interested in routinely offering explanations, it would not have been the distinctive and memorable series that it remains.

Read Full Post »

At times like this, with all the cinemas closed and all new releases cancelled, the big streaming sites virtually qualify as an emergency service for those of us who normally try to watch two or three movies a week. Oddly enough, though, I find myself drawn not to all the shiny new original films these guys have been making, but those older classics (or not) which have found a place in their libraries. (I did read a piece pointing out the sheer scarcity of films from before about 1980 on Netflix, the implication being that the site eventually wants us all to become consumers solely of its own product, in much the same way that Disney Plus is trying to make people forget any other studios exist – mind you, if you look at box office returns over the last few years, this seems to be happening anyway…)

To take my mind off what’s starting to look, for some angles. a bit like the popular conception of the apocalypse, I decided to revisit a somewhat offbeat take on the post-apocalypse, in the form of Thom Eberhardt’s Night of the Comet. I don’t think I’ve seen this movie in over thirty years – the BBC used to have a regular Sunday night slot called Moviedrome, where they would show a different cult film every week, and as you can probably imagine this had a major impact on my development as a cinema bore. I saw my first Kurosawa movie through the auspices of Moviedrome, not to mention The Terminator, The Man Who Fell to Earth, the remake of Invasion of the Body Snatchers, Alphaville,  Assault on Precinct 13, and many others. Classics all – but they also showed things like Night of the Comet, which appeared in the strand (a little research has just revealed) in 1989.

Night of the Comet was originally released in 1984. A knowingly portentous voice-over kicks off proceedings, describing the approach towards our planet of a mysterious comet, which made its last visit 65 million years ago, right about the time the dinosaurs died out. What a coincidence… It’s not one which most people pay much heed to, gathering in the streets and parks in anticipation of a literally stellar display.

Not watching the celestial fireworks, however, is steely eighteen-year-old girl Regina (Catherine Mary Stewart), as she has spent the night in the steel-lined projection room of a Los Angeles theatre with her kind-of boyfriend. Come the morning, he heads off on urgent business, only to be brained by a zombie with a wrench the moment he steps out of the building. Luckily, Reg’s dad is in the army and has taught her to deal with this kind of emergency, and she heads home, slowly realising something unexpected has occurred: piles of clothes filled with reddish dust litter the streets, and the sky is stained a baleful orange colour (‘Bad smog today’ is her first thought). Eventually she puts two and two together and realises that the comet’s radiation has disintegrated the vast majority of the population and turned everyone else into a homicidal zombie!

Well, not quite everybody else: in a credulity-bothering development, Reg’s sassy younger sister Samantha (Kelli Maroney) has also survived after spending the night in a steel garden shed. It takes a bit of persuading to make Sam realise the gravity of the situation, but eventually she wises up. The sound of DJ chatter on the radio gives the girls hope there are other survivors – but on arriving there, they find only automated equipment, broadcasting as usual. ‘Beam me up Scotty,’ says an impressed Sam.

Which is a decent cue for the appearance of truck driver Hector, given he is played by Robert Beltran (Beltran is best known for his stint in Star Trek, and the epically disgruntled interviews he would give about his lack of character development). Beltran gets top billing here, but doesn’t really deserve it. Hector also spent the night in a steel box (the back of his truck) and has had run-ins with the zombies. There is perhaps a little spark between Reg and Hector (rather to Sam’s chagrin), but before anything can develop, Hector announces he has to go and see if his mum has survived.

There is also a phone call to the station from a secret government installation who claim to be bringing survivors together – like you’d ever trust the government in this sort of situation. The head of the installation is played by Geoffrey Lewis, who is the closest thing to a mainstream movie star in this picture, while assisting him is Mary Woronov, who is both practical and stylish in boiler-suit and legwarmers. It turns out the boffins need to develop a cure for zombie-ism rather quickly (their shelter wasn’t completely steel-lined) and require the blood of bright young women to do so… Little realising the peril they are in, Sam and Reg decide to take things easy and do what any self-respecting California girl would do in this situation – load up with automatic weapons and hit the nearest shopping mall!

One of the main reasons for Night of the Comet‘s charm (which is considerable) is the way in which it shamelessly mashes together two notably dour pieces of SF to produce something much more tongue-in-cheek, even silly in places. The opening, with crowds gathering in anticipation of the show from the comet, and early reports of communication black-outs being ignored, is lifted almost beat-for-beat from John Wyndham’s The Day of the Triffids, while the vision of an empty Los Angeles with lurking zombie-like survivors is likewise an obvious steal from The Omega Man (vide Richard Matheson, again). There are also nods to Dawn of the Dead, although to be honest the zombies remain a fairly minor element of the story, perhaps explaining why this film only received a PG-13 rating on its release, one of the first films to do so.

