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The effects work is excellent – the only effects that do not work are the plainly cartoon-animated bouncing balls of flubber. Nancy Olson gives a bland, forgettable performance but burly, baritone Keenan Wynn displays a great deal of energy as Alonzo Hawk. Fred MacMurray’s understated deadpan performance, inspiredly hopping about on out-of-control legs like a manic chimpanzee, is one of great comic invention. Even the script is reasonably believable, the technical explanation for flubber having a surface plausibility that at least seems more conceivable than the usual gobbledygook inserted in lieu in science-fiction films. (Unfortunately, it is done in by one glaring error – that flubber would fail through the Second Law of Thermodynamics, that increased action creates a gradual loss, as opposed to increase, of energy as the film claims).
The Absent-Minded Professor became the template for a series of Disney madcap (as opposed to mad) scientist films through the 1960s. (Indeed, you could argue that The Absent-Minded Professor was the single film that rescued the scientist’s reputation and transformed him into a lovable eccentric rather than the madman defying the laws of nature as he was constantly being portrayed in the 1930s and 40s). Other Disney imitators include the Merlin Jones films – The Misadventures of Merlin Jones (1963) and The Monkey’s Uncle (1965) – and the Dexter Reilly films – The Computer Wore Tennis Shoes (1969), Now You See Him, Now You Don’t (1972) and The Strongest Man in the World (1975). Medfield College became a regular venue in Disney’s live-action comedies and Keenan Wynn played Alonzo Hawk again in Son of Flubber (1963) and Herbie Rides Again (1974).
Disney made a disappointing sequel – Son of Flubber (1963), which also featured all the principals here. There have been two mediocre remakes – the tv movie The Absent-Minded Professor (1994), starring Harry Andrews in the title role, and the cinematically released Flubber (1997) with Robin Williams.
On screen, Akira plays like a collision between Cyberpunk and 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968). It is a stunning vision – one that fuses Cyberpunk urban nihilism, religious chiliasm, what seems like a transcendent vision of The Bomb and a wild punk version of The Fury (1978) all into one (if not entirely coherently). Mostly, Akira is constructed in a series of climaxes that get progressively bigger and bigger until they almost reach a point of sensory overload. It is a film of epic, even cosmic, scope – Tetsuo’s path of destruction through the city, wiping out bridges, tanks and vast cryonic vats, silently journeying up into space to tear apart a Star Wars laser satellite and melding with the Akira entity as a ball of pure white light consuming the entire city in its path, is exhilaratring and awe-inspiring. The final vision travelling through space, following beams of light, which finally coalesce into a giant eye that whispers “I am Tetsuo” before the end credits roll quite blows the mind with its scale of wholly cosmic grandeur.
Neo-Tokyo is a vista of grimy downbeat Cyberpunk imagery filled with bewilderingly beautiful neon cityscapes, holographic ads and thousand-storey buildings. This aspect of the film is disappointing in some respects – the background is rarely of much relevance and the vehicles and particularly the fashions never seem to have changed in 31 years. The action scenes pelting down tunnels on bikes and hoverjets in a bedlam of lights and sound however are breathlessly exciting. The film also has an amazingly high level of violence, the casual gratuitousness of which proved somewhat amusing to the Western theatrical audience I was sitting amongst as they watched about the dozenth person get their teeth kicked in. Much of the film plays as wish fulfillment on political anarchy and destructive power fantasies – its subtext is not a particularly profound one. However, as an exercise in escalating size and sense of wonder, Akira cannot be equalled.
For several years, since 2003, there have been plans for a US-made live-action remake of Akira, currently announced for sometime in the 2010s.
Unlike Paddy Chayefsky, Ken Russell revels in the absurdity of the idea, playing the scientific treatises like monomaniacal soliloquies on fast-forward, with characters talking at the same time or spouting them around mouthfuls of food or bottles of wine. Paddy Chayefsky’s attachment to the seriousness of the project is difficult to understand – Ken Russell only adds humour to a book that treated straight-faced would have been laughed off the screen. Nevertheless, some of Paddy Chayefsky’s characteristically barbed writing is still present in some of the wonderful one-liners – “The One Truth is a tangible entity and I’m going to find the fucker” – William Hurt’s statement of intent; “She’s crazy about him, he’s crazy” – character analysis; “I prefer the senseless pain we inflict on each other to the senseless pain we inflict on ourselves,” – a reconciliation.
Ken Russell runs rife through his previous Christian blasphemies and the psychedelic trips of Tommy. Altered States doesn’t so much come at one as assault with its frenetic pace and imagery – visions of a goat-head William Hurt flying through the stratosphere consumed by a flaming crucifixes; a beautiful sequence with naked bodies being eroded by sandstorms; damned souls diving en masse into flaming pits in solarized scenes taken from the silent version of Dante’s Inferno (1924) – all to immensely entertaining effect. Ken Russell’s films far too often give into a campy silliness but Altered States, for all its patent nonsense as serious science, gains a transcendental cosmological grandeur that stretches the mind. This is a film that dares to grapple with ultimate meaning and no matter the straight-faced silliness of it all, it does have the same religiose magic that 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) had. Many condemn Ken Russell for his pretentiousness and overt silliness here, but to my mind it is the film’s inspired advantage.
Ken Russell’s other films of genre interest are:– the spy film Billion Dollar Brain (1967); the historical witch persecution film The Devils (1971); Tommy (1975), the surreally demented adaptation of The Who’s LP; the psycho-sexual thriller Crimes of Passion (1984); Gothic (1987), centred around the events leading up to the inspiration for Mary Shelley’s writing Frankenstein (1818); the spoofily over-the-top adaptation of Bram Stoker’s The Lair of the White Worm (1988); Mindbender (1996), an hysterically bad biopic of the psychic Uri Geller; The Fall of the Louse of Usher (2002), Russell’s demented home movie take on Edgar Allan Poe; and an episode of the horror anthology Trapped Ashes (2006).
Amid this, Michael Crichton was a prophet of anti-science sounding single-note polemics about the dangers of rampant technology. A weird dichotomy runs through Michael Crichton’s work. He loves technology – his books come heavily researched and filled with graphs and diagrams. Indeed, the science and detail in Crichton’s books always eclipses his human characters, which are wooden. Yet for all his impressive flourishes of hard science, Michael Crichton is a rampant technological alarmist who fears that we have created systems that have become so sophisticated that they are going to go out of control and destroy us. For all the scientific detail that goes into The Andromeda Strain, it is also a very pessimistic film. The story is filled with dark ironies – like the amazing hi-tech biological containment bunker nearly being destroyed by something as small as a piece of ticker tape caught in the printer and then nearly blown up by its own safety procedures where a nuclear device cannot be turned off due to a lack of off-switch stations caused by uncompleted construction.
In a repeated design schema that was spread across films like 2001, THX 1138, The Andromeda Strain and The Terminal Man, before being parodied in Woody Allen’s Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex * But Were Afraid to Ask (1972), the future was seen as a place where technology had reached a point of pristine, antiseptic perfection, where even mankind’s presence was seen as an unwelcome disease that was infecting techno-topia. The Andromeda Strain, for example, features a blinding white-on-white design and lighting scheme where humans seem like rats in a maze. There is an overwhelming sense in the film of people becoming increasingly immersed in science and technology, dehumanized and reduced to programmable data. In the perfect image of this dehumanization, there is a scene where James Olson responds and starts to flirt with a luscious sexy voice on the PA before he is clinically informed it is in fact that of an old lady who records these voices for a living.
The Andromeda Strain was directed by Robert Wise. (See below for Robert Wise’s other films). Robert Wise is an old school director who always respects the material, not an ego-driven director who needs to stamp his own imprint on the work. He was alwaus someone quietly dedicated to making a good film and has almost invariably made a classic no matter which of the many genres he has worked in. Out of all the screen adaptations of Michael Crichton’s work, The Andromeda Strain is the most faithful. Robert Wise crafts it as an immensely exciting detective story – it may be the first bacteriological whodunnit. Great effort is made to obtain authenticity and realism, with Wise adopting a documentary-like approach shuffling back and forth between government offices and labs, using much in the way of official jargonese, even displaying some of Michael Crichton’s graphs. The scenes with the scientists working around the clock to isolate the virus, especially navigating the interior of the capsule at microscopic size and the eeriness that comes in the discovery of the lifeform present, are completely gripping.
The Andromeda Strain is one of the few science-fiction films that takes a great deal of effort to make sure its’ science is correct down to the nth detail. This is also one hard science film that never talks down to its audience and works all the better for it. It is also one of the few science-fiction films that actually portrays the mundane process of real science. The characters in the film are deliberately made blank – the real stars of the film are the monitors, twirling mechanical arms, lab rats and sanitary procedures. What is also interesting about The Andromeda Strain is the casting of Kate Reid, who gives an amusingly peppery performance amid the mostly anonymous players. Most notably, in the book the character is male, while in the film she is a woman. The change highlights the fact that Robert Wise and co are attempting to depict a real woman scientist. Contrast Kate Reid to the usual women scientists cast in science-fiction films – one notable example being Raquel Welch in Fantastic Voyage (1966) who is cast as a scientific assistant solely for sex appeal – while here Kate Reid is just one of the film’s players, not present as a function of the story’s need to have a token woman or create romance.
The Michael Crichton was later remade as a tv mini-series The Andromeda Strain (2008), which considerably elaborated on the events of the film/book.
Michael Crichton’s brand of technological alarmism eventually ran its course by the mid-1980s where Star Wars (1977) opened up intergalactic venues with much friendlier regard and essentially tamed technology. By the end of the 1980s, Crichton’s directorial career appeared on the wane and he returned to writing novels. That was until he published a certain novel called Jurassic Park (1990), which propelled his career into the stratosphere after it was filmed by Steven Spielberg as Jurassic Park (1993) and brought Crichton back to screens all over again. Crichton never assumed the director’s chair again following the flop courtroom thriller Physical Evidence (1989). Following the success of Jurassic Park, there have been highly successful adaptations of most of his books – Rising Sun (1993), a non-genre thriller from Crichton’s alarmingly racist novel about Japanese business practice; Disclosure (1994), a quasi-sf thriller about sexual harassment; Congo (1995), a modern lost city quest; Twister (1996), a Crichton original screenplay about tornado chasers; The Lost World: Jurassic Park (1997); Sphere (1998), an underrated film about the investigation of an underwater UFO; The 13th Warrior (1999), from Crichton’s Eaters of the Dead (1976), a reworking of the epic legend Beowulf with Neanderthals; and the time travel film Timeline (2003). Crichton also created the hit tv medical drama ER (1996-2009).
Robert Wise has directed a number of classic films including Run Silent, Run Deep (1958), West Side Story (1961) and The Sound of Music (1965). Wise’s other genre films are:– The Curse of the Cat People (1944) and The Body Snatcher (1945), two classic psychological horror films made for Val Lewton; the human hunting film A Game of Death (1945); the science-fiction classic The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951); the haunted house classic The Haunting (1963); Audrey Rose (1977), a courtroom drama about reincarnation; and Star Trek – The Motion Picture (1979).
Looking at Antiviral, Cronenberg pere and frere certainly seem to be cut from the same cloth. Antiviral seems to be set in the same coolly detached world of early David Cronenberg – the world reminds undeniably of David’s somewhat more surreal Crimes of the Future (1970), while similar depersonalised modernistic surroundings were used by David in Shivers/They Came from Within (1975). There are also the recurring theme of people pursuing festishistic fascinations – here having celebrity viruses placed into their own bodies or eating steaks cultivated from celebrity cells, which is similar to the fetishistic mindsets of the characters in films like Shivers, Dead Ringers and Crash (1996). Characters are wont to voice cryptically oblique pieces of dialogue – “celebrities are not people, they are group hallucinations”, “from the perspective of the virus, the human being is irrelevant” – that you could easily attribute to Brian O’Blivion of Videodrome (1983) fame or some of the writing in the recent Cosmopolis (which also shared lead actress Sarah Gadon). Brandon also shares his father’s trait of giving his characters names that sit unusually on the tongue. And of course there is the same shared fascination with medical experiments and embracing of perverse forms of body modification/mutation that runs through all of David Cronenberg’s films from the 1970s to the 1990s. In that David Cronenberg has from the 1990s onwards given up any type of easy pigeonholing as a genre director, you could perhaps see Brandon as returning to his father’s roots and rediscovering/upholding the body of ideas that gained David Cronenberg his cult name.
That said, Antiviral has sufficient originality of conception to stand entirely on its own. If anything, it reminds of the science-fiction films of Andrew Niccol – Gattaca (1997), In Time (2011) and to some extent The Truman Show (1998) – which posit a future extrapolated from one central concept, which has been conceptually elaborated to see how such a world would operate, the rules of the society, the things people would take for granted and so forth. There is a cool fascination with which we see the world of celebrity viruses being presented – the advertising, the smoothness of Caleb Landry Jones’s sales pitch to clients. In this world, the next logical step becomes the idea of companies genetically tampering with the viruses in order to copy protect them, then of rival companies trying to reverse engineer the protection to steal samples and engaging in industrial espionage by infecting star’s with lethal viruses of their own design. This also leads to a black market in stolen cells, even restaurants the sell steaks made up of cells cultivated from stars. Elsewhere, doctor Malcolm McDowell displays a series of skin graft patches from stars and describes the joy of having them attached to his body as akin to something religious. The contemporary fascination with celebrity news is parodied with a darkly satirical bite – where celebrity sex tapes become headline items and other new pieces speculate about various celebrities’ misshapen vulvas and anal blockages. The end that the film reaches takes everything to a savage conclusion.
I had a good deal of liking for Antiviral. It shows Brandon Cronenberg as a director of undeniable promise – both in terms of imprinting his own style on a film and equally in creating an original idea and pushing it through a series of fascinating logical contortions with considerable ingenuity. It is much the same as one suspects audiences would have reacted to seeing David Cronenberg’s Shivers for the first time back in 1975 and trying to wrap their heads around the richness of the metaphorical subtext that it held. Antiviral is a highly impressive debut and I am greatly in interested to see what Brandon Cronenberg is capable of next.
