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Posts Tagged ‘SF’

The Phoenix (one of our local non-multiplexes) ran a short season of Stanley Kubrick films last summer, comprising (if memory serves) 2001, Dr Strangelove, Spartacus, Barry Lyndon and The Shining – a quintet which, for the most part, should remind any sensible viewer of just why Kubrick is revered as one of the greatest directors ever to fake the moon landings – sorry, I meant to say ‘draw breath’. That said, missing from the run (which otherwise included nearly every film Kubrick made between 1960 and 1980) was A Clockwork Orange, originally released in 1971.

I suppose this is not really surprising when one considers that this is a film with a history of not appearing, having been withdrawn from UK cinemas in 1973 and not issued for home entertainment purposes at Kubrick’s own request, after he received threats because of it. When I was at university in the mid 1990s it still had that cachet of being an illegal, transgressive piece of art: bootleg copies were on sale next to those of Reservoir Dogs (likewise unavailable on legitimate VHS at the time). I distinctly recall that even a TV documentary about A Clockwork Orange was subject to a legal challenge and withdrawn by the makers.

Perhaps the most remarkable thing about this very remarkable film is that it still retains most of its power to shock and disturb. It is back in UK cinemas at the moment and the screening I attended did not feature the usual card from the BBFC, presaging the start of the film. Instead, the crimson field of the opening titles smashed into view unheralded, accompanied by the disquieting radiophonic howl of the opening music. What follows the opening credits is one of the most vivid sequences in all of modern cinema, as we accompany teenager Alex (Malcolm McDowell) on a typical night out. That sounds fairly mundane, but in fact we are plunged into what is essentially a kind of bacchanal of violence: verbal, physical, sexual, motorised and musical. The near-future stylings of the film and the Russian-influenced argot of Alex and his droog gang-members are just alienating enough to make the film compellingly strange rather than repulsive, but it is a close thing, and there is something deeply unsettling about the way that Kubrick’s direction and McDowell’s charisma conspire to make Alex a borderline-attractive antihero rather than the vicious monster we should probably perceive him as.

Of course, there is also his love of classical music, especially Beethoven, which is about as close as Alex gets to having a redeeming feature. Ironically, it is this, coupled to his own arrogance, which leads to Alex’s comeuppance – such as it is. Turned on by his droogs and finally nabbed by the police, Alex is sent to prison. It is here, a few years into a long prison term, that he first hears of the Ludovico technique – a method of rehabilitating prisoners and turning them into model citizens. Eagerly he volunteers, not quite realising what he is letting himself in for…

Sitting by my desk at work is a small but chunky volume listing the 101 greatest science fiction films (or something like that), and, sure enough, A Clockwork Orange features in it. It always seems to me this is one of those films which only just scrapes over the line – it is arguably set in one of those ten-minutes-into-the-future dystopias, the awful fashions and calculatedly tasteless art instantly evoking an exaggerated version of the 1970s. But the Ludovico technique is certainly the stuff of science fiction, allowing the film to address big questions of what it means to truly be a human being. The film’s thesis has been much articulated, almost to the point of overfamiliarity: by removing a person’s ability to make genuine moral choices and compelling them to exist in a state of petrified timidity, have you honestly made them ‘good’? The film’s energy and technique keeps the question interesting, although it departs significantly from Anthony Burgess’ novel by omitting the epilogue, in which an older Alex reflects on the excesses of his youth. The book’s conclusion appears to be that young men are naturally and inherently prone to violent misbehaviour, but they eventually grow out of it. (One should point out that Kubrick claimed only to have read the American edition of the novel, from which the final chapter was cut on the grounds it was unconvincing and unrealistic.)

Kubrick, naturally, is also interested in the Ludovico technique as a comment on the nature of cinema itself: the treatment room looks very like a cinema itself, with Alex strapped into his seat, literally a captive audience, unable to look away as scenes of violence play out before him. Some of these bear a striking resemblance to scenes from the film itself, which has to be a consciously self-reflexive touch. Thanks to the treatment, Alex is ultimately repelled and literally nauseated by what he sees – perhaps Kubrick is challenging the audience to compare their own responses to the violence that permeates his film.

Apart from this one plot device and a few scenes at the beginning, A Clockwork Orange feels strikingly non-futuristic when one watches it now. This is not to say it is a realistic or naturalistic film, of course: it most closely resembles a kind of parable or twisted allegory. There is something undeniably grotesque and over-the-top about every major character and the way they are performed – apart from Alex himself, there is the probation officer Deltoid (Aubrey Morris), the chaplain (Godfrey Quigley), the chief guard (Michael Bates), the minister (Anthony Sharp) and the writer whom Alex brutalises (Patrick Magee). These latter two serve another aspect of the film, which is its commentary, and indeed satire, of social and political attitudes. This is not light or even particularly funny satire: it is as savage and scathing as anything else in the film. On the other hand, Kubrick is scrupulously even-handed, treating both the authoritarian government and the supposedly progressive liberals with equal contempt, one side being happy to dehumanise their own citizens in the pursuit of good publicity, the other showing no concern for human life, as long as they can gain political advantage. (No wonder senior politicians have always seemed to be a bit wary of A Clockwork Orange: when the shadow Home Secretary Ann Widdecombe was asked to contribute to a documentary about it, around the time of the film’s re-release in 2000, she agreed on the proviso that she didn’t actually have to watch it.)