And yet the finished film feels like it really wants to be a comedy or spoof – a line of dialogue retains the original working title for the movie, Teenage Comet Zombies, which does feel like it would have been a better fit than the one they finished up with. I’ve always felt there was a largely-unrecognised movement of low-budget SF movies made in California in the early to mid 80s, and this is part of it – I’m thinking of movies like Trancers and Cherry 2000, as well, with The Terminator undoubtedly the most significant film to come out of this scene. As a rule they are clever, inventive, and witty, and to begin with this film is no exception, playing with its genre conventions with a knowing deftness and treating the viewer with intelligence.

The first act, until the point at which Reg and Sam meet up with Hector, barely puts a foot wrong, with the revelation of the aftereffects of the comet and the presentation of the silenced city being particularly well-done. It kind of loses focus and runs out of steam after this, though: the plot sort of ambles around for a bit, with various set-pieces going on, before pulling itself back together for a half-decent finale. The good lines are further apart and the contrivances of the plot somehow more obvious; Stewart and Maroney are good enough to make you wonder why they ended up becalmed in TV, but there are some very iffy performances further down the cast list.

The problem with the movie is that it’s just not funny enough to work as a full-on comedy or spoof, but the fact that it wants to be one means it is fatally lacking in heft in its dramatic moments – Eberhardt may have based his script on interviews with actual California teenagers, asking what they would do in the event of an apocalyptic crisis (‘go shopping’ was apparently the result – they only became concerned when he pointed out the problems involved in getting a date), but there’s still something very absurd about the sisters’ untroubled response to the catastrophe that has befallen the world. This is a fundamentally superficial film, and intentionally so, but that doesn’t mean there is not a considerable amount of entertainment value to be derived along the way.

Read Full Post »

Stranger things may have appeared as primetime entertainment on a commercial British channel than Sapphire and Steel‘s Assignment Three, but I can’t imagine what they were. The first couple of stories bear a kind of familial resemblance to the classic English ghost story – Assignment Two in particular has all kinds of half-echoes of things like M.R. James, Charles Dickens’ The Signal-Man and even a touch of Nigel Kneale. Assignment Three is very different – if it owes a debt to anything at all, it’s new wave British SF (maybe J.G. Ballard or Christopher Priest), but it’s a very tangential connection at best.

The setting is urban, modern, austere: an apartment in a tower block in a British city, in the year 1980 (the year before the story was actually broadcast). The inhabitants are a couple, she rather younger than he; they have a very young child. Almost at once it becomes clear that things are not quite as conventional as they appear – the couple are really time-travellers from the 35th century engaged upon a study of life in the late twentieth century.

Soon enough, Sapphire and Steel appear – materialise? manifest? – in the building. In this story their agenda is made quite explicit: the well-being of individual people is only a secondary concern, their priority is to protect the structure of Time. As you might expect, they have no fondness for time-travellers, but the situation here is more complicated than simply dealing with the intruding researchers. Some other force is operating, one that is hostile to the intruders and might conceivably cause greater damage to the timelines.

Steel’s rather dour fall-back position is to prepare to blow up the entire block, killing over sixty people, but Sapphire is reluctant to pursue this course. A methodical search of the block reveals no sign of the time-travellers, until they visit the roof – the time-travellers are living in a perfect replica of a contemporary flat, invisible, completely sealed off from the outside. It’s so comprehensively isolated that not even Sapphire and Steel’s powers can effect an entrance to it.  (There is something undeniably odd about the fact that the observers are apparently mimicking the forms of twentieth century life but remain perfectly cut off from it. But we are still only on the outermost lip of the rabbit hole.)

Needless to say, odd things are beginning to happen within the time-travellers’ capsule. They have lost contact with their superiors in the future, and also with two other research units in other parts of the country. When the woman, Rothwyn (Catherine Hall), goes through the motions of preparing a meal, she is besieged by visions of animals in an abattoir and the sound of their frightened cries. Small loose objects begin to move spontaneously within the apartment. The climax of the first episode comes when a pillow takes flight, turns into an angry swan, and hurls itself at Steel, who is precariously clinging on to the exterior of the unit.

Well, it’s an undeniably arresting opening episode, establishing the odd, alienated tone of the thing. To be honest, for all that this is clearly being made on a slightly higher budget than the earlier stories (it’s a bit of a shock to see Sapphire and Steel on film, when they venture onto the roof), it still comes perilously close to being unintentionally funny when the soft furnishings turn hostile.

