Home Home    
news & updates
guests of honour
program & events
the masked ball
venue & accommodation
join continuum
current members
travel to continuum
melbourne city guide
views and reviews
other links
continuum 3 CDs
organising committee
advertising & sponsorship
dealers room

continuum 1 (2003)
continuum 2 (2004)
continuum 3 (2005)

the (un)official continuum
proudly sponsored by:

Views & Reviews

Welcome to the Continuum Reviews page! If you've seen a movie, watched a tv show or read a book and have something to say about it, why not email us your review? Please keep them short (under 300 words) and send them in the body of your email, not as an attachment. Please note: although our Reviews Editor will consider all submissions, not all reviews will be published on the website due to space restrictions. Continuum does not pay for reviews and all rights remain with the author.

Film: Alien
TV: Carnivale (Season One)
TV: Doctor Who (2005)
TV: Enterprise
TV: Farscape
TV: Firefly
Film: I, Robot
Film: King Kong (2005)
Film: Logan's Run
Film: Lost Things
Film: Undead

reviewed by Dave Hoskin

Writing about Alien is interesting in that most evaluations more closely resemble a list of what you’re supposed to say, the myths that have accreted around it’s shell having become more famous than the actual film itself. After reeling off the obligatory mentions of Ridley Scott, Sigourney Weaver, chestburster, working class crew, dark ship and H R Giger, the film itself is almost forgotten, one of those “classics” that are somehow inarguable.

One hesitates to beat Ridley with his perennial stick of style over substance, but the simple truth is that storyline is so humdrum and the characters so lacking in flavour that the style is the only thing worthy of note. Like Blade Runner, Alien is credited as being influential, but crucially there is very little that one could argue is distinctive barring Giger’s admittedly revolutionary creature design. Tom Baker (who should know a thing or two about these things) upon viewing the film apparently roared “why don’t you all f**king go down and bore the alien to death” and it is difficult not to agree. The good fortune of casting Ian Holm or Harry Dean Stanton is that they bring an illusion of depth to otherwise facile roles. Viewed objectively however, it becomes clear that all the characters have the singular function of being killed off regularly to avoid terminal boredom setting in. Barring the rare interesting development (such as the revelation of Ash’s identity) the script is merely an annoying assortment of characters refusing to turn on the lights while idiotically splitting up to become alien fodder.

It’s a shame that such obvious talent has been united on such an unworthy project, for Alien has craftsmanship to burn. Both Scott and Giger were linked to early versions of Dune, and one cannot help but be wistful about the fruits of such a possibility, Herbert’s novel surely guaranteeing that at least that result would be neither derivative nor shallow. Unfortunately it becomes clear that if you give Ridley and his collaborators a worthy script he will show you dazzling new worlds, but if you give him Alien the only dazzle comes from the surface of a beautifully polished turd.

Back to Top

Gods n' Geeks: Carnivale (Season One)
reviewed by Dave Hoskin (first published in Metro magazine)

Unless it's on at five o' clock in the morning, religion and TV have always been uneasy bedfellows. While watching Carnivale however, I was reminded of the social comment that literary SF writers used to slip in disguised as aliens n' rayguns. Genre television, to a large extent, still functions in much the same way: Star Trek's Vietnam allegories, and Buffy's coded subplots about drug addiction are just the tip of the iceberg. It would be nice to think that such timidity is behind us in the twenty-first century, but discourse on serious issues remains largely superficial. Enter Carnivale.

Carnivale is all about mythology, both the American variety and more universal models. Set in a travelling freakshow in Depression-era USA, the show deals with the battles between good and evil that always makes for Big Drama. The difference between Carnivale and similarly portentous shows like Babylon 5 is that the former is less willing to code itself as allegory. Although the religious elements are still couched in the fantasy genre's favourite Manicheanisms, there is less fudging about who symbolises what. Rather than settle for the Buffy-being-resurrected-after-saving-the-world school of allegory, Carnivale literally depicts Biblical demons squaring off against what appears to be God's avatar on Earth. This lack of pussy footing is unexpected, and it points to a new maturity in how Americans (and by extension the rest of pop culture) can tackle this thorny subject.

More pleasingly, the religious content is given more than a nodding acquaintance with sophistication. It could be a hangover from fantastical fiction's traditional mistrust of religious orthodoxy, but when the bad guy is a priest and the good guy can only resurrect people by killing something else, then there's more going on than simple fire and brimstone. Moreover, both potential Messiahs struggle with alienation throughout the first season; their search for equanimity nicely contrasted with the landscape of despair that is Depression-era America. It's like The Grapes of Wrath crossed with Something Wicked This Way Comes, and this atmosphere coupled with the lead characters' desire to question their roles in the morality play ensures that many of the hoarier religious inflections are avoided. Faith is hard to deal with in drama, frequently being either trite, cloying, or both. However Carnivale grasps the nettle and manages to depict a nifty portrait of how faith is gained at great cost, with mavericks and freaks often posing the most interesting questions to the established order.

