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Posts Tagged ‘SF’

We live in a more connected world than was once the case. These days day-and-date releases for major movies are standard practice, and big TV premieres also happen close together. It was not always thus, of course: I remember the sense of resignation with which I learned that that Star Trek TNG would not receive a UK transmission until 1990 (three years after its American debut). There was once a time when it was seriously speculated that the delay in the UK release of The Phantom Menace (two months after its US opening) might actually impact on tourism figures, as people went to the States wholly or partly in order to see it.

Doesn’t happen these days, of course. Something else that doesn’t really happen any more is the phenomenon where US TV networks, having splashed out big money on a TV pilot or two-part episode, arranged to have their TV show released into theatres in Europe and other foreign territories, in an attempt to recoup their investment. I remember seeing in the very early 80s a movie entitled Spider-Man: The Dragon’s Challenge, which was an extended episode of the TV series starring Nicholas Hammond. Also earning big-screen outings in Europe were various episodes of the Bill Bixby Hulk series, and – most relevantly for our purposes today – Battlestar Galactica.

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Strictly speaking there were three Galactica movies, if you lived outside the US at least: one which was a re-edited version of the pilot episode, plus Mission Galactica (cobbled together from elements of the episodes The Living Legend and Fire in Space), and Conquest of the Earth (a similar fix-up derived from the follow-up show Galactica 1980, which I came across being shown at a Butlin’s in about 1983). But let’s stick to the original, directed by Richard Colla.

Things get underway with portentousness dialled up to maximum and an opening voice-over from an uncredited Patrick Macnee, who presumably appeared as a favour to an old friend and for a hefty fee. ‘There are those who believe that life here began out there… some believe that there may yet be brothers of man, who even now fight to survive – somewhere beyond the heavens!’ Well, that’s as maybe, but as a glance at any newspaper will tell you, these days some people will believe anything.

Well, anyway, somewhere beyond the heavens we find the assembled fleet of the Twelve Colonies of Mankind (yes, I know: but they seem not have discovered gender-neutral nomenclature beyond the heavens), who are happily anticipating the conclusion of hostilities between their people and the Cylons, who seem to be oppressive alien robots. We really don’t learn much at all about the Cylons, except they apparently ‘hate freedom’ and want to eradicate civilisation as we know it, which is the kind of lazy propaganda you see on the right-wing news; it would be interesting to hear the Cylons’ point of view, but we never really do.

Alone in his scepticism about the coming armistice is basso profundo (and, it must be said, somewhat nepotistic) patrician Commander Adama (Lorne Greene), whose suspicions turn out to be well-founded: two of his sons, flying a patrol mission in their space fighters, discover a massive Cylon ambush. It turns out that peace broker Count Baltar (John Colicos) has sold them all out.

The Cylon attack devastates the unprepared fleet while the Cylon base ships wreak havoc on the home planets of the human colonies. Only Adama and his crew, aboard the ‘battlestar’ Galactica, manage to escape more or less unscathed. The commander seems to develop a kind of Moses complex and declares they will gather together the survivors and set out across the universe in search of a fabled lost colony where they may yet find haven – a mysterious planet known only as Earth…

There is, of course, a very good reason why Battlestar Galactica received its US premiere in 1978, only a few months after George Lucas’ initial stellar conflict opus began its demolition of box office records. On top of all the space battles, laser blasters, weird aliens and so on being displayed here, calling this story ‘Saga of a Star World’ was probably overdoing it – almost inevitably, accusations of plagiarism and a lawsuit ensued.

Battlestar Galactica is kind of respectable again now, mainly due to the success of Ronald D Moore’s Bush-era retelling of the tale (a programme I find it easier to admire than to genuinely like), but for a long time this was not the case: it had a reputation for being cheesy and po-faced and sometimes unintentionally camp. The creator of Babylon 5 instituted a ‘no cute kids or robots’ rule for his show, and you can’t help thinking that this was at least in part a reference to Galactica, which frequently has both in close proximity. However you view the relationship between the main show and Galactica 1980, this is still another US SF TV series that failed to last more than a couple of seasons. It’s got to be tosh, right?

Well – maybe. Glen A Larson, creator of Galactica, was a smart enough cookie to get as much of the budget up on the screen as possible, and the big draw for this show is that it had – for the late 70s – near-as-dammit movie-quality model work and special effects. The ships look great and the production designs are impressive. Even nowadays, you watch the first few minutes of Battlestar Galactica and go ‘wow, this looks pretty good.’

Then you spend the next few minutes going ‘Hang on, I’ve just seen this bit,’ for they start very obviously re-using special effects footage within the first half-hour and continue to do so throughout. Battlestar Economica might have been a better title for this project; it’s round about this point that most people start paying more attention to the plot and the acting.

There’s an odd sort of twin-track approach going on here – obviously, much of the plot is derived from an odd mish-mash of classical and religious influences. There are characters called Apollo, Athena, and Cassiopeia, and many elements of the story are based on Mormon theology; the tone of the programme occasionally resembles that of a Biblical epic with extra ray-guns. ‘And the word went forth to every outpost of human existence, and they came…’ declaims Greene at one point.