Its depiction of useless, self-interested politicians and violent, knife-wielding youth gangs are only two of the ways in which A Clockwork Orange feels as relevant today as it doubtless did nearly fifty years ago. But then this is a film about the biggest and most important of ideas: how we want to live as a society, and treat one another; just what is involved in being a good citizen; what is the essential nature of a human being? And it manages to do so with unforgettable visual style and a memorable musical score. At this point in his career, Kubrick made making masterpieces look very easy indeed.

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You’d think that you knew where you were with a film luxuriating in the (frankly brilliant) title Devil Girl from Mars: the details practically fill themselves in, after all. We are dealing with a product of the 1950s, low-budget, most likely dreadful (in an entertaining sort of way), an American B-picture. And you would be right in all respects but one.

David MacDonald’s film opens with stock footage of a plane flying peacefully on its way – but it then abruptly (and rather unconvincingly) explodes, plunging us into the title sequence and the startling revelation that there are some fairly well-known names in this film – not just Hazel Court, whose finest big screen moment may well have been The Masque of the Red Death, but also John Laurie, whose immortality is assured not, as you might expect, by his appearances in classic films like The Thirty-Nine Steps and The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp, but by the years at the end of his career spent playing Fraser the undertaker in Dad’s Army. What is this quintessential Scotsman doing in a sci-fi B movie?

Soon the question becomes one of ‘what’s a sci-fi B-movie doing in Scotland?’ for it rapidly becomes clear that this film will be almost exclusively set in and around a remote Scottish pub, which is operated by John Laurie and his wife. Various other characters turn up: their barmaid (Adrienne Corri), who hails from down south and is here for somewhat mysterious reasons, a renowned astronomer turns up accompanied by a journalist, drawn by a report of a meteorite falling somewhere in the vicinity, and so on. There is also a fashion model (Court) on the run from a failed liaison, and an escaped convict who is literally on the run from the police.

Confirmation of the special quality of this film comes when the barmaid greets the escaped convict, for he is the (somewhat wrongfully imprisoned) man she loves. The guy’s name is apparently Robert Justin, but, he says, he has decided to change his name to Albert Simpson to conceal his identity. Corri’s character doesn’t bat an eyelid and proceeds to call him Albert for the rest of the film without making any further comment.

Things proceed in this sort of slightly demented manner for a while, creating a sort of Grand Hotel ambience of stewing subplots (only with more of a neeps and tatties flavour to it). But then everyone is astonished by the landing, in the pub garden, of one of your genuine flying saucers! From within it emerges Nyah (Patricia Laffan), an imperious interplanetary dominatrix whose costume inevitably puts one in mind of plumbing supplies.

Nyah informs the assembled company that they are cut off from the outside world (which if nothing else helps to keep the budget down). Mars, apparently, is short of red-blooded males and she has come to take a few off there to help re-populate this dying planet. Having dropped this bombshell she goes back into the flying saucer so everyone else can think about it and talk about what to do next.

It becomes apparent fairly quickly that this is Nyah’s preferred modus operandi: she occasionally comes out of her flying saucer to perform some shocking (but still economical) demonstration of her satanic space technology, then goes back in again to allow everyone else to react. Eventually, however, the stubborn resistance of the humans proves to be too much for her to tolerate, and she unleashes her robot, which is likely to prove too much for many audiences to tolerate. It basically looks like a fridge on legs, staggering about very, very slowly, and pausing only to unleash its death ray on various bits of the local countryside.

The clued-up viewer will rapidly come to two conclusions, based on this sequence: firstly, this whole movie is inspired, if that’s the right word, by The Day the Earth Stood Still (alien visitor and robot companion cause a commotion), and secondly, some parts of this film are surprisingly good, relative to how utterly awful the worst elements of it turn out to be. The actual death ray stuff is rather well executed, though very similar to similar effects in The Day the Earth Stood Still and The War of the Worlds; some of the shots of the flying saucer are also quite acceptable.

That said, most of the stuff in this movie which is not openly ridiculous comes from the homespun British drama side of the mash-up, rather than the flying saucer sci-fi aspect. The sets and props of the pub are fine, if hardly ground-breaking; most of the subplots are the stuff of programme-filling potboilers, with people in fraught romantic relationships – melodrama, really, but the UK made hundreds of now-forgotten films about this kind of thing back when our film industry was more substantial. The melodramatic aspect of the subplots is really no better and no worse than that of many other films of this period. Apart from how corny the plot is, the real revelation is just how parochial the film feels – at one point the convict and his girlfriend are discussing his possible future, and the prospect of his fleeing the country comes up. ‘You don’t need a passport for Ireland!’ he says, in a sudden moment of inspiration. For a film that deals with cosmic ideas, the horizons of this film are often very close at hand.

