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Sunday June 10, 2012 in 2012 cinema | science fiction

I found it hard to relax during Prometheus. Not because it was particularly frightening, although it does have its moments, but because I’ve been living in fear that this film would be a disappointment. It is slightly, and whilst it really inhabits a different universe entirely to Ridley Scott’s original Alien, there’s no real justification to condemn it too much. Perhaps there are too many comparisons to make, not just with the 1979 film but the countless other science fiction movies made since then which inhabit our memories and challenge any new offering with appearing unoriginal or dated.

Oddly, Prometheus reminded me somewhat of Mario Bava’s 1965 Planet of the Vampires with its tight fitting and uncomfortable looking leather spacesuits. This is a quirky coincidence, although I was forced to make comparisons with other films because there is nothing original in Prometheus to take away, the most memorable aspect of it being merely reconstructions of H.R.Giger’s original designs.

Michael Fassbender in Prometheus

But there are good things in Prometheus. Despite a ropey script, Michael Fassbender is excellent as the android David, who is seen early in the film modelling himself on Peter O’Toole in Laurence of Arabia with dyed blond hair and clipped English pronunciation. An amusing touch, although I think Trevor Howard in Lean’s Brief Encounter would have been even better as a starting point for him. And I’m not sure where Guy Pearce is coming from in this film, appearing only briefly and made up as a very old upper class man (in looks at least, it feels like he’s hobbled in from the end of 2001).

Idris Elba and Rafe Spall are also good in support and Noomi Rapace is satisfyingly suitable in the Ripley-ish role, although there is a general lack of tension throughout. The best parts, where Rapace is in peril, are fairly sparse and Fassbender’s role in her fate is a little muddled. We never really find out if he’s a dastardly baddie or benign in a confused android way.

Overall the film does appear to lack some clear thinking, most notably the opening and closing scenes, which attempt to explain the role of the space jockey (glimpsed at the beginning of the original film) and what exactly he was up to. And fails at this really, unless I wasn’t paying proper attention. Or if that’s for the next film to properly iron out. Best of all probably is the scene involving Rapace and a self-administered Caesarean which does cleverly draw on Alien lore to make its effect felt. Other Alien-isms are scattered throughout, and I hope I’m not giving too much away when I ask this: you’d think by now that they would be able to fix an android’s head a bit more securely to its shoulders…



Thursday April 21, 2011 in 2010 cinema | science fiction

Titles can be misleading. There are films that deal with alien menace and others that look at issues much closer to home, exploring where people think they belong and where they actually find themselves. Can humanity survive on hope alone?

Monsters is one of those films that I didn’t really “get” until about half an hour before the end. This is the moment where you pull your chair a little closer to the screen and curse yourself for not appreciating it a lot more. Gareth Edwards’ film has received much praise and is certainly well worth a look. It’s also attracted attention for its tiny budget and has also had comparisons made with District 9. The latter is somewhat unfair. Whilst District 9 is a superior film, Monsters only has minor similarities and reminds of countless other science fiction movies (most notably Close Encounters).

Theatrical poster for MonstersA probe containing alien life samples crashes over Central America. Over the following years, new life forms begin to appear with most of Mexico subsequently quarantined as an “infected zone”. Monsters follows an American photographer Scoot (Andrew Kaulder) who agrees to escort lost tourist Whitney (Samantha Wynden) across Mexico to the US border. What could be sold as a typical gung-ho monster movie is as far removed from this description as possible. Edwards is skilled at depicting the danger surrounding Scoot and Whitney’s plight as they attempt to escape a dark and hazardous environment.

I’ve mentioned District 9 and Monsters recycles the premise where the viewer takes it as read that an alien menace is a given. Both films avoid any lengthy preamble to explain how the human/alien coexistence has arisen. We just accept that it has become uncomfortable. Both explore the alien entity as an accidental invader. There’s also a heavy Spielberg influence in Monsters. Problems of communication between humans (speaker of different languages thrown together), the sheer awe of the aliens in the eyes of our protagonists and the lurking menace of the aliens (Spielberg’s adaption of War of the Worlds). There’s also aspects of many a post apocalyptic film, a recent comparison being the cinema treatment of Cormac McCarthy’s The Road (although I think that The Road failed as a film).