On the other hand, most of the rest of it is late-70s quotidian stuff, with disco dancing, interesting haircuts, and so on. The younger characters are designed to be archetypes, for maximum audience identification – there’s earnest young leader Apollo (Richard Hatch), loveable rogue Starbuck (Dirk Benedict), feisty single mum Serina (Jane Seymour), and so on. Chief human villain Baltar is a bit of a panto turn.

You wouldn’t expect the two styles to go together particularly well, but they somehow do: it is sometimes camp and cheesy, and sometimes (as mentioned) rather po-faced and portentous, but still strangely watchable. This is not the subtlest of programmes – ‘broad’ is perhaps the kindest way to describe the default performance style of everyone involved –  and while it is occasionally somewhat sentimental, it is seldom full-on mawkish.

It’s still the case that you can practically see the joins where this pilot movie will be chopped up to make at least three separate episodes when the show goes into syndication, for the plot is episodic at best – there’s the opener, concerning the apocalyptic Cylon attack on the colonies, then some rather humdrum stuff about food shortages in the fleet and a minefield that must be traversed, and finally the secret of the space casino of the planet Carillon and its insectoid owners. But it holds together, just about.

(For the purposes of this rambling I watched the cinema edit of the pilot, which is slightly different to the TV version – the main difference being that it has the scene where Baltar has his head chopped off by the Cylons. In the US version he survives and goes on to become the regular villain on the show. I like the comeuppance, but I also enjoy Colicos’ performance, so I find myself a bit torn by this.)

I don’t know, I find it very easy to indulge the original version of Battlestar Galactica, mainly because I am amused by the way in which its lofty storytelling ambitions collide with the minutiae of making a weekly mass-audience TV drama (here’s some more Mormon theology, along with a guest spot by Fred Astaire), but also because it does manage to give a better sense of an epic voyage across the galaxy in one season than Voyager managed in seven (yes, I genuinely think that). You couldn’t honestly describe the pilot as great, but much of it is good and most of the rest is not that bad either.

 

 

 

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It has become almost facile to point out that the demise of the traditional western – as a significant part of the cinema landscape, anyway – occurred almost simultaneously with the rise of science fiction and fantasy films to the position of box office dominance they enjoy to this day. The conclusion to be drawn is very nearly as straightforward – it’s not quite that SF movies have simply replaced westerns, but that both genres meet the same need and appeal to the same audience. Or, to put it another way, there’s a certain type of action-SF movie which is basically a western in disguise.

The disguise is seldom as perfunctory as in Peter Hyams’ 1981 film Outland, however. Hmm, you may be thinking, where is this Outland place and why did they decide to make a film about it? Well, I have to tell you that this seems to be an example of film-makers not being able to agree on a good title and reaching a consensus on a duff one instead. The film was made under the title Io, which as any fule kno is a volcanically-active moon of Jupiter, but apparently the big brains of the production were concerned that non-astronomically-savvy audiences might read the title as either 10 or Lo, hence the change.

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I will happily agree that Io is not a great title, but at least it’s accurate (personally I would have called the movie High Moon, because sometimes you just can’t be crashingly obvious enough). The film is set in one of those non-specific not-all-that-distant futures where the outer reaches of the solar system are being explored and exploited; people apparently go for many years without ever visiting Earth (the journey from the Jovian region to Earth apparently takes a year in cryo). Io is being mined for titanium and the story takes place in one of the mining outposts, mostly concerning the chief lawman of the place, Marshall (or Marshal, depending on where you look) Bill O’Niel (Sean Connery).

O’Niel has only recently taken up his post and is still receiving apparently mock-stern lectures from the outpost’s manager, Sheppard (Peter Boyle), about how he needs to be flexible in his approach to the job and cut the hard-working miners some slack. To begin with O’Niel is more preoccupied by the fact that his wife can’t hack rattling around yet another space outpost and has left him to go back to Earth, but his cop instincts are triggered when he comes across a string of suspicious deaths – workers cutting open their spacesuits while outside, or not even bothering to wear them.

(Outland is notable for its enthusiastic championing of the notion that if you go into a hard vacuum without a spacesuit, either your head or your torso will explode. Apparently this is just one of those myths, but it does allow the special effects department some fun. One of the people whose head explodes is John Ratzenberger, best known for playing Cliff in Cheers, but eminently spottable in small parts in many famous late 70s and early 80s films, thanks to a stint based in London.)

Normally the remains of these ‘accidents’ are quietly disposed of, but O’Niel eventually manages to lay his hands on the body of a worker who apparently goes mad. With the help of the outpost’s medic, Dr Lazarus (Frances Sternhagen), O’Niel discovers that all the dead men had been taking high-powered amphetamines, allowing them to work longer and harder but eventually frying their brains.

It transpires that Sheppard and even some of O’Niel’s own men are in on the racket – the drugs increase productivity, which is all Sheppard and his bosses really care about. Their assumption is that O’Niel, like his predecessor, can be bought off, because only a fool would risk his life by taking on Sheppard and the men behind him. But this does not sit well with O’Niel, who finds himself compelled to hang onto his principles and take a stand (or, this being a Connery movie after all, a shtand).

