Tagged: science fiction

The Net (UK 1953)

What a strange mix of ingredients The Net presents. At first glance this should be a prestigious ‘A’ feature with the distinguished director Anthony Asquith and a fine cast headed by Phyllis Calvert and James Donald and a strong supporting cast of character actors. It’s a Two Cities film and it’s made at Pinewood for Rank – but it’s only 86 minutes long. Why is it not included by Wikipedia in its ‘select list’ of Two Cities films? The answer probably lies in its mix of genres and the recognition that science fiction is the main genre with a spy thriller and romance also worked into the narrative.

Science fiction was generally a despised genre in the UK of the 1950s, though in retrospect certain films such as the Quatermass series (i.e. including TV serials) have since gained much respect. One of several useful American reviews of The Net (it was renamed Project M7 in the US and released in 1954 as the ‘B’ picture alongside The Creature from the Black Lagoon) suggests that it was the first UK science fiction film since The Shape of Things to Come (1936). I can’t think of another science fiction title during the 1940s. The Net was based on a novel by John Pudney, an intriguing figure who was known as a poet and writer and who, during the Second World War, joined the RAF and worked as a ‘creative writer’ at the Air Ministry. Several of the films that made use of his writing had themes relating to flying. Ironically he was also the father-in-law of the UK film studies pioneer Victor Perkins. Pudney stood as a Labour candidate in the 1945 General Election in a safe Tory seat and his political connections may have informed his writings in the early 1950s. His 1952 novel was adapted by William Fairchild who was a prolific screenwriter in the 1950s.

The model’s design is displayed in this alternative poster/lobby card

In the ten years from the end of the Second World War, the UK economy was under great strain as the country struggled to rebuild after wartime damage, repay American loans and deal with the end of Empire. The one hope for an industrial revival based on new technologies was the lead in aviation design, a more positive legacy of war. Unfortunately, both the Labour and Conservative parties were wedded to a Cold War policy that required the UK to have its own nuclear deterrent. The British film industry produced several films in the decade that focused on aviation and especially on aviation developments and nuclear research. In David Lean’s 1952 film The Sound Barrier an aircraft manufacturer attempts to develop a new jet fighter that will be operational at speeds over Mach 1, breaking the ‘sound barrier’. Lean’s film uses aircraft which are recognisable from the period and it was a box office hit. The Net imagines a much more advanced experimental programme which pushes it into science fiction. (The sound barrier had been ‘broken’ in 1947, but not by operational aircraft which were only just beginning to go into service in 1953.)

Lydia and Dr Leon enjoying viewing ‘What the Butler Saw’ on a trip away from the Project.

The experimental project is located on a coastal site somewhere in Southern England where Professor Heathley (James Donald) leads a team developing the M7 aircraft intending to fly beyond Mach 1 at high altitude. If successful the project is intended to lead to developments of a spacecraft. The ‘Net’ of the title is metaphorical possibly referring to the claustrophobia of the project personnel and to the restrictions placed on Heathley by the civil servant who is his effective manager on site (played by Maurice Denham). It may also refer to the idea of a ‘network’ of spies expected to be attempting to infiltrate the project. Robert Beatty plays the Project Security officer. Heathley plays a form of ‘mad professor’, who is completely immersed in his work. He plans to test the aircraft himself instead of using a professional test pilot. He also neglects his wife Lydia (Phyllis Calvert), who is pursued by the charming and eloquent  Dr. Alex Leon (Herbert Lom). This and a second relationship between two younger members of the project team (played by Muriel Pavlow and Patric Doonan) make up the romance element.

James Donald as Prof. Heathley in his futuristic flying suit.

