The Host

Bae Doo-na, Byun Hee-bong and Song Kang-ho in The Host


In Memories of Murder, the South Korean director Bong Joon-ho made an interesting point about the police procedural – that no matter how “tortured” the cop/protagonist, no matter how broken his background, how fractured his family life, how severe his problem with drink, he always remains a hero. Not in Memories of Murder he doesn’t. Nor did the case get solved by inspiration, Sherlock Holmes-ian deduction, or even solid police work – it was mostly luck, that’s when the cops weren’t beating information out of people. The Host is Bong’s observations on the creature feature, another home for the hero. But, again, not here. Bong first gives us a bit of Godzilla-style backstory – toxic waste pouring into Seoul’s River Han has caused a hideous mutation to take place. Meanwhile, on dry land, we meet the family that’s going to be most closely affected once the creature decides to crawl out of the river and go postal – among them a drunken, no-good dad, a horrible sniping brother and a worthy, decent sister who, we learn, was an Olympic archer. In Hollywood there would be only one possible outcome here – that the decent girl would eventually rise to become the hero character. But will she in South Korea? What, for instance is the significance of the fact that she only won a bronze medal when she was at the Olympics? Is the monster going to offer her a chance to go for gold?

Bong takes time to introduce his characters, works within the obviously limited budget to deliver a creature that’s a piece of work, all tail and mouth, as horrible as it is athletic as it is intriguing. And then he plays the intrigue game with the characters, shifting the focus and our expectations from one to the next, sharing out redemption between them, because redemption and heroism are also often linked, he’s making clear. But like Memories of Murder, the strength of The Host is that you can ignore all this “commentary on a genre” aspect entirely and watch it as a straight-out creature feature and it’s very good indeed – fresh, thrilling, tense, humane, even funny now and again – there’s nothing arched or forced.

Films like this are often referred to as a Hollywood calling card, which is a tremendously Victorian way of putting things, but in Bong’s case his film is more like fan-fiction – he clearly knows his sources but is taking things into his own universe, in his own way, as well as he can with the money to hand. If Hollywood wants him, it’s most likely going to be on his terms.




The Host – Watch it/buy it at Amazon




© Steve Morrissey 2006





The Signal

Brenton Thwaites in The Signal


Well, I loved this. A confident exercise in genre and genre misdirection that has the balls to invoke The Matrix, Close Encounters, and Vincenzo Natali’s Cube. So, yes, it’s about aliens and a gigantic conspiracy and there’s a lot of white light bathing its clinical setups, and it cost not very much at all.


And the first bit of misdirection comes at the very first shot – a boy, a girl, his buddy, dappled sunlight, a piano on the soundtrack. It looks like we’re in torridly romantic Nicholas Sparks territory and we can only be minutes away from someone coming down with a terminal disease, especially as Nic, our lead, is on crutches, as a result of some not-entirely specified mishap – an injury? Cancer? Is he a soldier?


No, Nic’s a computer hacker, we find out early on, who along with his buddy Jonah has been delving into areas he shouldn’t and has got someone somewhere out in cyberspace very angry. None of this actually matters much, or seems to, because only a couple of minutes after this, the gooey proto-romance which morphed into a wannabe Matrix has changed again, into a haunted-house horror as the two guys break into a deserted house, and director William Eubank shows he’s also adept at making things spooky.


All a preamble. The film proper starts with Nic waking up from loss of consciousness in some aseptic facility, where everyone is dressed in hazmat suits and Laurence Fishburne is looming over him asking questions about “the signal”. The gist of it is that Nic, Jonah and Haley have been abducted by aliens, possibly, and are now OK, safe and sound, being looked after by the government, who are dressed like spacemen just as a precaution. Possibly, though explanations are thin on the ground. All the better.


This nightmarish vision of loss of control works better than I’m able to describe it partly because its cast is so good: former Home & Away heartthrob Brenton Thwaites is perfect casting as the fiercely intelligent MIT student Nic, a slightly more feral Channing Tatum with soulful eyes, a perfect profile, yet approachably blokey. A star, I’d be willing to bet. Underused Beau Knapp is also just right as Nic’s wingman, and Olivia Cooke brings what dignity she can to even less of a role for her, as the largely passive girlfriend.


Out on the ring road of stardom is Lin Shaye, who’s now become something of a go-to actor for wingnut roles (see Insidious), and does a magnificent few minutes as a local Christian fundamentalist who picks up the gang when they make a break for it.


As for Laurence Fishburne, he seems to relish rehashing a version of Morpheus, the glacial, slightly amused delivery, and the boom, of course the boom.