One day someone will write about Outland and not draw comparisons between it and Alien. But that day has clearly not yet dawned. The aesthetic of the two films is almost identical, to the point where they could quite easily share a continuity: the mining outpost is a grimy, cramped, industrial warren of corridors, controlled by faceless and uncaring corporations.

The setting of Outland is important as it’s the only thing which gives it its SF credentials. The story itself is that of one principled man attempting to put an end to drug racketeering despite the odds being stacked against him – it could really be set anywhere. Even the drug racketeering is on one level just plot fluff, setting up the central conflict of the movie, which is not so much Connery versus the drug dealers as Connery’s sense of self-preservation versus his stubbornly principled streak. What is he really hoping to achieve? Nobody would blame him for taking bribes or running away…

This owes, of course, a big debt to High Noon, although Outland only really closely resembles the earlier movie for a chunk of its second half: a far-from-subtle digital countdown indicates how long before the space shuttle carrying professional killers will arrive at the outpost.

To be honest, though, I found these scenes and the eventual fight between Connery and the hitmen to be rather laborious, though fairly well-mounted; much more interesting are the earlier scenes in which O’Niel uncovers the extent of the corruption around him and realises just what a sticky spot he’s in. There is some really good material here, including some top-class moral outrage, and Connery plays it for all that it’s worth. I find that in a lot of Sean Connery’s later appearances, his tendency is just to play it very broad and just do the same lovable twinkly performance, but this is a proper acting job from the big man.

His main support comes from Sternhagen as the grumpy doctor, and she is also very good. This is a well-played film throughout, to be honest, and a reasonably well-written one. The film’s visual effects and model work are pretty good, but you can tell that the director and the screenwriter are also working hard to keep the film focused and credible.

I first saw Outland on TV in the late 80s and do recall that I wasn’t especially impressed by it: good production designs, but a bit dull. I think I would revise that opinion now – this is a solid film with a compelling central story and performance, but let down slightly  by its climax. And I do think it’s telling that Hyams admitted later that he only really wanted to make a western – the outer-space setting was just the only one that the studio felt was commercially viable. You can tell that none of the major talent involved was really that interested in making a science-fiction film, because in a very real sense they didn’t. Nevertheless, this is a watchable thriller with some distinctive elements.

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Donald Cammell’s reputation as a film director rests on two movies: Performance, a cult movie from 1970 about a gangster undergoing a psychedelic identity crisis, and Demon Seed, a sci-fi horror film from 1977 (also with something of a cult following), based on a novel by the prolific author Dean Koontz (Koontz is so prolific he actually published Demon Seed twice, in two radically different versions). Demon Seed is one of those movies in which… well, the plot, such as it is, is fairly obvious and straightforward, but in terms of what the film is actually about

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Fritz Weaver plays Alex Harrison, one of those brilliant scientists whose hubris, you just know, is sure to catch up with him. He is a successful but also quite cold man – his marriage to his wife Susan (Julie Christie) is coming to an end, but he is much more preoccupied by his work. This takes the form of a pioneering new kind of super-computer, more akin to a living brain, which he has named Proteus Four. Proteus is the greatest pure intelligence in the history of the planet, coming up with a cure for leukemia after only a few days’ thought: the possibilities, Harris believes, are dazzling.

Of course, this being a 70s sci-fi movie very much in the wake of 2001, Proteus has ideas of its own, refusing to work on new methods of despoiling the planet for big business and demanding to be allowed to do its own research into the human condition. Its creators refuse.

Well, it just so happens that Harris has had his own home filled with all the latest electronic conveniences, with a computer controlling all the functions, and a handy link to the lab where Proteus is based installed in the basement. (The film has a sort of near-future setting, which is indicated by things like cars having gull-wing doors and computers being programmed by floppy discs the size of old LP records.) It is the work of only a few seconds for Proteus to hack the house where Susan is living and basically make her a captive there.

Is Proteus just another of those mad, evil computers that pop up in pulp SF movies? Apparently not. Proteus is seeking to transcend its condition as a synthetic intelligence and achieve a different kind of immortality – by having a child! And Susan, of course, will be fairly integral to the computer’s project, whether she likes it or not…

Demon Seed is one of those movies which clearly shares concerns and themes with many others from about the same period without being particularly influenced by any of them. Like any other high-minded SF film of the 1970s, its makers seem to have been under the impression that a trippy montage sequence was absolutely essential for the film to succeed, and one duly turns up here near the start of the final act, while the softly-spoken computer terrorising the human characters owes such an obvious debt to HAL 9000 it barely warrants mentioning. But despite these influences, and other themes it shares with films like The Forbin Project and The Stepford Wives, Demon Seed always retains its own identity.

Part of this, to a modern audience at least, is that this is a problematically icky movie about a computer wanting to rape the main female character. You can’t really fault Julie Christie’s performance but she is basically playing a passive victim throughout most of the film, at the mercy of Proteus. The scene in which she is basically strapped to a table by the computer, has most of her clothes cut off, and is subjected to a fairly comprehensive medical exam – well, leery and exploitative are the words which leap to mind.

The other thing which occurs to you is that this is all a bit improbable, given that Proteus basically just has access to a motorised wheelchair with a clunky-looking robotic arm attached to it. And yet with this it is able to not only manipulate Julie Christie’s person in all sorts of intimate ways, but also construct the more sophisticated robotic avatars and pieces of technology which appear as the film goes on.

