Until the End of the World (1991) (Trilogy Cut) With the current order devolving into what looks inevitably like a passively endorsed dystopia, a brave new chipped and tracked vision variously in line with cinema’s warnings (or its predictive programming, depending on where your cynicism lands), I’ve been revisiting a few of these futuristic visions. That I picked the very Euro-pudding Until the End of the World is perhaps entirely antagonistic to such reasoning, seeing as how it is, at heart, a warm and fuzzy, upbeat, humanist musing on where we are all going. Director Wim Wenders’ “ultimate road movie” certainly
Minority Report (2002) Spielberg doesn’t really do downers. Sure, you can find them; his early attempt to make a movie in line with his peer group (Sugarland Express); the Oscar bait of Saving Private Ryan (softened by an interminable coda). And doubtless, unless he really messes with the plot, West Side Story will not be ending on a note of good cheer. And then there are the back-to-back science fiction outings that opened the century, both standing apart as rather curious fish. At first glance, Minority Report concludes very much with a prevailing sense of order restored; the bad apple in an otherwise honest system
After Earth (2013) Big star vanity projects rarely seem to turn out well. Combine a major name with a director not renowned for his modesty and you have a recipe for a heftily out-of-touch piece of filmmaking. Given the critical mauling of After Earth, I’m a little surprised it hasn’t become the object of ridicule through obvious bad punnery; After Birth would be a suitably chastening retitling. But for all that this isn’t a terribly good film, it’s not terribly terrible either. Sure, the script suffers from holes you could pilot a spaceship through, the dialogue is frequently disastrous, the performances aren’t
Our lives are not our own. From womb to tomb, we are bound to others. Past and present. And by each crime and every kindness, we birth our future.
Cloud Atlas (2012) Familiarity with source material can be a mixed blessing. It can provoke insights that enhance one’s appreciation of the adaptation. Alternatively, one can become distracted by the alterations made. I read David Mitchell’s novel some months before seeing Cloud Atlas, so it was quite fresh in my memory. As such, I found the film a dazzling but at times frustrating experience on first viewing. I wasn’t prepared for the restructuring or the divergent connections made by the directors. So I needed a second encounter to (more) fully immerse myself in it, as a separate entity in its
Metropolis (1927) Fritz Lang’s defining SF classic is a damned weird brew in places, and in its least-expurgated form, only occasionally a bit of a slog. That’s the 148-minute version – as opposed to the entirely lost 153 of the original – which does rather go on a bit during the “third act” of rioting proles. Mostly, though, it’s extraordinary how well Metropolis stands up. Lang’s inventive and crisp direction makes up for the creakier elements of his wife Thea von Harbou’s plotting (from her 1925 novel; they collaborated on the screenplay) and the dafter signatures of silent-era filmmaking.
The Time Machine (2002) There was no reason not to do a new version of HG Wells’ classic – underwhelming as it was, Spielberg’s War of the Worlds remake a few years later would bring in big bucks – but it absolutely needed to be better than this. To some degree, John Logan was correct to identify that the bare-bones plot needed embellishing if it was to stand out from the innumerable variations since, but he unfortunately went about it in a largely uninspired manner. And then, on top of that, we have Wells’ actual grandson (Simon) helming, making
The Time Machine (1960) Perhaps having a weekly time-travel TV show readily available was the root of finding The Time Machine merely so-so when I first saw it. I can’t say I was that blown away by the source novella either; in all honesty, Stephen Baxter’s officially-authorised centenary sequel The Time Ships was more impressive, probably because we’ve all been spoiled with increasingly intricate, multiversular explorations of the concept since 1895. HG Wells’ first temporal stirrings now seem rather quaint and rudimentary. Revisiting George Pal’s picture is rewarding in one sense, then, as it’s much more serviceable than I
Rollerball (1975) There’s a particular cachet to ’70s-sprung dystopian futures. The engineered breakdown of the hippy dream left aesthetic and visionary despair that wouldn’t be plugged until the quasi-spiritual, junk-food sheen of Star Wars made everything seem alright again. Rollerball’s is quite a tricky dystopia too, in some respects. If it’s failing is that it doesn’t really interrogate the mechanics of its system, on the face of it, one has to conclude that most of its citizens appear to live comfortably and don’t have an awful lot to complain about; there’s no war, no unemployment, no poverty. Sure, it
Back to the Future Part II (1989) This first sequel deserves full credit for pushing concept to the foreground and in so doing making the frequent failing of a continuation – the essential dilemma of the original has been resolved – much less relevant to its success. On its initial release, I was even willing to credit Back to the Future Part II as being on a par with the first film, albeit an altogether different beast. It’s actually very far from that, but it is, on its own terms, one of the more fascinating and worthwhile sequels to
James Cameron Ranked Worst to Best Jimbo’s back! James Cameron managed to take even longer between Avatar and Avatar: The Way of Water than he did between Titanic and Avatar (thirteen vs twelve years), but never fear; there’ll be an Avatar 3 along in no time at all, for which I know we are all exceedingly grateful. I first compiled this Worst to Best in 2016, and the surprise is the relative hive of activity in Cameron’s closet during the intervening period. Besides the non-Avatar projects that saw the light of day with his name attached, we could rely
The Peripheral Season 1 Did Jonathan Nolan get carte blanche with The Peripheral? I wonder because, barring the slightly rickety season finale, there’s a level of confidence and sureness in the plotting and execution throughout that’s almost completely at odds with Westworld. We know that show had some serious teething problems during its first season. Perhaps HBO compromised his vision? Or maybe showrunner Scott B Smith simply he has a keener grasp of story. Whatever the reason, while The Peripheral skirts many similar futurist themes, it does so with a degree of coherence and engagement Nolan and Lisa Joy’s
Moon 44 (1990) You have to hand it Roland Emmerich. He’s done his dutiful bit in selling exactly the version of the Universe The Powers That Be want us to buy. And at his peak, to OTT, global audience-pleasing effect (pretty much the fifteen years from 1994 and 2009). Moon 44 then, represented something of a Hollywood calling card (in contrast to his previous picture, the resistibly titled Hollywood-Monster). It’s a not-very-good SF movie that nevertheless showed what he could achieve on a limited budget. Indeed, if derivative use of smoke machines and moody, sub-Ridley Scott cinematography were everything,
Lightyear (2022) Lightyear’s disastrous box-office showing might seem like a miscalculation, based on the pointed finger of the going broke for woke lesbian relationship and kiss disincentivising a section of parents from taking kids to a family movie. That, and a frankly confused status for the hero; this is the movie the toy was based on (so a 1990s animated kids movie featuring a mixed-race lesbian couple; almost as unlikely as “sex” in the clouds in The Lion King and the Centaur with a penis head in Hercules). But the truth is surely that the Buzz’s failure was intentional. How else to
The Illustrated Man (1969) I’d been blissfully unaware The Illustrated Man didn’t have a great rep. And that Ray Bradbury – not that authors/originators necessarily ought to be looked to as arbiters of the quality of adaptations of their work – thought it stank. I was quite taken with it on the occasion I first saw it – which must be upwards of thirty years ago – and this revisit confirmed many of the qualities I recognised in it then. To a degree, it’s little more than a pretentious, SF twist on then popular portmanteau horrors, but its conceits, likely the
Enemy Mine (1985) The essential dynamic of Enemy Mine – sworn enemies overcome their differences to become firm friends – was a well-ploughed one when it was made, such that it led to TV Tropes assuming, since edited, that it took its title from an existing phrase (Barry Longyear, author of the 1979 novella, made it up, inspired by the 1961 David Niven film The Best of Enemies). The Film Yearbook Volume 5 opined that that Wolfgang Petersen’s picture “lacks the gritty sauciness of Hell in the Pacific”; John Boorman’s WWII film stranded Lee Marvin and Toshiro Mifune on a desert island and had them first duking it out before becoming
No Escape (1994) A problem for the futuristic prison movie subgenre is that its instigators can be a little slack when it comes to including an idea of how the encompassing future world operates. A corporatised prison system seems like a given (see also Wedlock, Fortress), probably because it already had roots when these movies came out (in the US, UK, France and Oz, at minimum). Beyond that, though, the unifying factor is an apparent lack of thought. No Escape, a mish-mash of established tropes, some utilised effectively by director Martin Campbell, some less so, exemplifies this. Title: In the year 2022, the
Fortress (1992) Stuart Gordon’s pulpy prison sci-fi has acres of splatter and some vital ideas to see it through its budget-conscious paces; one thing you could rely on with Gordon was a sense of humour, even if the finished product was frequently patchy. Here, he amasses a collection of dystopian tropes and runs with them to sporadically effective results; like the previous year’s Wedlock, Fortress is better when its protagonists are confined, rather than engaged in the act of escaping. Gordon had a bit of a raw deal here, having withdrawn from Body Snatchers (ultimately directed by Abel Ferrara) when Fortress got the go-ahead as an
Wedlock (1991) The futuristic prison movie seemed possessed of a particular cachet around this time, quite possibly sparked by the grisly possibilities of hi-tech disincentives to escape. On that front, HBO TV movie Wedlock more than delivers its FX money shot. Elsewhere, it’s less sure of itself, rather fumbling when it exchanges prison tropes for fugitives-on-the-run ones. Warden Holliday: Who needs fences? Who needs guards? We’ve got the best ball and chain in the world. Your ass. The yen for exploding extremities probably started with Scanners, at least as an ’80s phenomenon. And on the incarceration theme, the same year’s Escape from New