(Nominee for Best Original Screenplay at this site’s Best of 2012 Awards).
(Screening at the Vancouver International Film Festival)
Due to Shinji Aramaki’s background, Appleseed 2004 emerges as a dazzling and truly remarkable giant mecha film. Indeed, the success of Appleseed 2004 appears to have set a new benchmark for modern anime action and spectacle. There is a breathtaking opening with Deunan on the run from tanks and killer robots amid a massive outlay of artillery fire and mass destruction – a sequence where Shinji Aramaki has taken undeniable influence from The Matrix (1999) and throws in the animated equivalent of Bullet Time moves. There is a fabulous scene with Briareos fighting a fembot that is armed with a razor wire that gradually slices through his gun, before he cuts her apart and then punches right through her. Aramaki is in his element when it comes to the giant robot scenes. The battle with Deunan in her combat suit tackling the Landmates as they race along a highway as though on skates is intensely exciting. Although it is the climactic scenes with Deunan fighting the massive mobile fortresses as they march across the city, crushing everything in their path that is completely exhilarating in its contrast of small and massive scale. This is surely about as exciting as it is possible for anime to get.
The most breathtaking aspect of Appleseed 2004 however is the background design of the future. The beautiful 3D designs that Shinji Aramaki offers as his camera cruises across the city, showing amazingly detailed apartments blocks, freeways threading between buildings and vehicles buzzing back and forward, or the cruise around the massive blue arch of the Tartarus building is extraordinary in the degree of photorealistic detail that has gone into the creation of these. It is almost as though one is following a camera car through the streets and airways of a real city of the future. Aramaki creates some of these images simply for the sheer showoffy artistic joy of doing so – like a dazzling panorama of a cityscape lit up by night, which is then revealed to be reflected in a puddle before a boot splashes through it. Or the amazing realism of the shots where the plane approaches the oil rig in between the spray of the waves being tossed about by the storm to land on a helipad that is lit up in rain mist. There is a stunning shot where we see Deunan in the Landmate suit as a tiny figure flying across the city skyline all lit up in the golden light of a setting sun – it’s a shot that exists for no reason other than the pure artistic joy of having it there.
Having seen Appleseed 1988 before Appleseed 2004, it is worth comparing the two. I have not read the original manga but there is the feeling that Shinji Aramaki has gone back and told a more complete version of the original story. Both films concern the heroine Deunan Knute and her cyborg companion Briareos Hecatonchires and their dealings with terrorist forces within the future utopia of Olympus where the populace lives alongside bio-engineered humans. In both of the anime, the two of them have to fight factions who are attempting to disrupt the perfect society, while Briareos is revealed to be a traitor. There is also the addition here of a complex backstory about the creation of the Bioroids in order to protect humanity from its more warlike impulses. Appleseed 1988 tended to throw us into the middle of the story with no explanation of who the characters were or the society they lived in. By contrast, Appleseed 2004 explores the background of who Deunan is, how the society came to be and her essential role in saving it. In comparing the two, you get the feeling looking back on Appleseed 1988 that you were watching a sequel or the later episodes of a tv series where you had missed the initial stories that set the scenario up.
Shinji Aramaki later went onto make a sequel with Appleseed Ex Machina (2007). Subsequently, Shinji Aramaki went onto direct one of the episodes of the anthology Halo Legends (2010) and Starship Troopers: Invasion (2012).
(Nominee for Best Adapted Screenplay at this site’s Best of 2004 Awards).
The frequent theme throughout the Polish Brothers’ films is of ordinary people in the American Midwest living with the burden of almost impossible dreams. These find their greatest strength in The Astronaut Farmer. It’s a beautiful tribute to having the confidence in almost impossible dreams against overwhelming odds. Against this the Polish’s array almost everybody – the FBI, pompous NASA officials, the bank, the local authorities – and set them baying at Billy Bob Thornton’s door. It becomes a considerable emotional triumph when the rocket finally does launch despite everything seemingly set against Billy Bob doing so.
The Polish’s play straight to the American heartland but Michael’s direction is ordinary and unassuming, his strengths are plain – he doesn’t make the maudlin appeals to Norman Rockwell Americana that someone like Frank Capra does. And he has a nice eye for illustrating the film with meagre but highly evocative simplicity – like Billy Bob Thornton and Virginia Madsen line dancing at a county fair, the kids riding on a rocket fairground ride in the field, the Easter Egg hunt around the capsule. The film opens with the surreal image of Billy Bob Thornton in his spacesuit riding a horse across his farm, tending his cattle, then returning home to sit down to a perfectly normal breakfast of pancakes. The surreal play of American Midwest and the quite incongruous image of a man in a spacesuit in the midst of the scene is striking (even if it is one that the Polish’s never particularly explain, like why Billy Bob Thornton sees fit to tend his cattle in a spacesuit). If nothing else, it gives a glorious literalization to the film’s title.
The Polish’s get near faultless casting with Billy Bob Thornton in the title role. Billy Bob is an actor who is perfectly suited when it comes to portraying flinty, wry humour and straight arrow, clear-speaking wisdom. The role is simply that of the dreamer unafraid to follow his dream and shrugging off all derision and Billy Bob Thornton plays it with an admirable simplicity.
(Nominee for Best Original Screenplay at this site’s Best of 2006 Awards).
Visually, Bad Taste is so over-the-top it achieves a unique level of surreal slapstick. It is like a Roadrunner cartoon in live-action. One character falls off a cliff, losing half his brains and then spends the rest of the film scooping up others’ brains to put in, although problems are then presented with a loose flap in his skull that has a habit of falling open and losing them all over again. When the same character comes bursting in through a wall, he leaves the outline of a figure holding a chainsaw in his wake. Later he chainsaws his way down through the insides of the lead alien to emerge at the other end to announce: “I’ve been born again.” A bazooka shell fired at a house goes not only in through one wall but out the other side to detonate a nonchalantly grazing sheep. The level of invention that has gone into all of this is both perverse in design and wholly ingenious in execution. Peter Jackson’s homemade makeup effects are more ingenious and convincing than many presented in films with big budgets.
Peter Jackson went on to make two other entries that were equally ingenious and inventive in the low-budget splatter stakes – Meet the Feebles (1990), a perverted spoof of The Muppet Show (1977-81), and the zombie comedy Braindead/Deadalive (1992). Jackson next graduated to the critically acclaimed Heavenly Creatures (1994) about two true-life New Zealand schoolgirl murderers and the disappointing ghost comedy The Frighteners (1996). He then conducted his epic adaptation of the Lord of the Rings trilogy with The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring (2001), The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers (2002) and The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (2003), followed by his remake of King Kong (2005), The Lovely Bones (2009), The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey (2012), The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug (2013) and The Hobbit: There and Back Again (2014). Jackson has also produced District 9 (2009) and The Adventures of Tintin (2011). It is certainly hard to believe from watching such a gungy, seat of the pants splatter film like Bad Taste that you were watching the work of someone who would later rank in the lists of the most powerful directors in Hollywood.
Strange and interesting piece of trivia about Bad Taste:– the film’s poster art features one of the aliens giving the finger. In the USA, this was considered too offensive and the poster was repainted so that the alien now has two fingers raised in the peace sign. Only in America!
The sets are designed with gorgeously deranged excess – Barbarella’s spaceship comes with pink carpeted roofs and walls; there is a journey down into a beautiful crystalline labyrinth; and the Queen’s bedroom is a stand-out with giant lenses, psychedelic back-projections and a gilt-painted bed shaped in a female form. Jane Fonda seems to go through a costume change about every five minutes – fishnets and plastic bras, giant-spotted cat tails, thigh-length boots, navel-length V-necks. The city is the kind of place where the populace can wear negligees, feather boas, leather jockstraps, giant lip-shaped headdresses, vertical plaits and plastic unicorn horns with perfect harmony.
Barbarella is the film that Jane Fonda would prefer to forget. It was made at the point she was married to Roger Vadim and well before becoming politically conscious. She gives an amusing performance of wide-eyed innocence, while managing a diverting line in psycho-sociological doubletalk. She is aided by a serenely aloof performance from John Phillip Law as the blind angel – he naturally lives in a nest and in another throwaway gag it seems perfectly normal at one point for Fonda to perform CPR by sitting on his back and cranking his wings.
Italian producer Dino de Laurentiis later attained notoriety with his disastrous remake of King Kong (1976). De Laurentiis also produced two other films in the same giddy comic-bookish style of Barbarella with Danger: Diabolik (1967) and the remake of Flash Gordon (1980). Barbarella is one film to which a sequel would be most welcome – up until his death in 2000, Roger Vadim promised to make one several times with actresses like Sherilyn Fenn and Drew Barrymore in the title role, but nothing ever emerged. More recently, director Robert Rodriguez announced a remake to star Rose McGowan, although this has yet to emerge. Barbarella’s most famous legacy in pop culture though may well have ended up being 1980s mega-successful pop group Duran Duran borrowing their name from Milo O’Shea’s mad scientist in the film.
Roger Vadim’s other genre films of note were:- Blood and Roses (1960), an adaptation of the lesbian vampire classic Carmilla (1872), and the Metzengerstein episode of the Edgar Allan Poe anthology Tales of Mystery and Imagination/Spirits of the Dead (1968), also starring Jane Fonda.
On the minus side Blue Remains is much less effective when it comes to the characters. These disappointingly seem little more than CGI versions of the limited ones that appear in 1970s/early 1980s hand-drawn anime. Unlike A.li.ce’s Kenichi Maejima, who had a real affinity for using the medium of CGI to find the tenderness of the characters’ expressions, Takabayashi and Takizawa seem quite disinterested in the characters and place far more interest in the ships and the underwater vistas. Indeed during the fierce battle against Glyptofane, the tragic sacrifices are measured more in terms of the vehicles being destroyed than the characters’ deaths. As with much Japanese cinema and anime – Nausicaa in the Valley of the Wind/Warriors of the Wind (1984), Princess Mononoke (1997) and Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within (2001) – there is a strong theme of environmentalism running through the film. Indeed there are a great many similarities between Blue Remains and Nausicaa – in both films a young girl with unshakeable faith fights to restore a ruined Earth, battling against a monstrous menace. Blue Remains reaches a beautifully transcendent ending with a giant-sized tree bursting up to the surface, sprouting through the sunlit clouds and revealing tiny human embryos nestled like leaves in its branches.
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Jones writes the two characters so damn good they almost seem real – Vic and Blood are two examples of characters that are unique and original creations to science-fiction, characters that are not merely transplanted from the real world. Jones succeeds in engendering genuine twinges of feeling as Blood argues with Johnson not to go down into Topeka and then their subsequent goodbye with the last lingering image of Blood sitting outside the bunker entrance.
The depiction of the actual holocaust is managed with remarkable economy – the film opens on solarized Bomb footage and the cheekily droll narration: “World War IV lasted five days/Politicians had finally solved the problems of urban blight.” Regrettably, the Topeka scenes come somewhat unglued – there’s a nice idea in parodying Norman Rockwell Americana, in having Middle America be the only civilization to survive the holocaust, but with its populace in white-out clown faces and Hayseed Yokel killer robots it’s all a little too farcical to work. There is a surprising degree of fidelity to Harlan Ellison’s novella, something which Ellison, who has been so vocal about his abuse by other media people, has only cause to be proud of.
When it came out, Capricorn One attracted a good deal of disdain in the science-fiction community for its less than reverent attitude toward the space programme. Writer David Gerrold pompously claimed “it [the film] belittles and demeans the highest aspirations of the mind ... devalues the integrity of science itself. Those of us who stood in our backyards on quiet summer nights, gazing up at the stars and wondering, hoping ... the makers of Capricorn One have taken our dream girl and portrayed her as a prostitute.” Although this was an argument that was defeated by the fact that NASA co-operated with and even loaned equipment and space modules for the making of the film. Without feeling any of his dreams particularly tarnished, the author enjoyed the film. Indeed, rather than trashing its ideals, Capricorn One in fact seems to be lamenting the dream that inspired the space programme – Hal Holbrook has a magnificent soliloquy early on in the film that languishes the loss of the dream embodied by John F. Kennedy’s original call to space in the face of 1970s budgetary cutbacks.
The dialogue is often beautifully written and the characterisations are spot-on. Hyams has this odd way of overlapping dialogue from one scene onto the next to provide haunting images – like the image of the Lear Jet with the escaping astronauts aboard taking off overlapped by the President’s funeral oration, or the pullback from the tv transmission to reveal the Martian landscape as merely a set. The standard thriller aspects with car and helicopter chases are less interesting. Here the absurdity of the set-up is not equal to the astuteness of plotting elsewhere – the attempts to kill Elliott Gould become melodramatic, particularly in never explaining the agency behind this – it seems somewhat absurd to be asked to believe that NASA has a team of assassins on hand to deal with situations like this. One keeps wondering why NASA simply did not expose the faulty contractor in the first place.
There is a substantial cast line-up. Among these lead actor James Brolin is stolid. O.J. Simpson, then just a pro-footballer and not having attracted the infamy he would a decade-and-a-half later, turns up as one of the astronauts. Telly Savalas has an awful piece toward the end as a cropduster pilot. There are also some nice performances tucked away, particularly from Brenda Vaccaro as James Brolin’s playful wife and David Huddleston as a deceptively smiling Southern Congressman. There is also an unusually good performance from Hal Holbrook as the NASA director who offers pained apologies at the same time as he commits to ruthless courses of action.