The principal flaw is that the show lacks a real feeling of joy. The characters are po-faced, and the creative opportunities inherent in the format are often ignored in favour of lugubriousness. Millennium, a similar show in many respects, recognised that this kind of thing can only work for so long, and in its second season it somehow managed to combine laugh-out-loud comedy with the Apocalypse. The lesson to be learnt is that saying what you mean and recognising just when foreplay becomes tedious will surprise any viewer deadened by decades of cautious television. At this point, Carnivale has the chance to inject some frankness and maturity into the discussions we have about what we believe and why we believe it. It would be a crying shame to fritter it all away on high seriousness and portentous quotes from Revelations.

After all, we can go to church for that.

Back to Top

Regeneration: Doctor Who (2005)
reviewed by Dave Hoskin (first published in Metro magazine)

It's hard for me to be objective about the return of Doctor Who. When the BBC announced they were bringing it back, and that the man behind the revival was Russell T. Davies, I felt a rush of elation. Doctor Who in 2005 couldn't be the same program that I'd loved when I was a kid, but maybe that meant it could be better. Like all fans I had cringed at the old series' production values, and while I'd been able to suspend my disbelief, I couldn't help wishing that a little more care had been taken. However with the man responsible for the sublime Queer as Folk overseeing the writing, and with a budget to match its prodigious imagination, Doctor Who might just be as good as it had always sounded on paper.

All this meant that the first episode of the new series was always going to be freighted with a crippling weight of expectations; not only because of the tradition it followed, but because it sounded so promising. The producers are obviously aware of the impact those expectations will have on people's reactions to the new show. Since it first left the airwaves in 1989, Doctor Who has moved beyond being a cult into an adjective. Everyone has definite ideas of the sort of show it was, and updating that mythic ideal to the standard of twenty-first century television is a daunting task.

The consequence of this is that there is a lot to admire in new Doctor Who, and a lot that feels weighed down by preconceived notions of what it's supposed to be like. Tom Baker was not the only actor to play the part, but sometimes it feels like he did, and he casts a long shadow over how people think an actor should handle the role. Thus Christopher Eccleston's performance occasionally feels eccentric out of obligation rather than necessity, and the coding of the Doctor as an urban myth in the first episode edges into portentousness. Likewise, the idea of Doctor Who being a bit daft seems to have carried over more than it should, the result being a faintly farcical tone undercutting many of the good things the new series has to offer.

The real Achilles heel of new Doctor Who is its struggle to define its tone. When it works (as in the interplay between Rose and the Doctor, or in its rewriting of how the audience views Daleks) it manages to harness the mythic power of what we think Doctor Who should be and surprises us by sending it in new directions. When it doesn't it can crash off the rails quite alarmingly and all the things that used to be excused by a low budget seem infinitely more annoying. However the good thing about this inconsistency is that it means that new Doctor Who is not simply a slavish photocopy of its cheap and cheerful forebear. If it is to succeed, it has to create its own voice and tell us outlandish stories that belong in the here and now rather than in our childhood memories. So far it seems committed to doing that and with any luck Davies and his compatriots will create something just as durable: a new myth for a new century.

Back to Top

reviewed by Dave Hoskin (first published in Metro magazine)

Star Trek was dead.

As Voyager limped to a close, capping twenty-one series of the modern Trek phenomenon, series co-creator Brannon Braga had declared that he ‘really had just about had it with the twenty-fourth century’ and spoke longingly of creating something fresh and exciting like The Sopranos or The West Wing. Speculation was rife that Paramount agreed with Braga, and would allow Trek to lie fallow in order to allow room for passion and imagination to regenerate. The shows had been on autopilot for some years, and a hiatus seemed a wise decision.

Instead, they announced the creation of Enterprise.

The pleasant surprise was that the new show would predate the eras of the modern Treks in order to rid themselves of all the conventions and narrative tics that had accreted over the years. No Kirk [William Shatner] or Picard [Patrick Stewart]. No shields, no transporter, no Federation. It even drops the words “star trek” from its title. To all intents and purposes, this would be that rarest of things: Something Different.

It’s possible that everything said about Enterprise was sincerely meant. The trouble is, since the pioneer episodes were broadcast in 1966, the concept of Trek has assumed monolithic proportions. It has become Paramount’s flagship series, a brand that like all franchises is careful to innovate only within a rigidly tested template. Hence there’s always a Kirk figure, no matter whether he’s rewritten as the first officer, a convict, or even a woman; always a doctor to voice the emotional argument; always an alien outsider to comment on our humanity from a ‘new angle’… The Star Trek equivalent of a Big Mac, Fries and a Coke.

More worryingly, despite the best efforts of the cast, Enterprise’s characters are still reacting virtually identically to stories told thirty years ago. Investigation of an anomaly leads to “mysterious” events? Marooned in a shuttle and forced to bond with your crewmates? Wrestling with the do-I-have-the-right-to-interfere-in-another-culture conundrum? All checked off, and executed with the minimum amount of innovation, blunting writer after writer on Trek’s ossified creative carapace.

