science fiction

Debug (2014) [DVD]

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Let’s be honest, you don’t exactly have any great expectations when you impulse-buy a DVD at the supermarket checkout for £7. The surprise then about Debug – a low budget science fiction/horror film from Canada – is that it’s no where near as bad as its price point suggests it should be. It looks pretty decent with stylish spaceship sets, perfectly adequate CGI FX along with some moody direction and effective low-key music, while the script by Rise of the Planet of the Apes’s David Hewlitt (who also directs) is rather deeper and better informed than you’d expect it be from something of its kind.

Unfortunately, having achieved lift off from the realms of “so bad, it’s good,” Debug then stalls and comes to a dead stop deep in the no man’s land of mediocrity. The slow-burn direction that works pretty well in the first act, and which is a nice change from the ADHD fast-cutting of most modern films, then fails to actually kick into any higher gear when the action nominally picks up. That leaves the whole thing sleepwalking along at a snail’s pace just when it needs to get going, and it’s hard not to feel bored and downright impossible not to be alienated by the end result. Read the rest of this entry »

The Company of the Dead, by David Kowalski

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First time author David Kowalski certainly took on an big task for his début novel: The Company of the Dead is a wildly ambitious story that hops around from genre to genre not so much breaking the rules of good writing as simply being completely oblivious to their very existence. The end result might not always be the prettiest or easiest read, but it’s certainly strikingly original and vividly rewarding for those prepared to stick with it.

The narrative starts with a retelling of the story of the fateful last night of Titanic, a good choice since most everyone knows those events courtesy of the 1997 James Cameron film. At first the account is accurate, but then as things proceed you’ll notice things starting to vary from the known facts: in particular, the ship successfully avoids the iceberg. One iceberg, at least, if not the second. People die who should live, and others that we know should die manage to survive. The effect on history proves to be immense as we move back to the modern day and find a steampunk world with huge dirigibles and even larger vessels dominating the skies above a completely unfamiliar geopolitical landscape. There’s a Cold War stand-off between two global superpowers, but now it’s Japan whose samurai enforcers walk the streets of New York City, while the rump of the former US is now the Confederacy and is aligned to the Kaiser’s global German Empire. There were no Nazis, Hitler was merely a little-remembered second-rate Austrian painter of the mid 20th century, but there was still a fatal shooting in Dealey Plaza in Dallas, Texas in 1963. Read the rest of this entry »

Storage 24 (2012) [DVD]

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It was Halloween last night, and that called for a suitably scary horror genre film. As it happened, British independent film Storage 24 seemed to fit the bill nicely.

Let’s be honest from the start and admit that this is not the most original of films: it’s essentially a haunted house movie with the part of the ghost played by a ravenous extra-terrestrial predator. Or to put it another way: it’s another in a long line of Alien-inspired clones (with an interesting diversion at one point into Die Hard-ism) that follows all the familiar tropes of that specific genre – such as people stupidly wondering off on their own to investigate strange movements and noises – and frequently feels more like an overly slavish homage than a fresh effort in its own right.

But it does have a few original things going for it, not least the setting: the haunted house in question here is one of those soulless long-term storage facilities, and the film makes great use of the visual imagery of those unsettlingly blank, eerie steel corridors receding into blackness. It’s very well shot by director Johannes Roberts, whose visual style is one of the high points of the film and ensures that even with a rock-bottom budget the events actually on screen never look cheap. And a word of praise also for the sound design, which is consistently top-notch and plays an unsettling blinder throughout. Read the rest of this entry »

20 million miles to Earth (1957) [DVD]

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I was watching a documentary a few days ago which name-checked this Ray Harryhausen film, and as it didn’t sound familiar to me I thought I needed to check it out. It turned out that I had actually seen it before – about four or five years ago – and that it’s just that the title is completely nonsensical to what follows.

Far from 20 million miles, the furthest afield we ever travel is a little fishing village on the Mediterranean island of Sicily which is the setting for the first half of the film, before proceedings subsequently decamp to Rome. In fairness, these settings were probably as exotically alien as Venus for most of the contemporary US audience seeing the film at the cinema; but they will doubtless have been comforted by the presence of the US military being in charge throughout, save for the odd moments when a catastrophically bad decision is called for which just happens to coincide with those times when the local Italian authorities insist on interceding.

The film starts surprisingly promisingly, with the Sicilian fishermen’s daily toil interrupted by a huge spaceship crash-landing in the water followed by a dramatic rescue bid and the recovery of a key scientific sample washed up on the shore. This is nicely plotted and paced and does a good job in setting up the characters in an altogether modern way. It promises much for the rest of the film.

