A.I. – Living Doll
Consider the situation: you are parents incapable of having further children and your solitary offspring has got himself banged up in hospital with slim chances of recovery. What do you do? Wrong! You get a prototype robo-kid, activate his “genuine love” module to let him pour out feelings and then dump him like a piece of trash when real boy recovers, leaving the distraught robo-boy to wander around creepy forests, get tied up in the seedy underworld of android prostitution and develop an obsessive Pinocchio complex to compensate for maternal rejection. Parents: one. Robo-brat: nil. Armed only with a walking teddy-bear the love-filled simulacrum sets about on his quest to become a real boy without ever realising (big sniffy Kleenex time) that he is more human than humanity itself.
Roll up! Roll up! Once again the “last great hope” for Hollywood cinema spectacularly pulls off another class A irritant of a film. Before the vitriol and disbelief flies it should be made clear that AI is by far the best film Spielberg has directed since Empire of the Sun. The opening act is designed in line with 1970’s sf films and photographed to match with particularly impressive use of focussing. After the dubious exposition at the beginning, things really settle down into family drama mould – the “when shall we switch him on” dilemmas, the adjustments to family living and finally the reintroduction of their “real” son. The last event triggers one of the film’s most memorable images as the misunderstood android stares wide-eyed from the bottom of his parents’ swimming pool. Rejected by the mother, he is befriended by bot-on-the-run Gigolo Joe, complete with his Jiminy Cricket heel clicking and queasy listening in-built stereo. The two descend into a world half Wizard of Oz and half Hell. This middle section is a visual delight running from the neon excesses of Total Recall’s Mars to post-Apocalyptic Mad Max arenas. In this later segment we are treated to one pointless bit of air-punching as a crowd of violence seekers are convinced not to axe a child robot but it’s a minor point – there’s a teddy-bear robot that (wait for it!) is not a saccharine companion, magical quests, demolished cities and a fabulous end that is both sad and strangely uplifting as only the best fairy tales can be. The acting is superb (especially from Jude Law), the music is spot on and the whole piece is filmed with an air of assured maturity that has been lacking in sf cinema for far too long. A triumph for Spielberg up to the very last frame?
Ah, but there’s a rub. The “fabulous end that is both sad and strangely uplifting as only the best fairy tales can be” unfortunately does not come at the end of the film. Oh no. And if you were one of the many people incensed at the lacklustre conclusion of this year’s Planet of the Apes, this one will have you enraged. Close on two hours of quality film-making are thrown away on an ill-advised, over-long, feel-good piece of extra-terrestrial nonsense that seems to exist only to provide a happy conclusion of monumental crassness and to showcase some whizzy special effects for no good purpose. Up until this point the effects had been dictated by the story and relatively underplayed despite their complexity but suddenly we have Close Encounters of the Third Kind tacked on and the whole thing gets flushed down the pan.
Alternative Top 10
Gary Wilkinson’s list of the ten best Science Fiction Films did what all good best of lists do – provoke a response. Whilst there is no denying the place of any of the films on Gary’s list (with the possible exception of Mad Max 2) in a top ten such a limited number inevitably leaves omissions, more-so in a list that has two Ridley Scott films and two Stanley Kubrick’s but no John Carpenter’s. So rather than say yay or nay to each entry here is an alternative top ten, just as valid and presumably just as wrong to everyone else’s!
Forbidden Planet (1956)
Great effects. Great script. Laugh at Leslie Nielson. Shiver at the genuinely terrifying monsters from the id (still one of Disney’s finest hours). Gawk at Alta’s costumes. Wish you had a whiskey manufacturing cool robot. Marvel at the finest matte and model work of all time. Theramins. Triangular doors. Shakespeare. Big, bright, wide, classic.
They Live (1988)
What Carpenter could you choose? The hilarious Dark Star? The awesome The Thing? The exhilarating Escape From New York? The classics keep rolling but They Lives combination of left field idealism, ugly aliens, shades, cheesy dialogue and wrestling superstar Rowdy Roddy Piper go a long way to choosing this as the unfairly overlooked film of his impressive oeuvre. And he’s all out of gum.
