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The Day the Earth Caught Fire

Thursday March 19, 2009 in 60s cinema | science fiction

With a title like The Day the Earth Caught Fire you’d be forgiven for thinking that this 1961 movie was pure Hollywood, following other such titles as When Worlds Collide, The Day the Earth Stood Still and George Pal’s H.G. Wells adaptations War of the Worlds and The Time Machine. The kind of film that Hollywood enjoys remaking with the likes of Tom Cruise and Keanu Reeves. The Day the Earth Caught Fire is actually British through and through, shot in London by Val Guest and starring Leo McKern, Janet Munro and Edward Judd.

theatrical poster for The Day the Earth Caught Fire

Despite this being an at times laughably low budget film, The Day the Earth Caught Fire deals with a subject that’s still a topic today. Global warming, drought, heatwaves and especially flooding. More than thirty years before The Environment Agency! But being 1961 the biggest issue here is the nuclear rather than the environmental one, and the film deals with the aftermath of secret nuclear tests that result in the tilt in the Earth’s axis being altered slightly. Slight, but enough to cause heatwave, cyclones and flooding. Especially in London.

Most of the film centres around Fleet Street, with McKern and Judd playing two seasoned journalists who try to make sense of it all as the heat cranks up. They open windows, put on fans and loosen their ties. They head for the local pub but it has run out of ice cold lager (although by all accounts warm beer was the usual thing in those days anyway). Along comes Janet Munro as a sort of Judd love interest, the girl from the ministry who reveals what’s been going on behind closed nuclear bunkers. It’s a scoop that sends the world reeling again.

The supporting actors include Bernard Braden, Peter Butterworth, Reginal Beckwith (from Night of the Demon) and John Barron (best known as CJ in The Fall and Rise Reginald Perrin). There’s also a walk on from a pre-fame Michael Caine, who plays a helpful policeman. The most bizarre casting in the film, an experiment that almost pays off, is Arthur Christiansen. Here the real life editor of the Daily Express plays the onscreen editor of the Daily Express. It’s a brave move for authenticity, and Christiansen tries his best, although he just doesn’t hack it as an actor. All he can do is memorise his lines accurately, which he manages admirably. But when he’s up against Leo McKern (whose axis is tilted in the direction of ham acting), he doesn’t stand a chance.

Although Leo McKern and Janet Munro are given top billing, the real star of The Day the Earth Caught Fire is Edward Judd. For a short period in the 60s Judd was the great hope of British science fiction cinema. He also appeared with Lionel Jeffries in H.G. Wells’ First Men in the Moon (1964) and the now rarely seen film from Merton Park Studios Invasion (1965). Sadly, his career quickly petered out, although his other key films from the sixties are Island of Terror (1966) with Peter Cushing and one of the She franchise, The Vengeance of She (1968). After that he was relegated to supporting roles in the likes of The Sweeney and The Professionals and is possibly best known for the Think Bike! public information films from the mid 70s. Sadder still, Judd died in February of this year, and there were several internet rumours (although unfounded) that he’d ended up living homeless in South London.

Although usually always given corny scripts, Judd was a very decent actor – especially so here. He plays the disillusioned and semi-alcoholic journalist extremely well, and I think he effortlessly outshines McKern, who is over mannered in this film. I’m not sure about Janet Munro either; she isn’t given much in the way of inspired dialogue, but is featured in one or two semi-clothed scenes that the 1961 critics probably thought “steamy”, although the bed sheets are always strategically arranged.

As stated, much of the film is low budget, with the “disaster” footage suspiciously looking like it’s culled from newsreels, although the more memorable and effective scenes are the simplest. The newspaper men crowded around the sweaty office, the distant loudspeaker broadcasts from the sober Prime Minister (sounding very much like Harold Macmillan), and Judd pushing through jazzy end-of-the-world street parties to get back to Munro’s flat. Best of all though is the opening and closing scenes of the film that are filmed in sepia, where Judd claws back his credibility as a journalist in the now deserted capital.

