The 13th Monkey

A day of time travel stories —

To the cinema! To see Rian Johnson’s LOOPER. Big fan of his BRICK and I think THE BROTHERS BLOOM deserves more credit than it got even if it didn’t quite make it. After this hit, maybe more people will see it at least. But LOOPER is tough to talk about without spoilers, and it’s new so lots of you haven’t seen it. I’ll just say that Jeff Daniels berating Joseph Gordon-Levitt for copying his style from movies that themselves copied their style from older movies seems a very witty self-critique on Johnson’s part. We’ve already seen JG-L stand before the mirror and adjust his tiny duck-ass quiff in homage to Delon in LE SAMURAI… a movie which, like most Melville, transfigured moments and shots and set designs from old Hollywood noirs.

So it’s not the time to get into LOOPER, even though the film is current. We both really liked it, but I’d always rather talk about old stuff anyway.

The Outer Limits — watched the Harlan Ellison scripted Demon with a Glass Hand the same day as LOOPER, to get our heads nicely a-buzz with time travel ideas. Ellison sued the makers of THE TERMINATOR over its similarities to two of his stories, this and Soldier. Odd, since LOOPER owes much more to THE TERMINATOR, but one can’t imagine anyone suing over that resemblance. In Demon, Robert Culp (who can play both supermasculine and intellectual) comes from the future and has a cybernetic hand that tells him stuff, but can’t reveal the whole plot until it gets all its fingers back. This is a crazy, charming plot device, much more effective to deliver exposition than the scenes where Culp forces his enemies (who all look like Uncle Fester, as Fiona pointed out — except for the one who looks like a pitifully young Iggy Pop) to reveal what they know. They’re all remarkably loquacious, despite the fact that Culp is going to kill them anyway.

Byron Haskin, an old genre hand, directs, and rather delightfully the whole thing (apart from the above studio shot) plays inside the Bradbury Building, famous from BLADE RUNNER and a million other things, a building supposedly envisioned by its architect in a dream. Somebody should shoot some kind of cock-eyed compendium film of DRACULA, FRANKENSTEIN and DR JEKYLL AND MR HYDE there, since all of those came from dreams too. The ultimate oneiric movie.

The deserted office building at night is a vivid way to encapsulate the hero’s existential aloneness, which Ellison, lays on thick as you’d expect. He’s like a purple Kafka. Time travel per se plays little active role until the stinger at the end — the bad guys are aliens and removing their medallions could just as easily zap them back to their home world as forward in time. It’s interesting to me how baggy most of the Outer Limits scripts are — the one hour running time demands more complicated premises than Twilight Zone, but often the complications are stray stuff, padding or the narrative equivalent of patio extensions.

A case in point is The Man Who Was Never Born, which begins with a wholly superfluous astronaut character going through a time warp before the story actually begins. The true protagonist is Martin Landau as a futureworld mutant, traveling back in time to kill the scientist who’s going to invent a plague that sterilizes mankind and causes Landau’s disfigurement. So this story, by Anthony Lawrence, actually has more in common with THE TERMINATOR (and T2) than the Ellison story. Yet it’s prefigured too, by John Wyndham’s Consider Her Ways, which became a memorable episode of The Alfred Hitchcock Hour. Lawrence claimed his biggest influence was Cocteau’s LA BELLE ET LA BETE (Shirley Knight makes a radiant Beauty), and Conrad Hall’s fairytale cinematography actually conjures a comparable glamour using a very different palette.

The same day we watched LOOPER and the Ellison, the BBC screened the season finale of Dr Who, so we had a serious dose of time travel. Stephen Moffat’s run as script editor has been up and down — he allowed the Doctor to step hideously out of character in one episode, vindictively murdering a bad guy. It seems like there’s a quality control issue in the selection of writers, probably because Moffat doesn’t have time to read script samples and write his own episodes and rewrite everybody else’s.

In principle, I think the Weeping Angels who first appeared in the stand-out episode Blink are a one-trick pony and probably shouldn’t have been re-used. The basic gag of statues which only move when you aren’t looking, is terrific, but somehow stopped being scary after the first show (where it was terrifying). Which means that the pleasures of this episode came from the actors  — Mike McShane rather wasted, but Alex Winter Kingston (d’oh!) zesty as ever. Farewell to the best assistants the doc has ever had, but we still have Matt Smith as the Time Lord himself, a completely wonderful embodiment of the character. It pains me to say, but I think Smith really will struggle to find suitable roles when his stint finishes. As with Tom Baker, when you’re that good at playing an alien/funny uncle/Christ figure, it can be hard for casting directors to see you any other way. But I hope I’m wrong — in terms of emotional range, Smith can play anything, and generally comes at the emotion from a surprising angle, which made the climactic farewell scene here really affecting. Moffat wrote it very nicely, Smith and Karen Gillan (who assuredly will have a great post-Who career) played the hell out of it, and the awful music did its best to smother the whole affair in treacle but couldn’t quite succeed.

13 Responses to “The 13th Monkey”

  1. Alex Winter? I didn’t spot Bill S. Preston Esq in there. Alex Kingston maybe? ;)

    But I also loved Looper, even if the pace did change a little too drastically when they reache the farm (hardly a spoiler!).