In the end this is really not very good science fiction – the palest shadow of The Day the Earth Stood Still, certainly – there’s no concerted attempt to bring any kind of depth or allegorical content to it. Klaatu in the more famous film is clearly intended as an analogue for Christ; Nyah, in this one, never feels like she’s much more than a woman in a vinyl costume and a shower curtain. It’s sci-fi as spectacle, bereft of intellectual content – if I was feeling particularly nasty, I would mention that the sound recordist on this film was one ‘Gerald Anderson’, later to go on to make many much-loved sci-fi TV shows that look fantastic but are seldom noted for the brilliance of their scripts.

Devil Girl from Mars isn’t even as innocently enjoyable as most of the Anderson shows: but entertaining it is, if you enjoy bad movies which unashamedly display not just their own limitations but also their own weirdness. Much of it is bad, but parts of it are very funny indeed: a good enough deal for me, and probably for many others too.

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Way out somewhere in the distant reaches of movie obscurity there are lost worlds of films that have not just been totally forgotten, they were never noticed in the first place. Whole TV channels (usually the ones with the high numbers) exist just to give this sort of film a (marginal) justification for existence, the sort of thing their original creators can barely have dreamt of when they were originally being made – usually as cheap and cheerful programme filler. (Which is essentially what they still are.)

The real joy of cruising through the high number channels is that occasionally you come across something really special (I use the word in a non-standard sense) that you previously had no conception even existed. So it was with Gerry Levy’s 1969 offering The Body Stealers, produced by perennial genre-movie also-rans Tigon – lest I sound too harsh, I should of course remind you that Tigon had the odd flash of brilliance, releasing Blood on Satan’s Claw and Witchfinder General, which in itself would be enough earn any company a mention in the history of British genre cinema.

The Body Stealers is not quite bad enough to get Tigon stricken from the record again, but some might say it was a close thing. In any case, this is a different sort of film to those two I just mentioned, being ostensibly set in present-day Britain, where a parachute drop is in progress. Watching it are top brass George Sanders and a parachute engineer played by ‘guest star’ Neil Connery (his little brother, who shamelessly used this connection to have a sort of vestigial film career for quite a few years). All is going well, until weird radiophonic noises trouble the soundtrack and… the parachutes descend to the ground, unoccupied! The parachutists have vanished into thin air (Thin Air being one of The Body Stealers’ various alternate titles).

Well, roll credits, and after that, roll stock footage of an air show, where another parachute display is in progress. There are more oooo-eeee-oooo noises, this time accompanied by primitive optical printing special effects, and the parachute display team have vanished too. An observer on the ground reports seeing them fade away into nonexistence, but their C.O. isn’t having any of it. ‘Whatever my men get up to, and they usually do, fading away isn’t it,’ he declares, the sort of line that makes you want to send everyone involved back to have another go.

Well, senior air force bod Allan Cuthbertson (probably best remembered as the twitching colonel from the Gourmet Night episode of Fawlty Towers) takes a break from letching over his secretarial staff to convene an inquiry, and decrees that an outside investigator be brought in. Connery suggests he knows the man for the job, but he could be difficult to find…

Thirty seconds later, they find him: he is Bob Megan, played by slab-faced B-movie lead and ubiquitous voice-over artist Patrick Allen. Whatever Bob’s professional qualifications (everyone just calls him Bob, just as everyone calls Connery’s character Jim, lending the film a peculiarly informal air), they end up being rather secondary to the fact he is basically a borderline sex pest, apparently incapable of meeting a young woman without macking on her in a horribly corny way.

Naturally, the plot ends up revolving around Bob’s mysterious ladykilling talents, as not only does he win (very easily) the affections of female boffin Hilary Dwyer, he also catches the eye of a mysterious blonde whom he meets lying on the beach one night and who has the odd talent of being able to vanish without a trace. Could she possibly be connected to the mystery of the vanishing parachutists – especially when, as senior boffin Maurice Evans suggests, the whole thing could have something to do with Outer Space?

Yes, it is that Maurice Evans. One minute you’re giving a brilliant performance in the original Planet of the Apes, one of the greatest SF films ever made, then before you know it you wind up in a pile of tosh like this. He must have had a really demanding mortgage, is the only explanation I can think of.

I should make it clear that The Body Stealers really is tosh, and it’s not even good tosh at that. This is the kind of film where you quickly learn to be pleasantly surprised when any element of it is not preposterous, clumsy, or just horribly inappropriate. One key plot twist, for example, comes when Jim reveals that Bob’s new mystery girlfriend doesn’t show up in photographs. Well, it’s a daft idea, but daft ideas fuel most of these British SF B-movies – the thing that makes you roll your eyes is the fact that in order to work this into the plot, Jim is revealed to be the kind of guy who goes out lurking on the beach of an evening, secretly taking photos of people without telling them.

I would say this is highly questionable behaviour, but it’s nothing compared to Bob’s relentless pursuit of any young woman who crosses his path – never mind the endless hopeless pick-up lines, he’s the kind of guy who goes for a snog within three minutes of meeting a woman. The worst thing is that the plot demands that they put up only a token resistance and all end up falling in love with him. Seriously, this is the kind of film that gave generations of young men entirely the wrong idea about how to talk to women: here they are almost all entirely decorative, recreational objects, whose response to being endlessly patronised is to fall jealously in love with whoever’s responsible.