Monsters is incredibly tense, mostly down to the aliens (huge, tentacled octopus-like creatures) being mostly off screen until the end. Instead we glimpse them during brief television news footage or as part of graffiti on abandoned buildings and only see the devastation they leave behind them. One of the more chilling parts of the film is when Scoot discovers an alien “nest” on the base of a tree in a forest, however the most frightening elements are all man made. The enormous wall built around the US to keep out the infection and the edgy military presence depicted by screeching low flying jets.

The film really comes into its own towards the end when Scoot and Whitney reach the US border and realise that safety isn’t quite as close as they’d have hoped. But when it arrives, are they really ready for it? My only criticism is the abrupt ending. By then I was gripped and wanted more. But this is unusual, unexpected and ultimately moving. Monsters is certainly recommended.


Monkey Planet

Wednesday March 24, 2010 in books read 2010 | science fiction

He shrank back still further, darting furtive glances in my direction. Then, while I stood there trembling, not knowing what else to say, he half opened his mouth.
He emitted from it a gurgling sound similar to those uttered by the strange men on this planet to express satisfaction or fear. There in front of me, without moving his lips, while my heart went numb with horror, Professor Antelle gave vent to a long-drawn howl.

Pierre Boulle’s Monkey Planet is the 1963 novel that was later famously filmed as Planet of the Apes. I was lucky to get hold of the 1966 Penguin paperback, the artwork quite chilling and predating the later editions that suffered a title change and were usually adorned with images from the series of films that were released between 1968 and 1973. Boulle’s novel makes an interesting read; comparisons with the films are obviously unavoidable but it differs enough to remain interesting in its own right.

cover of Monkey Planet by Pierre BoulleMonkey Planet uses a framing device for its story, where a pair of space travellers called Jinn and Phyllis find a interstellar message in a bottle. The bottle contains a transcript by a French journalist called Ulysse Mérou who describes his journey across the galaxy with two scientists. Landing on a distant planet which they name Soror, they discover an Earth-like world inhabited by primitive, mute humans. Mérou is initially attracted to a female, who he names Nova, although they are soon disturbed by the humans being hunted by seemingly intelligent apes. One of his companions, Levain, is killed in the attack and Mérou finds himself captive in a world populated by talking gorillas, chimpanzees and orangutans who dispute his claims to be an intelligent being. He is caged and made to mate with Nova before befriending two chimpanzee scientists Zira and Cornelius and eventually reasoning with his captors and winning his freedom, although he also learns that his other fellow traveller Professor Antelle has degenerated into a savage and has been placed in a zoo.

Mérou is asked to visit the excavation of an ancient city where an intact human speaking doll is uncovered. Further investigations lead him to realise that Soror was once like Earth, but over the course of thousands of years the apes rose to become the dominant species – although not actually advancing any further that their human predecessors. He also learns that Nova has given birth to his son, a seemingly advanced human, and these events lead Cornelius and Zira to engineer his escape back to Earth, along with Nova and the child. The journey at light speed means he returns to Earth at a point thousands of years after he originally left. Upon his return he is greeted by intelligent apes. Like Soror (Latin for sister), Earth has succumbed to the same evolutionary process…

The novel ends with the closing of the framing story where Jinn and Phyllis are also revealed to be intelligent apes, and they dismiss Mérou’s account as fiction.

Oddly, Boulle’s ending for Monkey Planet, where Mérou returns to a hideously altered Earth, owes more in common to Tim Burton’s 2001 remake of Planet of the Apes than it does to Franklin J. Schaffner’s 1968 original. Whilst the image of Charlton Heston (Taylor) finding the ruin of The Statue of Liberty is an iconic one, Boulle’s ending actually works best for me (which is odd, as Burton’s finale was fudged and ineffective). Boulle’s twist is quick and terrifying, and is somehow more convincing than Taylor’s predicament; whilst Taylor is angry with humanity Mérou’s mute shock seems to hit hardest. It is an ending in keeping with the novel, where humanity literally loses its voice.

