Thursday, 30 June 2011

The Deadly Mantis

Wednesday, 29 June 2011

Review: Alien

Alien (1979)

The crew of the mining transport ship Nostromo are awoken from hypersleep when the ship's computer makes an unscheduled diversion to a planet 39 light years from Earth to investigate a distress beacon.  After a near-disastrous landing, the crew investigate the wreck of an alien spacecraft underneath which is a huge cavern filled with large eggs. When one of the crew examines an egg, a horrifying creature leaps out and attaches itself to the man's face.  Returning to the ship, the thing makes a bloody escape and now the survivors must contend with a creature of unknown powers that is stalking them one by one through the ship's corridors. 

Alien is the other side of the science fiction boom set off by Star Wars in 1977.  Where director George Lucas gave audiences a science fiction universe filled with spectacle and adolescent adventure, Alien's Ridley Scott provided a Lovecraftian universe of random, meaningless horrors.  It also introduced a continuing stereotype into cinema:  The space-faring working stiffs who forsake jump suits for overalls and have the emotional maturity of an excessively retrograde twelve-year old.  It's become such a cliché that after thirty years one looks wistfully at the clean-cut professional spacemen that Doctor Who used to run into back in the '70s. But in 1979, this was a real innovation.  Instead of a group of explorers or soldiers, our heroes are a collection of ship hands called upon to deal with a situation they are completely unprepared for.  This gave the story a more powerful sense of fear and unpredictability as the characters made the sort of mistakes a better trained group would have avoided as a matter of course.

It was also the first film to benefit from Star Wars's establishing that audiences didn't need to be sold a sci fi concept and that form only needed to follow pseudo-function.  No sane engineer or designer would build a craft like the Nostromo.  The sets of Alien are incredibly rich with all manner of knobs, buttons, lights, computer screens, and all the accoutrements of the future, but the construction is amazingly clumsy with cables snaking around for no reason, only a vague attempt at some sort of logical purpose for this or that device, and a weird mixture of periods with high-tech computer panels sitting side by side with radio boxes like something out of a Lancaster bomber.  Where previous set designers, such as those working on 2001: A Space Odyssey, tried to come up for a rational purpose for this hatch or that console, Alien tosses it all out the window in favour of supporting an overall, distinctive look.  Take a glance at any sci fi film since then and you can see how far this trend has gone.

The titular alien himself is equally without logic.  From a biological point of view, it makes no sense at all and even all the back-filling of the impossible to kill off sequels haven't been able to stop up the gaps.  However, Scott does an excellent job of keeping the story going so that the audience doesn't notice this–at least, not right away.  Nor do they notice that the plot is filled with holes of its own or that it looks a bit too much like It! Terror From Beyond Space, Planet of the Vampires, and Van Vogt's "Discord in Scarlet" to be a coincidence.

 But you shouldn't be too hard on the writers.  Dan O'Bannon came up with the idea for Alien partly because he hated how the alien in his previous film Dark Star looked patently like a beach ball.  What a pity he didn't realise that he was the first man who managed to parody himself before the object of the parody had even been imagined.

Monday, 27 June 2011

Review: The Invaders

The Invaders (Season 1, 1967)
The Invaders: alien beings from a dying planet. Their destination: the Earth. Their purpose: to make it "their" world. David Vincent has seen them. For him, it began one lost night on a lonely country road; looking for a shortcut that he never found. It began with a closed deserted diner and a man too long without sleep to continue his journey. It began with the landing of a craft from another galaxy. Now, David Vincent knows that the Invaders are here; that they have taken human form. Somehow, he must convince a disbelieving world that the nightmare has already begun. 
 And with that prologue that opened every episode we have the plot of the 1967 television series starring Roy Thinnes as architect turned crusader David Vincent.  If you're of the generation where alien invasion series involve glacial plots about Earth people who aren't particularly interested in the invasion and pass the time flirting or bickering and aliens who can't be much bothered with getting on with the invasion when there's so much flirting and bickering to do, then The Invaders is a bit of a surprise.  These Invaders actually do some invading.  They breed killer insects, throw hurricanes at Washington DC, smuggle in poison gas, infiltrate governments, and sabotage moonshots.  This keeps Mr Vincent very busy as he hops around the country foiling the Invaders' plans.

