Archive for the Science Category

Enigma Variations

Posted in FILM, MUSIC, Mythology, Science, Television with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on July 3, 2015 by dcairns

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TV plays always seemed a bit joyless to me as a kid — they were clearly for adults, but lots of adult stuff was fun. The Wednesday Play and Play for Today were never fun.

Maybe the form is at fault. You have something the length of a film, or a B-movie anyway, but made at a fraction of the cost. While B-movies got around the low-budget problem with simple, expressive lighting, cheap actors and stock sets, BBC plays did all of the above and threw in static filming and talkie scenes.

But the problem is that on top of that, they were drama, which meant they mustn’t be funny. Dennis Potter managed to smuggle in a few titters, but he saved the real comedy for his long-running shows. (A conversation I overheard when The Singing Detective first aired is like dialogue from a play: one girl trying to explain to another this incomprehensible but amazing thing she’d seen. “It was just this guy in a hospital bed with a really bad skin disease.” “Eurgh. Poor thing.” “No, but he kept saying stuff, it was the things he said, it was really good.”)

Maybe my avoidance was simply down to the fact that, inconceivably for us now, these plays made no attempt to be ingratiating or accessible, they were starkly concentrated on the job of alienating anybody who wouldn’t want to follow them where they were headed. Children were not welcome. I suppose some kids would have seen this as forbidden fruit and would be all the more interested, but as I viewed the adult world with a certain amount of terror anyway, I don’t think I was keen on anything that would open a door into it for me.

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Still, The Imitation Game, written by Ian McEwen and directed by Richard Eyre, is really good. It does have points of connection with the recent film of the same name. McEwen started out wanting to do the life of Alan Turing but got sidetracked by his researches into the women at Bletchley Park, and the role of women in Britain’s war generally. Harriet Walter, with her long bone china face and hushed, trepidatious voice, plays a young woman determined to play her part in the war, but despite her skills she is steadily demoted instead of promoted, due to her very eagerness to do work at the level she’s qualified for.

Rather appallingly, Turing, here called Turner, is used as a villain, the penultimate in a long line of men who patronize or exploit or betray Walter’s character. McEwen found a great subject when he focused on this aspect of the “war effort” (curious phrase), but it seems a shame he had to further traduce a national hero who’d already been roundly trashed by the establishment. For all the recent dramatic attention Turing has received, the one great drama capturing the totality of his tragedy seems elusive.

Eyre achieves some very nice shots, most of them admittedly static — an austere style in keeping with the period. Locked-off frame after locked-off frame, and the only way out is a cut. This kind of feminist drama, where the men are all bastards of one stripe or another, and each sequence is another mask dropping to reveal this, is out of style now, and it does have a sad, predictable quality, perhaps because drama tied to an ideology tends that way, but it’s at least gutsier than girl power.

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Penda’s Fen, written by David Rudkin and directed by Alan Clarke, the most celebrated of the TV play directors, is altogether more cinematic. It sets out its stall with an intro by the author invoking the landscape of “Visionary England.” A teenage boy experiences his homosexual awakening at public school, has mystical visions including angels, demons, and a conversation with Sir Edward Elgar in an abandoned cow shed. Imagery evokes Ken Russell and Lindsay Anderson.

Rudkin seems determined to throw every idea in his head at the page/screen, even creating a TV playwright character who can pontificate on his behalf. Given the play’s urgency to communicate, its baffling detours and mysticism, and the lack of anything else quite like it, I rather assumed he was a frustrated genius who rarely got to write anything that got made, but he was quite busy until the end of the eighties. His science fiction mindfuck …Artemis..8..1…. (you have to get the number of dots right) is fondly remembered, with a bit of head-scratching.

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The whole thing’s on YouTube.

Futurist Manifesto

Posted in FILM, Science with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on May 27, 2015 by dcairns

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TOMORROWLAND: A WORLD BEYOND feels like a far more personal film for Brad Bird than his MISSION IMPOSSIBLE sequel, but this also feels like a shrewd strategy: for all its ambitious scale, the Tom Cruise spy-fest was a way for Bird to acclimatize himself to live-action film-making. We know from THE INCREDIBLES that he has a love of futuristic espionage, so it was easy to see how the world of the Impossible Missions Force would appeal, but TOMORROWLAND is unadulterated Bird. Like THE INCREDIBLES it uses entertainment to put over a very personal message. I find Bird’s didactic streak easy to take in part because the things he chooses to preach about are uniquely him: RATATOUILLE really is about food, in a way that no other Disney animated film has been. THE INCREDIBLES was a plea for exceptional people to be allowed to do exceptional things, and Bird doesn’t apologise if that makes him seem elitist — it can be read as a plea for Bird himself to be allowed to do exceptional things.

