A few years ago, you’d have been hard pressed to find a science fiction film in the cinema. Nowadays there’s hardly a week that goes by without you being able to see something sf at your local multiplex. But have they been any good this year?
What, You Mean The Book Came First?
The most critically mutilated and hated film in living memory, Battlefield Earth‘s reputation lay in the fact that no-one (apart from us!) went to see it but felt compelled to put in their bit about how wretched it was. Chief concern was the “S”-word, a word so powerful that Battlefield Earth came close to being banned in some European countries on the grounds of religious propaganda and brainwashing! In the cold light of day it is but a Hollywood blockbuster: big, stupid, has an impressive ending that rivals Independence Day in its requirement to suspend disbelief and generally keeps you entertained. It feels closer to 1970’s sci-fi than the modern variety but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Flawed, looks cheesy and has some stinking dialogue, but ultimately the most offensive thing about it is how they manage to get in McDonalds product placement. Mindless piffle but more rewarding than Gone In 60 Seconds or MI:2.
Breakfast of Champions
A film starring Bruce Willis that played screen #35 out of 35 at Warner Star Village for one week only? The answer is Alan Rudolph’s adaptation of Kurt Vonnegut’s wonderful book. Unfortunately most people just didn’t get it which is a big pity as this is another in a long line of flawed but brilliant Vonnegut films. Its main fault lies in the fact that in order to get anything out of it you need to be familiar with the source. We were and loved every minute of it.
A Clockwork Orange
After a quarter of a century of self-imposed ban and the proliferation of grainy nth generation videos, Kubrick’s sf masterpiece gets the cinematic treatment it always deserved in a shiny new print and gorgeous mono sound. So what if the “yoof” stayed at home and missed out on the re-release of the year, it’s their loss. Still as brilliantly satirical and viciously camp as the day it was filmed.
Tim Burton’s re-telling of The Legend of Sleepy Hollow is a real visual tour de force, confirming his position as the auteur of big budget Hollywood. Living proof of the tag line “Heads Will Roll” this is a decapitation fan’s dream with some simply astonishing effects realising the headless horseman’s violent predilection for removing the noggins of all and sundry. The title is apt, although visually sumptuous, costumed to the max and with seminal performances from all concerned, emotionally the film seems a bit, well, hollow.
Big, Bold, Beautiful And Brainless?
Unlike the undistinguished and diluted John Woo/Tom Cruise Summer smash MI:2 Charlie’s Angels is blissfully unconcerned with matters of taste, decency and being serious. And all the better for it. Our three angels have to prevent the cessation of privacy that will be invoked if the Black Star consortium use stolen software that traces vocal DNA by using their mobile phone communications satellite as a high-tech tracker. We are in politically incorrect territory here but hey, all the girls kick ass better than their pathetic male counterparts. All the glasses are colour tinted, all the gadgets are Avenger’s daft, everything that could be believable is escalated to the preposterous. There are big explosions, intricate heists, computer hacking, car chases, lederhosen, guns, cunning disguises, crass gags and lots of fashionably improbable wirework martial arts. More insane than a farm full of cows, it’s as though the filmmakers have tossed every action idea into a kitsch bowl and mixed it up using a camp whisk.
A brilliantly obvious premise (actors in a TV sf-show are kidnapped by aliens who think they are really that heroic) accompanied by great effects and a cast clearly enjoying themselves, Galaxy Quest manages to ride a fine line that could have killed it dead. Neither mocking the fanbase nor relying on the audience understanding fandom, it gets on with pastiching every sf cliché. Starting in Academy ratio, the film opens into glorious anamorphic Panavision revealing the enormity of the situation. Rickman steals the show and, whilst this is not going to bear too many repeat viewings, it’s a helluva lot of fun while it lasts.
The Hollow Man
Paul Verhoeven alert! Sadly this is Verhoeven-lite with many of the potentially more disturbing aspects of the screenplay shuffled to the background. It’s a pity because Bacon gives a sound performance, even when transparent, as a man driven to madness by apparently irreversible invisibility. Complementing his performance are some quite remarkable and graphic effects that unfold like a living Grey’s Anatomy. The voyeuristic aspects of the story bode well but unfortunately it deteriorates into another Terminator-style “how many times can we kill him” ending that just seems tacked on. Better than average, but Verhoeven can do so much more.