Frank Cottrell Boyce, a screenwriter who has penned six of Michael Winterbottom’s films, creates an exceptional script that has a real cleverness in its twists. Cottrell Boyce immediately throws us into a uniquely different world. There’s a wonderful cool to the scenes where we see Tim Robbins employing his empathy virus, asking the Sphinx employees random questions about themselves and being able to deduce vast amounts of information from them as a result, or asking the receptionist at the front desk a question that allows him to guess the access password to the building. There are marvellous little throwaway scenes like where Robbins goes to use his empathy virus on the receptionist at the hospital, only to learn that the hospital has defences that have instead turned the virus into a harmless common cold. Or where Cottrell Boyce makes the assumption that few science-fiction films ever do – that the day-to-day jargon spoken in the future will be a evolved blend of argot from multiple languages, where everybody seems to use a casually littered mix of English, Spanish and Chinese.
The one other film that Code 46 reminds of is Wim Wenders’ Until the End of the World (1991) with its journey through multiple countries of the world that came richly littered in futuristic detail. The background of the film here is full of tiny pieces of similar throwaway texturing – Tim Robbins’ hotel room where tv is projected on the windows of his rooms; he doing his daily exercise using a Virtual Reality boxing simulator; or the journey outside Shanghai, which is not a bustling metropolis but peculiarly located amid a desert, where Robbins has to pass checkpoints where refugees gather hoping to get inside or be able to sell something. There are wonderfully littered little Cyberpunk details throughout the film that immediately suggest all sorts of changes to the familiar – Samantha Morton coming out with curious comments like how one of her fingers is ‘younger’ than the other one to which Tim Robbins responds “I was thinking of getting a younger face” and we realize they are talking about grafts; she showing him her book of family photos – where all the pictures are moving clips; and a delightful sequence where Samantha Morton talks about how she took a virus that allowed her to speak Chinese and while she could speak it perfectly she couldn’t understand a thing she was saying.
Some of Frank Cottrell Boyce’s twists are stunning [PLOT SPOILERS] – like where Tim Robbins tracks Samantha Morton down again and we find that all memory of him has been deleted from her mind because of the Code 46 violation; or where she gets up after her night with him in Jebel Ali and calmly walks downstairs and picks up a phone to report a Code 46 violation due to an implanted command. There’s a strikingly perverse scene where we see Tim Robbins and Samantha Morton consummating their relationship in the Jebel Ali hotel room where he must tie her down to the bed to have sex with her because the memory wipe has planted a block that causes an irrational fear of the person who impregnated her. Samantha Morton plays the part with a fragile asexuality that garners considerable sympathy. The ending, which reverses the mid-film twists, and has Tim Robbins returned to his life in Seattle with his wife and children unaware of anything that happened regarding Samantha Morton, while she remembers the whole thing, has a haunting sadness.
Frank Cottrell Boyce delivers some beautifully cool and thoughtful dialogue. Especially haunting is the story that Samantha Morton narrates over the first few minutes of the film – how she had a dream each birthday that she was running down a train carriage towards someone and that each birthday she came one carriage closer and that this is the final carriage and so she is staying up all night in order to find what her destiny will be.
One is startled to find that Michael Winterbottom managed to make Code 46 on a budget of only $7.5 million, largely by filming in various international locations around the world. It is a testament to how creative ingenuity and a great script can provide far more than occasions when Hollywood has thrown mega-budgets at a project.
(Winner in this site’s Top 10 Films of 2003 list. Winner for Best Original Screenplay at this site’s Best of 2003 Awards).
Nevertheless, on its own terms, Colossus: The Forbin Project is one of the most unassuming and perfect of all lesser-budgeted science-fiction films. It was directed by Joseph Sargent, a former director on tv series such as The Man from U.N.C.L.E. (1964-7), Star Trek (1966-9) and The Invaders (1967-8). The script is a marvel of economy and Sargent directs with a tight precision where nothing is out of place. The interplays between computer and creator are wonderful. In what must be the most ingenious tying in of a love interest in a science-fiction film, Eric Braeden’s Forbin explains to Colossus the need to have his mistress Susan Clark every night of the week for his mental health (he in fact using her to relay messages to the CIA); to which the computer’s sarcastic reply is “I asked need, not want.” (This scene has been cut from the butchered print that screens on The Sci-Fi Channel). The ending has the machine triumphant, announcing to Forbin, “In time you will come to regard me with not only awe and respect but love.” Eric Braeden is great in the part, as is Susan Clark who balances Braeden with spry, charming wit.
D.F. Jones wrote two Colossus sequels The Fall of Colossus (1974) and Colossus and the Crab (1977), although neither of these have been filmed.
Joseph Sargent is a veteran director of films and tv. His most famous film is probably the thriller The Taking of Pelham One Two Three (1974). He made a surprising number of works that fall within genre guidelines including One Spy too Many (1966) and The Spy in the Green Hat (1966), both films patched together from episodes of The Man from U.N.C.L.E.; the pilot for the tv series The Immortal (1969), with Christopher George as a man whose blood contains a universal panacea and the secret of immortality; The Man (1972) about the first Black President of the US; the tv movie The Night That Panicked America (1975) about the panic that ensued over the true life Orson Welles War of the Worlds radio broadcast; Goldengirl (1979) about an attempt to genetically engineer an Olympic super-athlete; the tv movie Tomorrow’s Children (1982) about test-tube babies; the horror anthology Nightmares (1983); the mini-series Space (1985), a fictionalisation of the Space Program; and the notorious Jaws: The Revenge (1987).
You search for comparisons to describe Cosmopolis. It is vaguely, impliedly science-fictional. The publicity machine states that the setting is near-future; some of the technology is futuristic – voice-coded handguns and the hi-tech limo interior; while there is the sense of macrocosmic social collapse going on outside the windows of Robert Pattinson’s limousine. You could compare Cosmopolis to a film like Strange Days (1995), which had a similar sense of drifting through a world on the verge of social collapse and was told from the point-of-view of a limo driver. Or perhaps some of William Gibson’s more recent novels – Pattern Recognition (2003), Spook Country (2007) and Zero History (2010) – that treat the contemporary world in terms of being works of science-fiction. In tone, the film’s surreal drift through an economically collapsing world, consisting of vignettes involving characters who step into Robert Pattinson’s limousine and life – everything from tech, art and financial critics come to give/seek advice, doctors giving Pattinson rectal exams, anarchists come to cream pie him as an artistic statement – the film resembles the works of Luis Buñuel. There is something akin to the surreal tableaux of Buñuel The Phantom of Liberty (1974), while Robert Pattinson’s determination to get a haircut (which he never fully does) reminds of the party constantly trying to go to dinner in The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie (1972).
If you want the soundbite comparison, you could compare Cosmopolis to a conceptual collision between Wall Street (1987) and Fight Club (1999). From Wall Street, we get a work that is determined to portray and head-on confront the moral issues of capitalism. Like Fight Club, it is a work that attempts to philosophically tackle the contemporary world. Both films write dialogue in terms of agitprop sloganeering – cryptic phrases here like “money has lost its narrative quality”, “time is a corporate asset” – that you could easily see as ending up on a T-shirt or as a piece of graffiti. I am of the firm belief that Cosmopolis is a cult film that is waiting to find its audience. On the other hand, it makes for a far more difficult sell as a cult film than Fight Club did. Where Fight Club existed as a manifesto for reclamation of identity by men who felt disenfranchised by the modern world, Cosmopolis sits at the cool distance of a ride in a mirrored and sound-proofed limousine, looking on at the spectacle of a collapsing world. It is detached rather than up in arms, even if both films chart the eventual self-destruction of their protagonist and the symbolic collapse of capitalism.
I enjoyed Cosmopolis enormously. Indeed, it is my nomination for Best Film of 2012 so far. The David Cronenberg who abandoned making horror films in the early 1990s has not always been an easy one, even if it is the Cronenberg who has been greeted as a serious director and whose works have garnered awards attention. I far preferred the earlier Cronenberg who made B-horror movies shot through with amazing metaphors and perverse sexuality. His films from the 1990s onwards have been artistically challenging – adaptations of difficult literary works like Naked Lunch and Crash – and explorations of psychology – Spider, A History of Violence, Eastern Promises, A Dangerous Method – that have felt increasingly mannered and, while by no means bad films, lacking in the fired-up charge of his earlier work. None of the last four films listed travel into territory as disturbing or perverse as Cronenberg’s singular masterpiece Dead Ringers. Cosmopolis is the first of David Cronenberg’s films in the better part of the last decade-and-a-half that feels like it fires up with a brilliance and bite. It is the best work he has delivered since Dead Ringers.
Part of the brilliance of Cosmopolis is that Cronenberg remains almost entirely faithful to Don DeLillo’s characters and dialogue, often transposing sections of dialogue direct from the book. This makes for a film that comes with a heady swim of trenchant aphorisms and oblique observations on the state of the world and/or economics – it is a film that you immediately want to return and watch again just so as to absorb more of the dialogue. Cronenberg directs in the peculiarly detached way he has – something best seen in Crash where he gives us a film of people having sex that it is made to feel like actions performed by blankly disconnected bodies, or the scenes in eXistenZ where the characters are taken over to perform roles in the virtual simulation. The dialogue often feels like something being performed by robots on a blank stage. There is a particularly hilarious scene where Robert Pattinson tries to connect with his wife (Sarah Gadon), which ends with the two of them resigning themselves to the fact that the marriage is over in a way that involves almost no feeling passed during the exchange. Cronenberg often has a very subtly couched sense of black humour in his films – the blankness of the dialogue here makes this seem even more so. There is an hilarious scene where Robert Pattinson asks bodyguard Kevin Durand about his hi-tech handgun with its keypad and voice-controlled password and unlocks it, only to promptly shoot Durand with it and then proceed on as though nothing has happened. Much of the film follows Pattinson’s progression through a society on the brink of social collapse and how his own impending financial ruin becomes something liberating to him. It eventually becomes about Pattinson trying to find some way to feel things again – the rather funny scenes where he asks bodyguard Patricia McKenzie to zap him with a taser so he can feel what it is like, or where he shoots himself through the hand with Paul Giamatti’s gun to see what happens and then seems surprised that it hurts.
The film has an impressive cast line-up, most of whom only make single scene cameos. Juliette Binoche, for example, gets second billing even though she has a brief scene at the start that is shorter than many by the other name actors. The one who emerges the best out of this is surprisingly Robert Pattinson who delivers a performance of coolly reptilian aloofness. I was impressed with Pattinson when he first hit superstardom in Twilight (2008). The subsequent Twilight sequels seem happy to shuffle him around in a series of shirtless poses where Pattinson gives the impression that he is sleepwalking his way through a role that is being stage-managed on his behalf by the makeup, hair styling and costuming people. Here he has chosen to work with a decidedly non-commercial director like David Cronenberg in a clear desire to take on something challenging in the acting department – it is hard, for example, to imagine any of the predominantly teenage girl audience that the Twilight series is aimed at flocking to Cosmopolis in droves or even understanding what the film is about. One suspects that Pattinson is attempting to do something akin to what Johnny Depp did in the early 1990s, which was to parlay his pin-up success to working with a series of directors doing intelligent, quality material, as opposed to allowing himself to be shuffled around in a series of vapid roles that play solely on his good looks and would doom him to a shelf-life of about five minutes – a trap that Pattinson’s co-star Taylor Lautner has fallen into – and in so doing charted a position for himself as a serious actor.
David Cronenberg’s other films are:– Stereo (1969), a little-seen film about psychic powers; Crimes of the Future (1970), a film about a future where people have become sterile; Shivers/They Came from Within (1975) about sexual fetish inducing parasites; Rabid (1977) about a vampiric skin graft; The Brood (1979) about experimental psycho-therapies; Fast Company (1979), a non-genre film about car racing; Scanners (1981), a film about psychic powers; Videodrome (1983) about reality-manipulating tv; The Dead Zone (1983), his adaptation of the Stephen King novel about precognition; The Fly (1986), his remake of the 1950s film; Dead Ringers (1988) about two disturbed twin gynaecologists; Naked Lunch (1991), his surreal adaptation of William S. Burroughs’ drug-hazed counter-culture novel; M. Butterfly (1993), a non-genre film about a Chinese spy who posed as a woman to seduce a British diplomat; Crash (1996), Cronenberg’s adaptation of J.G. Ballard’s novel about the eroticism of car crashes; eXistenZ (1999), a disappointing film about Virtual Reality; Spider (2002), a subjective film takes place inside the mind of a mentally ill man; the thriller A History of Violence (2005) about an assassin hiding from his past life; Eastern Promises (2007) about the Russian Mafia; and A Dangerous Method (2011) about the early years of psychotherapy. Cronenberg has also made acting appearances in other people films including as a serial killer psychologist in Clive Barker’s Nightbreed (1990); a hitman in Gus Van Sant’s To Die For (1995); a Mafia head in Blood & Donuts (1995); a member of a hospital board of governors in the medical thriller Extreme Measures (1996); as a gas company exec in Don McKellar’s excellent end of the world drama Last Night (1998); and a priest in the serial killer thriller Resurrection (1999); and a victim in the Friday the 13th film Jason X (2001).
(Winner in Best Film at this site’s Top 10 Films of 2012 list. Winner for Best Adapted Screenplay, Nominee for Best Director (David Cronenberg), Nominee for Best Actor (Robert Pattinson) and Best Supporting Actress (Sarah Gadon) at this site’s Best of 2012 Awards).
There is an opening reminiscent of Night of the Living Dead where Romero plays the same “the monsters are going to get you” prank with a couple of children, although it is not as adroit a black joke this time around. Far better are the dark twists that Romero manages in the ending, where he seemingly tries to duplicate the black irony of Duane Jones’s shooting at the end of Night of the Living Dead – W.G. MacMillan disguises himself in a vac suit to get past the soldiers, only to be shot at by crazies thinking he is a real soldier and then thrown in the high-school – the only person with a natural immunity – but dismissed by the medics “Shall we check this one for immunities?” “Are you kidding?” and where the only person who does discover an antidote is caught up in the red tape and shot thought to be a rioter.
