I think like everyone who first heard the news that a sequel was in the works to Blade Runner (1982) I was naturally very cautious. There have been a slew of sequels/reboots etc recently of modern classics made so long after the original that it becomes too much to even consider how a new film could follow on from a much-loved film. Then I saw Arrival (2016) directed by Denis Villeneuve which I found to be one of the best piece of science fiction in a long time to be seen on film. None of the standard flashy techniques or effects, everything paired down, to help inform the tone, that sees a female linguist fight to make first contact with visiting aliens. Wanting to use words not violence that is usually associated with the genre in the past, shoot first, ask questions later. On learning that the Villeneuve would be at the helm this film, alongside Ridley Scott as producer, it was a massive reassurance that the not so long-awaited/muted sequel to the 1982 classic would be in very safe hands.
Honestly it’s been a while since I’ve seen Blade Runner, the final-cut seen as Scott’s definitive vision of the film. The lingering images from the film meant its something special, which is going to be hard surpass. Last night, a month since Blade Runner 2049 (2017) was first released, yes I know it’s a long time coming and I’m glad I’ve finally seen what in short is a worthy sequel without trying to outdo the original, which would have been wrong to even try. As I’ve mentioned before in countless reviews, the trailer can really affect a film before you go and sit down to watch it. Here the marketing team have put edited together a misleading piece that allowed me to be blown away by the full 2 and 1/2 hours film. Wanting to focus on Harrison Ford‘s role in the film.
I could never forget the opening sequence of the original, the all-encompassing eye and the burst of flame that reflect within. The never-ending model miniature city-scape and flying cars that zoom across, its a future that we fear but want to explore to see whats in the depth. Film noir had met the future with all the bleakness you can have wanted. A film that is both hard to really top or even live up to. I feel that Villeneuve has definitely lived up to the challenge bring his own sensibility for the serious, insightful whilst maintaining the look, the legacy and the concepts.
Anyway enough of the build up, time to look in more detail at the film. I already knew from a few vague descriptions of the film that Ryan Gosling played a replicant working as a blade runner who we see on his latest mission touching down in a vast farming facility, ready to capture his next rogue replicant. There’s no pretense as to whether or not he’s a replicant unlike the original which had you guessing until the end the true identity of Rick Deckard until we get the unicorn at the films close. There’s less ambiguity at this point, we know who we are dealing with and following as he uncovers a new case that has the potential to change the balance of power in this dystopia. A skeleton of a former replicant is found with some surprising marks that are found during examination.
With K we see more into the Blade runner life, not just the found em and kill em aspect which we had before. Instead the life of a replicant, the regimented de-briefs/recalibrations which are scarily effective as Gosling just loses himself to this role. It’s quite intense to watch, the repetition and testing that goes on to ensure he’s inline and ready to function to the best of his programming. Very much the slave to his master, yet free to enjoy his time off. Spending most of that with his holographic Joi (Ana de Armas) who confined to the projector. It was the first reminder of another science fiction characters – the first of many reference – as I found in Arrival. The Doctor (Robert Picardo) or Emergency Medical Hologram/E.M.H. in Star Trek: Voyager whose confined to the holographic emitters in sick bay, a prisoner of his own programming and limitations. Until much like Joi they are given their freedom – a mobile Emitter or it’s Blade Runner equivalent. Carried by the program or the end-user. The E.M.H. character was exploring his sentience, whilst Joi was just discovering her new found freedom outside the apartment. We get under the skin, well the zeros and ones of how she perceives the world around her. Later touched in a a sex scene that reminded me of a very similar scene in Her (2013), technology connecting with another, via a biological host. Again this is explored more sensually from Joi’s perspective which made the scene more engaging to watch.
K’s investigation takes in some familiar places and faces (not Ford just yet) which again really gives the film stronger foundation that just being in the same universe, we meet old characters and others who reminds us of the original along with other little nods. If only briefly they contexualise what happened in the prologue which explains the 10 day blackout when most files from that time were erased. It doesn’t leave any detail out and woven nicely into the script without seeming forced. However on reflection that opening of the film, tried too hard in places to replicate the original tone that was then original, maybe this is more out of uniformity for the film. The world itself is very much the one I’ve visited before, relying on model miniatures to create as much of it as possible, allowing you to engage with the physical in this possible future which we maybe nearer too than we care to admit. Not only does it rain but it snow constantly too.
Turning to the Tyrell organisation, now under the weird control of Niander Wallace (Jared Leto) who sends his favorite replicant Luv (Sylvia Hoeks) out to hunt down. We see so little of Wallace that I didn’t feel his presence in the film, Leto is again having a lot of fun with the role. Whilst Hoeks has a meaty role that makes her mark on the film. The henchmen of the piece, nothing stops her from getting what she wants, showing us that you don’t need to male, butch with scars to get the job done, you can be incredible feminine in appearance and still make your presence known, much like K’s boss Lieutenant Joshi (Robin Wright) whose more fierce than Deckard’s predecessor.