Many of Boulle’s themes surfaced throughout the Apes franchise as it rolled on through four film sequels, further novelisations, a Marvel comic, a live action and a cartoon tv series. For example the master/servant relationship slowly being turned around, which is a theme of Conquest of the Planet of the Apes. There’s also the class system of the three species of ape, personified by the military gorillas, the sceptical orangutan Dr Zaius and the kindly and affectionate Zira and Cornelius.

Pierre Boulle is best known for Planet of the Apes, although he also wrote Bridge over the River Kwai and apparently gave the shortest acceptance speech ever for it at the 1957 Oscars (“Merci”). He also wrote a film sequel called Planet of Men, although it was turned down and it is unclear how much it resembles the dark and depressing Beneath The Planet of the Apes which became the second film in the series. Planet of Men suggests something similar to the third film, Escape From the Planet of the Apes, where Zira and Cornelius return to 1970s Earth. And it is the birth of their child that sets off the paradox of events…

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Moonage Daydream

Friday November 27, 2009 in 2009 cinema | science fiction

In 1969 David Bowie was inspired to write his breakthrough Space Oddity after seeing Kubrick’s 2001. For a film full of memorable themes and moments, possibly the scenes that stay in the memory are those that involve HAL, the softly spoken computer. Duncan Jones’ Moon pays some homage to 2001 with GERTY, a machine voiced impeccably by Kevin Spacey. Jones is of course David Bowie’s son, which brings our introduction full circle and gets the oft mentioned paternity of the director out of the way.

The other science fiction film that Moon reminds of is Silent Running, both in its theme of a lonely man in space and of its simple yet striking set design. Here, Sam Bell is our isolated spaceman of the future, in charge of a mostly automated mining operation on the moon. He’s been working for three years with only GERTY for company, and communicates with his family by recorded messages (he’s been told that the live communications feed is faulty). Bell fills his free time running on a treadmill and pusuing his hobby of woodcraft. He’s woken every morning by his alarm playing The One and Only by Chesney Hawkes. There is a clue in this song.

Bell’s tenure on the moon is almost up and he is about to head home. However, he is haunted by brief glimpses of a strange woman and then, during some routine work outside the base, is involved in an accident. He wakes up being tended to by GERTY in the infirmary, but things are not quite as they should be. The computer forbids him to go outside again but, after eavesdropping on an apparently live conference with Earth (remember the live feed is supposed to be broken), he gives GERTY the slip to investigate the scene of his accident. He returns carrying a casualty; it’s another Sam Bell.

Sam Rockwell in Moon

But it isn’t really giving too much away to reveal that this is a movie where a man appears to meet a double of himself. And as Bell, Sam Rockwell is a revelation. He is such a skilled performer that he appears to act with himself with ease. For the majority of the film Sam Bell interacts with another Sam Bell. It’s entirely believable and although the film plays its trump card very early, it stays intriguing throughout. Once the plight of the two Bells becomes evident the film becomes very moving in parts, and the plan the two hatch to solve their riddle is very well thought out.

Moon is likely to be my film of 2009. It was a joy to watch throughout, and Jones proves that huge budgets are not what make good science fiction. The attention to small detail, such as the post-it notes stuck on GERTY and the crude “smiley” interface used to indicate his mood, are a joy. This film is intelligent, thoughtful and brilliantly acted. And, like the very best science fiction, it stays in the mind for a long time afterwards.