The film has the forcedly hesitant acting of an amateur cast, particularly in the opening bedroom scenes, but George Romero keeps things busy enough for such not to become too noticeable. Once the film has gotten going, the likes of Richard France, Lloyd Hollar and Marry Spillman turn in a number of good, hard-edged performances. This is one of George Romero’s best films, one that holds a muchly underrated maturity of theme and execution.
Amid the 00s penchant of remakes of 1970s/80s horror films, a remake was conducted under director Breck Eisner as The Crazies (2010) with George Romero acting as an Executive Producer. The madness inducing biospill and/or works about groups of people being affected by mass insanity has been used in a number of other films since including Impulse (1984), Warning Sign (1985), The Signal (2007), Pontypool (2008), Dead Air (2009), Nine Miles Down (2009) and YellowBrickRoad (2010).
George A. Romero’s other films include the cult favourite Night of the Living Dead (1968); the suburban witchcraft film Jack’s Wife/Season of the Witch (1972); Martin (1976), a superb deconstruction of the cinematic vampire myth; Dawn of the Dead (1979); the Stephen King-scripted horror comic homage Creepshow (1982); Day of the Dead (1985); Monkey Shines (1988) about a psychic link between a paraplegic and a murderous monkey; Two Evil Eyes (1990), an Edgar Allan Poe collaboration with Dario Argento; The Dark Half (1993) from the Stephen King novel about a writer haunted by an evil doppelganger; Bruiser (2000) about a man whose face suddenly becomes a blank mask; Land of the Dead (2005), Diary of the Dead (2007) and Survival of the Dead (2009). Romero has also produced the Tales from the Darkside (1983-5) and Monsters (1988-9) horror anthology series, and the films Deadtime Stories (2009) and Deadtime Stories 2 (2010). His scripts include Creepshow II (1987), Tales from the Darkside: The Movie (1990) and the remake of Night of the Living Dead (1990).
There are some parts of the film that are beautifully written science-fiction. Like the exchange between Don Doolittle’s Dr Raven and the Clicker in his lab where the discussion turns to what will happen to the supplier who has been caught for outfitting the Clickers, where it becomes apparent that the authorities will wipe his memory as punishment:-
“Why don’t they just kill him?” Raven asks. “The effect of personal cessation is the same in either case. They just leave a hollow shell walking around.”In a particularly haunting speech, the Clicker argues with Dr Raven about the robots having a religion: “I know who created me – Hollister Evans and the R47. You have to accept your creator on faith.” There is an incredible literacy of ideas at play here – one that gives us piercing portraits of a future, while asking penetrating philosophical questions about the scenario we are plunged into. This is superb science-fiction writing. There are also a number of similarities, at least during the first half, between The Creation of the Humanoids and Karel Capek’s classic play R.U.R. (1921), which it should be noted introduced the term ‘robot’ to the world. The latter half of the film throws in some fascinating twists. Like when zealous anti-robot crusader Don Megowan discovers the ultimate humiliation – that his sister (Frances McCann) has taken up in a relationship with a Clicker (David Cross). She passionately argues in favour of how her Clicker is the perfect partner and angrily taunts Megowan: “He’s more man than you’ll ever be.” There are some eerily paranoid moments during their discussion on machine-assisted politics where Esme’s Clicker makes Don Megowan question how much humanity relies on machines by asking him how humanity, in trusting the machines to collate the votes and choose their political leaders, cannot be sure that the machines are not adding supplementary data of their own into the mix.
“He can still perform his duties.”
“But he is without his past, without hope. A dream gone.”
“Almost like being a robot isn’t it?”
“I am incapable of taking offence. But why is it that the more we become like men the more they hate us for it?”
Of course, there is the classic twist ending [PLOT SPOILERS] – where the lead character is revealed to have been an android all-along without their having known it. This is an ending that was largely invented by writer Philip K. Dick. However, The Creation of the Humanoids was the first film to do this before the android identity bender became a cliche following Dick-inspired films such as Blade Runner (1982), Screamers (1995) and Impostor (2002) and other works like Scream and Scream Again (1969), The Stepford Wives (1975) and tv’s Battlestar Galactica (2003-9). The scene has a marvellous piece of reasoning where it is argued that androids must have souls – if a man can still retain his soul after having limbs removed, then a person who has been resurrected into an artificial body and retains the memory of having faith in a soul surely must have a soul in much the same way as the person missing their limbs still does despite no longer having a whole body. And then there is the suggestion of how the Clickers will be made completely human with the implantation of the last remaining part – reproductive systems. Moreover, The Creation of the Humanoids takes the idea of the hero discovering he is an android far further than Philip K. Dick ever did. Usually in these Dick-ian twist endings, the idea that one has been replaced by a machine comes as a moment of horror. Here not only does the hero discover that he is an android but the film then turns this around to argue that being an android is far superior to the human condition. It is a remarkable ending. There is a wonderful little final touch where Don Doolittle turns to the camera and addresses it direct: “Of course the operation was a success or you [the audience] wouldn’t be here.”
One of the things that one notices about The Creation of the Humanoids is how it is minimalist science-fiction. The future is depicted via nothing more than a series of plain sets using coloured pastel lighting and simple backdrops of geometric shapes that are used to suggest either sculptings or futuristic architecture. Dramatically, the film is slow. It is almost like an old-fashioned drawing room stage play – all the drama comes through characters talking things out. There is perhaps the tendency to talk the subject to its end – not that any of this proves at all uninteresting.
The Clickers are made to look authentically humanoid-looking but blank, outfitted in boiler suits, with bald heads, green greasepaint and unnervingly blank glittering eyes. There is that great moment where one of them announces their plans to become more human-like (all in his blankly dispassionate way): “He will learn how to laugh, how to cry, be afraid, how to hate. To become an R96 is a real sacrifice.” The lack of emotional inflection in such a speech quite gives it something. Among one of the interesting ideas that The Creation of the Humanoids predicts is the idea of the microprocessor with the opening introduction talking about the idea of the Magnetic Integrator Neuron Duplicator (M.I.N.D.), which we are told is “one-hundredth the size of a golf ball.” The score is composed of the ethereal early electronic music as patented by Forbidden Planet (1956), which the film calls ‘electronic harmonics’.
Director Wesley E. Barry, a former actor in bit parts during the 1920s and 30s, elsewhere only ever directed a handful of B Westerns of no note. However, screenwriter Jay Simms wrote a number of other science-fiction films including The Giant Gila Monster (1959), The Killer Shrews (1959), Panic in Year Zero! (1962) and The Resurrection of Zachary Wheeler (1971).
Creator is a film that has a near-perfect unison of cast and script. Peter O’Toole suits his part like a glove and sweeps the entire film along in his eccentric, oddball presence by the pure force of sheer charisma. However, it is a performance of soft emotions too – the ending where he realises he is holding on to the past is an extremely touching one. I have rarely seen O’Toole shine so well in a role as he does here. There is also a great supporting cast. Almost as good as Peter O’Toole is Mariel Hemingway as the cynical-mouthed but ultimately soft-hearted Meli. David Ogden Stiers is fine as the boorish Kuhlenbeck, while Virginia Madsen is as always great.
If Creator has a fault, it is probably in setting David Odgen Stiers’ Kuhlenbeck up as a straw figure for its life/God/inspiration vs materialist/scientific reductionism argument. The black-and-white divides the film makes seem somewhat reductionist themselves. However, this is only something that occurs when one thinks about it much later. The film itself is sublimely uplifting.
Screenwriter/novelist Jeremy Leven later went onto write and direct Don Juan de Marco (1995), another sublimely happy quasi-fantasy film about hanging onto dreams featuring Johnny Depp as a man who believes that he is the reincarnation of the world’s greatest lover. Lven has written a number of other screenplays including The Legend of Bagger Vance (2000), Alex & Emma (2003), The Notebook (2004), My Sister’s Keeper (2009) and Real Steel (2011), as well as Crazy as Hell (2002), based on his novel, with a psychiatrist treating a man who claims to be Satan.
The Creature from the Black Lagoon was originally shot in 3D and is sometimes shown in that format in revival screenings today. Seen flat, The Creature from the Black Lagoon is an ordinary monster movie, distinguished somewhat by Jack Arnold’s camerawork. Seen in its original 3D format however, that same monster movie is transformed into a work of extraordinary atmosphere with the 3D allowing some stunning depth photography. The lagoon becomes a world of mesmerisingly sinister atmosphere. The smooth mirrored waters that the camera glides over seem to hold dark and menacing secrets. Even the scenes in the creature’s grotto manage to transform a cardboard-looking set into an eerie netherworld. The best sequences are those swimming beneath the waters. It has a genuine feel as though one is there – which of course the camera is. The underwater ballet between the creature and Julia Adams is the best scene in the film even when seen flat but in 3D it is spellbinding. When the 3D camera looks up from underwater at Julia Adams swimming, it seems as though she is floating in sunlight.
The Creature from the Black Lagoon was an even bigger success than The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms and spawned two sequels – Revenge of the Creature (1955) and The Creature Walks Among Us (1956), both of which are worthwhile. In the 1980s, various directors such as John Carpenter, Joe Dante and John Landis planned a remake, although none of these ever emerged. In the 00s, a big-budget version has been announced from director Breck Eisner but this appears to have stalled. The Creature makes a brief appearance in the children’s monster bash The Monster Squad (1987) and was parodied in Saturday the 14th (1980) and Monsters vs Aliens (2009).
Jack Arnold’s other genre films were:- It Came from Outer Space (1953), Revenge of the Creature (1955), Tarantula (1955), The Incredible Shrinking Man (1957), Monster on the Campus (1958), The Space Children (1958) and The Mouse That Roared (1959), as well as the story for The Monolith Monsters (1957). Screenwriter Harry Essex later made two monster movies of his own with Octaman (1971) and The Cremators (1972), both being laughably impoverished.
As with all of these other abovementioned South Wins works, Kevin Willmott sees the point that his world diverges from our history (known in genre terminology as the Jonbar Hinge) as being when the South instead of the North won the Battle of Gettysburg. The crucial difference is seen as being that the South was aided by several European nations, allowing the states that favoured the ownership of slaves to overturn Abraham Lincoln’s Proclamation Declaration.
C.S.A.: The Confederate States of America comes with all the casually littered inversions of the everyday that are familiar to alternate history fiction – the film opens on a montage of potent images of the Confederate flag flying over the White House, being planted at Iwo Jima and in the background during the Moon Landing. There is a considerable cleverness to some of the twists on the familiar – how the woman’s suffrage movement is now spun as wives complaining about their husbands siring mixed race babies; how Elvis Presley was forced to flee to Canada because of his adoption of banned Black-influenced music. There are some beautiful throwaway touches – like the popular Presidential candidate (who is wont to come out with unnerving lines such as “our dear family friend, Chancellor Hitler”) whose career is derailed by accusations that he is a half-breed, resulting in the line “My grandaddy did not have sexual relations with that woman.”
Some of the writing as we trace the course of the alternate history is devastating. Kevin Willmott is politically astute and more than willing to dig beneath the feelgood romanticism that tars much populist US history. He very much ties the thinking that drove the South to a Christian self-righteousness – the desire to make the country an all-Christian nation, resulting in the expulsion of other races and banishing of Jews to a reservation. There are some incredibly nasty scenes like where a Black African leader stands up before a conference to argue in favour of the reasons for selling his own people into slavery, although “only those that are his enemies”. Some of the most devastating scenes come around the period of World War II where Adolf Hitler (a not very convincing look-alike) visits the US to roaring success, even if the CSA does not give tacit approval to his Final Solution because they consider the elimination of other races a waste of slaves. Most alternate history films throw in a couple of such background details that overturn the familiar but the brilliance of what Kevin Willmott has done is that he has imagined an entire alternate history for the US that stretches from the mid-19th Century through to the end of the 20th – the film’s website elaborates even further details that do not appear in the film.
Some of the film’s most devastating bite comes in the media clips we see from the alternate history. There is a mock-up of a silent film called The Capture of Dishonest Abe (directed by pioneering silent filmmaker D.W. Griffith whose famous The Birth of a Nation (1916) featured the Ku Klux Klan as heroes) where we see Abraham Lincoln trying to escape disguised as a slave and the scene is played out in black-face slapstick comedy and caricatures of the era with Abe’s dialogue consisting of him trying to affect Ebonics. Willmott saves the most biting satire for the commercials – the film poses as a documentary about the history of the Confederate States that is airing on a tv channel and thus frequently stops for commercial breaks. There is an ad for a motor oil that is an amusing dig at tv’s Southern-themed The Dukes of Hazzard (1979-85) featuring the General Lee, which points at the inherent racist attitudes in the show; an infomercial for Better Homes and Plantations about good etiquette on slave handling that is hosted by an unnerving Martha Stewart look-alike; commercials for Niggerhair cigarettes featuring a Marlboro Man look-alike, among others. There is even a university recruitment ad appealing to those who have dropped out to find careers as an overseer, a slave monitor, a paddyroller, a breeder and something called e-slave accounting. There is a parody of the tv show Cops (1989– ) called Runaways involving the round-up of runaway slaves, which even comes with a gospel rendition of the Cops theme song Whatcha Gonna Do? I also loved the throwaway touch about a certain well-known credit card referred to as MassaCard.
The most devastating thing to learn over the end credits is that many of the ads that one took to being made up by the film are based on products that actually existed – Niggerhair Tobacco and Darkie Toothpaste were real brand names and there was a real fried chicken outlet called Coon Chicken Inn. The disturbing thing about these is realizing how in the real world many of the products continued on past the point that such portrayals became unacceptable with the manufacturers simply watering down or replacing the terminology but retaining the basic concept. As the end credits devastatingly note: “Today the use of slave imagery in the promotion of products often goes unnoticed. Just ask Aunt Jemima and Uncle Ben.” Even physician Samuel Cartwright and his identification of Drapetomania (a medical condition that is said to cause discontent and the desire to flee in slaves) was something taken from the history books rather than made up by the film.