Imaginative television should be better than this, surely? In 1966, Star Trek was new and different, finding ways to make political points and creative risks work for episodic television. However, in the decades separating Kirk from Archer Trek has become the cliché of the genre rather than the exception, and Enterprise currently clings to those clichés like a security blanket. It seems that for all its bravado, it does not dare to disturb its own universe.

The 1990s produced such innovative shows as The X Files, Buffy, and Babylon 5, all of which seized the creative opportunities of telefantasy and strove to tell stories that The Sopranos or The West Wing can only dream about. Enterprise should be about reaching for things that we have never seen before, competing with these new rivals to see who can dream the better dream. Instead the creative strait-jacket still fits, the corporation’s franchise is still safe.

Star Trek is still dead.

Back to Top

Muppets in Space: Farscape
reviewed by Dave Hoskin (first published in Metro magazine)

There is a passage in Gerald Stone’s Compulsive Viewing, in which he describes himself watching an episode of Farscape with other Channel Nine executives. His main reaction is amusement, and given that the episode under scrutiny involves a spaceship giving birth, this is understandable. What is abundantly clear however, is that a stronger emotion is intermingled with Stone’s struggle to keep a straight face: contempt. To a fan of Farscape, this would be less than a surprise. Stone typifies the conservative Channel Nine Man who has devoted himself to “respectable” programming like 60 Minutes. Although he does not state it explicitly, there is a sense of hostility, and even embarrassment that his network should be involved with a show full of muppets and pregnant spaceships. Unwilling to look beneath the surface, all he can see is something weird that no one with any maturity could ever appreciate.

Science fiction is a tricky thing to get right, and few modern shows have hit the ground running. Farscape was no exception, and given the uneven quality of its maiden year, Nine’s discomfort was excusable. The show was weird, and at times it undeniably lapsed into silliness. Australians have always been wary of producing SF-TV, and this unfamiliarity seemed to manifest itself in a lack of conviction from the people that were making the show. Actors soared way over the top, direction was half-hearted, and the overall level of professionalism seemed much lower than usual for such an expensive product. The overall impression is that nobody thought a show as strange as this would take off, so they refused to treat it seriously.
However at the risk of stating the obvious, the elements that made Farscape so strange were also what made it distinctive. You could never really predict the characters’ reactions, particularly given their spiky relationships with each other, and the universe they inhabited was rich in alien detail. As the show moved into its second season and their American co-producers began to take a back seat, one could sense a growing enthusiasm from the Australian show-runners. Working on Farscape became liberating rather than burdensome, and Aussie ignorance of the po-faced rules of SF- TV meant that they could be broken in the pursuit of uncharted territory. Suddenly Farscape knew what it was, and more importantly, realised that it was unique.

Sadly, it was obvious that Nine regarded this development with dismay, and they seemed determined to kill off any following the show might develop. Farscape never seemed to appear in the same timeslot during any given fortnight, and when it did appear it was frequently cut to ribbons. It is hard to imagine such traditional shows as Macleod’s Daughters or Stingers being treated in such a fashion, but then they are shows that, regardless of their actual quality, are not embarrassing. It takes no imagination to have pride in shows like these because they are so familiar. As long as they tick the right boxes and don’t do anything weird then people like Gerald Stone will know what to do with them. Raymond Chandler once observed that if you are going to make art then you must be able to hear the music. If nothing else, Farscape is proof that at Channel Nine the executives have their fingers in their ears.

Back to Top

Fables of the Reconstruction: Firefly
reviewed by Dave Hoskin (first published in Metro magazine)

Firefly had a troubled birth, a troubled life, and eventually a troubled death. Consequently when I heard it had been axed I wasn't terribly surprised. It was Joss Whedon's first foray outside the Buffyverse, and produced while he still had two other shows on the air, with more in development. To my mind, both Buffy and Angel had been getting patchy, and Whedon himself admitted that he was stretched too thin. Sooner or later there had to be a crash, and I presumed it must have happened on Firefly. I kept an eye out for the show, but I figured it would be more of a curio than something to get really excited about.

I finally discovered it on DVD. And it was great. Really, really great.

So why didn't it survive?

Well, for a start it's ambitious. Weekly SF shows often are, and ambition equals expensive. Essentially a space-western, Firefly is an update of the Reconstruction period after America's Civil War, following a group of ex-soldiers as they come to terms with being on the losing side. Taking on courier work to survive, they are rarely in the same place twice, and a futuristic, picaresque show is always going to cost more than a contemporary, grounded one.

More tellingly, 'ambitious' often means that something is a little harder to communicate than usual, and I think the reasons for both Firefly's brilliance and its mortality lie in basically the same area: it's Joss Whedon's most personal work. Personal stuff is often, by its very nature, not for a wide audience. Of course Buffy and Angel have personal elements as well, but Firefly is Whedon's first creation about people his own age, and consequently his most mature. Whedon sums it up best when he notes that Mal's crew aren't the people who made history (as Buffy's gang are), but 'the people history stepped on'. Thus Firefly's pilot opens in tragedy, and the remainder of the series is about people looking for redemption rather than saving the world.