This is another six episode story, and – as is practically standard in the series at this point – the pace of the thing is somewhat languid, to say the least. All the stuff established in the opening episode does get picked up on and resolved by the finish, but it goes off down some very circuitous pathways before this happens: one might even call it padding, but it’s some of the most surreal and diverting padding ever incorporated into mainstream entertainment.

Most of this concerns the peculiar fate of the time-travellers’ child, who is transformed into an adult (a genuinely eerie performance from Russell Wootton) who has time-manipulation powers (the touch of one hand sends objects into the future, that of the other reverts objects to their primal state – so glass becomes sand, and so on). Sapphire, meanwhile, is transported against her will to one of the other research units, where she makes some grim discoveries.

Turning up to help Steel out in Sapphire’s absence is Silver (David Collings), another of the elemental creatures. It seems to be generally accepted amongst fans of this series that Sapphire and Steel are ‘Operatives’ and Silver is a ‘Technician’, suggesting some formal difference in their status, but this is no more than implied on screen: Silver has his speciality (machinery and mechanisms), but then so do the others (Sapphire’s seems to be information gathering, while Steel’s is resolving problems, usually taking a direct approach – in this episode, he ties knots in elevator cables with his bare hands to isolate the roof).

Introducing Silver is really the story’s most successful innovation, as the three-way dynamic between him and the others is very engaging (David Collings’ performance is of the sort which makes you wonder why he remained a fairly unknown character actor throughout his career). Silver clearly winds Steel up very, very badly – where Steel is dour and serious, Silver is much more of a dandy, and one with a very high opinion of his abilities. Could there be something going on between him and Sapphire? There is certainly a whiff of tension there, and also the suggestion that the elementals are more human than they sometimes appear – there is talk of Silver’s childhood, while Sapphire seems genuinely frightened and even bleeds at different points in the story.

Even so, there does seem to be something very off about the pacing of this story: an episode or two of diversion, before a return to the main plot – but in Assignment Three things get largely put on hold towards the end of episode two and the plot only really picks up again in the final episode – the elementals and the time-travellers only meet face-to-face towards the end of episode five. The concluding episode inevitably feels very rushed as a result. The overall sense and message of the thing is clear – the story is, perhaps, a very oblique piece of agitprop about animal rights, with the biomechanical systems of the time capsule spurred into revolt by the journey into the past – but exactly how things resolve is left open – is there any significance to the fact that supposedly sealed capsule apparently had a mouse in it?

There’s a lot of interesting and often impressive stuff in this story, which shows that Sapphire and Steel can function as a more obvious piece of SF. But it is slow and baggy; often it’s only the sheer arresting weirdness of it which makes it work. It’s always very strong on the what-will-happen-next? factor, not least because it soon becomes clear that the answer is usually ‘anything the budget can afford’ (this is less impressive than it sounds). Nevertheless, as weird-and-distinctive pieces of TV from the past go, this is as striking as they come.

Read Full Post »

The gravity of the current situation didn’t completely sink in with me until this weekend just gone, especially when I made one of my regular visits to the cinema. Everything was ostensibly the same as normal, but it had all changed, especially when it came to the trailers for coming attractions: there was something very detached from reality about studios boldly promising their next blockbuster would be coming out in April, May or June; even the ones offering a less-specific ‘Coming Soon’ seemed hopelessly optimistic. As previously mentioned hereabouts, some big movies are being pulled from the schedules and it’s hard to imagine others won’t follow suit, even if the cinemas stay open. Even Marvel Studios may finally have met their match in the coronavirus; whether this results in a fender-bender of their unreleased films piling up on top of each other remains to be seen – at the time of writing, they seem intent on hanging tough and sticking with a May date for Black Widow.

Universal, on the other hand, are being ultra-cautious and Fast and Furious 9 has been pushed back by a whole year (and this follows its release date being delayed to accommodate last year’s spin-off). Never mind the pandemic – what is the world to do without its regular fix of Vin Diesel driving crossly and quickly? Well, this particular sub-crisis could be potentially be ameliorated by the fact that Vin has had another go at a non-F&F movie (what’s that quote about doing the same thing again and again and expecting different results…?) and it is available to view in cinemas now: Bloodshot, directed by Dave Wilson, a co-production between the often badly-named Original Film Company and  Bona Films (which sounds like something out of Round the Horne).

