Sunday, 17 July 2011

Short Reviews # 2: Sci-Fi

(Danny Boyle, 2007)

Well I’m only, what, four years late finding time to watching this one? Relatively quick off the mark by the standards of this blog, even if its director has subsequently managed to win all the Oscars with some multi-cultural musical and make a movie about a guy who cuts his own arm off or something. Who knows, maybe I’ll get ‘round to watching those one day, although to be honest the idea of a good old no-nonsense science fiction movie appeals to me a lot more. I’ll admit I’ve got a bit of a soft-spot for the kind of earnest SF blockbusters that I used to dutifully troop off to watch as a kid, in the days before irony and ‘crossover appeal’ and CGI and Will Smith and ham-fisted ruinations of Phil Dick stories conspired to piss on my multiplex chips. And I’m happy to report that, on that level at least, I thought ‘Sunshine’ was pretty damn impressive.

Like most sci fi that sets out to be taken seriously, there were a few chasms of disbelief to be overcome from the outset. (Ok, deep breath: why would the sun suddenly be ‘dying’ as early as 2053? And if it were doing so quickly enough to jeopardise life on earth by that point, wouldn’t we have, like, started to notice that back in the 20th C.? Furthermore, assuming a +50 years evolution of our current technology that incorporates comfortable interplanetary space-flight, would we *really* need to equip a space-ship with a gigantic HAL 9000-esque computer mainframe that needs to be stored in a sub-zero cooling tank? Why would this minimally crewed mission, which doesn’t even include a medical doctor as far as we can tell, be assigned an additional ‘psyche officer’? And so on…) Once we accept though that Boyle and Alex Garland aren’t so much interested in trying to create a feasible future scenario here as they are in paying tribute to the older SF movies that inspired them, we can hopefully put such concerns aside and just enjoy the direct and indirect references to ‘2001’, ‘Dark Star’ and ‘Alien’ that litter just about every scene.

Although it’s far from perfect (some attempts at cosmic profundity fall laughably flat, and the final act’s shift into a kind of ‘space-slasher’ storyline seems clumsy and unnecessary – more or less the same faults that I recall sunk ‘90s Boyle/Garland joint ‘The Beach’, oddly enough), I found ‘Sunshine’ extremely enjoyable. Modern audiences may have baulked at the idea of a hundred minute movie without a single moment of levity, but I found the film’s straight-faced earnestness strangely comforting – there’s a rare sense of naivety in the Howard Hawks/John Carpenter solidity of the whole affair that helped draw me into the drama, helped me gasp in polite awe at the effects shots, just as much as I would have done as a ten year old. Shame that this one got a bit overlooked on release because, even allowing for its faults, I think it’s probably the noblest bit of popcorn-fodder I’ve seen in a long while.

(Ken Hughes, 1955)

Offering further dispiriting proof that the majority of lost ‘50s-‘60s British b-movies were probably lost for good reason, this borderline SF caper – released in the states as ‘The Atomic Man’ - concerns a nuclear scientist whose body has been exposed to so much radiation that when his heart stops for seven seconds on the operating table after some crooks attempt to murder him, his consciousness ‘slips’ seven seconds into the future, meaning that after he’s revived he finds himself answering questions before they’re asked, saying hello to people who haven’t entered the room yet and so on, thus confusing the hell out of everyone, audience included.

Have pity for the poor actor playing another scientist who has to deliver a straight to camera monologue attempting to explain the ‘scientific rationale’ behind thus unlikely occurrence.

But actually, even if you find this peculiar notion absolutely fascinating, its wider implications are barely touched upon by the film’s script. Instead most of the running time is devoted to the unravelling of a Scooby Doo-level mystery concerning a criminal conspiracy presided over by a stereotypically greasy and rotund South American mining kingpin seeking to maintain his dominance over the international zinc trade. Yes, you heard: he wants to stifle scientific progress in order to artificially inflate the price of zinc, the dirty foreign fiend!