Raised by Wolves Season 1 Ridley Scott’s latest transhumanist tract is so stuffed with required lore, markers and programming, it’s a miracle it manages to tell a half-engaging story along the way. Aaron Guzikowski (Prisoners) is the credited creator, but it has the Ridders stamp of dour dystopia all over it, complete with Darius Wolski (Prometheus) cinematography setting the tone. Which means bleak grey skies, augmented by South Africa this time, rather than Iceland. Raised by Wolves is a reliable mix of whacko twist plotting and clumsy, slack-jawed messaging; like the Alien prequels, it will surely never be seen through to a conclusion,
Finch (2021) An all-too-familiar vision of Gretageddon, in which the Earth has been rendered a superheated dustbowl, and the future lies not without our obsolete species but posthuman inheritors. Actually, the cause of Finch‘s apocalyptic hell isn’t our reliance on fossil fuels – burn those heretic screenwriters Craig Luck and Ivor Powell! – but rather a nasty “solar flare” wiping out the ozone layer. I guess it’s about time the ozone layer was dusted off again, although I’d assumed it was considered very passé and so late twentieth century (solar fares are a popular source of predictive programming, though, one
Reminiscence (2021) Jonathan Nolan rewards his missus Lisa Joy for all her hard work on the variable-at-best Westworld by co-producing this consummately bland sci-fi. Reminiscence is one she, as a true multi-hyphenate would-be-auteur, has written, directed and co-produced. I’m rather reminded of a previous Nolan alumni spin-off sci-fi bomb, Transcendence, which Wally Pfister unwisely made his directorial debut. Since then, crickets. Does a similar fate await Joy? Well, she and hubby have various TV projects lined up, so I don’t think there’s any comparable concern looming, but I also doubt Warner Bros is going to be lavishing up to $70m (unbelievable, as it looks
The Goodies 5.13: The End The Goodies tended to be at their most inventive when they had very little in the way of resources at their disposal. Typically, come the end of a season, bereft of location work, guest stars or expensive props, and so forced to make hay from the central trio (themselves) and office set. Off-the-wall introspection and – curiously – apocalyptic ennui occurred more than once under such circumstances, and possibly the most successful of these, both creatively and in terms of viewing figures, was The End. Corbet Woodall: And finally, a service announcement. The BBC have announced a
Trancers aka Future Cop (1984) On the evidence of Trancers, one might easily conclude the original version of Da 5 Bloods, before Spike Lee doused it with effluent, was a much more engaging and humorous affair, since both share screenwriters Danny Bilson and Paul De Meo. And if it’s true that Jimbo Cameron was a fan of Trancers, I wouldn’t be overly surprised. Because, for all that Charles Band’s movie shamelessly rips off Blade Runner, The Terminator and – at least to some batty and highly tenuous degree – Scanners, it does so with wit and inventiveness, while being cheerfully unpretentious about its low-budget trappings and
Dune (2021) For someone who has increasingly dug himself a science-fiction groove, Denis Villeneuve isn’t terribly imaginative. Dune looks perfect, in the manner of the cool, clinical, calculating and above all glacial rendering of concept design and novel cover art of the most doggedly literal fashion. And that’s the problem. David Lynch’s edition may have had its problems, but it was inimitably the product of a mind brimming with sensibility. Villeneuve’s version announces itself as so determinedly faithful to Frank Herbert, it needs two movies to tell one book, and yet all it really has to show for itself are gargantuan vistas. I
Scanners (1981) David Cronenberg has made a career – albeit, he may have “matured” a little over the past few decades, so it is now somewhat less foregrounded – from sticking up for the less edifying notions of evolution and modern scientific thought. The idea that regress is, in fact, a form of progress, and unpropitious developments are less dead ends than a means to a state or states as yet unappreciated. He began this path with some squeam-worthy body horrors, before genre hopping to more explicit science fiction with Scanners, and with it, greater critical acclaim and a wider
The Tomorrow War (2021) Not so much tomorrow as yesterday. There’s a strong sense of déjà vu watching The Tomorrow War, so doggedly derivative is it of every time-travel/alien war/apocalyptic sci-fi movie of the past forty years. Not helping it stand out from the pack are doughy lead Chris Pratt, damned to look forever on the beefy side no matter how ripped he is and lacking the chops or gravitas for straight roles, and debut live-action director Chris McKay, who manages to deliver the goods in a serviceably anonymous fashion. Which kind of figures. Many animation directors have graduated to
Equilibrium (2002) Kurt Wimmer’s dystopian sci-fi movie is a mash up of 1984, THX1138 and Fahrenheit 451, with added spangles in the form of The Matrix-inspired gun kata. Wimmer objected to such reductive categorisation, claiming it had a “different message”, but I’m blowed if I can find it. Equilibrium’s mostly an effective little B-movie, though, setting out its stall and succeeding within the range of its familiar tropes. John Preston: I’m alive… I live… To safeguard the continuity of this great society. To serve Libria. Wimmer has mostly won work as a screenwriter, although he would doubtless rather be a full-time director. The failure of his
The 6th Day (2000) Arnie’s pre-penultimate pre-governator starring role, and perhaps surprisingly, given he’d been making bad or lazy choices for the best part of a decade, The 6th Day’s probably his best material since Total Recall. What it isn’t, however is a production with any sense of vision or attitude, which comes down to journeyman-at-best, director of Stop! Or My Mom Will Shoot at worst, director Roger Spottiswoode calling the shots. That in itself is evidence enough of how Arnie’s stock – or again, decision-making skill – had tumbled since the early ’90s. Perhaps his people were persuaded by the success of Tomorrow
A Sound of Thunder (2005) Does A Sound of Thunder deserve its relegation to the movie dungeon? It’s been languishing there for a decade and a half, egged along by a six-percent Rotten Tomatoes score, and I think it deserves a break. Sure, it has its work cut out for it there, as any non-judgemental viewer will have to get past some truly appalling special effects (but, to be fair, some that aren’t nearly so bad), a time-travel plot that doesn’t make a lick of sense (but, to be fair, name one that does) and… Edward Burns. And yet, you can see
Doctor Who Warriors of the Deep There’s an oft-voiced suggestion that, if only it had the benefit of a better class of production, Warriors of the Deep would be acclaimed as a classic. I think we all know this is phooey, but at the same time, it’s undeniable that a better class of production couldn’t have harmed its reputation any. It might still have had paper-thin characters and a desperately uninventive plot (“linear”, as Pennant Roberts put it) along with an entirely perfunctory reintroduction of old monsters, but it could also have claimed some zip, some verve and some drama. The Doctor: How do
Slaughterhouse-Five (1972) It’s little surprise this adaptation of Kurt Vonnegut’s science-fiction classic has drifted into obscurity. As director George Roy Hill’s follow up to his breakout hit Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, and preceding the even bigger success of The Sting, it might be seen as occupying similar territory to, say, Peter Jackson misfiring with The Lovely Bones between Tolkiens (give or take a Kong). The Slaughterhouse-Five novel was only three years old when the movie came out, and if the audience reception was muted, it nevertheless garnered the Jury Prize at Cannes (so it was certainly better received than Jackson’s unloved effort). Vonnegut was profusive in
Waterworld (1995) The production and budgetary woes of “Kevin’s Gate” will forever overshadow the movie’s content (and while it may have been the most expensive movie ever to that point – adjusted for inflation, it seems only Cleopatra came close – it has since turned a profit). However, should you somehow manage to avoid the distraction of those legendary problems, the real qualitative concerns are sure to come sailing over the cognitive horizon eventually; Waterworld is just so damned derivative. It’s a seafaring Mad Max. Peter Rader, who first came up with the idea in 1986, admitted as much. David Twohy, who later came aboard,
Southland Tales (2006) Richard Kelly’s (kind of) post-apocalyptic smorgasbord of science-fiction, politics, music and musing was memorably lambasted at Cannes in its unexpurgated three-hour form and subsequently mauled by critics and shunned by audiences. Check its IMDB score for confirmation that most are not on board with recognising it as a misunderstood classic. And that’s fair. A classic Southland Tales is not. On top of which, it’s certainly unrefined in some of its targets (Jonathan Ross labelled it “a bad, overlong student film” and there’s something of that messy over eagerness in its scattershot approach). This is, undoubtedly, an instant cult movie; indeed,
Doctor Who Vengeance on Varos It would be understandable, given how well written parts of Vengeance on Varos are – superbly written, even – to tend toward the reasoning that those aspects which aren’t must be intentionally bad. You know, as a commentary on the artifice of the medium, in a similar fashion to the way the story is commenting upon the medium generally. Unfortunately, I don’t think that explanation holds up (take a look at the synopsis for Philip Martin’s subsequent and aborted, except by Big Finish for whom nothing is ever aborted but instead an opportunity for a six-part box set, Mission
Reign of Fire (2002) There was good reason to believe Rob Bowman would make a successful transition from top-notch TV director to top-notch film one. He had, after all, attracted attention and plaudits for Star Trek: The Next Generation and become such an integral part of The X-Files that he was trusted with the 1998 leap to the big screen. That movie wasn’t the hit it might have been – I suspect because, such was Chris Carter’s inability to hone a coherent arc, it continued to hedge its bets – but Bowman showed he had the goods. And then came Reign of Fire.