Diesel, resembling as ever a cross between Telly Savalas and a Cape buffalo, plays Ray Garrison, an elite US special forces soldier whom we first encounter shooting some bad guys with great aplomb in Kenya. That all sorted out, he heads off for a holiday in Italy with his lovely wife (Talulah Riley). This occasions various scenes of Vin trying to play the romantic lead, which finds the big man some distance from his comfort zone, and could be considered a gruelling experience for the audience, too.

Luckily enough, the two of them are soon kidnapped by some bad guys out for revenge, led by a character named Martin Axe (Toby Kebbell). Kebbell comes on and does a little dance number to ‘Psycho Killer’ by Talking Heads, just to make it quite clear he is a psycho killer. He proves his psycho killer credentials by killing not just Vin’s missus but Vin himself (this barely qualifies as a spoiler as we haven’t even reached the opening credits yet).

Well, it probably will not come as a shock to you if I reveal that it takes more than being killed to keep a man like Vin Diesel down, especially when his body is donated to private industry by the US government. That mighty carcass falls into the hands of cyber-boffin Dr Emil Harting (Guy Pearce), who brings Vin back from the dead by replacing his blood with robots (look, I just write this stuff down). Now he is super-strong, heals like Hugh Jackman, and his new robo-blood can log onto the internet and do all kinds of improbable things. Harting wants Vin to join his team of cybernetically-reconstructed forces veterans (Eiza Gonzalez plays the obligatory ass-kicking babe), but Vin is having trouble getting his shiny head around all of this, not least because dying has given him amnesia. He wanders off by himself a lot and sits looking aggrieved, occasionally putting his head in his hands (viewers of the film may be doing the same by this point).

But then someone plays some Talking Heads on the radio and it all comes back to our man. Off he trots to exact a violent revenge on Kebbell, making full use of his robo-blood and other special faculties. But isn’t this all just a bit convenient? Could there be more going on than Vin is aware of…?

Yes, I know: the world is gripped by a pandemic, with everyone encouraged to exercise social distancing and avoid unnecessary travel, and this is the movie I spend my Sunday evening watching: not just a non-prestige superhero movie based on a comic book even I have never heard of, but a Vin Diesel vehicle to boot, and one with a very silly name. Well, what can I say: every trip to the cinema is a potential gamble nowadays, and I never was very good at knowing when to fold ’em and when to hold ’em.

Of course, in this case the odds get rather longer, because Vin Diesel’s record outside of the F&F franchise (and, I suppose, his work with Marvel, such as it is) is so variable he has pretty much given up on making other movies. This is his first non-Toretto, non-tree lead role since The Last Witch Hunter five years ago – a film which made a small profit, but was critically reviled. Quite what attracted him to this project I don’t know – but the fact it potentially gives him a chance to be in at the start of another proposed ‘superhero universe’ based on comics from Valiant (no, me neither) must have had something to do with it.

I did turn up to Bloodshot expecting not just junk, but bad junk, but I have to say this movie is not quite as poor as one might reasonably expect (someone in the theatre audibly said ‘Let’s see just how **** this movie is’ as it got underway), nor as it probably sounds from the synopsis. This is mainly due to things that happen in the second and third acts of the movie, which would really count as spoilers, so you’ll just have to trust me on this. There are some interesting ideas in the mix here, mainly connected to Vin’s unreliable memory and the way in which this affects his character. There’s something almost existential about this – if you don’t trust your own memory, how do you make any kind of decision? – and while the film certainly doesn’t dwell on the notion or explore it more than strictly necessary, it was still a touch more thoughtful than I was expecting.

In the same way, while the revenge vendetta element of the plot may sound hackneyed and predictable, there’s almost a suggestion that this is intentional – that this is a narrative intended to function on a number of levels, as a predictable, no-brainer action movie, but also as a knowing deconstruction of this kind of story. Unfortunately, mainly due to a clumsy script and direction that seems more interested in always getting to the next action sequence as fast as possible, this falls a bit flat: the whole movie is hackneyed and predictable, just not on purpose.

There are other problems too: some of the supporting performances are rather over-the-top, and there are places where the tightness of the budget just can’t be hidden – a foot chase with Vin being pursued around central London has clearly been filmed in suburban South Africa, and it’s absurd that anyone thought for a second this substitution would work.

That said, the meat-and-potatoes action stuff is reasonably well-presented. Vin Diesel is kind of an odd outlier as an action star, as he doesn’t seem to have any kind of wrestling or martial arts background (when his peers were off at the dojo, Diesel was busy playing Dungeons & Dragons) – his signature move, if that’s the right way to describe it, seems to be to hurl himself bodily at his opponents and crush them with his sheer bulk (something which perhaps achieved its apotheosis in the ‘dolphin’ headbutt demonstrated in Fast & Furious 6). Nevertheless, he is reasonably effective as the relentless human bulldozer of vengeance the story here requires.

