With cinema audiences reaching their highest levels since the 1950s, sf seems to be as popular as ever. And why not, Hollywood budgets are larger than ever and the technology to put fantastic images on the screen is improving all the time. This year has seen many combinations of genres – the sf-fantasy, sf-horror, fantastic horror, horrific sf – it’s hard to place many of these films into neat categories, so we’ve arranged them alphabetically, just to be awkward.
Here’s a curio – a Japanese live-action anime filmed in Polish. An Illegal VR game produces rich rewards or possible insanity to its players as they complete mission levels for fame and fortune. The result is quite unlike anything you’ve ever seen – breathtaking but deliberately false CG, retro equipment and cyberpunk grime rub shoulders with existential ponderings, politics and mythological intrigue. The Eastern European setting is no mere gimmick (xXx, Rollerball etc take note) as Oshii has steeped his film in the worlds of Kieslowski and Svankmajer (for the most part the film is desaturated almost to the point of being monochrome)… as well as throwing his anime book of tricks in the ring with gleeful abandon. Hard to see where this film was aimed (other than us!) or how it was supposed to make any money, but made it was – if only there was more sf that
Oh the omens were good. Blade was one of the more successful of recent comic adaptations – good gory vampire fun. Guillermo del Toro made the excellent vampire film Cronos. Mix the two, then add shedloads more violence, stunts and action. Remove the need for a time-wasting story (you got that in part one), bring in Donnie Yen for the fight choreography and voila! A surprisingly pale shadow of its former self. Nice shots of disintegrating vampires in the dawn can’t disguise a plot that has a high initial concept but no teeth.
Hey, your kooky dad’s gone and got a super watch that makes time stop when you want (or at least go very slowly) so you can do loads of neat stuff to impress the hot new chick in town. But sinister forces want their timepiece back for weapons research and dad goes missing, presumed incarcerated in a secret government test laboratory. What could have been a good fun adventure sadly falls for the “seen the trailer, seen the film” problem (see Men In Black II) and then proceeds to fail to ignite anything outside of these moments.
How this one got a 15 certificate is anyone’s guess but Dog Soldiers is a cracking little British horror film filled with the usual clichés of the genre, but without the familiar “knowing” teenage commentators. Mercifully the earnest tone of the characters makes the black humour work particularly well amongst the jumps and occasionally graphic gore. The story concerns an army training patrol who seek sanctuary in a lone farmhouse when it becomes clear that something or somethings are baying for their blood. A jolly decent British werewolf film.
Donnie is a troubled lad with a history of psychological problems that require some serious medication. It doesn’t help that he is urged to commit sociopathic acts by a grisly six foot bipedal rabbit. Richard Kelly’s astonishing and assured debut, Donnie Darko plays its American independent card with pride – surreal, laid back and occasionally shocking. Throw in a geriatric author whose Philosophy of Time Travel helps to explain the simple but effective CGI temporal tentacles that emerge from characters at key points, as events escalate to an apocalyptic Halloween, you have one of the year’s more strangely compelling films.
Eight Legged Freaks
In true B-movie fashion a barrel of bubbly green toxic waste finds its way into the local eco-system resulting in a gigantic increase in the size and viciousness of a plethora of spider species. Knowingly crossing its love of 50’s cold war sci-fi morality tales with a pile of CGI, Eight Legged Freaks does its best to entertain and, for the most part, it succeeds. Dumb fun which never takes itself seriously, it sadly falls apart on the tension front – there is never any surprise as to who is going to make it.
Excellent creepy Korean/Hong Kong horror with top-notch visuals and incredible use of sound. Our heroine has received an eye transplant and is struggling to see through the blur of her new eyes. What she seems to see along with the real world are the dying, being led away by a murky black figure. Yes the links to Hands of Orlac and The Sixth Sense may be obvious, but the use of stylistic camerawork and a gradual increase in the unease, including a line of revelationary dialogue that’ll leave you cold, make this a real winner. Don’t miss.