In a way, the format is an interesting twist on the chase story.  The Invaders are hunting Vincent, so he has to keep constantly on the run, but Vincent is also hunting the Invaders, so they must remain eternally on guard against the resourceful Earthman who strives to expose them to the world.  It's also interesting because, unlike most adventure stories, neither side in the battle has an easy time of it.  Vincent is a man alone.  No one believes his wild stories and he has a public reputation as a crackpot.  Worse, he can't produce any evidence of the invasion because the Invaders are very good at covering their tracks to the point of rigging their bodies to self-destruct if they die.  However, though it's never explicitly stated, the Invaders are limited as well.  There are only so many of them and the task of waging a war over interstellar distances from a dying planet is a tremendous bottleneck that forces them to use Earth manufacturing and technology to supplement their own.   Secrecy is so vital to them that it's clear that their plans would fail utterly if the government believed Vincent's warnings. It also helps dramatically because the need for a low-profile invasion means that special effects are few, but when they are used, they're spectacular.  Not a small feat for 1967.

It's a beautiful setup, but this is still 1960's television, so the writing is deliberately formulaic.  A strange event occurs, Vincent goes to investigate, no one believes him, the Invaders cleverly cover their tracks and try to kill/brainwash/hypnotise/bribe/threaten/frame/blackmail Vincent without success, bystanders drawn into the conflict face death or their inner demons, etc.  However, though our hero prevails, his victories are often small ones against the greater threat.  This has the hazard of being repetitive, but one of the selling points of the series is the feeling of paranoia that drips from the stories.  Is the policeman merely a sceptic or one of them?  What about that sweet little old lady?  Who can be trusted?  Can anyone?

It's ironic that creator Larry Cohen managed to shoot himself squarely in his political foot with The Invaders. Taking his inspiration from the Hollywood blacklisting of Communists in the 1950s, Cohen wanted to make "a mockery" of fears of infiltration by using aliens instead of Communists as a threat.  An interesting point, but he never seemed to notice that the mockery angle doesn't quite work because the whole point of the premise is that the Invaders are real.  But a series about a paranoid crackpot who is just a paranoid crackpot has limited mileage, so contradictions be damned.

Tuesday, 21 June 2011

Horror Express

I've seen people chew their own legs off rather than sit through this one.

Monday, 20 June 2011

Review: Green Lantern

But why does he keep calling it his "precious"?
Green Lantern (2011)

 Hal Jordan is just your average, everyday hot-shot test pilot when a ball of energy whisks him off to the crash site of an alien spaceship where a dying purple alien hands him a ring and a futuristic lantern, then tells him that Jordan's been chosen to be a Green Lantern; part of an intergalactic corps dedicated to preserving peace and justice throughout the universe.  As the bewildered and unsure test pilot is transported by the ring to the Green Lantern Corps's headquarters on the planet Oa, the cosmic evil that killed the alien is rampaging loose in space and has even infected an Earth scientist; giving him deadly psychic powers.  Will Hal Jordan be able to live up to the challenge of becoming a Green Lantern?  Will the evil of Parallax consume the universe?  Will Hector Hammond's head get any bigger?

