1998 will not, in all honesty, go down as a classic year for cinema and, in the high budget world of Hollywood science fiction, will be signposted as “Year of the Bloated Eye Candy” for generations to come. The big three science fiction films this year (‘Lost in Space’ [Stephen Hopkins], ‘Godzilla’ [Roland Emmerich], ‘Armageddon’ [Michael Bay]) were all over-hyped, over-budget, over-long and over here for the best part of three months apiece, three long, long months of celluloid vacuum. But it was not all doom and gloom, little packets of happiness were opened occasionally and their fairy dust contents sprinkled around in some of the more surprising corners of the film world. It was also the year that films got made simultaneously to much the same end – ‘Saving Private Ryan’[Steven Spielberg] was ‘Starship Troopers’[Paul Verhoeven] only crap, ‘End of Violence’[Wim Wenders] was ‘Enemy of the State’[Tony Scott] only quiet, and ‘Deep Impact’ [Mimi Leder] was ‘Armageddon’ only no-one went to see it.
Giant Insects And Monsters
It’s just not PC to have any particular race being portrayed as the bad guys any more. We’re one big happy world and that’s all there is to it. So against whom can we now fight for freedom, justice and liberty?
Saving Starship Troopers – ‘Starship Troopers’ opened the year in grand guignol style, a technical tour de force of effects, every cent flaunted on visuals. However Paul Verhoeven’s aggressive attack on fascist dogma was not to everyone’s liking, the line between criticism of the Baywatch/Hitler Youth main characters and relishing the regalia and trappings they represent, was uncomfortably thin. Whatever the political motivation for the film, it is undeniably fun for those of strong stomach and certainly far better than Spielberg’s virtual remake in the form of ‘Saving Private Ryan’. Both films feature a level of violence unsurpassed in mainstream western cinema, they revel in it, guts, brains and other sticky bits galore. They both, inexplicably, received a “15” rating from the BBFC for cinema exhibition and they both feature minimalist plot structures to allow for maximum carnage. Where they differ is on political and ideological stance, ‘Starship Troopers‘ keeps its politics on an ambiguous level, you can quite happily flit away two hours blissfully unaware of any political subtext, but can derive rich interpretations should you so desire. ‘Saving Private Ryan’ wants to have its cake and eat it, on the one hand it endeavours to be the great ‘War is Hell’ message movie but in reality it’s just a bog standard ‘Dirty Dozen’ [Robert Aldrich – 1967](well eight) clone with viscera and all the more insulting because of it. When ‘Starship Troopers’ ends you know that the victory is a deliberate and cynically portrayed one, in ‘Ryan’ it is gratuitous sentiment intended to mirror ‘Schindler’s List’ [Steven Spielberg – 1993] but which ultimately demeans it.
‘Mimic’ – Guillermo del Torro’s contemporary horror film mixes the standard 1950’s science-gone-wrong scenario with the 1970’s eco-paranoia sub-genre to produce something that is irritatingly close to art/entertainment perfection but blows it all away over minor quibbles. Looking like a cross between ‘Starship Troopers’ and ‘Cinema Paradiso’ [Guiseppe Tornatore – 1989], del Torro’s second feature wears its European look heavily on its shoulders and it works. Shots of the cobbler and his son are so exquisite they look painted and the church interiors reek of gothic malevolence. Scenes of the young boy facing the (largely unseen) foe are amongst the most tense of any this year. Where it all falls apart however, is the conflict between the subtle tension of a well crafted gothic horror film (the pre-credit sequence is worth the price of admission alone) and the glitsy ‘Big Bug’ special effects. Additionally there are a number of intriguing plot strands left dangling, while the ‘Aliens’ [James Cameron – 1986] style running-down-corridors shenanigans are pushed to the fore. Ultimately you have the reverse of the Hollywood problem here, in most Hollywood films you sit through the talk/tension and wait for the action, here you want the action to end so that the real film can be given the space it needs to breathe.
‘Godzilla’ (Roland Emmerich)- What on Earth possessed someone to take one of cinema’s greats and ruin it? From now on Gojira is Gojira and Godzilla sucks. A challenge: Can anyone to come up with a single reason why expensive CGI was used when a rubber suit kicks ass every time?