The entire film revolves around the true nature of Fishburne’s Dr Damon character, it becomes clear early on. And of course I’m not going to tell you whether he’s the good guy or bad guy. In fact to tell you any more than I already have – or that most of the film takes place in this facility, where there are a number of shocking reveals – would ruin everything. What I can say is that to that basic Matrix/Close Encounters/Cube mood board, you could add a bit of Attack the Block attitude and some of the dipshit conspiracy theorising of The Banshee Chapter, and that Nima Fakhrara’s Mogwai-esque soundtrack of Theremin squawks and aortal rumbles hugely contributes to the dread atmosphere that Eubank keeps alive right to the last minute.


And if there’s a lesson The Signal could teach other films like it – apart from “make sure you’ve got a good story to tell” – it’s to use special effects sparingly. That way they remain special. As is almost all of this film. Prepare to be amazed.



The Signal – Watch it/buy it at Amazon


© Steve Morrissey 2014






Joaquin Phoenix in Her


A movie for every day of the year – a good one



22 August


Storm botnet maximum, 2007

Today marks the day when, in 2007, activity by the Storm Worm Trojan horse reached its maximum. Having been identified in January 2007, the worm spread via emails with catchy subject lines such as “230 dead as storm batters Europe”. Once the recipient had clicked on it, the Trojan horse would go to work, replicating itself and emailing itself out to others as spam. No one is really sure where the Trojan horse came from – some suggest the US, others Russia – but it was designed to work on Microsoft Windows systems, turning each infected one into a bot. The network of bots, once established, takes orders from servers whose domain names change frequently. These servers also frequently re-encode the worm, making detection difficult. This makes the botnet efficient at both attack and defence; it can “know” when it is being attacked by anti-virus investigators and can even deny them access to the internet, taking them out of the game. It is estimated that on 22 August 2007 this activity reached a maximum, with 57 million infected messages being sent out in a single day. The Storm botnet went into decline in late 2008, though it probably wasn’t as a result of Microsoft’s efforts to flush out the virus with security updates, more likely it was the result of tools like Stormfucker (a “white” or “ethical” worm), which effectively uses the Storm Worm’s own protocols to make it disinfect itself.




Her (2013, dir: Spike Jonze)

Having read an article about a web application called Cleverbot, which uses algorithms to have conversations with humans, Spike Jonze decided the idea would be ideal for a film. Her is that film, the story of a guy who falls in love with his computer’s operating system. And it with him, or so it seems. The guy is played by Joaquin Phoenix and the OS’s voice is provided by Scarlett Johansson. And it all starts so easily, Phoenix’s Theodore deciding to buy the “world’s first artificial intelligence operating system”, and at first being amazed as it/she starts sorting out his life, decluttering, adding entries to his diary, getting his life back on track. To make his life more efficient the OS starts asking questions about Theodore’s likes and dislikes, wishes and desires. The recently divorced single man (day job: writing emotional messages for other people’s significant “together” moments) and the OS start to get to know each other. Gradually, this turns into something more personal. In as much as he can, Jonze makes Her a traditional romance – the meet cute, the walks in the park, the mad sex, the first argument, the flaming row, the break-up. Some of this he has to finesse slightly and force into a box it doesn’t quite want to go into (it’s the walk in the walk in the park rather than the sex which sat ill with me) but you can’t deny that Jonze is doing it absolutely straight. This is no comedy, no freak show, but an exploration of a human relationship with a thing which isn’t human – though the extent to which it isn’t human (or is) is definitely territory that writer/director Jonze is all over.
What sort of a world would it be where such a relationship was possible? Jonze builds it convincingly – it looks hi-tech (much of it is Shanghai), the fashions are different (high waisted trousers seem to be in), realistic 3D video games are the sort of recreation a man comes home to after a day at the office. But for the most part it’s a world of recognisable humans and recognisable relationships – we have already seen Theodore having phone sex with someone called SexyKitten (voiced by Kristen Wiig, whose “choke me with a cat”, shouted in the throes of a well simulated orgasm, is worth a snort).
Talking of orgasms, the fact that Johansson replaced Samantha Morton as the voice of the OS – in post-production, Morton having done the whole film from inside a padded plywood box – might have something to do with ScarJo’s sexy rasp. I don’t know. I wouldn’t put it past Morton to be able to purr with the best of them – she can do most things – but Johansson is the perfect choice and the film marks out the beginning of her sudden moment as the go-to woman for sci-fi oddness – Under the Skin and Lucy were both just a moment away.
It’s a simple film, a romance, with a conceit that Jonze follows right through to the end, and there’s no point detailing all the plot – though there is even an attractive, real human girl next door (Amy Adams) who Theodore doesn’t take any notice of because he’s so infatuated with this unattainable woman/machine/thing. Watching Jonze play through these film clichés is actually the point of Her. Does an extended joke need to be two hours long? Absolutely not. There’s a better, punchier 90 minute film in here somewhere. But Jonze didn’t make that film, so let’s enjoy the one he did make.



Why Watch?