Another key scene of The Day the Earth Caught Fire comes at the very end, where the Daily Express printroom boys are poised with two alternate front pages of the next edition. One reads World Saved, the other World Doomed. A further set of risky nuclear detonations are scheduled in a bid to set the Earth back on its course, but the film ends vaguely and we’re left without an answer. In the days when the nuclear threat was a very real one, it looks like the audience were deliberately left with an air of uncertainty.


Wake up, it's Heroes

Friday May 30, 2008 in television | science fiction

Okay, so we were all warned about the second series of Heroes. Even Tim Kring, the series creator, famously apologised for its lack of vitality. But I was willing to cast doubt aside. The first series was so good that the second couldn’t possibly be that bad. Could it?

Hiro and Ando

And it started very promisingly – I couldn’t understand what was supposed to be the problem. There were imperfections, some of them laughable, but let’s not forget that the first series had its silly moments too. What’s made me laugh about season two is the lengths taken to strip the most powerful of our Heroes, nasty Sylar and nice Nathan, of their abilities. The point, I guess, is that these two all-powerful characters just had nowhere left to go and convoluted ways of making them vulnerable again were the only option. To recap, Sylar could absorb the super powers of other heroes by doing something horrible and slicing off the top of their heads; Peter could also absorb powers by just, well, saying hello really. In the new series Sylar, lucky to be alive after a nasty brush with Hiro’s sword, is reduced to hitching a ride with some utterly tedious new characters and pulling very nasty faces in an “okay, so I’ve no powers, but I can still look real scary” kind of way. Peter, on the other hand, has simply lost his memory and is reduced to hanging out with some very dubious and unconvincing Irish people who make me quite uncomfortable because I am waiting for them to say “The Pogues, The Pogues”, “Roddy Doyle novel” or “I know a nice pub in Cricklewood”. Peter is reduced to pulling very convincing gormless faces in an “oh, I didn’t realise I could fly or makes things explode” way. He hasn’t lost his powers, he’s simply forgotten all the clever things he can do. And got gormless.

Elsewhere, Peter’s brother Nathan has developed the ability to grow a very impressive black beard. Nichelle Nicholls, Urura in Star Trek, turns up as someone’s gran, nicely complementing George Takei, Sulu in Star Trek, as Hiro’s Dad. Matt Parkman, the mind reading one, went off to meet his own Dad. I was secretly hoping his Dad to turn out to be William Shatner, but unfortunately this wasn’t the case. Mohinda, whose own Dad was bumped off by Sylar in the last series, is still wandering round trying to make sense of it all. He’s still pally with Mr Bennet, Clare the cheerleader’s Stepdad. And so on, into infinity. But still, as yet, no more cameos from Stan Lee to complement the comics theme.

There’s some good stuff though; Hiro’s exploits in feudal Japan are very entertaining, and Nathan and Matt are embarking on a dark story arc of their own. What’s possibly wrong with this series is that it is very literate. It’s like reading a very long, rambling and slow novel. There’s nothing wrong with that – it’s a great pastime – although an odd concept for television to adopt. But I like that; Heroes is daring to be overcomplicated and strange and bold enough to risk losing some of its audience. What I don’t like is it is very, very tedious at times and I’ve even nodded off, which is something I never usually do. Unless I’m just getting old. Hopefully I’ll make it through to season three where it’s rumoured that Leonard Nimoy makes an appearance as Stan Lee. Or something like that…

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Torched Up

Saturday April 19, 2008 in television | science fiction

I was planning on a Doctor Who review this weekend, but I’m so far behind on things that I’ve only just gathered my thoughts together on Torchwood! Besides, I’m still waiting for a half decent episode of the new Doctor Who.

Okay, the second season of Torchwood then. While it was an uneven ride, there’s been some superlative moments. So even if a few episodes were below par I’m still giving it nine out of ten. I love Torchwood because the BBC have delivered something so far absent from our screens; an adult British science fiction television series. Complete with adult themes and even gay characters who don’t scream their sexuality in quite the same way as a lazily thought out last minute addition to EastEnders.