But the fact that this is a film about a computer wanting to have a baby should have tipped you off to it being one you have to cut some slack in key departments, mainly when it comes to plotting. Some of the mid-film incident comes from a hapless computer tech (Gerrit Graham) wandering into the middle of the situation between Susan and Proteus, and the plot requires that this guy vanish without nobody noticing for about a month. It’s already been established that Proteus is a dab hand at faking phone calls, but this is still pushing credibility rather too far.

On the other hand, it’s quite clear that Cammell is much more interested in the film as a kind of impressionistic experience than as a conventional narrative, for visually it gets increasingly extravagant and surreal as it proceeds: Proteus’ avatar in the house eventually resembles a giant bronze version of Rubik’s Snake, there is the previously-mentioned trippy montage sequence, the appearance of a rather disturbing cyborg baby (performed by Felix Silla, who also played the annoying robot Twiki on Buck Rogers) who eventually turns out to be… well, this is perhaps a spoiler, although the plot point involved is rather cryptic.

Most of the movie is basically a two-hander between Julie Christie and the disembodied voice of the computer, and to be honest Demon Seed‘s star turn is Robert Vaughn, who gives a stellar vocal performance as Proteus, easily up there with Douglas Rain’s turn as Hal in the Odyssey movies. Between them they keep the film accessible even as what it’s really all about becomes increasingly oblique. It’s clearly much more than just another film about technophobia, though there is of course an element of that; the obvious conclusion is that it is somehow about the fusion of pure reason and intellect (represented by Proteus) with emotion and compassion (some care is taken to establish Susan’s credentials as a humane and caring psychotherapist). Their eventual offspring is presumably a synthesis of the best parts of both.

Though, then again, Cammell is far from explicit about this and the film is never far from a moment of cod profundity. Do you ever really forget that this is a film with a rather icky premise, though? Well, no; it’s the main thing that makes Demon Seed memorable and distinctive. Any film about a computer wanting to get it on with a terrorised woman is inevitably going to seem a bit problematic, if not downright exploitative, and Demon Seed in no way dodges this particular bullet. There are a few other ways in which this is arguably quite a bad movie, too. But, on the other hand, there are not many bad movies which are quite as interesting, both visually and thematically, as this one.

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All good things must come to an end, but, for the time being at least, Toho’s series of animated Godzilla movies rumbles onward. These suckers are getting theatrical releases in Japan before turning up on a market-leading streaming site, which I suppose is something; it’s just a shame the movies themselves aren’t slightly, erm, less awful. Moderately hot on the heels of Planet of the Monsters, which appeared around the start of the year, here comes the follow-up, which was at one point going to be called Living Robot City Final Battle (gotta love these literal Japanese translations) but has actually appeared under the title Godzilla: City on the Edge of Battle (which I presume is a tip of the hat to either Star Trek or, less likely, Blake’s 7).

As before, proceedings have been overseen by Kobun Shizuno and Hiroyuki Seshita, and events pick up pretty much directly after the conclusion of the previous film. It says something about the thorough-going incoherence of Planet of the Monsters that I couldn’t actually remember exactly how it ended, beyond a big battle and a really, really (300m-tall) big version of Godzilla turning up, but picking up the threads is not that challenging.

The story so far: refugees from the planet Earth have arrived at, um, the planet Earth, twenty thousand years in the future (it’s time dilation, or something). They have been dismayed to discover that the whole ecosystem of the planet has evolved to mimic the unique biology of the giant nuclear monster Godzilla (whose appearance was the whole reason they left in the first place). Nevertheless, a landing party under the command of stroppy Captain Sakaki engages and manages to kill one Godzilla, before a second, bigger one turns up and stomps them all.

The sequel gets underway with the survivors regrouping, uncomfortably aware that the mother ship may well just fly off and abandon them all there with the monsters. But there is hope on the horizon as they make contact with natives, who, if not exactly friendly, are not exactly hostile either. There is some heavy and not exactly subtle foreshadowing going on here, for those in the know: it seems the natives also have monster DNA, but rather than that of Godzilla it’s that of some kind of insect. They say their god was killed by Godzilla, leaving behind only a giant egg. Translating on behalf of the egg are a couple of twin girls with psychic powers. All this left me feeling rather conflicted: I do love me a decent appearance by Mothra, which is what all this is clearly setting up, but the prospect of seeing my favourite giant lepidoptera mucked about in a film like this one is hardly appealing. As it turns out, the Mothra appearance, should it come to pass, will be in the next film in the series (which looks like it will also have Ghidorah in it).

This film has other classic kaiju characters to muck up. Our heroes discover that the locals are using arrowheads made of highly advanced ‘nanometal’, which it turns out they have been harvesting from the ancient ruins of the launch site of Mechagodzilla (who was not ready in time to fight Godzilla back in the 20th century). Investigation of the site reveals that… actually, I should say fasten your figurative seat-belt at this point… the wreckage of Mechagodzilla has, over the intervening twenty thousand years, grown into a living, artificially-intelligent city composed of nanometal.