Just in case the use of insects as arch-enemies could be construed as any less than entirely politically correct, Hollywood seems to have reached the conclusion that only the inanimate should have any chance of destroying the world, so that absolutely no offence can be inferred by anyone, not even entomologists. Mind you, rocks have rights too….
‘Armageddon’ (Michael Bay) – ‘Titanic’ may well have been given all the press for its extreme budget but minute for minute ‘Armageddon’ was the pricey one. A reputed $160 million was spent to bring this ‘vision’ to your local multiplex and the opening few minutes are indeed promising in their brainless wonder. Having watched the dinosaurs being wiped out by a large meteor, we swiftly cut (‘160 million years later’ the subtitle helpfully informs us) to New York, just in time to watch that get impressively wasted too, along with an ‘oh-so-funny’ Godzilla toy mauling gag, just in time to realise that there’s a REALLY big meteor heading right for us. Just as we seem to be set on course, the film veers wildly for the next hour or so for a ‘build up’ (read ‘boring bits’) as we view the unlikely spectacle of podgy Mr Willis and his band of merry oil platform workers limber up for confrontation with a large rock, a task unsuitable for those with engineering or astrophysics qualifications, space travel experience or brains. Stereotype plot strands are introduced including the ever popular ‘I was a bad father but I’ll prove I’m worthy by going into space’ scenario and daughter’s love affair with the virile soundtrack-enhanced oilmeister hothead. After this tedium we can get on with the rock bashing, male work naturally, so the daughter/lover gets to watch at mission control and whimper while the men folk save the world, pausing only to wreck the Mir spacestation and pick up the most embarrassingly overacting Russian crazy in the history of motion pictures. To be fair, ‘Armageddon’ is not meant to be realistic or artistic, as it proudly states. It is patriotic ‘bad’ entertainment for the masses and on that level it works. It is loud, big, brusque and filled with rock ballads and big sfx. It is at times tense, silly, exciting and pathetic, often all at once, and there are more plot holes than craters in the meteor . But who cares? It’s one for the cinema and those who missed it there will be well advised to avoid any video release – the sheer scale of the exercise will be lost and the thought-deafening soundtrack diminished, leaving you with just an embarrassing stain on your television.
‘Deep Impact’ (Mimi Leder) – like Deep Heat really; costs you a fiver, calms you for a couple of hours and smells bad.
You can wait years and years for a half decent vampire film, then what do you know, two come along at once, although it’s difficult to class these in the same category, far removed as they are in both style, content and execution. Add to this the intriguing, intelligent “Ultraviolet” on the small screen and you have a sucking good selection of undead morsels.
‘Blade’ (Stephen Norrington) was Hollywood’s attempt at updating the Vampire myth, while simultaneously trying to prove that its swordplay scenes can rival those of Hong Kong cinema. It can’t compete with HK (it doesn’t come close), but the film does work rather well in its own right. Blade (Wesley Snipes), half human, half vampire is on a mission to rid the world of the undead, particularly a new ‘lower class’ breed, led by Frost (Stephen Dorff of Space Truckers (1997) fame) who have broken away from their traditional lifestyle and are now intent on excessive partying and the eradication of all the stuffy vampire elders. Oh, and world domination. It’s more of a die fast, live young existence.
The films works perfectly well as a piece of solid Hollywood entertainment and not much more. It’s fast paced, action packed and engaging throughout; not particularly scary however, the main problem being that the vampires seem to have a much better time than our hero, so it’s hardly surprising that you end up siding with them instead.
Where ‘Blade’ attempts to subvert the vampire myth, ‘Razorblade Smile’ (Jake West) embraces it with loving arms and a warm vampire kiss. A British production filmed on a minuscule budget, but with access to decent post production equipment, ‘Razorblade Smile’ is a film made with genuine love and affection for the genre. Lilith Silver (Eileen Daly), a vampire “born” a couple of Centuries ago, is a hit woman by day and fraternises with vampire wannabes in seedy clubs by night, mainly to relieve the boredom of being able to live for eternity. She becomes involved with killing members of an Illuminatus sect, who are naturally rather irritated and thus begins a game of cat and mouse which may lead her into more danger than she realises. This is her story and in the many direct to camera scenes, she is draws the audience into her world to confirm or dispell myths about her vampirism. A tight plot, with a genuine twist at the end, and stunningly designed throughout, it is a great pity that the film is fundamentally flawed. Although Eileen Daly (the model from the Redemption video label) looks quite delicious in full fetish gear, she cannot act and unfortunately the rest of the cast range from wooden to formica (David Warbeck excepted). It’s mean to denigrate the film at such a base level, but it does detract from what should have been a fantastic rollicking romp. B+ for effort.