Mission To Mars
Brian de Palma fails to realise the promise of his early career by producing a stupefyingly dull 2001-meets-ET with a red filter wedged to the camera, some impressive but tedious effects and a decidedly ropy latex alien. Watch Phantom of the Paradise again instead and save your pennies.
Another underplayed and intelligent film from the Sixth Sense’s M Night Shylaman, this subtle offering concerns Bruce Willis, the only survivor of a train crash, being led to believe that he might just be a real life superhero.
Bryan The Usual Suspects Singer proves his worth in The X-Men, Marvel’s grim crusaders bought to celluloid life. Treading the ground between serious (concentration camp prologue, mutant rights, moral ambiguity on both sides) and spectacle (cracking costumes, twenty foot long tongues, people thrown about like rag dolls and lots of pyrotechnics) the attempt to make a thought provoking popcorn film works to some extent. All the performances are exemplary, the set pieces stunning and Hollywood’s return to using outrageous wirework is most welcome for those of us who like their spectacle to be spectacular and their art artistic.
Smaller, Sweet And Strange
Being John Malkovich
Although the Coens’ madcap version of Homer’s Odyssey O Brother Where Art Thou? was mighty strange you were at least prepared for it, not so with Spike Jonze’s barking Being John Malkovich. A puppeteer finds himself engaged in a business enterprise renting out John Malkovich’s inner self via a doorway found behind a filing cabinet on a half-sized floor in an office block. As you do. A great fantasy which, while it ultimately peters out a touch, has more than enough to maintain a “cult film” status. An assured debut feature.
What if your memory was restricted to the last few minutes of your life? How would you live? In Momento the answer is to use a system; tattoo your body with messages and Polaroid everything you come across. To reinforce the premise the film is structured in tight pockets correlating to Leonard’s memory span which plays in reverse, unravelling pieces to the mystery of not only his life but the savage murder of his wife that triggered the condition. With first rate performances all round this was one of those little films that came from apparently nowhere. Feeling like the best of urban based 60’s science fiction this is one of the films of the year, intriguing, disturbing and a “must see several times.”
The premise is the usual space opera one – save the last remnants of the human race that has been scattered sparsely across the galaxy following the obliteration of Earth by an evil alien race. Everything about Titan A.E. is larger than life; huge explosions, hide and seek in a belt of ice, strange creatures, death defying stunts, zero-G and exotic landscapes. The world explodes for your pleasure and there’s enough character interaction (script doctored by Buffy’s workaholic creator Joss Whedon) to pull it all through. This is spectacle at its best and most enjoyable, with the huge possibilities of CGI mixed with more fluid cell animation to produce something far more emotional than last year’s Phantom Menace. Unfortunately the concept of a cartoon that appeals to those other than children (still a blinkered opinion held by many) did not ignite the box office. Link this with the similarly lacklustre response (in the States) to Miyazaki’s long awaited Princess Mononoke and the sorry situation is that large-scale animation still seems limited (in the West) to Disney’s annual outings. C’est la vie.
This mid-budget Australian SF/horror hybrid is an inventive and enjoyable romp with sudden jumps, gory deaths and, while some of the cast wave tell-tale “I’m beasty fodder” placards, the question of who will survive is very much open. Crash landing on an apparently deserted planet the survivors soon realise that the previous inhabitants were met with a less than friendly welcoming party – savage hordes of carnivorous flying beasts that gnaw humans to the bone in seconds. Fortunately they can only survive in the dark. Unfortunately the planet is due for a month long eclipse in, oh, about a couple of hours. To make matters worse one of the party is a convicted felon and very dangerous. With effective use of tension, the result is no masterpiece but a solid rollercoaster ride. The black and white blurred “thing-o-vision” is particularly effective proving that you don’t need to shell out all your cash on big stars and ILM.