Looking back at this very rich piece of science fiction that gracefully nods and acknowledges the original, it doesn’t try to repeat the past plot, instead it builds and expands with ease into this world that I wasn’t expecting to find. When Ford finally makes his first appearrence, which is for about 20 minutes or so of the film it feels natural, all the build up to find him. He doesn’t try to own the film or take it away from Gosling whose in complete control. The trailer wanted us to meet him early on, without knowing why. K’s investigation is a slow burner that had me glued in silence to the screen. I had returned to a world I had once explored with awe that has been expanded, getting our fingers deeper into this world. I do however miss Vangelis ‘s inspiring soundtrack, we do have Benjamin Wallfisch and Hans Zimmer who do a more than respectable job in his strange absence. My only fear is that if ever there was another sequel, which again leaves me uncertain, I would hope that Villeneuve is somewhere within its production. I would also ask that this sequel would be allowed to breathe before anything happened, to find a place and be appreciated for what it is and has achieved.
I have to admit that I’ve avoided Cowboys & Aliens (2011) for years, not wanting to see it thinking that it was a silly combination of the two – Cowboys and Aliens, how can that work and be worth my time. So as I made a point to avoid this film. The more I have read and explored the genre, I have finally seen and actually really enjoyed this blend of two of my favorite genres; Western and Science Fiction, I never thought how fun it could be. I had been put off also by a trailer which suggested that Daniel Craig‘s character had been possessed by an alien, uncontrollable, causing destruction wherever he went. I guess that’s the art of marketing when it works well, to suggest something else from the same material.
So suspicions allayed and defences down I was actually looking forward to the blend, seeing what happens when genre’s collide. I knew that it worked when Westerns are combined with comedy and to an extent – Musicals. If your going to bring Science fiction into the West it has to be good. Going down the route of alien abduction we find Jake Lonergan (Craig) is dazed and confused, no memory of who he is or where he is, with the addition of a chunky bit of out of the world kit on his wrist. Soon surrounded by men who know he’s vulnerable, get a taste of what this bracelet can do, blasting them off the face of the earth. More power than any Winchester Rifle could ever pack. Setting the tone for the film, its going to loud, bombastic and not taking either genre too seriously. Craig’s playing the stranger that rides into town, a stranger even to himself, and the town he’s about to enter.
Getting into town we meet almost everyone who we are going to be spending our time with in the film. Paying particular attention to the cattleman’s trigger happy son Percy Dolarhyde (Paul Dano) who takes his father position in the town to his head, thinking he can get away with almost anything. Not the usual role for Dano who we see arrested a few scenes later. Moving then to the cattle drive which is has stopped for the night this is the first time that we see the aliens presence really felt in the film. A series of explosions that leave all but one dead. It’s a mad scene of confusion that leaves everyone bewilders us, we haven’t seen the aliens, just understanding that they are here and not about to leave.
It’s only when they get to town the following night do we see the space-ships flying low, abducting half the town, looking as if they are pulled away on some metallic hooks that could have easily harpooned them. At this point I thought they would not be coming back. It’s another mad scene that both amazes and confuses everyone. Over in a flash before you can even comprehend what has happened. It’s just plain madness that leaves the townspeople both defencless and bewildered, having witnessed something that could have easily come out of a H.G. Wells novel. The nearest comparison I can draw is to The Valley of Gwangi (1969), an obscure Ray Harryhausen film that pits dinosaurs and other monsters against cowboys. Not his best effort but still fun to watch.
50 years later with more sophisticated special effects more has been achieved, I don’t even question them. I’m more concerned with how people from the 19th century would react with futurist technology, I’m thinking in terms of anthropology, how these people unfamiliar with technology that is far more advanced than even the steam train or the telegraph system that helped the development of the Western world. Here they are seeing technology far beyond their comprehension. But they aren’t really thinking about that, it’s the human cost, the loss of life that preoccupied them, the most they have to hand is a round or more of bullets.
We learn more about Lonergan when he teams up with Woodrow Dolarhyde (Harrison Ford) who after a disagreement see the advantage he gives him and the posse that travels the open country, meeting up with Lonergans old gang, who have moved on since his disappearance, reminiscent of the leadership fight in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969). We are starting to piece together who Lonergan really is, his past and how he lost his memory. A journey that leads him to only female in the film – Ella Swenson (Olivia Wilde) who herself is abducted by the aliens who we have still yet to meet. When we are out in the open country, the camera remains as close to the ground as possible, we are staying in the Wild West and the cinematographic conventions, its the aliens have to share that space and world, only leaving to fly around once.
It’s only when we meet the Apache do things get really interesting, For now these two sides, the white settlers and the Apache have to come together to fight, stronger together, using White leadership and tactics, there’s some sort of meeting of the minds. When it comes to the survival of humanity it’s a different story, not the a war of colours and politics that we usually find in the genre. It makes for an interesting change, it’s messy, gory and fun. Clearly the filmmakers are having fun here, pitting alien against man; white and red. This is what science fiction does – ask question, what if, how could etc. One is playing out here, how would two opposing sides in America’s West survive and alien invasion?
The finale is female led, Ella is the real hero, with Lonergan’s help as he rescue’s the abducted townspeople. I found it refreshing for a woman to save the day in the Wild West, placed in a position of power, she can talk to both White and Apache. She is superior and otherworldly, quite literally, unlike those she could just watch on as see them being killed/harvested by the aliens. Could Lonergan and the others have really come together without the otherworldly intervention that saves the day? Now I can’t see why I put off seeing this film for so long, its a great fun film to watch if you want to see cowboys and aliens fight each other. It’s not meant to go down as a classic, just to entertain which it does, the actors take it more seriously than we do, steeped in the history of the genre we are seeing something literally out of this world happening. Just kicking myself for not watching it earlier.