I've been waiting 45 years for this film, so I'm a bit forgiving when it comes to judging it.  Though Green Lantern has been around in his current incarnation for half a century, he's been a very long time coming to the screen compared to his more famous comic book colleagues.  One reason is that a magic ring that can do anything the wearer can imagine is pretty tricky to carry off in a film in a way that's both dramatic and visual.  A ring doesn't exactly capture centre stage like a light sabre.  That's one of the reason why the character in the comic books wears white gloves; so you notice the thing.  The other is that Green Lantern isn't as compact a hero as Superman or Batman.  He isn't a man with inherent superpowers nor is he a wealthy vigilante with lots of clever gadgets.  Green Lantern is a cosmic policeman operating an intergalactic scale as part of a larger organisation that dates back millennia.  And his power ring isn't that easy to explain.  Not to mention that, unlike Superman and Batman, he's the only superhero with a badge, which I always thought was an interesting twist.  All that back story is a lot to cram into a feature film and it doesn't help that the writers tried to include a love story, all the major elements of the Green Lantern world, set up the villain for the (hoped for) sequel, and to give the characters deeply personal motives.  Hector Hammond has to be evil because of an unrequited love triangle?  Isn't good, old-fashioned will to power enough?  Add to this that they wanted both an earthbound story to establish Hal Jordan's character and one set on Oa for the cosmic grandeuer, but ended up with a plot that kept shifting gears as it commuted back and forth across the galaxy. 

Ryan Reynolds does an adequate job playing Hal Jordan, though I'd have preferred if they'd made him less of a case of arrested adolescence and more of the Chuck Yeager meets Steve McGarrett that is Green Lantern at his best.  He manages to carry off the basic character development that a superhero story requires, but the romance between Hal Jordan and Carol Ferris goes nowhere.  There is simply no chemistry between Reynolds and Blake Lively, making their scenes definite speed bumps in the action.  Peter Sarsgaard's Hector Hammond never really gets to establish his villainy, though he's obviously trying for all he's worth.  And Mark Strong vanishes so completely under his make up that You wonder why they didn't just make him CGI like the other alien Green Lanterns and be done with it.

A good movie?  No.  A good superhero movie?  I'd say it was more than adequate, but not up to the level of Iron Man of Superman II.   On the other hand, it's a Green Lantern movie and it has Hal Jordan, so I'm happy.

Friday, 17 June 2011

Revenge of the Creature

From the halcyon days when scientists could declare martial law.

Tuesday, 14 June 2011

Review: The Time Travelers

The Time Travelers (1964)

 Scientists Erik von Steiner, Steve Connors and Carol White along with technician and comic relief Danny McKee are catapulted into the year 2071 when the time viewer they're working on malfunctions and the screen turns into a portal into the future.  How?  No idea, but this is movie logic, so just go with it.  Owing to sheer bad luck, our heroes are on the wrong side of the portal when it closes and they're now trapped.  Unfortunately, 2071 is one of those stock post-atomic futures where civilisation has gone up the spout and all that are left are hordes of rampaging mutants who go around killing people for no adequately explained reason.  Matter of general policy, I suppose.

Anyway, the time travellers are rescued by a group made up of the last humans on Earth lead by Dr Varno, who are building a starship that will take them to Alpha Centauri–provided that they can get their ship launched before the mutants can break through their defences.  The time travellers, having literally nowhere else to go, throw in with the refugees, but Time isn't done with them yet.

Poor Ib Melchior.  He never could get a break.  If the plot about a group of scientists lost in time thanks to an unpredictable prototype sounds familiar, it's because co-writer David L Hewitt took the script he and Melchior wrote and remade it three years later as Journey to the Center of Time.  Then Irwin Allen stole the premise and turned it into The Time Tunnel.  Melchior, fearing that he'd never work in Hollywood again,  kept his mouth shut as the former version made the plot risible and the latter so overshadowed The Time Travelers that the film sank into rarely aired obscurity.  This is a pity because The Time Travelers is a neat little gem of a film. No, it isn't very good.  Our heroes are are stock characters with zero personal motivations that make the comic relief look like a complex creation and their situation is utterly predictable right down to the "shock" ending, but it's entertaining if you don't mind the over-laboured scenes.  Besides, since the main purpose of the characters is to act as our stand-ins as they tour the world of the future, depth is something of a liability.