John Barrowman

Torchwood is a spin off from Doctor Who, featuring John Barrowman as Captain Jack Harkness, a friend of the good Doctor’s who, after receiving Dalek extermination, is miraculously revived with the ability to regenerate himself (although not quite in the same way as The Doctor – he always comes back to life as John Barrowman). After The Doctor has abandoned him (rightly thinking him dead), Harkness attempts to follow him back to modern day Cardiff. Why? Well it appears that the Doctor frequents Cardiff because there in something called the rift there, which acts as a sort of cosmic fuelling station for the TARDIS. Oh yes, and the BBC base their production there. And Russell T. Davies is Welsh. Anyway, Captain Jack messes up slightly and ends up in 1869, having to wait around for 140 odd years before he runs into The Doctor again to find out exactly what happened to him. Not to worry, he fills his idle hours chasing aliens, being killed and recruiting members of Torchwood, a sort of youthful alien-dealing taskforce. And dreaming that one day he will be absolutely everywhere on UK television, from kids quiz shows to I’d do Anything, the excrutiating Oliver! singalong talent show.

Episodes 11 and 12 are my suggestions for some of the best tv this year. Episode 12 opened with an almightly explosion; four of the five lead characters in mortal danger. Okay, three – as remember Captain Jack Harkness can’t actually be killed. No, hang on – two – as Owen is already dead. A sort of walking dead. Still keeping up? This episode was great as it served as a Torchwood origin, delving back into the past lives of the main characters as they lie semi-conscious and dreaming. We see how cocksure Owen, the bookish Toshiko and the quietly confident Ianto were all recruited (the gorgeous Gwen taking a backseat as we’ve already seen her initiation right back in episode one, series one). Most satisfying was the start of a backstory for Jack’s missing years, showing his recruitment into Torchwood 1899 style, complete with sideburns and a dashing Adam Adamant style cape. Basically, it’s just great fun.

But the series also works well because it is often thoughful and character driven. Going back to episode 11, the gorgeous Gwen becomes involved in some intrigue surrounding a missing teenager who returns – startlingly changed – after a few months away. Some subtle thoughts about loss, motherhood and lost time. I found it oddly moving for a sci-fi show, and equally disturbing, especially the blood curdling scream that people will let out – and one that lasts for 20 hours – after looking into the heart of a dark star (similar to my reaction to I’d do Anything). Moreover, the storyline proved that working for Torchwood might not be the most fulfilling career choice, which was taken one step further in the final episode with the death of two characters (although one was actually already dead, if you see what I mean).

Like its sister show (or perhaps its maiden aunt show) Doctor Who, Torchwood‘s ears are constantly burning with all the idle conjecture that goes on in internet Who chat rooms. Some of the Doctor Who rumours and supposed spoilers are insane – and reading internet forums always spoils the enjoyment of the real thing, spoilers true or otherwise. But the clue is in the name I guess. Spoiler. But it’s inevitable; when recently interviewed by Mark Lawson, Russell T. Davies was proud of the Doctor Who mythology that’s built up since the show was revived in 2005. Its increasing complexity of backstory is all part of his masterplan, and Who fans need little encouragement anyway. Want to take a look? Visit the Doctor Who Forum.

Like Doctor Who, Torchwood has begun to attract quality actors all keen to make cameo appearances, including Ruth Jones from the brilliant Gavin and Stacey, Richard Briers and James Marsters. Marsters plays Captain John, a sort of Master figure for Jack Harkness, although so far less prominent than The Doctor’s arch foe. He’s equally fiendish, charming and very, very dangerous though. The series finale, spoilt slightly for me by the forums, featured exhausting antics you’d expect from anything associated with Doctor Who, including Jack buried alive for nine hundred years or so. Oh well, anything to stop John Barrowman appearing in everything…