E.T. – The Extra Terrestrial 20th Anniversary Re-issue Special Edition
One of the most loved, cherished and successful films of all time. Adored by critics and audiences alike for its wonder and enchantment. And who are we to argue? Well we will: E.T. is not only saccharine, manipulative and mean-spirited, but is over-long, plastic and lifeless. E.T. epitomises the cynical corporate manufacturing of false emotion to produce knee jerk audience reactions. It couldn’t get worse than this. Or could it? In another piece of revisionism Spielberg has actually managed to make his ghastly film even more hideous. Now, the FBI don’t carry guns (in America!), their weapons CGI’d into safe walkie-talkies to show that they are caring, sharing authorities. Nasty, disgraceful film-making packaged for a stupid, ignorant market. And if you disagree we’ll see you outside…
So it wasn’t like the comic then. Get a life! Wake up! It couldn’t be like the comic. It’s a film. It ain’t twenty odd hours long. Shhheeesh. Visually one of the most sumptuous films of the year and, for a Hollywood blockbuster, it even had a strong political subtext. In bringing Jack the Ripper to the screen the Hughes Brothers have done a remarkable job in adapting Alan Moore’s multi-layered masterpiece, pushing the source material as far as it could, without resorting to being either gratuitous or coy (a very fine balance). Depp is as great as ever, his character’s strong deviation from the minor role in the comic helps bind the film together and provides a context for the viewer. Mix with some stunning cinematography and exceptional set pieces and you have one of the year’s most under-rated blockbusters.
The Happiness of the Katakuris
Miike Takashi. Not a man to shirk controversy but he’s managed to confound everyone with this 116 minutes of barking utter madness. Our hero family have a guest-house in the mountains but hardly anyone shows up and when they do they have an unfortunate tendency to pop their clogs. To prevent it affecting the business the family simply bury the corpses. But there’s a new highway being built soon… right where those unfortunate ex-guests are interred. And everyone keeps bursting into song because this is a musical, with all the (von) trappings of families skipping across the mountains or cutting to kitsch studio shoots. That’s when they don’t all suddenly turn into animated plasticine figures for the dangerous scenes or gross ones. The most unusual (and funny) fantasy horror of this year, by a long way.
Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets
Chris Columbus once again plays it safe in the second Harry Potter film – slavishly following Rowling’s book to the point of cinematic incoherence. That said it looks the part, most of the acting is spot on (Branagh is great) and it certainly doesn’t balk on the scary stuff either. Harry’s second year at Hogwart’s is plagued by the opening of the mysterious Chamber of Secrets and the worrying trend for fellow classmates to become paralysed. Incidents come thick and fast and the tone gets significantly darker as the film progresses. Sadly this pace leaves little room for character development or all-important fleshing out of details. Think of it as a talking illustration.
Pitch: Friday the Thirteenth’s Jason comes back again. In the future. In space. And kills people. Again. And there’s CGI blood. How novel. And it was toned to get an R rating. Stop this madness. We’ve had twenty years of this rubbish.
What’s this? Another American teen horror? But wait! No post-post-post-modern reflexivity. No “shagging = death”, “drugs = bad” clichés. Just creepy supernatural chills mixed with a road movie. It’s filmed with enough confidence not to just pump up the body/gore quota, yet it remains nasty when needed. By no means essential viewing, at least it tries to break the current teen-scream mould. Bonus point for keeping the soundtrack down.
Lilo and Stitch
Pretty much ignoring the last ten years of Disney animation that has pushed the studio headlong into CGI spectacle to keep the kids watching, Lilo and Stitch looks to more traditional methods to tell its story (with the added advantage of being cheaper). Little Hawaiian Lilo befriends the irascible and occasionally destructive extra-terrestrial Stitch. Madcap adventures occur, mercifully far from ET territory and saccharine sentimentalities. The result is one of Disney’s most enjoyable flicks of the last decade.
The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers
Peter Jackson returns with advertising that tells you Gandalf didn’t snuff it in part one and a much publicised CGI Gollum. Mercifully the script plays some liberties with the text in the name of cinematic coherence (Potter, are you listening?) but Jackson’s real gift lies in making crystal clear sense of the book’s numerous battles and political shenanigans in a way that doesn’t stop everything stone dead in its tracks (Mr Lucas step forward). The canvas is wide, the battles epic, violent and mythical – as they should be. The sense of dread and impending doom are not toned down, this is the Empire Strikes Back of the trilogy, with no real resolution. This is perhaps its fault – while The Two Towers equals (and in the battle at Helm’s Deep surpasses) its predecessor in terms of spectacle, it cannot hope to maintain the same attachment to its central characters. Like the hobbits, we are shown the bigger world from that of the isolated microcosmic Shire as the implications of the quest (and its possible failure) become more apparent in relationship to the whole of Middle Earth. And in this turmoil creepy Elrond hustles his aristocratic folk off somewhere safe (bar a couple of token lower class archers) leaving everyone else to face the music of the lidless eye, the bands of marauding orcs and the treacherous wizards. This is a nice touch in two ways – at once it politicises the struggle between bourgeois and proletariat in a way that subverts Tolkien’s slant on the matter but it also allows the romance between Aragorn and Eowyn to be more tragically romantic. Jackson attempts to flesh out (everso slightly) at least one female character from Tolkien’s phallocentric tome. This is assured, commercial film-making at its very best – from the Ents storming Isengard to the dead in the marshes; anyone expecting much better might as well never enter a cinema again.