Swiftly heading downhill from a promisingly moody opening, ‘Timeslip’ is one of those chintzy faux-thrillers where the cast all seem to be playing dress-up, pretending they’re in some hard-boiled American movie, with a screenplay full of cheesy pronouncements and third rate zingers to match. I’m sure there are still plenty of minor masterpieces to be found lurking in the waters of low budget British cinema from this period, but ‘Timeslip’ certainly isn’t one of them. Thoroughly tedious business all round really – an archetypal ‘quota quickie’ with little to recommend it beyond some nice nocturnal London location shots in the opening sequence. Nonetheless, director Ken Hughes certainly went on enjoy a rich and varied career, taking in ‘Chitty Chitty Bang Bang’, segments of ‘Casino Royale’, ‘Cromwell’ and the much maligned Mae West car crash ‘Sextette’.

The Terrornauts
(Montgomery Tully, 1967)

A far more enjoyable prospect, this modest Amicus programmer from b-movie warhorse Montgomery Tully is a partial rewrite of ‘This Island Earth’ on a Dr-Who-level special effects budget, introducing us to the plight of an intrepid astrophysicist whose funding for his search for extraterrestrial radio signals is under threat from stuffy superiors at a radio telescope facility. But the joke’s on them when our hero’s project accidentally attractss the attention of an alien spaceship, which proceeds to tractor-beam the control hut and its occupants (including Charles Hawtrey as a snooping accountant and Mrs. Jones the cockney tea lady), and whisks them off for an outer space adventure!

Not even remotely as salacious as the poster would tend to suggest, ‘Terrornauts’ is a delightfully cheery, old fashioned bit of interplanetary fun that could (and probably should) have been made ten years earlier, but executed with so much charm and visual invention that it’s difficult not to love it. A solid SF script from John Brunner (adapting Murray Leinster) ensures that the film never quite approaches ‘Fire Maidens from Outer Space’ level goofiness, but it’s still full of chuckles (intentional and otherwise), and also manages to tap into a rich vein of utter surrealism that’s only enhanced by the eye-watering faux-technicolor photography and spit n’ polish production design.

I really liked the stuff about how the heroic astrophysicist was inspired to take up his chosen profession by a vivid dream he had as a child, in which he saw a weird alien landscape with twin suns and standing stones. He has the creepy painting he did of this landscape framed on the wall of his lab, and stares at it questioningly in moments of doubt. “Nothing would give me greater pleasure than to call you at 1am with proof of my starry-eyed dream”, he declares when his grumpy superior demands results.

Too many other highlights to go through them all, but the segment in which the heroine accidentally stumbles onto a Star Trek style transporter pad and find herself transported to an alien world where she is chased and captured by green-skinned savages who want to sacrifice her to their gods is pretty classic. The hero jumps in after her, grabs a handy raygun, zaps the savages, rescues her and pops back home again with slightly tousled hair and a spear he nabbed from the savages. All this happens in about five minutes, and the other characters turn to them like; “what on earth happened to you, and where did you get that bloody thing?” – then they shrug it off and just get back on with pursuing the main plot without a word. Brilliant. Anyone with a passing interest in authentically weird British science fiction should find some time in their schedule for ‘The Terrornauts’, I feel.

Forbidden World
(Allan Holzman, 1982)

So apparently the story behind this one goes kinda like this: Roger Corman’s New World Pictures finished off their first Alien rip-off of 1981 (‘Galaxy of Terror’) ahead of schedule, and still had a couple of weeks booked on the sound stage where they’d built the sets. So Corman got Allan Holzman on the blower and said, hey buddy, how’d you fancy making your first movie – it’s gonna be another Alien rip-off, and it’s gonna have gore and naked chicks, and it’s gotta be done by the end of the month, whattaya reckon?