Acting as director as well as writer, Melchior gets points for working overtime to get as many dollars on the screen as he could.  The sets and costumes are actually quite good, given that the total for all of them had to be under 3'6d.  Since this was made in the days before CGI, or much of anything else we associate with visual effects, Melchior hit on the wheeze of using stage conjuring effects tricked out as science fiction.  It makes sense, since disassembling a robot and sawing a lady in half aren't all that different.  He even went further by using a man with congenitally deformed hands and feet to portray a mutant and a real instrument called a Lumichord as the film's "love machine".

There's even a cameo by sci fi über-fan Forrest J Ackerman that netted the film loads of free publicity in Ackerman's movie monster magazines.  And when 4SJ shows up in a film, you know it was never intended to be taken seriously.

Monday, 13 June 2011


The moral of this 1980's nuclear parable from the BBC:
Support CND, the Soviets will crush us if we cross them,
and Margret Thatcher is really, really mean.  She is.

Wednesday, 8 June 2011

Review: The Questor Tapes

The Questor Tapes (1974)

At a California university, Project Questor is underway.  It's purpose:  To construct the world's first android out of the mysterious components left behind by Dr. Vaslovik; a brilliant scientist who disappeared three years ago.  Against the objections of Jerry Robinson, Vaslovik's former assistant, the project scientists try to activate the machine with their own tape rather than Vaslovik's.  After failing to bring the android to life, they try Vaslovik's original tape, which was damaged during examination.  Again, the android fails to function.  The scientists leave the laboratory in resignation, but that evening the android awakens and uses the equipment to give itself human form.  Then it vanishes into the night on some unknown mission while suspicion falls on Robinson as the agent behind the disappearance.

After the original Star Trek folded, Gene Roddenberry went through a long fallow patch with his only other series being an animated version of, guess what, Star Trek.  He also produced a string of television pilots that went nowhere and one of these was The Questor Tapes.

Questor, the name of the escaped android, is an extremely intelligent and allegedly emotionless creature trying to understand and find his place in the human world.  If that sounds familiar, it's because Roddenberry had already used that concept for Mr Spock and would again in the '80s with Data on the new incarnation of Star Trek.  Roddenberry seemed so fascinated with the idea that I suspect that a strong, intelligent individual who has complete control of his emotions, yet is really just unempathic, was Roddenberry's ideal human being.

All very well and good, but it makes for a very dull character if taken too seriously and in The Questor Tapes Roddenberry compounds the error by attaching it to his increasing obsession with California Leftist Utopianism.  Questor, we learn, is not just a technological breakthrough, but is intended to act as an agent of an alien race who is trying to guide mankind to a future of peace, enlightenment, and holodecks.  Oh, heck.  Let's cut to the chase:  He's the technocratic Gary Seven from the old Star Trek mixed with Mr Spock and he's trying to found the Federation.

That aside, as a television pilot The Questor Tapes fails on its own terms.  Though Robert Foxworth and Mike Farrel give tolerable '70s grade television performances and the story does make for an intriguing 90 minutes, the plot of the film is counterproductive.  It has Questor and Robinson on the run from the Project Questor director, who thinks the android is up to something nefarious, while Questor, his memory incomplete because of his damaged programming tape, tries to find the man who created him.  This is not a bad story line, but it's completely resolved by the end and all we're left with is Questor going forward as a stainless steel community organiser.  In other words, the networks was asked to buy a pilot based on a plot that is already over.  It's a bit like the pilot for The Fugitive ending with Dr Richard Kimble finding the one-armed man and the rest of the series following him as he reopens his medical practice.

Amazingly, NBC actually bought the series, but they scheduled it in such an appalling time slot and asked for changes to the format that turned into something more like (no surprise) the pilot.  Between this and co-star Farrell jumping ship in favour of MASH, Roddenberry called it a day and walked out–which is a pity because the network changes would actually have made for a stronger series.