This format doesn't have the universality of the power fantasy that drove Whedon's previous shows, but it did open up new territory to explore. Firefly's regulars are still struck from the same 'outsider' mould as Whedon's previous creations but, paradoxically for an SF show, the tone seems oddly realistic. The constant need to find work as opposed to the pursuit of a grand quest, the disconcerting lack of sound in space, the absence of alien races, and, most tellingly, the arrival of characters with mature romantic relationships seems to have cleansed the writers' palates. The metaphors that occasionally hamstrung the previous shows were dispensed with, and Firefly was given that rarest of things: its own voice.

Probably the most pleasing thing about a post mortem like this is finding out that it is premature. Whedon has recently wrapped production on a feature film revival, and hopefully the lessons learned on the TV series will help him to reach the audience Firefly really deserves. With Buffy and Angel off his plate, Whedon seems determined to capitalise on the second chance he's been given. He seems excited again, and there's a pleasing symmetry in a show that's all about rediscovering your purpose in life enthusing its creator all over again.

Firefly is dead. Long live Firefly.

Back to Top

I, Robot
reviewed by Dave Hoskin (first published in Metro magazine)

It’s no great surprise to discover that I, Robot began its life as another project entirely. The credit "suggested by Isaac Asimov's book" is a pretty big clue after all, but even if that weren't there, all the other indicators point in the same direction. There seems to be a tendency when adapting the classics to fall into the "not good enough" cycle of despair. There's an essence to such material that everyone can feel but few can really articulate; a quintessential quality that you can only truly identify when you see it in motion rather than on the page. Such projects can languish in development hell for years precisely because that frisson is so difficult to create in the first place. For instance the short story that became Total Recall (Paul Verhoeven, 1990) simply refused to stretch into the shape of a feature film, and The Avengers (Jeremiah Chechik, 1998) got everything right except for the one truly vital element: the distinctive tone of the original series. Often the best way forward is to simply dump the idea of fidelity and make something personal with a brand name on the poster. Mission: Impossible (Brian De Palma, 1996) is a pretty good example--De Palma kept the theme tune, absorbed the idea of impossible missions, and then got on with telling a story about his usual paranoid concerns. I, Robot could have worked very well in that mould, and when one considers how long the project had been stalled, maybe that would have been the best thing to do.

Alex Proyas is an interesting film-maker, and someone who knows a thing or two about remixing genre clichés. Therefore, it's a bit of a bummer that he fails to bring this talent to bear on I, Robot. He's also someone capable of pulling off the De Palma Manoeuvre, and the fact that the film seems to fall between the two stools of fidelity and individualism is what makes it seem such a bust. It's tempting to speculate that coming off the hiding received by his most personal film Garage Days (2002), Proyas consciously restricted himself in order to make something more successful. In that light, casting someone like Will Smith, the bland production design, and the substitution of product placement for characterisation makes sense. It's a sad thing to happen to the man who brought us the sublime Dark City (1998), but it's difficult to see I, Robot as anything other than his surrender to the mainstream.

The weird thing is that, to anyone familiar with Asimov's work, the struggle seems so unnecessary. Asimov is hardly a difficult SF author like, say, John Brunner, Frank Herbert, or Phil Dick. On the contrary, his novels should be a dream. The robot stories in particular are a fairly straightforward splicing of detective thrillers and SF concepts, and it was bewildering to see Hollywood faffing around trying to crack such a basic code. It's nice that some of Asimov's voice still survives in I, Robot, but while it's more than you'd expect of something this overthought, it's still less than a geek like me had hoped for. Asimov was hardly the first to write about a robot revolution, but his codification (and immediate subversion) of the Three Laws of Robotics is what makes his writing worth adapting. Asimov was an atheist, and it's often atheists that say the most cogent things about Messiahs, spirituality and ethics. As he gradually began to be taken seriously, he began to concentrate increasingly on that perennial SF chestnut "what makes us human?" and eventually "what is really valuable about free will?" Although still perfectly accessible, the stories began to transcend the genre ghetto, and as his later books began to link together his various fictional universes with these common themes, increasingly fascinating revelations began to appear.

Naturally, this is also precisely the sort of thing that Hollywood is going to fight shy of. I was surprised by just how much Asimov had 'suggested', but it was still quite depressing to see how much the shooting and catchphrases dominated the film. The main character is the usual cypher who insists on having Significant Flashbacks at entirely predictable interludes, and the really bold touches of characterisation seem to have been sacrificed in the name of a PG-13 rating. There's no real attempt to dramatise Asimov's concepts in any kind of daring fashion, and the film vaunts the sort of smug humanity that equates someone's predilections for Converse™ with individuality. The entire exercise is basically no deeper than its trailer, and while there are some nice twists occasionally, the film-makers never convince you that this is a project that burned deep in anyone's guts.

