While the number of exclusively SF films are a bit low this year, those that are borderline (crossing over into the fantasy or horror genres) are on the increase. But then again how often do “true” SF films come along? And what is an SF film anyway? If SF is the extrapolation of the contemporary to perceive a logically plausible future then really Final Fantasy is the closest you are going to get (spiritual questions excepted) this year. If you view SF as a method for commenting on the present by altering actuality or perceived near-futures then Josie and the Pussycats is your film. Then of course, came the Hypes of the Year – both based on popular novels. Perhaps most surprisingly the one film that most definitely is not SF is the one that virtually everyone agrees is a “must-see” is The Dish. In the end it seems that whether a film can be marketed or justified as SF is irrelevant to whether it is perceived as such.
Imagine a table laid with the finest savoury food you’ve ever tasted; little canapés, stuffed olives, tasty cheesy nibbles, fresh bread. The aroma. The feel of your saliva glands bursting with antici…pation. Then imagine the horror as the renowned chef who has created these delicious morsels unloads a dumper-truck of artificial sweetener over the whole lot and bids you bon apetit. This is what watching A.I. is like. Unforgivable and a further plunge to the “not good” side of the Spielberg swing-o-meter that hasn’t seen a good film in 12 years (which admittedly is still ahead of Ridley Scott’s 17 years and counting – this year’s risible Hannibal reaching a nadir). If you must watch it then switch off or walk out when it feels like the end, you’ll thank us for it and probably like it.
Atlantis: The Lost Continent
Well, the story ain’t exactly bursting with originality – young bumbling geek and his group of companions, some of whom have, gasp, ulterior motives, discover the legendary lost city of Atlantis. Cue adventures, excitement, misunderstandings and betrayal before all is nicely resolved and everyone lives happily ever after. Except the bad guys. What makes this film worth watching though, apart from the merciful lack of bad musical numbers, is the delightful animation. Japanese anime has become increasingly influential on Western films – characters’ eyes are becoming bigger, their noses are more snub-cute but more importantly the action has become far more dynamic. In many respects it’s a return to Disney’s glory days of the 30s and 40s. The ending is almost abstract as the source of Atlantis’ power prevents the volcano’s lava destroying the city, it’s a sequence that tries to live up to the masterful work of Miyazaki and if it never comes close (Disney may have the cash and the staff but they can’t compete with the delicacy, ambiguity and occasional ferocity of Miyazaki) it is nonetheless a welcome step in the right direction. Shame it lost shed-loads of money which, combined with similarly poor box office for Final Fantasy as well as last year’s Titan A.E. and Princess Mononoke, makes the possibility of less demanding animation increasingly likely in the west.
SF Japanese style, released to cries of despair in its native land. Why the fuss? Well the near future plot revolves around the staging of a government-sponsored game show where contestants have to kill or be killed on a specially modified island. Armed with a random selection of weapons from sub-machine guns to the awesome tea-tray, the combatants have three days to kill each other. There can only be one survivor, a rule enforced by the exploding collar – a stylish fashion statement that everyone must wear. The whole sordid affair is commented upon with helium-induced glee by a bubbly, bouncing front woman and the progress in the film can be seen at regular intervals thanks to a handy “people left alive” tally. So far, so good but Battle Royale’s trump card is that the contestants are all roped into the game by their long suffering schoolteacher (played by the inimitable ‘Beat’ Takeshi), resulting in two hours of 14 and 15 year olds mutilating each other in the name of entertainment. Sick, socially appropriate and wickedly funny.
Brotherhood of the Wolf
In a great year for popularist French films Brotherhood of the Wolf is a crowd-pleasing combination of heritage gore, monster movie and multi-racial martial arts. A sweeping pot-pourri of a film, it occasionally falls foul of its everything-into-the-pot ethos, but gains top marks for exhilarating camerawork and design. 9 out of 10 Hollywood blockbusters (when stating a preference) declared that they wish they’d been this instead.