The horrific gender politics of The Body Stealers really eclipse most of the rest of the plot, which I suppose has a certain sort of B-movie guile to it, in that it largely manages to dodge using expensive special effects – the one big prop, the alien spaceship, is a second-hand one bought from Milton Subotsky. But even here it’s all just corny, low-stakes stuff, mostly resolved by people standing around in rooms expositing at each other. (Hilary Dwyer is not too bad, I suppose, and does a good scream during the climax.) There is a half-decent cast here, but no-one makes much impression – Neil Connery, on the other hand, reveals again that whatever Sean’s limitations as an actor, he still got all the family’s allocation of talent.

On the other hand, I would be lying if I said I didn’t enjoy The Body Stealers at all: I was amused by the film’s attempts to economise, while desperately trying to hide the fact it was made for next to no money; I was rather tickled by the efforts of two blokes called Bob and Jim to tackle such a cosmic metaphysical enigma. The film does manage to take itself seriously, which is an impressive achievement all things consider – but, these days at least, I doubt it will manage to persuade even the most sympathetic audience to do the same. Tosh of the purest variety, but hard to entirely dislike.

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The legend of Robert Rodriguez began with the circumstances surrounding the making of his first film, El Mariachi, over twenty years ago now. Rodriguez said he only had a guitar case and a tortoise and so was obliged to make the best of what he had available. One suspects he was being somewhat disingenuous but it was generally accepted that the whole film was made on a budget of about $7,000, some of which the writer-director supposedly raised by allowing experimental medical research to be done on him. The path from a $7,000 micro-budget thriller to a $200 million special-effects blockbuster is probably not a well-trodden one, but here Rodriguez is, in charge of the long-gestating film adaptation of Battle Angel: Alita. (This project was overseen for a long time by Jim Cameron, who eventually departed as director when the umpty-tump Avatar sequels in the works demanded too much of his attention, and Rodriguez apparently insisted on a change of name to Alita: Battle Angel because Cameron’s last two films beginning with an A were massive critical and popular successes.)

Quite early on in Alita: Battle Angel one gets either a comforting sense of being in familiar territory or a sinking feeling that the film is just a load of repurposed old spare parts. We are in another one of those post-apocalyptic futures, some time in the 26th century, with most of the Earth laid waste by interplanetary war. One vast floating city has endured, and living in its shadow a grimy, lawless sprawl has sprung up, the population trapped in poverty, kept docile by watching violent combat sports, and all dreaming of a better life in the sky-metropolis.

One of the locals is cyber-surgeon and part-time bounty-hunter Dyson Ido (Christoph Waltz), who while picking over the junkheap beneath the sky-city discovers a preserved human brain in a cybernetic skull. He pops this into a full-body prosthetic chassis and the result is Alita (Rosa Salazar), a saucer-eyed waif with (naturally) superhuman reflexes, agility and ass-whupping skills. Alita has movie amnesia, presumably as a result of spending many decades as a brain in a can.

Well, it eventually turns out that someone is after Alita, who finds herself involved in various bounty-hunting exploits and a big set-piece sequence concerning the sport of Motorball, which is basically a gladiatorial variation on roller-boogie. Alita gets a love interest in the form of the non-threatening Hugo (Keann Johnson), and together they recycle many favourite old lines from the Big Book of Old Sci-Fi Chestnuts – ‘Does it matter that I’m not human?’ ‘You’re the most human person I know’, etc – during lulls in the plot. But what is Alita’s mysterious past? Who is her enigmatic nemesis? What is his beef with her, and just what is she prepared to do to stop him?

There are many things to be said about Alita: Battle Angel, but probably the most significant one is that after 122 minutes, with the closing credits rolling in front of me, I still really had no clue about the answers to most of these questions. The screenplay doesn’t contain a plot so much as a collection of scenes roughly connected to one another, without much sense of focus or direction. Obviously this is a comic book adaptation, and it does feel like one – in some of the more cartoony elements of the story, but also in the way that the writers have clearly taken a huge corpus of stories, concepts, ideas, and characters and tried to include every single one of their favourites in a single script. The film strains to accommodate all of them, and one of the things that gets pushed out is traditional narrative development and structure.

A good point of reference for Alita would be Ghost in the Shell from a couple of years ago – both big-budget effects-driven American-made adaptations of Japanese manga, with a cybernetic heroine having an identity crisis, although Alita seems to have dodged the usual wave of venom about whitewashing (the word ‘adaptation’ just doesn’t register sometimes, it would seem). Ghost in the Shell is apparently considered a box office bomb, and regular readers will recall I did predict the same fate in store for Alita, a forecast I am not inclined to alter having seen the finished film. If you’re going to spend $200 million on a movie, you need to be pretty sure that audiences are going to turn out in force to see it (ideally several times each), and there doesn’t seem to be that much excitement about Alita: Battle Angel.

(Given that Jim Cameron’s career has often revolved around his gambling large sums of money making projects that industry insiders and commentators were vocally dubious about, which then went on to be immensely successful, one wonders if this has been a factor in his being able to get Alita funded. If so, I suspect the backers are in for a nasty shock this time.)