Still, it feels a bit pretentious to get really upset about all this. The truth about I, Robot is that it isn't really that bad… but frustratingly that's also the best thing you can really say about it. The action sequences are… OK. The performances are… OK. The production design is… OK. There are scattered moments (usually lifted from Asimov) that touch on interesting concepts--when the robots speak about experiencing dreams, or their yearning for a messianic figure to change their world we get a glimpse of what might have been. The galling thing is that while Proyas speaks about how he has worked for four years to bring this to the screen, the movie just doesn't seem like it would ever have handled the potential of those concepts. Like the special effects shots of the robots, there seem to be some levels of detail that have been skipped over, some weight missing that renders the final product unsatisfying. There's no real food for the brain, and surprisingly little food for the adrenal gland. I, Robot feels like the work of a visionary crammed into the shape of a TV movie – there's enough there to make you wistful, but never enough for the movie to transcend the idea of commerce at any cost.

Back to Top

King Kong
reviewed by Ben McKenzie

Despite its length, there was no point during King Kong when I felt bored. I know that may be hard to believe – I’ve heard seasoned film reviewers walked out when the first hour elapsed without even a sniff of the eponymous hero – but it’s true. There was plenty to keep me interested from moment to moment, both in visual and narrative terms; but by the end of the film, none of it mattered.

King Kong faithfully reproduces it’s ancestor with bigger and better effects and an attempt at a bigger and better story, but the latter falls flat. There’re perhaps six different stories tacked on to the central one – the beauty and the beast tale of a woman who brings out the mighty Kong’s nurturing side – but without exception they’re incomplete. The “love story” between Naomi Watts and Adrien Brody is constantly telegraphed, but although they have excellent chemistry, they only get one decent scene together. Thus their story has an enormous hole in its middle and no real ending. The consequence is that the characters are forgettable despite the lovely performances, and that's why I haven't bothered with names. Jack Black’s in the same boat; he’s supposed to be the villain of the piece, but when one of my film going companions said something about “the villain” afterwards I had to stop and think to figure out who they meant. He’s a rogue, true, but more an anti-hero than a villain, committing only one truly villainous act and never having to face any personal consequences. He also gets the final word in the film and walks off unmolested, again providing a story without a real ending. There are similar problems with the first mate and his boy sidekick who wants to be a hero, the Captain who is lured into greed by Denham, and the movie star who becomes a real hero.

Andy Serkis, better known for his digital work as Gollum and, here, as Kong, is probably the most entertaining thing in the film as the ship’s cook “Lumpy”; he is the one character worth remembering, not least because of his love for the Chinese crewmate who looks after the animals (most obvious at Lumpy’s despair over his death). But even Lumpy doesn’t get a proper ending: he’s devoured by giant creepy crawlies in an extended sequence which seems to have no point but to make a hero of Adrien Brody and an anti-hero of Jack Black. Several characters die, but by this point of the film we’ve already learned not to get attached to anyone since they won’t be allowed to grow. Even Kong himself, whom I considered leaving out of this review, does nothing surprising: he’s vicious, but tender and protective towards Watts after she entertains him.

Everyone has already said this film is too long, but I think the real problem is that it’s too simple; if one or two of the sub-plots had been cut and the rest given proper treatment, this could have been a multi-layered, rich adventure story with a cast of real characters. Instead it’s a special effects showcase of three parts in which many of the characters might as well be CGI and which fits much more squarely in the action genre. Now, there’s nothing wrong with action films, but remember that this film seemed to promise adventure, and that’s a different beast entirely.

This is an important distinction, so let me explain. Raiders of the Lost Ark and Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade are adventure films. They have plot and character development, the action sequences progress the plot and have a sense of urgency or at least importance, and the story progresses logically and cleverly from one point to another. That cleverness is perhaps most important; adventure films have characters who work out puzzles, who explore their world, who make choices that are usually not telegraphed to the audience, so we’re either impressed by the hero’s ingenuity or pleased as we work things out alongside them.

By contrast, Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom is an action film. It feels like an old Saturday serial, where the characters are painted in broad strokes (compare the treasure hunter Indy of Temple of Doom to the passionate academic of the other films), and while there are thrills we never seriously believe that the characters might suffer a serious setback or be significantly altered by the end of their escapade. It’s a thrill-ride, and a damn good one, but the adventure aspect is missing. After Raiders we want more from Indy than running, swordfighting and a car chase scene thinly disguised as a theme park ride.

King Kong’s opening third tries to give that same expectation; these characters aren’t, we’re led to believe, just along for a thrill ride in which only the reptilian parts of their brains are required. But they are. The film continually tries to be something more intriguing and meaningful than a monster movie, but there’s none of the depth of Jackson’s Lord of the Rings here, and even The Frighteners, of which I’m a big fan, managed to be far more complex despite the humble expectations of its genre.

King Kong isn’t a terrible film, but very disappointing: a bigger, more expensive but essentially just as shallow version of the original, which promises real adventure every few minutes but never delivers anything more significant than decent monster action.

