Posts Tagged ‘films’

THX 1138 (George Lucas, 1971)

14 April 2009

Lucas’s first feature, based on an idea by Matthew Robbins which became a story by Lucas and then a script by Lucas and sound editor Walter Murch – it remakes and extends his student film THX 1138 4EB (1967). It was produced under the umbrella of Francis Ford Coppola’s American Zoetrope and Warner Bros.

The film is a dystopia where peoeple have letters and numbers as names, little more than registration numbers. THX 1138 (Robert Duvall) works with radioactive materials, but his mandatory drugs are being replaced by placebos by his mate, LUH 3417 (Maggie McOmie). This allows his sexual desire to return and they have sex. Drug evasion and copulation are both illegal, and they are arrested. THX faces brain washing, and ends up in an all-white cell limbo with SEN 5241 (Donald Pleasence) – who ironically enough had been trying to become THX’s roommate (why, I’m not sure). The two escape and go on the run – SEN is recaptured, but THX reaches ground level and watches the sunset.

This is perhaps the most depressing Lucas material – the most deliberately depressing Lucas material, and the film was initially rejigged by the studio. The limited release saw a small but not significant profit, and a restored late-1970s re-release did little better. Naturally the DVD is a director’s cut, with added CGI crowd and world building, and the odd extra shot. Some of these make more links between THX and SEN. THX does escape, but SEN does not, and the pregnant LUH seems to be dead. There is a bird or two in shot at the end, but the sun is setting, suggesting the end of times.

The banning of sex and the imposition of sedatives are dystopian stand-bys, but the item that doesn’t convince is the insistence on consumption – aside from the consumption or ingestion of drugs. No one seems to own anything – the apartments are virtually bare aside from masturbation machines and holograms. But the satire of the cost of policing – which allows THX eventual escape – is still relevant today.

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Altered States (Ken Russell 1980)

11 March 2009

First let us note the ending, which is eucatastrophic, and which thus fits my gut sense of the decade in film. (Stalker is an exception, I suspect…). I’ll quote J.R.R. Tolkien, from On Fairy-Tales, and thus blame him for the barbarism of the Greek:
The consolation of fairy-stories, the joy of the happy ending: or more correctly of the good catastrophe, the sudden joyous “turn” (for there is no true end to any fairy-tale): this joy […] is a sudden and miraculous grace: never to be counted on to recur. It does not deny the existence of dyscatastrophe, of sorrow and failure: the possibility of these is necessary to the joy of deliverance; it denies (in the face of much evidence, if you will) universal final defeat and in so far is evangelium, giving a fleeting glimpse of Joy, Joy beyond the walls of the world, poignant as grief.
What we have in most narratives is a situation which is threatened, and characters who therefore experience a reversal of fortune, or peripeteia which is then resolved. In tragedy, which Tolkien seems to be placing fairy-stories in opposition to, there is clearly a (dys)catastrophe, a death, but which leads to catharsis in the viewer/reader. For the eucatastrophe, it seems as if a second peripeteia is required, producing not quite catharsis, but the notion of grace and the potential of salvation. My notion of the amphicatastrophe is that there is no second reversal – and no salvation – and if there is catastrophe, it is not accompanied by catharsis. The amphicatastrophe resists any notion of being consolatory.

Altered States is not amphicatastrophic.

It is the tale of a doctor, Eddy Jessup (William Hurt in his first film), who discovers a sensory deprivation tank in the basement of the hospital he is training in. With the aid of his mate, Arthur (Bob Balaban), he attempts to measure his brain waves whilst in meditation. He does have some odd visions, but eventually he graduates and marries and a few years pass. He hears about a drug in Mexico that he want to try – a magic mushroom – and he has some odd experiences on it. This, he decides, need to be combined with a sensory deprivation tank, and he starts to experience a sense of going back in time to something more primal. A sceptical superior intervenes – Mason Parrish (Charles Haid) – and finds it hard to believe the evidence that Jessup is regressing to some kind of hominid. Then Jessup escapes from the tank, whilst still transformed.

In Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde (1886), Dr Jekyll takes a potion which projects all of his dark side into Mr Hyde – or perhaps represses any notion of conscience and produces a Mr Hyde. After a couple of transformations, Jekyll is at risk of metamorphosis with or without potions. Here the same seems to be true – Jessup becomes more and more like a primitive man, and less and less bound by propriety. The twist is that he can also infect people – which is pushing things a little too far.

A couple of years later – 1983 – we have Videodrome and a (Todorovian?) fantasy as we’re not clear where Max’s hallucinations begin and end. We might want to have that real/hallucination hesitation here only the trips are distinct different from real life. But clearly Jessup has the sort of voyage into the Underworld that cyberpunk is also to engage with. When he becomes little more than a glowing mass of desires he does look like a cross between the characters in Tron and the eponymous Lawnmower Man. But he is redeemed and brought back to the real world – by his wife.

He has been with his wife since college, and I noted early on his lack of response at the moments she said she loved him – he cannot say it back, and deflects the question. From more than one speech it is clear that he is aware of the power of the love:
You saved me. You redeemed me from the pit. I was in it, Emily. I was in that ultimate moment of terror that is the beginning of life. It is nothing. Simple, hideous nothing. The final truth of all things is that there is no final Truth. Truth is what’s transitory. It’s human life that is real. I don’t want to frighten you, Emily, but what I’m trying to tell you is that moment of terror is a real and living horror, living and growing within me now, and the only thing that keeps it from devouring me is you.
He rescues her, and himself, at the moment that he is able to say, “I love you.”

That was the moment I reached for the sick bag.

This is definitely the good catastrophe, the moment of joy the walls of the world.

“Don’t Look Now” (Nicolas Roeg 1973)

22 February 2009

Those who fear spoilers should, er, not look now.

Here we have a classic example of the seventies ending, you know the one where it’s sort of downbeat, but you can’t be sure, because there’s no real sense of resolution. Amidst much waving around of hands. Only it’s a variant, it’s sort of upbeat, but you can’t be sure. Laura (Julie Christie) is on her way to the funeral of her murdered husband John (Donald Sutherland) with her only surviving child. And she’s smiling.

Here we have Roeg’s editing technique used on a psychic thriller, an adaptation of a Du Maurier novella – which annoyingly I do not seem to possess – in which a holidaying couple rebuild their lives after the death of a daughter. In the story it is meningitus, in the film it is a drowning, which adds a layer of symbolism of water throughout the film as the main action is in Venice. John is looking at a slide of a church he is to restore, Laura is researching a question for their daughter, whilst John jr cycles across glass and Christine drowns.The intercutting links the characters, as if John knows what is happening outside, anticpates the space he is to go to, and includes a shot of Laura – leaving the house? going to her daughter’s funeral? going to her husband’s funeral? Spilt water across the slide leads to a dye bleed in the shape of the Venice lagoon.

In Venice – John packed off to a boarding school – the couple rebuild their lives and a church, only to run into two old dears, one of whom, Heather (Hilary Mason), is blind and psychic, and can see Christine. Laura is keen to learn more, whereas John is sceptical – Laura feels reinvigorated and secretly stops taking the medicine, but may be the victim of a con trick. John, meanwhile, is clearly psychic and some of the things we see him see have yet to happen. Heather wants him to leave town – but she is too late as he runs into the red coated dwarf who has been murdering people.

Prevented from following John by a gate he has locked, Laura can but yell after her darlings – John and Christine. We can but speculate as to why she is smiling – perhaps she has been reassured of her husband’s happiness by Heather, perhaps she is pregnant from the show-stopping sex scene from earlier in the film.

The film was released at about the time as The Wicker Man – in fact they played in a double bill – and The Exorcist, and anticipates The Omen in John’s accident in the church. It is definitely disturbing – although the climax is just a little ridiculous, albeit very European.

Colossus: The Forbin Project (Joseph Sargent, 1970)

25 January 2009

Remarkably straight-faced precursor to cyberpunk, filmed by the future director of The Taking of Pelham One, Two, Three (1974), and based on a novel by British writer D.F Jones. (Jones was to write two sequels, The Fall of Colossus (1974) and Colossus and the Crab (1977), neither of which I have read). Dr Charles Forbin (Eric Braeden) has built a computer that will bring peace to the world by monitoring intelligence, and by being ready for attack and defence at all times. Shortly after being switched on, Colossus finds a second computer, Guardian, designed by the Russian. At first both superpowers try to keep the computers apart, but the machines hold the world to ransom until the humans conform – threatening to explode nuclear missiles. All the president (played by one Gordon Pinsent) can do is wring his hands, whilst Forbin tries to find a way into the impregnable device. Forbin has a distinct German accent, I suspect a nod to the German Nazi rocket scientists.