In the end, though, this is not a great movie, for all that it ticks all the boxes and passes the time in a reasonably diverting way. If it feels particularly disappointing, that’s because there are signs here of a film with genuine wit and intelligence that never got made – instead, it’s just very routine genre stuff, aiming low and just about hitting the target, possessed of a belief that lavish CGI is a good substitute for a proper script. Who knows, we may see future appearances by Diesel as this character, or further movies in this setting – but I don’t think we’ll be missing much if they never happen.

Read Full Post »

Normally the news that the release of Peter Rabbit 2 has been delayed for months would count as unusually good news, but the circumstances, coupled to the fact that the new Bond and Fast and Furious films are also being put back by a considerable period of time (with other big releases no doubt to follow), kind of takes the shine off it. One wonders if the time will come when UK cinemas close entirely, either due to government decree or a complete lack of films to show (although there must be some intriguing possibilities for counter-programming opening up at the moment). I suppose one must do the best one can in the circumstances, for an eclectic range of films is still on offer, always assuming there isn’t a power cut in the cinema (this actually happened to me the other night; details to follow when we get around to watching the end of the interrupted movie).

Which brings us to Jessica Hausner’s Little Joe, which by any reasonable metric counts as a very peculiar film indeed: what I suppose we must describe as an Anglo-Germano-Austrian post-horror movie (yes, another one of those). There are things about this film which feel very familiar indeed, but the overall tone and posture of the piece are, well, challenging and unusual, or will be to most audiences, especially the ones most likely to be drawn to it.

The film opens, and much of it occurs in, the austere confines of a greenhouse attached to a scientific research facility. The people here are intent on breeding genetically-modified plants, with variable degrees of success. One of the most dedicated and passionate researchers is Alice Woodard (Emily Beecham), who is going against the flow by attempting to create a plant which needs especially high levels of care and maintenance from its owner – some of her colleagues are doing the exact opposite, trying to breed plants which don’t need watering when you go on holiday. The pay-off, in the case of Alice’s flower, is that the plant releases chemicals promoting the happiness of the owner and ensuring a strong bond between the two of them.

As you can imagine, this is demanding work and Alice is devoted to it, ignoring the awkward advances of a colleague (Ben Whishaw) who has a bit of a thing for her. Virtually the only thing she allows to impinge on her dedication to the plant is her relationship with her son Joe (Kit Connor), who is in his early teens. As a special gift for him, Alice smuggles one of her plants out of the lab and gives it to him. They decide to call it Little Joe.

But then the Little Joes still in the greenhouse start producing large amounts of pollen – something they shouldn’t be doing, considering they have been engineered to be sterile. Other plants in the same facility wither and die, and Alice’s boss insists on a full examination of the Little Joes to see if they could be harmful or allergenic. Another colleague’s dog is exposed to the pollen and begins to behave very oddly indeed – the colleague (Kerry Fox) insists that the pollen ‘infects’ people and changes their behaviour, that the plants are trying to ensure their survival through other means now they can no longer reproduce in the conventional manner. Naturally Alice resists this idea entirely – the Little Joe is just a very unusual plant, that’s all. Of course, it transpires her genetic modification of the planet has entailed a few unauthorised short cuts, so she is invested in having it proven harmless for a number of reasons. But when Joe starts to behave strangely, she begins to wonder if there might not be some truth to her colleague’s wild accusations about Little Joe…

The involvement of BBC Films means, probably, that a substantial proportion of the British public can sort-of take pride in being a producer of Little Joe and thus ensuring the continuation of the proud tradition of the botanical horror-SF movie. The British pedigree in this sort of thing goes back a long way and includes some very impressive books and films – starting with The Day of the Triffids and quite possibly proceeding on to The Girl with All the Gifts. (For fairness’ sake I must also admit that Z-movies like Womaneater and the segment of Dr Terror with Fluff Freeman and the killer vine also qualify.)

On paper Little Joe does look like a fairly straightforward horror-SF film about a creepy plant with more to it than meets the eye. However, anyone turning up to it expecting that is probably heading for disappointment, for this is a rather more subtle and restrained movie than most of the other blooms in this particular flowerbed (is this metaphor overdoing it a bit? I’m not sure).

One thing you can definitely say is that this is clearly a movie which has been made with a very great deal of care and attention: a lot of thought has clearly gone into the composition and framing of every shot, with the camera gliding implacably past scenes and characters, seemingly completely detached and disinterested in them. There is a certain austerity to the film – the visuals are crisp and colourful, but it always feels cool, detached, and calculated, with very little sense of the organic about it.