Tetsuo: The Iron Man (1992)
Not to be confused with the equally excellent The Iron Giant (1999 – take your kids, pack some hankies, it’s a tear jerker alright) Shinya Tsukamoto’s gattling gun paced black and white underground cult film is an often unfathomable fusion of manga, Svankmayer-style animation, metal fetishism, sex and violence set to one of the most pounding scores imaginable. Shocking, audacious, breathtaking.
Flash Gordon (1980)
Forget Get Carter, this is Hodges masterpiece. A gloriously camp Day-Glo comicbook of a film splashed across a wide canvas. Fabulous script, impeccable design perfectly mirroring Raymond’s drawings, top-notch casting. It’s a deconstruction of American male. It’s an S&M classic. It’s got Peter Duncan getting bitten by a tree beast. Sex, drugs, whippings, chainings, flying creatures, bore worms, floating cities, Max Von Sydow in his finest role since The Seventh Seal, Brian Blessed chewing the scenery. Add that over-the-top Queen score and it’s as near as damn-it a musical as well (compare with the dreadfully inappropriate score for Highlander). Unbeatable.
Fantastic Planet (Rene Laloux 1973)
Every frame screams European science fiction comics. Bizarre settings, strange creatures, truly alien in its outlook. Nothing like this could have come out of Hollywood and certainly not out of Disney. At times moving, at times surreal, at times mystifying and proof that Japan aren’t the only country that can make decent animated sf.
Things To Come (William Cameron Menz 1936)
Producer Alexander Korda proving that Britain could, at one time, more than compete in scale with other countries productions. Huge sets that still impress, great ideas, props etc. Science fiction with a brain but also great for the eye, a sort of British Metropolis.
The Day The Earth Stood Still (1951)
Robert Wise proves he is the Jack-of-all-genres this elegantly designed pacifist film. Proof that aliens don’t always mean bad things, that Mars doesn’t need women and that quality special effects can be used as an intrinsic part of the story rather than as the be all and end all of a film.
Mars Attacks! (1996)
The anti-thesis of such patriotic drivel as Independence Day, Tim Burton’s Mars Attacks! is so gleefully tasteless, dangerously bright and merciless in it’s rejection of Hollywood blockbuster rules (other than its unashamed delight in spectacle) you can’t help but like it. Brimming with ideas but virtually plotless and quite possibly the most enjoyable way to throw $85,000,000 of Warner Brothers money on a huge pyre and watch the glazed expressions of studio exec’s and audiences who just didn’t get it. Ack-ack ack!
Often billed as the Russian 2001 (i.e. it’s science fiction, it’s bum numbingly long and most people found it dull and/or overly intellectual) Tarkovsky takes the metaphysical approach to life in space. Long shots of empty rooms (pre-dating Alien). Multi-minute takes around Russian motorways. Rain indoors. Pontification about life and humanity. Long, long periods of almost total silence (do not bring in any popcorn!). Lots of different length cuts to compare and contrast. Two hundred minutes of head nodding worthiness that is essential viewing for anyone – even if you do hate it.
Laputa: The Flying Island (198*)
Anything by Miyazaki is cause for celebration but this is a beautiful combination of cell animation and picture perfect characterisation. Half futuristic, half Victoriana this is far more profound then anything from the Mouse-house, more inventive and more satisfying. Suitable for children and adults alike but be warned, some scenes are really scary!
Le Derniere Combat (198*)
Before Luc Besson crippled the wallets of French studios with epic fare such as The Fifth Element or Joan of Arc he made this ultra-low budget black and white post-apocalyptic film with Jean Reno. The conceit of everyone unable to speak makes for a film that is universal in market and economic in its lack of synch-sound requirements. When a word (no clues!) is finally muttered it is mercifully unsubtitled. A triumph of imagination over budget.
Some films that would have been in this list had they been more obviously science fiction: Nowhere (Gregg Araki 199), City of Lost Children (Jeunet and Caro 199), Edward Scissorhands (Tim Burton 1991), Fight Club (David Fincher 1999).