Men In Black II
Here come the men in black (again) they won’t let you remember (you wish). When MIB hit the scene it was gloppy fun, family entertainment with a good line in attitude and great one-liners. Most of all it was fresh. Second time around and the promise is bigger budget, bigger effects and bigger paycheques all around. It also seems so suddenly stale and laboured as the same plot of part one is recycled for our scant amusement. Watchable but no more, MIBII feels worse than it probably is because it is so relentlessly average and safe as a franchise product – exactly what the first film tried so hard to avoid. C’est la vie.
Here’s something to fill you with dread – Spielberg directs Cruise in a PK Dick adaptation. Shudder. Fortunately though (and against all expectations) Minority Report proves to be an enjoyable and intelligent sf film which actually requires its audience to think once in a while. And despite the trailer-friendly special effects, this isn’t a film that feels the need to wallow in effects for the sake of them – indeed there’s probably more big buck effects potential in Dick’s original. It’s not perfect and they’ve simplified some elements of the story to allow a human-precog interaction absent from Dick’s work, but overall the modern-retro future designs combined with the confidence to play it with subtlety works.
The Mothman Prophecies
Richard Gere ditches the smoothy persona and becomes an angst-ridden journo on the trail of the Mothman in Mark Pellington’s understated supernatural thriller, based on the “True Story” yawn-a-page by John A Keel. Influences include Lynch’s Lost Highway, The Sixth Sense and Nakata’s The Ring, and full marks should be given to lack of sensationalism within the material. Wisely ditching the tone and most of the extraneous conspiratorial UFO-logy of the book, Pellington has created a mature, if imperfect, film. If anyone condescendingly informs you that books are always better than the film, you need do no more than to point them in the direction of The Mothman Prophecies and be quietly smug.
My Little Eye
Heralded by some commentators as the future of British horror, My Little Eye can’t fail to disappoint. Another Big Brother-style “teens in a house” horror, the conceit is all very well but it leads nowhere and there is far too little tension. It may deserve top marks for using the limitations of the budget to the film’s advantage, but the mise-en-scene is inconsistent and ultimately, if you want scares, you’d be far better off watching Dog Soldiers.
Across the various quantum dimensions, variations of Jet Li are being bumped off. The result? The remaining ones become increasingly powerful until only two remain. Who will become the One? As Li’s Hong Kong work begins to seem like a thing of the past, his latest Hollywood offering injects trendy CGI into the deliberately over-the-top wirework that has become his trademark. Yes, The One is unashamedly trash and treats its ludicrous premise with more respect than it probably deserves, but it never outlives its welcome. The two Li’s (one good, one bad – you got that?) slug it out by hitting each other with motorbikes and other heavy metal machinery while leaping about like possessed frogs. Those expecting depth and plausibility would do well to avoid this one, but Wong’s hysterical direction makes this a daft but enjoyable romp. Best served with a few beers.
The Powerpuff Girls
Blossom, Buttercup and Bubbles – sugar, spice, all things nice and secret ingredient Chemical X. So post-modern it hurts, the combination of knowing references, vaguely hip music, bodily fluids gags and 50’s B-movie trappings merge with 60’s US and anime influenced designs to make something you either “get” or don’t. Frenetic and lurid as ever, the trio’s occasionally impetuous over-exuberance is as infectious as it is fun. Suitable for small kids and open-minded adults only – boring people can suffer under Blossom’s withering laser-eyed stare.
Queen of the Damned
A belated (and far more low key) sequel to Interview With A Vampire sees a new Lestat and a safer 15 rating for the Anne Rice franchise. Set in the amusingly unscary goth-rock world the stakes (so to speak) are raised (so to speak) when the Queen of the Damned is reincarnated to decimate the earth, burn everyone’s souls and do all that other gloomy nihilistic despair stuff. The titular queen electrifies the screen with her vicious, wordless presence, but for the most-part this is designer fluff for morbid teens with a soon-to-be-dated contemporary soundtrack.