Split Second (1992) Greta Thunberg’s favourite movie. Probably. Well, her “people’s” anyway. Somehow, I managed to miss this one when it came out, although its lousy reviews probably had something to do with it. I was nudged into taking advantage of its current, Bezos-sanctioned availability by an Empire take calling it “glorious” and suggested “As a showcase for a mischievous Hauer behaving badly… it’s almost matchless”. The recently departed Rutger is on magnificently over-emphatic form, it’s true, and there’s frequent amusement to be had from the dialogue and chemistry between the star and sidekick cop Neil Duncan. However, Split Second lacks a crucial sense of
Doctor Who The Sun Makers Or The Sunmakers, if you first came to the story via its Target novelisation. I’ve generally regarded this one as not quite making it. Call it the Pennant Roberts factor, if you like, degrading any bite and sharpness into a slightly bland soufflé. That approach failed to dent the later The Pirate Planet, where the script’s knockabout energy is complemented by the outrageous performances, lending the whole a ramshackle spark. But departing script editor Robert Holmes granted The Sun Makers a shed load of wit and perversity, and it didn’t feel like it was being done justice. Revisiting
12 Monkeys (1995) Gilliam opts for maximum sell out. And yet, even though this is undoubtedly the soberest and least quirky film in his oeuvre, it’s much, much more satisfying than his Terry-Goes-Tinseltown The Fisher King. 12 Monkeys is the evidence that he could have been – not that I’m suggesting he should have been – an entirely creditable studio director had he taken the bit between his teeth and buckled down. As it is, 12 Monkeys still manages to exude enough of his personality and wide-angle visual sense that you’re never in doubt who is calling the shots, yet never to the
2010: The Year We Make Contact (1984) The deal with 2010: The Year We Make Contact, of course, is that it pales into insignificance if sat next to Kubrick’s film. The further deal is that being a unworthy sequel doesn’t make it a bad film. Indeed, I’m always rather impressed by it. With the proviso that, like pretty much all Peter Hyams’ best films (see also Capricorn One, Outland, The Star Chamber) it doesn’t quite come together. And that, most damagingly, it feels like an ’80s SF movie, whereas 2001: A Space Odyssey for all its psychedelia and monkey suits, hasn’t dated at all.
Bill & Ted Face the Music (2020) Bill and Ted’s remissness has led to existence itself hanging in the balance, fiddling while the universe goes to pot. The duo are much like us, basically, ignoring the inexorable inevitable creeping up on them until it seems like it’s too late. It would probably be a stretch to accuse Bill & Ted Face the Music of predictive programming, given its long gestation period. But then again, this is a movie where the saviours of everything turn out to be women rather than irredeemably useless white men. And their lives’ “work” culminates in 2020, after which
The Thirteenth Floor (1999) The somewhat ignored third major Hollywood studio late-90s exploration of the nature of reality, The Thirteenth Floor had the misfortune to come out a couple of months after The Matrix turned everyone’s world upside down. And two weeks after Star Wars Episode 1: The Phantom Menace. It also made the decision to embrace a noirish virtual world, one that had already proved less than compelling to general audiences in the previous year’s Dark City. Plus, the critics trounced it. The latter is the most surprising part, in retrospect, as Josef Rusnak’s movie has a lot going for it, not least the best mind-bending
I Am Legend (2007) (Director’s Cut) The version of Richard Matheson’s novel you’re really supposed to have it in for, if purists’ antagonism towards it is any yardstick. It’s definitely the case that the theatrical-cut ending of I Am Legend is a massive cop-out and entirely stuffs up any merit in this adaptation finally using the original title. Nevertheless, in many respects, this is a laudable remake. Its biggest failing is that it has too much budget to play with, leading to decisions that nearly capsize it dramatically. This version was in development hell for more than a decade before finally
Lockout (2012) Luc Besson’s “original idea” may have been found guilty of plagiarising both Escape from New York and Escape from L.A. – although, the idea that anyone would want to steal from the sequel… – but the real shame of Lockout is that it wasn’t a Snake Plissken movie. Which isn’t to suggest it’s a whole lot more than a routine actioner with a no-frills, at-best-serviceable screenplay, but rather that such credentials still put it way out ahead of either L.A. or the at-one-time Escape 3, Ghosts of Mars. Besson’s producing oeuvre has been shamelessly chock full of derivative man (or woman) on a mission fare, sometimes elevated by inventive direction, at
Everything will fall apart. In this world, just as in yours. Again. And again. Because of you. And because of me.
Dark Season Three Early reaction to the conclusion of the German time-travel saga appears overwhelmingly positive, but I’m less convinced of its merits. On the plus side, a resolution was hatched for the interminable loop. On the minus, Dark’s Season Three plot mechanics felt a little underwhelming, hasty even, just as the resolution for Jonas and Martha proved quite touching. It’s just as well Baran bo Odar and Jantje Friese restricted themselves to three seasons, as you can just see its potential to snowball into the Damon Lindelof/Lost approach of throwing curveballs each season on an ever-upping, ever-more-absurd ante. Season One ended with
Soylent Green (1973) The final entry in Chuck Heston’s mid-career sci-fi trilogy (I’m not counting his Beneath the Planet of the Apes extended cameo). He hadn’t so much as sniffed at the genre prior to 1967, but over the space of the next half decade or so, he blazed a trail for dystopian futures. Perhaps the bleakest of these came in Soylent Green. And it’s only a couple of years away. 2022 is just around the corner. The secret of Soylent Green is, of course, everything about the movie. Like The Sixth Sense, it would probably be quite difficult to come to the
Things to Come (1936) Turgid, lifeless and inert. That’s the future for you. Apparently, HG Wells’ influence over the production of Things to Come has been overstated, although it seems he did manage to ensure the magnificent Ernest Thesiger was replaced by Cedric Hardwicke; more’s the pity for any hopes the picture had of any spark of wit or humour. Whether or not Wells was kept at arm’s length, Things to Come carries intact a wearying surfeit of pompous speechifying and dry staging. Yes, there’s impressive spectacle here – some of it still impressive – but there’s nary a nudge of narrative tension.
In the Shadow of the Moon (2019) One time, it would be satisfying if the main protagonist in one of these Grandfather Paradox constructions had done with the inherent inescapability of it all and expressly set out to blow the bloody doors off. If Boyd Holbrook’s increasingly bedraggled, hairpiece-hampered ex-cop, on realising that’s his granddaughter on the beach, the initiator of all these time-travel, would-you-kill Hitler murders – notably, there’s no discussion of whether this is a morally unconscionable mission, presumably because those responsible for kicking off the future civil war are hateful racists, so there shouldn’t be any
Ad Astra (2019) Would Apocalypse Now have finished up a classic had Captain Willard been ordered on a mission to exterminate his mad dad with extreme prejudice, rather than a mysterious and off-reservation colonel? Ad Astra features many stunning elements. It’s an undeniably classy piece of filmmaking from James Gray, who establishes his tone from the get-go and keeps it consistent, even through various showy set pieces. But the decision to give its lead character an existential crisis entirely revolving around his absent father is its reductive, fatal flaw, ultimately deflating much of the air from Gray’s space balloon. So by the end, Ad
I Am Mother (2019) This Netflix science-fiction offering arrived with very solid reviews, always a surprise for a Netflix movie, even one they picked up at Sundance. For about two-thirds of the running time, I Am Mother seems to justify the (modest) raves. It boasts assured direction from Grant Sputore (making his feature debut), polished production values and strong performances from a very small cast (basically Hilary Swank and Clare Rugaard, with Luke Hawker in a Weta robot body suit and Rose Byrne providing the voice). It operates intriguing turns of plot and switches in sympathies. Ultimately, however, I Am Mother heads towards
Vagaries of perception. Temporary constructs of a feeble human intellect trying desperately to justify an existence that is without meaning or purpose.