For once the film makers play fair – there is no attempt to get a computer to define love, or to deal with a paradox, although they do try to flood it with too much data. Nowadays, they’d just update it to Vista. For a group of people who are being monitored by a supercomputer, the scientists don’t half talk on a lot of microphones and telephones, but their plot is hardly a secret to Colossus anyway. On the other hand, unlike Hal in 2001: A Space Odyssey (Kubrick, 1968), it doesn’t learn to lip read.

By taking over control of the Earth’s weapons, Colossus can bring peace to Earth – is this such a bad thing? Dr Forbin designed it for world peace – and this is what it brings. (His character is too young to have been a Nazi rocket scientist, but we perhaps think of scientists, post Einstein and Von Braun as Germanic.) There’s an allusion to Frankenstein, of course, another creation out of control. Colossus says: “We can coexist, but only on my terms. You will say you lose your freedom, freedom is an illusion. All you lose is the emotion of pride. To be dominated by me is not as bad for human pride as to be dominated by others of your species,” but the characters at least hate their new big brother.

Soylent Green (Richard Fleischer, 1973)

20 January 2009

Ecological dystopia (loosely) adapted from Harry Harrison’s Make Room! Make Room! (1966). Charlton Heston needs a chapter to himself as veteran of two Planet of the Apes films, The Omega Man (Sagal, 1971) and Earthquake (Robson, 1974). Here he is Thorn, a policeman in an overcrowded, near-future Manhattan, where people are forced to sleep on staircases of tenements for want of a better habitat. Crops and lifestock have all but failed thanks to pollution, with the population fed on various products of the Soylent company. (Soy – soya; lent – lentils.) With the brutal murder of wealthy Simonson (Joseph Cotten), Thorn finds a case that threatens to get to the heart of a starving and doomed society.

There are plenty of good world-building touches – an opening montage offers a technological history of the city from pioneer to contemporary times, the designated and rentable prostitute/lovers are referred to (in suitably sexist terms) as furniture and rioters are scooped up by JCB-like vehicles. Special effects seem to be kept to a minimum – mostly matte shots of the city, and a greenish fog to suggest pollution.

Thorn feels at times like an earlier version of Deckard in Blade Runner (Scott 1982); a detective character of course is able to visit all levels of society from the dregs to the upper echelons, and acts conveniently as a moral barometer. As he investigates, so we the audience learn about his world. On the other hand, it is his cohabitee, Sol Roth (Edward G. Robinson in his 101st and final role) who first discovers the truth about the supposedly plankton-based soylent green. This is enough for him to decide he no longer wants to live, and commits suicide.

And what to make of Sol? He has memories of the old days, when food was real, and is dispirited by the dystopia he finds himself in. Sol – sun, wisdom of Solomon – with Roth it feels Jewish in origin (a reference to Ashkenazi Jews?), which might make the suicide even more horrific. He’s referred to as a book – a sort of police researcher, presumably a (euphemistic?) term like furniture. A bells rings from somewhere – am I thinking of Shepherd Book from Firefly? The most curious thing is the comments from both Sol and Thorn that they love each other – I suspect Thorn’s relationship with Simonson’s furniture, Shirl Leigh (Leigh Taylor-Young), is there in least at part to alibi Thorn against suspicions of homosexuality. I don’t read this as father and son though.

And so the final, highly telegraphed, climactic revelation is that Soylent Green is people. This is the ultimate ecological recycling, ensuring that nobody goes to waste. This works slightly better than humans as Duracells (in The Matrix trilogy), but surely runs into loss of energy from the equation rather quickly. Let’s take it as a metaphor for consumption – and no one ever complains that Swift’s A Modest Proposal would have a similar failure – rather than a serious proposal. It’s the 1970’s ending – there’s no guarantee that the truth will out, as everyone else who has discovered it has been killed off.