A plan is hatched to lure Godzilla (the 300m version who’s just been standing around up to this point) into attacking Mechagodzilla City (as this rather unlikely piece of urban sprawl has been christened), which should have the ability to kill him, thus reclaiming the Earth for the refugees. Or something. But, given the tendency of the nanometal to go about assimilating and absorbing people, could this not just be a case of trading in one menace for another?

Now, the idea for this movie is a bit out there, but there’s a sense in which that’s what you expect from a Godzilla movie. And the idea of a Godzilla movie where the city itself actually resists being stomped and fights back against the monster (rather than useless toy tanks trundling into sight to do the job) is one that has a certain degree of promise. It almost goes without saying that City on the Edge of Battle does not realise this promise in any meaningful sense.

I think the problem may just be with the nature of the animation in these films. As before, there is a mixture of traditional cel animation, 3D CGI, and what looks very like some form of rotoscoping. The human-scale action is fine, as these things go, and there are some scenes with mecha attack craft in this movie which are also well realised. The problem is that Godzilla himself is almost wholly static; all he does is occasionally blast out a heat ray. The set pieces in this movie mostly consist of Godzilla just standing there being shot at. This is not good. There is no sense of scale or grandeur, and no scenes of Godzilla tearing down the towers of the living city bare-handed.

To be honest, Mechagodzilla City turns out to be a major disappointment: it doesn’t even look anything like Mechagodzilla (you would expect the odd piece of visual reference in the architecture). I was expecting the climax to be Godzilla razing the surface structures of the city, only for the ruins to reconstitute themselves as Mechagodzilla in a more traditional form and a proper monster clash to take place; this does not happen.

(I am aware that this rather negative review of City on the Edge of Battle is perhaps inordinately focusing on things which don’t happen, rather than things that do, but it is the case that this one of those films where not much happens, especially in the first hour. This is taken up with laboured exposition and the script taking vague swings at whatever SF ideas happen across its path.)

I suppose this is still something of an improvement over Planet of the Monsters, in that it is not quite such a nihilistic bore of a movie; it also has the beginnings of a fairly interesting subtext about the place of humanity in the world – on the one hand, the Mothra-worshipping inhabitants of the future Earth are clearly at one with nature, while the refugees’ alien allies are absolutely on-board with the notion of bonding with the advanced technology of Mechagodzilla City and beginning a cyborg phase of existence – this is the kind of theme which pops up in all sorts of Japanese SF and fantasy, and it’s a shame it’s not better realised here.

Still, in the end this isn’t just a bad movie, it’s also a dull one, with any improvements over the first film marginal at best. Normally I would say that the prospect of seeing Mothra and Ghidorah in the next one would be enough to give cause for optimism, but these films have been so flawed in both concept and realisation that it’s difficult to imagine how the next instalment can offer much in the way of redemption.

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There seems to be a bit of a pattern developing, at least to the extent that whenever I end up writing about The Incredible Hulk TV show it’s more than likely to concern episodes from the fourth season. The reason for this is fairly straightforward – with any long-running, somewhat-formulaic series, most of the episodes tend to blur together and become fairly indistinguishable. The thing about the fourth season of Hulk is that there seems to have been a genuine attempt to push back against the constraints of the existing format, with episodes that break new ground or explore the characters in a new way.

This tendency is there from the very start of the season, which opens with the two-part story Prometheus. This is so radically different from the typical Hulk episode that it almost looks like the series is undergoing a significant reformat – for good or ill, this turns out not to be the case.

The story is written and directed by series overseer Kenneth Johnson, and opens with US military radar detecting an object heading for Earth out of deep space. It must be an asteroid, but… it’s a strangely symmetrical cylinder! What can it be? At least the radar techs are certain where it’s going to come down: northern Utah.

Which is where, naturally, we catch up with our man David Banner (Bill Bixby, of course), who is doing a spot of fishing. This turns out to be rather incongruous, given we later learn he has recently had one of his episodes and is planning to make his usual rapid and discreet departure, but I suppose even irradiated fugitives are allowed a fish supper now and then. Anyway, Banner comes across a young woman who has fallen in the river, and ends up fishing her out as well.

She turns out to be Katie, a recently-blinded pianist who has retired to the wilderness to be alone with her bitterness (even in one of the more genre-oriented Hulk episodes, they find time for some slightly sentimental melodrama, but this is one of the series’ charms if you ask me). Katie is played by Laurie Prange, who clearly specialised in this sort of thing: she played an heiress suffering from hysterical paralysis in the series’ second pilot.

Well, unbeknownst to Banner and Katie, the military are preparing for the arrival of the mysterious space object, although running the show is an equally mysterious agency known as Prometheus. McGee (Jack Colvin), who is in the area checking up on the recent Hulk appearance, smells a story, and starts to poke around.

Sure enough, the meteor enters the atmosphere as predicted – ‘A shallow trajectory! Almost like it’s being piloted!’ says someone in uniform. As you can see, the episode seems to be foreshadowing something highly unusual about the object, possibly even the appearance of a genuine extraterrestrial. But this is all a bit of a red herring: on this occasion, a rock is just a rock, albeit one with some unique properties.

