Six Damn Fine Degrees #104: They Live! (1988)

Welcome to Six Damn Fine Degrees. These instalments will be inspired by the idea of six degrees of separation in the loosest sense. The only rule: it connects – in some way – to the previous instalment. So come join us on our weekly foray into interconnectedness!

They are among us. An alien race, seeking to control us via finance, politics and the media. They are visible only to those who can See. They are everywhere. In the police force, on our newscasts, among our colleagues, and perhaps even in our beds. Some of us humans enable them, perhaps because they believe they can never beat them, because they are intimidated, or because it is in their own self-interest to do so. That is the plot of They Live! (1988).

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Six Damn Fine Degrees #67: Galaxy Quest 

Welcome to Six Damn Fine Degrees. These instalments will be inspired by the idea of six degrees of separation in the loosest sense. The only rule: it connects – in some way – to the previous instalment. So come join us on our weekly foray into interconnectedness!

In a galaxy far, far, far away, a peaceful and slightly naïve alien cephalopod community is under attack by a cruel imperialist army of crustaceous insect people. Their response is to utilise what they take to be documentary footage of a spaceship, peopled by a human crew, which can evidently protect its inhabitants and travel throughout the universe. From these “historical documents” they replicate this spaceship including all of its technology, regardless of whether they completely understand its exact use, and use it to flee their aggressors. When the threat becomes ever more extreme and their numbers dwindle, they decide on a radical plan. They will find the original crew of the human-populated spaceship from the actual historical documentation, and plead for their help.

Unfortunately, the “historical documents” turn out to be a cheesy TV show from planet earth called Galaxy Quest, its plywood spaceship peopled by actors rather than a bold crew of explorers.

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Lookin’ good… but does it add up to anything?

For me, Michael Winterbottom is rather hit-and-miss. I usually like the atmosphere of his films, but at the same time they tend to leave me somewhat cold. Intellectually and aesthetically I appreciate them, but I rarely care.

Tim Robbins in search of a script that makes more sense

Code 46, his foray into near-future SF (sci-fi, that is, not San Francisco), had exactly the same effect on me. It’s beautifully shot, its digital imagery more evocative than any version of the future I’ve seen since Blade Runner – more so because the futuristic effect is subtle. Winterbottom’s future is our present, just more so.

But this is a film that struggles to be a mood piece, or perhaps video art. I enjoyed looking at it, but I didn’t particularly enjoy watching it. Certainly my difficulty following the plot largely stemmed from the bad mix that left half the lines unintelligible, which wasn’t helped by the fact that in the near future, apparently everyone speaks English mixed with Spanish and other languages. But if the plot is as simple as I think it is (and the reviews I’ve read since watching the film seem to support that theory), then it doesn’t hold up very well, really. Tim Robbins’ investigator falls hard for the once more waif-like Samantha Morton who is suspected of stealing genetic passports that allow people to travel to places that would otherwise be off-limit to them. It turns out that she’s cloned from his mother’s genetic material, so their relationship is a criminal offense. Wacky hijinks ensue.

Trés artistique, enh?

I usually like elliptic films – I like not being led by the hand, whether by movies or by books. But sometimes ellipticness seems to be a cheap excuse for vague writing, directing and acting. The film intrigues intermittently, but it rarely follows up on the intriguing bits: for instance, William Geld, Robbins’ character, has his memory of  Maria Gonzalez (Samantha Morton) erased at the end so he won’t resume the genetically dangerous relationship. He goes home to his child and his wife who knows of the affair but cannot ever tell. There’s an interesting story in that. Unfortunately, the film focuses on William and Maria but never makes their attraction credible. We know that they have feelings for one another because of how they act, yet we never feel the emotions. Their love or passion or horniness or whatever it is, it remains an idea.

And frankly, I am getting somewhat annoyed with Samantha Morton’s acting, or perhaps rather with the characters she’s offered. She has this patented wild-child thing going that makes her come across as slightly funny in the head, or as someone who doesn’t do social conventions at all. But the longer the more it feels like an affectation, like a neo-punk letting us know very clearly how different she is. I could imagine that this is what attracts a number of indie directors to her, but it’s becoming tiring.

Then again, I shouldn’t forget that she was also in this:

P.S.: Code 46 was written by Frank Cottrell Boyce, who also wrote Millions. I guess I may prefer his children’s books to his adult movie writing. The Claim, which he also did with Winterbottom, shares this film’s vagueness and coldness.