This persists. The script (by Hausner and Geraldine Bajard) works brilliantly to establish the premise and then slowly track the development of the situation, as the influence of the flowers seems to grow stronger. Equally good is Beecham’s award-winning performance, with her trajectory from dispassionate sceptic to uneasy believer in Little Joe’s odd sway completely plausible. But it’s all done with almost too much restraint and understatement. There’s not so much tension as a sense of creeping unease and vague disquiet, which never quite resolves itself or reaches the expected moments of revelation or resolution (this is the main reason why I’d almost describe this as a post-horror movie, rather than a true member of the genre).

In other words, we never really get the money shot, but the film is still well-made enough to keep the attention, not least because of the performances. The film naturally touches on some interesting ideas, as well: quite apart from the whole issue of genetic modification and the possible consequences, there is also the question of chemical happiness – whatever else it’s doing, the Little Joe flowers do seem to be making people happy, so why do they seem so sinister? Needless to say there are shades of Invasion of the Body Snatchers here, and perhaps even of Rosemary’s Baby.

I don’t think Little Joe is up to the standard of either of those, quite, but it is an impressively made film with some very good performances in it. Anyone expecting a traditional horror movie is likely to be disappointed, but viewers with an open mind will probably find a lot to appreciate.

Read Full Post »

One of the ways of spotting a remake is that they often have much more on-the-nose titles than modern movies: names like The Magnificent Seven are really not fashionable these days, unless of course they carry significant recognition value. Such is the case when it comes to a movie like Leigh Whannell’s The Invisible Man. There have been so many adaptations and other productions derived from H.G. Wells’ original novel that, ironically enough, nearly everybody must have seen one: there’s the 1933 version with Claude Rains, the Soviet version from 1984, the TV show with David McCallum, Memoirs of an Invisible Man with Chevy Chase, the other TV show with Vincent Ventresca, Abbott and Costello meet the Invisible Man, the other other TV show with Pip Donaghy, The Invisible Woman, the other other other TV show with Tim Turner, and so on.

That said, the notion almost seems to have fallen into abeyance since Paul Verhoeven’s typically restrained take on the story, in 2000’s Hollow Man – the only production openly acknowledging Wells was 2003’s The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, which still took pains to make clear that it featured an Invisible Man, not the Invisible Man – well, I suppose lawyers have to eat the same as everybody else. Whannell’s Invisible Man doesn’t actually credit Wells, which is odd given that the title character has the same name as the one in the novel, also because this is supposedly the latest entry in the very-long-running Universal Monsters franchise.

Unfortunate readers unable to afford therapy may recall The Mummy from a couple of years ago – a badly botched update on another classic tale, supposedly intended to launch a new shared universe featuring the bandaged one, Dracula, Frankenstein’s creature, Dr Jekyll, the Creature from the Black Lagoon, and so on. (You may even recall Dracula Untold from a couple of years before that, which was also intended to do the same thing, before being stricken from the canon for somewhat unclear reasons.) Well, so underwhelming was The Mummy‘s reception that Universal canned the whole idea and have gone back to doing individualised stories featuring these characters. This is, therefore, not the promised update featuring (one presumes) the voice of Johnny Depp, but something rather different.

The film opens in a lovely, super-modern cliff-top house, from which we find Cecilia Kass (Elisabeth Moss) making a clearly long-in-the-planning surreptitious nocturnal departure. Apparently her boyfriend, top optical boffin Griffin (Oscar Jackson-Cohen), is an oppressive controlling nightmare, and Cecilia just can’t take it any more. So off she sneaks, in a lengthy and actually rather tense sequence.

She ends up staying with James (Aldis Hodge), a cop who’s a friend of her sister’s, and slowly starting to lose the tension and anxiety which living with Griffin has left her with. The process of her recovery is expedited somewhat when the news breaks that Griffin has committed suicide, leaving a considerable wodge of his fortune to her. Now she can start to live again, can’t she?

Well, of course she can’t. Odd things start to happen around the house – objects appear and disappear inexplicably, someone starts sending emails from Cecilia’s laptop, her drinks are mysteriously spiked with a strong tranquiliser. Cecilia’s friends and family are sympathetic, assuming that her ordeal has resulted in her becoming a bit frayed around the edges. But Cecilia suspects something else – could Griffin still be alive and much closer to her than anyone suspects…?