As luck would have it, Banner and Katie are in the area when the meteorite strikes, and – thinking it may be a plane crash, with survivors needing help – Banner selflessly trots off to investigate. All he finds is a big rock – but it’s one that seems to cause him severe discomfort, the closer he gets to it. Being Banner, he ends up tripping over a beehive and turning into the Hulk (Hulk smash bees!). It has to be said that this is an extremely well-done set piece, especially considering that not very much happens.

Katie is less than thrilled when the Hulk bashes his way into her cabin, and frankly non-plussed when he reverts back to Banner. Or does he? Here the episode unveils its biggest new idea: the meteorite is giving off unique gamma radiation which screws up Banner’s body chemistry even more. Banner hasn’t fully changed back; he’s stuck in a transitional form between his human form and the Hulk, with somewhat enhanced strength, limited mental capacities, and a bestial appearance. This Demi-Hulk is mostly portrayed by Bixby under prosthetics, but there are frequent and somewhat instrusive moments where bodybuilder Ric Drasin plays the Demi-Hulk in long shot.

With the army combing the area, Katie decides to take the Demi-Hulk into town where her brother can decide what to do with him – but she ends up wandering past the meteor crater, where the army, McGee, and representatives of Prometheus are congregating. Another big set piece ensues, with the Demi-Hulk going back into his full-on green form, and a full-scale clash between the Hulk and the army on the cards. However, Prometheus has another option, dropping what is called the ‘Alpha Chamber’ (basically a dome made of foot-thick steel) on the Hulk and taking him prisoner (probably best not to worry too much about how the dome works as a piece of machinery). The episode ends with the Hulk and Katie being flown away to parts unknown…

You could probably argue that Prometheus‘ first episode is built around some suspiciously static set-pieces, but the combination of big ideas, lavish production values and excellent direction still make this one of the best episodes of the series. Of course, the second episode has the job of paying off this set-up, and it’s here that the story stumbles a bit.

All over the country, scientists attached to Prometheus are being activated and brought to the agency’s secret base, in the belief that the Hulk is actually an alien who arrived on the meteorite (there’s a very X-Files/Andromeda Strain vibe going on here). Meanwhile, the (now badly dented) dome is brought in, Katie is whisked off for examination, and the Hulk is placed in an observation area inside a microwave force-field (quite how the Hulk and Katie are separated is, once again, perhaps best not worried about).

Meanwhile, McGee has also managed to infiltrate the complex and is watching what happens with interest. Unfortunately, the Prometheus scientists meet with little success in their attempts to establish intelligent communication with the Hulk, and their bright idea of sticking a chunk of meteor rock into the chamber goes badly wrong when the enraged creature escapes by ripping a hole in the concrete floor and goes on the rampage through the complex…

This is still a very strong and distinctive episode, not least because it is so Hulk-centric – Lou Ferrigno gets much more screen-time than usual, possibly even more than Bixby. And the big new ideas keep coming, with the revelation that Prometheus is a secret government agency tasked with handling possible alien contacts and exploiting any discoveries in the American national interest (a bit like the Torchwood Institute from that other show, in fact). There’s the prospect of a team-up between McGee and Prometheus in order to capture and study the Hulk.

But all of this… doesn’t really go anywhere, unfortunately. The big climax of the episode largely concerns Banner’s relief at discovering that, away from the meteor fragments, he can fully de-Hulk himself. Which is fine, but the Hulk has been the object of so much of the episode, that for it to conclude with him as its subject is a slightly jarring shift.

And there is a lot of padding and filler in the episode – the Prometheus scientists are introduced in detail and at length (slightly sleazily, in one instance), there are endless scenes of the Alpha Chamber being moved about by crane, and so on. Even a scene in which McGee discovers the shady hidden agenda behind Prometheus doesn’t contribute much to the plot.

You almost wish the episode had really gone all the way with the sci-fi B-movie vibe and had the meteorite disgorge some kind of gamma-guzzling alien monster for the Hulk to have a proper fight with. There’s certainly slack in the episode that could be used to accommodate setting this up, and I’m sure it would have been a great climax. There was also clearly a big budget for this episode, so producing another monster suit could certainly have been possible. The series wasn’t afraid to go down this route just a few weeks later with the Hulk-on-Hulk battle at the end of The First. So one wonders why Prometheus doesn’t just go for it a bit more.

In the end, though, everything just resets back to normal come the end, with the exception of Katie being less of an embittered recluse: Banner magically replaces all his stuff and goes back on the road, McGee goes back to hunting the Hulk, and so on. Given the Hulk has just demolished a multi-million dollar base, one wonders why the US government don’t pursue him much more actively from this point on, but that’s TV from this point in time: the episodic format was king, even if it could productively be pushed against sometimes.

This is why I say that Prometheus is only halfway-brilliant – it’s full of potential which never quite gets fully realised. But even a halfway-brilliant Hulk story is still extremely watchable TV.

 

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‘So, do you think they’ve left the door open for another one?’ asked this blog’s Anglo-Iranian affairs correspondent, as we left our screening of Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom (I should point out he was not there in his professional capacity). After a picosecond’s thought I was moved to observe that when a film franchise has earned more than $3.5 billion at the global box office, and shows no sign of running out of steam in terms of audience appeal, the door will most likely not just be left open but carefully taken off its hinges and burned. Whichever way you cut it, the Jurassic Park films (as I still think of them) do make squijillions of dollars, although why they continue to be quite so successful I have no idea: the original movie had Spielberg at the height of his powers, plus gobsmackingly innovative special effects, but none of the others have really done more than remix the ideas from that movie.