  • Another great everyman performance by Joaquin Phoenix
  • The peripheral casting (Kristen Wiig, Amy Adam, Olivia Wilde)
  • Scarlett Johansson’s note perfect performance
  • The cinematography of Hoyte Van Hoytema


© Steve Morrissey 2014



Her – Watch it now at Amazon





Things to Come

HG Wells on set in Things to Come, with Margaretta Scott and Raymond Massey


A movie for every day of the year – a good one



20 July


László Moholy-Nagy, 1895

On this day in 1895, the painter, photographer and member of the Bauhaus school Moholy-Nagy was born in Bácsborsód, Hungary. Born László Weisz, he changed his Jewish surname to a more Hungarian one after his Jewish father left the family, and took Nagy (pronounced Nodge), later adding Moholy after the town of Mohol, where he grew up. He studied law in Budapest before fighting in the First World War, during which time he became involved with progressive artists and the “Activists”. He studied art for a while after the war, in 1919, before heading to Berlin in 1920. By 1923 he was teaching at the Bauhaus, where he expanded his interests (and teaching) into the fields of photography, typography, sculpture, printmaking and industrial design – most of them not prestige fields. He resigned from the Bauhaus and became a freelance designer, working in theatre, book design, advertising and film. He moved to London when the Nazis came to power and lived with Walter Gropius for a while, became a photographer of contemporary architecture for Architectural Review (commissioned by future poet laureate John Betjeman) and also worked on producer and fellow Hungarian Alexander Korda’s film Things to Come as a special effects designer. He then moved to the USA, where he became the director of the New Bauhaus in Chicago. This closed after a year, but Moholy-Nagy went on to become the head of the Institute of Design, later part of the Illinois Institute of Technology. He died in 1946 of leukaemia, leaving behind a wealth of photographs, kinetic sculptures and a lively interest in constructivist-flavoured functional design that influences people to this day.




Things to Come (1936, dir: William Cameron Menzies)

Things to Come takes us right back, not just to 1936 when it was made, but almost to the dawn of modern sci-fi. Written by HG Wells (The Time Machine, The Invisible Man, War of the Worlds) – who was often on set during shooting– it is also one of the most fully realised modernist films that we still have. None of the work László Moholy-Nagy did on the sets was ever used, but the influence of fellow modernists is obvious – this is a hymn to progress, albeit with a very 1930s flavour: it’s keener on authoritarian central control than any futurist film made these days would be. Plotwise there isn’t very much to speak of. We start off in the present, in 1936, where life is more or less peaceable. Then we jump on twice. First a few decades where war is total and civilisation has broken down entirely, leading to a brutish dictator taking control. And then again to 2036 and the beautiful, designed environment of calm and order, whiteness everywhere, light, air. It all looks a bit like Albert Speer’s visions of the future dreamt up for Hitler, but no one working on Things to Come could have known anything about that then. Looking at it now, some things seem shocking in a way they wouldn’t have been then. It is British, for starters. Unabashed straightforward non-ironic sci-fi could only be American (or Soviet) in future decades. But in the 1930s, still possessing the largest empire the world had seen, Brits felt confident enough to predict that the world a hundred years hence would be shaped in their image. Hence Everytown, the futurist paradise, a place full of people speaking with the sort of clipped accents that now belong in an audio museum. Then there’s the acting, done as if each speaker is standing on a stage and shouting to the gods. A lot of those present – Raymond Massey, Ralph Richardson, Edward Chapman – were theatre actors originally, but even so their performances reek of the artificial. But then maybe that’s only to be expected, given the tone of the thing. Portent was the dominant tone of sci-fi, right up until the 1970s. Think of The Day the Earth Stood Still, or Star Trek or 2001, all earnest as hell. No, the thing to take away from Things to Come, apart from the fact that it predicted the horrors of the Second World War, is its amazing high modernist look – huge plazas, cities roofed in, monorails, geometric grids, flying walkways, the design trademarks of architects such as Norman Bel Geddes, Le Corbusier, John Portman, Mendelsohn & Chermayeff, in materials such as glass, steel and new plastics, a mix of European Modernism and the American International Style that hasn’t been matched. Things to Come predicts the world of the shopping mall and the international airport terminal, with a progressive, cheery vision of the future where people just conform. It all now looks deeply suspect. And if that doesn’t make something worth watching…



Why Watch?