The Ring (Ringu)
Without a doubt the finest horror film of the year, The Ring is a subtle Japanese techno-Ghost story almost entirely free of viscera yet disturbingly nasty with plenty of jumps and creepy bits. The tale concerns the distribution of a videotape which, once viewed, means that the spectator has exactly a week to live, or does it? Coming across as a restrained hybrid of Videodrome and The Sixth Sense but far scarier, it is a triumph of imagination over budget. Laid back in pace and high on tension this is the most unsettling but rewarding horror film since George Sluizer’s masterful Spoorloos and cannot be recommended highly enough. The sequel (unambiguously titled The Ring 2) is due for release in art cinemas next year so watch out for the original appearing as part of a repertory programme.
Elsewhere the horror film rode the gamut of enjoyment from A to Z. House On Haunted Hill was a nasty but fun remake of the William Castle classic (sadly devoid of the rubber skeleton), The Haunting was a beautifully designed but excruciatingly poor remake of Robert Wise’s classic. Scream 3 was the weakest of the trilogy, Scary Movie an atrocious so-called comedy, Final Destination an enjoyably preposterous romp and Urban Legends: Final Cut a distinct improvement on its lacklustre prequel with an incredibly gruesome first murder. Blair Witch 2: Book of Shadows wisely ditched the verité format of its (bizarrely) celebrated forebear but unwisely trod the tediously familiar ground of post-modernism. Polanski’s The Ninth Gate flew the flag for cerebral horror in a film surpassed in length only by Frank Darabont’s The Green Mile (his second life-affirming period prison drama adapted from a story by Stephen King) which featured Tom Hanks having painful urinary problems. Stigmata’s MTV visuals and John Woo style doves, together with some sterling performances could not save it from being vacuous tat.
It’s like, you know, for kids…
Despite a number of high profile blockbusters (and unmitigated disasters), 2000 should perhaps be noted as a great year for films aimed primarily at children. Normally a good year yields at most two bona fide classics but this year several magical fantasies vied for the pocket money. Pokemon was not one of them. Neither was Dinosaur – $200 million is a helluva lot of money and somewhere amidst the awesome groundbreaking CGI and the stunning sound, someone forgot to put in a story. Uli (Last Exit To Brooklyn, Christiane F!) Edel’s The Little Vampire is a thoroughly delightful tale of an American newcomer to Scotland befriending the younger (only just past 300 years old) boy in a family of vampires led by a domineering Richard E Grant. There’s little time before a centennial comet passes which will allow the vampires to live in peace as humans once more. Naturally there are obstacles such as the smelly vampire hunter and his arsenal of vamp-snuffing gadgets. Part Moonfleet in feel this is great fun, the vampires aren’t compromised by being in a kids’ film and anyone who doesn’t warm to a shed full of vampire cows hiding from the day clearly needs to lighten up. The Little Vampire’s star Lipnicki also appears in Stuart Little, another film based upon old and established childrens’ books. Again the trick here is that the film doesn’t patronise its audience and just gets on with the show. Stuart is a lively little fellow and while he is viewed by many as ‘different’ no one seems the slightest bit concerned that he is a talking mouse. There are some great action scenes, some dark sequences where Stuart is due to be “whacked” by the local mouse Mafia under the order of the Little’s cat (whose position he threatens) as well as a bonding between the family amidst the slapstick. Anyone who has heard of John Lasseter will know any film bearing his name is the cause for celebration. Toy Story 2 is another triumph, proving that state-of-the-art CGI comes into its own only when married to a decent script and strong characters – it is a means to an end, not the end itself. Constantly engaging, very funny and perfect for all ages there is more than enough subtext to win over adults. Woody, Buzz and the gang tackle the weighty subjects of consumer marketing strategy and the purpose of childhood and friendship in a modern context. Chicken Run was the long awaited first feature from Aardman and proof that Mel Gibson makes a better cock than he does a yawn-inducing reactionary Brit-basher. There was much to enjoy in the deranged live action version of Asterix and Obelix Take On Caesar although we’d rather have heard Gerard Depardieu as Obelix as well as just admiring his Roman bashing antics and voluminous waistline.
And the winners are (drum roll please):
Best Fantasy Film: The Little Vampire
Best Horror Film: The Ring
Best SF Film: Momento
Special ‘Camp’ Award: Charlie’s Angels