Is this true of Fallen Kingdom? Well, for this outing, previous director Colin Trevorrow has been replaced by J.A. Bayona, whose last film was the (really good) A Monster Calls. So you could be forgiven for cautious optimism (it is never a good idea to be uncautiously optimistic when dealing with major movie corporations and $170 million budgets). Things kick off with a highly promising, genuinely scary prologue as a team returns to the ruins of the Jurassic World park in order to retrieve the genetic material of one of the engineered hybrids from the previous movie. Lightning flashes, shadows lurk, people get chomped; hope begins to flutter in the chest of the jaded so-called film critic (hope is the thing with feathers, as Emily Dickinson observed, unlike Jurassic World’s dinosaurs – but we went over that last time around).

Well, from here we’re off into the film proper. It turns out that Isla Nublar, where Jurassic Park and then Jurassic World were located, is volcanic, and fixing to blow up and kill all the dinosaurs, and people are not sure what to do about this. (Just what happened to the dinosaurs on Isla Sorna, the setting of Jurassic Parks 2 and 3, is not addressed.) Many, including former park visitor Ian Malcolm (Jeff Goldblum, but don’t get too excited, as he appears for literally only about two minutes), are of the opinion that this is very much not a problem. Others disagree, including former park manager Claire (Bryce Dallas Cowboys, who clearly had one of those ‘make my character less irritating’ discussions between films), who is now a dinosaur rights activist. Helping her are a couple of new characters, a young man who is a somewhat craven comic relief clown, and a young woman who is incredibly feisty and competent – such is the way of the modern blockbuster, as any disgruntled stellar conflict fan will tell you.

Claire is contacted by representatives of an old business partner of John Hammond, who was involved in the very early development of the technology that recreated the dinosaurs. This man (James Cromwell) has a plan to transport the dinosaurs to a nature preserve where they can live peacefully, but he needs Claire’s knowledge of Jurassic World’s systems and also the help of her old beau Owen (Chris Pratt), the animal behaviourist and raptor trainer. (Owen has retired to the countryside to build a cabin, clearly unaware of the iron law that nobody who starts building a cabin in this kind of film ever gets to finish it.) Well, Claire recruits Owen and off they all go to the island to save the dinosaurs. What could possibly go wrong…?

It is a bit naïve to suggest that a tentpole blockbuster such as this is motivated by anything other than financial concerns – the studio’s notes to the director really only have one line, which reads ‘Make as much money as possible.’ But it always seems to me that this is particularly obvious with the Jurassic Park films – if there are any genuinely interesting or unexpected new ideas in any of these films, it is because they have managed to sneak in without anyone noticing, rather than being put there on purpose. Well, perhaps that’s not quite true, because I did note a slightly knowing and rather subversive element to the last one, albeit kept under extremely strict control.

The directors of these latterday movies do seem to be trying to move the series on, for all that the first half of Fallen Kingdom adheres strictly to the Jurassic Park formula (characters go off to an island infested by dinosaurs). Here things go pretty much as you would expect, with many imposing beasties, an altogether too nonchalant attitude to being thirty centimetres away from molten lava, and so on. People inclined to disparage Chris Pratt’s range as an actor should bear in mind the material he is usually given to work with – at one point in this film he is required to run stoically downhill, pursued not only by stampeding dinosaurs but also a volcanic eruption. I’m not sure even Sir Ralph Richardson could have given much nuance to that.

It’s where the film goes after this which is curious, as it becomes less of a traditional monster movie and more of a kind of faintly surreal gothic suspense thriller, with killer dinosaurs lurking in and around a stately old manor. But there’s also almost a sense of the film trying on lots of different ideas to see which, if any, fit: there are elements of an action thriller movie, a subtext in which the dinosaurs become symbolic of the natural world and its treatment by man, some (carefully veiled) criticism of Donald Trump, and even a move towards a much purer form of science fiction (it turns out that not just the dinosaurs have been genetically interfered with). The narrative ticks all the required boxes, but it still feels like a really mixed bag, and one reliant on some dubious plotting in places.

The key difference, I suppose, is that whereas the previous films operated purely in terms of ‘run away from the dinosaurs!’, this one is much more ‘save the dinosaurs!’ There are scenes involving our extinct friends solely intended to elicit pathos from the audience. Goldblum’s character, it is implied, is wrong to want to see all the poor dinosaurs killed off, despite the fact that these films have mostly been about dinosaurs causing trouble and eating people. It’s a curious shift and one the film struggles to negotiate elegantly – the workaround is that ‘natural’ dinosaurs are noble creatures which deserve to survive, it’s only the genetic hybrids created by man which are monsters with no right to exist (this film features an especially preposterous laser-guided prototype military dinosaur). It’s a rather artificial distinction, if you ask me.