Certainly the film is light on all the things that a film needs to have in order to justify such a large budget – the story is not well-known outside the cult ghetto, and the well-known faces who appear in it are really character actors in supporting roles (in addition to Waltz, Jennifer Connelly and Mahershala Ali turn up in unrewarding, mostly-villainous parts). Ghost in the Shell didn’t make an impact despite the fact it prominently featured Scarlett Johansson in a body stocking (if they’d actually called the movie Scarlett Johansson in a Body Stocking I suspect it might have done better business), and I am not sure a heavily CGI-modified version of the comparatively little-known Rosa Salazar will have quite as much appeal.

Seriously, one of the questionable decisions Cameron and Rodriguez have gone for is the one to put Salazar’s performance through the computer and turn her into something not entirely unakin to Gollum, but with better skin and hair. Quite apart from whether the CGI is photo-realistic or not (I still don’t think we’re quite there yet), someone with eyes quite so big is just intrusive and distracting, and a constant reminder that you’re watching a big effects movie – it just makes the film less immersive. Salazar’s actual performance is functional – she possibly overdoes the breathless innocent bit in the early part of the film, but copes reasonably well with many scenes where they weigh down a bit too heavily on the exposition and back story pedals. The central romance remains thoroughly unimpressive, though.

The film is not outright bad, but it only really shows signs of life and energy when it comes to the action sequences – the highlight is probably the Motorball match, which manages to be genuinely exciting despite all the CGI, even in 3D. But even here Alita is seldom really exceptional, and once again I just can’t see it cutting through to make much of an impact on the cinema landscape today. Every time I go to an SF film with this much hype around it – as previously noted, the publicity for Alita has been inescapable – I’m hoping for that extraordinary, giddy sense of being taken to a world totally unlike any I’ve seen before, and the accompanying feeling of breathless delight. This almost never happens – obviously it happened with the first stellar conflict movie, and also with The Matrix and to some extent with Inception. But most films inevitably fall short, and just prove to be a bit too obviously derivative or lacking in the basic storytelling virtues. Alita: Battle Angel is obviously the work of people with a high level of technical proficiency, but it isn’t the work of original, visionary brilliance that its publicity appears to be suggesting it is – certainly not to the point where it excuses poor storytelling. It’s okay – but no more than that.

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When the Royal Society of Abyssinia discovered ‘The Hopkins Manuscript’ two years ago in the ruins of Notting Hill it was hoped that some valuable light would at last be thrown upon the final, tragic days of London. – the opening words of the book

There’s a quote from the writer Angus Wilson that frequently pops up on the back of Michael Moorcock books, praising Moorcock for his leading role in breaking down ‘the artificial divisions that have grown up in novel writing’. You might wonder just what it is that Wilson is on about – aren’t these ‘artificial divisions’ just another way of talking about genre, which is an inherent part of fiction?

Well, maybe, maybe not. But then I wandered into the local bookshop the other day and came across a copy of RC Sherriff’s 1939 novel The Hopkins Manuscript, which I’d never heard of. It was in the general fiction section, presumably because Sherriff is best-remembered as a mainstream writer – these days, for the much-adapted play Journey’s End and the screenplay for that classic tale of British stoicism, ingenuity and inappropriately-christened dogs, The Dam Busters (his script for Dracula’s Daughter was apparently rejected) – but it is unquestionably science fiction, and unquestionably part of a great tradition of British SF. Back in the 1930s you could write SF without ending up in the ghetto, it would seem. I am reminded of the great Olaf Stapledon, who wrote several of the greatest SF novels of the first part of the century (most notably Last and First Men and Star Maker) without ever properly being aware of science fiction as a genre, and perhaps even John Wyndham, who hit upon a way of writing SF that was liked by people who didn’t like SF. No-one seems to think about this kind of crossover any more; even the great Iain Banks seemed to be quite careful to distinguish between his SF and non-SF output.

But The Hopkins Manuscript is SF, and part of the lineage that includes such famous stories as Shiel’s The Purple Cloud and Doyle’s The Poison Belt, not to mention films like The Day the Earth Caught Fire. These days, when we imagine the end of the world we tend to assume that the Horseman of the Apocalypse doing all the heavy lifting will be Pestilence, but there was a time when cosmic forces were more commonly the instrument of armageddon, and so it proves here.

The novel opens with a brief description of the circumstances in which the text was discovered: expeditions from civilised lands have begun to venture into the wastelands of the former Europe, and the manuscript is the only surviving document from the long-since vanished ancient civilisation of Britain (there are a couple of other artefacts, a ‘Keep Off the Grass’ notice amongst them). The editors lament the general poor quality of the text and uselessness of the author, and conclude that virtually everything that elapsed in the British Isles between Julius Caesar’s invasion and the collapse of civilisation has been obliterated, lost to posterity forever. It is an opening by turns both drily funny but also oddly haunting.

It soon becomes clear that the editors have a point, for we soon get to know the main narrator of the book – Edgar Hopkins, a middle-aged retired schoolteacher living in rural Hampshire. He is a settled bachelor, his life concerned with his various hobbies – stamp-collecting, metallurgy, but above all else, breeding poultry for show. Another interest is astronomy, which is how he comes to be one of the first people in the country to learn of a staggering, appalling discovery – some cosmic upheaval has dislodged the moon from its orbit, and in a mere seven months it will collide with the Earth.