The Matrix Revolutions (2003) Plenty of movies become hugely successful while killing off their protagonist (Gladiator only three years earlier, for example), so that’s definitely not the problem per se with The Matrix Revolutions. No, it’s principally that, despite being filmed back-to-back with The Matrix Reloaded – so ennui on the directors’ part wasn’t a factor – the film feels like the trilogy has run out of steam and inspiration. The most egregious error on the Wachowskis’ part is the decision to double down on the activities in Zion, the real-world component of the movies having steadily grown by this point. Worse, we’re
The Matrix Reloaded (2003) On release, I found myself feeling curiously out of synch with underwhelmed audiences’ prevailing response to The Matrix Reloaded; I loved it, for the most part. Indeed, there was but one scene I felt failed spectacularly, and yet it mystifyingly seemed to come in for the most praise: the Burley Brawl, assisted by some of the ropiest CGI in a major motion picture up to that point. So it wasn’t the ponderous exposition – the Architect’s discourse, memorably mocked by Will Ferrell in an MTV awards sketch – or especially the sweaty sexy Zion rave that
The Matrix (1999) Twenty years on, and the articles on the defining nature of The Matrix are piling up, most of them touching on how its world has become a reality, or maybe always was one. At the time, its premise was engaging enough, but it was the sum total of the package that cast a spell`; the bullet time, the fashions, the soundtrack, the comic book-as-live-action framing and styling. Not to mention it being probably the first movie to embrace and reflect the burgeoning Internet (Hackers doesn’t really count). And, subsequently, to ride the crest of the DVD boom wave. And
2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) There isn’t, of course, anything left to say about 2001: A Space Odyssey. Nevertheless, the devoted still try, confident in their belief that it’s eternally obliging in its offer of unfathomable mystery. And it does seem ever responsive, to whatever depths one wishes to plumb in analysing it for themes, messages or clues, either about what is really going on out there, some around Jupiter, or in its director’s head. Albeit, it’s lately become difficult to ascertain which has the more productive cottage industry, 2001 or The Shining, in the latter regard. With Eyes Wide Shut as the curtain call, a final
Alita: Battle Angel (2019) Robert Rodriguez’ film of James Cameron’s at-one-stage-planned film of Yukito Kishiro’s manga Gunnm doesn’t, on the one hand, feel overly like a Rodriguez film. In that it’s quite polished, so certainly not of the sort he’s been making of late – definitely a plus. But on the other, it doesn’t particularly feel like a Jimbo flick either. What it does well, it mostly does very well – the action, despite being as thoroughly steeped in CGI as Avatar – but many of its other elements, from plotting to character to romance, are patchy or generic at best. In spite
Total Recall (1990) Paul Verhoeven offered his post-mortem on the failures of the Total Recall (2012) and Robocop (2013) remakes when he suggested “They take these absurd stories and make them too serious”. There may be something in this, but I suspect the kernel of their issues is simply filmmakers without the smarts or vision, or both, to make something distinctive from the material. No one would have suggested the problem with David Cronenberg’s prospective Total Recall was over-seriousness, yet his version would have been far from a quip-heavy Raiders of the Lost Ark Go to Mars (as he attributes screenwriter Ron Shusset’s take on the material).
Isle of Dogs (2018) I didn’t have very high hopes for Isle of Dogs. While I’m a big Wes Anderson fan, give or take the odd picture (The Life Aquatic just doesn’t do it for me), the trailers almost felt like they were designed as a patience-testing parody of his quirky tableau style. Plus, I wasn’t enormously keen on The Fantastic Mr Fox. Although, that may just have been a desire on my part for a respectful adaptation of Roald Dahl’s story, rather than one Wes’d up to the max. Yet this, his sophomore animation, is as a very pleasant surprise. Perhaps
Hotel Artemis (2018) Hotel Artemis is all set up. It’s solid set up, undoubtedly – a heightened, John Wick-esque criminal world by way of John Carpenter – but once it has set out its wares, it proceeds to pulls its punches. One’s left more impressed by the dependable performances and Drew Pearce’s solid footing as a (debut feature) director than his ability to develop a satisfying screenplay. Pearce’s most notable credits to date have been in collaboration or conjunction with other, more esteemed scribes (Shane Black on Iron Man Three and Christopher McQuarrie rewriting him on Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation, Pearce having already
Ready Player One (2018) Ready Player One was a major test for the ’berg. Did he still have what it took to rank as one of the big guns of populist modern cinema, or would he be confirmed as an out-of-touch grandpa, futilely attempting to reclaim a crown he’d long since lost? And, in the process, adding insult to injury by attempting to tap into a vein of nostalgia he himself had a hand in creating? The answer is that this is very much cinema from a man with his finger on the pulse of current tastes and trends, one
Mute (2018) Duncan Jones was never entirely convincing when talking up his reasons for Mute’s futuristic setting, and now it’s easy to see why. What’s more difficult to discern is his passion for the project in the first place. If the picture’s first hour is torpid in pace and singularly fails to muster interest, the second is more engaging, but that’s more down to the unappetising activities of Paul Rudd and Justin Theroux’s supporting surgeons than the quest undertaken by Alex Skarsgård’s lead. Which isn’t such a compliment, really. Jones cites M*A*S*H’s Trapper John McIntyre and Hawkeye Pierce as his inspiration
Altered Carbon Season One Well, it looks good, even if the visuals are absurdly indebted to Blade Runner. Ultimately, though, Altered Carbon is a disappointment. The adaption of Richard Morgan’s novel comes armed with a string of well-packaged concepts and futuristic vernacular (sleeves, stacks, cross-sleeves, slagged stacks, Neo-Cs), but there’s a void at its core. It singularly fails use the dependable detective story framework to explore the philosophical ramifications of its universe – except in lip service – a future where death is impermanent, and even botches the essential goal of creating interesting lead characters (the peripheral ones, however, are at least more fortunate).
And tell me, how would you feel if you’d been dead a day and a half, and somebody brought you more bad news?
Freejack (1992) No, I won’t be making out that Freejack is an unfairly maligned, hidden classic or that it deserves cult status. It’s a movie I’d hazard got a greenlight off the back of the promise of sci-fi action with a dash of the cerebral, à la Total Recall (right down to a co-screenplay credit for Ronald Shusett) but stumbles resoundingly in both areas. Indeed, even its premise is only one-part good, such that Netflix’s forthcoming Altered Carbon, boasting a not dissimilar mind transfer conceit, is wisely not going with the daftly depicted time-travel element. Consequently, Freejack was rightly trashed on its release. Does it have anything to
Blade Runner 2049 (2017) It was a questionable thing for (Sir) Ridley Scott and Alcon to go ahead with a sequel to an all-time classic that wasn’t screaming for one, and whose very pervasive influence makes any attempt appear immediately defensive. How much credit they should get for pulling off the seemingly impossible is debatable, however. Ridders was certainly right to go to Hampton Fancher for (co-)screenplay duties, but the clincher was probably delegating directing to Dennis Villeneuve; the Ridley of today just couldn’t direct a slow-burn, immersive piece like his original, and would have turned Blade Runner 2049 into something
Star Trek: First Contact (1996) Star Trek: First Contact (also known as plain First Contact, back when “Star Trek” in the title wasn’t necessarily a selling point to the great unwashed. Or should that be great washed?) is probably about as good as a ST:TNG movie could be, in as much as it actively rejects much of what made the TV series what it is: starchy, placid, smug, platitudinous exchanges about how evolved humanity has become in the 25th century. Yeah, there’s a fair bit of that here too, but it mainly recognises that what made the series good, when it was good, was dense time-travel
Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country (1991) The OST movie consigned the status of just being incredibly solid by default, rather than through any particular flaws in its construction. If The Wrath of Khan takes the crown through being masterful on every level, and The Voyage Home, against the odds, calls back to the series’ comedy episodes but in a way that’s better than pretty much any of them, Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country’s bronze medal is nothing to be sneezed at. It’s just that it doesn’t quite have the same distinguishing spark. Of course, all three share Nicholas Meyer on script and/or directing
Alien Resurrection (1997) At least Alien3 has its die-hard defenders, particularly with the advent of The Assembly Cut. Alien Resurrection appears destined to remain the unloved, ugly and reviled newborn of the original quartet, a sequel that’s full of ideas (probably more than the rest put together), but fails to deliver them in an entirely satisfying way. It doesn’t even end properly, something that could at least be relied upon previously (with the consequence of “now get-out of that rewriting” for the sequels), making the fact that it was never followed up additionally cruel. Neill Blomkamp even wanted to retcon it and Alien3 out of existence;
Ghost in the Shell (1995) I’m not much of an anime buff. I dutifully watched Akira, which didn’t especially impress me, and I caught at least some – or that should probably be quite enough – of Legend of the Overfiend on its first (British) TV screening. Ghost in the Shell was something of an exception, however, wearing its ideas on its cybernetic chin and as stylish as it was cerebral. Revisiting it as a prelude to the release of its US live-action remake, the visual aesthetic remains as indelible, but most notable is how strongly it has been both influenced and influential. On
Logan (2017) I was tepid on Logan’s prospects, both commercially and artistically, but the acclaim that has greeted it appears to have proved me wrong on both counts. And yet, and this really isn’t sour grapes, as I’d have loved to agree with the raves… I don’t think it’s a great movie. I don’t even think it’s the best X-Men movie. It has the kernel of a great movie, sporadically it’s a great movie, and Hugh Jackman gives a great performance – and another that’s not so great – but its estimable aspects are rather levelled by the sheer, unwavering competence of director James Mangold. It
Assassin’s Creed (2016) I didn’t dislike Assassin’s Creed. It engaged me, the action worked, by and large, even if director Justin Kurzel is obsessed with high shutter speeds like it’s 1999, and it’s a damn sight better at doing what it’s doing than the empty-headed Macbeth he and Michael Fassbender collaborated on prior to this. I’m just not sure what it isthat it’s doing. Or if it knows either. I am not, nor have I ever been, a player of the video game(s) on which the movie is based, so I have no investment in its accuracy or departures from the source material,
A.I. Artificial Intelligence (2001) The thought that kept repeating on me revisiting A.I. Artificial Intelligence, which I hadn’t seen it was in cinemas, was what kind of film it might have been had it starred a typical moppet playing David, the AI boy, rather than the creepy facsimile of childhood that is Haley Joel Osment. His casting creates a pervasively unsettling effect, and consequently adds a range of layers to the film, some no doubt intentional, others “happy” accidents, and yet others hampering it from being all it might be. Steven Spielberg’s first feature of the new millennium would surely
Back in the sixties, he was part of the free speech movement at Berkeley. I think he did a little too much LDS.
Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home (1986) Perhaps Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home’s greatest achievement is that it makes it all look so easy. Almost (and I do mean this as a compliment) as if they aren’t even really bothering, and the cast reunited on the understanding they could all just have a laugh. This was the most successful movie with the original line-up (although, inflation-adjusted, it trails The Motion Picture), so it’s additionally telling that no one is attempting to repeat its success as a formula the way they have with The Wrath of Khan. That’s partly because the plot is pretty
Doctor Who The Enemy of the World It might have the whiff of sacrilege, particularly since it’s the one complete offering to result from all that frothing anticipation over untold legions of potentially returned missing episodes, but I almost think The Enemy of the World works better on audio. Of course, being a Bazza Letts’ directorial effort, that shouldn’t have been altogether surprising. And, it might just be that the more you entertain the story, what was initially surprising, different and engaging by comparison with its peer (or season) group becomes less so. Namely, its monster-free, relatively character-led script, courtesy of
Star Trek III: The Search for Spock (1984) It’s a somewhat over-optimistic suggestion by defenders of the third big screen Star Trek that it doesn’t deserve to be lumped in with the curse of the odd-numbered Trek movies. What they’re getting at is that The Search for Spock isn’t actually bad. Which it isn’t, but it is blighted by being so non-descript in its ambition that it rather gets lost between the surrounding sequels that actually do vie for attention, in whatever manner. The truth is, there’s a more than solid – even maybe really good – picture lurking within The Search for Spock, but it’s flattened into the
Star Trek Beyond (2016) The odd/even Star Trek failure/success rule seemed to have been cancelled out with the first reboot movie, and then trodden into ground with Into Darkness (which, yes, I quite enjoyed, for all its scandalous deficiencies). Star Trek Beyond gets us back onto more familiar ground, as it’s very identifiably a “lesser” Trek, irrespective of the big bucks and directorial nous thrown at it. This is a Star Trek movie that can happily stand shoulder to shoulder with The Search for Spock and Insurrection, content in the knowledge they make it look good. But where, say, The Search for Spock had a rock-solid script undermined by sloppy direction, Star Trek XIII is
Robocop 2 (1990) The potential for a decent movie is lurking somewhere within Robocop 2’s torrid metallic shell. Cast aside the tone-deaf visuals, the horrendous score from Leonard Rosenman (quite possibly the worst such to afflict a major motion picture outside of, well the ’80s; and at least they aren’t accompanied by the unheavenly choral charge of “Robocop!”) and the unerring facility for unpleasantness, and there’s something in there, deep underneath. Unfortunately, though, I suspect it was a doomed enterprise from the off. It falls apart through lacking the fundamental ingredients that make Robocop an abiding classic; an unwavering vision of what
Strange Days (1995) In 1998 – I know, I can’t stop mentioning it, but the opprobrium is deserved, really – James Cameron rather infamously gave an Oscar acceptance speech in which, following a request that the assembled Academy members observed a minute’s silence in remembrance of those who lost their lives on the Titanic, he directly followed up with the invitation “And now. Let’s go party till dawn!” There’s a sense, revisiting Strange Days, which he devised and co-wrote with Jay Cocks, of eerie premonition, of similarly pat, consequence-free logic in a tale of rape, murder, racism, police corruption, voyeurism and
Predator 2 (1990) 1990 was a banner year for under-achieving sequels, illustrative of the problems that occur when studios decree product must be launched by any and all means possible. Arnie opted out of battling the alien hunter again, the baffling short straw going to Danny Glover. Director John McTiernan had moved onto bigger things, leaving Jamaican-born Stephen Hopkins to attempt to pass muster. Predator 2 duly made about half the amount of the original surprise hit, putting paid to franchise potential for another twelve years, when a whole posse of them squared off (and bulked up) against xenomorphs. Hopkins’ movie
The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 2 (2015) Well, it’s better than Part 1. Although not the last YA franchise to dubiously split its finale in two, there’s no obvious inheritor to The Hunger Games’ crown of rampant billion dollar grossing hit. As such, we may see fewer such desperate cash grabs in future (I don’t think anyone’s holding their breath for The Divergent Series: Allegiant and The Divergent Series: Ascendant). Arguably, the bean counter led strategy – whatever lofty notions director Francis Lawrence professes regarding the decision’s legitimacy – has led to an uneven, laborious second half of a movie series that set
Highlander II: The Quickening (1991) (Director’s Cut) I saw Highlander II: The Quickening at the cinema. Yes, I actually paid money to see one of the worst mainstream sequels ever on the big screen. I didn’t bother investigating the Director’s Cut until now, since the movie struck me as entirely unsalvageable. I was sufficiently disenchanted with all things Highlander that I skipped the TV series and slipshod sequels, eventually catching Christopher Lambert’s last appearance as Connor MacLeod in Highlander: End Game by accident rather than design. But Highlander II’s on YouTube, and the quality is decent, so maybe the Director’s Cut improve matters and is worth a
The Martian (2015) Reactions to The Martian appear to be generally laudatory, along the lines that (Sir) Ridley Scott has gone and done it again, even if that again is a decade and a half since his last all-round-acclaimed picture. There’s no doubting The Martian is an accomplished picture, expertly made and equipped with a solid script from Drew Goddard (adapted from Andy Weir’s novel). But it’s also overlong and frequently cheesy in choice of dialogue, musical cues and presentation of science to the great unwashed. Crucially, despite an invested performance from Matt Damon, the movie never really gets under the skin of
Star Cops 9. Little Green Men and Other Martians It’s one of those ironies that Star Cops feels like it’s really coming together just as it gets kyboshed (it was planned as the tenth episode, the ninth falling by the wayside due to strike action). Chris Boucher and Graeme Harper converge for a densely plotted, twisty little number that even tantalises with the prospect of aliens (proper science fiction!) showing up. That would be too far out, of course… Spring: We’ve got drugs, Mayan sculptures, dead pilots. How many cases have we got going on here? As Spring opines, there’s enough material here
Millennium (1989) Michael Anderson picked up the directorial reins of time-travel tale Millennium after it had gone through numerous hands, and screenwriter John Varley’s perseverance and ultimate chagrin, over the course of a decade of development hell. The finished feature, equipped with C-list leads (Kris Kristofferson and Cheryl Ladd were hardly dynamite at the beginning of the ’80s let alone the close, so one assumes untold swathes of names turned it down first), came out at the end of August 1989 in the US, the traditional late summer dumping ground for unloved projects, where it failed to even dent the Top
Star Cops 6. In Warm Blood A not-so-clever play on words for what is at times a highly intriguing first episode from John Collee. Graeme Harper is again invaluable in creating a strong atmosphere. I recall rating this one particularly highly, based on the moody exploration of the vessel Pluto 5 and wizened corpses discovered (resonant of both Tobe Hooper’s Lifeforce and the mummified pilot in Doctor Who’s Terminus a few years earlier). On the significant downside, it’s Japanese stereotypes in the spotlight this week. Scientific experimentation unleashed is again the subject of In Warm Blood, although whereas in Trivial Games and Paranoid Pursuits it was a
Slipstream (1989) I’d like to be more charitable to Slipstream. It’s one of those pictures that is so profoundly unloved (rather than actively reviled), that you want to find elements of worth to cite it as picture that “might have been really good if only…” But I don’t think it would have been particularly decent even if it had turned out as Star Wars producer Gary Kurtz envisaged. And I’m not sure its small contingent of defenders is enough to qualify it as a cult movie. It’s most noteworthy quality (I’d hesitate to say best) is probably Bob Peck’s performance as an
Star Cops 5. This Case to Be Opened in a Million Years Another superb title, but Philip Martin’s debut for Star Cops, despite a twisty narrative and a number of red herrings, can’t quite live up to it. This one goes completely overboard with the stereotypes, to such an extent you can’t quite believe this is supposed to be played straight, and not a commentary on such things (as with Martin’s excesses in the earlier Gangsters). Suffering the most are the Italians, completed with Joe Dulce-style ker-razee accents that wouldn’t be out of place if the “French” policeman from ’Allo ’Allo went
Star Cops 2. Conversations with the Dead Boucher announces his clever premise – and it is a clever premise – with a bit too much gusto here, as Spring has to ask Theroux to explain himself when he announces a murder investigation into two still living crew of a freighter that has plunged off course; they have limited life support and no fuel left to correct course, so they are “technically dead”. The conclusion isn’t quite so satisfying for either this case or the demise of Nathan’s girlfriend, but in general Conversations with the Dead improves on the opener through being
Star Cops 1. An Instinct for Murder I know it’s a cardinal crime, but I do actually like the Star Cops theme song. It’s both cheese- and synth-tastic and quite melancholy, which fits the show. I also think it suits the titles nicely, which are still quite evocative and creative (especially the astronaut’s space boot in the moon dust too). An Instinct for Murder is rather an ungainly opener, probably the side effect of creator Chris Boucher compressing an opening two-parter into just the one episode. I hadn’t revisited the series (which can currently be found in its entirety on YouTube) since the ’80s, but