Griffin is indeed the name of the Invisible Man in the original novel, but that’s the beginning and the end of any resemblance to H.G. Wells – the plot is different, the emphasis is different, even the invisibility works differently (which does have a genuine impact on the story). Possibly as a result of this – and this is going to sound like a joke – the Invisible Man himself is sort of a marginal figure in his own movie, with Jackson-Cohen getting strikingly little screen-time. The focus is always on Elisabeth Moss, with the original scientific romance retooled as a fable about paranoia and stalking.

Which is all very well, but the structure of the story requires a long, slow aggregation of events before Cecilia figures out she has an unseen stalker somewhere in her vicinity. Whannell dutifully goes through with this, but the problem is that while Cecilia is thoroughly confused, for the audience there is no sense of mystery or suspense – the movie is called The Invisible Man, after all, and you would have to have your refractive index set very low indeed not to be able to work out what’s going on. There is some pleasure to be gained from watching Whannell do his thing – the direction in this movie is pretty good, with Whannell particularly keen on a shot where the camera suggestively drifts off to focus on an apparently empty corner of the room, the implication being that it is actually occupied – but the first half of the movie does feel rather laborious.

It perks up a bit once Moss finally puts two and two together, and various scenes where cast members get to do their ouch-I’ve-just-been-punched-by-someone-invisible acting ensue. The story becomes rather involving as Cecilia’s straits get progressively more and more dire: you do start to wonder if they’re planning to go really dark with the ending, for once.

Well, obviously I can’t go into details, but I regret to say that the mid-film recovery does not last. The Invisible Man does have a functional and reasonably satisfying climax – the problem is it goes on for another fifteen or twenty minutes after this, attempting to contrive a startling twist ending. To be honest, I felt it fumbled the conclusion rather badly: this is the kind of twist which just doesn’t hang together in any real way, doesn’t even make a lot of sense on its own terms, feels deeply suspect in all kinds of ways and only really serves to make the film longer and less satisfying. The rest of it is hardly brilliant, but it’s the ending which comes close to capsizing the whole undertaking.

Shame, really: Moss is quite good (although I note the proposed spin-off, a remake of The Invisible Woman, is down to be a vehicle for Elizabeth Banks, as producer, director and star), the direction is inventive, and the supporting turns are also decent. But the script just isn’t quite up to scratch. It probably scores points with the Progressive Agenda Committee for finding a way to be so female-focussed, but there doesn’t seem to have been any real consideration of what an audience’s expectations are for a film called The Invisible Man, or how such a film should function. Not quite as bad as The Mummy, probably, but Universal continue to serve their monsters very poorly.

Read Full Post »

I make no apologies for preferring the fantasy and SF series of years gone by over contemporary series – I say this like I actually watch a lot of modern shows, which isn’t really the case. I’m watching and enjoying Picard, up to a point at least – it more closely resembles my idea of Star Trek than Discovery does, though that’s hardly saying anything – and I must confess that I did enjoy watching the first season of Supergirl when I was briefly out of the country a while ago (it’s not on UK Netflix and I can’t be bothered with trying to keep up with the showings on Pick). Of course, the problem with limiting yourself to the past is that you inevitably run out of new things to watch – although perhaps not as quickly as you might expect. It looks like being 38 years between my first seeing an episode of Sapphire and Steel and finally catching up with the complete run.

The only episodes I saw on their original transmission were the very last ones, although I was always vaguely aware of it from the spin-off comic strip and other things. I went to a fan group meeting in 1988 supposedly devoted to the most famous of all British fantasy TV series, and one of the most memorable parts of the afternoon was a showing of the first episode of the show. At university I did eventually see the whole of that first story. In between times I absorbed synopses of the stories and other articles about the series: I wrote an RPG scenario based just on that first episode; last year I wrote another one, based mainly on a story which I had not even seen.

Given it has clearly exerted quite a hold on me, I wonder why it has taken me so long to finally sit down and watch the programme properly. I don’t know: possibly the concern that it may not live up to expectations, also the fact that this is really it – with Sapphire and Steel out of the way, I have pretty much seen (and in many cases own) all the famous British SF and fantasy shows from the 1970s and early 80s (not that anyone was really initiating new genre TV shows at that point; most of the few that did get made were hardly great successes). But one can’t put these things off forever.

So – Sapphire and Steel Assignment One, from July 1979. The story is set almost entirely in an remote old house in the countryside (the series is clearly being made on the tiniest of budgets), where a young boy named Rob (Steven O’Shea) is doing his homework in a kitchen full of clocks. Upstairs, his parents are reading nursery rhymes to his younger sister Helen (Tamasin Bridge). She insists on one rhyme after another… until suddenly the clocks stop, and his parents’ voices are gone. Not just their voices: they have vanished into thin air, leaving his sister frightened and confused.

