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TV: Carnivale (Season One)
TV: Doctor Who (2005)
Film: I, Robot
Film: King Kong (2005)
Film: Logan's Run
Film: Lost Things
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
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.
Gods n' Geeks: Carnivale
reviewed by Dave Hoskin (first published in Metro
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
reviewed by Dave Hoskin (first published in Metro
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.
reviewed by Dave Hoskin (first published in Metro
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
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
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.
Muppets in Space: Farscape
reviewed by Dave Hoskin (first published in Metro
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.
Fables of the Reconstruction:
reviewed by Dave Hoskin (first published in Metro
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
reviewed by Dave Hoskin (first published in Metro
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.
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
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
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.
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.
the Beaten Track: Lost Things
reviewed by Dave Hoskin (first published in Metro
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
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
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
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
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