Cats and Dogs
The potential for a great film stuffed with James Bond gadgets, international canine politics, allergy cures, mad scientists and big quadruped punch-ups may be there, but Cats and Dogs is a dog of a film. A reactionary piece of propaganda that asserts that all dogs are patriotic defenders of the US flag; the political overtones are distasteful and seem to be saying that wealth equals morality, that the only women who are not wholly evil are not worthy to have a home of their own and that any non-US nation is inherently suspect. Some of the CGI definitely bears the hallmarks of rushed-out-for-the-holidays-itis. Still Mr Tinkles’ character means that it is not entirely a lost cause, it’s just that the overall film is such a missed opportunity. And besides, cats rule.
Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon
How long has it taken to get a decent bit of stylised wire-work into Hollywood? Too long, and ironically now you can’t get away from it (although if you’re after gentle laid back film try The Man Who Wasn’t There, mentioned here because we couldn’t think of anywhere else appropriate to put it). While The Matrix may have introduced it to a wider audience it took Crouching Tiger to put it into context. What Ang Lee has managed to do is redefine HK-style cinema as art, no mean feat for a Wu Xia film as most reviewers limit themselves to Wong Kar Wai (whose only Wu Xia film Ashes of Time was kept from these shores until Crouching Tiger made it “acceptable”) or John Woo, dismissing others as merely metteurs-en-scene of cinematic junkfood. So while many may have been surprised by the cross dressing (it’s a staple of the genre), the surreal nature of the fighting (it’s a staple of the genre) and the pathos (it’s a staple of the genre), it doesn’t detract from a sumptuous and, in Hollywood terms, groundbreaking film. Suddenly Iron Monkey is issued in the US and reaps comfortable returns at the box office, and a Mandarin language film grabs some statues. Scoff all you want but this is good news.
Possibly the flimsiest excuses for putting this in a round up of SF films but frankly it has got a rocket in it, so it sort of counts (sadly we couldn’t twist things far enough to include the remarkable Tears of the Black Tiger, Amélie or Moulin Rouge). The workers at an Australian satellite station are given the task of broadcasting man’s first steps on the moon live to the globe, a task not made any easier by its location in a sheep paddock and a series of unfortunate mishaps. As much about a small rural community as it is about the space race The Dish sees all the actors on top form with some mercifully restrained direction. Gentle, delightful and not in the slightest bit cloying, The Dish is a wonderful feel-good comedy that cannot be recommended highly enough. Even cynics can enjoy.
Dungeons and Dragons
Admit it, you missed this one as well didn’t you? Well in the name of “art” and Vector we didn’t. Quite simply the funniest film of the year we howled through every atrocious moment, almost requiring medical attention at some of Jeremy Irons’ gluttony-rich scenery feasting. Not convinced? Try this: Tom Baker as a geriatric elf, Richard O’Brien as the campest king of thieves, needlessly moulded female armour, pointy ears, horrible dialogue, dreadful acting and very silly names. In a year of lacklustre blockbusters and tired screenplays it takes something really special to plumb the depths – D&D’s the one. Pack a D20 and a six-pack.
It’s Ghostbusters for the Noughties! Only jaw-droppingly poor. Interesting CGI and some intriguing ideas cannot begin to compensate for third-rate arse gags and sorry acting. Dripping with teeth-grinding scenes of unimaginable crassness, the poster is by far the best bit.
Square Soft’s ambitious and hugely costly all CGI feature was generally condemned by critics as slight and avoided by the public at large. Anything good to say about it was levelled at the heroine’s hair. A shame really, as Final Fantasy’s deceptively simple story can be viewed on many levels, the attention to design and pacing is superb whilst the score quite simply one of the most portentously serious in a long time. Breathtaking visuals, alien aliens (how often can you say that?), action, adventure, a decent female lead role for once and a mainstream film that tackles questions of identity, ecology and spirituality. Buy it on DVD and curse that you couldn’t be bothered to see it on the big screen. Which we did of course. Twice.