Terminator Genisys (2015) The critics have not been kind to Terminator Genisys, and for the most part, I can’t take issue with them. Which is a shame, as this fifth instalment of what has become a terminally erratic franchise shows commendable willingness to tackle the conundrums of time travel head-on. Unfortunately, it just doesn’t follow through very well. It suggests what is (unchecked by insufficient box office to complete this prospective trilogy) an unwieldy and aesthetically incoherent infinite regression of Sarah Connor/Skynet timelines. This is the sort of thing that, with due care and a modicum of gravitas, might have
Terminator Salvation (2009) (Director’s Cut) I wasn’t one of those (most people, it seems) who threw their hands up in horror at Terminator Salvation. Rise of the Machines had left me decidedly unimpressed, so perhaps I was just grateful for small mercies and in a forgiving mood the first time I the fourth in the franchise. I’d never been as down on McG as everyone else (sure, he falls victim to attention-deficit direction and maybe lacks the gravitas for serious sci-fi, but at least he can assemble a movie with reasonable aptitude), and the picture impressed for the effort that had gone into
Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines (2003) A Terminator 3 was as inevitable as Arnold’s waning career. He was never going to stick to his pledge not to do a third without James Cameron (who had already made one too many, even if the second cemented his bankability and gave him a lavish box of effects tricks to play with). The ’90s saw a steady downward career trend, not reversed by a second of the decade’s collaborations with Cameron and being sent to da coola in the debacle that was Batman and Robin. By the time Rise of the Machines arrived, Arnie was barely scraping
Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991) (Director’s Cut) Is it really an “inviolable rule” that T2 is superior to the original? I well remember its feting when it was first released, as I was one of those blown away by it. And there’s no doubt that individual elements remain first rate. But aside from being bigger and more polished, Terminator 2: Judgment Day is inferior in almost every respect. Arnie has been turned into a good guy, which struck me then and still does as a cop-out. Worse, he effectively becomes John Connor’s pet dog (not so much the father figure). Revisiting the movie,
And this computer thinks it can win… by killing the mother of its enemy. Killing him, in effect, before he’s even conceived… a sort of retroactive abortion?
The Terminator (1984) The Terminator franchise is a mess of jumbled narratives, stop-start continuations, temporal entanglements and ill-conceived recasting, so at least this year’s latest entry looks as if it will be right at home. The original is only structurally tidy in terms of being relatively linear and unconfused about its objectives. Of course, that means that it needs to sweep a lot of internal logic under the carpet to work. But work it does in spite of that. This James Cameron at his leanest and hungriest, in stark contrast to the narrative bloat that has since (quite unnecessarily) consumed
Star Trek: The Motion Picture (1979) Most of the criticisms levelled at Star Trek: The Motion Picture are legitimate. It puts spectacle above plot, one that’s so derivative it might be classed as the clichéd Star Trek plot. It’s bloated and slow moving. For every superior redesign of the original series’ visuals and concepts, there’s an inferior example. But… it’s also endlessly fascinating. It stands alone among the big screen chapters of series as an attempted reimagining of the TV show as a grand adult, serious-minded “experience”, taking its cues more from 2001: A Space Odyssey than Star Wars or even Close Encounters of the Third Kind (the success of which
The Rover (2014) David Michôd’s Outback thriller embraces a tentative future vision of pre-apocalyptic, post-economic collapse. It’s gauged not so far from the original Mad Max, and, by avoiding population centres, it avoids answering any detailed questions about how this former First, now Third, World country malingers on. It might have been better if the general thrust of Michôd’s story had remained similarly unforthcoming. For the first forty minutes or so, The Rover is stark, striking, and elusive. It remains a first-rate piece of filmmaking right through to the climax, but the tale wilts into something a touch too tangible and familiar.
Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome (1985) Time was kind to Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome. As in, it was such a long time since I’d seen the “final chapter” of the trilogy, it had dwindled in my memory to the status of an “alright but not great” sequel. I’d half-expected to have positive things to say along the lines of it being misunderstood, or being able to see what it was trying for but perhaps failing to quite achieve. Instead, I re-discovered a massive turkey that is really a Mad Max movie in name only (appropriately, since Max was an afterthought). This is the
Mad Max 2 (1981) Much has been written in praise of Mad Max 2/The Road Warrior over the years, rightly noting its enormous influence (albeit in tandem with a number of other science fiction opuses in the surrounding five years), but mostly concentrating on its abiding status as a remarkably executed, fantastically taut, kinetic thrill ride. This sequel sees George Miller coax and expand the kernel of the original, teasing out the mythical elements therein and producing a big, bold, super-charged action engine. Mad Max 2 is an economical picture in storytelling, terms, just as its director recognises that grand spectacle is
The Tripods Season 2 Season 2 of The Tripods arranges itself, quality-wise, very close to the inverse of the first. As a whole it’s a significantly improvement, but more particularly it flies by during the mid-section, where Season 1 was bogged down in torpid chateaus and dreary vineyards. The surrounding material is less certain, with the faintly tepid competing in the games (and some shagging!) and, a significant anti-climax, the last couple of episodes devoted to a travelling circus (so much so that my recollection was of the season ending pretty much with Will escaping the City of Gold solo; which,
The Tripods Season 1 I can’t recall if I read John Christopher’s The Prince in Waiting trilogy – at school – prior to The Tripods arriving on television. It was certainly a close thing either way, and the TV tie-in trilogy I subsequently bought for the latter was quickly devoured. At the time, British TV science fiction was undergoing a period of significant change. Doctor Who had just changed lead actor and would be cancelled/go on hiatus between the first and second seasons of the BBC’s new SF series. Then The Tripods itself would be mercilessly axed, left on a cliffhanger and denied production of the
Divergent (2014) If there are worthier contenders for the most enjoyable yet really, really stupid movie of 2014, I’ll be very surprised. Neil Burger has assembled a strong cast and brought keen visual acumen and to this adaptation of Veronica Roth’s Young Adult novel, and it simply doesn’t deserve it. The entire premise is nonsense, for which many have quite rightly decried Divergent, but if you can get past that – and it’s a big if – this is a much better made and more engaging movie than the majority of its teen-orientated stable mates. Probably its closest relative is the current
Edge of Tomorrow (2014) Comparisons with other movies don’t really do Edge of Tomorrow justice. Yes, it’s the sci-fi Groundhog Day (and also tips its hat to Source Code); given the popularity of that movie, it’s a perfectly acceptable shorthand. But this isn’t a love story (despite the usual tepid intimations of romance that Tom Cruise – or his advisors – have shoehorned in, pretty much as an afterthought; as such it’s relatively innocuous). Yes, the aliens make noise like, well Aliens. And there’s the open-air warfare of Starship Troopers. And yet, the creatures are the least of the story. And there are mech suits, suggestive
X-Men: Days of Future Past (2014) (I’ve enjoyed all three superhero movies this spring/summer, which appears to be one more than most devotees of the genre. So far, The Amazing Spider-Man 2 has received all the venom (some of it deserved) and Captain America: The Winter Soldier all the accolades (most of them deserved). X-Men: Days of Future Past arrives burdened down by the memory of six prior X-films of variable quality. Consequently, it has its work cut out for it to surprise, impress, or simply be vaguely distinctive. And yet, against these odds, it succeeds on all counts. Bryan Singer’s return to the franchise predictably takes
Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure (1989) The news that Keanu Reeves and Alex Winter are still considering a third outing for Bill and Ted, the loveable fools who somehow manage to bring about a 27th century utopia of peace and serenity (apart from the music bit) through their band Wyld Stallions, hasn’t been met with the usual declamations that they’re bound to ruin it. That’s understandable, as they have a sequel under their belts that managed to improve on the clever-stupid original. There’s also a sense that, for all the easy catchphrases (“Party On!”, “Excellent!”) their adventures and journeys haven’t
Ender’s Game (2013) Ender’s Game arrives on screen awash with controversy, although little of it relates to the film itself. No doubt there are fans of the book dissatisfied with yet another Hollywood adaptation scooping up and spitting out a mangled version of their beloved text. The negative press mostly relates to author Orson Scott Card’s rampant homophobia, and has subsequently overwhelmed any conversation regarding the movie. I’ll try not to do likewise. So here’s my verdict on Ender’s Game, the movie; it’s… well, it’s okay. The only Orson Scott Card I’ve read is his novelisation of The Abyss, a long time