They’re coming to get you……
‘Truman Show’ [Peter Weir] – Gattaca’s script writer meets Peter Weir & Jim Carey in shockingly good film. Carey’s character, Truman Burbank lives a perfect middle class life in a lovely island-based small American town. Sure, he has a few hang ups, his job isn’t so great, but generally he’s a pretty contented and jovial kind of a guy. What he doesn’t know however, is that he is the star of the longest continually running TV show in America and that millions of people are watching his whole life second by second. The slow realisation that his life is a soap is tense and moving, Carey perfectly cast to portray 1950’s “Hi honey I’m home” wholesomeness with intense paranoia, enhanced by the audience’s privileged position outside of Truman’s world. Lovingly crafted with some superb spy camera angles and subtle escalation of pace, ‘The Truman Show’s’ ace card lies in its adoption of a hopeful existential ending.
‘End of Violence’/’City of Angels’ [Brad Silberling]/’Enemy of the State’ – A filmmaker who used to make good films is Wim Wenders, one time darling of the art circuit and New German Cinema’s main export following the untimely death of Rainer Werner Fassbinder. He adapted American genres to give them a wholly European outlook before developing into a true master with ‘Das Himmel Uber Berlin’ (1987 aka ‘Wings of Desire’) a film painfully remade this year as ‘City of Angels’ with Meg Ryan and Nicholas Cage. Top tip: rent the Wenders version. Since then it seems that Wenders has been kidnapped by aliens and replaced by some poor misguided husk. His only saving grace was the under-rated ‘Until The End of the World’ , a truly epic science fiction film that originally ran close to eight hours but had to be cut down to three. ‘End of Violence’ sees a return to form with its reflective but disjointed style, a gradually unfolding tale of conspiracy and treachery. Taking its cue from spy satellite paranoia, Wender’s piece features a gruesome puzzle concerning adaptive SDI technology and some headless bodies, manipulative highfliers and obsessive film producers. If, as he has stated, this is a call for the end of cinema violence he has failed, but as a thought provoking piece of Euro-paranoia it deserves repeat viewing. Wenders artfest covers similar ground to the deafening ‘Enemy of the State’ (Tony Scott), a mix of every Jerry Bruckenheimer production and Coppola’s ‘The Conversation’[Francis Ford Coppola – 1974] with an hysterical level of computer based surveillance complementing a politically motivated murder revealed at the beginning. Indeed the whole film is revealed in the opening credit sequence, a wonderful montage of pixellated security footage, although the viewer only pieces this together in the next two hours. This is exciting and gripping stuff, the plot never patronises and Will Smith makes a sympathetic and believable lead. Also, surprisingly, it attempts to make a number of political points regarding government control – a case of watching some action without leaving your brain in traction. Also worth a watch is Brian de Palma’s ‘Snake Eyes’ – Nicholas Cage in a “let’s see that again from a different angle” multi-layered assassination piece.