So at last it’s here. After years of pre-production nightmares and a string of potential directors hired and fired, Spiderman finally reaches the big screen for the first time in a nearly a quarter of a century. At the helm none other than Sam Raimi, the genius behind The Evil Dead, American Gothic, A Simple Plan and, er, Cleopatra 2525. But amidst the hype and the tidal wave of box office returns from the States (at the time of writing it’s already the sixth biggest film in US history) the question remains: is it any good? After all, box office returns have never been a good indication of quality and Spiderman has had more than its fair share of set-backs. All bodes ill but miraculously Raimi has managed to pull it off, despite the inevitable (and deeply tedious) nit-picking of on-line Spider-fans disgruntled at the film’s alteration of the web-slinger’s origins. Like anyone cares and as if 40 odd years of a comic book can be successfully distilled into 2 hours of running time – short of taking a page a frame and leaving everyone with a migraine.
Poor old geeky Peter Parker. He’s been in love with his neighbour and schoolmate Mary Jane for longer than he’d care to mention but she’s dating the local bully. To make matters worse, he gets bitten by a genetically enhanced super spider on a school trip. When he awakes the next day, he seems to have developed some altogether peculiar powers – he can run fast, punch hard, climb walls, oh, and shoot out extra-strong webbing from his wrists. After his uncle is killed by a criminal, he vows to use these skills to fight crime. Meanwhile his best mate’s dad, a research scientist, has done a very silly thing and inhaled ridiculous quantities of nerve gas, which has resulted in him developing another personality, manifesting itself as the Green Goblin. Suddenly Peter has an arch-enemy to deal with, much crime to fight, a job with the local paper and, horror of horrors, his best mate has started dating his beloved MJ.
Raimi’s approach is to tackle the underlying themes of Stan Lee’s comic book hero and is about as accurate a conversion as you could reasonably expect. In the emergent sub-culture of “geek-chic” Tobey Maguire suits the role perfectly – part pubescent nerd, (eventually) part empowered ubermensch, all family boy. Perhaps the drastic budget cuts have actually worked in its favour, for the proceedings are certainly more engaging when they involve the relationships between the characters and Peter Parker’s awakening powers. Stan Lee’s hero reflected the anxieties of adolescence and sexual awakening in an allegorical manner (see him in Mallrats – convincing Brodie that he would have given up the fame, fortune and comicbooks for one more day with the girl of his dreams, this despite Brodie’s obsession with superheroes’ genitalia) and Raimi mercifully retains this thread in his film. At times it also seeks to be a teenage version of Cronenberg’s The Fly (itself, of course, concerned with the fusion of man and bug, of uncontrollable sexual urges and self-doubt). Parker has to balance life with his aunt and uncle, his desire for a girlfriend and the onslaught of teenage angst. Oh, and save the world from the heinous attentions of the Green Goblin.
Raimi tackles his human subjects with a touch that shows his recent work on The Gift and A Simple Plan was not in vain, despite their relatively poor performance at the box office. Kirsten Dunst and Maguire certainly share their on-screen moments with a certain amount of crackle and the domestic sitcom situations involving his aunt provide much needed comedy relief in the post-Buffy mould. Were this purely “mature” Raimi, many punters would feel disgruntled at parting with their six quid. Fortunately though Raimi’s hyper-kinetic camera style and visual inventiveness comes out when the action hots up. Spider-man’s swings through the city streets are truly exhilarating in their execution and mercifully play a greater part than mere eye candy. If the Green Goblin looks a touch ropy every once in while, blame the money men, but there’s enough action to keep the undiscerning from walking. Unfortunately the confrontation with the nemesis feels a bit like an afterthought. It’s a common problem with comic book films (that don’t have the luxury of years of build ups, part-works, back stories and ever expanded “origins”) – by the time you’ve established how a superhero is born you need to show how his/her nemesis evolved leaving little additional exposition time to generate anything other than a cursory (normally blatant) reason for conflict. In many ways it’s inevitable (the X-Men, Batman etc all suffer the same problem), leaves the film open for a lucrative franchise but normally rids any potential sequels of the headline villains (Batman ditched The Joker but X-Men cleverly retained its nemesis). In the case of Batman this opened the sequel up to a far more interesting set of ideas, one can hope for the same here.