John Carpenter’s Ghosts of Mars
So JC returns at last from his brief sojourn into the Vampire genre to direct an SF/Horror hybrid. However mish-mash is probably a more appropriate term. A group of cops set out to transport a dangerous prisoner from a holding gaol across Mars to a secure facility. But on arrival they discover that most of the camp population have somehow become possessed and are now fearsome fiends, with painful looking body piercings and strange rituals. Told in flashback, the film holds little in the way of suspense as you know the final outcome pretty much from the beginning. Despite a thoroughly respectable ensemble cast and good use of mise-en-scene, it just doesn’t quite work. Enjoyable hokum, but one expects more from Carpenter.
Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone
One of the hypes of the year. Well, this looks great and features another droll turn from the stunning Alan Rickman. That’s the good part. Unfortunately Chris Columbus (it should’ve been Gilliam directing), while sensibly opting for a British cast, sadly appears so in awe of Ms Rowling’s book that he doesn’t pare enough of it to make the characterisation work. This results in a film that never fails to interest but is distanced from actually making the audience care for the characters as anything other than (delightfully realised) walking illustrations. Sometimes judicious editing and restructuring are essential to make a film work as a film…
Josie and the Pussycats
Blink-and-you-missed-it Archie comic post-modern update with great tunes, heaps of consumerist irony and spot-on performances all around. Josie’s frothy pop-punksters are spin-doctored into stardom by Alan Cumming and his bubbly-bitch boss following an unfortunate “accident” resulting in the disappearance of (s)hit boy band duJour. But sinister plans are afoot involving hi-tech underground capitalist marketing, brainwashing America’s youth and world domination (insert maniacal laugh here). Infectious lightweight fun, cruelly discarded on initial release – this year’s missed hit.
Jurassic Park III
JPIII is streets ahead of its wretched predecessor in terms of… well everything really, but is still pretty dodgy. Wisely the film ditches basic storytelling principles (beginning-middle-end) in favour of a “get on with the dinosaurs” middle-only approach resulting in much more action. Preposterous in the extreme with a bizarre solution to restoring estranged families (throw your only son on a dinosaur inhabited island for a couple of months before kidnapping a palaeontologist and enlisting the services of B-picture mercenaries to get him back again) at least there are jumps, thrills and spills to be enjoyed in-between your mouthfuls of popcorn. Dire characterisation, occasionally ludicrous set-pieces and a non-ending do their best to dampen whatever lacklustre enthusiasm you can muster, but it passes the time. Remember, The Lost World (1925 and re-issued on video/DVD this year) and King Kong (1933) are still the best dinosaur films ever made.
Lara Croft: Tomb Raider
Beginning with outrageous fetishistic sexualisation through voyeuristic editing, the Lara v. Robot opening gets most of the fan-boy wet dreams nicely out of the way before settling down into familiar “Indiana Jones” style territory. Angelina Jolie makes a surprisingly good Lara Croft (although less said about Jon Anaconda Voight’s oh-so-ironic part as her father the better) and being a Simon West film at least the action is exhilarating. Of course it is disposable tosh with some dreadful dialogue and delivery, a plot from a B-movie producer’s wastepaper bin and more product placements than The Shopping Channel, but nice use is made of Angkor Watt and the ending is strangely reminiscent of The Final Programme, just don’t ask why…
The Lord of the Rings: Fellowship of the Rings
Peter “ne’er a bad film” Jackson has done it – a splendid three-hour adaptation of Tolkien. Ditching the usual (Tom “always first to go” Bombadil and the Barrow-wights among many) Jackson’s film makes far more narrative sense in the uprising of Saruman in Isengard than the book ever did. Huge battles, Boschian Mordor, really horrid orcs, aloof elves, a tantalising glimpse of Gollum, mercifully underplayed invisibility transformations and big, big sets mix with picture perfect cinematography and Howard Shore’s not-too-cute soundtrack. The editing’s great, Gandalf is perfect riding the fine line between party-thrower extraordinaire and terrifying vessel of destructive power and you even forget that the hobbits are in reality the same size as the rest of the cast, due to the subtlety of the effects work. A packed cinema full of kids marvelled at it, and the adults were entranced too, so you can’t say fairer than that.