Taking the time to watch The Stepford Wives (1975) tells me fire sure that it’s far superior to the 2004 comedy remake really pales in comparison, the feminist bite that I found here is watered down substantially. The original even just on the surface is darker and sinister. I’m not going to compare the too, I just don’t see the need really when the original’s packed full of ideas, which I’m going to explore. I will however start by comparing this sci-fi paranoia with Westworld (1973), the amusement park populated with android hosts who are at the beck and call of the human guests whim, be them violent, sexual or anything in between. The idea of the android being used for human pleasure was only scratching the surface of how far it could be explored. Of course in the theme park a malfunction saw the robots take over and that was that until the poorly made sequels (that no-ones ever seen). In the theme park we acknowledge early on that these are not humans, in on the illusion, waiting for it to go horribly wrong. For new visitor Peter (Richard Benjamin) he is all too aware of the possible consequences of his actions, using and abusing these hosts who at least look human. He wont kill any of them, even when the safety features are in place. The illusion is all too real for him.
It’s the illusion that photographer, wife and mother Joanna (Katharine Ross) who moves with her lawyer husband from New York for a new life in the suburban town of Stepford. On the surface you have the idyllic American dream, the big house, the kids and if your lucky the perfect wife. Well most of the other residents do. All with perfect bodies and spotless houses, funny how they all live within a few miles of each other. This gated community living the dream. Joanna however starts to see cracks in the dream, with all the spare time on her hands she finds herself starting to go mad. For me I think part of that illusion and mystery is lost due to the knowledge of the remake which gives away the plot. It was about rediscovering how Joanna came to that which made the revisit worthwhile.
Leading up to that discovery she befriends recently moved in Bobbie Markowe (Paula Prentiss) who shares the same concerns start to look at little closer at the wives of Stepford who would rather live the life of the ideal wife, keeping the house spotless, makes cakes and talk as if they were selling a household product. They are living adverts for the ideal married life… for the male anyway. Perfect in every-way for the husband to enjoy, having less to worry about at home, coming back from work to a clean house and a woman who worships him. Honestly every man does want that but ultimately that’s just a childhood fantasy. The generation depicted in the film, grew up in the 1940/50’s with stay at home mothers who only ventured out to get groceries and pick up the children. An image and ideal woman who according to Freud all men look for, their mothers, someone to compare to what is basically an impossible goal to reach. These boys who become men desire that in the women they meet. Who in-turn want the father in their husband – that’s if we are looking at a heterosexual relationship. In Stepford that ideal becomes a reality for the men who are rarely at home, either at work or the men’s club.
If in Westworld the desires of the guests; male or female are met, then in Stepford only the desires of the men are being catered for. Its a male dominated environment, that reflects reality of the time. The Women’s liberation/feminism was in full swing. Women fighting for an equal voice, to be taken seriously in a male dominated society. Looking back, how much has really changed since that time. I don’t think I am really qualified to give a definitive answer. I can say in short that there is still a way to go. The workplace has made progress, the depiction of women in film and TV has improved if only slightly. Print and digital media is also slowly catching up. Its about keeping the ideas alive and fighting for what is basically equal rights, respect and representation in society as new generations grow up.
Stepford Wives is full of fear, the fear of unknown if women were allowed to be free thinking, independent people, free to act, work and dress as they please without fear of being objectified, ignore and treated less than their male counterparts in life. The ideal, yet softened feminist for the screen. Both Bobbie and Joanna represent women who can think for themselves, have a laugh and see the town for what it is. They become fixated with the wives who they can’t really hold an intelligent conversation with. We see one wife Carol (Nanette Newman) whose clearly a recovering alcoholic malfunction, or so we are lead to believe, her reaction is more robotic, there’s nothing human about her beyond her form. Her presence is rather sinister, perfect hair and body, she has achieved the ideal that adverts and the media promote, and so have all the other wives. Joanna and Bobbie then encounter Charmaine (Tina Louise) who comes with her own marital problems. Then a few weeks later a trip away and she’s transformed into a new woman, blossoming almost, yet under the facade is another shallow obedient wife.
I’m reminded of The Simpsons episode Lisa Vs. Malibu Stacy the fictional Barbie doll complete with pull-string that allows her to talk. Playing archaic female stereotypes that are being fed to young impressionable girls. Lisa takes it upon herself to design and sell her own doll with her own independent thinking and sayings. The little girl playing the giant toy company at their own game. Only to come back with the same doll, this time wearing a hat. Showing how easy it is to sell to children and how little they really care about the impact they have in their development. The men of Stepford are the same really, taking the women they met, and improving in their desire image, having overall control over their wive. The men are once again in charge. Leaving all the women subservient, quiet and of little hassle to them.
It’s in this fictional American town there’s the illusion of hope for the men, restoring order to things so they can go about their lives not needing to progress socially, science has caught up enough to allow them to turn the clock back on the women who’ve been fighting them since the 1960’s. Feminism has no place here, its fought and won with male ingenuity and science – and because they can. It’s that easy in science fiction to solve a social problem with technology, now just wait until it malfunctions.