The secret is kept back from the general population for a while, as preparations are made to mitigate the looming cataclysm as much as is possible: shelters are prepared, and so on. Unfortunately, Hopkins himself is supremely poorly-equipped as a recorder of these events, as he is unfailingly pompous, pre-occupied with his chickens, and unable to consider the wider picture. (When summoned to an emergency meeting of his astronomical society and told of the falling moon, Hopkins’ first response is enormous relief, as he has assumed the secret meeting concerns a risky venture he has foolishly volunteered to underwrite.) There is something of The Diary of a Nobody in Hopkins’ self-regard and petty frustration and resentment of the attitudes of the people around him, and the fact that not only does he not become an important man in his village when the truth is revealed, but it has a serious impact on the poultry show calendar as well.

Time passes, and the cataclysm comes. Obviously the world is not destroyed, as some feared – the moon strikes in the Atlantic Ocean and then collapses, forming a new landmass. Tidal waves and hurricanes devastate Britain. But, obviously, Hopkins survives, and lives through the initial aftermath of the catastrophe – before realising, too late, that the cosmic impact of a falling planetoid may pose less of a menace to the human race than human nature itself…

As I say, this is clearly part of a British SF tradition, but in another way it is equally obviously a book of its time. It was written in 1939, but it often seems to have an eerie prescience when it comes to what was to follow in the next few years. The story opens in 1945 – a startling coincidence – and there is obviously talk of people digging shelters, taking refuge in the London underground, and so on. Rationing is introduced at one point, and there is a brief mention of a war being fought in Normandy. Resonating through all this, and transcending the tragi-comic figure of Hopkins himself, is a sense of terrible sadness, an anticipation of tumult to come and the mortal wound it will inflict on a certain version of England. The night before the catastrophe, the villagers assemble to play cricket under the baleful light of the vast moon – the last time, for most of them. Hopkins laments the loss of many of the social niceties and is desperate to cling onto the others, particularly the class system – in the post-apocalyptic community he helps to found, he is palpably relieved when the only member who is working class offers to sleep in the shed rather than the house. Sherriff seems to have sensed that something terrible was on the horizon, and the England he knew would not survive it, and this book is frequently a desperately sad and moving lament for a doomed way of life.

That said, of course, there is a sense in which it also feels disturbingly timely today. There are some parts of the book which are rather simplistic (and the astronomy and astrophysics have not aged at all well), but the widespread inertia and indifference which greets the announcement of the coming disaster rings true, as people simply don’t pay attention to the world around them. Following the cataclysm, there is a brief rebirth of civilisation, and for a while it seems that Sherriff has invented the cosy catastrophe subgenre well before John Wyndham thought of it, but this is only a temporary respite, and it is a grotesquely warped sense of national pride and arrogant British jingoism which is ultimately responsible for the final downfall of civilisation. Perhaps some of the voices of an elder England which Sherriff captured so well here are still with us.

As I say, this is a profoundly sad and deeply moving book, for all of its grace notes of comedy. The only thing which leaves a sour note these days is the appearance, late on, of a plot element about a vast horde of Asians who invade the stricken lands of Europe and hasten the final end. These days it inevitably reads as racist, but again it’s a fairly common motif in a certain flavour of SF – Europe being supplanted by African nations following a global catastrophe is a key plot point in John Christopher’s The World in Winter, while Moorcock himself plays with the trope in The Land Leviathan, and as late as the mid-1990s Ian McCulloch apparently proposed using the notion in a revived version of the TV series Survivors. Perhaps the best we can say of this idea is that it arises from a deep, perhaps even subconscious awareness of how the imperial European powers abused their colonial possessions, and the guilt resulting from this.

Apart from this, and assuming you cut the book some slack with regard to a few elements that feel a little naïve nowadays, The Hopkins Manuscript is a very fine book, no matter which shelf of the book shop it ends up on. It doesn’t offer very much new as an actual piece of science fiction, but as a character piece and a snapshot of anxieties at a certain key moment in recent history, it is a book of a very high quality. An excellent novel, and one that deserves to be much better known.

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It was with a due sense of resignation and expectations bordering on the actually subterranean that I sat down to watch the third and (hopefully) final part of the Godzilla trilogy which has been loitering on a market-leading streaming site for the last year or so, Godzilla: The Planet Eater (directed as before by Kobun Shizuno and Hiroyuki Seshita). Honestly, just the thought of watching another of these things gave me one of my very infrequent moments of existential self-doubt – why do I put myself through this kind of experience? The first chapter, Planet of the Monsters, was terrible; it’s a close thing as to whether the middle instalment, City on the Edge of Battle, was actually worse or simply just as bad; despite the implication that there would be appearances by Mothra and Ghidorah in the concluding episode, was it really worth the investment of ninety precious and unique minutes from my finite store?

Oh well: I’d gone this far, after all, and it would truly be an exceptional feat to take characters as storied and iconic as Godzilla, Mothra, and Ghidorah and put them in a film together and still produce something as tedious and misconceived as the first two films in this series. It would also be a very cheering moment were the Toho Animation people to actually manage to turn things around and produce a worthy Godzilla movie. So it kind of felt like a win-win situation, although it almost certainly shouldn’t have done. Possibly I should just own up to my own innate masochism, I don’t know.