Logan's Run
reviewed by Rachel Holkner

Logan's Run is an adventure story set in an enclosed utopian city-with-a-rotten-core in the year 2274. The inhabitants of The City have only one path; to spend their lives enjoying all the sex and vanity they can stand until they reach their 30th birthday. On that Last Day with the promise of renewal, they habitually enter the Carousel, a circus arena with all the social finesse of a Roman gladiatorial death-match, and disappear in a flash of fireworks.

As with all good science fiction, the themes of Logan’s Run are still valid, long after Farrah Fawcett’s hair is thankfully gone. The ideas of unquestioned obedience to a system and people intent on destroying opposition to a way of life because they fear change, are universal.

But there is more to examine in this population with no knowledge of age, other species or any of the wisdom handed down through generations. There are no parents. Children are grown like mould in petri dishes and raised in the Nursery with none of the messy inconvenience of childbirth or parenting. Trouble-making children are exiled to Cathedral Plaza where they are left to run wild like so many of Peter Pan’s Lost Boys. “Why are you here?” Jessica asks a young girl. “I’m very smart,” is the response.

Particularly chilling is the idea of “New You”, a sort of instant plastic surgery with no questions asked, and no regrets witnessed afterwards. Via an automated medical laser machine anyone, for no cost - there is no currency in the future of 1976, can walk out with an entirely new face and/or body. With the City’s open armed welcome of individualism it has rid itself of the problem of individuals completely. While the filmmakers saw this as a hideous future for human-kind, I wonder what they think of today’s witnessing of these fears.

Of course after thirty years the aesthetic and special effects are dated, but the film as a whole does hold up, with a strong cast and a fairly tight story. The film does slow markedly during Logan and Jessica’s journey outside the city, something which would not survive an editing room nowadays, but it is worth persevering to reach Peter Ustinov’s delightfully mad character, Old Man, and hear him quote T. S. Eliot.

Most of Logan’s Run’s value is as a record of the thinking of the past. In 1976 the filmmakers blithely assumed the future would be white, with not one Lando Calrissian or Uhura to offset it. While free love (or sex) is openly discussed, misogyny is the norm and youth and beauty valued above all else.

Now thirty years old, does Logan's Run itself deserve to enter the Carousel? Not quite. There’s some life in it yet. And there is the delicious irony of Washington’s public buildings being seen as a place of Sanctuary. Although I’m quite sure the Capitol Building would function more effectively nowadays if filled with cats.

Back to Top

Off the Beaten Track: Lost Things
reviewed by Dave Hoskin (first published in Metro magazine)

Given Stephen Sewell’s theatrical background, it’s tempting to assess Lost Things as more of a piece of theatre than cinema. Although it’s clearly modelled on the classic slasher formula of Teens Venturing Where They Shouldn’t, the confined locale and limited cast would transfer easily to the stage, and the film’s clear volte-face in both tone and quality suggests the story break between Act One and Two. Admittedly, a similar case could be made for many low budget horror movies; consider such claustrophobic exercises as Night of the Living Dead (George Romero, 1968), Cube (Vincenzo Natali, 1999) or Sewell’s previous script for The Boys (Rowan Woods, 1998). The reason for this similarity is fairly obvious: common obstacles produce common solutions. Like theatre, horror tends to be less effective when it foregrounds spectacle over people. Performance and psychological complexity are its strengths, and thus its best stories are about characters and ideas. In theatre, the best special effects are the ones produced by the imagination of the audience. The same is also true of the best monsters.

Despite this theatricality, Lost Things is nothing if not ambitious. The creative decision to make a sunlit beach scary is a challenging one, and while director Martin Murphy’s reach sometime exceeds his grasp (tellingly, the film shifts into top gear at nightfall), it’s not for lack of effort. It’s not impossible to make horror effective without the use of darkness (think of the shark attacks in Jaws (Steven Spielberg, 1975), or the sadism of Last House on the Left (Wes Craven, 1972)) but it’s definitely very difficult. It’s been speculated that Australians traditionally don’t respond to horror films precisely because we live in a sunburnt country. A national psyche where the lights are always on is a tricky place for monsters to hide, and any film that takes this bull by the horns is worth applauding.

However, while it’s thrilling to watch Lost Things attempting to perform on a higher-than-usual creative tightrope, it’s also got further to fall when it stumbles. As with all Australian films of the last five years, the problems that bedevil Lost Things are attributable to its script. Sewell’s work is thoughtful, and its examination of time and memory is territory that corporate fearmongers like Dimension and New Line would see little profit in exploring. On the other hand, this ambition means that there is often a sizeable gap between what is intended and what is actually achieved. The script struggles to balance profundity with realism, and too often wobbles into pretension.

At least some of this miscalculation can be laid at the door of the choice of characters. Most actors would struggle with this sort of dialogue, but to put it in the mouths of teenagers is a serious error. Part of the problem is simply that Sewell’s characterisation doesn’t feel authentic. He has failed to capture the voice of contemporary teenagers, and a combination of dated slang and generic clichés (“Who’s there?” “This isn’t funny you guys!”) renders much of the dialogue laughable. To be fair, there are moments where Sewell’s decision bears fruit—the teenagers’ pushing at the boundaries of adulthood subtly mirrors the way they find themselves pushing at the borders of time and space—but more often the audience is left with unseasoned actors wrestling with unplayable dialogue.