Unfortunately the minute that the little Venusian lizard-man hatches from its gelatine mould the whole endeavour takes a steep turn for the worse, as story, logic and character soon go right out of the window and are exchanged for an FX-heavy but oddly tedious chase-encounter-fight-repeat cycle for the remaining half of the film. Everything that was previously set-up story-wise is jettisoned. There’s no longer any thought given as to what the creature may or may not be thinking, hence the hero – who previously warned that the creature was only violent if provoked – thinks that jabbing at it with a sharp stick is the best way to handle it. Despite having seen it tear its way out of an iron cage just minutes earlier, they suddenly seem to think the creature can be contained in a rickety old wooden cart. Having discovered that electrical current can keep the creature sedated, it’s only five minutes before a workman clumsily drops something on the one and only generator in the whole of Rome and the creature goes on a merry rampage through the city and its ancient ruins, including an unlikely showdown with a passing elephant. And having established that its physiology makes the creature invulnerable to gunfire, a few gunshots and near-misses from artillery shells cause it to fall not-very far and expire simply because the allotted 82 minute running time has been reached.

The film does have some likeable leads, including Perry Mason series regular William Hopper as the hero, Earth vs. the Flying Saucers’ Joan Taylor as the very appealing romantic interest, and Time Tunnel supporting player John Zaremba as scientist Dr Uhl – who really should have kept a record of the whole adventure simply so that he could have called it a ‘Uhl Log’.

But really it’s the FX that is the real star, and it’s unquestionably a fine example of Harryhausen’s craft and inimitable style. The creature design is to be frank a little uninspired, and Harryhausen’s team does seem to get confused from scene to scene (and even shot to shot) about exactly what scale the rapidly-growing creature is meant to be at any given time; but quibbles aside it’s very well realised state-of-the-art stuff for the 50s. It’s made all the better for featuring the unfamiliar Sicilian and Roman backdrops, and especially thanks to being integrated with the fabulous actual location shooting done around the Coliseum at the climax (apparently the film was set here because Harryhausen wanted to vacation around the Mediterranean.) Somehow, even the lack of colour adds to the polish and class of the production more than it should – probably best to avoid the colorization version, then, even if it was overseen by Harryhausen!

The film concludes with a vague attempt at a King Kong-esque pathos but the script simply hasn’t put nearly enough work in to achieve that. Instead of the iconic “It was beauty killed the beast” sign-off of the famous 1933 film we get a very odd and out of place homily about scientific progress – “Why is it always, always so costly for Man to move from the present to the future?” – which is so irrelevant and ambiguous from what has preceded it that you don’t know if it’s in support of or in fear of space exploration and seems to have been parachuted in from an altogether different draft of a totally different film.

What this movie is instead is one third intelligent and ambitious, one third dumb chase flick, and the last – and most important – third a showcase for the incomparable talents of Ray Harryhausen. And that surely makes it a winner in the B-movie sci-fi classic stakes by at least two-to-one if you like these sort of things, as I certainly do.

This Island Earth (1955)

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Every now and then in the distant past when I was a lad, TV networks used to run seasons of classic science fiction films around 6pm in the evening. One of them was typically This Island Earth, a film that encapsulates pretty much everything there was to know about early 50s pulp SF. Which is to say that it’s actually quite staggeringly dreadful by any objective analysis.

But let’s at least start with the positives: it’s in colour, in an age when science fiction was firmly relegated to the black and white cheap B-movie scene. The effects (both photographic and model) are state of the art for their day and still rather good and stand up passably well even more than fifty years later. And the first half of the film is actually quite decent and solid, a sub-X Files conspiracy tale of Dr Cal Meacham (played by the delightfully named Rex Reason!) tracing back some unusual incidents to a mysterious scientific company that has unbelievably advanced technology. Meacham ends up recruited into the company’s ‘brains trust’ community situated in a distant part of the Georgia countryside headed by the very strange Exeter (Jeff Morrow) whose conspicuously odd cranial development practically shouts “Look at me, look at me, I have vastly superior mental capacity!”