Harrison gave it 50% – the acting and production was impressive, despite shoddy behaviour towards him by MGM and what he perceived as a stupid script with a dreadful title.

Harrison, Harry, “A Cannibalized Novel Becomes Soylent Green“, in: Danny Peary, ed. Omni’s Screen Flights/Screen Fantasies: The Future According to Science Fiction Cinia, Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1984, pp. 143-146.

The Man who Fell to Earth (Nicolas Roeg, 1976)

18 January 2009

This is a remarkably faithful adaptation of Walter Tevis’s novel. To summarize: something crashes in an American lake, and a hooded figure struggles across a landscape, making money by selling gold rings. This is Thomas Jerome Newton (David Bowie), who buys the services of a patent lawyer Oliver Farnsworth (Buck Henry) to launch a series of new technological inventions upon an unsuspecting public. As the increasingly wealthy Newton starts a life with former hotel maid Mary-Lou (Candy Clark), a chemistry professor Nathan Bryce (Rip Torn) is first employed by and then fascinated with Newton. Both Mary-Lou and Nathan discover the truth: Newton is an alien, funding his trip back to his drought-stricken home planet. Before the launch can happen, he is captured by government agents and Farnsworth is killed.

It is the final third of the film that is most changed – the mechanics of the unravelling of Newton’s plan, and the moment of capture. There’s a sense of a longer timespan, as all the characters save Newton age significantly. One piece of future world building is having a senior agent (Bernie Casey) as African American with a white wife; the establishment of Farnsworth as homosexual but not criticised as such is perhaps also along these lines. Mary-Lou had been Betty-Jo, and the more philandering Bryce meets  Newton at the latter’s invitation rather than by a trick. Toward the end Newton’s contact lens are fixed onto his eyes, rather than blinding him.

Roeg’s style – which he had displayed to even more complexity with Donald Cammell in Performance (1970) – is to intercut quite different materials: typically sex scenes unfold in parallel with other actions, and flashbacks and anticipations become indistinguishable. It is ambiguous, say, whether Newton is remembering his home life, or these are parallel events. He is able to see pioneer era America alongside the present. And when his family are looking at a kind of flexible television screen, it almost feels like they are watching the events of the film.

Surveillance is a recurrent trope – and watching: obviously in Newton’s eyes, but also in glasses, mirrors, telescopes and cameras. Newton sells his first ring in a shop that also sells television, and a television is the first thing he asks for. He has learned about Earth from watching television, and continues his education by watching about nine at once. It is his own technology that betrays him to Bryce, just as a book of (photographed) paintings first link the two. Newton is of course under surveillance – his driver is an agent – but this seems to be from the moment he crashed on Earth. Was he tracked through space? Were the authorities told he was coming? Or do they just spy on everything?

The painting Bryce looks at is Brueghel’s painting of Icarus, a man who fell to earth and drowned, whilst everyone else goes about their business (we are able to read Auden’s poem “Musee des Beaux Arts” which in part describes the canvas). Newton has fallen to earth – the name suggests gravity – but there’s perhaps also the sense in this version that he is also Fallen; Mary-Lou’s Eve introducing him to alcohol and sex. Eventually, he is betrayed, of course.

Bowie is excellent – and brings his various personae with him. As a Brit in the US he is of course an alien (and director Roeg, producer Deeley and the crew were also aliens). Roeg had worked with a rock star in Performance – Mick Jagger – and cast Art Gunfunkel in Bad Timing (1980), which I can live without. I guess I ought to take a look at Don’t Look Now (1973), although that’s more fantasy than sf.

Two More Planet of the Apes Films

2 September 2008

Escape from the Planet of the Apes (Don Taylor, 1971)
This reverses the trajectory of the first two films and has three apes travel from their society to a fictionalised 1970s Earth. It’s not quite clear how they found and repaired Taylor’s ship, but perhaps it’s a sign of superior ape science. The characters have escaped from the climax of the previous film. As in Beneath, the captain dies, leaving Zira (Kim Hunter) and Cornelius (Roddy McDowall) to negotiate our “present” day.