I’m not very familiar with Anthony Asquith’s work and not a big fan of the films I have seen. He was the son of the Liberal Prime Minister H. H. Asquith and a celebrated director from the 1920s to the 1960s, but this film seems restricted by a low budget. Much of the film is set in the project offices, Heathley’s home or the control room for the flight tests. The interior scenes are quite ‘stagey’, but sometimes the night time scenes have more atmosphere. The M7 aircraft is a model that seems to have drawn on aspects of different new jet types in development at the time. Its fuselage and especially the nose section resembles the Handley Page Victor (which didn’t fly until December 1952) and the delta wing was a feature of various designs including the Avro Vulcan (which first flew in August 1952). These two bomber designs were both intended to deliver nuclear weapons in the future but they were much bigger aircraft than the M7 is intended to represent. The M7 design also incorporates engine intakes which look familiar from the design of the de Havilland Comet which was introduced as the world’s first commercial jet airliner in 1952. Bizarrely, the M7 is seen to be a seaplane for take-off and landing. I’m no aeronautical engineer but this sounds implausible. It does, however, fit in with the other aspects of the film, including the control room (which can take over the controls of the aircraft in flight) and the futuristic helmet and flying suit (see the above film still). I’m reminded of the boys’ comic paper of the 1950s, the Eagle and the adventures of ‘Dan Dare’.

The Net is a strange representation of issues that were certainly important in the early 1950s. I did find it entertaining and it wasn’t a struggle to watch but the budget restrictions and the implausibility of the plot in the context of 1952 were hard to take. I think Phyllis Calvert was wasted and I was egging her on to enjoy a fling with Herbert Lom. James Donald is fine in a role he seems quite suited to. The real weakness of the narrative is that the villain, the spy, is obvious from fairly early on. Whether this is the fault of the script, the direction or the performance of the actor concerned I couldn’t decide. I decided to watch The Net because in my research into 1953 film releases in the UK I noticed that Phyllis Calvert was on stage in Blackpool at roughly the same time this film was in cinemas. I think too that a tie-in cigarette advertisement in 1953 featured her role in the film. She was also appearing in Ealing’s Mandy (UK 1952) in second run cinemas. Perhaps because of this, I came to The Net with the wrong expectations? The Net was broadcast on Talking Pictures TV some time ago and I recently watched a recording. Talking Pictures TV has announced a new online service to be launched on December 1st. This is an exciting prospect and I’ll report on it in due course.

Hello World (Japan 2019)

Hello World poster

This film presented a critical challenge for me. I’m increasingly bored by the idea of ‘superhero movies’ and I haven’t watched any for several years. But I’m always interested in anime of all kinds. So how would I cope with a ‘superhero anime‘? In the event, Hello World turned out to be a science fiction-romance in which the superpower is gifted to a shy teenager lacking self-confidence. The anime also attempts a range of social comments. Not having a detailed knowledge of comic books and their filmic adaptations, I probably missed some of the familiar generic elements borrowed from other films.

This appears to be the second anime feature by director Itô Tomohiko, but I note that he was an assistant director on The Girl Who Leapt Through Time (Japan 2006) which also has a time travel narrative focus. Writer Nozaki Mado appears to have only a TV series credit, so both are relatively new to top creative roles on anime features. The plot of the film is complex and quite difficult to outline clearly. I also don’t want to give away the ending of the narrative. So here is a very brief outline. The central character is Katagaki Naomi, a boy happiest with his books who is so indecisive in every aspect of his life that he even tries to read and absorb a ‘self-help’ book. He has no real friends, although he is invited to join various groups. One day, having joined the school’s library group, he finds himself paired on a library project with a girl, Ichigyou Ruri, who is also a bookworm and very introverted, but more decisive and confident. The setting is 2027 in Kyoto, the city in Japan most often associated with history (it was Japan’s second capital city, after Nara and before Edo (Tokyo)) and traditionally where most jidai-geki (historical drama films have been made). It seems that in 2027 Kyoto is almost like a model city of the future with a huge Museum Project at its heart, presenting the city’s history. A large Google-like company has mapped the city in fine 3D detail and drones monitor every aspect of life in the city. One day, Naomi is watching a strange, seemingly natural, event when a crow flies down and steals the book he is carrying. He has just enough time to see that the crow has three legs before it flies off and he attempts to follow it. Eventually it leads him to meet a figure who will turn out to be an older (and therefore taller) version of Naomi. His future self has come back in time as an avatar in an attempt to manipulate time. (The three-legged crow is known in East Asian mythology and in Japan is known as Yatagarasu.)