Conversely, when the story is told in images rather than dialogue the film is far more successful. The narrative structure of flashing forward and back in time is elegant, and while it’s hardly revolutionary, neither is it ostentatious or contrived. Sewell has done this before in The Boys, but where that seemed a more arbitrary structural decision, in this instance it is integral to the themes of the story. Lost Things will not be remembered as the new Don’t Look Now (Nicholas Roeg, 1973), but while it can’t beat that masterpiece at its own game, it is at the very least playing the same sport.

Likewise Murphy’s direction shows flair when generating atmosphere, and the images he captures compensate somewhat for the script’s deficiencies. His frequent close ups of the landscape creates a foreboding motif, and when combined with the brooding soundtrack, he creates a surprisingly unsettling environment. Needless to say, he doesn’t always succeed. Many of the images are undeniably evocative (my favourite is the shot of an inverted ocean foaming toward the camera), but others, like the blankly staring boys with their surfboards, are just silly. Despite these occasional lapses however, it is high praise to observe that Murphy’s best work can be compared to a masterpiece like Picnic at Hanging Rock (Peter Weir, 1975). Given a less problematic project I’m confident he is capable of extraordinary work.

Unfortunately, like Sewell, he must also take responsibility for the floundering performances. The cast don’t ring true at all in the story’s first act, and consequently the film limps for too long before managing to break into a run. As previously noted, Sewell’s script is freighted with portentousness, thus making the dramatics top-heavy. If they recognise the problem, a director can alleviate this by simply opting to underplay it. A lighter tone allows both story and actors to retain a certain grace, and also grants the audience some breathing space to supply the meaningful stuff themselves. Naturally such grace is deceptively tricky to achieve--even a gifted performer like David Wenham stumbled occasionally while negotiating Sewell’s dialogue in The Boys. What is required is an instinct to resist the most obvious delivery, and this is something that Lost Things only sporadically achieves.

Charlie Garber’s Brad is particularly awkward. His insistence on proper diction and inability to handle some of Sewell’s more diabolical speeches (the apology to Emily that compares life to a dream is particularly hideous) renders him clumsy and unconvincing. Similarly, Steve Le Marquand is saddled with a clichéd character and lots of cut-rate Hannibal Lecter lines. Matters aren’t helped by the fact that his presence feels unnecessary, and the film would have been more satisfyingly mysterious if he wasn’t there to personify the weird situation. Happily, the girls in the cast succeed more often, and with trickier material. Lenka Kripac maintains a consistency that helps to anchor audience interest, and Alex Vaughan overcomes her initial nerves to storm home in Lost Things’ second act.

In fact, the whole film undergoes a sharp upswing in its second half. All the actors seem more comfortable, and Murphy’s direction is more self-assured. There are still lapses; in particular the film’s soundscape feels like it’s overreaching to generate the required menace. In spite of this however, twists begin to work, stylistic decisions pay off in unexpected ways, and genuine scares begin to break through the static. It’s not enough to redeem the film outright, but it does mean that it’s a lot more interesting than it initially appeared.

There’s a much better film visible in Lost Things, a film that lets the pictures do the talking and encourages the actors to loosen up. You can sense that ideal version struggling to break free throughout the film’s running time, and it’s this struggle that makes it worth sticking with. To return to the theatrical comparison, Lost Things feels like a first night. Not everything is as polished as it could be, but its ambitions are what make it really worth applauding.

Back to Top

"In My Day, We Respected Our Elders – We Didn't Bloody Eat 'Em"
Peter and Michael Spierig's Undead

reviewed by Dave Hoskin (first published in Metro magazine)

As the closing credits for Undead climbed up the screen, it occurred to me that there is a certain breed of film that seems inherently enthusiastic. The exploitation staples of horror and SF have always attracted fans that appear more fiercely passionate about what they admire, perhaps because these are the films that are traditionally accorded little respect. Like punk, there is a strong sense of the DIY ethos in the disreputable film community, with the only thing separating the geeks from the pros being a matter of time. These are stories told with an almost anarchistic fervour, rejecting the bland cotton candy of the mainstream and inventing their own secret language. If a film ever causes the overthrow of a government, you can be sure that it won’t be something starring Tom Hanks. It will be something with sharp teeth and manic energy, something relentless, something that will not stop until it has eaten your brain.

The fact that the Spierig Brothers’ Undead has arrived on Australian screens at all, let alone at the level of quality it displays, is little short of miraculous. Unlike American cinema, or even that of our Asian neighbours, Australian films seem to resist generic classification. Of course the crime film has recently lifted its profile, and we are perennial producers of comedy, but it seems to me that Australian films are distinguished more often by the concerns of their creators rather than their observance of clear generic traditions. Thus there is a delicious irony when Undead’s deliberately cheesy faux-1950s titles splash across the screen and it feels like we are watching something unique. While it’s obvious that this is a familiar story, we’ve never heard it told with an Australian accent before.