I welcome the third series, less a character or two, when it hopefully returns next year. Now onto David Tennant and Catherine Tate…

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I Am Legend

Tuesday January 22, 2008 in books read 2008 | science fiction

4 Stars

Written in 1954, Richard Matheson’s I Am Legend was first filmed as The Omega Man in 1971. It starred Charlton Heston, a reasonable choice for the lead coming only a few years after his success in the post apocalyptic Planet of the Apes. In the early 1990s a new version was touted starring Arnold Schwarzenegger. Again, not surprising when you looked at his CV, although this film was, perhaps thankfullly, never made. I Am Legend has eventually returned to the cinema starring Will Smith. Not my first choice (Nicolas Cage springs to mind for such a role, even Daniel Craig), although I’ll refrain from commenting further until I’ve seen the film.

Richard Matheson: I Am Legend

In the great family tree of horror and sci-fi, it’s not difficult to trace countless books and films back to I Am Legend. Matheson’s future not only concerns an empty city after a deadly plague has killed off most of the population, but also features some of the (un)lucky survivors now doing their night to night business as vampires. Translate vampire into zombie and you have the blueprint for Night of the Living Dead, Dawn of the Dead, 28 Days Later and many others. But a blueprint doesn’t necessarily make a good novel, so is I Am Legend any good? Well I wouldn’t go as far as to say it was great literature but it is a very, very good book indeed…

Robert Neville lives alone in his customised home; he can generate his own electricity to keep his stock of frozen food fresh. He spends his hours making tools, especially wooden stakes. Time is something he has a lot of because, more or less, he’s the last man on Earth. Occasionally Robert Neville drinks. He drinks a lot, but we can forgive him for that as every night a troop of vampires call on him. He locks himself in his house, often fighting them off. During the day, when his enemies sleep, he seeks them out to destroy them and seeks further for a cure to the madness.

What lifts I Am Legend above the usual horror tale is the Robinson Crusoe slant Matheson manages to put on it. Neville slowly comes to terms with his isolation, becoming increasingly resourceful in his survival. His loneliness begins to tip him into an indifference towards his previous role in society and humanity, and as well as Crusoe this novel also acknowledges Gulliver’s Travels as a reference point. When Neville eventually does encounter another seemingly real human, his reaction is far from ecstatic.

Matheson is careful not to slip into too much explanatory prose. I really didn’t want to know what had caused the catastrophe leaving Neville as the last man on Earth, and I became uncomfortable when he begins to delve into some reasoning behind the vampires presence. But he doesn’t become too bogged down. The silly science is kept under leash, leaving some quite moving passages in the book to stand out. Especially good is the part when Neville attempts to coax a stray dog into his world, a sad episode that leads neatly into his encounter with a real – perhaps – human visitor.

I’m tempted to see the latest cinema treatment now – although it will have to be pretty good to surpass this clever and timeless novel.

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Angel Gabriel

Sunday December 9, 2007 in television | science fiction

Not long ago, at least it doesn’t feel like it was that long ago, I mused mid-season about Heroes. Now it’s all over, and as series creator Tim Kring has been reported apologising for the lacklustre second season, I may never get nearly as enthusiastic about it again.

Sylar and Hiro

By far my favourite actor in Heroes is Zachary Quinto (pictured, quarrelling with real hero Hiro), who played the evil Sylar with relish. Quinto didn’t appear until a few episodes into the series with Sylar featured only that far as a shadowy figure in a baseball cap. Apparently Quinto wasn’t cast until the series had already started filming, so this is where Heroes has some similarity to Gone With the Wind, as Vivian Leigh wasn’t cast in her role either until after filming had commenced. But I guess that’s where the similarities end.