TOMORROWLAND really is a manifesto, a counter-myth to the doomy dystopias of modern sci-fi (particularly, as the film makes clear, in video games) — when I said in my MAD MAX: FURY ROAD review that modern post-apocalyptic films seem to take apocalypse as inevitable, I seem to have stumbled upon Bird’s theme — TOMORROWLAND puts itself squarely in opposition to everything MAD MAX represents. (That’s as far as you can read without spoilers, and the movie does play very nicely if you don’t know anything about it…)

Disney's TOMORROWLAND Casey (Britt Robertson)  Ph: Film Frame ©Disney 2015

The backstory of the film suggests that the technocrats of Tomorrowland have been blasting us with a telepathic signal that makes us realize that the world is in danger, but that instead of galvanizing us into action, it’s depressed us into inertia. The characters in the film decide to fight back with their own message of hope, and it’s quite clear from the film’s narrative structure that TOMORROWLAND is itself that message, the hope-signal from a sunny futureworld, a beacon for us to follow to get to Jetsons utopia.

Points in the film’s favour: it is co-written by Damon Lindelof and yet makes a certain kind of sense, is consistent with itself, and doesn’t vanish beneath an avalanche of unmotivated behaviour and dim-bulb dialogue. Actually, the secret science-cult behind it all are a lot like the one in Lost.

It’s funny.

The acting is really excellent. George Clooney is fine as ever, but the kids are his equal: four REALLY great kids. Britt Robertson, technically an adult, actually (not even a teenager) should be an immediate star. She has to basically embody optimism here. I believed her, all the way.

The design is lovely, capturing that retro-future vibe elegantly and with original touches (the suspended swimming pools!) which nevertheless feel in keeping with the period (an early-sixties vision of tomorrow). There’s a stunning moment when Tomorrowland, seen previously in a vision (which turns out to have been a commercial), is revealed in its run-down, seedy present form.

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Of course, the concept of a scientific elite, or any kind of elite, leaves open the question of what attitude the film should take to the muggles, the mundanes, its own audience. And here the movie encounters one slight difficulty, since, despite locating the cause of mankind’s woes in the old technocrats, it also regards their successors as our saviours. There’s one rather shocking scene where the little android girl (yes: there’s a little android girl) gets smacked by a pick-up truck and knocked flying. The owner of the truck rushes to her fallen form, and his truck is then stolen. He takes off after it, forgetting his victim, who then gets to her feet and starts running after the truck at Jamie Sommers bionic speed. What’s missing is the reaction shot from the old guy who just ran her down — he ought to be comically astonished. Such a reaction would let us off the hook from our discomfort at the thought of some guy thinking he’s killed a kid, and the fact that the movie showed us what LOOKS like a horrible child fatality. It seems like a mistake for the movie not to be interested enough in this background character to use him to defuse that anxiety.

The odd effect of this android kid doesn’t stop there. She’s beautifully played by Raffey Cassidy, but the fact that she’s playing an ageless android who is decades older than her appearance means that we get to see George Clooney playing, essentially, love scenes with a child. Because he’s George Clooney and the scenes are beautifully conceived and written, this isn’t actually icky. But there is perhaps a trace of discomfort again.

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And that’s it for negative comments. Oh, when the heroine is led to a swamp, there should’ve been something IN the swamp of significance, probably, or why would android girl have led her there? Seems like android girl left her this clue and then expected her to stay put. Well, what the hell, the last time a Damon Lindelof script made this much sense was never, so we should be content with the charm and the classically beautiful storytelling and the really appealing characters.

The end credits feature some beautiful animation. Of course the drones in the audience stampeded for the exits, missing all this additional entertainment they had paid for, because it’s the end credits and the movie’s over, innit? Only one teenager, in the seat next to us, stayed. I felt like saying to him, “You’ve passed the test: here’s your pin,” but I didn’t have a Tomorrowland badge on me, just one of Jean Marais as the Beast in LA BELLE ET LA BETE, and I’m not sure how he would have reacted to that. But he deserves a prize. The movie’s point, Bird’s over-arching career-long theme, that some people are special, has some validity. Of course, everybody’s special or unique in their own way. But we should only celebrate them when they manifest it in positive ways, which is all too rare.

Here’s a film which resoundingly passes the sidewalk test and makes you glad of it. When you exit a movie, does the world look different? I came out and was struck by the view from the top of the Vue Ocean Terminal — Edinburgh — ancient, sooty Edinburgh — seemed like a dream city of the Twenty-First Century. Which, in a way, it is.