Raimi is of course no stranger to the world of comic book cinema. His earlier films The Evil Dead and Crimewave derive from EC Comics and The Three Stooges (themselves little more than live action comics) come to life. However it is to Darkman that Raimi’s skill as a comic book director in the superhero mould really came to the fore. Spiderman lacks Darkman’s sadean streak and some of the more outré camera work. The inner conflict of the protagonist here is not of one on the brink of insanity and pain, but of identifiable “normal” feelings of growing up. In this sense Darkman is a far more operatic film to Spiderman’s soap opera(tic), a matter born out in the former’s effects work that seeks to be intense and expressionist (pixillation, animation, colour palette cycles) rather than internally realistic. Indeed it is Spiderman’s normality that makes it endearing and Darkman’s abnormality that makes it a far more confrontational film.
Film adaptations of comic books invariably upset the loyal core but then film adaptations of literature do that too. In recent years we’ve had to sit through a variety of comic book adaptations of varying quality from the simply excellent (Ghost World, Josie and the Pussycats, Batman Returns) and the highly commendable (X-Men, Mystery Men) to the downright abysmal (Batman). Spiderman at least makes it to highly commendable. It’s not art but it is good solid Hollywood film-making. Now, hands up who can’t wait for Ang Lee’s The Incredible Hulk?
Ogres are not like cakes! Shrek (2001)
Dir: Andrew Adamson and Vicky Jenson
St: Mike Myers (Shrek), Eddie Murphy (Donkey), Cameron Diaz(Princess Fiona), John Lithgow (Lord Farquaad)
“Ogres are not like cakes!”
He’s mean, he’s green and his breath’s obscene, but deep down Shrek ain’t such a bad ogre. Sure he has to scare off the revolting peasants once in a while to maintain his modest swampy residence in tiptop condition, but that’s all part of the tradition. However the land is in upheaval as diminutive dictator Lord Farquaad has an aversion to fairytale creatures, brutally evicting them. This results in hundreds of scared beasts invading Shrek’s precious swampland – the only solution to his woe being to help Lord Farquaad become king by marrying him off to the fair Princess Fiona. Unfortunately the princess is currently enjoying the hospitality of a particularly possessive and fiery dragon, locked in a high tower surrounded by molten lava and the skeletons of previous (failed) rescuers. However Shrek is not unaided in his quest for he has a magical companion to help (and more often hinder) his efforts – an ass that can talk, indeed an ass that rarely shuts up. Surely such a perfectly matched duo can save the princess and regain Shrek’s muddy abode? Well the odds are stacked against him and, even if they were to succeed is Farquaad really the right partner for the feisty princess?
Dreamworks’ second CGI feature has already (allegedly) provoked ire in the bowels of the Mouse House with its frankly irreverent approach to many of the fairytale creatures upon which the studio has built its wholesome reputation – characters that remain outside of copyright. Such sacred (cash) cows as Snow White (“She lives with seven guys but that don’t mean she’s easy… just kiss her dead frozen lips and find out what a live wire she really is”), Pinocchio (his nose providing a handy limbo bar), Robin Hood (a camp French Errol Flynn character who robs from the rich and gives to the poor, minus commission and expenses), the Gingerbread Man (turned informant after being dunked in milk and having his legs amputated) or even the crows from Dumbo (“Bet you ain’t ever seen a donkey-fly”) are caricatured, as are the trappings of the Disney fairy tale; the mirror on the wall forced into work by persuasive smashing of a smaller looking glass or the book of fairy tales voiced over only to be used as toilet roll. This is fun but could get tiresome were it not that Shrek hones its story down to a close pairing, with only a few characters fleshed out more fully. In this respect Shrek is a far more mature film than the company’s previous outing Antz in that the CG is there to provide the story’s aesthetic and direction, showing off the quality of the design and the rendering rather than go for the more obviously showy techniques that can blight the limit-free world of the CG ‘camera’. To this end all bar a handful of shots could be created by “real” camerawork, including some lovely changes in film-speed a la Peckinpah, and the crowd scenes are few and far between – you are not overwhelmed by shots of thousands of things moving around just because they can. Instead Shrek plays on the details – the motion of dust particles in the light, subtle distance fogging and a restrained rather than overtly Day-Glo colour palette. In many respects the lessons from Pixar are coming through – whatever can be done today will look dated tomorrow so go for good design and a screenplay which will give the film staying power. The soundtrack, however, gives the game away somewhat and will probably age the film more quickly than the charming animation.