  • The future – in 1936
  • As close as we can get to HG Wells on film
  • The modernist sets
  • A cast of thousands


© Steve Morrissey 2014



Things to Come – Watch it now at Amazon






The infamous "drunken-vodka-breasts" sequence from 4


A movie for every day of the year – a good one



17 July


Czar Nicholas II and family executed, 1918

On this day in 1918, the former ruler of Russia, Nicholas Romanov, Emperor and Autocrat of All the Russias, having had a disastrous reign during which he had presided over the collapse of his once-great country, was shot and killed, along with his family. He had abdicated the year before, after a series of military defeats and revolutions, culminating in the February Revolution of 1917. For a while his family had lived under house arrest but in comparative luxury, though rations had increasingly been tightened and servants had been dispensed with as the mood towards the former ruler hardened. He had asked the British for asylum, and this had been offered, only for his cousin, George V, to overrule the government. In the early hours of 17 July 1918, Nicholas, his family, doctor and three servants were woken, led to a basement room in the Ipatiev house in Yekaterinburg. They were told that they had been condemned to death by the Ural Soviet of the Workers’ Deputies. Nicholas objected and was immediately shot by Yakov Yurovsky, leader of a squad of Bolshevik secret police. After a few more shots to the chest, Nicholas died. In the meantime the rest of the squad started firing at the family and retainers. The children survived the longest, having so many jewels sewn into their clothes meant that some bullets couldn’t get through. Bayonets and bullets to the head soon finished the business.




4 (2005, dir: Ilya Khrzhanovsky)

Prepare to be dazzled. Ilya Khrzhanovsky’s debut starts with a hooker, a piano tuner and a meat salesman meeting in a bar in the early hours of the morning, where they’re telling each other an elaborate pack of lies about what each does for a living (hooker, piano tuner and meat salesman don’t come into it). This unique film then spins off into god knows what, a wider story about Russia, the stories it tells itself about itself, and the way a new world is constantly being created out of bits of the old. Perhaps. Working off a script by avant-garde veteran Vladimir Sorokin, director Ilya Khrzhanovsky presents us with a vision of Russia that might have been dreamt up by the CIA – the vodka, the heavy pork diet, evidence of heavy industry everywhere, gangsters all over the place, old babushkas cackling, drunk. And the dogs. And the police. Not so much a satire on Russia as a satire on satires on Russia, it’s a remarkable, overcooked richly seasoned stew of imagery, people, places and cinematography. Hungarian miserablist Béla Tarr gets the odd visual namecheck, especially in the long sequence in which the hooker Marina heads off to a village to try and find out what happened to her now-dead sister. What actually did happen to her sister isn’t important. In 4 (Chetyre in Russian) it’s mostly about the visuals, a near monochrome succession of beautifully nihilistic images that will either delight or infuriate (look up the usually measured Neil Young’s enraged review if you want the latter – here). Its most iconic sequence takes place in a gloomy room where a gaggle of old women are making the faces for baby-sized dolls. They do this by chewing hunks of bread, then forming the dribbly pulp into the features. As they work, they sing, old songs about Stalin, sentimental ditties. They talk among themselves, almost ignoring Marina, and the subtitling gets a bit sporadic here as well, as if the film is wandering off into the crones’ reverie too. The women get the vodka out, start getting drunk, begin to expose their breasts, laughing like crows as they pour vodka over the wrinkly empty pillows. They seem to be real people, these old dears, not actors, and they also seem to be really drunk, and it appears to be this sequence – the possible exploitation rather than the mammaries – that gets people exercised. Around this point Marina and what look like her sisters disrobe too, in a sauna sequence, yet no one in the criticsphere seems too bothered about that sort of exploitation.
It is all deliberately nightmarish and to describe it in terms of plot doesn’t really work at all. Orwellian is what these sort of fever dreams are often described as, and with the addition of some numerology – the number four is everywhere, from the quartet of curs hanging around in the street as the film opens, right to the end – the creation of an air of mystery seems to be the intention. But then isn’t mystery one of the key cliché constituents of the dark soul of old mother Russia?



Why Watch?


  • A remarkable debut
  • Kirill Vasilenko’s atmospheric soundscape
  • The brilliant imagery
  • Marina Vovchenko’s performance


© Steve Morrissey 2014



4 – Watch it now at Amazon





Rise of the Planet of the Apes

Andy Serkis (possibly) and James Franco in Rise of the Planet of the Apes


A movie for every day of the year – a good one




12 July



Julius Caesar born, 100BC

Most people have some inkling about the death of Julius Caesar – “et tu, Brute” etc – but he was born too, so it seems. In the year 100BC, on this day, to a family of patricians who already bore the cognomen Julia – descendants of the mythical Iulus (or so they liked to say) aka Ascanius, king of Alba Longa, son of Trojan hero Aeneas. Julius Caesar’s given name was Gaius, his family name Julius, the cognomen or family nickname Caesar – because one of his ancestors was born by caesarean section (from the Latin caedere – to cut), or had a thick head of hair (caesaries – hair), or because he had bright eyes (oculis caesiis – blue eyes), or that he killed an elephant in battle (caesai – Moorish for elephant). From coins struck during his rule, bearing images of elephants, it would seem that Julius Caesar preferred the last explanation. At 16 Julius Caesar’s father died and he became head of the family. He was also lined up to become the high priest of Jupiter, but intrigue against the family meant Julius Caesar was stripped of his inheritance and all titles, actual or pending. Which is how he ended up joining the army and embarking on a circuitous route to the top, won by prowess as a military man and administrator rather than connection to an important family. Sounds a bit like Gladiator.