The school library is where Naomi and Ruri meet most often

Manipulating time in a science fiction narrative usually suggests massive conflict and disaster, as well as posing a philosophical question far too complex for most of us to grapple with. In this case it seems to involve Ichigyou. The avatar first offers Naomi a superpower which he must learn how to use in order to save Ruri. He receives a form of energy glove which enables him to manipulate and grow any material. Eventually he will be able to produce huge boulders, miles of tarmac roads or metal structures etc. As well as creating all kinds of narrative possibilities this also gives the animators scope to create some amazing sequences to overlay the finely detailed drawn images of the city.

I won’t go any further with the plot and instead just make some observations. ‘Saving’ Ruri takes us back to ancient romance tales about the damsel in distress. Unfortunately, Ruri is rather underwritten and in contemporary terms it is quite difficult to assign this female character any ‘agency’. Also, the two young people are not presented in a family context. Naomi does have a mother, briefly represented (just as a voice, I think) in one scene. Families are important in the genre – Superman’s parents, Peter Parker’s older relatives in Spiderman etc. Or else there is an older, wiser, wizard-like advisor. but here we have just the boy and girl and the older version of the boy – at least in the beginning.

Naomi’s future self as an avatar appears in his room

I suggested that there are some social commentaries in the narrative. The title ‘Hello World’ has been taken by many reviewers to be a reference to the first line of code in a new computer program. It’s a very long time since I tried to learn any coding, but I seem to remember that ‘Hello World’ was what blogging software used to insert in a new blog as an example of writing a new post. This science fiction narrative picks upon several of our fears about the new digital ‘always on’ world. The Kyoto of 2027 is mapped by robot drones and patrolled by bots who are there to make sure nothing is ‘changed’ – manipulating time will send these bots into a frenzy. For the schoolkids, ‘joining’ groups is almost compulsory with the fear of being ‘left out’. The ultimate fear of needing to reboot your computer system when everything might not reappear is also a real worry. But the inclusion of these kinds of issues is not really enough to compensate for the thin central romance narrative. This film looks great but it doesn’t have the ‘pull’ that this kind of romance needs to generate. But I did like the three-legged crow. I’m not the target audience for this anime and it does seem to have been well received by some fans. But I can’t see it having the ability to ‘cross over’ into wider audience segments like Studio Ghibli films.

Few Japanese stories stay in one format. This anime has so far been ‘novelised’ and a TV 3 episode spin-off titled ‘Another World’ has also been produced. Here is the Japanese trailer for Hello World (no subs) which gives some idea of the anime style, but doesn’t spoil the later sections of the plotting:

The Last Wave (La dernière vague, France 2019)

Fear on the beach as experienced by the Mayor (Isabel Otero)

The first two episodes of this serial were broadcast on BBC4 on Saturday evening without much fanfare and little on IMDb. I was struck straightaway by two thoughts. This seems like an American-influenced narrative and as the image above suggests, we have several ingredients of a narrative reminiscent of American films and TV. Panic on the beach of a small seaside resort with the Mayor centre frame, aware of the possible consequences of some form of tragic event on the prosperity of the community. It took me a little while to confirm that one of the leads in the serial is played by Marie Dompnier who I enjoyed so much in the two seasons of Witnesses (Les témoins) in 2014 and 2017. Though La dernière vague has different writers, this opening episode has a scene that is similar in some ways to Witnesses Season 2. In the earlier narrative Ms Dompnier is a police detective who investigates an incident in which a bus full of passengers seemingly frozen to death is found on a rural road. In this new serial she is more directly involved as one of a group of surfers taking part in a local event when a mysterious cloud forms over the sea. The surfers literally disappear for several hours and then return seemingly having suffered no injury. Indeed, some of them seem to have had any medical issues ‘improved’ or ‘resolved’. But they have no memory of what actually happened to them.