Reign of Fire
Dragon films are to fantasy fans what cannibal films are to horror fans – you always have high hopes but somehow it never quite works. Enter Reign of Fire. Christian Bale is present at the release of an ancient dragon from deep beneath London. Fast forward. Dragons have decimated the world and the few survivors have to decide whether to hide or fight – a decision “helped along” by the arrival of dragon hunter Matthew McConaughey and his band of sky diving renegades. Reign of Fire is an amiable enough romp in the post-apocalyptic mould but therein lies its problem – it’s billed as a dragon flick. Sure there are a few flying about and quite impressive they are too, but by relying on a budget-friendly plot that ignores the bits you want to see (hordes of dragons trashing major cities for example) there’s a sense at feeling cheated. Not a disaster by any stretch, but a film that seems to have a beginning and an end, but no middle.
Mercy me if we don’t have Paul Anderson’s best film ever! Sure it’s still ropey but it’s an improvement nonetheless. One of Film Four’s last productions (sniff) at least it’s a big budget multiplex job so the company can go out with a bang and not a wimpy British social comedy. Mira Sorvino spends most of the time trying to recall who she is whilst fighting zombies and pointlessly attempting to keep her clothes on. Not art, but you’ll dig the zombie dogs, the odd “jumpy” bit and forget it quickly. People criticised this film for being disposable trash without subtext – they’re right, but surely that’s the point?
More studio/MPAA hassles dogged this long delayed re-make of Norman Jewison’s Slap Shot of the future. Use this as an excuse if you want, but Rollerball, despite a couple of nice ideas (that don’t even begin to work), is an unmitigated total mess of a film. Huge chunks of the action have gone missing, the casual sexism feels like a cheap seventies exploitation flick and the acting is poor. The games themselves are rambling rubbish, make no sense and are frankly just plain stupid.
We may not know what “scooby” means but we sure know what “doo” is. Inexplicably popular summer no-brainer filled with lame gags and a crass oh-so-postmodern plot. At times you long for the crudely animated 2-D counterpart (early ones naturally, avoiding the Scrappy abomination) on the basis that at least it was shorter. The characters, bar Scooby, look the part though (mind you they did in Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back) and the mise-en-scene is a pretty good approximation of the cartoon. Writer James Gunn has done better work in the past though – check out Tromeo and Juliet, now that is post-modern comedy at its best.
Mel Gibson stars as an ex-Reverend who has lost his faith and his wife in M Night Shyamalan’s crop circle creeper. Are the signs in the fields a hoax or indications of extra-terrestrial intelligence? As usual Shyamalan plays the low-key card to best effect (reunited with chilled out cinematographer Tak Fujimoto), often cranking up the tension with little more than a light bulb and some creaky sound effects. Seat wetting events follow and if you look too hard the whole thing comes apart but hey, this is a sf horror film, you are here for the chills and Signs surely delivers. Even if Shyamalan’s cameos are creeping into the realm of supporting roles…
Bitten by a genetically modified arachnid, our hero Peter Parker finds he has developed spider powers, powers he’ll need to fight crime and defeat the treacherous Green Goblin. And get the girl. Storming through the box office Raimi manages to put behind that unfortunate trailer from Summer 2001 behind him. Even if the studio execs cut some of the effects budget there’s no doubt that (Green Goblin’s occasionally dodgy look aside) this is an impressive and occasionally exhilarating experience. Raimi’s focusing on the human side of the Spiderman story makes the character more engrossing and believable, so that the whole piece works like a drama rather than a clotheshorse for all the whizz-bang stuff.
Officially Japan’s most successful film ever, Miyazaki’s young heroine must survive a horrifying and surreal environment in an effort to save her parents, who have been transformed into gluttonous pigs by the town’s magic and their own greed. Like a terrifying Alice in Wonderland this film has sent many a small Japanese child wailing out of the cinema, but it remains yet another masterpiece from Studio Ghibli; a combination of wonder and horror. The combination of predominantly cell animation and Miyazaki’s eye for composition and characterisation put this head and shoulders above western competition who still seem set on the idea that animation is strictly for kids. Miyazaki’s films are childlike not childish, a distinction Disney would do well to re-adopt.
Spy Kids 2: Island of Lost Dreams
Robert Rodriguez gives us a second helping of his diminutive spies (part of a proposed trilogy). It all rests on Rodriguez’s shoulders (he writes, produces, shoots, directs, makes the tea etc) to deliver the goods and fortunately he doesn’t miss a beat. Yes it’s ludicrous but that’s what we like! Fast, loud, innovative and fun – bizarre Harryhausen references abound, the design is fabulous and it’s even got Steve Buscemi as a mad scientist. Our two heroes face the threat of another global takeover but their skills are further tested by two rival spy kids who have better gadgets than they do. Their long suffering spy parents (and grandparents) prove as delightfully ineffectual as ever as the action centres on the mysterious island – home to hybrid animals, bickering skeletons and flying horseshoe magnets. You know it makes sense!
