Invaders from Mars (1986)

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When a spacecraft lands in the hill behind the house where David Gardner (Hunter Carson) lives, his parents don’t believe his story. And then they start behaving strangely – and it’s not just them, it’s his ghastly teacher Mrs McKeitch (Louise Fletcher) and horrible little classmate Heather (Virginia Keehne). And as for the police … This remake of the striking and iconic Cold War classic (directed by William Cameron Menzies) falls between the stools of sci fi and horror, in other words right into the lap of auteur Tobe Hooper who was working for the Go-Go boys. David enlists the help of the school nurse (Karen Black, Carson’s real-life mother) who believes his bizarre story. It turns out aliens have landed in order to mine copper and the military are starting to figure out something odd is going on. If this isn’t the classic it might have been, Dan O’Bannon (& Don Jakoby) make a good attempt to scythe fears about parental weirdness, Cold War paranoia and school bullying into this genre piece – which also has something to say about dumb scientists who think they know what aliens are really up to… It all ends in a conflagration. Or does it?! Remember:  never trust a teacher who eats the lab experiments while they’re still alive and watch out for people with Band-Aids on their necks! Based on the original screenplay by Richard Blake with an appearance by the original little boy, Jimmy Hunt, as the police chief.

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The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951)

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Aka Farewell to the Master and Journey to the World. Must I take drastic action in order to get a hearing? When humanoid alien Klaatu (Michael Rennie) arrives on a flying saucer in Washington DC the military takes action and the world takes notice. He’s accompanied by an eight-foot robot called Gort. When Klaatu speaks about world peace a nervous soldier opens fire and he disappears from Walter Reed Hospital where he cures himself. Meanwhile Gort is in front of the spaceship, unmoving. Klaatu hides in plain sight in a boarding house (wearing a suit from a dry cleaner’s bearing the tag ‘Mr Carpenter’) where he is befriended by Bobby (the great child actor Billy Gray) whose widowed mother Helen (Patricia Neal) is a secretary engaged to Tom Stephens (Hugh Marlowe). Bobby goes to Arlington National Cemetery with Klaatu and the alien expresses a desire to meet someone of the calibre of Lincoln. Bobby suggests Professor Barnhardt (Sam Jaffe) but when Klaatu visits he’s out so he writes a solution to a mathematical problem left unfinished on the blackboard with instructions on how to be reached. Klaatu returns with government escort and the men discuss the dangerous nature of atomic power:  Klaatu warns that Earth will be eliminated. Bobby follows him and sees him enter the spaceship. He reports the incident to Helen and Tom and Klaatu visits Helen at work and they enter an elevator that stops – he stops all electricity worldwide for a half hour, demonstrating the incapacity of governments to deal with true power… it all comes to a head when he returns with Helen to Professor Barnhardt and the trigger-happy military shoot him dead after being forewarned by Tom. Until … Klaatu stages a resurrection. This Christ analogy was smothered in censor-friendly form, its pacifist message a radical intervention into Cold War paranoia with superb production design (Frank Lloyd Wright contributed to the UFO!) and a suitably strange soundtrack by Bernard Herrmann. Tightly written by Edmund H. North from a story by Harry Bates and superbly directed documentary-style by Robert Wise, this has many great scenes with some of the best in the boarding house between Rennie and Gray. There’s a reason this is a classic and it’s very resonant today. Remember – Klaatu barada nikito!

Alien: Covenant (2017)

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Updates, eh? Sometimes they work, sometimes they get you in the … Well between computer glitches and Shelley, the Prometheus behemoth is regenerating with this Alien retread and despite my misgivings including the dislikeable casting, I didn’t even look at my watch until ten minutes before the end. Some kind of record. Particularly given the charisma gap here. The Covenant is en route to an intergalactic colony with a coupla thousand peeps and foetuses in pods but a random electrical event causes the death of the Captain (James Franco, gone in sixty seconds) and he’s replaced by deputy Billy ‘Skeletor’ Crudup a religious zealot who sees another planet and decides to stop there instead. Bad move. Because this ain’t paradise and there is not just the pathogen ‘accidentally’ released by Prometheus to contend with, but David 8 (Michael Fassbender) the lone survivor of that ship. And his ‘brother’ Walter (Fassbender) a staple of the Covenant crew meets one of his own kind – family! – for the first time. We’re into mad scientist territory and moreso. It’s only a matter of time before the team including second in command Daniels (beady eyed Katherine Waterston, Franco’s widow) are in all kinds of danger. This can happen when you literally have to recharge your batteries:  so much for technology. This is so fast and furious you never stop to think about the fact that Danny McBride is the guy who’s left to rescue them. Wow. This is more than a human origins/Adam and Eve story:  it’s a proper riposte to the gyno-politics of the series, especially the last one when Dr Elizabeth Shaw (the great Noomi Rapace) carried out her own abortion/Caesarian – and you should see what’s left of her. This is what happens when men decide they want to take charge of reproduction, with obvious debts to more than one Shelley. Written by John Logan and Dante Harper from a story by Jack Paglen and Michael Green. I have one major issue with this. Please stop shooting all sci fis and superheroes on grayscale. I can deal with all the colour spectrum. Really. And I’m not the only one. Put on some lights, use the rainbow. This has been going on for years and I’m sick of it. I will need a coalminer’s lamp next time I go to the movies if this continues. And next time an insect flies into one of your orifices, be very scared indeed … Outer space, innerspace, vive la difference! Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair!