Rise of the Planet of the Apes (2011, dir: Rupert Wyatt)

There are reboots and reboots. Rise of the Planet of the Apes goes right back to basics, calling on neither the original sequence of films made between 1968 and 1973, nor Tim Burton’s dreadful 2001 waste of everyone’s time. It’s the real reboot thing – a “here’s how it all happened” reimagining of how the Earth might have been taken over by apes. Or will happen, since it’s set in a ten-minutes-into-the-future present where a scientific researcher (James Franco) comes up with a drug for restoring brain function, tries it on the chimps at the lab and also sneaks some home for his beloved dad (John Lithgow) who has Alzheimer’s.
The bewildered/lucid Lithgow is little more than a humanising backstory to Franco, as is another of the film’s stars, Freida Pinto as Franco’s perpetually worried girlfriend, struggling to show off her range after being catapulted to fame by Danny Boyle’s Slumdog Millionaire. Andy Serkis completes the quartet, yet again in a mo-cap role (after playing the hero beast in King Kong and Gollum) as Caesar, the ape who has been born with consciousness and superior intelligence as a result of his mother getting a shot of Franco’s wonder serum. Add that to Caesar’s pre-existing animal cunning and we have… trouble.
I’m no fan of any of the Planet of the Apes films – people in chimp masks, whether riding horses or carrying a clipboard just doesn’t do it for me – and it’s said that Stanley Kubrick was furious when the original POTA won an Oscar for make-up. What about his apes – in 2001: A Space Odyssey – did the Academy think he’d used real ones? But good though Serkis is at conveying Caesar’s awakening as a sapient ape and his evolution as the sort of military strategist that his Roman namesake would recognise, the film actually spends most of its time operating as an update on the sort of 1950s B movie where concerned scientists would say things to each other in concerned-scientist monotones. On this level it’s a very good film: brisk, entirely sure of what it’s about, with a driving forward thrust and a keen interest in technology and the brains required to use them. The twist being that it’s the apes who start to learn; the humans are all over the place, unsure whether to let their head or their heart win out in any closely contested decision-making.
So we forgive Pinto’s flattish performance, the same way we forgive Franco, who could be just about anybody, because too much personality would just slow things down, make everything just a bit less slick.
As for its message – don’t be mean to the beasts, or the beasts might just be mean to you – it chimes entirely with species-ist claims for rights for animals in a way that’s incredibly direct and yet never obtrusive. Good work. No wonder the doctor ordered a sequel, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes.





Why Watch?


  • Andy Serkis as Caesar
  • The film that rebooted a franchise
  • The clean modernist cinematography of Andrew Lesnie (Lord of the Rings)
  • Its thrilling “ape takeover” third act




© Steve Morrissey 2014




Rise of the Planet of the Apes – Watch it now at Amazon








Codependent Lesbian Space Alien Seeks Same

Zoinx (Susan Ziegler) and Jane (Lisa Haas)


A movie for every day of the year – a good one



17 June


Statue of Liberty arrives in New York, 1885

On this day in 1885, the Statue of Liberty, designed and made in France, arrived in New York. Depicting the Roman goddess of freedom Libertas, the statue was made in pieces, the first completed bits being the head and torch arm, and then shipped in crates to the USA, where the Americans had already built a pedestal in anticipation of its arrival. Its sculptor, Frédéric Auguste Bartholdi, had originally started work in the late 1860s on a gigantic torch-bearing statue designed to stand at the northern entrance to the Suez Canal. Nothing came of the project and Bartholdi turned his attention to the USA, noticing on his arrival by ship in New York on a scoping exercise that there was a large island perfectly poised to greet arrivals from the Old World to the New. The island was called Bedloe’s (or Bedlow’s) Island and as luck would have it was owned by the US government. The statue is hollow, being made of 90,800 kilos of copper around 2.4mm thick originally intended for anchoring to a brick pier inside. This plan changed when Bartholdi’s original structural collaborator died and Gustave Eiffel (of Eiffel Tower fame) came on board. He decided that the statue would be better off anchored to a metal “curtain wall”. On its arrival in New York, the statue had to wait for the pedestal to be completed – fundraising had been fitful – and re-assembly didn’t start until April 1886. Work proceeded quickly and the statue was dedicated by President Grover Cleveland on 28 October 1886. The New York Daily News described it as towering “to the skies above all known statues of the present and the past”.