Still, as I say, Fallen Kingdom does pretty much what you want it to, even if the first few minutes are by far the most impressive. The special effects are impeccable, and there is actually a really impressive cast – Rafe Spall is in there, along with Toby Jones, Geraldine Chaplin, and Ted Levine. I don’t think the studio need worry too much about getting their money back, even if the film is only competent rather than genuinely great. And the ending implies that the next one will be a thoroughly different kind of film, even if the basis for this doesn’t really hold up to serious examination. In the end, this is a capable blockbuster with some curiously weird touches.

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Sigh. Coming up with original and engaging opening paragraphs isn’t easy, you know, and I was all set to go with a rumination on how hard it was to find a cinema showing Andrew Niccol’s Anon, which would have led into a by-the-by mention of the fact that all the multiplexes are currently stuffed with films about Josh Brolin beating up superheroes. In my neck of the woods, Anon has only managed to land a very low-profile release at the Curzon, Oxford’s most stylish but least-frequented cinema. Seriously, this is the second time I’ve been there and literally had the auditorium to myself. The whole cinema is like a luxury hotel in the middle of nowhere; I can’t help feeling sorry for them, because it’s quite a beautiful cinema which so often seems empty.

Anyway, you’ll be spared all that. My initial introduction to Anon basically consisted of finding a photo of it online along with a brief description. Upon cracking open Wikipedia to do some proper post-screening pre-review research, I discovered that this is yet another example of a movie which has been grabbed by Netflix and is available to view online for rather less than the price of a ticket to the Curzon. So the message, rather than being that sometimes the universe tries to stop you from going to a movie for very sound reasons, is instead that you should always do at least a little research. As it is, this is a film about the merits of obscurity which may well find itself ending up enjoying them more than the producers would like.

 

Hey ho. In Anon, Clive Owen plays police detective Sal Frieland, who has an American name but a London accent; the movie is set in a sort of mildly dystopian brutalist future archetypal City, so you can forgive the accents being a bit all over the place there. As Frieland walks down the street to work, we see the world from his point of view, with constant real-time annotations telling him the make and model of every passing car, the history of the buildings, and the names, ages and occupations of every passing person.

Yup, we are in gimmicky sci-fi territory here, and the main conceit of the movie is that everyone has had the perception centres of their brains hooked up to Google and Wikipedia (well, effectively: the movie is brand-name free) and their memories connected to YouTube, so they have a digital record of their experiences which can be accessed by the authorities, shared with friends and family, and so on. Being able to download a suspect’s memory, or indeed that of a victim, makes being a detective really easy, and yet Owen still spends most of the movie with the haunted expression of a man once talked of as a future Bond who now finds himself north of fifty and trapped in a string of duff genre movies. So it goes, old boy, so it goes.

However, a string of murders have the cops worried, for the killer has the ability to mask their presence and avoid being recorded by the system: they also appear to have the power to delete themselves from people’s digital memory recordings. Soon enough Sal is on the case, his prime suspect being a nameless young woman (Amanda Seyfried) whose business is hacking people’s memories and editing out things they’d rather other people didn’t learn about. Soon he begins to wonder – is the interest of his superiors because of the killings she has supposedly committed, or because her special skills undermine the whole basis of the way society is currently organised?

What can I say: I have a lot of time for Clive Owen, and I’m always on the look-out for a genuinely smart science fiction film, but Anon is not the latter and doesn’t really do the former many favours, I fear. Now, given the recent kerfuffle about data harvesting by Facebook and the whole issue of privacy on t’internet, there is clearly an issue here to be explored by the right movie. However, Anon is not it. What Anon is, is a rather pedestrian mash-up of Minority Report, Strange Days, Johnny Mnemonic, and various other undistinguished sci-fi films that nobody remembers with any great fondness.

This is the kind of film which touches on what it considers to be Big Important Issues, but doesn’t actually do anything with them. There’s some stuff about memory, and some stuff about the nature of truth, and some interesting dialogue about the difference between privacy and secrecy, but it doesn’t tackle these things in anything approaching a systematic way. It doesn’t discuss ideas, it ponders and pronounces on them, rarely saying anything especially memorable. There’s quite a good sequence exploring what a potentially lethal enemy someone who can hack and manipulate your perceptions would make, but once again it’s only briefly touched on (and one has to wonder why Owen doesn’t just disconnect his brain’s wi-fi – presumably this is illegal).

I imagine we are supposed to cut the various implausibilities of Anon‘s premise some slack, given that this is supposed to be a serious film dealing with important contemporary issues in a metaphorical manner. I don’t think the film does nearly enough to earn this. Nor do its attempts at topicality excuse several rather implausible plot points, or the fact that you just stop caring about who did the murders well before the end and just want them to get on with the climax of the movie. Plus, I notice yet again that this is one of those serious SF movies for intelligent adults where nearly all the significant female characters are required to perform a gratuitous nude scene. Having said that, the balance is possibly redressed a little by a scene in which Clive Owen humps someone while still wearing his vest: calm yourselves, ladies.

Anon looks good but the story is too sluggish and over-familiar for the film to really come to life; there is the odd decent moment and Owen and Seyfried are always kind of watchable, but it never grips as a thriller and it’s not nearly as profound or original as it thinks it is. Yet another of those films that basically resembles a long episode of Black Mirror but without the wit, focus, or humanity; it also commits the cardinal sin of any movie, especially one in the SF genre, and that is that it’s quite boring. Eminently forgettable, if you can manage it.

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