If one is willing to scour the cobwebbed aisles of the video store, films such as Bodymelt, (Philip Brophy, 1993) and Razorback (Russel Mulcahy, 1984) confirm that Australia’s commitment to the horror movie is not entirely arid, but given the mediocrity of most of those productions it is little surprise that they are forgotten. Strangely, particularly given his contemporary reputation, it is Peter Weir that emerges as Australia’s premiere director of fantastic cinema. However, while films like The Last Wave (1977) and Picnic at Hanging Rock (1975) are undeniably unsettling, Weir’s films seem to owe more to Australia’s literary world than to its cinema, and his tight control stands in stark contrast to the Spierig Brothers’ exuberance. Certainly it is difficult to see any debt to Weir in our nation’s other attempts at the horror movie, and it is little surprise that the influences that Undead wears unembarrassedly on its sleeve are almost entirely foreign in origin.

The defining quality of those influences, whether it be the works of Robert Rodriguez, John Woo, Richard Matheson or George Romero is their thirst for energy. Everything revolves around the goal of stomping the narrative accelerator through the floor, and polite notions of character development or plausibility are gleefully thrown out the window in order to reach escape velocity. There is a wonderful moment, roughly three quarters of the way through the film wherein the female lead of the film is faced with a general store full of marauding zombies. Via judicious use of a circular saw combined with a mop handle she unleashes a hilarious defence for which Sam Raimi would be proud to fill out paternity forms. Gore and viscera fly in all directions, and the perfect punchline sees the Australian flag flutter to the floor behind her. Like proud parents, my fellow audience members broke into spontaneous applause and I unabashedly joined in. This is a film where entertainment is paramount, and if you get the joke that the Spierig Brothers are telling then you certainly won’t be disappointed.

One of the most impressive things about Undead is the way in which the budget doesn’t seem to have inhibited the Brothers’ imagination. It would have been easy for Undead to be content with performing a straightforward cover version of films like Night of the Living Dead, (George Romero, 1968) stranding the protagonists in one location being a time-honoured method of saving money. However the scope of the production broadens steadily, with increasingly breathtaking set pieces building one upon another, reaching a climax when one of the characters finally realises exactly what has been going on above the clouds that blanket his hometown. There are occasional moments when the money seems scarcer than usual, (the underground bunker, for instance, looks suspiciously like a set) but these are fleeting distractions and barely worth mentioning.

If the film has a flaw, it is that there are occasional lapses in pacing. An early symptom of this is Dirk Hunter’s performance as a hysterical police officer. Faced with the situation of his fellow townspeople turning into zombies, his constant swearing is initially very funny, but soon begins to grate. The film also stumbles slightly when it ventures outside the usual confines of the zombie movie and splices in a new storyline that owes more to The X Files than George Romero. While this is Undead’s most surprising element, it unfortunately coincides with a longueur in the story’s progress. The danger experienced by the characters is diffused, and although the mysterious nature of the aliens is intriguing, it feels like a slight letdown after such a breathless beginning.

The only other niggling criticism is that the entire production is frequently very close to being little more than a masterful ventriloquist act. While the Spierigs are adept storytellers in their chosen field, there is precious little to mark Undead out as a uniquely Australian twist on the horror film. It comes as no surprise that a critic like Harry Knowles should rave about the film, because it is essentially American film grammar that the directors have chosen to use. Put simply, they are speaking his language.

Of course this need not necessarily be a criticism. Just as DJs sample others work to create their own, one could equally view the Spierigs’ story as an artfully delirious collage of influences that, when given a healthy injection of affection, can become more than the sum of their parts. By comparison, Jamie Blanks and Alex Proyas both had to leave the country to make their genre debut features, and neither of them really made what I would call distinctive impressions either.

As with directors such as Quentin Tarantino or Robert Rodriguez, it is the Spierigs’ unabashed affection for their material that sets them apart from the pack. There is nothing calculating about the film they have set out to make, but instead there is a palpable joy in the creation of each ridiculous stunt and gross-out gag. They’re having fun making something outrageous, and that’s something that very few Australian films can boast these days.

If it has no greater destiny, Undead is assured a cherishing cult audience when it arrives on DVD. There will doubtless be bigger films with better advertising, but as any fan of the horror movie knows, those sorts of films are rarely the ones that linger in the memory. Like all truly wonderful horror movies, Undead erupts from the margins of our culture, lifting us above the clouds that smother us in the banality of realism or market researched Australiana. And that’s something worth celebrating.

Back to Top

Continuum 4 is convened under the auspices of Continuum Foundation Inc.and is governed by its rules and regulations. Continuum Foundation Inc. is a not for profit association incorporated under the Victorian Associations Act, 1994.

copyright 2002-2005 by Continuum Foundation Inc | Last updated: June 22, 2006
banner images copyright Shaun Tan. All rights reserved.