The best laid plans of machines and men

I’m sure there were blog entries like this one back when Battlestar Galactica season 3 premiered in the States. So, once again, I’m a year or so late with my reactions. Well, you know what? If you’re looking for cutting-edge reviews you’re in the wrong place anyway. Sorry… should’ve told you earlier, I guess.

Together with Firefly, it’s Battlestar Galactica that has revived my interest in sci-fi. After an overdose of bad Star Trek spinoffs, I’d really given up on the genre, but these two series show that there’s interesting stories to be told in outer space. What I like especially about BSG is the ambivalence of its characters – and that has never been as plain to see as at the beginning of season 3. The references to Iraq are obvious – lines about “insurgent uprisings” and “capturing their hearts and minds” are almost a bit too in-your-face – but the interesting thing is that it’s our protagonists who are strapping on bombs, killing the enemy as much as their own people.

And what other series could manage such a sick, compelling “Honey, I’m home!” moment as when Leoben is stabbed through the neck by Starbuck, only to come home a little later, freshly downloaded, telling her that it’s her choice whether she wants to sleep in the bedroom – but either way (nodding towards the Cylon corpse on the floor) she’d be spending the night with him.

Almost feeling a bit sorry for Gaius Baltar…

I must say I’m even feeling a bit sorry for Gaius. He’s in a situation where he can either do the wrong thing or get a bullet in the head. He’s never been heroic, exactly, but he’s in a place where he’s screwed, no matter what he does. It’ll be interesting to see where the season will take these characters. But I’m sure that wherever we’ll end up, it won’t be predictable.

It happened at the movies… (2)

28 Days Later and Millions – these films couldn’t be much more different in terms of what they’re about, yet they’re so obviously directed by the same person… I missed the former at the cinema due to middling reviews (and probably also the agonised moans of zombie aficionados all over the internet). Then, after I’d already pretty much forgotten about the film, a friend lent it to me on DVD. I didn’t expect much when I popped the disk into the player, but I was very positively surprised to find one of the most atmospheric, effecive, thrilling and beautifully paced films I’d seen that year. Yes, the ending is a mess, but it can’t ruin what the first 75% of the movie has built up. The shots of a deserted London alone deserve to become one of the iconic images of British cinema.

Millions, too, was an unexpected joy. The film is wildly inventive and balances its sentimental elements (that feel truthful and are never overplayed) with a sly sense of humour. It’s on a very short list of Christmas films that don’t make me feel like throwing up my eggnog all over the prezzies. And it’s got two of the best child performances I’ve ever seen on film.

Add to these two cinematic surprises directed by Danny Boyle that I’d seen a marvellous stage adaptation of Alex Garland’s evocative novel The Coma, which you can find a trailer for here. Garland also wrote the script for 28 Days Later, so when I heard that the two of them had teamed up again for Sunshine, a sci-fi movie, I was excited.

After seeing the film at the cinema, I was disappointed. I’d wanted to like, even love, Sunshine, and again, the first 3/4 gave me a lot of material to love. If you submit to its slow buildup of tension, it’s one of the strongest films of a space mission going horribly wrong since 2001: A Space Odyssey. And then it attempts to become a metaphysical thriller – but it slips and becomes a somewhat more restrained (but not much better) take on Event Horizon. When I read the script afterward, I realised what they were going for, but unfortunately they didn’t quite manage. On a larger scale, it was 28 Days Later all over, but moer disappointing, since this time I expected something great to begin with.

Still, do the final 30-40 minutes destroy what came before? They almost did on my first viewing; nevertheless, the preceding scenes are what stayed with me. Boyle and Garland succeed at impressing something of the immensity of the sun, and of the astronauts’ task, on us. This isn’t Armageddon or Deep Impact, it’s not heroic Bruce Willis going off to save the world to the strains of Aerosmith. These are normal people who’ve been given a task that, if you think about it too much, will drive you mad.

And while the film’s sort-of-villain verbalises the metaphysical implications less than successfully, the visuals of the dying sun actually convey some of what he says. Staring into the annihilating fires is perhaps the closest you can get to looking at the face of God. It’s interesting, though, that Garland, an atheist, and Boyle, more of a doubtful theist, read their film, and its metaphysical dimension, in completely different ways: the movie is wise not to come down on any one side of the God issue. It just sits there, like the dying sun – and if you stare at it for too long, it may just burn off your face. Now didn’t your mother warn you not to sit too close to the telly?

P.S.: Here’s the film’s international trailer. I do apologise, though, for the criminally overused orchestral piece nicked from Requiem for a Dream. (How anyone can think it’s a good idea to use music from that film to evoke ‘epic-ness’ is beyond me.)