Holzman took the bait, and if ‘Forbidden World’ (I have no idea why it’s called ‘Forbidden World’) isn’t exactly a classic, there’s still no way I can imagine a film made under similarly compromised circumstances today being remotely as worthwhile. Sure, it’s cheap, stupid, derivative and sleazy (not to mention SHORT, just about scraping minimum feature length by way of obligatory recycled space battle and several ‘clips show’ montage bits). But it’s also fun, fast-moving, visually stylish and effortlessly watchable, aided by sharp direction, brilliantly resourceful production design and a cool Carpenter-esque synth score from Susan Justin.

You won’t *quite* be able to take it seriously once the hilariously gratuitous nudity kicks in (despite finding themselves in a grimly utilitarian interplanetary research lab crawling with malevolent genetic mutations, the movie’s female characters demonstrate a disdain for clothing that rivals a ‘70s Jess Franco cast), and a few prize “that’s the stupidest piece of movie character behaviour I’ve EVER SEEN” moments don’t help either, but, y’know… it’s getting there. I’ve certainly seen far thinner screenplays than this attached to productions that presumably had longer than, like, a day to get their shit together.

As mentioned in the ‘Sunshine’ review, I grew up watching a lot a cheap (and not so cheap) sci-fi, and am thus starting to recognise the weirdly comforting kick I inevitably get out of post-Alien, pre-Starship Troopers space adventures like this one. Even though ‘Forbidden World’ considerably predates the period in which I was heading down to the video shop for a night’s PG-rated entertainment, the film’s dark tone and mixture of action movie tropes with genetic mutation and gory body-horror actually makes it seem strangely ahead of its time – more aesthetically reminiscent of an early ‘90s straight to video sci-fi than an entry in the Star Wars/Alien rip-off sweepstakes, perhaps?

Anyway, watching it today, I can’t help but draw unfavourable comparison between contemporary low budget filmmaking, and the way things were done back when they knocked out ‘Forbidden World’. Anyone who has ever taken part in any creative endeavour will know that when you’re aiming for ‘good’ you’ll hopefully get ‘reasonable’, but if you’re aiming for ‘average’, you’ll inevitably get ‘shit’. Throughout his career, Corman tended to make sure his people were aiming for ‘good’, even on a stupid and sleazy movie like this one, with the end result that ‘Forbidden World’ is still worth the entry price thirty years later, whereas the majority of post-2000 straight-to-cable/DVD efforts are so painful they’re difficult to even sit through for free on the week of release.

So long as you don’t think about it too hard, ‘Forbidden World’ is a great bit of pulpy fun that stands as a testament to Corman’s unrivalled ability to get the best out of people on short notice with minimal resources. You’d tempted to say Holzman seemed a director worth keeping an eye on after this reasonably promising debut, but sadly his CV on IMDB begs to differ, comprising documentaries, TV work and something called ‘Grunt! The Wrestling Movie’. Oh well.


Roger said...

Thanks! I grew up on these post Alien/pre CGI sf films as well.

"Forbidden World" was a revelation for me when I first saw it (so much better than "Galaxy of Terror") and truly mad the way films aren't any more. And for the record, Holzman's "Grunt" is a "mockumentary"/ cinema verite riff post "Spinal Tap" that captures the wrestling scene as well as Haynes' "Velvet Goldmine" did for glam rock with a similar plot: did the lead performer commit suicide or simply fake his own death? Worth a look!

Thanks again!

Anonymous said...

it's interesting: kind of like a tape that recycles or maybe a mutation or a source that eventually becomes lost (does any kid today know who peter lorre is although they hear his voice on contemporary cartoon)?

that's what i thought of when you mentioned the references in "sunshine" each of those movies refer back to others, and so on...i wish i had more $ for dvds

Ben said...

The cool kids always know who Peter Lorre is. But yeah - I take your point; the key point I think is that Sunshine's 'borrowing' was a lot like Tarantino's, in that it's always there if you want to note it, but it never stands in the way of the movie being engaging and enjoyable in its own right.

Thanks for the tip-off re: 'Grunt' Roger - sounds great actually - I should have read up on it before sneering, and it definitely sounds like something I should check out.