On reflections Stepford Wives is a very dark film, drip feeding to you the suggestion that something is wrong, socially critiquing a small town in suburban New York state. We see independent women being stripped of all they have fought for, rewinding the clock to the 1950’s. There’s no hope for any of them here in the cinematic world, filmed like a cheap TV movie the ideas are even sharper because you don’t expect to find them. Even passing the Bechdel test too with flying colours which is even rarer for it’s time. A film that looks dated on the surface with razor sharp contemporary ideas, now when is it being rereleased?
If Alfred Hitchcock is the master of suspense then Lawrence Woolsey (John Goodman) is the master of horror, the B-movie producer who wants to really engage with his young audience. Even when the Cuban missile crisis is looming heavy over his next release. Reschedule maybe, or maybe not, as history has taught us the timing of a films release can make or break a film. Take Donnie Darko (2001) released soon after 9/11, poorly timed with the plane crash and audiences having experience events that had not been imagined on-screen. Reality had beaten film at its own game.
In Matinee (1993) timing really can mean everything, and also showmanship in how you deliver and promote your film. Which now relies more on digital methods to find their audience, back in the early 1960’s all they had were the old-fashioned posters, trailers and advertisements. For Woolsey he only needs himself to sell a film, much like Hitchcock who used his celebrity to promote his work with his own dry macabre humor, which is channel with good effect by John Goodman whose having a ball in this rare lead role.
He even takes the stance of the master of suspense, it’s all in good fun. For his next film Mant the film within a film of a man whose been transformed by overexposure of X-Rays and an Ant he becomes transformed into a massive ant. Taking a number of cues from the golden age of B-movies such as Tarantula (1955), The Fly (1958) and any number of other classics which are form the fabric of this homage to the genre that had gone into. In 1962 when cold war tensions had a reached a new high with the Cuban missile crisis maybe now is not the time to release a film about the potential harmful effects of radiation with nuclear missile potentially flying in the skies above. This doesn’t stop Woolsey who uses that fear to encourage his young audience to a test screening of the film in the new medium to fully immerse the audience. It reminds me of theme-park attractions that employed similar techniques, explosion, water spray and shaking seats just to get you even more excited.
Woolsey is a movie mogul who understands the changing audience even admits the current political climate which he uses to his advantage. He knows his genre, what horror does to an audience, who want to be scared, to feel alive. They know what they are seeing isn’t real, it’s that primal instinct which is only sought out now for fun not survival.
Lawrence Woolsey: “A zillion years ago, a guy’s living in a cave. He goes out one day, Bam! He gets chased by a mammoth. Now he’s scared to death, but he gets away. And when it’s all over with, he feels great.”
He’s even in a relationship with his lead actress Ruth Corday (Cathy Moriarty) whose too cynical to see what is going on, a realist going out with a dreamer living the Hollywood dream. his investment in Rumble-Rama similar to other gimmicks looks to be his last-ditch attempt as real success, not that Woolsey would let on, he’s passionate about the audience experience he wants to deliver.
Away from Mant we have a less exciting teen comedy that take a while to find its feet, following two young teenage boys Gene (Simon Fenton) the son of a Navy father and Stan (Omri Katz) who befriends him at his latest school. There’s more focus on the army kid, who has traveled from base to base, not able to put down any roots. We even have a jealous older man Harvey (James Villemaire) who warns Stan away from his much to young ex girlfriend Sandra (Lisa Jakub) who wants a man to hold. You feel like your watching two genres colliding, that of a b-movie with a the kids relationships before they go to the movies and get more than they bargained for.
Once we have built up a dynamic we are back in the cinema ready for everything to come together we have the young love-stories complete with hurt ex working the Rumble Rama a system that synchronises experiences with moments and lines in the film. It’s all coming together, whilst cinema owner Howard (Robert Picardo) is more concerned about safety and the potential nuclear fall-out, having built his owner bunker. We have adult fear of the real horrors juxtaposed with those induced into children for quick thrills, escaping a reality they are all to aware of.
Mant the homage to science fiction at a time when it was only for kids, reflecting a time of great political fear. Oversized creatures terrorising neighbourhood’s that were recognisable to audiences. All made on shoe-string budgets with unknown actors using these roles to hopefully break through to bigger roles. Combined with in-screen novelties that keep audiences in their seats or even falling out of them. I just wish I was there to see this spectacle. Up to the point where things start to go wrong but somehow in favor of Woolsey who understands whats going on.
Matinee maybe much forgotten film today, which should be rediscovered by film-lovers and those who wants a piece of nostalgia the golden age of cinema. We are surrounded by film posters of classics from 1962, a lot of detail and love has gone into this film that you can’t help but enjoy. Before special effects were the beginning and end of a film. Woolsey bring these effects to the audience who he understands more than others may think. He’s all about the emotions that cinema stimulates, that good story telling is based upon, if you are engaged with the action, everything else is either falls or is a bonus
It’s been just short of a day since I saw Arrival (2016) my first of this years Oscar bait, it’s too early to say what the predictions will be beyond Amy Adams‘s restrained performance as linguist Louise Banks whose recruited by Colonel Weber (Forest Whitaker) after the arrival of one of 12 vessel to appear from space. It sounds like any number of science fictions films that use this basic premise to stir up chaos, confusion and fear around the world. Naturally one land in the States, this time a field in Montana which naturally creates all the above emotions and hysteria in the media. I’m reminded of quite a few films that discuss these issues. I’d like to use this review to explain my thinking towards this one.