Elysium (2013) Original science fiction fare should be welcomed with open arms; all the better to stave of the safe familiarity of endless legions of sequels and remakes. And, with Oblivion, Pacific Rim and Elysium, all from uber-talented directors, this year held a lot of promise. In each case, to a greater or lesser extent, those uber-talented directors have been hobbled by the stark reality of their limitations as screenwriters. None more so than Neill Blomkamp, whose sophomore feature is replete with the same level of phenomenal action and beautifully rendered effects as District 9. Unfortunately, this time his story sucks arse. Having some
Cargo (2009) Debut directors Arnold Buchner and Ivan Engler have clearly bust a gut with this low-budget Swiss science-fiction film (heralded as the country’s first such genre entry). The problem is, it never stops reminding you of the (usually) better movies that are its inspiration. And it’s not just one movie, the way Trancers is a cheap and cheerful rip on Blade Runner. A steady stream of genre films are evoked during Cargo, as if the makers want to cram it full of homages to their favourite SF ideas and produce a coherent and serious-minded feature in its own right. The year is 2270 and
Paycheck (2003) As Philip K Dick-inspired misfires go, there are about twenty minutes of reasonable material in Paycheck, where you can just about see the author’s fingerprints. As Ben Affleck turkeys go, it topped off a year of disasters (including Daredevil and Gigli) that put paid thoughts of stardom until he reinvented himself as a director. As John Woo pictures go, it’s so deficient you have to wonder if he was only ever mistakenly credited as the talent to be reckoned with in action cinema. As ever with Dick, the core idea has plenty of potential; Michael Jennings (Affleck) takes reverse engineering jobs for clients
Doctor Who The Macra Terror: Episode One After the B-movie antics of The Moonbase, on the surface The Macra Terror looks to be delivering more of the same (Attack of the Crab Monsters?). The title is as crudely attention-grabbing as a Roger Corman flick, and the “monster first” approach seems to be evidence of the dumbing down that the series would be accused of during the Troughton era. It’s up for debate whether the story is using a monster hook on which to drape a commentary on social conformity and acceptance of totalitarianism, or it’s one with started out with such themes
Doctor Who The Moonbase: Episode Four About the only thing this story has going for it is Troughton and the redesign of the Cybermen. I suspect it’s been treated with kid gloves for so long because of the latter. In the opening scene there seems an attempt to qualify why the Cybermen haven’t full-on invaded the base yet, but like everything else it lacks coherence. Hobson tells the Doctor that they can’t just march in as he discovered how they got in last episode (if by “discovered” he means that a Cyberman volunteered the information, I guess he’s right).
Doctor Who The Moonbase: Episode One So Troughton’s had a pretty good run so far, and you’d have thought his status would only be cemented by the reintroduction of the foe his previous incarnation encountered at the South Pole. Which it was… at the time. The Moonbase was the highest rated of his stories (every episode attracted more than eight million viewers, still significantly less than Hartnell at his peak) and introduced the most iconic design of the Cybermen. It also reinforced the template for Season Five (by using the one set by The Tenth Planet). Troughton’s Doctor also seems tempered, his
Doctor Who The Underwater Menace: Episode One A much-maligned story, and one look at the design of the Fish People – in particular their water ballet – seems to confirm that its lowly reputation is justified. The premise, too, is seemingly brazenly pulp sci-fi, so it really requires the viewer to be on board with its absurdity to get the most out of it. TUM was originally intended to be the second Trout story, swapped around because Hugh David didn’t fancy directing. He thought it couldn’t be realised convincingly (astute man) and it fell to Julia Smith to take up
Doctor Who The Tenth Planet: Episode One If The War Machines was the first dawn of the more straightforward approach of Lloyd and Davis, The Tenth Planet forms something of a template for the next couple of years; base under siege storyline, memorable monsters, a ’60s vision of the near future and an (at times) endearing indifference to plot logic and scientific principles. TPP remains arresting for a number of reasons. In part, it came first so it has aspirations that its more stir-and-repeat successors lack. It also stands out for throwing Hartnell into a milieu that is foreign to his Doctor. Then there’s
Oblivion (2013) The first of 2013’s original big budget science fiction films arrives following fairly underwhelming pre-release publicity. Things didn’t look too hopeful. If it wasn’t posters evoking the memory of Prometheus (not a fond one for many), it was a trailer that proved unable to instil a “must-see” factor, despite some gorgeous imagery. There’s Tom Cruise, in the future, grinning away and reminiscing about the Super Bowl. And there’s Morgan Freeman. Isn’t he in everything? My expectations were certainly lowered, much as they had been for the director’s previous film. And, like TRON Legacy, Oblivion is a patchy affair when it comes to plotting. But, like that film,
Saturn 3 (1980) Generally dismissed as a post-Star Wars cash-in, Saturn 3 is best known for its unanimously negative reviews and a psychopathic robot with a fancy for Farrah Fawcett’s fanny (with due credit to Time-Out’s review for that alliterative turn of phrase). To males of a certain age, this predilection was entirely understandable… It’s undoubtedly a mess off a film, visibly wearing the evidence of its troubled production. But it remains a curiosity rather than the complete write-off its reputation suggests (there is even a dedicated website, illustrating that, for some, it captured the imagination of what might have been, rather than merely
Blake’s 7 4.9: Sand If I was to list the most memorable stories from first viewing of this season, Blake and Orbit would stand out, but Sand would come a close third (mind you, Animals is pretty memorable, so that doesn’t prove anything). With thirty years hindsight, it still puts itself forward as a highly effective and atmospheric chamber piece. Where it stumbles slightly, in comparison to Tanith Lee’s previous script, is in the strength of the premise. Unlike Sarcophagus, what needs to be worked out here is concrete and without nuance (killer sand feeding off people) and, as a result, the process of the characters reaching realisation
Zardoz (1974) John Boorman’s Zardoz is virtually the definition of a cult movie. If not quite reviled by critics, it was at least ridiculed. Meanwhile, cinema-goers were indifferent. The passing years have lodged the film in the (not quite popular) wider consciousness as the “one where Sean Connery wears a nappy”. But it’s reputation as a film to seek out, for all its flaws, has grown. It’s a film brimming with ideas; charitably, one might even suggest there’s a surplus (it’s not often that such a charge can be levelled at a movie and Boorman certainly reflected that this was the
Blake’s 7 3.13: Terminal Like Logopolis, broadcast almost exactly a year later, Terminal is not without script problems. There are a number of rather large holes in terms of plot and (more particularly) character that leave you, if not scratching your head, viewing what unfolds slightly askance. But, like Logopolis, where the episode really scores is in evoking a palpable atmosphere. Mary Ridge imbues the story with a sense of finality and doom throughout, only punctured slightly by some laborious exposition when Servalan inevitably shows up. As has been the case both with his and Chris Boucher’s script this season, Terry Nation
Blake’s 7 3.12: Death-Watch Chris Boucher completes his trio of Season Three single character-centric episodes. If Death-Watch is the least of them, it nevertheless fits into the good side of a clear divide in quality this season, between crap but fun and very good-to-great. There’s not much between those poles as there has been in previous seasons (although I’ve enjoyed the crappy fare far more than many seem to). Ironically, much of the episode’s focus isn’t really on Tarrant at all. It’s a showcase for Steven Pacey doubling up as his brother Deeta, complete with a dodgy wig and silly
Blake’s 7 3.11: Moloch The return of Ben Steed, who follows up the batty Harvest of Kairos with an equally batty tale. I found this quite enjoyable viewing, even intriguing in places, but I wouldn’t call it “good”, any more than I would Kairos. Steed seems to get by writing clunking caricatures, so the men here are mostly violent rapists and the women fairly useless and subservient (Servalan aside). I’m not sure if he’s intending for there to be some level of commentary in this, but if he is it’s lost in the sketchy characterisations and uneven production values. As for the
Blake’s 7 3.8: Rumours of Death Chris Boucher officially pulls out the quill for the second time this season and again focuses on one of the original crew. Avon is more frequently under the spotlight than any other crewmember, but you usually leave his company with little more than the sound of acid quips and his air of self-preservation. Significant character development is not a priority. Indeed, there’s a case to be made that it would work against his character to try to explore him to any great degree. Here we see Boucher resolving the back-story laid out in Countdown,
Dredd (2012) A far superior Judge Dredd movie to Stallone’s “I am duh lorr”, Pete Travis’ (although the conversation over how much of the finished edit belongs to Alex Garland getting all proprietorial will probably run and run) film is lean, gritty and ultra-violent. The pared-down, low budget approach finds an amenable plotline within the enclosed environment of gang-leader Ma-Ma’s Peach Trees tower block, which she puts into shutdown when Judges Dredd and Anderson apprehend a suspected perp (Wood Harris, better known as Avon Barksdale in The Wire). The negative side is there’s not much in the way of satire here, either
I don’t want to talk about time travel because if we start talking about it then we’re going to be here all day talking about it, making diagrams with straws.