C.S.A.: The Confederate States of America is a science-fiction film where the scenario has been worked out with superb detail, something that rapidly propels it to become the best of the sporadic screen ventures into alternate history. The only flaws one can point to are in some of the film recreations. There is an interview with an aging Abraham Lincoln in 1905; however, the synchronization of film and audio did not exist until the 1920s, apart from a few unsuccessful attempts to invent such a system. Other film recreations such as the 1940s film called The Jackson Brown Story is clearly not the Technicolor it is trying to be but merely something shot on video. One set-up that works very well is the 1950s scenes recreations where we have the fear of Abolitionists delivered in terms of the same fear of Communism and ideological infiltration that we saw in starkly fearful terms in films such as I Was a Communist (1949), which is equally cleverly made to tie into this the sense of depersonalisation and lack of emotions that plays out in genre films of the era such as Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956).
(Winner in this site’s Top 10 Films of 2004 list. Nominee for Best Original Screenplay at this site’s Best of 2004 Awards).
Cypher is also a fallback of sorts to a body of films that came out in the 1960s/early 1970s concerning themselves with brainwashing and identity – efforts like The Mind Benders (1962), The Face of Another (1966), The Groundstar Conspiracy (1972), The Mind Snatchers (1972), Who? (1974) and, most famously, the cult classic thriller The Manchurian Candidate (1962). Cypher could almost be The Manchurian Candidate reworked as a deeply paranoid Philip K. Dickian puzzle box science-fiction film. Maybe The Manchurian Candidate by way of Dick and David Mamet’s The Spanish Prisoner (1997), where Natali gives the impression he has studied and been inspired by Mamet’s coolly subdued sense of disquiet and labyrinthine Chinese box of unfolding corporate conspiracy puzzles.
Cypher shows that Cube was not a mere one-off chance upon Vincenzo Natali’s part. Indeed, Natali has polished his visual style considerably in the interim. In its unfolding twists – the sudden revelation where Lucy Liu turns out to be a spy who knows everything that is going on, Jeremy Northam’s realization that the pen transmissions are meaningless and especially the eerie scenes where the attendees at a dull-as-dishwater conference are brainwashed with Virtual Reality helmets or the superbly suspenseful scene where David Hewlett opines that he can spot a double agent – Cypher settles in with a compulsive grip. Eventually some of the twists and turns become decidedly improbable – like about the time that Jeremy Northam finds that he is becoming a double agent being reprogrammed by at least three different organizations all seeking to undermine the other. (Cypher’s grip works less when one considers its plausibilities backwards than when one looks at it in terms of forward momentum – ie. in terms of a narrative of unveiling surprises).
Vincenzo Natali adopts a superbly cool, mannered and disquieting look – one where the colour is muted out of the frame and the sets often stripped to a bare black-and-white minimalism. In the early scenes, Natali focuses on the patterned banality surrounding Jeremy Northam – the block-like structure of a high-rise tower of mirrored glass, the patterns made by the streets of a housing tract as seen from above and the almost comical dullness of the topics being lectured about at the conferences – such that the hero of the film seems to almost to be drowning amid his ordered existence.
Jeremy Northam gives a performance – in glasses, plaid jacket – that is so milquetoast that he could almost be mistaken for auditioning for the role of Clark Kent in Superman Returns (2006). Northam’s performance is one of subtle gradations – he is required to pass all the way between suited anonymity, barroom sophisticate and eventually assured handsomeness – where he impresses both by his and Vincenzo Natali’s observation of quiet nuance, rather than any large acting flourishes.
Lucy Liu is an actress whose star has been overly acclaimed in recent years as a result of two main hits – her recurring role on Ally McBeal (1997-2002) and as one of the stars of McG’s inanely empty-headed Charlie’s Angels films – something that has yet to be supported either by a body of work or any standout acting. Cypher at least gives her a decent role, although it is one where she crafts a cool, mysteriously aloof presence but still leaves one uncertain about whether she has any lasting stature. Something that certainly could not be said of the talent that Vincenzo Natali has on display. Cypher has immediately pushed Natali to the forefront of genre filmmakers with a rare intelligence and something to say that is worth listening to.
(Winner in this site’s Top 10 Films of 2002 list. Winner for Best Original Screenplay at this site’s Best of 2002 Awards).
In fact, you could say that The Damned is more of a Joseph Losey film than it is a Hammer film. Hammer films were florid, were set in the unreal world of Victorian drawing rooms and European castles with upper-class types to root for, whereas The Damned is made in the black-and-white kitchen sink realism that was the in-style of British cinema at the time and features central characters with lower-class accents. Moreover, The Damned is a realistic character-driven drama much more than any other Hammer film – Losey takes nearly half the film to get to the children’s lair, during which time the film concerns itself with the romance between MacDonald Carey and Shirley Anne Field and their flight from her possessive brother Oliver Reed and his gang of Teddy Boys, a character-driven focus that was almost unheard of in a Hammer film.
It is possible that The Damned was made to capitalize on the success of the previous year’s Village of the Damned (1960) – considering the similar use of the word ‘damned’ in the title and the similar theme of deadly, evolutionarily advanced children. The discovery of the children and the gradual unveiling of their fatal condition comes with some cold chill. What is interesting is that Joseph Losey does not portray the children as evil, as Village of the Damned did. In fact, the film is neutral and noncommittal about whether their mutation is a good thing – on one side, you can see that in light of the film’s warnings about imminent nuclear holocaust that their condition may be hopeful for the human race. Rather, Losey sees the real villain as a cold bureaucracy determined to exploit them and its almost fascistic wieldings of the machinery of power.
You get the impression that Joseph Losey is not well versed or even interested in the science-fiction aspect. There is only a single moment where see anything remotely fantastique actually occur – where one of the children uses their powers to open a lock. Losey also makes mistakes like the assumption that radioactivity would make the children cold to touch. (Genre critic John Brosnan leaps onto this aspect to write The Damned off in his genre study Future Tense (1978), claiming that radiation instead heats objects up, although he is wrong – it requires high quantities of radiation to heat an object up. Any heat in a radioactive object would be latent heat generated by a presumed nuclear explosion itself, not the radiation. The amount of heat needed to heat an object noticeably would kill a person off with cell damage well before their skin became warm. Both uranium and plutonium are cold to the touch, for instance, and the children would only be at room temperature).
However, this lack of familiarity or interest in the science-fiction actually benefits The Damned – it is something that makes the film into a human drama rather than a B movie about radioactive kids. Another director out of 1950s B science-fiction cinema might have played it all up as melodrama, showing the children glowing, displaying various superpowers and attempting to take over the world. Losey is interested in none of that – instead we get a haunting portrait of isolated children longingly regarding the strangers as their parents, the saddening image of them discovering flowers and being rounded up by soldiers after one brief moment in the sunlight and the particularly haunting image of the boy begging for a ride in Oliver Reed’s car even though Reed insists that he will be killed by it. The final images of the helicopters blocking Oliver Reed’s car on the road and trailing the boat as MacDonald Carey and Shirley Anne Field head out to sea to try to make it to France have a chill bleakness. [Joseph Losey later echoed these images of people being pursued by helicopters in Figures in a Landscape (1971)].
The film is filled with strong, dramatically composed shots. Losey loves wide-angles – pulling back to supreme wide-angle to show shots of the motorcycles racing through the town or cliffside shots of the bare coastline and looking down from the helicopters on the boats at sea. Losey uses landscape as external expression of the film’s political bleakness. Even Viveca Lindfors’ contorted cliffside statues are made to seem like blasted mutated human and animal figurines that are outwardly expressing an inner torment.
The Damned experienced a number of problems in distribution. In the US, its release was held up until 1963 and then the film retitled These Are the Damned with Joseph Losey’s original 96-minute print being cut down to an 87-minute running time.
Dark Star has a strung-out sense of humour that at once suggests a Philip K. Dick in his saner moments or some of the works of Robert Sheckley. (John Carpenter once wittily referred to Dark Star as “his Waiting for Godot in Space”). The film has a sense of deadpan humour that sits there and keeps building to the blackly hysterical. There is a sequence with Dan O’Bannon chasing the giggling beach-ball alien through the ship corridors where he becomes trapped in the middle of lift-shafts beneath a descending elevator and jammed in its emergency hatch where the sequence keeps going until one is reduced to hysterics. The climax, which features Brian Narelle having to don spacesuit to go and argue epistemology with the bomb in order to convince it to stop the countdown, is one of the funniest sequences in science-fiction. The final image of Brian Narelle surfing down into the atmosphere of an alien planet on a piece of debris from the ship suits the film’s spun-out lunacy perfectly.
The effects are extremely ambitious for the film’s budget. Greater technical sophistication today makes these look cheesy but in their time these were highly accomplished. The sets are also exceptional considering that they were built on a next-to-no budget.
John Carpenter’s other genre films are:– the urban siege film Assault on Precinct 13 (1976); Halloween (1978); the stalker psycho-thriller Someone’s Watching Me (tv movie, 1978); the ghost story The Fog (1980); the sf action film Escape from New York (1981); the remake of The Thing (1982); the Stephen King killer car adaptation Christine (1983); the alien visitor effort Starman (1984); the Hong Kong-styled martial arts fantasy Big Trouble in Little China (1986); Prince of Darkness (1987), an interesting conceptual blend of quantum physics and religion; the alien takeover film They Live (1988); Memoirs of an Invisible Man (1992); the horror anthology Body Bags (tv movie, 1993), which Carpenter also hosted; the H.P. Lovecraft homage In the Mouth of Madness (1995); the remake of Village of the Damned (1995); Escape from L.A. (1996); the vampire hunter film Vampires (1998); the sf film Ghosts of Mars (2001); and the haunted asylum film The Ward (2010). Carpenter has also written the screenplays for the psychic thriller The Eyes of Laura Mars (1978), Halloween II (1981), the hi-tech thriller Black Moon Rising (1985) and the killer snake tv movie Silent Predators (1999), as well as produced Halloween II, Halloween III: Season of the Witch (1982), the time-travel film The Philadelphia Experiment (1984), Vampires: Los Muertos (2002) and the remake of The Fog (2005).
Dan O’Bannon went onto a distinguished career as a director and principally as a screenwriter, most notably as the writer of Alien (1979). Dan O’Bannon’s other films as writer are:– Dead & Buried (1981), Heavy Metal (1981), Blue Thunder (1983), Lifeforce (1985), Invaders from Mars (1986), Total Recall (1990), Screamers (1995), and Hemoglobin/Bleeders (1997). As director, O’Bannon made Return of the Living Dead (1985) and The Resurrected (1992). O’Bannon was also responsible for the computer graphic displays in Star Wars (1977).
Death of a President uses the guise of shock outrage to gain people’s attention. Underneath its sensationalism however, the film has some strong and potent things to say about the state of contemporary America in the 00s. Almost certainly, the politics of the people making Death of a President (though they are largely British, not American) are not too different from Michael Moore and his imitators. The end position that both Death of a President and Fahrenheit 9/11 come to – a damning attack on the arrogance, ignorance and outright contemptuousness of the Bush administration – is an almost identical one, albeit arrived at via different roads. Death of a President taps into and conducts a remarkable x-ray of the disillusionment of the American populace during George W. Bush’s term in office – the fear over the increasing erosion of civil liberties, the international loathing caused by the US’s belligerent stance on a good many matters and the ill treatment of huge sectors of the populace (protesters, those of Arabic ethnicity). One does not know to what extent the scenes of the protesters outside the Chicago Sheraton was real or staged by the film but they seem to show ordinary people with a genuine sense of anger.
Death of a President is probably the ultimate extension of what Robert Zemeckis did in Contact (1997) where the visual effects department digitised newsreel image of Bill Clinton and manipulated it so that Clinton could be inserted into the fictional narrative as though he were an actual actor. Death of a President takes this to the extent of digitally altering existing footage of people like George W. Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney and turning them into the characters in a fictional drama – Dick Cheney even gets to deliver a funeral oration for George W. Bush at one point.
In the roles of the interviewees, the filmmakers have chosen a cast of unknown actors to further the illusion – the only face that one ended up recognizing was Michael Reilly Burke, best known for his memorable essayal of the title role in Ted Bundy (2002). There are some very good performances that go into these parts. They are roles where both the filmmakers and the actors have clearly done a good deal of research into issues like FBI procedure, Presidential speechwriting and the reality of forensics so that the characters can litter their interviews with a flavour of authenticity.
The film also makes a point of giving rounded and non-cliched characters to all the interviewees. This is particularly the case when it comes to the portraits of Muslims – the film pointedly opens with the narration from a Muslim woman (Hend Ayoub) talking about how she wept at 9/11 and prayed that the assassination was not conducted by one of her people. At the end, the film moves in powerful ways to comment on the deep betrayal felt by soldiers in Iraq who believed they were going off to fight for a just cause – “There is no honour in dying for an immoral cause,” M. Neko Parham potently states at one point.
The story is deliberately told using a thriller structure. The film arrays a host of suspects and then slowly demolishes each one by one. (Although, one did feel that it stretched credibility ever so slightly that so many people with suspicious motives all managed to come within the vicinity of George W. Bush who is probably the most heavily guarded individual in the entire world – when Bush visited London in 2003, for instance, half the entire city was cordoned off for security reasons). The end revelation of the true killer’s identity comes with a considerable surprise – and the surprise is one of haunting effectiveness that puts the human cost of the arrogance of the Bush White House into tragic perspective. Equally effectively, the story given over to the trial and conviction of Jamal Abu Zikri becomes a haunting echo of the way that the Bush government manipulated the public’s ignorance over matters Arabic and played into the fear of terrorism to convince the American public that Saddam Hussein was the one behind 9/11.