Ben (David Kammenos) and Lena (Marie Dompnier) are an estranged couple who might be reconciled because of the cloud?

At the end of episode 2 we are left with the strong suggestion that the cloud is merely the signifier for some non-human force, possibly a natural phenomenon or an alien consciousness? Is this horror or science fiction? So far this ‘force’ seems to be more beneficial than dangerous but this might be dependent on how humans respond. There are several family melodrama elements developing as well so perhaps there will be some kind of moral questioning of these relationships. And finally there is the ecology vs capitalism issue. In one sense it all looks familiar in genre terms. The seaside community comprises attractive people and the beach in the Landes south of Bordeaux in Nouvelle Aquitaine is inviting. it’s also good to see a lead character, Ben, who is a chemistry teacher. I’m looking forward to the next two 50 minute episodes – there are six in total.

The Observer‘s reviewer has already trashed the serial and the Telegraph has published a jokey review. This kind of genre mashup often seems to rile those critics who happily accept crime fiction. I wonder why?

GFF20 #19: Children of Men (US-UK-Japan 2006)

Fedor5

Life without a future

As we live in a sort of dystopia with the Covid-19 enforced lockdown, we can cheer ourselves up by observing that things ain’t as bad as they might be. In Children of Men, director Alfonso Cuarón and his four other scriptwriters, show a truly terrifying vision of a future without children (based on PD James’ novel). As is the way with science fiction, the film is about now; and the now of 2006 is even more relevant in 2020. The focus of the film is on the treatment of migrants and things have got much worse in the last 14 years as the right-wing dehumanisation of human beings has gained more traction. It’s noticeable that there are those on the right, in the current crisis, who are being honest in their defence of the economy over the lives of the old and infirm (I won’t link to any as they are not worth reading). If the likes of Toby Young are seen on mainstream broadcasters such as the BBC again . . .

In the film Cuarón highlights the lack of human empathy in our world through: the treatment of migrants; police state tactics; the desecration of the environment; the war on terror; celebrity culture. It shows illegal migrants being caged before deportation and a police state similar to that imagined by George Orwell in his novel 1984 (published 1949). There are numerous contemporary UK references, such as the burning of livestock because of ‘mad cow’ disease and the hysteria that accompanied the ‘national’ mourning of Princess Diana.

In a documentary short that accompanied the DVD release of the film, The Possibility of Hope (US 2007), the broader issues of climate change and capitalism (which both fuel increased migration) are investigated showing Cuarón to be a political filmmaker even if his films are commercial in nature.

I’m not sure why Children of Men wasn’t a hit as it is a brilliant action movie containing some of the most thrilling sequences in cinema. Cuarón likes to use the long take, also used to devastating effect in Roma and with didactic purpose in Y tu mama tambien. Film theorist André Bazin would likely have approved of Cuarón’s aesthetic except for the fact he favours a moving camera. Having screentime mirror the audience’s experience of time does signify realism, we get a sense that we see characters acting in real time and so avoiding the manipulation of editing (ignoring the fact that a number of long takes in the film are separate shots digitally welded together). In addition, this ‘sense’ of real time can serve to heighten suspense in a ‘race against time’ narrative sequence. Hence, when the protagonists are under attack in a car the escape unfolds in the same time experienced by the spectator and, as there are no cuts, it seems as if the profilmic event happened as it is shown. Having the camera inside the vehicle further enhances the suspense as this gives the audience the same viewpoint as the characters.

Cuarón’s long takes are not always focused on key narrative action. For example, at one point the camera wanders away from Theo, who is present in every scene of the film, to seemingly investigate what’s going on elsewhere: when he’s on his way to work, soldiers are standing on the street and the camera walks through them to see a block of flats being emptied, presumably of refugees.

Clive Owen’s taciturn persona as the protagonist Theo is perfect for the role. Danny Huston’s cameo as a government minister is a masterful portrayal of the vapid urbanity of the English upper class. Michael Caine channels John Lennon as a Steve Bell-like political cartoonist (Bell did the actual cartoons on view) and Chiwetel Ejiofor, as a revolutionary, manages to convey deranged fervour and genuine concern. However, the true star of the film is Cuarón and his long-time collaborator, cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki, who have produced a devastating vision of life without a future and life with humanity.