First we have Contact (1997) which takes the same tact, and even a female led which is even rarer in 1990’s cinema as it still is today. Dr. Ellie Arroway (Jodie Foster) and her team receive what is an alien transmission. The film’s built upon how we respond to that message, which becomes a massive plan for an interstellar craft that supposedly transport the one passenger to the aliens world. It became a film about science versus religion, who should meet the aliens, a person of faith or science, or failing that – passion. The world was and is waiting in both films for answers to come of those who are on the ground, with the clearance to understand what is going on. The public and political pressure in both films for answers varies. There are 12 vessel on our planets surface in Arrival that is making more of an impact, these outsiders who loom above their various location around the planet. Different nations responding in their own ways. Contact the process’s sped up, we have an answer (subverted by money) that leads to answers and further questions.
Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home (1986) maybe a strange entry, yes the one with the whales, however it was all about finding the appropriate way to respond to the message that was causing unspoken damage to the people of Earth in the 23rd century. As Spock rightly tells us “Only human arrogance would assume the message must be meant for man” of course that’s coming from an outsiders perspective, the alien looking in on another race, believing that the probe above Earth is transmitting to only humanoid life, when other intelligence live among us that we may not have considered, in the films case – hump-back whales. It was about finding a solution and the right method to respond to the message. In Arrival the messages meant for humanity, however it’s a longer time working on the method and language to communicate it. A language we understand to take the form of ink rings that are released, taking the form of mug rings that Louise works to decipher. The aliens (dubbed Abbot and Costello) are open to communication, they want to communicate, it takes another open and willing individual to take the time to do so. In 18 hour intervals she along with a team of soldiers and Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner) a scientist whose there to understand their technology, that’s after a clear line of communication is established, it takes more than a universal translator here.
Another more tenuous film is Independence Day (1996) when we have a great number of vessels appearing above the earths many capital cities. Ultimately it’s a blockbuster version of War of the Worlds when the alien visitors try to destroy us as they attempt an invasion, only to be defeated by the only weapon that we never considered – our atmosphere. Before the Will Smith lead invasion there is a mass sense of fear, hysteria as everyone rushes to find out what is going on. A formula that us repeated nearly every summer since at the cinema. However in Arrival that fear is more muted, the longer we wait for answers, we get riots as governments fail to provide answers. Scientists are finally able to go in and investigate, study and question what it before them. We have time to explore these minimal spaceships that are the nearest these scientist. It’s a barren ship devoid of what we would call a ship kitted with technology. Instead we have a tunnel and a glass wall that divides them from the aliens who they are talking to. For our protection or theirs?
Where the film comes into its own is the flashbacks to a time when Louise was a mother to a daughter who we learn in the first few minutes is lost to a terminal condition. However the more we see of the film, are these flashbacks actually just that, are the fragments from another life, one that is yet to be lived. Louise is emotionally affected by these images or memories. She appears to be a grieving mother throughout, has she experienced her own future before it has happened. The aliens seem to be a part of that in some way which I have never seen before. Reminding me of the Prophets found in Star Trek: Deep Space Nine who chose Commander Sisko to be their emissary, a connection to his own spatial dimension, his perception of time being different to the prophets.
This is one science fiction film that focuses more on the actions of humanity than those of the aliens who we do get to see enough of to understand who they possibly are. Special effects-wise it’s paired down to be just about the aliens and their vessels that loom large in the film even when they aren’t on-screen. We have a film that about the drama that unfolds away from the visitors, how we as a people are more likely to react. With a focus interestingly on China who have one in their back yard take a different tact when they have worked a response to their question – which could be similar to “What is your purpose?”. In the States to a point is led by the scientist, of course acting as advisers, but these are the true communicators who know what can be achieved.
Could this be a prediction of what is to come in the future if we are visited by aliens? It’s probable yet still fantastical with a lot of wonder and awe, this is not a summer blockbuster, its a thought provoking science fiction, not the shoot-em-up which is refreshingly rare and left me lost for breath at times. Its a human story essentially about letting yourself free to understand the unknown, putting up barriers only put your further away from understanding the unknown about others and yourself.
A few weeks ago I watched the Howard Hawks original and much forgotten The Thing from Another World (1951) that is naturally overshadowed by the John Carpenter remake The Thing (1982). I was spurred onto finally catch it, which I attempted before a few years ago, giving up as I thought it was rubbish. My opinion has indeed changed since then and Starman (1984) which I noted relied on far less special effects, more on the emotion of the acting and the audiences imagination. If anything the earlier film which does very much need the special effects it’s a Sci-Fi horror.
Coming into this film from having seen the cheaply made original which is a more condensed action film even making room for a romance which seems shoe-horned in to a fast-paced find-em and kill-em job. It’s a B-movie before they really were any B-movie, fast-paced with a decent cast too. The remake expands the action and then explodes it onto the screen to bigger effect. However with Kurt Russell in the lead we have more star-power for a darker film where fear is the name of the game. A man of action who really isn’t afraid of getting the job, minus the principles which make him suited to a world of disillusioned men.