So far everything has been intimate, domestic, understated and eerie; but the titles now roll and they are expansive (almost to the point of being cosmic) and bombastic. Weird, abstract vistas unfold as threatening music plays; a stentorian voice-over (a young David Suchet, who has since forgotten ever doing it) declaims about ‘the forces controlling each dimension’ and how ‘transuranic heavy elements may not be used where there is life’ – finally, that ‘Sapphire and Steel have been assigned’.

Then we are back in the house. Rob, quite sensibly, has called the police, but impossibly quickly there is a knocking at the door. It is a man in a grey suit (David McCallum), and a woman in a blue dress (Joanna Lumley): they are Steel and Sapphire, and they have come to help. Quite what form this help is to take, and indeed what the actual problem is, never becomes what you might call concretely defined: the really distinctive thing about Sapphire and Steel is its total refusal to provide the viewer with information about what is actually going on. You are left to work it out for yourself; the episodes themselves are routinely vague and – in the case of this story at least – appear to sometimes contradict themselves.

What seems to be going on is this – the age of the house, all the old clocks, and Rob’s sister’s love of old rhymes seem to have combined to make it so the room at the top of the building has more of a presence in the past than the present day. This has put such a strain on the fabric of Time that a rupture of some sort has occurred, allowing something from outside reality as we know it to penetrate the house, abducting Rob and Helen’s parents and threatening to encroach further into their home. The entity appears to only manifest in conjunction with old rhymes and pictures, though it seems to have a particular affinity for the seventeenth century.

As far as Sapphire and Steel go – well, it is certainly implied they are elemental beings of some kind (even though neither sapphire nor steel are elements, obviously). Steel seems to be the one in charge and the one responsible for getting things done; he has very poor social skills. His main ability seems to be that he can reduce his body temperature to absolute zero, which apparently gives him the power to freeze manifestations of the encroaching force (there is an odd elision between freezing things in the conventional way and freezing time itself going on here). Initially Steel seems to need to dismantle a chest freezer in order to do his schtick, which is a very off-beat touch.

Sapphire seems to be in charge of diplomacy and fact-finding; she can manipulate the flow of time to some extent, and also seems able to change her appearance at will (adding to the likelihood that the human demeanour of the two operatives is entirely illusory). She is sensitive in all sorts of ways that Steel is not, both when it comes to dealing with people and with other more abstract phenomena.

There is quite big, broad, ambitious world-building going on here, in a cryptic way: Steel off-handedly refers to his role in sinking the ‘real Mary Celeste‘, and halfway through the story the duo receive backup from one of their colleagues – the jovial giant Lead (Val Pringle) arrives, who in addition to being a genuine element also possesses superhuman strength, insulating powers, and a fine singing voice.

To be honest, Lead doesn’t actually do much beyond pepping up a story which markedly starts to flag in the middle section – the opening two episodes, setting up the premise, are brilliant, genuinely creepy and disturbing stuff. But there’s not really enough there to sustain the narrative over two-and-a-half-hours, and so by the time of the third and fourth episodes there’s a definite sense of the writer (P.J. Hammond) casting about to find new things to do with it – Sapphire gets stuck inside a picture, Lead turns up, and so on. Things pick up again as episode five starts to build towards the climax, and one again has to wonder at the fact that this was considered children’s programming, even in 1979 – Rob encounters a malevolent replica of his father, who needless to say has unpleasant intentions for him, although of course exactly what fate awaits the lad remains unclear.

The actual climax and resolution are surprisingly satisfying and even border on the intelligible: the force which has entered the house is lured down into the cellar – it is compelled to manifest when old rhymes are spoken, apparently – and forced into the oldest part of the building, a foundation stone, from which it cannot escape. Steel and Lead between them destroy the stone in the seventeenth century, resolving everything and apparently resetting events back at the point at which the whole weird chain of events began (I did say this was weird and abstract).

The story may sag in the middle, but it is always watchable, and not quite like anything else I’ve ever seen on TV: the programme is understated, thoughtful, relies on dialogue for most of its story-telling, and through the juxtaposition of the domestic setting and some vaultingly ambitious ideas it achieves a sense of scale and contrast, a breaking-down of conceptual barriers, that is the hallmark of genuinely interesting science-fiction. But it’s quite hard to pin this series down, on the strength of the first story at least – is it for adults or children? Is it intended as horror, science fiction or fantasy? The questions keep coming, vastly outnumbering answers of any kind. The one definite certainty is that this is an intriguing debut for a new series, promising a lot of potential for future stories.

Read Full Post »

Older Posts »