Then it almost feels like there’s a reel missing, because suddenly Meacham goes from puzzled and unsettled to full-on making a run for it, and the hitherto benign aliens respond by wiping out their entire precious brains trust of painstakingly gathered world scientists with their laser weapons; all save for square-jawed Meacham and the equally photogenic Dr Ruth Adams (the quite beautiful Faith Domergue) that is, who they inexplicably instead decide to save and scoop up into the flying saucer that has emerged from a local hillside in timely fashion. The rest of the film depicts their journey to Exeter’s distant home world; and after no more than ten minutes and a couple of monorail rides at their destination, they promptly turn around and come all the way back again. Finally, Exeter declines a perfectly reasonably invitation to settle down incognito on Earth in preference for crashing his flaming ship into the ocean. The, err, end. Read the rest of this entry »

Forbidden Planet (1956) [Blu-ray]

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I’m sure I’ll get flak for saying this, but it seems to me that in the first seventy years of motion picture history there were only three or four films that you could remotely describe as being serious classics in the science fiction genre, one that wasn’t a B-movie with bug-eyed horror monsters or super-sized animals. The very first was Fritz Lang’s Metropolis (1927), which had a powerful social message coupled to a sense of scale and grandeur unlike anything seen in the genre before or indeed for a long time after; and another of them was 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), in which Stanley Kubrick raised up science fiction and made it a respectable, intelligent and grown-up artform. If you want to include The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951) in there as well, then I wouldn’t argue – although despite its iconic flying saucer and sleek robot Gort, I personally feel it’s more a message movie than a science fiction film at heart.

In between there was Forbidden Planet. It’s the most light-hearted of the three or four classics and it has plenty of comedy to leven what is actually a deadly serious high-concept storyline: a spaceship from Earth arrives on the planet Altair to determine what happened to the original exploration team that came here 20 years ago. They find just one survivor, Morbius (Walter Pidgeon), along with his daughter Altaira (Anne Francis). But there’s also an impossibly sophisticated robot that Morbius claims he created himself. Why is Morbius lying? Why is he so hostile to his would-be rescuers, and what secret is he hiding inside his brilliant mind?

Forbidden Planet is easily the most ‘pulpish’ of the four films, with its gorgeous matte painting planetary vistas looking as though they’d popped off last week’s vivid cover of “Astounding Stories”; but it also shares with Metropolis and 2001 a rare sense of epic storytelling allied to craftsmanship at the top of its game, and of a respect for the genre and for the intelligence of the audience missing from the likes of the entirely enjoyable but still wholly B-movie It Came from Outer Space et al.

Forbidden Planet is still hugely influential, even 55 years on. It’s impossible to watch it and not see it as a pilot movie for Star Trek with its military crew of Earth spacemen exploring strange new worlds; indeed, Gene Roddenberry is even known to have said that he wanted to make a TV series out of the film, before he later went on to make his Wagon Train to the stars. Doctor Who picked up some tips as well: watch out for the mention of ‘reverse the polarity’; and the way that the designers of Dalek début story “The Dead Planet” picked up on the film’s very clever throwaway idea of using doorway shapes to imply the aliens’ form. And it’s hard not to look at the hologram representations of Altaira and Princess Leia in Star Wars and not see a direct influence, even before you start seeing how much See-Threepio owes to the character of the spectacularly-designed Robbie the Robot.

While there’s not a huge amount of ground-breaking going on in the FX department (it’s all done using well-established model, matte, stop-motion and animation techniques) it’s still the first time they’ve all been pulled together and done as well as they are here, with as much care and attention as the best craftsmen of the day could manage given such a relatively huge budget. And it’s all in super Metrocolour – a real genre first! But if it’s something truly dazzling and original you want, listen to the soundtrack: not a musical instrument to be heard, but instead one of the most weird, evocative and effective soundscapes you’ll experience in a movie thanks to the shockingly alien “electronic tonalities” created by Louis and Bebe Barron. Their work surely influenced that of Delia Darbyshire in the BBC Radiophonic Workshop when she painstakingly pieced together the notes for the Doctor Who title theme for the first time seven years later. These sounds are part-music, part-sound effect, and the atmosphere they create for sequences such as the march of the unstoppable, invisible Monster from the Id upon the heroes is brilliant and terrifying.

In order to sell some of this outlandishness to mainstream audiences, there’s some crowd-pleasing light entertainment in the film as well that can come over as rather juvenile to modern viewers: the way the senior officers fumble over their first sight of Altaira is like watching 12-year-old boys in the playground stammer over that most alien of species – a girl! – rather than supposedly top-of-the-line experienced military personnel; and the comic scene between the Cook (unusual to see Earl Holliman (a) so young, and (b) in a comedy part) and the Robot getting themselves drunk is played purely for laughs. But then, even the great John Ford had many such similar interludes in his best films, including The Searchers. Perhaps the hardest thing for modern audiences watching this film is that the hero of the story – the straight-talking, no-nonsense captain of the Earth ship – is played by Leslie Nielsen, in the days when he was a genuine leading dramatic actor. We know him best now from Airplane!, The Naked Gun and dozens of other comedies, and it’s hard to watch him in this without expecting him to make a gag or two hundred.