Angela Robinson has also chosen an extremely good cast of unknowns. In the central role is Sara Foster who has to be one of the tallest lead actresses that I have ever seen in a film (and with the mini-skirt she is outfitted in, she comes across as looking three-quarters legs). Sara Foster is one of the understated strengths of the film, playing the absurdities with a remarkable seriousness and complete straight face. Jordana Brewster sparkles in a role that has clearly been modelled on Demi Moore in Charlie’s Angels: Full Throttle (2003). Be it playing out a truly amazing scene of eye flirtation upon first meeting Sara Foster or cheerfully bursting into D.E.B.S. Hq to ask for a date, Jordana Brewster has a charmingly twinkly flirtatiousness to her performance that steals a large part of the film. Equally good is Meagan Good who plays her part with considerable sass and forthright strength. The scene stealer of the show though proves to be Devon Aoki – who subsequently appeared in Sin City (2005) – who plays the entire role in deadpan sour-face, managing to break the audience into hysterics every time she lights up another of her cigarettes.
Angela Robinson had earlier made the film as an 11-minute short D.E.B.S. (2003), which also featured Jill Ritchie. The short essentially played as a promo for a mythical tv series a la Charlie’s Angels. Robinson was granted a modest B-budget to expand the idea to a feature film. After making such a wittily subversive gay film, Robinson was then chosen by Disney to direct the big-budget family film Herbie: Fully Loaded (2005), although that lacked any of the scintillating wit that D.E.B.S. has. For some years since D.E.B.S., Robinson has promised to make Jenbot about a girl who is turned into a cyborg.
(Winner in this site’s Top 10 Films of 2004 list. Nominee for Best Actress (Jordana Brewster and Sara Foster) at this site’s Best of 2004 Awards).
Demolition Man came at a point where Sylvester Stallone was trying to gain back charge of his career and turn away from a string of box-office flops. It even shows Stallone indulging in a little Political Correctness himself and repudiating the very violence his film plays on – in one interesting (if not particularly convincing) scene, he tries to delineate a dividing line between violence that is acceptable for enforcing the law against people who are conducting armed robbery for profit and terrorism, and its use against people who are conducting armed robbery to steal the basic necessities of life – “Sometimes it’s good to hurt people – but not people who are stealing food”.
For the first time in a long while, Sylvester Stallone seems at remarkable ease in the role. He even engages in self-parody, getting an enormous amount of mileage out of jokes about having been hypno-programmed to knit and not being able to work out how the toilets of the future work. He gets fine support from a pre-superstardom Sandra Bullock who gives a sparkling performance of naively happy ebullience.
Where Demolition Man is uninteresting – oddly enough considering that such was its selling point – is in the action scenes, which are routine. Considering his double-billing opposite Sylvester Stallone, Wesley Snipes is not well used – he yells his performance in and seems only another street punk that the classic Stallone would have blown away without a second thought. Certainly, Wesley Snipes never provides the degree of villainy that the film needs to turn him into an adequate nemesis. As an actor, Snipes never manages to suggest he is particularly well intellectually endowed. Here he is meant to be the villain, but is so dull that even Sandra Bullock’s heroine manages to steal the film out from under him.
Demolition Man was not a large success, as has been the case with many of Sylvester Stallone’s films of the 1990s and 2000s. Italian director Marco Brambilla next went onto make the flop Alicia Silverstone kidnapping comedy Excess Baggage (1997) and then returned to genre material with the tv mini-series Dinotopia (2002).
Destination Moon was the first film of the so-called Golden Age of Science-Fiction Cinema that lasted from around 1950 to 1957. It has an immense optimism that paved the way for every other science-fiction film of the 1950s to follow and its success was something that made producer George Pal into science-fiction cinema’s leading voice of the era. Throughout the 1930s and 1940s, space was something that American films rarely ventured into. In serials like Flash Gordon and Buck Rogers (1939), space was little more than an exotic realm like some African or Asian lost kingdom and the astronauts were akin to cowboys in Westerns, black-and-white heroes who tamed the high frontier with six guns and their fists. By contrast, Destination Moon charted a plan for conquering space with rigorous scientific realism. It offered up a series of detailed engineering schematics for how to conquer the new world – of almost any science-fiction film of the 1950s, this is one where the science would actually work. Moreover, the film’s heroes are not cowboys but the heroes of the new post-War boom and the coming Space Age – engineers and aerospace industrialists. Destination Moon was an extraordinarily optimistic vision that conceptually opened up the space frontier and saw it as free and accessible for the conquering.
Although in actuality, for science-fiction cinema such a bold vision almost immediately fell inward upon the navel-gazing anxieties of the Cold War and the Atomic Age. Rather than venturing outward, science-fiction films became concerned with the enemy out there or the nightmare of the Bomb unleashed. The few visions of films that did venture out into space in the 1950s almost immediately saw only a mirror of this world – where humanity’s capacity for self-annihilation was echoed in strident tones – as in Rocketship X-M (1950) and This Island Earth (1955) – or the likes of Riders to the Stars (1954), The Quatermass Xperiment/The Creeping Unknown (1955), The Angry Red Planet (1959) and First Man into Space (1959), which saw the universe out there as filled with dangers and that the human cost of conquering it was far too high. The contrast can not be made clearer than in producer George Pal’s own follow-up to Destination Moon, Conquest of Space (1955), where the bold optimism of Destination Moon almost immediately caves into a fear of the universe where Man is seen to be defying divine provenance.
Certainly, with Destination Moon, George Pal had the good sense here to hire Robert Heinlein on script. Robert A. Heinlein was the most acclaimed of the new generation of science-fiction writers to emerge out of John W. Campbell Jr’s Astounding pulp magazine in the previous decade. During the 1940s, Heinlein quickly charted a mastery of the genre with his intellectually bracing, densely credible worlds of projection and his notion of a far-stretching Future History. Throughout the next four decades, Heinlein claimed his place as the primo grandmaster of science-fiction with classics such as Have Spacesuit, Will Travel (1959), Starship Troopers (1959), Stranger in a Strange Land (1961), The Moon is a Harsh Mistress (1966) and Time Enough for Love (1973). Heinlein’s ardently libertarian views push people into wildly opposed camps but what is rarely in doubt is the considerable brilliance and articulation of his writing.
Destination Moon is also unique in that it is perhaps the first film in the history of all science-fiction cinema to raise the intellectual level of the literary work that it is based on, rather than the other way around. Rocketship Galileo (1947), the Robert Heinlein novel that Destination Moon is very loosely based on, is a juvenile story about an inventor building a rocket in his backyard and kids battling Nazis on the Moon, but the film instead raises the work to a serious piece about the construction of a rocket, extrapolated with the greatest realism that the technology of the time could provide. (About the only flaw in the film’s portrayal of The Moon is that it looks like a dried, cracked riverbed, implying the former presence of water).
Where Destination Moon gets it wrong is perhaps some of its most interesting points. It assumes that atomic rockets will be used instead of chemical rockets; there is no tv coverage, instead the head of the expedition gives a single radio interview (a reflection based on the prevalence of radio and the lack of a commercial foothold that television had made at the time). One of the film’s more quaint pieces of phraseology is its description of weightlessness as ‘free orbit’ instead of ‘freefall’. Perhaps most interesting is the film’s underlying assumption about how a Moon mission would end up being financed. The film believes that financing would have to come from the private sector rather than from government. Most amusingly, government appears disinterested in the project; the private sector are also disinterested at first but are then convinced in a burst of patriotism when the strategic advantages of staking claim to the Moon before any other ‘foreign powers’ can claim it is as a potential missile base is pointed out to them. The government, when they do get involved, in a classic piece of libertarian paranoia, only want to do so because they are fearful of people building atomic rockets.
George Pal’s other genre films are The Great Rupert (1949), When Worlds Collide (1951), The War of the Worlds (1953), The Naked Jungle (1954), Conquest of Space (1955), tom thumb (1958), The Time Machine (1960), Atlantis, the Lost Continent (1961), The Wonderful World of the Brothers Grimm (1962), 7 Faces of Dr Lao (1964), The Power (1967) and Doc Savage – The Man of Bronze (1975).
Director Irving Pichel was best known as an actor – his most well known genre role was as the butler in Dracula’s Daughter (1936). Pichel also made more than 30 films as a director. His other directorial genre credits include co-directing the famous human hunting for sport film The Most Dangerous Game (1932), co-directing the H. Rider Haggard adaptation She (1935) about a lost city and an immortal queen, the angel fantasy Earthbound (1940), the pious The Miracle of the Bells (1948) about Catholic miracles, the bubbly mermaid comedy Mr Peabody and the Mermaid (1948) and George Pal’s Puppetoon fantasy The Great Rupert (1949).
Other Robert Heinlein works adapted to the screen include:– Project Moon Base (1953), another work about a Moon landing from an original Heinlein screenplay; the animated tv mini-series Red Planet (1994) from Heinlein’s juvenile; the alien body snatchers film The Puppet Masters (1994) from Heinlein’s novel; and Paul Verhoeven’s bludgeoning adaptation of Starship Troopers (1997). Neither co-writers James O’Hanlon or Rip Van Ronkel went onto to anything else of note, although in an interesting footnote Van Ronkel did make an appearance as a character in Hollywoodland (2006) based on the true life death of actor George Reeves.
Directors Tatsuya Ishihara and Yasuhiro Takemoto both come from making numerous episodes of the tv series. They place an extraordinary artistry into the film, lavishing an enormous amount of detail to create authentically detailed Japanese streets and backgrounds of the schoolrooms. There is an undeniable irony to this – the Haruhai Suzumiya saga involves all manner of mind-boggling concepts – aliens, androids, time travel, teenage girls with godlike reality bending powers. Most films based on a tv series use the bigger budget afforded by the film version to expand out and show things more lavishly than they could on the small screen. Contrarily, the film has for the bulk of its running time chosen to focus all of its artistic detail on the creation of a world that is wholly mundane and where none of the fantastical happenings in the rest of the series are going on.
Elsewhere, the film is a return to the 1970s style of anime featuring child-like characters with giant oversized eyes that take up nearly half their head. However, rather than a typical shoujo anime – say something like Sailor Moon (1992– ) – the film has an oddly slow and melancholy tone and spends much of its surprisingly long running time (163 minutes) reflecting on inner states. This is surprising, given that The Disappearance of Haruhai Suzumiya seems in all other regards to be pitched as a typical shoujo anime for adolescents. The filmmakers appear to have approached it as an adult work, especially in giving such an extraordinary degree of artistic detail to the depiction of the ordinary world around the characters. You cannot help but wonder who they thought the audience for the film would be. For all that, one should not complain, as the results are quite lovely.
A general observation could be made that any fantastic tv series that turns up an alternate world scenario where its familiar characters play different roles can be said to be one that is running creatively thin and needs to add some novelty (or give the lead actors something different to play). That said, The Disappearance of Haruhai Suzumiya lets its premise play out in extraordinary ways. When we eventually come to understand what has happened [PLOT SPOILERS] – how a lonely android has regarded the emotions it has discovered in its system as an imperfection and where the hero is eventually handed the choice between whether he wants a world of dull mundanity or one of perpetual craziness where he must run around tending the whims of Haruhai – these revelations unfold with a beautiful logic and an extraordinary tenderness to the writing. There is also an absolutely lovely ending where Kyon stands up to defend the sad, lonely android girl Yuki and promises that if they ever consider substituting anything else he will stir up Haruhai and get her to unleash absolute chaos against them. In this sense, the Haruhai Suzumiya series remains worlds ahead of the Harry Potter series in terms of the depth of its writing.
(Winner in this site’s Top 10 Films of 2010 list. Nominee for Best Adapted Screenplay at this site’s Best of 2010 Awards).
The entire film is a chamber drama variation on a film like Lord of the Flies (1963) or The Trigger Effect (1996) and their depiction of the collapse of people’s behaviour when the shackles of civilised order are abruptly removed. These other two works are essentially dramas made by people looking in from the outside. By contrast, The Divide is a film that is determined to place us inside the chamber with the group where Xavier Gens wants to make the experience as horrible as possible – be it the way that each of the group slowly starts to physically fall apart due to radiation exposure, or in seeing the way the worst inclinations amongst the group come to the fore and especially when Milo Ventimiglia and Michael Eklund end up leading a dictatorship and making everybody subject to their whims. It is in effect the use of the nuclear holocaust setting to give dramatisation to the ultimate extension of a Stanford Prison Experiment.
The Divide starts to kick in in nasty ways when it comes to the group torturing Michael Biehn and cutting off his finger to make him divulge the combination to his inner sanctum. The film only gets worse from there. There is an equally brutal tension to the scenes of the Truth or Dare drinking game where the weak-willed Ivan Gonzalez ends up being forced to carve up a dead body, or in the climactic scenes where everything goes wrong. Perhaps the nastiest part of the film is Rosanna Arquette’s character arc. Arquette was an 80s actress who faded away in the 90s – it is brave her coming back here and taking on a role like this at the age of 51. Initially starting out as the mother who loses her child, she starts engaging in casual sex with members of the group, before being appropriated as whore by the dictators of the cellar where we are startled by a progressive series of images that show her being used as a combination rag doll and bound rape victim, before her dead body is left abandoned on the bed and Michael Eklund indifferently shrugs it off “we broke her.” It is quite some time since one has seen a film that has delved into such a bleak and hopeless vision of human nature.
Xavier Gens has a sterling cast to hand. Michael Biehn, an actor who has been far too long absent from screens and seems to have aged a whole lot in the interim, goes for broke and gives a harsh and domineering performance. For the greater part of the film, Biehn’s character sits with an ambiguity where we are unsure whether to regard his actions as selfish or not. Milo Ventimiglia gained a profile as a result of tv’s Heroes (2006-10) and here takes full opportunity to trash the pretty boy roles he was placed into and tackle something challenging and nasty. Canadian actor Michael Eklund is a relative newcomer on the horizon. With a set of unnatural features that look like a plastic surgery operation gone wrong, Eklund delivers a disturbing and threatening performance that shows he has a strong future in movie psycho roles.
(Winner for Best Supporting Actress (Rosanna Arquette) at this site’s Best of 2011 Awards).