The action still takes place in a remote scientific research station in Antarctica, maned by Americans, however the action doesn’t start so safely as in 1951. A helicopter is chasing a husky dog, hunting it from the sky. We don’t know why an unknown man’s determined to kill the animal, that if you think about it doesn’t even bark which catches my attention. A dark that doesn’t sound like a dog is out of the ordinary. We find the Norwegian (not Swede) has gone out his mind, not really knowing where he’s firing. Ultimately leading the American’s down the same unfortunate path. R.J. MacReady (Russell) and Palmer (David Clennon) get a glimpse at their more than certain future. The visit to the Norwegian base allows us to see into the future and the origins of the films past. If only lessons were going to be learned here as they discover the flying saucer that has already been excavated. There is no need to follow it on radar, all that work has been done by the Scandinavians, leaving us with the rest if Carpenters film.
With the improvement in special effects we can see far more of thing that’s going to be giving this research team far more trouble than before. Before the alien was more like a tall actor whose seen stumbling around like Frankenstein’s monster almost, wandering around for its next meal or victim. The focus of the Thing of the 1980’s is not so much its plant-like biology, needing blood to survive. If one of the men got in the way they would become the next source of sustenance, much more like a vampire from outer space rather than the host engulfing alien who duplicates and kills. There is more un-explainable science to make Carpenters thing more complex, more fearful to be around. You could put in the same league as the Xenomorph from the Alien franchise that takes on its host form. However the transformation is more overt with Carpenter. I can’t even start to understand how the thing was even created for the screen. You can’t hide from the excruciating pain that the victim goes through as they are lost to this personal invasion, no longer human, pulled apart in different ways to reveal an alien that’s constantly changing. It’s not the same more methodical Xeonomorph.
Instead of the simple explanation and by the teams scientist who eventually finds a solution to the problem of the alien intruder we have Dr. Blair (Wilford Brimley) as educated as he is in his findings, they scare him, the knowledge is too much for him. This is a form of madness that engulfs him. The research crew are starting to turn on each other. knowledge usually being power is more of a burden that create a sense. Usually its the captain that goes mad, leading to a mutiny restoring order. Here the whole construct of the team begins to fall apart. No one can trust each other as the Thing works its way through the crew.
After the failed first watch I was not really wanting to revisit this film. It took the original, lead by the director to inform my seeking out this now classic of a film that overshadows the far safer film, which reflects the meager budget, a shorter running time. I’m still not sure why there’s a woman in that film? Carpenter has taken a film and blown it up, reshaped it in his own language which is more engaging. The fear is increased so even we can’t trust what we are seeing. The alien is like nothing we have seen before and that’s the beauty of it. Like then-present day fears, it evolved with the rhetoric that was supposed to control the nation. Here we have an alien of that can take any form, even one we trust. Carpenter doesn’t stray far from the original imagery but moves far enough to make it his own.
I can’t remember if I ever saw the original 1977 cut of Close Encounters of the Third Kind which now seems like far longer than it probably was. It was time to remind myself of this classic piece of science fiction. Released the same year as Star Wars (1977) which would have been stiff competition for Steven Spielberg who would have enjoyed rubbing shoulders up against his contemporary George Lucas. Both having significant effect on the genre and the medium of mainstream cinema that as I have said previously was going through a Silver age in Hollywood. In the closing years we probably have the adult version of Steven Spielberg’s later film ET: The Extra-Terrestial (1982) which flipped the experience to the view of the child.
Both steeped in the wonder of the unknown, wanting to believe what is yet not understand by humanity. That is a brief summation of the film without really breaking down whats really going on. I remember seeing an Inside the Actors Studio with the director who mentioned that light means life, which is indeed very true. The main source of life on the planet we live on, its position to the sun makes it perfect for life to be sustained. To think we are the only civilisation in the Universe is however nonsense, short-sighted and ignorant in my opinion. I don’t buy into the conspiracy theories as there really is little proof. However time will only tell, anything can happen.
Close Encounters is about that possibility and letting it happen, instead of the army, usually American coming out with tanks, briefing the president who then tells the world during the 1990’s onwards. The sense of fear in the films played down, instead focusing on the scientific investigation led by Francois Truffaut and his bearded colleagues who travel the world. Traveling with Nato, a peace organisation that only wants answers, communicating with those who have witnessed and been touched by the blue and red lights that have lit up the nights sky. A universal experience yet shared by so few who are only seen as mad in the eyes of the general public. Reflecting a nation who had been fed lies, not knowing what to believe. Here we have only a few who stay together through this shared experience in rural America (Ohio), some are seen as the usual nut-cases which adds to the humor of the film. However there is no joking out this otherwise outer-body experience.
A young boy Barry (Cary Guffey) is the first to truly accept this bright flashes of light for what they are, he is reached by these aliens who only want to communicate. They don’t cause and destruction to the planet. Instead create a sense of hysteria among the general public. It’s only a child that can truly be open to the unknown as they have no real fear or inhibitions, everything is new, an experience that can lead to new behaviour’s and responses being formed in later life. His mother Gillian (Melinda Dillon) is more cautious but only as a parent, she has shared the same moments, only age determines their responses. It’s about the faith in the unknown and walking up to touch it.