Children of Earth

Saturday July 11, 2009 in television | science fiction

During these Doctor Who free days, when fans are crying out for just a little decent science fiction, Russell T.Davies has done something extraordinary. In promoting the spin off series Torchwood to a week of prime time tv he has produced something of impressive quality. Torchwood: Children of Earth was excellent television, perhaps the best science fiction I have ever seen.

cast of Torchwood
Although I enjoyed the previous two series of Torchwood I often found it uncomfortable viewing and the programme didn’t always achieve its brief to combine science fiction with adult themes. Children of Earth finally delivered this promise; a very dark drama that recalled the alien menace so memorable in Quatermass as well as working in some very real human themes. John Barrowman’s negligible acting talents were held together by an excellent supporting cast, in particular Peter Capaldi as a government scapegoat. A man born to play the nervy middleman, it will be a crime if Capaldi isn’t awarded at least one acting honour for this.

Rapidly promoted to BBC1, Torchwood managed to overcome the difficulty of introducing new viewers to its strange world, which to sketch out centres around modern day Cardiff, featuring mild swearing, sexual references and openly gay characters. At times, the fantasy is often relegated to second place, and top marks to Russell T. Davies for his groundbreaking work in introducing homosexuality so seamlessly to mainstream telly (Eastenders take note). Despite its grown up themes, Torchwood cannot escape its link to Doctor Who, an issue perhaps as this is not aimed at a similarly broad audience. Whilst the show owes its origin to the fact that Captain Jack Harkness (John Barrowman) is one of the Doctor’s best loved companions, it finds it has to shrug off the Time Lord’s absence from the action in this darker world:

There’s one thing I always meant to ask Jack, back in the old days. I wanted to know about that Doctor of his. The man who appears out of nowhere and saves the world. Except sometimes he doesn’t. All those times in history when there was no sign of him, I wanted to know, why not? But I don’t need to ask anymore, I know the answer now. Sometimes the Doctor must look at this planet, and turn away in shame.

And watching Children of Earth, I can kind of see why. The story has a very dark premise and runs with it to create some very thoughful and challenging drama. An alien entity, known only as the 456, threatens to destroy the Earth unless it surrenders 10% of its children. A chilling theme, made darker when it is revealed that not only have the 456 visited Earth before, but Captain Jack was instrumental in paying them off this first time. The five episodes unfolded the plot very well, revealing Jack’s involvement in events that began in 1965. Also revealed are his hitherto unseen family; a daughter who looks unsettlingly older than the immortal Harkness and a grandson. And there is a sobering reason for their introduction.

Most impressive was the political commentary that made you almost forget the fantastic storyline. Enter Capaldi as John Frobisher, the civil servant desperate to cover up the events of 1965. He’s also forced by the very oily Prime Minister (Nicholas Farrell) into the unenviable role of liaising with the aliens. As you might expect, the negotiations leave a sour taste in the mouth. The round-the-table discussions, however, form a very dark satire where it is eventually decided that the 10% can be made up of the lower classes, the council estates and the failing schools. Frobisher is forced into an ever tightening corner, and the outcome of events reminded me of the terrible demise of Dr David Kelly over the war in Iraq. No, I don’t think I’m going too far when I make this connection. Governments will make their scapegoats, the higher echelons will cover their backs. As in Children of Earth, they’ll often get caught at it.

But Torchwood is also about aliens, and the 456 were aliens of the very best. Extremely frightening, and as with all the most scary of monsters very little was actually seen of them. A glass tank full of toxic gas, a deep voice from within and something very, very disturbing inside. The effect was a combination of the best of The Silence of the Lambs and Alien. The 456 will stay in my mind for a very long time, especially the scene where some poor lackey has to go inside the tank with a camera. If you haven’t watched Children of Earth yet it’s useless me saying don’t look when you get to this part. Because you will.

In its brilliance this week Torchwood also stabbed itself in the back. Already two team members down after the last series, Ianto Jones (Gareth David-Lloyd) was built into a much more three-dimensional character only to be killed off at the end of episode four. Captain Jack, tortured by the pain of a very heavy and emotional week, decides to quit Earth on Friday night. Left behind is Gwen Cooper (Eve Myles), now heavily pregnant with aliens furthest from her mind. Oh, and I’d almost forgotten that The Hub, the Torchwood base camp, is destroyed. So it’s difficult to predict where things can go from here. And, if it does continue in some shape or form, how can it get any better than this?

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