Archive for the Science Category

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.

The Origin of Speeches

Posted in FILM, literature, Mythology, Politics, Science with tags , , , , , , , , , on April 24, 2015 by dcairns

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A filmmaker donated a big box of DVDs to the Art College so I took a few home. One was CREATION, directed by Jon Amiel, produced by Jeremy Thomas, telling the story of Charles Darwin’s struggle to write his magnum opus in the face of his deeply religious wife’s opposition, and while reeling from the death of his eldest child. I thought it might be terribly middlebrow, and in part it is, but it’s also well worth a look. I knew Fiona would be interested because it has Bambidirk Counterbath Benedict Cumberbatch and Toby Jones in it, both of whom rick up in the same carriage at one point, and Jeremy Northam for good measure. We don’t get enough Northam these days.

Chas. D. is played by Paul Bettany, in a succession of unattractive wigs (the very first shot of him displays an unwise amount of cheesecloth), who’s very good in a tough role. The character is anguished more or less throughout — Darwin was plagued by horrible, possibly psychosomatic discomforts during the writing of his famous book , and Bettany has to display suffering in every scene without getting monotonous. He just about succeeds. His real-life wife, Jennifer Connolly, plays Mrs. D, with impressive toughness, never apologising for the way the character is or trying to win excessive favour from the audience.

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Jeremy Thomas is attracted to classy literary adaptations and subjects that can easily seem middle-brow and uncinematic, but when he’s working with a Bertolucci or a Cronenberg the risk is obviated. Jon Amiel isn’t in that league — he benefited from working with the inherently idiosyncratic Dennis Potter in TV, bringing a restless, kinetic pizzazz to the proceedings. Here, adapting a novel himself along with John Collee, his style seems merely commercial, over-eager to keep things moving and be big and fancy. Slow motion shots, hand-held, steadicam, crane shots, jump cuts — everything is thrown at it, and not everything sticks. Fiona complimented the film for the moments which seem simplest — in fact, there’s a lot of craft and cunning going on even in these moments, but the quieter tone WORKS in a way that the more hectic and pushy style doesn’t. You can’t tart up a middlebrow think piece and pass it off as slam-bang entertainment.

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The one really disappointing element of the disc was the extras, which all sounded really interesting but were horribly made — the thing called Debating Darwin wasn’t a debate at all, but a series of statements, filmed separately, by a pro-evolution guy, another pr-evolution guy who was also a Christian, and a creationist. Giving that guy a platform and pretending that he was a proper scientist on an equal footing with Lewis Wolpert was a travesty. Like inviting a holocaust denier to take place in a piece called Debating Hitler. People with these views exist, regrettably, and it’s perfectly fine to acknowledge this, but putting them on an equal footing with actual intellects who actually respect the facts is irresponsible in the extreme. Deduct ten points.

Fiona thinks further points should be deducted for the fact that the baby orangutan who appears costumed in Victorian garb as Jenny the Ape receives no screen credit, despite being prominently featured even unto the movie poster and DVD cover.

Blue Marble

Posted in FILM, Mythology, Science with tags , on April 21, 2015 by dcairns

P L A N E T A R Y – Trailer from Planetary Collective on Vimeo.

PLANETARY is a new documentary screening at the Glasgow Film Theatre on Earth Day, April 22nd (tomorrow) and in selected venues thereafter. I was lucky enough to be offered a sneak peak, but I wish I could make it over to the west coast because it’s a stunning thing, well deserving of viewing on the big screen.

I see how clichés like the term “a meditation on” come into being, because while PLANETARY could be described in a more down-to-earth way as simply a discussion about human existence on planet Earth, the use of stunning NASA footage, stunning nature footage and atmospheric music makes it a sensuous experience as well as an intellectual one. So, fuck it, it is, in a sense, a meditation on human existence on planet Earth — our place in the ecosystem, our catastrophic failure to reach a rational understanding of what that place should be, the fragility of the bright globe supporting all the life we know of in the universe. The film may give you a feeling of vertigo relating not just to space but to time and thought also. Ultimately, the piece is an argument for mindfulness, in which it locates mankind’s best hope for adapting to the planet. The cast list of  mindful talking heads includes astronauts Ron Garan and Mae Jemison, environmentalist Bill McKibben, anthropologist Wade Davis, and Head of the Tibetan Buddhist Kagyu school, the 17th Karmapa.

The only imagery that seemed over-familiar was the KOYAANISQATSI-type cityscapes, usually New York and sometimes in time-lapse. Too aesthticized to work as a strong symbol of urban blight or life out of balance — the film would benefit from showing us a few ugly things to contrast with the genuinely staggering beauties. I would have thought space would have lost its power to be amazing after all these decades of manned orbital flight, but I defy you to hang onto your breath as that big blue marble rolls by, only two hundred and fifty miles down.

If you can’t make it to Glasgow, you will be able to pre-order the film soon at this link.

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