The adult version of Barry is Spielberg’s go to every-man of the 1970’s and 80’s Roy (Richard Dreyfuss) who I could only remember before in the film for trying to build his first Devils Tower out of mashed potato.
An obsession that consumes his home-life and marriage, they leave him out of fear. He’s driven by an urge to create an image that is not fully formed in his head. Like an artist whose trying to express an idea, struggling to find the right form. Not leaving the studio until they see it taking form they way it should be, taking on a life of its own. Roy has a need that can’t be controlled. The audience can only watch on in disbelief at this creative output by both Roy and Gillian who have the energy to carry on almost regardless of other commitments.
Turning again to the scientist who I believe have more screen time in this special edition, I’m not entirely sure if I have seen the original it has been that long, almost becoming a blur of images among the mass of films I consume on a yearly basis, some are more than likely to be forgotten. The search for meaning in the events that they follow’s driven by a sense of understanding not fear. Fear is only a weapon the use later for reasons of safety in the local vicinity of Devils Tower, to keep the event as quiet as possible, it makes it more special, maybe other events have happened in the past, this could be the seed of another crack-pot theory, it’s possible. This weapon of fear doesn’t stop those who have made it past all the barriers both physical and ideological that are in their way. A blind devotion to a feeling that is as indescribable as the shared experience they had at the beginning.
Away from all the theory this is a classic piece of sci-fi that relies less on special effects for most of the film it’s about the feeling of wonder thats created, the emotion that those who have been touched by the aliens drives them, When we do have these flying saucers that heavily informed by B-movies still hold up today. It’s all about the light, both on the UFO’s and with the cinematography. There are countless scenes where light is flaring, almost bleeding over the frame. This is intentional – light means life – and should leak through from the other space that is visiting the film, rarely are we in the dark for long.
I’m so pleased that I have revisited this film that is all about experience, letting your imagination run away with you. That’s the power of Spielberg’s greatest films, they are rarely heavy on the mind, instead sweeping you on a journey that you rarely get to taken on today. Heavily referencing the classic cinema as he has continued to do; revitalised for a new audience who need have forgotten the power of the silver screen. I felt that less than 24 hours ago, having several moment where I paused in wonder at the images before me.
I was kicking myself when I first missed a chance to catch Starman (1984) which was just another chance to see Jeff Bridges, who lets me honest can’t really make a bad film. Last seeing him in Thunderbolt and Lightfoot (1974) even with the melancholic ending that really hits home. Like man others he will always have a place in my heart as The Dude which was really just the personification of who he has come to be on-screen, ensuring that The Big Lebowski (1998) became a classic (eventually).
What else drew me to Starman was the director John Carpenter whose films I have seen intermittently. I’m working myself up to catching The Thing (1982), with the original by Howard Hawks to watch soon first. Also it’s a piece of forgotten 1980’s science fiction that has to be seen really, even just for that innocent charm that it produces. You could say its an adult version of E.T. The Extra-Terrestial (1982) that’s made from the child’s perspective on finding an alien in the forest, befriending them as he helps him go home. Two years later we have pretty much the same story, throw in a bit of Star Trek: The Motion Picture (1979) in terms of the recent NASA satellite launches, the search for life has produced a result only a few years after it’s launch. Again there is a sense if hope in science fiction with a nice mix of comedy and drama thrown in.
I’m not even bothered by the special effects that actually are special even if dated, if anything they are more charming, made with really love and craft. They don’t rely on even early C.G.I heavily, allowing you to focus on the human drama that we find ourselves following which is more important which is more engaging than any of the special effects that define this as a Science Fiction film. You believe the blue lights that hover into Jenny Hayden‘s (Karen Allen‘s) house and turn her life upside down. That’s how we first meet Starman who assumes the form of her husband in one of the most disturbing pre-C.G.I. sequences. Yet we buy into it as its looks real, the pain that this creature is going through at accelerated growth to become the man who Jenny knows as Scott, or to us as Bridges, the audience soon accepts him, imposter or not.
You could say that what Jenny experience all bereaved people hope for, at least for a time, to have their loved ones back if only for just a few days to say and do what you didn’t have time for. A theme that us explored in again in AI: Artificial Intelligence (2001) when David’s mother’s brought back to life through alien technology and his own memories. We don’t have it that complicated, all the basic ingredients for life are a the disposal of Starman as he assumes human form. His first steps and moments are comical, Bridges is a prefect fit that would have been far different in the hands of Carpenter regular Kurt Russell who would have brought a harder edge to a sensitive subject of bereavement.
What follows is one of the most human and fundamental needs, the need to go home. Its been explored to death in Sci fi and other genres, because it works and can take many form. Leaving from Wisconsin to Winslow, Arizona where we eventually arrive. On the journey he develops from a curious child into a man, without all the messy of growth spurts in-between. Karen believes she’s being kidnapped for a time, as he takes her car, she acts as his guide before they both fall for each other. Of course you have that idea planted in the back of your mind from the beginning, can she fall for an imposter. Yet she falls for another man who looks and imitates him which she accepts. She brings out his humanity that others would otherwise be afraid to see, those weird moments that are just his way of showing his kindness and alien version of humanity.
He carries with him and uses 6 silver balls, each of them allow him to carry out a miracle or act, the first for defence before learning how best to use them. They are like those pieces of cake that Alice has when she enters Wonderland she has to use them wisely. Or on another level they are games tokens that should be used to progress to the next level, but sometimes you don’t need them at all.