Star Wars Episode 2: Attack of the Clones
The normal defensive response to this is: well it’s better than The Phantom Menace. Viewed as an extension of silent cinema’s use of film Attack of the Clones works well, but the over-cramming of plot, sometimes disorientating parallel editing and plethora of silly names do much to dampen this one down. Rather like The Empire Strikes Back the tone is significantly darker as the tale recounts the rise of a clone army and portents to the war to come (presumably) in Episode Three. Visually and aurally arresting (and not just the effects – some of the details and composition are pure cinema) there’s much to enjoy but also much to endure. Even if Yoda kick butt he does.
The latest in the William Tingler Castle re-makes, 13 Ghosts sadly misses the ghost glasses gimmick of its illustrious inspiration and goes straight for the mid-budget jugular. Another haunted house flick, this time an inheritance from a mad relative who has 13 ghosts trapped inside his building provides the impetus for a group being stuck in the midst of it all. Of course these can be released by a variety of retro-mechanics and arcane demonic gobbledegook. Ultimately it’s all very samey and rather dull, but the set design of the house (and the tricky cinematographic challenge it must have caused) is among the most impressive of recent years – all glass, brass and mirrors. Sadly, like the inferior travesty The Haunting, great sets do not a great film make.
The Time Machine
Simon Wells adapts H.G. Wells in this easy to watch but easy to forget telling of the classic novel(la). Updating Pal’s wonderful work on the 1960’s version to the CGI age may not be to purists’ tastes but it works more as homage than a rip off as aeons rush by in seconds, landscapes remould and the cycles of life and death are repeated at an ever-increasing pace. A darker and far more traditional film than could have reasonably been expected, even if some of the “blame on war and government” stuff has been toned down, there’s enough here to keep you engaged without resorting to needless eye-candy.
The big question looms… Why? Spending millions of dollars on a remake of a foreign film is no excuse to compensate a viewing audience that refuses to read. In the case of Vanilla Sky (a re-make of The Others’ director Amenábar’s Abre los ojos) the occasional plot twists and reality moulding make it unsuitable for the short on brainpower anyway! Cruise is ideally cast as a narcissistic son of multi-millionaire who, following a car crash after an altercation with a long-time girlfriend, undergoes extensive facial reconstruction… and possible charges for murder. Sadly, despite Cameron Crowe’s deft handling of the film, it all descends into maudlin self-pity and ends with an explanation designed to hammer the “meaning” into the heads of even the most in-bred of preview audiences. Ultimately it stays so close to its source at times (Crowe refers to it as a re-mix, Cruz plays the same role and even Cruise looks exactly like his Spanish counterpart) you wonder why they bothered.
CGI Stuff – Monsters Inc, Ice Age, Jimmy Neutron Boy Genius
The all CGI rollercoaster continues to develop in momentum although after the sad financial returns from last year’s Final Fantasy the emphasis is now firmly on the tried (and lucrative) family/kids market. Monsters Inc confirms Pixar’s place as the CGI people to watch – forget the rendering (albeit delightful) and just enjoy the characters and story. Big monsters + cute kid = top film. Exciting, funny and genuine. With nowhere near the clout of Pixar, Jimmy Neutron Boy Genius plants its feet firmly in the kids mould – fun but not much for adults to enjoy, and some of the rendering looks surprisingly early-90’s. Ice Age is, however, a bit different – basically reworking Dinosaur (there are even similarities to Monsters Inc in that two monsters befriend a defenceless human) with a hint of Chuck Jones anarchy, its problem lies with the shift in styles. Ultimately you care more about the unfortunate mute squirrel than the buddy-buddy tedium of the main characters. Another place to find CGI in the cinema is before the film you’ve paid your six quid to see. These are proving lucrative springboards for testing techniques, pad out the running time of the feature and more importantly see a long welcome return to the animated short. This year’s highlight was The Chubbchubs, although For The Birds demonstrated that Pixar could be as amusing as ever. And you don’t HAVE to have kids to see them.
And the winners are (drumroll, please):
Best SF-Fantasy: Spy Kids 2
Best Fantasy: Spirited Away
Scariest SF-Horror: Signs
Scariest Horror: The Eye
Special Takashi Miike Award for Utter Bonkersness: The Happiness of the Katakuris