Doctor X introduced the great Lionel Atwill to the world and made him a genre star up until his death in 1946. Atwill was usually cast as a mad scientist or deranged killer in the likes of Murders in the Zoo (1933), Mystery of the Wax Museum (1933), The Vampire Bat (1933), Man-Made Monster (1941), The Strange Case of Dr Rx (1942), The Mad Doctor of Market Street (1942), and of course his unforgettable role as the wooden-armed police inspector in Son of Frankenstein (1939). In Doctor X, Atwill cuts a wonderfully cool and authoritative presence. In fact, it is of some surprise in light of Atwill’s later career that, despite the film naming itself after his character, he does not turn out to be the killer.
The Return of Dr X (1939) was a loose sequel and is a routine mad scientist effort whose only distinction is in seeing Humphrey Bogart play a vampire.
Michael Curtiz made several other ventures into horror with a lost version of Alraune (1918) in his native Hungary and the Hollywood films The Mad Genius (1931), Mystery of the Wax Museum (1933), and The Walking Dead (1936). He is best known for Hollywood classics such as Captain Blood (1935), The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938) and Casablanca (1942).
It is a script where Troy Kennedy Martin has done his research on subjects like nuclear power (which proves refreshing in response to most treatments of nuclear power in science-fiction). Director Martin Campbell is enormously well attuned to Kennedy Martin’s writing, allowing much of the series to take place in quiet understatement rather than opening it up into big dramatics. One of the wittiest scenes is where Joe Don Baker returns from assignment in South America and walks into the embassy quarters dressed in military combat khakis, upends a golf bag to dump the contents onto the floor, which consist of golf clubs, machine-guns and bottles of alcohol, before wandering into the next room to find a colleague crying and asks him “Did you tape the finale of Come Dancing?” – it is a scene that suggests all manner of character attributes and yet keeps subverting and playing them off one another without ever saying a single word of direct dialogue.
The story slowly and seductively absorbs one its dark mystery. Few other filmed works have done such a haunting job in portraying the shadowy corridors of power and the machinations that go on between high-level agencies. One of the finest aspects of the mini-series is Eric Clapton’s guitar score, which echoes with haunting effect throughout. Even the image that replays through several of the earlier episodes of trains of presumably nuclear waste creaking their way off into the night imbues the series with evocative effect – as though the trains are carrying the nuclear nightmare into a literal ‘edge of darkness’.
A thriller about the politics of nuclear power is not one that should necessarily concern us here as science-fiction, but where Edge of Darkness does broach genre material is during the last episode where Troy Kennedy Martin expands the scope of the series out from being a political thriller onto a global scale to offer a grim vision of the future. The conference contains a stunningly written scene that contrasts Jerry Grogan’s promulgation of humanity’s future in space up against Jedburgh’s accusation that this will become less a universe of opportunity than a Wild West frontier governed by monopoly capitalism and run with a ruthless hand. (One of the uncanny things about Edge of Darkness in retrospect is how the character of nuclear power tycoon Jerry Grogan resembles an older version of Bill Gates – which in turn creates uncanny resonances between Grogan the plutonium entrepreneur who is tensed to run much of the world and Gates’s subsequent takeover of the domain of computing).
One of the most fascinating aspects of Edge of Darkness is when Troy Kennedy Martin goes way off on a tangent regarding speculative environmental theories, introducing the idea that the Earth will protect itself from environmental damage with the creation of black flowers that draw heat from the sun and create warm patches that allow life to flourish, as apparently happened during the Ice Ages. Here, Troy Kennedy Martin has taken the concept from a section in James Lovelock’s book Gaia: A New Look at Life on Earth (1977). (The principal thesis of Lovelock’s book was that the Earth was a single living organism, which he called Gaia, and that it compensates in the same way that the health of a human body keeps itself in balance. This Gaia concept has taken off in New Age/Mother Goddess thinking during the 1990s, although scientists have criticised Lovelock’s denotation of purpose to non-intelligent organisms and lack of proof for such global self-regulation. Troy Kennedy Martin would appear to advocate this mystical belief in the Earth as a quasi-sentient entity – a spring mysteriously appears where Joanne Whalley was shot, as though the entire Earth is in sympathy for her political activism). Troy Kennedy Martin’s thesis prefigures many themes that gained popularity in the environmental and anti-globalism movements of the 1990s and beyond. On one side, Kennedy Martin contrasts a ruthless corporate power that even has governments at its beck and call, against a notion of the Earth itself fighting back against greed, exploitation and the environmental ruin this is causing. The haunting last image of the mini-series is of the black flowers growing in the Scottish Highlands.
One of the other fascinating fantastical aspects of the mini-series is the character of Joanne Whalley who is bumped off early in the first episode but continues to turn up throughout the rest of the series. Whether she is a ghost or a figment of Bob Peck’s decaying insanity is left carefully ambiguous. We presume the latter, but then she also imparts information that Peck could not possibly know – directions to find the map hidden in a book in the kitchen, providing information about the black flowers – that suggests she has some ontological existence.
One complaint might be made that the various plot machinations become so convoluted that it is difficult to work out who was behind everything. Despite the mini-series being set around Bob Peck’s quest for who was responsible for killing his daughter, it is never entirely clear at the end who authorised the killing. Furthermore, while the initial episodes give the impression that Bob Peck is startled to find that Joanne Whalley was involved with Gaia and that her body is suffused with radiation, the flashbacks confusingly give the impression that she tried to recruit him to lead the expedition down into Northmoor and therefore he must have known something. The biggest piece of confusion is where the end revelations seem to improbably indicate that it was Jerry Grogan that called The President to give Jedburgh orders to break into Northmoor and bring back the plutonium in order to embarrass Grogan and scupper his own takeover deal. Apparently, Troy Kennedy Martin wanted to end the mini-series with Bob Peck killed and transformed into a Green Man tree being protecting the Earth, but this was nixed for a more mundane ending, purportedly at the instigation of Bob Peck. It is a bizarre left field ending that would almost certainly have left audiences of the day scratching their heads.
Edge of Darkness brought to attention the great and quiet-spoken Bob Peck, whose virtue was always in portraying an ordinary man with complete sympathy. Peck went onto a promising career with roles in genre films like Slipstream (1989), Jurassic Park (1993) and another British mini-series Natural Lies (1992), which tried to conduct an Edge of Darkness with Mad Cow Disease conspiracies, before his death of cancer in 1999. Here, in the first episode in particular, Peck gives an exceptional performance as a man who seems to be carrying the weight of the world upon his shoulders. The sense of shock and bewilderment that plays out on his face as he sits on Joanne Whalley’s bed holding the gun he has found among her things in one hand a teddy bear in another is potent – it is a scene that needs to say nothing, all the confusion about what has happened to his sweet and innocent daughter is registered by the visual image. (For some reason, one image that always remains from when I first saw Edge of Darkness is of Bob Peck sitting on the bed kissing his daughter’s vibrator in his grief – an image that manages to be both incredibly tender and at the same time mildly indecent). Edge of Darkness also featured the lovely Joanne Whalley. Aged 21, this was Whalley’s first high-profile role and she subsequently appeared in The Singing Detective and then found stardom in George Lucas’s Willow (1988) and Scandal (1989). There are equally good performances from Charles Kay and Ian McNeice as perfectly clipped and banally understated bureaucrats.
Of course, the one performance the lights up the entire mini-series is Joe Don Baker as Jedburgh. Before Edge of Darkness, Joe Don Baker was known for 1970s drive-in classics like Junior Bonner (1972), Charley Varrick (1973) and Walking Tall (1973), usually playing Southern law enforcement, and the odd genre item such as The Pack (1977) and Shadow of Chikara (1977), but Jedburgh is the finest role in Baker’s lengthy career. Baker plays to the gallery in a wonderfully gregarious caricature of a vulgar American but one that is also shot through with a piercing intelligence. The dialogue that Baker gets positively shines, be it he drunkenly singing Johnny Cash songs or the barnstorming scene where he takes over the conference and produces two pieces of fissile plutonium. The latter is a dramatic show capper where Troy Kennedy Martin’s writing is utterly stunning. It is one of the great dramatic scenes of the 1980s.
The story was later remade as a feature film Edge of Darkness (2010) by the mini-series’ director Martin Campbell. The story was transferred to the US with the role of Craven played by Mel Gibson and with Ray Winstone inheriting Jedburgh. This could be politely termed as a travesty that abandons almost all of the nuclear power and environmental aspects and merely becomes a corporate whistleblower film with an angry Mel Gibson on a rampage determined to find the truth about his daughter’s murder.
Screenwriter Troy Kennedy Martin also wrote films such as The Italian Job (1969), Kelly’s Heroes (1970) and the Arnold Schwarzenegger film Red Heat (1988), as well as episodes of British tv series like Z Cars (1962-78) and The Sweeney (1975-8), the mini-series Reilly, Ace of Spies (1983) and the nuclear war black comedy The Old Men at the Zoo (1983). Director Martin Campbell had previously gained a name on various British tv series and as director of several episodes of Reilly, Ace of Spies. The success of Edge of Darkness launched Martin Campbell’s cinematic career with films that include the serial killer thriller Criminal Law (1988), the tv movie Cast a Deadly Spell (1991) about detective in an alternate world where magic works, the future prison film No Escape (1994), the James Bond films GoldenEye (1995) and Casino Royale (2006), the Zorro films The Mask of Zorro (1998) and The Legend of Zorro (2005), the cinematic remake of Edge of Darkness (2010), and the DC Comics superhero adaptation Green Lantern (2011).
The magic of the film is the cheerful relationship between the ungainly Ernest and the tiny Celestine. Aubier, Patar and Renner create some side-splitting visual gags – Celestine’s attempts to hide from the bear police in a bear mask, the camouflage painting of the van, throwaway shots of mice doing push-ups with the bars of mousetraps. The scenes of grudging friendship as the two cohabitate in Ernest’s house are entirely charming – when Celestine says at the end that all she wants is to go and live with Ernest, you are entirely won over by the film.
(Winner in this site’s Top 10 Films of 2012 list).
(Screening at the Vancouver International Film Festival)
Eve's Bayou is an extraordinary debut for a first-time director. What stands out is Kasi Lemmons’ assuredness with handling the actors and the rich sense of detail that comes in sketching the world of backwater Louisiana, a place that seems so much a part of the Old South and African-American specific culture that it could almost be another world inside the US. Lemmons also takes the opportunity to visually dazzle too. In one scene, she starts with Debbi Morgan telling the story of her husband and the man she had an affair with and how the husband shot the lover, where the characters in question start playing the scene out reflected in a mirror, their voices come in to take over from her telling and with Morgan stepping inside the mirror to play her own role. Lemmons gets wonderful finely shaded performances from the whole of her cast, especially good being the largely unknown Debbi Morgan as Aunt Mozelle.
Kasi Lemmons does equally breathtaking work with the screenplay where she demonstrates a haunting turn of phrase and ability to pinpoint the heart of her characters. The film ends, almost Rashomon (1950)-like, on a note of ambiguous uncertainty where we hear two entirely different versions of what it was that caused Cicely to withdraw with Lemmons neither confirming nor denying either. This provides a strong and effective twist, although the element of uncertainty leaves the film going out with a sense of the story not being complete. Lemmons does however wrap it up with a beautifully haunting final voiceover.
Kasi Lemmons subsequently went onto direct/write The Caveman’s Valentine (2001) with Samuel L. Jackson as a homeless man trying to solve a murder and Talk to Me (2007) with Don Cheadle as a true-life radio talkshow host.
(Winner in this site’s Top 10 Films of 1997 list. Winner for Best Supporting Actress (Debbi Morgan), Nominee for Best Director (Kasi Lemmons) and Best Original Screenplay at this site’s Best of 1997 Awards).
What amazes everybody who sees The Fabulous World of Jules Verne is its extraordinary visual originality. Karel Zeman has set out to reproduce the look of the original woodcuts and lithographs in Verne’s Voyages Extraordinaire as illustrated by Leon Benett, Alphonse de Neuville, Edouard Riou and George Roux. Zeman sets out to replicate not just the designs but the very texture of the illustrations so that the ocean waves, the skies or the background of buildings are filled with the same rippled or grainy lines that are characteristic of the lithographs. The look is unique and unlike anything you will have seen before. It is a film that veritably cries out for a colour treatment, although in that the original lithographs were in black-and-white, this also seems perfectly suited the way it is.
Zeman also conducts the mix of animation and live action in a way that leaves you in a constant state of amazement – even over fifty years later when such has become commonplace due to the CGI revolution. You constantly get a fix on what you think you are looking at – that a particular set or group of figures is drawn or animated as the surroundings clearly are, only for Zeman to show people moving inside or that they are walking through sets, leaving you not at all sure what is animated and what is a three-dimensional set. Zeman’s willingly keeping us suspended in this state of uncertainty about what we are seeing is something that approaches genius.
The Jules Verne adaptations of this period were prototypic of what was called Steampunk about four decades later – a fad in retro science-fiction that creates an imagined era of Victorian technology and later a real world subculture and fashion sense derived from it. Among these, The Fabulous World of Jules Verne is perhaps the purest evocation of Steampunk put on screen. Karel Zeman gets down perfectly the dizzyingly nonsensical devices and contraptions that became the essence of many of the Steampunk writers and illustrators in later decades. The film is filled with marvellous inventions – especially the opening scenes where hero Lubor Tokos sets out to sea and marvels at the world around him where we see such wonderful inventions as submarines and bicycle-pedalled airships. Elsewhere we get submarines that are propelled by fin-like paddles, divers moving through the underwater depths on bicycle-propelled torpedo devices, the villain (Miloslav Holub) wielding a hand-cranked machine pistol and glorious animated vistas of vast flywheels buzzing and pistons pumping. The most deliriously enjoyable sequence is the one where the hero makes an escape in a diving suit through an underwater scenario that is a mix of highly stylised animation and live-action, before he is rescued by a squat submarine with finned paddles that sneaks in through the tunnel where it is then engages in combat with the villain’s lethal needle-like submarine. The blend of effects techniques and love of turn of the century Vernian Steampunk surely makes Karel Zeman the modern inheritor of Georges Melies.