Initially they hide their power of speech, but Zira lets it slip in frustration, Whilst they are viewed as bizarre celebs at first, they are clearly perceived as a potential threat and have to fight for their survival. This is all the more vital when they discover Zira is pregnant.

Here it is the apes who experience racism, or at least the xenophobia of a species under threat. There is almost the sense of this becoming an escaped slave narrative. My sympathies, at least, lie with Zira and Cornelius.

A clever attempt to extend the franchise beyond the ending Heston wanted for it in Beneath.

Conquest of the Planet of the Apes (J. Lee Thompson, 1972)
Here the events are set in the 1990s, after a virus has wiped out the cats and dogs. Apes have been kept as pets and trained as servants – and it is pretty obvious as slaves. Caesar the talking ape (Roddy McDowall) stays in hiding with a circus, at risk of execution if he is discovered. When Armadano (Ricardo Montalban) the circus ringmaster is arrested, Caesar has little choice but to become a slave. But soon he is fomenting rebellion.

In what is either a failure of nerve at the allegory, the one other decent human being MacDonald (Hari Rhodes) is black, and this fact is used repeated to point to the slavery/race metaphors. He rescues Caesar from being executed and acts as a moral compass. This is the most violent of the films so far.

Beneath the Planet of the Apes (Ted Post, 1970)

31 July 2008

Wooden sequel to Planet of the Apes, beginning where the last one left off: chimps Zira (Kim Hunter) and Cornelius (Roddy McDowall), orang utan Dr Zaius (Maurice Evans) and humans Tyler (Charlton Heston) and Nova (Linda Harrison) are on the beach and Tyler and Nova ride off to have the big revelation that explains why everyone speaks English: this is a post nuclear America. Cut to another crashed ship – some crew are presumably dead, Captain Maddox (Tod Andrews) is dying and Brent (James Franciscus) doesn’t have a hair out of place. They seem to have come looking for Taylor’s mission, although this would make no sense given the distances involved and the lack of any means of sending a mayday call. Brent goes a wandering and bumps into (small world) Nova, who can’t tell him where Taylor is because she can’t speak, but they travel together to witness an ape war council and to meet Zira and a strangely changed Cornelius (David Watson). We find out – in flash back – that Taylor vanished through a rock.

The gorillas want to annex the Forbidden Zone for more agriculture, and to liquidate more humans. This is going to tred on the toes of an odd sect who are protecting the area with telepathic special effects and who worship a nuclear missile in St Patrick’s Cathedral. (I must come back here when I’ve read Riddley Walker.) The sect with their masks doesn’t make sense, and their pacifism only allows them to force their enemies to kill each other (so that’s okay then) but if necessary they will use the missile. Taylor, noted hater of human and, more recently, apekind and no fan of the nuclear apocalypse, decides that he will set it off – although preumably Heston’s wish to kill the franchise is the real logic at work here.

Sequels are just retreads of the original with a bigger budget (although actually I believe this one was smaller. More apes, more humans, more apocalyptic special effects – but equally more confusion. Obviously we get the segregation of apes and treatment on humans as being a commentary on race and racism, but 1970 is surely a little late to credit someone as “Negro” in the cast.

The other point that stood out is when Zira is hiding Brent and Nova, blood is noticed on her face. Zira explains that Cornelius had struck her. This is accepted as fair enough. But then women here are simply to serve men and reproduce.

Films: Towards a Master List

11 July 2008

This is a list of sf films from 1970 to 1980 which I intend to watch:

  • The Andromeda Strain (1970)
  • Beneath the Planet of the Apes (1970)
  • Blood of Frankenstein (1970)
  • City Beneath the Sea (1970)
  • Crimes of the Future (1970)
  • Gas-s-s-s (1970)
  • The Horror of Frankenstein (1970)
  • I Monster (1970)
  • No Blade of Grass (1970)
  • THX 1138 (1970)
  • A Clockwork Orange (1971)
  • Diamonds are Forever (1971)
  • Earth II (1971)
  • Escape from the Planet of the Apes (1971)
  • Glen and Randa (1971)
  • Horror of the Blood Monsters (1971)
  • The Omega Man (1971)
  • Percy (1971)
  • Punishment Park (1971)
  • Quest for Love (1971)
  • Silent Running (1971)
  • Solaris (1971)
  • The Boy who Turned Yellow (1972)
  • Conquest of the Planet of the Apes (1972)
  • Death Line (1972)
  • Doomwatch (1972)
  • Frogs (1972)
  • The Groundstar Conspiracy (1972)
  • Night of the Lepus (1972)
  • Slaughterhouse-Five (1972)
  • The Thing with Two Heads (1972)
  • Battle for the Planet of the Apes (1973)
  • Day of the Dolphin (1973)
  • The Final Programme (1973)
  • Frankenstein and the Monster from Hell (1973)
  • Horror Hospital (1973)
  • It’s Alive (1973)
  • The Mutations (1973)
  • Phase IV (1973)
  • Sleeper (1973)
  • Solyent Green (1973)
  • Westworld (1973)
  • Zardoz (1973)
  • The Cars that Ate Paris (1974)
  • Damnation Alley (1974)
  • Dark star (1974)
  • The Man with the Golden Gun (1974)
  • Shivers (1974)
  • The Stepford Wives (1974)
  • Terminal Man (1974)
  • Who? (1974)
  • Young Frankenstein (1974)
  • Black Moon (1975)
  • A Boy and his Dog (1975)
  • Bug (1975)
  • Death Race 2000 (1975)
  • Doc Savage – The Man of Bronze (1975)
  • The Giant Spider invasion (1975)
  • The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975)
  • Rollerball (1975)
  • King Monster (1976)
  • Ape (1976)
  • At the Earth’s Core (1976)
  • Embryo (1976)
  • Food of the Gods, The (1976)
  • Futureworld (1976)
  • God Told Me To (1976)
  • Logan’s Run (1976)
  • Man Who Fell to Earth, The (1976)
  • Aliens from Spaceship Earth (1977)
  • Brain Leeches, The (1977)
  • Brain Machine, The (1977)
  • Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977)
  • Crater Lake Monster, The (1977)
  • Damnation Alley (1977)
  • Deadly Harvest (1977)
  • Demon Seed (1977)
  • Empire of the Ants (1977)
  • End of the World (1977)
  • Foes (1977)
  • Force on Thunder Mountain, The (1977)
  • Glitterball (1977)
  • Hardware Wars (1977)
  • Incredible Melting Man, The (1977)
  • Island of Dr Moreau, The (1977)
  • Kingdom of the Spiders (1977)
  • Last Dinosaur, The (1977)
  • People That Time Forgot, The (1977)
  • Star Wars (1977)
  • Alien Factor, The (1978)
  • Alien Zone (1978)
  • Alpha Incident, The (1978)
  • Astronot Fehmi (1978)
  • Boys from Brazil, The (1978)
  • Capricorn One (1978)
  • Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978)
  • Superman (1978)
  • Warlords of Atlantis (1978)
  • Alien (1978)
  • Alien Encounter, The (1979)
  • Asteroids (1979)
  • Black Hole, The (1979)
  • Brood, The (1979)
  • Clonus Horror, The (1979)
  • Dark, The (1979)
  • Darker Side of Terror, The (1979)
  • Day It Came to Earth, The (1979)
  • Legends of the Superheroes (1979)
  • Mad Max (1979)
  • Meteor (1979)
  • Monster (1979)
  • Moonraker (1979)
  • Phantasm (1979)
  • Quatermass Conclusion, The (1979)
  • Shape of Things to Come, The (1979)
  • Spaceman and King Arthur, The (1979)
  • Stalker (1979)
  • Star Trek: The Motion Picture (1979)
  • Time After Time (1979)
  • Alien Dead (1980)
  • Alligator (1980)
  • Altered States (1980)
  • Apple, The (1980)
  • Battle Beyond the Stars (1980)
  • Captive (1980)
  • Contamination (1980)
  • Day Time Ended, The (1980)
  • Falls, The (1980)
  • Final Countdown, The (1980)
  • Flash Gordon (1980)
  • Humanoids from the Deep (1980)
  • Island Claws (1980)
  • Lifepod (1980)
  • Psychotronic Man, The (1980)
  • Saturn 3 (1980)
  • Star Wars: Episode V – The Empire Strikes Back (1980)
  • Superman II (1980)