Looper (2012) Expertly structured and tightly directed, Looper nevertheless comes up slightly short by failing to fully explain its internal logic. The admittedly entertaining scene between Bruce Willis and his younger self Joseph Gordon-Prosthetic in a diner half explains the realities of altering the timeline but clearly also thumbs its nose at going into any detail on the conventions adopted here. While Back to the Future Part II etched out its theory with the aid of a blackboard, Willis essentially informs us that it’s all a bit complicated and what we’re really here is for the thrill of the ride. And
Blake’s 7 2.12: The Keeper Heaven help us, Allan Prior’s back. He maintains his consistency, making it a hat trick of stinkers in Season Two. Apparently this one came about late in the day after Nation’s planned two-part finale fell through. A shame that Derek Martinus was given such a duffer to direct, as he’s unable to breath much life into the proceedings. That comes mostly from Bruce Purchase as Gola, showing the same restraint he brought to the role of the Captain in The Pirate Planet (but unfortunately without the good lines). The recap of why they’re there at the
Blake’s 7 2.11: Gambit So, Robert Holmes and Blake’s 7. There seems to be a well-tapped vein of thinking that he wasn’t quite suited to the series and that his scripts correspondingly weren’t all that. Killer, I thought was solid, but Gambit… I think is superb. A sparkling, densely constructed gem that calls back to many of his pet obsessions and even manages to give the increasingly one-note Servalan and Travis decent roles. And there’s a treasure trove of ex- and future Who supporting actors spattered across it. And George Spenton Foster rises to the occasion after not being arsed with Voice from the Past. It’s
On Earth, everywhere you go, the temperature is 75 degrees. Everything is the same; all the people are exactly the same. Now what kind of life is that?
Silent Running (1972) Douglas Trumbull’s directorial debut (the ill-fated Brainstorm remains his only other feature) is sometimes cited as showing the humanity that the epic he established himself with (in the capacity of photographic effects supervisor), 2001: A Space Odyssey, lacks. In some respects, Silent Running goes to the opposite extreme of 2001’s sterile environment of emotionally remote astronauts, cloaking itself with overt ecological themes and topical-at-the-time back-to-nature thinking. It is also possessed of a profound melancholy, emphasized by Peter Schickele’s score. The film ends with a small victory, or at least a glimmer of hope, but it’s protagonist is denied any sense of triumph
Blake’s 7 2.8: Hostage Horizon gave us prior warning of what to expect from Allan Prior’s scripts, but his second outing plumbs new depths of banality. It’s not only the storyline that lacks an iota of originality but the cardboard characterisation, as if he’s on a mission to undo all the innovative developments Chris Boucher has encouraged in the first half of the season. The opening passage is your usual “Liberator pursued by Federation pursuit ships” business. The only scrap of interest here is that we see inside one of the attacking ships, where The Pirate Planet‘s Mr Fibuli (Andrew Robertson,
I don’t like bugs. You can’t hear them, you can’t see them and you can’t feel them, then suddenly you’re dead.
Blake’s 7 2.7: Killer Robert Holmes’ first of four scripts for the series, and like last season’s Mission to Destiny there are some fairly atypical elements and attitudes to the main crew (although the A/B storylines present a familiar approach and each is fairly equal in importance for a change). It was filmed second, which makes it the most out of place episode in the run (and explains why the crew are wearing outfits – they must have put them in the wash – from a good few episodes past and why Blake’s hair has grown since last week). The most
Total Recall (2012) I wanted to like this, partly because I don’t think Paul Verhoeven’s 1990 film is some kind of untouchable masterpiece (it’s got Arnie in it for a start, and the whole thing feels like it was shot on sets) and partly because there’s enough material in the premise that it could stand a few different takes on the Dickmeister. But director Len Wiseman and writers Kurt Wimmer and Mark Bomback do nothing interesting with this remake. What they do change is frequently so daffy you can only conclude that you’re supposed to think that Quaid’s dream at the beginning
Blake’s 7 2.5: Pressure Point An apt title for this episode, with Blake overreaching himself and Gan snuffing it after getting all comforting/creepy over Janet from Terror of the Vervoids. It’s a bit of a mixed bag, some very strong elements confounded by a couple of really clumsy ones. The Day of the Daleks-esque terrorists in the opening scene aren’t going to be troubling the Royal Shakespeare Company any time soon; their exploding dummies give better performances. And the Mutoids inside what appears to be a nice old cottage, but is actually a shiny white Federation base, don’t seem up to
It has to be the source, the key to all the Terra Nostra’s power. If we control that, we control them.
Blake’s 7 2.1: Shadow So, the first non-Nation script of the series. In this instance written by script editor Chris Boucher (although Robert Holmes’ Killer was the first non-Nation script recorded). Shadow was recorded sixth in the season (with David Jackson still playing Gan after he had performed his death scene), and there’s a massive gulf between the look and styling of Redemption (still very much following the stark industrial locations approach of Season One) and what’s on show here. The emphasis is very strongly on heightened reality, as opposed to the gritty realism that defined the previous year. That comes across in every aspect of
Blake’s 7 2.1: Redemption Terry Nation originally intended to write five episodes for Season Two, which is pretty much the formula adopted by nu-Who’s showrunner. In the event (due to Nation’s general shoddy-delivery rates, no doubt) he didn’t, and we were also spared the dubious delight of a Pip & Jane Baker script. The running order for the first half of the season changed quite significantly, and I will note this in respect of later episodes in due course. As for the season opener, it’s the first without Nation’s name on it, although with script editor Chris Boucher at
Blake’s 7 1.10: Breakdown So, a Gan-centric episode. Just what everyone has been waiting for! I’m rather grateful that Nation’s original premise for this never came to pass (an alien duplicate of Gan fights the mental giant, trying to take over the Liberator) as two roles for David Jackson is more than any episode could bear. The first thirty minutes are Liberator-bound, and the snail’s pace suggests filler material was necessary at times (the examination of Gan’s bonce takes an age.) The rest of the episode is a massive step up from what preceded it, albeit not enough to
Blake’s 7 1.5: The Web My understanding is that The Web has never had such a great reputation. Certainly, its effectiveness is hampered by elements of make-up/design that don’t quite work (the Decimas, Saymon). Balancing that we have Michael E Briant pulling out all the stops to direct an atmospheric and inventively shot episode. His work highlights that while Pennant Roberts and Vere Lorrimer have been competent thus far, that’s all they have been. The location shoot in Black Park (Full Circle) makes a respite from two weeks of quarries, and the tracking shots through web-strewn vegetation sets the scene nicely.
Prometheus (2012) Post-Gladiator, Ridley Scott opted for an “All work and no pondering” approach to film making. The result has been the completion of as many movies since the turn of the Millennium as he directed in the previous twenty years. Now well into his seventies, he has experienced the most sustained period of success of his career. For me, it’s also been easily the least-interesting period. All of them entirely competently made, but all displaying the machine-tooled approach that was previously more associated with his brother. While I’d level that charge at this, his latest, there’s a sense that
Blake’s 7 1.2: Space Fall I owned a copy of the BBC video release of the butchered first four B7 stories, and it was Space Fall that made the strongest impression (I joined the original broadcast of the series during Season Three). The difference between this and The Way Back is very evident in terms of atmosphere, and as such it feels like a second pilot, or the way in which US TV commissions a pilot and then rejigs a significant number of elements (tonally, cast or otherwise) by the time the series begins. It’s interesting to note that this was shot before the