In pursuit as always is the U.S. government who have tracked this U.F.O. landing and want to find this new life form. Much like E.T. and Short Circuit (1986). Wanting to kill the unknown without trying to really understand it by just talking or just reaching out to the strange visitor who just wants to get back. These visitors always come with a message or want to get away quickly because they are on tight schedule. Just a quirk of the genre, stopping only long enough to learn, return and report to their own people, a long-range reconnoissance you could say. We are too primitive to really make friends with even in the 1980’s.
So after kicking myself the first time I was pleasantly surprised by the much over-looked gem of a film that explores bereavement through science fiction, tied in with some really obvious references to earlier films, its far lighter than the predecessors. Focused more on a telling a story that resonates with you. However I did want to know more about those silver balls, which could have been explored in a sequel which would work naturally as the ending tells us. Its not always necessary to have all the special effects and use them, when you have a story that could be told on a shoe-string budget.
I went into The Martian (2015) with an open mind and the recent news that evidence that water has been on the surface of the planet where the majority of the survival sci-fi film’s set. I’m also come off the memory of The Last Days on Mars (2013) which in all fairness is a horror film. This is supposed to be a straight up sci-fi, coming from Ridley Scott who I have trouble at times trying to define in terms of directorial style beyond the words epic and dark. This is not a straight up science fiction, there is all the ingredients to make it so however. You have the crew of the third Airess mission that is only a few days away from completing their time on the red planet. Back home on Earth we have N.A.S.A. who is running the third of 5 missions. So on the face it does have all the necessary.
It looses that edge however of being intelligent enough to be taken seriously, I’m not saying Interstellar serious but a middle ground’s met with a heap of disco music which for me really starts to take away any real substance and weight the film can carry. That’s not to say its a bad move, it’s far from that at all. I guess it’s an interesting blend of lost in space movies and adding a lot of lighter tones to engage a wider audience. It just doesn’t fit with the rest of Scott’s films thought which has me scratching my head at times. Maybe he’s taking a new direction or just taking a break before he goes back in for more Blade Runner and the Prometheus which should keep him going for the next few years. Is this his Trance (2013) as Danny Boyle has done before getting back on it.
So what makes it work then? I think as previous reviews have stated, its one simple reasons – Matt Damon who has held the film together. The lone soul and botanist Mark Watney who is left behind by his crew in an emergency evacuation of the planet during a storm. He has to learn to survive, find a way to prolong his life for as many Sol’s as possible, (days in space days I think). He plays this incredible upbeat guy who is left to use all his knowledge to grow plants. Instead of being a series of short scenes talking to a computer whilst living on his own, he keeps a video log of his time up there. It’s like a vlog that we have paid a one-off subscription to, there’s no sign that he’s giving up here. you could see it a series of “how to survive alone on Mars” that has yet to hit YouTube. Just give it a few weeks and it will be there. He retains a sense of optimism that is contagious without becoming irritably happy about it. There are huge shots of reality that hit him. He knows he’s probably going to die alone up here, its how he wants to spend the remainder of his day.
With the only thing that really makes this film works I must turn to what doesn’t. It doesn’t lack acting talent, I can’t fault that, there are none of his regulars “cough” Russell Crowe. Scott’s gone for a completely fresh cast here, you could say more mainstream, familiar even. I think once we leave Mars and hover between Earth and the Space-ship making its way home we start to see cracks, polished but cracks nonetheless. For me its the time on Earth, first why have they renamed the Kennedy Centre the Johnson centre? I can’t get my head around that. It feels like we have gone into an alternate reality. I really can’t see Jeff Daniels as head of N.A.S.A. (Teddy Sander) which seems a little too light for me. There are some good casting choices when it comes to Chiwetel Ejiofor as Vincent Kapoor who leads the missions and the rescue mission they discover that Watney is indeed alive.
It does however follow a more realistic looking into that what scenario, there’s no mass panic or hysteria its all controlled and chilled. Maybe a little too chilled at times, thankfully with no interference from the White House, it’s all contained at the HQ more or less. None of the characters are larger than life, it’s all very low-key that allows the audience to relate which explains the tone of the film. Probably going a little too far with the music at times, possibly some personal indulgence going on there. I couldn’t shake either Guardians of the Galaxy (2014) or Boogie Nights (1998) in terms of soundtrack.
The focus is however in the right place, with the people, not the media who which would re-shape how we would perceive the story-line. There’s no politics, we understand and never lose sight of what is at stake, one mans life, whose using his initiative to survive. A man whose not your standard astronaut, but someone who we can all relate to and engage with. Its light with serious moments, yet for Scott maybe a little too light. I must say however having seen the film in 3D it feels rather pointless and sometimes distractingly so. I could take off my glasses and still have a decent image, its redundant, not really benefiting from a format that has long-lost its appeal, needing to be used more appropriately. So to round things off, I did enjoy myself, we did see out hero face a lot and still make it. Damon was the only really fully fleshed person and he was cut off from it all. We needed to spend more time with these other great people who were all after the same thing. There wasn’t any real enemy but time itself working against them which is another flaw maybe. I think it could have been much better at times, better use of the situation.