Quinto played the part with just about the right degree of inhumanity (and I concede that using your finger as a can opener to wrench open people’s skulls is about an inhuman as you can get), but he never went too far over the top. My favourite episode was where Sylar has his moment of doubt after realising he might be the one who’s going to write off half the population of New York in a rather largish explosion. He phones his old mucker Mohinder (“oh, hi Sylar!”) before descending on his poor mother who inadvertently makes his mind up for him. Cue snow globes and creepy blokes. But it was truly chilling television, and I call for the reviewer in the Radio Times who couldn’t see the point of this episode to be sacked. I think that it gave the inhuman just that short glimpse of compassion, which made it all the more frightening when you realised that he might have called the whole plan off. We need our film and movie monsters to prove that they think about things a little; it isn’t just about stealing brains. Sylar, Norman Bates, Dr Leckter; they’re all extremely clever. And this makes me more afraid of them.

The final episode of season one was both enjoyable and infuriating. Perhaps I’d built it up too much in my own head; I certainly didn’t want Sylar to die, because he’s such a good character. But as the whole theme was about destiny and it was Hiro’s destiny to polish the dastardly villain off then that was what had to happen for a fitting conclusion. But then they had to go and spoil things with a Hallowe’en style ending; we’ve seen it a thousand times before – camera returns to the spot where the baddie has died but they’ve miraculously got up and legged it …

Oh. Never mind.

Zachary Quinto is likely to emerge as the star of the Heroes mob of actors. He’s already been cast as the young Mr Spock in the new Star Trek prequel and there is something weirdly alien about his appearance, whether or not he’s wearing a pair of Vulcan ears. I shall look forward to him on the bridge with Jim T. Kirk, carrying his funny little handbag, arguing with his perpetually cross father and raising his eyebrow to Dr McCoy. A perfect piece of casting and I really can’t wait.

Just a shame he had to die/appeared to die but might come back (delete as applicable). But with such a huge cast, Heroes could afford to waste a few of them. The last episode ended with Parkman and DL in a bad way, poor Ted gone to the nuclear reactor in the sky, the Petrelli brothers creating their own and Malcolm McDowell and Julia Robert’s brother two very dead baddies. Perhaps they went too far with the body count. No wonder the next season is having to introduce some new blood.

My only real criticism of Heroes is that, at times, it’s a little too knowing. For example, I’m tired of spotting Stan Lee cameos in film and tv. But I suppose that we live in a reference filled world, and the more I think about it the more I realise that you have to become part of it all. Dig the references. Salute Nathan Petrelli when he says the self-referencing you saved the cheerleader, now let us both save the world. I’m the first to show my annoyance when people don’t realise who George Takei is, or don’t question me when I roll my eyes at Stan Lee. Okay, I have no criticism.

Favourite moments? There are just too many, and one of the joys has been watching several episodes more than once to savour the subtleties. In particular, I enjoyed it when Hiro and Ando journeyed into an alternative future where the worst had happened and Nathan Petrelli was a particularly nasty US President. But of course it was really Sylar posing as him, and second viewing revealed the excellent acting of Adrian Pasdar. My second favourite actor in Heroes. If you get a chance, watch this episode again. It’s Adrian Pasdar playing Zachary Quinto playing Sylar as President Nathan Petrelli. Awesome.

And of course I pity the people who started watching the series but then gave up and subequently didn’t enjoy all of the 23 episodes at least once. I refuse to answer the questions “was Clare’s Dad really nasty?” and “something about brains? – I haven’t really watched it” because I am proud of my Heroes superiority complex.

Oh. never mind.

Season one of Heroes ended with a taster for season two; at least we know that Hiro is still with us. And I’m so glad that his thoroughly decent friend Ando is safe and well. And let’s hang on. The taster was rather intriguing, making use of the eclipse theme, and there’s already plenty of other online previews to look at, although I hear that production is currently in limbo. Let’s get this writer’s strike sorted in Hollywood. Now. Come on Mr Bennet, can’t you pull a few strings?

Keep the Star Trek references coming Heroes, because you’re the best tv show to come along since. Maybe my enthusiasm has returned…

Season two preview at the BBC

If you’re still reading, and if you’re as big a fan as I am, do you think Nathan and Peter are really dead? No, I didn’t think you did.

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