Hidden Figures (2016)

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Three black women in a car get stopped by a cop. Turns out they’re not joyriders. It’s early 1960s Virginia and they’re mathematicians at NASA where Kevin Costner is watching the Russians send a monkey and a mannequin into space via satellite while they’re still trying to work out orbital range and stopping potential astronauts from burning up on re-entry. Everyone’s under pressure so it’s time to call in the coloured women in that other building with their own special lavatory facility. Adapted from Margot Lee Shetterly’s book by Allison Schroeder and director Theodore Melfi this tells the hitherto little-known true story of the gifted women who got those rockets into space. Kathryn Johnson (Taraji P. Henson, Cookie in TV’s Empire), Dorothy Vaughan (Octavia Spencer) and Mary Jackson (pop singer Janelle Monae) are the three friends who are the numbers wizards and Jim Parsons is the head math guy in Costner’s wing who resents Johnson’s preternatural abilities which she still keeps up despite having to run a few miles every day to the coloured bathroom. Out of the loop and fed heavily redacted material, she still bests every man in sight. And they’re all white. John Glenn (Glen Powell) visits the site and makes sure to shake the hands of the human computers to the evident annoyance of supervisor Kirsten Dunst and it takes a village led by him and Costner to start slowly moving mountains – not from an altruistic position but because it makes sense to get good people to work faster since it’s a space race (in those days you didn’t get medals for just taking part.) Plus he doesn’t want to be burned alive and he trusts human judgement more than machines (the new IBM is kind of a running joke but with a different outcome than in Mad Men.)  Johnson is romanced by Moonlight‘s Mahershala Ali and everything works out in the end: Glenn re-enters the earth’s atmosphere and they all get with the space programme. Some of the ‘facts’ are not even true but hyped up for effect (Johnson used a white bathroom). This is bland biographical soapy drama so keen not to offend that it loses its narrative affect early on. Just as the ladies keep their heads down and step back from the racial segregation demos (who has the time when they’re putting men in rockets) this sticks to calculating the optimum conditions for a launch into orbit and a safe return. And look what that focus has achieved at the box office – gold. Which is the only colour that matters in Hollywood. Stunningly shot by Mandy Walker, the vintage newsreel inserts are wonderful.

Happy 70th Birthday Steven Spielberg!

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We sometimes forget the people who are always there and Steven Spielberg has always been in my life, like a comfort blanket. His command of the visual language complements an extraordinary understanding of the centre of things, the emotionality, the source of humour and compassion, thrills and action. His films have made me swoon and gasp in awe, laugh hysterically, gaze in wonder and shiver in fear. He uses new technology and collaborates with great practitioners in filmmaking crafts. He creates worlds and leads us there, by the hand, and sometimes educates us. He produces films and inspires and mentors other writers and directors and has given the world the great John Williams scores and the summer blockbuster. He is at the heart of pop culture and for Generation X he is simply our guy:  Jaws, CE3K, Raiders of the Lost Ark, ET:  The Extra-Terrestrial. His sensibility may have altered somewhat as he has aged, but the audience is always crucial to his thinking:  good stories, well told and beautifully made. He is a master of all genres, pretty much and those he hasn’t directed he’s produced. Spielberg was born 18 December 1946 and we are fortunate to have him. Long may he reign.

Arrival (2016)

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At the beginning of this film I wished I had paid more attention to my linguistics lecturers at college but that still wouldn’t have made me fluent in Farsi and Mandarin like Amy Adams nor even given me a passing ‘vocabulary word’ (a la Forest Whitaker, Army Colonel) in Sanskrit. Then I wished I’d had decent science teachers in high school who didn’t just chalk questions on the board and spend double periods drinking coffee in the staff room, so that I could be a brilliant theoretical physicist, like Jeremy Renner. Science and language are the source, dude. These unhappy unmarried geniuses are drafted in by the military to translate the aliens whose craft is one of 12 that have landed on Earth. So it’s off to Montana, just like in CE3K, that masterpiece of communication, where my desire for intergalactic travel was sparked. After all, how could aliens possibly be any worse than other humans? And since I saw another UFO over a hillside near my home on Saturday, I’m kinda in the mood, you know?! Halfway through this film it dawned on me that it had nothing to do with communicating with aliens and everything to do with the abject maternal. Because Amy is in mourning for her dead daughter. Just like Sandra was in Gravity. Cos women are incomplete without children (or with them, it seems. In space no-one can hear you scream giving birth). And Jeremy is … really her husband. And this is all to do with marriage breakdown. And for some reason, time is folding in upon itself and what matters not a jot is what the aliens are doing here because it’s all, you know, personal, so their Rorschach test blots on the invisible barrier have to do with a book Amy has yet to write about Heptapod language …and the child that hasn’t died yet because she hasn’t been born because Amy and Jeremy have just met! I thought this was going to be pretty great. But it’s not about world war or invasion. The aliens have visited Earth in an extreme case of marriage counselling. Did I completely misunderstand this film? Is it me?! I give up. Un film de Denis Villeneuve.

Earth Versus the Flying Saucers (1956)

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Two hours into their honeymoon, rocket scientist Hugh Marlowe (one of my favourite leading men) and wife Joan Taylor, experience a flying saucer. That’s not a euphemism. The earth is under attack from mistranslated aliens in one of the era’s best sci fis, cowritten by blacklistee Bernard Gordon, George Worthing Yates and Curt Siodmak from the book Flying Saucers from Outer Space by Major Donald E. Keyhoe (retired from the Marine Corps) and directed by Fred F. Sears. Good effects particularly at the conclusion so it’s a pity it was shot in monochrome.