The Mummy Returns
OK so The Mummy wasn’t going to be winning any awards for literary merit or plausibility but it was a helluva lot of fun. The sequel goes for the “re-make with knobs on” approach but sadly the film cannot live up to its predecessor. Yes, the battles are impressive, there are jumps, flashbacks, sword-fighting, airships and all manner of icky curses. Unfortunately some of it seems a touch stale and the horror aspects of the original have been ousted by spectacle. Worst of all is the appalling Scorpion king – he’s rubbish when just a bloke and laughably rubbish when half man/half scorpion, rendered in some truly abominable CGI. Still fun, still watchable, still dumb, but a let down nonetheless.
Planet of the Apes
A-ha. Tim Burton’s “re-imagining” of The Planet of the Apes. Presumably he “re-imagined” it as an average, disposable piece of lightweight tosh without a single memorable human character, replete with uncharacteristically insipid cinematography, no human experimentation and a selection of endings pinched from Boulle’s novel, Star Trek: The Motion(less) Picture and Kevin Smith (allegedly – but even if you had written that ending would you have admitted it?). Disappointing and Burton’s least Burtonesque film since Batman.
Truly a film for all ages the marvellous Shrek has had more than its fair share of eminently justifiable praise – if you’ve seen it nothing we’re going to say is going to come as any surprise and if you haven’t then where the hell were you in 2001?
Robert Rodriguez in U-rated shocker! Fast and furious fun from start to finish this is the cool kids’ flick of the year with super-spy parents being held hostage and only their kids to save them. Cue mad gadgets, jet-packs and nuclear powered submarines. Where else can you see Antonio Banderas at the mercy of a pantomime cackling megalomaniac Alan Cumming (it’s that man again) complete with an army of guards who are, literally, all thumbs? More action and ideas in ten minutes than most Hollywood blockbusters cram into two hours; bonkers concepts, mad sets and frenetic camerawork. As deep as a small puddle but sheer entertainment nonetheless.
This Year’s Horror
The delayed release of the Wes Craven produced Dracula 2000 (imaginatively re-titled in the UK as, wait for it,… Dracula 2001) couldn’t disguise the tedium of the finished film. Packed with some interesting ideas, particularly relating to Judas Iscariot, any affinity for the project is dampened by needless editing, that annoying tendency to show gross things but just a little bit so it doesn’t offend, and an entirely unconvincing Dracula. Well, he’s fine swishing the cloak about and stomping around in leather trousers, but please don’t let him open his mouth. A plethora of unsubtle Virgin (the shop not the preferred type of vampire victim) product placements drive the final stake well and truly home. Far better (relatively) was Forsaken, an AIDS allegory fusion of John Carpenter’s Vampires and Near Dark. Not original by any stretch but eminently watchable, occasionally shocking and only let down by a weak finale. Jeepers Creepers was a run-of-the-mill teen horror with jumps aplenty. It managed to tread the now over-familiar post-postmodernist route (how many times do we need to be told how to watch a horror film?) but dared to be different at the end, amidst an otherwise predictable plot. As for Bless The Child and Lost Souls… don’t ask, and please don’t get us worked up to mention the truly abominable Scary Movie 2. However one to watch out for is The Others, the sort of horror film that’s been missing from the big screen for too long. No gore, no fx overload, just a thoroughly creepy haunted house story. Who cares if you’re savvy enough to know what’s going on? With splendid performances all round, this is a rare treat – a horror film that genuinely scares and shocks. Also well worth a peek is the low-budget Canadian lycanthrope film Ginger Snaps, mixing art, gore and Buffy as one of a pair of suicide obsessed sisters finds herself growing a tail and having an insatiable urge for human blood. Top stuff. Follow-up fans will be pleased to have seen the excellent sequel to spooky Japanese shocker The Ring (title? guess…) received a limited release – we implore you to catch up with this series right now and join us in awaiting the release of Ring 0, hopefully next year. Those of a nervous disposition are invited to seek their kicks elsewhere. Add Audition to the equation and Japan look like retaining their crown as makers of interesting and audacious horror.
And the winners are:
Best (and fluffiest) SF Film: Josie and the Pussycats
Scariest Horror: The Others
Fantasy Winner: The Lord of the Rings (inevitably)
Best SF-by-the-back-door: The Dish
Film That Didn’t Match Its Hype: Planet of the Apes