Meanwhile it’s the underlying intelligence of the plot that brings it all back together and keeps it on the right side of being a grown-up A-list movie; and that intelligence is derived from a master, by cheerfully plundering William Shakespeare’s The Tempest for the basic idea and structure underpinning it all and then combining it with some psychology theory from Sigmund Freud. No one could say that any of this was kid’s stuff! It all builds to a terrific and tense climax, beginning with a tantalising glimpse of the monster’s outline through to the final moments where it proceeds to burn its way through every obstacle in order to kill them. For the eagle-eyed among the audience, the significance of a row of lights coming on one-by-one in the background of shot within the Krell laboratory is by itself enough to chill the blood with the dawning realisation of what’s going on.

On the Blu-ray: there’s no doubt that this has been given an impressive restoration, and the picture is nicely sharp and clean for the most part. There are a few isolated incidents of a few frames having fading that’s too extensive to compensate for, and sometimes the optical processes used to create the FX lead to a briefly inferior picture. For the most part the picture is nice and deep with proper blacks, but some scenes can appear flat and lacking in contrast – presumably they were shot that way. Most surprisingly is that a film that you would expect to be lush and colourful is actually dialled right back. I’d say it’s so ‘realistic’ that it’s verging on dull, which is a shame, and I’m really not quite convinced they got the colour saturation settings right on the digitisation process. Maybe it really is just the way it was intended and it’s my own expectations that are skewed from memories of over-saturated TV showings down the years. Even so, I couldn’t help but be just a little bit disappointed, and overall I’m not sure there is really a huge gain in quality over the equivalent two-disc DVD edition of the film that’s also available. There is a full serving of extras to be had on both the Blu-ray and DVD releases, including two quality documentaries on the making of the film and of the state of science fiction in the 50s; further TV and film outings for Robbie the Robot (including the full-length feature film The Invisible Boy); deleted and lost scenes, and trailers (the condition of which shows just how good the latest restored transfer is by comparison, all quibbles aside.)

Basically, if you haven’t seen Forbidden Planet before then it’s absolutely mandatory that you do so – right now. And if you have seen the film before, chances are that this version was a must-buy back when it first came out a couple of years ago.

I, Robot (2004) – Blu-ray

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Is it really already seven years since this film was released? Wow, time flies … Although it’s been on television a few times since then, I haven’t seen it since its original theatrical run and I don’t remember being wildly impressed by it. It was fine – popcorn fodder – but nothing more. Perhaps it was the aggressive product placement in the film (Converse and Audi in particular) or perhaps the divergence from the Isaac Asimov original short stories, or the way it descends into typical CGI blockbuster action sequences, but it never had me thinking “I must watch that again real soon.”

Well, I finally got around to it – and time has been kind to it. It’s a better, more intelligent and better played film than I remembered, with one of Will Smiths best and more layered performances in a blockbuster and clearly a bridge to his later serious work; and the concepts are intelligently developed and explored, with more thought-provoking stuff than I gave it credit for at the time. All in all, it turns out that it does do pretty good justice to Asimov.

The final section of the film does go the rather obvious action flick route with some Matrix-influenced daftness, and the CGI – while impressive and state of the art at the time – has not held up completely. But notably the central creation of Sonny (“played” by Firefly‘s Alan Tudyk in a Gollem-esque CGI fashion) is actually extremely well done and believable, and a genuinely interesting and rounded character.

It’s a film that looks especially good on Blu-ray with lots of detail and very few duff moments indeed – the only problem is that hi-def is really not kind to front- and back-projection scenes that stick out like a sore thumb every time. The film is helped by its futuristic city and robot subject matter that looks great in HD, but it’s people’s faces that really wow you more than anything. The sound is also very good and enveloping – the fact it made me look away and/or wonder if that was a sound from the film or in the room is always a good indication of a top-notch sound mix.

Definitely a better film than I remembered, graced with an excellent Blu-ray transfer.

**** out of five stars.

Skyline (2011) – Blu-ray

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This film has been savaged by fan reviewers who have slated everything from the acting to the script and the premise, and given an oddly lenient review by Mark Kermode who seemed strangely disproportionately charmed by the fact that such an impressive looking effort could be made for what passed in Hollywood as petty cash.