Codependent Lesbian Space Alien Seeks Same (2011, dir: Madeleine Olnek)

It’s a great title, but is Codependent Lesbian Space Alien Seeks Same (CLSASS) a great film? Yes, if you admire can-do spirit, wonky humour and a spaceship that appears to be made from a styrofoam burger box. Taking a twin-track approach, writer/director Madeleine Olnek drops us at the beginning of the relationship between Jane (Lisa Haas), an employee at a gift card shop, and Zoinx (Susan Ziegler), an alien who has left her home planet of Zots, possibly because she isn’t capable of corralling her feelings the way her fellow Zotsians can; though her two fellow space travellers seem to have fallen in love with each other, so who knows. Meanwhile, in a car parked around the corner, two unusual Men in Black are keeping an eye on things and having bi-curious conversations that veer between the uncomfortable and the hilarious. Made for nothing, in black and white and looking like it was shot guerrilla style, it’s faintly in the New York scavenger style of Basket Case – grungy, lots of street noise – and makes a virtue of its make-do-and-mend graphics, the Theremin on the soundtrack, all in homage to cruddy sci-fi B movies of the 1950s and 1960s. This is a frequently funny film (“the elders can perform intercourse on themselves,” we overhear) which uses aliens to make perceptive points about humans – in a conversation between two of the aliens we learn that the sea makes us humans sad, unless we are in love, in which case our whole outlook on life is so occluded (the aliens’ word) by emotion that we’re barely aware of where we are. We’re a piece of skin stretched over a bag of organs and driven by a motor of emotion, it seems. And it does seem like a good way to describe us, the bald-headed female aliens by contrast speaking in a flat matter-of-fact monotone the entire time, their gills hidden by high Elizabethan collars, their costumes looking like something run up on a sewing machine while the machinist had half an eye on a 1960s Star Trek episode. If you’re the sort of person who isn’t comfortable with gay stuff, sexual politics, modern life, don’t worry, it’s all kept very much in the background – the joke about one of the MiBs not liking cream filled donuts because he’s not comfortable with the way the cream shoots all over his face is about as knuckly as it gets.



Why Watch?


  • Good, leftfield sci-fi
  • Come on – great title
  • Lisa Haas as Jane the chunky heroine
  • Great tinfoil SFX


© Steve Morrissey 2014



Codependent Lesbian Space Alien Seeks Same  – Watch it now at Amazon






Come to mummy: Sarah Polley and offspring in Splice


A movie for every day of the year – a good one



16 June


Lord Byron and house guests read Fantasmagoriana, 1816

While on holiday in Switzerland in 1816, Lord Byron and his house guests grew sick of the weather of the “year without a summer”, as 1816 came to be known. Volcanic activity on the other side of the world and the historically low solar activity were precipitating famine in Europe, flooding in Asia and other weather catastrophes. But for this party it meant excessive rain, gloom and little to do. To entertain each other, they started reading a collection of German and French gothic stories called Fantasmagoriana. Published only three years earlier in French, the book contained stories with titles such as La Morte Fiancée (The Death Bride) and Le Revenant (The Revenant). The readers included Byron, Mary Godwin, Percy Shelley, John William Polidori and Claire Clairmont. “We will each write a ghost story,” Mary Godwin remembers Byron commanding. And they did, Polidori writing The Vampyre, the first work of recognisable vampire fiction, while Godwin (with addenda by her future husband Shelley), inspired by the news of the great electric advance of galvanism, came up with Frankenstein: or The Modern Prometheus, after having “a waking dream” during which she imagined it, on 16 June.




Splice (2009, dir: Vincenzo Natali)

Why does RoboCop clump about like that, when he’s a cyborg who can jump great heights, has finesse when it comes to aiming a weapon and can run like a gazelle? The answer is: to remind us that he is a Frankenstein creation. Thud. No such sonic clues come from Vincenzo Natali, who spends a huge amount of time and effort distracting us from the fact that his story is about another Frankenstein creation – a hybrid human built by a nerd and his nerdy girlfriend. See, a couple, couldn’t be a Frankenstein story, could it? Adrien Brody and Sarah Polley play the scientist couple and, from the first shots of a slightly overweight Polley, it’s obvious that Natali has pulled his crew in on a no-budget, last-minute, just-got-the-money-and-the-window arrangement. The weight comes and goes as the film progresses, doubtless because Natali was shooting asequentially. This is not an unfair pop at Polley, not at all. In fact it’s a hallmark of low-budget high-concept films that some or all of the actors look chubby – they’re in “downtime” and are often there to lend a name and do a friend a favour – before they go back on the punishing diets that make them lean lollipop heads. In this case Polley for a fellow Canadian, the director of the cult film Cube perhaps also having another little wonder up his sleeve. He does, with this story of scientists who splice DNA together to produce a hybrid human, incubate it, birth it, then stand back and watch as it – her, actually – develops at a freakish speed. Dren (that’s “nerd” backwards) then throws the “parents” into familiar roles – she is loving and protective, he more wary (surely he’s not asking “Is it mine?”) and in a quick succession of cute vignettes, Natali delivers the sort of “bringing up baby” film that families used to shoot on domestic Super 8, but here is caught on the brightest, most aseptic film stock.
Except this isn’t a “big aah” home movie; it’s a horror film, and what the couple have actually created is something that becomes more terrifying by the day. Dren grows at speed, letting on that she can breathe underwater at one point (there are other revelations, in spoiler territory) and subtly shifting her allegiances – as the scientists’ “little girl” arrives at puberty she falls for dad, starts to see mother as a rival (hello Doctor Freud). To reveal how it all pans out would destroy the fun of watching it, but as Splice moves towards its finale, it never quite ties up all the ideas it has let loose en route. Maybe that’s because the ethics of scientific experimentation on animal or human forms resists easy good/bad categorisation. Fixing a wonky heart is good; growing a second head isn’t. But if you can ignore that, and its generic running-around ending, this is a fabulous looking film, the two leads live up to their billing, as does Delphine Chaneac (yes, it’s a human being playing Dren, amazingly) and there has been a fascinating examination of what it means to be a human. It’s all about love, apparently. Well, it might be.