For all its bodily emissions gags and abusive stance towards accepted classics, Shrek is nonetheless a very sweet film with a touching slice of romance and a wholesome sense of morality in between the (Dahl style) gross bits (Shrek uses his own earwax to make candles and eats eyeballs on cocktail sticks – yuck!). Myers and Murphy eventually make a good double act after a shaky start and the dialogue is suitably double entendre laden (“No-one likes to kiss asses” laments Murphy) while Princess Fiona can certainly take care of herself in a wire-work inspired martial arts sequence. Ultimately, as Murphy comments it “ain’t nothing but a bunch of dots” but it provides the plenty of humour and action. It may not be in the same league as Pixar’s work but Dreamworks are certainly heading in the right direction, with the right attitude.
Who ya gonna call? Evolution (2001)
Dir: Ivan Reitman
Stars: David Duchovny (Ira Kane), Julianne Moore (Allison), Orlando Jones ( Harry Block), Sean William Scott (Wayne)
Wayne is a waiter at a country club but has aspirations to be a fireman. Sadly though his future career prospects are sharply curtailed by the arrival of a meteor which simultaneously wrecks his car and his ability to perform at the next day’s fireman exam. These minor personal problems pale into insignificance when it is discovered the meteor contains organisms of extraterrestrial nature, organisms that have the ability to evolve as a frightening rate turning millions of years into mere hours. The first scientists on the scene are Harry Block, a volleyball coach and part-time professor, and Ira Kane, the disgraced ex-Pentagon scientist forced to teach chemistry at the local college. Naturally the government ascertain the importance of the situation and put an end to Harry and Ira’s dreams of a Nobel prize, blocking off the meteor crash site for their own hi-tech tests. Before long it becomes apparent that the super evolution of these alien organisms threatens not only the state of Arizona but the United States and the whole world, for as the alien cultures climb the Darwinian ladder from flatworms to primates it is clear that the human race faces possible extinction. Even the initial hurdle of being unable to breathe oxygen is quickly overcome as tens of millions of years zip by in an instant. Who can possibly save the human race? Can the army contain the problem? Will Ira find true love? Will Harry’s volleyball team ever make it to the major league? The whole make-up of the future of the world was decided in petri dish and sealed by man’s inability to realise the danger in time…
Ivan Reitman returns to the comedy world of Ghostbusters that made him a force to be reckoned with by introducing us to another team of scientific misfits facing insurmountable odds with a bizarre array of home-made gadgets. Instead of facing the supernatural, this time the threat is of extraterrestrial origin, brought to Earth via a meteorite. Also unlike Ghostbusters the team take the majority of the running time to get together leaving Duchovny and Jones to hold most of the movie. Unfortunately the pair lacked the manic intensity of, say, Bill Murray and at best invoke mild smiles rather than out and out belly laughs, the template used here is that of the ostensibly similar Men In Black. Throughout the film the comedy is too little and too lame, its origin as a serious science-fiction horror film is all too clear, the addition of a variety of arse gags may well place it in the current trend towards gross comedy but does little to inspire audience enthusiasm. Where the film does succeed is in its prime concept and in the execution of the major monsters on show; rather like the pantheon of beasts that litter the Ghostbusters films these range from the mildly scary to the strangely doe-eyed, and do at least provide a fair modicum of jumps and some diverting set pieces. Ultimately though the tired sexism and cliched ending (despite featuring a most bizarre use of product placement) take its toll and the end result is nothing more than 90 minutes of diversion. File under “must try harder”.