The film opens not long after the conclusion of the previous one, with Godzilla having battered Mechagodzilla City into submission and the human survivors having serious differences of opinion with both their sets of alien allies: the gruff militaristic ones are annoyed with our hero Haruo for interfering with their plan to use ‘nanometal’ to defeat Godzilla, even though this would involve people being absorbed and assimilated by the living metal. Meanwhile, the spiritual ones have concluded that Haruo, and in particular the purity of his hatred for Godzilla, is the perfect vessel to summon their god into existence. Said deity, Ghidorah, has the power to finally defeat Godzilla once and for all. He will also annihilate the planet, but you can’t have everything your own way.

As in the previous two Godzilla animes, the title character spends the first half of the movie standing around off in the background not actually doing anything, while the human-scale characters stand around and flap their mouths at each other. On this occasion, they spend the first half of the movie discussing – oh, something or other. It’s so dull and pretentious I appear to have blanked it from my memory. The film makes various eager swipes at big philosophical issues, contemplating whether it’s better to live in harmony with nature or as part of a technological society, and then contemplating the nature of God and religious belief. Fair play to the makers of Planet Eater for being willing to engage with these sort of themes, but on the other hand the debating seems to go on forever in the most abstract manner. Most of the plot of the first half of the film just consists of people having this kind of static philosophical discussion.

Things briefly perk up ever so slightly as Ghidorah finally manifests himself from a black hole which forms near the humans’ colony ship, still in orbit over the monsterfied Earth. This is almost certainly the best sequence in the whole trilogy, as the familiar dragon-head on a sinuous, seemingly endless neck snakes out and coils around the huge spacecraft. From here we move on to what is clearly intended as the main event – yet another battle between Godzilla and Ghidorah.

Well, wouldn’t you know it, the makers of this trilogy have hit upon a way to make kaiju battles nearly as dull as the theological debates going on around them. This new version of Ghidorah is almost all neck: three more black holes form in the upper atmosphere of Earth and each one produces a Ghidorah-head on a long, golden neck. There’s no sign of Ghidorah’s actual body, legs, tails or wings. I suppose Ghidorah should just be grateful he’s not been reconceived as a piece of urban planning in the same way Mechagodzilla was. How does Godzilla proceed to fight an enemy who is mostly neck? Well, he blasts his nuclear ray at him, but this new Ghidorah has gravity-warping powers and he just bends the ray so it doesn’t strike him (this, I suppose, is not actually a bad idea). Then the dragon-heads of Ghidorah clamp onto Godzilla and start leeching his energy. Which takes about fifteen minutes mostly consisting of the two monsters standing there almost stock-still, while the other characters stand around and watch, and discuss what’s happening.

All right: the animation and production designs on these movies is not awful, although it is a very mixed bag, and you can kind of see what they are trying to do by introducing such radically reimagined versions of many of the classic Toho monsters (their new version of Mothra is actually pretty traditional, compared to the others, but then everyone’s favourite giant mystic lepidoptera barely gets a cameo in this new trilogy). But it’s almost as if they don’t actually understand or don’t care what a Godzilla movie is usually about.

Writing about the other two films I have explained what I think a really good Godzilla film (or kaiju movie generally) should incorporate: excitement, fantasy, spectacle, hopefully a sense of grandeur. These are cheerful, upbeat films, not least because of their essential absurdity. The animated trilogy, on the other hand, quite apart from being slow and talky and pretentious and lacking in any sense of humour or fun, are notable for their essential nihilism: the implication is that modern technological civilisation inevitably spawns giant destructive monsters and (on a more metaphorical level) devours the souls of its citizens. These films end up advocating a rather simplistic back-to-the-land philosophy about living in harmony with nature. It feels glib and insincere.

Well, as luck would have it, we are going to get another outing for Godzilla, Ghidorah and Mothra this year (Rodan will be in it too), and if nothing else the new version of Godzilla: King of the Monsters can only look better compared to the animated trilogy. Someone has already described these films as by far the most boring interval in the entire 65 year history of the Godzilla franchise. I can only agree, and might even suggest they are being too generous in saying that.

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I mentioned the other day the unusually long theatrical releases enjoyed in years past by films such as The Wild Bunch (seven years or so, in one UK cinema at least) and Reservoir Dogs (not quite as long, but over a wider area). However, as chance would have it one of the ‘high number’ TV channels in my region happened to be showing a film which puts both of these in the shade, by which I mean it was originally released in 1975 and is technically still running in some cinemas today (even if only at midnight on the weekends). No ordinary film gets a 44 year theatrical run, and whatever else you want to say about it, Jim Sharman’s The Rocky Horror Picture Show is not what you’d call an ordinary film.