GFF20 #15: Stalker (USSR 1979)

The journey through the Zone begins on a petrol-driven trolley

Glasgow’s retrospective this year was ‘Are We There Yet? A Retrospective of the Future’ and amongst the many Hollywood films selected for this strand, Andrei Tarkovsky’s Stalker stood out as something different. I don’t think I saw Stalker when it arrived in the UK, but I knew something about the film. I was therefore surprised that a 162 minute film which has baffled audiences for 40 years should attract a nearly full house in GFT1 (260 seats taken according to Festival co-director Allan Hunter). Admittedly this was a free show, like all the morning shows in the retrospective, but even so the turnout was impressive.

The starting point for Stalker was a novel, originally titled Roadside Picnic, by Boris and Arkady Strugatsky. There are numerous stories about the production of the film but most point towards Tarkovsky’s decision to use the novel only as ‘inspiration’ rather than to adapt it ‘faithfully’, although I think some have argued it is quite close to the novel (which I haven’t read). In addition, reported problems with the filmstock used and a dispute with the original cinematographer meant that Tarkovsky re-shot much of the film and there is a credit part-way through the Curzon DCP which announces ‘Part 2’ and therefore, I think, the new material.

If you haven’t seen the film, the narrative starts from the premise that after some kind of major incident (which in the novel is an alien visitation which the aliens treat ‘like a picnic’) an area of land is cordoned off and access is denied to the public. This is ‘the Zone’. A group of individuals have spent time trying to find ways into the Zone and these people are known as ‘Stalkers’. The narrative opens with a Stalker (Aleksandr Kaydanovskiy) leaving his wife and child at home and meeting two men, the ‘Professor’ (Nikolay Grinko) and a ‘Writer’ (Anatoliy Solonitsyn) who will pay him to lead them into the Zone. Why do they want to go there? The local legend is that at the centre of the Zone is a building with a room in which anyone who enters successfully is able to have any wish granted. The Stalker tells them that the Zone is very difficult to navigate and that only he and his few fellows know the pathways and how to find them. He refers to the most famous Stalker who was known as ‘Porcupine’.

The Writer

The film is divided into sections marked by the use of colour filters or distinctive palettes. The opening in the house of the Stalker and the bar where he meets his two customers is presented in a yellowish sepia, many of the scenes indoors/underground in the ‘Zone’ have a palette primarily of greys, contrasting with outdoor sequences in full colour dominated by the greens of vegetation. The final sequences set back near the Stalker’s home are perhaps again yellowish sepia. (I’m confused here since the many stills online don’t always match what I think I saw in Glasgow.) The film is presented in Academy ratio and there are two types of colour stock used as well as black and white according to IMdB.

Stalker has been described in many ways but like all films labelled as ‘science fiction’ it is about ‘now’ rather than anything futuristic. The film seemed to me to be primarily concerned with living in the USSR. This in turn requires entering a number of philosophical debates about how to survive in the society and what it is that keeps people going. We do find out what the Professor and the Writer are seeking but several questions are unanswered by the narrative. The most obvious is why the Stalker hasn’t entered the room and obtained his own wish – which might be for money to support his family or for a cure for the affliction which means his daughter has difficulty walking.

The Writer and the Professor

I should point out that I found the film very heavy going. Partly that might be because I was feeling under the weather anyway with a heavy cold but I think I stayed alert throughout the running time. However, I am now finding it difficult to remember some parts of the narrative. I saw my first three Tarkovsky films on release in UK cinemas, Solaris (1972), Andrei Rublev (1973) and Mirror (1980) and not only did I enjoy them but I found myself moved by them in different ways. When I watched Tarkovsky’s début film Ivan’s Childhood (1962) some years later on video, I was similarly knocked out. Why then did I not respond to Stalker? I don’t know. I was impressed by the camerawork and some of the ‘action sequences’ such as the initial breaking into the Zone, the walk across it and some of the sequences inside the buildings, but for some reason I wasn’t engaged. I wasn’t sure what to make of the opening and closing sequences with the Stalker and his wife and daughter. It may be that I just couldn’t tune into the religious and and more broadly philosophical questions – though these are also present in various ways in some of the earlier films. More likely, is that the narrative itself is much more abstract and though it isn’t difficult to see some of the links to a critique of Soviet society, I tend to enjoy narratives that are more materially, more sociologically grounded (or in the case of Solaris, couched in more specific generic structures).