  2. High time for the Ultimate time-travel movie, which would be an adaptation of “The Man Who Folded Himself” by David Gerrold. Gerrold wrote one of the most famous of all “Star Trek” episodes “The Trouble With Tribbies”

  3. Very interesting writer Gerrold.He later wrote a Next Generation story that would’ve featured gay star fleet crew, but the production team chickened out. I heard fans filmed it later

    Similarly when his autobiographical book Martian Child was filmed, John Cusack’s lead character was portrayed as straight rather than gay as in the book

    Rather touchingly at sci-fi conventions, He and Harlan Ellison both call each other the best writer who ever wrote for Star Trek.

  4. I read Gerrold’s columns in Starlog as a kid — he’s great. His thoughts on writing have stayed with me. I follow him on Facebook now. But I never ran across a copy of The Man Who…

    Brian, thanks for the correction. I guess I mix up Kingston and Winter because they’re both so POSITIVE.

    I can kind of see why Ellison doesn’t get more TV work (but some), but I never understood why Gerrold isn’t in far more demand. The Tribbles are a classic creation alright.

  5. I can’t say I was as fond of Looper as you seemed to have been…too violent for me in places (like the depiction of what happens to the older version when the younger version is tortured…now that will stay with me for a while! “Where is my nose? I know I had it somewhere!”). However I did like the performances by JG-L and BeeDub. Bruce will always do better at being himself than anyone else, but Levitt had the mannerisms and expressions right, even if he looked more like a vintage Tony LoBianco than vintage David Addison. Evidence: I liked Emily Blunt and her precocious poppet as well…where do they find these kids? “Pass me the Phillips” such sangfroid!

    One of my favorite time travel films is the unselfconsciously schmaltzy “Somewhere in Time” from 1980. A definite guilty pleasure starring Jane Seymour, Christopher Reeve and Christopher Plummer. Very girlie of me, I know, and I’m not proud of myself for it, but, there you are.

    And, by the way, the Doctor Who Pond Finale was the third appearance by the Weeping Angels, not the second. Don’t you remember this episode from 2010?


  6. I’m quite fond of Somewhere In Time too Jenny. It’s become something of a minor cult. I also love Time After Time. HG Wells vs Jack The Ripper (Malcom McDowell and David Warner.Two of my favourite actors).’Jack’ watching various world-wide news atrocities -“I belong here.”

  7. I wasn’t forgetting the angels’ second appearance, I was just suggesting they should have left off after the first. I feel the more we learn about them, the less scary they are, which leaves them rather a one-trick pony.

    Somewhere in Mind is the ladies’ favourite Jeannot Szwarc movie, and Bug (the bizarre William Castle-produced flick about fire-raising insects with a gestalt intelligence) is the gents’. The double bill that pleases everybody.

    The nasty bit in Looper you mention is fiendishly horrible but not actually violent at all…

  8. Thanks for backing me up, Fiona! I actually rewatched Time After Time again, recently. Still holds up pretty well, especially David Warner’s performance…never can quite buy Malcolm McDowell as a nice, wholesome guy. He’s played too many a bent character for me to swallow that one.
    David, perhaps violent was the wrong word. Maybe I should have said traumatizing. My mind goes right to what they were doing to the younger victim, even if I didn’t actually see it. I have a really hard time watching things like that. I guess it just shows that the director is doing a great job, but my mind doesn’t like living in places that dark, even for Bruce. Why I haven’t watched Pulp Fiction, either.

  9. Looper seems to live in its Willis references — even the diner scene seems like a Pulp Fiction nod, though Bruce spends zero time in diners in PF — everyone else does. It makes an odd companion to Moonrise Kingdom which also found quaint ways for Bruce to Do What He Does Best.

    Compared to Reservoir Dogs, PF strikes me as fairly safe for the squeamish — with Bruce’s bit the most problematic, alas.

  10. SPOILERS. I watched Looper last night and found it extraordinary for, well, you know, all the reasons. But later in bed I was haunted by its what-I-think-you-call double voodoo: in this case, time travel and TK. SInce Time Travel hadn’t been invented when the film was set, it seemed odd to still set it in the future. Was this so you could have TK? But why have TK at all? Wouldn’t the story have worked without it? I think so. I mean, you know, Hitler. But the story wouldn’t have worked without the blunderbusses. So we have a film set in 2043 pretty much purely for the sake of narratively helpful guns. Sorry, I adored SO much about this film – big things and details (and Bruce’s cloudy memory speech… Woof, I have never seen him rise to something as well as he has in this and Moonrise) – but it’s this double voodoo that’s bugging me right now.

  11. I guess Johnson wanted the fun of a future world and Willis’s story didn’t give him enough of that. But there is something nice about the idea that the loopers could be working, unknown, in our time. And I think they could get by without blunderbusses — doesn’t a shotgun do much the same thing?

    I don’t know if it’s a problem, but it’s part of Johnson’s love of egging and possibly over-egging — see also The Brothers Bloom, which has a whole hell of a lot of stuff. And maybe he felt a futuristic setting would give him leeway to create a stylised world in a way audiences apparently hadn’t accepted in his previous film.

    You’re right about Willis, hope he keeps up this amazing form.

  12. SPOILERS. Can a shotgun hit something over 15 feet away? I don’t know, but for JGL’s final choice to make sense, shooting Bruce couldn’t be an option, hence the blunderbuss rule. I watched this in a double bill with Ruby Sparks. A double Dano fix. He is also brilliant. Oh, and have you seen JGL dance?

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