Wednesday, 1 June 2011

Review: The War Game

The War Game (1965)

The Cold War was a two-front war.  On one front, the Free World faced a collection of Communist dictatorships hell-bent on crushing all human liberty in pursuit of a universal tyranny masquerading as a People's Utopia.  On the other there was a collection of Communists, Communist front groups, fellow travellers, sympathisers, "useful idiots", and flat-out traitors who knowingly or unknowingly worked to advance the interests of their masters in Moscow and Peking.  Some of these were straightforward traitors like Kim Philby or the Rosenbergs.  Others were propagandists who did what they could to sap Western morale and make the free peoples unwilling to stand up for Liberty. Some claimed to be working for "peace".  Some may even have believed it.  But what they really worked for was defeat.

And these weren't just disaffected scribblers working mimeograph machines in basements.  Many were respected members of the media and many anti-Western propaganda pieces were made with taxpayers' money in a classic case of a man paying for the rope to hang him.

One example was Peter Watkin's 1965 pseudo-documentary The War Game.  Commissioned by the BBC, The War Game was scheduled to air that year, but was cancelled–partly and officially due to the film's horrific scenes and partly because of government concerns about the state broadcaster essentially giving taxpayer-funded air time to a party political broadcast for the Communist-front Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament.

Ostensibly, The War Game examines the events leading up to and the effects of a nuclear attack on Britain and especially a small town.  Though it uses the format of a documentary and forgoes anything like characters or plot, it is nevertheless a work of outright fiction intended to fulfill a purpose: To convince the British public that nuclear war is horrific, unwinnable, would be the West's fault, and that the government and armed forces are incompetent and evil.  The road to war is laid entirely at the feet of the West.  When the Chinese invade Vietnam, the Americans threaten to use tactical nuclear missiles.  The Soviets respond to this outrage by sealing off Berlin.  NATO tries to break the blockade, face overwhelming Soviet might, and use tactical nuclear weapons.  The Soviets then "have no alternative" but to bomb the wicked and (it's made quite clear) racist English into the stone age.  Never mind that we now know that the USSR planned to destroy all of Eastern Europe with nuclear weapons if war broke out. In Watkin's world, it was the brutish West that wants to light the blue touch paper and let the world burn.

The civil defence plans are shown as less than useless without any balance as to the alternatives, The civilians are idiots when they aren't sheep, grafters, or monsters.  The government are a collection of clueless ninnies, the military are a vengeful Dad's army, and the police are fascists waiting breathlessly for the safeties to come off.  The scenes of nuclear destruction are the best part of the film and Watkins is able to convey a sense of real despair and suffering, but he consistently overplays his hand.  It isn't enough that bombs can level cities, smash civilisations, and kill people by the job lot, they have to drive the survivors insane and destroy all sense of morality.  It isn't enough that infrastructure is gone and that the services that keep society going may be disrupted or even non-existent, it must be the starting gun for "possible" street executions that are depicted like something out of the Holocaust.  We're supposed to feel sympathy, but how can we feel it for a nation of evil sheep?  As to how the Soviets are faring during all of this or what their aims are, a modest silence is drawn.

Worse, some of the "information" in the film is rubbish.  It conveys a lot of the story in the form of pseudo-interviews with actors standing in for the public or government officials.  One sequence has the "interviewer" asking a woman what she knows about carbon-14 and then upbraids her for not knowing that it's "one of the deadliest products of the nuclear bomb."  Sorry, Watkins.  C14 is a beta-emitter with a half life of some 5400 years, so its actually one of the least dangerous.

I won't even bother with the bizarre title cards spouting poetry like this was a memorial about the Somme.

Winning the Oscar for best documentary (?!?!), praised for its imaginative style, and lionised for being banned by the BBC, the message of The War Game  is simple:
Westerners: You are fools blindly lead by evil men.  Surrender or the peace-loving Communists will crush you like ants because they  "have no choice"". 
 Like Fail Safe, On the Beach, Threads, The Day After, and A Guide to Armageddon, this is a film that Moscow must have loved.

And the British people paid for it.