Zeman conducts a reasonably faithful if simplified adaptation of the original Jules Verne novel Facing the Flag. As Lubor Tokos’s narration at the start indicates, the film seems to take place in a universe where all of Verne’s characters lived with Tokos speaking of Captain Nemo, Barbicane and Robur as the great inventors and explorers of the age. Scenes like where the submarine rams the other vessels are very much modelled on 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (a scene that we never actually saw happen in the Disney version of the film).
There is also a wonderfully droll sense of humour that runs through the film. Zeman nails perfectly the sense of unflappable calm in the midst of chaos that is the essence of Victorian propriety – the gentleman on the train whose newspaper is shot through by a gun blast and carries on reading as though nothing had happened; Jana Zatloukalova casually airing out her wet clothes on the barrel of a cannon and using a heated ramrod as an iron; the crane that turns and delicately picks up the engineer (Vaclav Kyzlink)’s dropped pencil and hands it to him; or the perfect moment where the hero scales the villain’s castle wall, tries to enter through Jana Zatloukalova’s bedroom window but is made to climb back down to the ledge below so that she can get dressed before he comes in. A film that almost approaches pure art in its very uniqueness.
There are several versions of the film floating around on YouTube. The only English-language version I can find is a so-so quality dubbed version, which can be found in several parts beginning here.
Tarsem’s films have a visual look quite unlike any other director. In a more routine commercial director’s hands, the story here might emerge as slight, but under Tarsem’s control the entire film is driven by the beauty and extravagance of the visuals. It is one of the rare examples of film functioning the way a painting in a gallery does (as opposed to a medium driven by a dramatic story). This is more than evident from the opening tableau in black-and-white with a train stopped on a bridge – what is happening is not fully clear but seems to involve the winching of a horse up out of the water. Tarsem shoots the entire sequence in slow-motion, focusing in hyper-realised detail on the faces emerging from the water, the rope slowly snaking down as it is tossed over the side, or beautiful shots panning around the onlookers stilled in motion as they look over the rail, and with everything to the accompaniment of Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony. The entire scene almost feels like the three-dimensional replication of a still-life tableau from one of the American Realists such as George Bellows or Edward Hopper.
The film almost entirely exists as a gallery of extraordinary images. These include the likes of Alexander and his soldiers meeting as tiny figures in the midst of a desert where they are dwarfed by the landscape behind them, a single vast wall of orange sand; the Indian’s wife trapped inside a maze (the Jantar Mantar labyrinth in Jaipur) and fleeing to a tower from which she plunges to her death; the flight from an arroyo of desert canyons into a series of richly verdant green terraces that suddenly erupt into hundreds of the mystic’s people; the appearance of hundreds of black-garbed soldiers from the terraced sides of a stepwell; slaves struggling across a desert pulling a giant red carriage where several of them are chained inside the giant wooden wheels forced to turn them like hamsters; elephants swimming through the ocean; a city (Jodhpur in India) where the houses below are all painted blue; a wedding that takes place surrounded by twirling dervishes. Even amazing little scenes where Sister Evelyn confesses her feelings for the bandit and all her dialogue is followed by a child’s voice in aria in the background singing the words that she has just said.
Mostly, the film dazzles with Tarsem’s ability to shoot landscapes and to a lesser extent dramatic confrontations with an extraordinary artist’s eye that makes them seem unlike anything you have ever seen before. This is a film made for the pure love of the visuals and beauty of the art in itself. The point that should be noted about The Fall is that Tarsem refused to use visual effects to create the landscapes and that everything in the film makes use of existing locations in the real world. The result is something far more fantastical than could ever have been achieved artificially. The Da Vinci Code (2003) apparently inspired tours of the real locations mentioned in the book and The Fall is a film where, were it more well known, you could imagine the equivalent or at the very least some accompanying travelogue documentary to show more about the places used as locations.
Tarsem took his inspiration from another film, the little-known Bulgarian-made Yo Ho Ho (1981) about a boy in a hospital who is befriended by an actor who tells a fanciful story about pirates but where beneath this lies the actor’s desire to get the boy to procure the drugs he needs to kill himself. Some critics made comparisons to The Princess Bride (1987), a similar swashbuckling adventure that is being told to a young boy by his grandfather. A far greater number of similarities lie with the great Dennis Potter tv mini-series The Singing Detective (1986) – both feature a bedridden man who starts to tell a story (a detective story in The Singing Detective, a swashbuckling adventure in The Fall) where it becomes apparent that the teller has wound figures around the hospital and their own life into the telling (with actors doubling over in two roles) and where the story being narrated comes to echo basic truths that the narrator needs to confront in the real world. There also gets to be a third version of events told near the end where we see a silent movie in which many of the principals play out similar roles. Certainly, The Singing Detective conducts a stunningly layered meta-fiction out of the idea, against which The Fall is somewhat the lesser. Nevertheless, Tarsem conducts his version with a more than reasonable degree of cleverness and sophistication.
The film also captures the sense of period (1910s-20s) in terms of the exquisite detail of the hospital, the clothing and set dressings far better than almost any other period film set around this time manages. The costumery is stunning with amazingly ornate pieces – like Justine Waddell’s appearance in a headdress that seems like a lily bud and a mask that consists of two fans like blinds across her eyes, of wedding gowns that look like some of Princess Amidala’s outfits from Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace (1999), or of Odious’s soldiers in black head-to-toe black uniforms with helmets that look like Ned Kelly’s mask redesigned into sleek salmon-like figures, even Leo Bill who goes through the film in a fur coat painted with coloured whorls that make him seem like the butterfly he quests for.
One of Tarsem’s weaknesses in The Cell was a focus on visuals at the expense of characters who seemed indifferent and forgettable. He has clearly learned from this by the time of The Fall. Here, Tarsem has chosen to go with a largely unknown cast. The only recognisable name is Lee Pace who has an undeniable screen charisma as the suicidal storyteller. The great find of the show is seven-year-old Rumanian child actress Catinca Untaru. Catinca has a seemingly effortless natural ability and slots into her part with complete ease and none of the posed affect that you get with Hollywood child stars.
(Winner in this site’s Top 10 Films of 2006 list. Winner for Best Director (Tarsem) and Best Cinematography at this site’s Best of 2006 Awards).
The film is filled with many characteristic Greenaway-esque touches – the peculiar fascination with the cataloguing of seemingly trivial details; numeric sequences – the number 92 has a recurring significance; wilfully eccentric connections of logic; the farcically straight-face sense of humour. One can even note odd in-references to other Peter Greenaway films – there are several mentions of his earlier shorts Vertical Features Remake (1976) and A Walk Through H (1978). One of the biographies also makes mention of the three Cissy Colpitts’ who would later become the three central characters of Greenaway’s Drowning By Numbers (1988).
The Falls is a genuinely eccentric film. Eccentric as much for Peter Greenaway’s drolly absurd sense of humour as for the fact that he has devoted three hours to it – indeed the session that one was at ended with at least half the audience walking out. For all that, The Falls is an undeniably likeable film.
Peter Greenaway’s other films of genre interest are:– The Cook, the Thief, His Wife & Her Lover (1989), his Shakespeare adaptation Prospero’s Books (1991), the miraculous child film The Baby of Macon (1993) and The Tulse Luper Suitcases: The Moab Story (2003), The Tulse Luper Suitcases Part 2: From Vaux to the Sea (2004) and The Tulse Luper Suitcases Part 3: From Sark to the Finish (2003), a surreal mock biography that is part of a mammoth multimedia work from Greenaway.
The 5000 Fingers of Dr T was not a financial success at the time of its release, nor was it readily available on video/dvd for a number of years. It is not hard to see why it wasn’t a success – it is rather subversive stuff with its anarchic, even Oedipal, child’s revenge fantasy, and containing the kind of black humour that Roald Dahl would specialise in. In fact, The 5000 Fingers of Dr T was the first screen attempt, outside of occasional versions of Alice in Wonderland (1865), to convey the delirious absurdism of the children’s tale. The later adaptation of Dahl’s Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory (1971) draws much upon The 5000 Fingers of Dr T.
The production designers have gone completely wild – at times, The 5000 Fingers of Dr T is like a giant Technicolor remake of a German silent film like The Cabinet of Dr Caligari (1919) with mazes of hallways all in sharp, white linear lines; giant red ladders that reach hundreds of feet up into thin air; and, of course, the huge twisting 500-seater super-piano. The choreography is equally dazzling, notably with the marvelous dungeon orchestra including the likes of antler bells that are rung by strangling the wearer, cymbals that are painted with targets and rung by being shot with air pistols, a horn that has three players blowing into one tube, maraca boxing gloves, violins built wrapped around their players’ necks, players encased inside tubas and drummers dancing on their drums. When it comes to the storytelling, the film is slightly more ponderous and the so-so musical numbers slow it down but who’s complaining.
There have been a number of animated tv adaptations of Dr Seuss’s books over the years, most famously the Chuck Jones How the Grinch Stole Christmas (1966) and various animated tv adaptations of Gerald McBoing-Boing, The Cat in the Hat and Horton Hears a Who. The other feature-length theatrical Dr Seuss films have been the big-budget live-action adaptations of How the Grinch Stole Christmas (2000) and The Cat in the Hat (2003), and the animated Horton Hears a Who! (2008) and The Lorax (2012).
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Free Enterprise is filled with a truly amazing number of genre in-references and jokes. When Rafer Weigel’s girlfriend walks out on him, she tosses off a line about how crazy he is for knowing the season the Star Trek episode Requiem for Mars aired – he corrects her to tell her the title was Requiem for Methuselah and not only to tell her that it was the third season but to also give the date it aired. There is a running joke that compares Eric McCormack’s approaching thirtieth birthday to Logan’s Run (1976) – “The fiery ritual of Carousel – I’m turning thirty in three weeks” – even an amusing dream sequence that has an unathletic McCormack in a bad-fitting kaftan being chased as a Runner.
The end credits of Free Enterprise alone are a witty series of genre asides with joke credits interspersed with the regular credits such as ‘Boxie’s Pet – Muffy’ [Battlestar Galactica (1978-9)], ‘Luke’s Father – Darth Vader’, ‘Seen things you wouldn’t believe – Roy Batty’ [Blade Runner (1982)], ‘The Forgotten Gene – Gene Coon’ [a Star Trek producer], ‘The Day the Moon Left the Earth’s orbit – September 13, 1999’ [Space: 1999 (1975-7)], ‘To Serve Man – A Cookbook’ [the name of an episode of The Twilight Zone (1959-63)]. The end Thank You credits whip up some of the most amazingly obscure references, thanking organizations and people such as S.H.A.D.O. [from tv’s UFO (1970-1)], the Korova Milkbar [A Clockwork Orange (1971)], The Seldon Institute of Psychohistory [Isaac Asimov’s Foundation series], Xavier’s School for Gifted Youngsters [X-Men], Queen Starsha of Iscandair [Space Cruiser Yamato (1977)], before noting that William Shatner will return in Shatner vs the World Crime League (a reference to the sequel that never emerged promised in the end credits of The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai: Across the Eighth Dimension ).
The fan jokes are frequently perceptive and on the ball, like the scene where Rafer Weigel regales a kid in a toy store over the perception that science-fiction started with Star Wars, while throwing scathing barbs at the proliferation of Shadows of the Empire (1996) merchandising. The humour is un-P.C. at times – with Eric McCormack throwing jibes about WWII at a German girl because she won’t kiss him; or an hilarious discussion on Rosemary’s Baby (1968): “Rosemary Woodhouse [played by Mia Farrow] raped by The Devil – she had it coming after what she put Woody through.”
Free Enterprise’s greatest coup is in being able to cast William Shatner as himself, where Shatner delivers an amazingly self-effacing performance. The film both seriously and unseriously explores the myth of Captain Kirk as childhood hero and male role model, while at the same time poking fun at the gulf between screen character and real-life actor – the film’s Shatner is shown, as opposed to Captain Kirk, to be hopeless when it comes to women. This Shatner also appears slightly cracked to say the least. Shatner daringly allows a number of jokes to be thrown in the direction of his real-world self (something that has occurred considerably in the last few years with gossip column stories accusing Shatner of being a womanising sleaze, his own surprised discovery in his Star Trek Memoirs books that his co-stars hating him, and the exhumation and re-release of his recorded cover albums as hilariously bad junk artifacts). At one point, Rafer Wiegel gives William Shatner romantic advice: “Go and try – she couldn’t hate you any more than your co-stars.” Shatner also parodies his reputation for bad music at the end of the film in a rap version of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar that has to be seen to be believed.
Free Enterprise is also considerably more than an extended fannish in-joke. It is also a penetrating and perceptive analysis of life as a fan. The two character arcs deal with fanboys and their problems trying to hold onto fannish enthusiasm while the real world tries to force them to grow up. In particular, the plot with Rafer Wiegel romancing Audie England (an actress more known for softcore roles for Zalman King in various episodes of Red Shoe Diaries (1992-9) and films like Delta of Venus (1995) and Shame, Shame, Shame (1998) in a rare clothed role) is sharp and acutely written.
Director and co-writers Robert Meyer Burnett and Mark A. Altman have for a number of years now promised that they will return with William Shatner, Rafer Weigel, Eric McCormack and Audie England for a sequel Free Enterprise 2: My Big Fat Geek Wedding.
Robert Meyer Burnett mostly works as an editor, occasionally directs making of dvd extras and has also co-produced the teenage spy films Agent Cody Banks (2003), Agent Cody 2 Banks: Destination London (2004) and the horror film The Hills Run Red (2009). Mark A. Altman has gone onto write and sometimes produce a variety of horror movies including House of the Dead (2003), All Soul’s Day (2005), The Darkroom (2006), Dead and Deader (2006), Room 6 (2006), The Thirst (2006) and has produced only House of the Dead 2 (2005) and DOA: Dead or Alive (2006).