From a certain point of view it resembles a fairly typical film adaptation of a successful stage show, but then this is to miss the unique nature of the Rocky Horror phenomenon. Rocky Horror is, of course, synonymous with its creator, Richard O’Brien, who is something of a genial self-mythologiser (at least where the origins of the show are concerned). One version of the story has it that O’Brien was appearing in Jesus Christ Superstar in London’s West End when the creator of that show, Andrew Lloyd Webber, attended a show and was sufficiently unimpressed by O’Brien’s performance that he had him sacked on the spot – unable to get work as a result, O’Brien wrote Rocky Horror as a way of making some money (other versions are less dramatic and suggest the actor started work on the project simply to amuse himself). Richard O’Brien has also suggested that the tone of the show was a calculated choice based on the fact that the two most successful film series in British history are the Hammer horrors and the Carry On films, and that Rocky Horror is intended as a kind of mash-up of the two. This strikes me as disingenuous, to say the least – it sounds good, but the film itself doesn’t really seem to show either as a significant influence.

The film concerns the travails of (initially) wholesome young couple Brad Majors (Barry Bostwick) and Janet Weiss (Susan Sarandon); the setting feels like it should be the Fifties but there is a very deliberate choice to show the characters listening to Nixon’s resignation on the radio at one point. Anyway, having recently become engaged, Brad and Janet are travelling to visit an old friend when their car breaks down and they have to take refuge in the mansion of eccentric (to say the least) scientist Dr Frank N Furter (Tim Curry), who is hosting a gathering of like-minded friends. The occasion is to celebrate the fact that he has recently completed an extraordinary experiment, and created a man in his laboratory! Although his motives for doing so are probably best not dwelt upon…

One thing you can say about The Rocky Horror Picture Show is that it has a visual identity of its own like few other films: if you come across it while channel-surfing, it’s instantly obvious what it is, perhaps (given the remarkable cultural penetration of the show) even if you’ve never seen it before. The movie is consumed by a camp sensibility in a way matched by few others, and this extends to the costumes, the set dressing, and most of the performances. It is its own thing much more than it is a spoof of any other film or genre.

As I say, I’m dubious about O’Brien’s suggestion that Rocky Horror has much to do with the Carry Ons or Hammer (though I detect a certain commonality of approach with the Dr Phibes films). The closest real link between the House of Horror and Rocky Horror (unless you count Charles Gray’s appearance) is that the latter re-uses some old props from Revenge of Frankenstein, and was filmed on location at Hammer’s old base at Bray Studios. It doesn’t really have the relentless innuendo or slapstick (or indeed the actual sense of innocence) you usually find in a Carry On film; compare The Rocky Horror Picture Show with Carry On Screaming and you’ll see that these two films are actually quite far apart in tone and approach.

The film seems to owe at least as big a debt to American sci-fi movies of the Fifties as it does to any English influence – the litany of films invoked by O’Brien in the iconic opening number is mostly American, after all. The setting is certainly American and the plot refers to things like the UFO flap of the 1950s. The clincher, for me, is the musical score, which is stuffed with pastiche rock ‘n’ roll songs intended to recall the same period. If Rocky Horror starts anywhere, it is as a piece of fake Americana, eventually subverted by notions of campness.

Whatever it’s supposed to be, I always find The Rocky Horror Picture Show to be terrifically watchable, mainly because the songs are so good. The slow ones are generally at least pleasant and easy on the ear, while the up-tempo numbers are fun and witty (the complaint that they all sound the same seems to me to be a bit unfair, given they were all written in the same rock ‘n’ roll mode). The cast put them over well, too – I can’t honestly claim to ever have been fond of ‘Let’s Do the Time Warp Again’, but I really like ‘Science Fiction Double Feature’, ‘Damn It Janet’, and many of the others.

If there’s a problem, it’s that – viewed as a piece of conventional musical theatre – The Rocky Horror Show is all over the place. It does contain ‘I Am’ and ‘I Want’ songs, but they’re often in very peculiar places – the most obvious example of an ‘I Want’ song is ‘Touch-a Touch-a Touch Me’, but it’s nearly halfway through the film (much later than is normal). The plot of the film basically falls to bits even earlier than this, at least in terms of normal narrative progression. There’s really no point in worrying too much about the story, because it simply doesn’t make a lot of sense or follow any real logic. Well before the end, the film simply becomes a collection of (pretty good) songs – tellingly, it also becomes essentially sung-through, after the opening includes a reasonable amount of dialogue.

Devotees of the film and the show would doubtless say that Rocky Horror is about an attitude more than a narrative, and I couldn’t honestly argue with them. You could perhaps make a case that the film is about the way in which strait-laced American society in the 1950s was undermined and subverted by the permissiveness of the 1960s and early 70s, symbolised here by rock ‘n’ roll music and the film’s obsession with cross-dressing and minority sexual practices, but looking for a serious subtext to The Rocky Horror Picture Show is surely missing the point by an enormous margin.

I do wonder, though, if the show hasn’t been a victim of its own success. It’s hard to get a real sense of what society was actually like back in 1973 when the stage production opened, and it may be that it was a genuinely startling and transgressive new show at the time. These days, as I say, it has achieved a remarkably high profile and perhaps this has given it a cosiness and sense of familiarity which has to some extent pulled its teeth. I saw a revival on stage in 1994 and despite the large number of slightly puerile sight-gags it was very much a family show, with people taking their children along for a pantomime-like experience of audience participation. The Rocky Horror Picture Show, like its theatrical progenitor, was long ago absorbed into the mainstream and accommodated there, if never completely assimilated – but it remains an energetic piece of entertainment, and practically the type specimen of a cult movie.

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