Mutant Testimony

Posted in FILM, Science, Television with tags , , , on May 26, 2015 by dcairns

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Sort of a follow-up to the sci-fi themed blogathon action.

We really enjoyed RETURN OF THE FLY (which has the same initials as Rolling On The Floor) some time back, particularly the moment when a telepod accident with a rodent produces a kind of Frankenstein hamster. There was seemingly something in the water at Twentieth Century Fox in the fifties, so that their science fiction output was more demented than most — check out THE ALLIGATOR PEOPLE sometime.

The first FLY sequel was directed by one Edward Bernds, whose career fluctuated from goofball space movies (QUEEN OF OUTER SPACE) to Three Stooges comedies, and we resolved to check out more of his marvels sometime. The chance came with WORLD WITHOUT END, a fairly poor film which is not without interest. Sadly, the most ridiculous thing in it is a giant killer bug which springs out at the heroes suspiciously as if drop-kicked into shot by a stagehand. Much of the rest is dull, but the film anticipates other, better movies, in a variety of ways.

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Our heroes are astronauts whose Martian mission is blown wildly off-course — they find themselves accelerating out of control, eventually coming to rest on a wild planet inhabited by scary goofy mutants. When this planet turns out to be Earth in the future after an atomic war, the parallel with PLANET OF THE APES is complete. All that’s missing are the apes.

Instead, the movie posits a humane race divided intwo two breeds — the fey wastrels moping about underground in a science-bunker, and the rampaging uglies on the surface. Thus the movie has inverted the Eloi/Morlocks dichotomy from HG Wells’ The Time Machine. And, delightfully, one of the astronauts is played by Rod Taylor, who would go on to star in George Pal’s lovely adaptation of the Wells novel. He’s pretty good here too, giving the whole thing more conviction and dynamism than it deserves, and almost more than the flimsy set walls can contain just because it would kill him not to.

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Bernds’ self-penned script is otherwise pretty dopey — the heroes remark regularly on the strange fact that the listless subterranean dweebs are blessed with curiously dynamic womenfolk, but no explanation for this is ever offered. And, despite having more vim than the men, the women have not taken over, as they often seem to in dystopian fantasies — they are content to be led by a council of crapulent pantywaists.

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I kind of wish I’d seen this movie as a little kid, because I would have been quite impressed with its minor virtues and overlooked its glaring flaws. But on the other hand, I’m definitely glad I had my mind blown by PLANET OF THE APES and THE TIME MACHINE first.

The other seminal sci-fi movies of my youth, mostly seen in BBC2 seasons, were FORBIDDEN PLANET, THE INCREDIBLE SHRINKING MAN (the ending!), THE DAY THE EARTH STOOD STILL, THEM! (the beginning!), and I guess WESTWORLD and SILENT RUNNING. I was less taken with WHEN WORLDS COLLIDE and so-so on THIS ISLAND EARTH. THE ANDROMEDA STRAIN seemed cold and slow. Movies that would surely have entered my DNA, but which I didn’t see until I was a bit older, were things like THE FIRST MEN IN THE MOON, THE THING FROM ANOTHER WORLD, INVADERS FROM MARS (one of the only two copies of Famous Monsters of Filmland I ever owned cautioned that this movie was one of the very few it would NOT recommend for small children, which of course made me very keen to see it) and IT CAME FROM OUTER SPACE.

One summer holiday I was playing in the garden when my Dad told me there was something coming on TV I might like, something he’d enjoyed as a boy — the original FLASH GORDON movie serial. Watching it again, he was kind of shocked by its hoakiness, I think, but I was awestruck.

I was devoted to Dr Who, hiding behind the sofa or outside the door when the scary title music played (Delia Derbyshire’s weird sounds), and Star Trek was sometimes scary but always colourful, even on a b&w TV, it seemed.

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Big screen experiences of sci-fi were not so successful for me, until STAR WARS. I was lucky to see the original KING KONG projected, which was a seminal moment, but LOGAN’S RUN freaked me out (I was too young to be seeing it, surely — not sure how that happened) and I have vague memories of a science fictional submarine movie that bored the life out of the whole family. STAR WARS which I was simultaneously obsessed by and a little disappointed in, having built it up in my head first, was followed by CLOSE ENCOUNTERS and a re-release of 2001, both of which were a lot less child-friendly but probably did a lot to advance my cinematic thinking, even if I wasn’t ready for where they were leading me yet.

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