Why Watch?


  • There’s never a dull film from Vincenzo Natali, director of Cube
  • Tetsuo Nagata’s bright clean cinematography
  • Delphine Chaneac’s amazingly lithe performance
  • The remarkable effects work – CG and physical


© Steve Morrissey 2014



Splice – Watch it now at Amazon






Jude Law and Jennifer Jason Leigh in eXistenZ


A movie for every day of the year – a good one



14 June


Charles Babbage’s difference engine, 1822

On this day in 1822, Charles Babbage presented a paper to the British Royal Astronomical Society. It was called “Note on the application of machinery to the computation of astronomical and mathematical tables”. What he was proposing was, in effect a mechanical computer. First conceived in 1786 by JH Müller, an engineer in the Hessian army, the difference engine was of interest to governments because it allowed them to produce tables (of whatever sort – tides, for instance) much more economically. To this end, in 1823 the British government gave Babbage £1,700 to make his engine. By 1842 they had given him more than £17,000 and there still was no machine. Partly this was because Babbage got bogged down in the detail, partly because he’d moved on to another project (the analytical engine) and partly because it was difficult, using the technology of the day, to work to the tolerances that the difference engine required. The difference engine  was only completed in 1991, with the ancillary printer (Babbage’s plan was to print direct from the machine, avoiding the errors introduced by typesetters – another astonishing concept) only finished in 2000. Both machines worked perfectly.




eXistenZ (1999, dir: David Cronenberg)

You used to know what you were getting with David Cronenberg. Generally roaming the territory where technological and the human body intersected, to gruesome effect, his films such as Videodrome, Scanners, Dead Ringers, Crash and The Fly all featured people being subject to what became known as “body horror”. These days Cronenberg has broadened his range to make fragrant delights such as the Jung/Freud costume drama A Dangerous Method, but back in the day “body horror” and Cronenberg were pretty much synonymous, even though other people (such as Shin’ya Tsukamoto, with his Tetsuo films) were wading in the same water. What make eXistenZ interesting is that it’s effectively his last gambol through the ooze where metal meets flesh, a fun bit of sci-fi about a computer game virgin being inveigled by the creator of a video game creator into “testing” it for her. Jude Law plays the neophyte, Ted, Jennifer Jason Leigh is Allegra, the uberprogrammer whose dabblings in the territory some say is reserved for God have earned her a fatwa from fundamentalist “Realists”. And of course Allegra has more in mind for the slightly blank Ted than just quickly going through the motions. They enter the reality of eXistenZ, a computer program so vivid that it feels and looks, even tastes, like another world. “Reality is all a construct” is the big idea, lifted from philosophy and worked into … I was going to say a meditation, but in fact Cronenberg is more turning the idea this way and that, seeing which way the light bounces off it most acutely. So after Law and Leigh enter the game they end up at a Chinese restaurant, where they order the special and it turns out to be very special indeed – strong stomach warning. From here Cronenberg takes us to the “gristle gun” scene, in which Law constructs a weapon out of body parts, an echo of the “bioport” we’ve already been introduced to (like a USB socket straight into the small of the back), a foretaste of the bullet in Allegra’s shoulder which turns out to be a tooth. As I said, there’s a rough and ready aspect to Cronenberg’s first entirely original screenplay since Videodrome, which was prompted by the ructions over Salman Rushdie’s book The Satanic Verses, and the subsequent fatwa that put its author under a death sentence. But if it started in Cronenberg’s mind as an exploration of fundamentalism and relativism, it soon morphed into prime cuts of organic tech fantasy. Released around the same time as The Matrix, its special effects and its conceptual reach pale in comparison with the Wachowskis’, but Cronenberg’s film is ageing well, and in any case when you’ve got so much yucky content, who wants to see it all pin sharp? Enjoy.