Bright, Bold And Brash
‘The Avengers’ (Jeremiah Chechik) – Critical mauling of the year, if not the decade, went to The Avengers, the medium budget update of the cult sixties and seventies favourite. It is hard to believe the amount of vitriol levelled at this amiable, if heavily flawed, fun film. Taking its fashion from the Emma Peel days (Uma Thurman yet again going for the queen of fetishism crown) and its plot from the Tara King episodes, ‘The Avengers’ wisely sticks to the spirit of the series in its gleeful celebration of English eccentricity and pop art surrealism. Indeed the main problem that can be levelled at the film commercially, is that it is all but impenetrable to the American market in which it needs to succeed. Lines like “St. Swithun, he’s the patron saint of weather” do little to explain cultural references to the uninitiated and patronise the rest of the audience. What is left is a double entendre laden funfest of dayglo costumes, mad technology and aristocratic settings, the Britain of a parallel universe still recovering from an acid dazed sixties. Everyone involved is clearly enjoying themselves and this is infectious, the sight of Sean Connery declaring world domination to a room of brightly coloured teddybears (to disguise their true identities, of course) is hysterical in all senses of the term and recalls the very best excesses of top Avengers writer Brian Clemens (who, amongst many others, penned the Hammer sexchanging horror classic ‘Dr Jekyll & Sister Hyde’ [Roy Ward Barker – 1971] ). The flaws are numerous, and the plot holes gaping, but ‘The Avengers’ is sheer fun from beginning to end. Treat yourself to a self indulgent 90 minute smirk of a movie, you deserve it.
Greg Arraki’s ‘Nowhere’ is the ultimate slacker movie, but with an added sf ingredient that makes it all the more enticing . A portrait (well graffiti) of a community of kooky teens ranging from the streetwise, the more streetwise younger siblings, the shy-sensitive types, the vacuous image obsessives, all with no other purpose in life than to sleep with each other, consume copious quantities of drugs and party all night long. In a society where image is everything, their world is dominated by intense colour, outrageous clothes, designer decor and tv indoctrination, so it’s hardly surprising that a passing alien (in designer rubber suit) wants to get in on the action.
Although their nihilistic world is thoroughly depressing in its lack of values for anything, the film itself is a total scream, thoroughly engaging and a beautifully designed reflection of modern teen society – live for today, who cares what happens tomorrow?
The obvious parallels for this film are Kevin Smith’s seminal slacker masterpieces ‘Clerks’ (1994) and ‘Mallrats’ (1995). However, important differences lie in the respective societies created by each director. In Smith’s works, the characters have dropped out or exist on the periphery of a society we recognise; they may reside within their own fantasy worlds, but they still have to cope with life. Arraki’s world though, is completely self-contained, there is no hint of a context , apparently no need even for money as everything seems to be provided, it is simply outlandish. Also displaying shades of Richard Linklater and John Waters, this is definitely the cult science fiction film of the year, but don’t take your granny.
“Gem of the Year” award without doubt goes to ‘Gattaca’ (Andew Nichol). With the unpromising tag line “There is no gene for the human spirit” and no hype to raise audience awareness, ‘Gattaca’ depicts an Orwellian world, set in the not too distant future, where genetic engineering has advanced to the stage that peoples whole lives are determined by their DNA. The story follows Vincent Freeman (Ethan Hawke), born with a heart defect (his parents didn’t risk a natural conception with his younger brother) whose sole ambition is to travel into space. Clearly unable to be considered for such a job with his genetic record, he has to assume the identity of a genetically perfect man and work his way into the Gattaca corporation. However, the world has changed dramatically with inspections routinely performed on every individual, everywhere; identity has become everything.
The most inspiring aspect of ‘Gattaca’ is that although filmed on a tiny budget, it is rich in resourcefulness and intelligent in execution, at no stage is the audience patronised by cod science or brainwashed with flashy techniques. Beautifully photographed with no special effects (apart from one piece of stock footage), the film owes its ambience to cinematographer Slawomir Idziak. Additionally, the production design created by Jan Roelfs, who was responsible for many of Peter Greenaway’s films, gives the film a gentle, subtle tone reminiscent of de Stijl abstractions.
The subject matter too is relevant in so many aspects – the technology isn’t science fiction anymore, and with people aiming to become more beautiful and intelligent, insurance companies already probing into clients’ genetic histories, many firms performing routine checks on their employees, it is quite worrying how close our society has become to that portrayed in the film.
The Idiots – not SF, not out officially until next Summer and unlikely to escape the BBFC unscathed, Lars von Trier’s celluloid equivalent of ‘did you spill my pint?’ is a masterpiece ‘by idiots, about idiots, for idiots’. Find a film festival, take all your friends and relations to see it, you’ll either have plenty to talk about or they won’t be speaking to you. Even if you hate it you’ll find out how to cadge a free meal afterwards so what’s to lose? Ken Loach meets John Waters, in Denmark.