As that language probably already reveals, I sit somewhere in the middle on this one. I think it’s unfairly harshly maligned by many of the reviews – the acting is average but never embarrassing, the script solid and interesting until the last third when suddenly it goes downhill fairly sharply. And as for the CGI effects – they really are very impressive indeed, as you’d expect from a directing duo (the brothers Strause) who are first and foremost FX designers.

There’s no getting around the fact that this is a pedestrian by-the-numbers alien invasion B-movie. It takes Cloverfield’s “from the point of view of the little guy in the street who has no idea what’s going on” approach, only this time the guys on the street are in a luxury penthouse with a good view of the unfolding alien invasion. There’s plenty of other films liberally stolen from as well – the Spielberg War of the Worlds, District 9, even the more recent Attack the Block. Oh, and one of the main creature designs is to blatantly a rip-off of the hunter-seekers from The Matrix that to see a credit for “alien design” at the end of the move fairly takes your breath away for audacity.

The first half of the film actually takes things slowly and ratchets up the tension in a way that the all-out bang-crash Cloverfield fluffed. There’s some genuinely tense and scary moments making good use of the film’s restricted budget and locations, and the characters do at least have some time to establish themselves.

And then into the final third, it all starts to go off the rails. They start to go in for big set-piece action sequences with an attempt to exit the apartment block triggering a major Michael Bay-esque confrontation with the aliens, and while the CGI continues to hold up impressively, the imbalance between this overblown sequence and the low-key moments in the apartment before and after just serve to underline and exaggerate the film’s budget and cast limitations. The film descends into nothing-very-interesting action sequences, and then spectacularly implodes in the final moments with the most laughable payoff you’re likely to see in a film for some time to come, and which leaves you feeling that it was all just a horrible waste of time. It’s a shame, but not one to dwell on: it’s hard to louse up an alien invasion film but this pretty much manages to do so.

The Blu-ray is so-so – some scenes are very nice, bright and sharp; but many inside the apartment are oddly soft, flat and murky, and there’s unnecessary grain. Good sound, though, and a truly excellent 3D lenticular sleeve.

** out of five stars – and I’m being really, really rather lenient here.

Outcasts S1 E2 – outlook improves

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I was, let’s be honest, not entirely complimentary about the BBC’s new science fiction drama series Outcasts after seeing the first episode on Monday, which seemed confusing, laden with unintelligible exposition, and poorly written, directed and played by almost all concerned.

Well, what a different 24 hours makes, because episode 2 started to get all those things right where episode 1 had got them so badly wrong.

There was, for example, much less world-building exposition, and what there was came in naturally as part of realistic discussions and situations. It didn’t feel the need to tell us the entire backstory in one infodump, but just what the characters needed to say for their own development in that scene and to move forward the immediate story. The story was also much stronger, being essentially an A-plot hostage crisis, and a B-plot introducing bad guy Julian Berger (Eric Mabius, whose American leading man looks and charm are too perfect for a British -produced series and therefore make him the perfect sinister presence for the show as their equivalent of Battlestar Galactica‘s Gaius Baltar) – all of which keeps it simple and allows the characters to register and start to grow.

In hindsight, I now realise that the biggest problem with episode 1 is that it was trying to pack too much in: establish the series, ram in the backstory, have a crisis with a freighter in trouble, and a character we don’t know apparently going psycho and killing other characters we don’t know for reasons that are screamed but not explained. No wonder that first episode left everyone confused and alienated. Ironically the series woud have been better to boil down the events of episode 1 to a five minute slam-bang FX teaser and then refer to the rest of it as backstory as needed. It would have made for a stronger opener if they had: how much more effective would “Mitchell” have been if both he and his death had been a budding myth, referred to but never seen for sure.

The show continues to plant some nice seeds for the future (a mystery virus; the moving child’s drawing on the President’s desk) but surprisingly it also throws away potential plots far too fast: the whole story of the true outcasts on Carpathia was thrown away in a few lines of exposition when a US drama series would have been able to milk the mystery for a good half a season, to great effect. Secrets won too easily are simply not valued so highly. The series could do with a little more subtlety and patience at times rather than making major plotlines so damned obvious: the Deep Brain Visualiser is threatened so often that it’s like the old axiom of “if you show a gun in Act 1, someone has to get shot in Act 3.”

Anyway, episode 2 certainly did enough to convert my “watch first two episodes out of duty” into a series pick-up, just to see where it goes. If nothing else then the South African locations are simply breathtakingly gorgeous; as are the opening credits, which is one of the most beautiful title sequences I’ve seen in a while.