There are many, many pieces written about Stalker from eminent film critics and scholars to auteur fans. There are also many attempts to explain the narrative. Stalker has become one of those films that are endlessly argued over. You can easily find many of these on YouTube and through simple searches. Perhaps I need to watch it again – or perhaps I should seek out his last two films? I’m pleased Glasgow screened it and I’m glad I saw it in what is now considered a large cinema. Here’s the trailer for a recent restoration of Stalker:

GFF20 #7: James vs His Future Self (Canada 2019)

Anglophone Canadian films are quite difficult to find in the UK (as distinct from Québécois films) so finding them in a festival is always a bonus. This title promised to offer some light relief from the heavier diet of arthouse fare in the rest of the programme. It was described in the brochure as an SF-romcom and that’s indeed what it turned out to be. It isn’t heavy on the science but the scenario does provide a slightly different take on the romcom, though there are one or two elements shared with the Tamil blockbuster Endhiran (2010) and various US time travel narratives.

James (Jonas Chernick) has long been obsessed with his own ideas for time travel, so much so that he has never properly developed a relationship with his fellow researcher Courtney (Cleopatra Coleman) and he still needs his wild younger sister Meredith (Tommie-Amber Pirie) to keep his daily life on track. He and Courtney work as researchers at a facility headed by Dr. Rowley (Frances Conroy). James believes he is close to a breakthrough in creating time travel technology but several other deadlines/crisis points are looming and both Meredith and Courtney are likely to abandon him if he doesn’t take action. At this point he is abducted by an older man masquerading as a taxi driver. He is shocked to discover this is his future self ‘Jimmy’ (as played by Daniel Stern who has a lot of fun with this role).

James meets Jimmy

When James meets ‘Jimmy’, the science behind the idea of time travel gradually gets lost. Though there is some resemblance between the characters, Jimmy is taller and his facial features slightly ‘pulled out’ – apparently as a result of time travel. More significantly, Jimmy is a livelier, more mischievous and more cynical character than James. What does he want? He certainly wants to stay around for a while and he meets and charms Courtney. He also has the answers to the questions James has been struggling over, but he isn’t going to provide them just yet. In fact he may be trying to stop James making the discovery at all. His message for James seems to be ‘learn to live a little’. Everything finally depends on a new deadline. Dr. Rowley announces a funded scholarship which will send Courtney to Switzerland (cue race to the airport in best romcom style?) Meanwhile, James discovers that Dr. Rowley has a vital piece of kit she has been keeping secret. But will Jimmy try to stop him accessing it?

James with Courtney

The problem for Anglo Canadian filmmakers is that they inhabit a world dominated by Hollywood film and TV programmes. Hollywood makes many films and TV series in Canada and Canadians watch a lot of US TV programming – it’s a coloniser-colonised situation. It’s a world I don’t really know and therefore it is interesting to read some of the North American reviews of this film. Cleopatra Coleman is Australian and Daniel Stern is American but still there is something about the film that makes it feel ‘Canadian’. It appears to have been shot in Sudbury, Ontario and there is that calm openness with just the hint of possible weirdness that means it isn’t likely to be American. I enjoyed the film. At times it is quite funny and I liked the characters. The narrative has some warmth and the script by Chernick and director Jeremy LaLonde avoids some of the pitfalls of the genre. Daniel Stern gives the film its energy and Cleopatra Coleman is a joy. I doubt it will ever appear in UK cinemas but perhaps on Amazon or Netflix? (See comments below)