Why Watch?


  • A good cast – feisty Jennifer Jason Leigh, detached Jude Law
  • The slick trick ending
  • Ian Holm, Christopher Eccleston and Sarah Polley in the support cast
  • Carol Spier’s carnal production design


© Steve Morrissey 2014



eXistenZ – Watch it now at Amazon






Sigourney Weaver and cat in Alien


A movie for every day of the year – a good one



6 June


Alexis St Martin shot in the stomach, 1822

On this day in the 1822, a 20-year-old Canadian called Alexis Bidagan St Martin was shot in the stomach at close range at a fur trading post on Mackinac Island, Canada. He survived the musket blast and the wound healed, leaving a hole, a fistula, in his side which led right into his stomach. The man treating him, US army sergeant William Beaumont, noticed that all the food that St Martin ate was re-appearing from the fistula. Matters improved, St Martin’s digestion returned to normal though the wound healed to form a perfect conduit from the stomach to the outside world – the hole in the stomach had attached itself to the edge of the hole in the skin. Beaumont realised he had a window onto digestion itself, very poorly understood at the time, and set about a series of experiments which essentially entailed attaching bits of food to a string and dropping them in through the fistula into St Martin’s stomach. St Martin was a poor man and Beaumont had employed him as his servant, one of his duties being to put up with these experiments. They went on for the next 11 years. Beaumont published his findings, Experiments and Observations on the Gastric Juice, and the Physiology of Digestion, which was a groundbreaking work on the digestive system. Once out of Beaumont’s employ, St Martin moved to Quebec and refused to take part in any more experiments, though Beaumont frequently suggested it. Beaumont died in 1853; St Martin lived to be 78, dying in 1880.




Alien (1979, dir: Ridley Scott)

Is Alien the most important sci-fi film of the 1970s? No, that’s Star Wars, obviously. But, like Star Wars, Alien is trying to break free of the shiny new world of sci-fi that had been dominant until then, in which clean-limbed astronauts in pristine space gear had adventures in aseptic spaces, while computers whirred diligently in the background, doing the hard work. Star Wars did it by returning sci-fi to the world of 1930s serials – Flash Gordon being a prime reference – while Alien did it by going even further back, to the gothic haunted house horror. The modern iteration of the gothic haunted house horror is the “kids in the woods” movie. And what we’re watching in Alien is an absolutely standard crew of isolated individuals – jockish guys (one of them speccy and scientific) and a couple of girls (one of them feisty and hot) being slaughtered one after the other. The sort of thing you can see in a thousand permutation on The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (from 1974).

Except Alien really is a film that’s more than the sum of its parts. Dan O’Bannon wrote the original story with Ronald Shusett, but the uncredited work of Walter Hill and David Giler is also significant, adding extra grunt where required – we’re in the world of “hard sci-fi”. The work of the artist HR Giger is key, his organic, knobbly, dirty designs for the alien inspiring the grungy ethos of the film. As for the actors, most of them could be swapped about – it doesn’t have to be John Hurt whose stomach is the incubator for the first alien we see, nor does it really have to be Yaphet Kotto, Veronica Cartwright or even Tom Skerrit doing what they do. They’re there, and so is much of their dialogue, to add a blue-collar atmosphere to a genre that, until then, tried to maintain that class disappeared on lift-off. But Ian Holm, as the methodical, company-droid no one knows is even a droid, his way with cool superciliousness makes him key. And so is Sigourney Weaver, who laid down the template for tough action heroines who also look good in their underwear. As for Ridley Scott’s direction, it’s a masterclass, first in character set-up, then in mood manipulation and shock management (the cat), and finally in misdirection – if we realise early on we’re watching a horror movie then of course it’s going to be Weaver who’s the “final girl” and of course she’s going to end up in a white T shirt, uniform of all “final girls”. But we don’t realise that.

In a world before DVD or even widespread VHS, Scott understands that his audience is in a big dark room together and that the only impression that matters is the one they leave with. So he’s got the licence to take it slow – no death-before-the-opening-credits stuff here. Alien is horror pastiche polished till it shines, then hidden beneath a sci-fi overcoat, then dirtied up. Along with other 1970s sci-fi films such as Dark Star and Silent Running, it marked the arrival of a new era in scuffed sci-fi. And let’s not forget that this crew of innocents – some much more innocent than others – are on a ship called the Nostromo, named after Joseph Conrad’s book. Another of Conrad’s books, Heart of Darkness, about another ship with a variously innocent crew, was being turned by Francis Ford Coppola into Apocalypse Now just as Scott was doing his thing with Nostromo. What would Conrad have thought about that?



Why Watch?


  • One of the key sci-fi movies
  • The film that made Sigourney Weaver
  • HR Giger’s design work
  • Ridley Scott’s cool careful direction


© Steve Morrissey 2014



Alien – at Amazon