Robin Pen's

The shit spider supreme

INT. AFTERNOON LOS ANGELES TAVERN. Cigarette smoke and god-awful orchestral covers of Barry Manilow hits fill the room, succeeding only in making the topless waitresses look better. This is the sort of scene where the cop, full of self pity, notices a couple of thugs slide in to rob the joint and takes them out, then leaves without a word (I love it, don't you?). Meanwhile, two drunks are sitting at the bar. One swaggers around on his stool and, fingers spread wide, plops his hand over the other's face. "What's this?", he asks. "Dunno, what?", muffles the other. "A shit spider", he replies. FADE OUT.

FADE IN. Same location (or is it a set?) five hours later. It's after the opening credits. That's the part of the movie that comes from days of agents arguing which acting client's name is to be put before another's and the director claims all responsibility for every aspect of production by telling you it's HIS movie. A ___________ FILM; Cameron, Hyams, Badham - fill in your own director. The opening title music is a lift and merge of Mussorgsky and Vaughn Williams, the sort of stuff that'll win an Academy AwardTM for original music score. It's still five hours later, the smoke is not moving so fast, the beer and the waitresses have gone flat and Manilow has been replaced with the background hum of a poorly tuned local radio station belting out Guns and Roses. The bad tuning improves them.

In the top corner near the bar is a video monitor. It glows with an eerie incandescence through the cigarette haze. Dark and ominous figures of varying blurriness swish about the screen. Get closer to the image and the sounds of random destruction leak out in distant-whisper mode. Six feet from the monitor and you can see a bloodied nasty somersault through a (pre-exploding) window. It's hard to tell between the video fuzz and the cloud of cocaine dust the stuntman falls on. It's Robocop (that's the guy in silver - the shorter guy in black is Batman). This is the adult version. The other version, where they say "Damn you!" instead of "Fuck you!", is for the kiddies. Other than that, and an exploding elbow, it's virtually the same.

Remember, if you're an innovative film producer, you can strive to create a reasonably well constructed piece of adult entertainment, then take out the naughty words and exploding heads to create a cartoon series, a newsstand comic and a video game - a sophisticated entertainment where you can determine the outcome with skill and a hell of a lot of coins. This is the type of complex simulation that a Colonial Marine grunt can tackle. Except that Hicks would find it child's play; after all, he's the cool dude of the outfit. We need these cool dudes or movies would finish quicker. I like Hicks. Pity he went psycho and killed all the non-speaking cast underwater. Sorry, wrong movie. Hard to tell them apart. The best I can do is look out the portals facing the blue screen and see if there's stars or bubbles outside. Can you tell the difference between stars and bubbles boys and girls? Good, then you're on your way to critical analysis of modern film-making.

Science fiction in cinema today is very hard to see. You have to look closely to find it but it lurks there for the persistent amongst us, though really only in a visual capacity; lovely and expensive Ron Cobb doors, passage-ways and submersibles, military space cruisers and Syd Mead control decks with pretty computer graphics by some little software company rolling up on an out-of-focus screen in the background. Other than that, the most significant move in recent SF cinema is "Hey guys, [an American accent] shoot me down if I've overstepped the mark but don't you think we've under-utilised the financial potential of the underwater setting?" You'd think that after seeing the climax to Never Say Never Again they would have reconsidered, but no, they didn't consider at all and brought into existence the Wet Skivvy Horror Movie.

It began with Leviathan, where a bunch of beautiful people walk around a dry set in Rome being taken, off camera, by Stan Winston's "vampire kipper". The story was shit, the acting bad and the science was based on previously unknown laws of physics (the plot hinges on the concept that decompression is held at bay by the flow of air rather than the pressure). It was quickly followed by Deep Star Six, cheaper and better if you can call a bunch of dumb-wits better than a bunch of fuck-wits. Then, rumbling slowly out of the murky depths of cinema promotion like the Nostromo out of the darkness rolled The Abyss, hailed as the biggest, most mind-blowing SF movie since Aliens (which was ominous for a start); the grand daddy of soggy hardware action, the supreme commander of the force-it-until-it-fits, bugger-the-physics, rehash-what-we-know-already-sells, run-up-the-budget-in-a-big-way movie.

American SF cinema is one big desert (even though Wet is in). Those "Science Fiction" movies that settle on our screens with healthy doses of promotion are merely mirages. Reach out to take hold and your hands will go right through them, and all you'll come up with is an averagely constructed story (Alien Nation didn't even have that) thrown together with a number of pretty pictures and mildly creative opticals. It is best to keep your distance and hide your discerning eyes. Do this and your suspension of disbelief will be far less threatened.

There are films out there you have to feel sorry for. Movies that wanted to be science fiction but were lost or blatantly sabotaged before the final edit or even the shooting. Millenium and Slipstream are such, and their potential as sincere SF films could be glimpsed between the stumblings. And let's not forget the monumental progenitor of this now-familiar child of SF Cinema and lay our wreaths of regret or disgust at the headstone marked "DUNE". Even Bladerunner didn't escape unscathed.

The recent film that probably took the smallest ballpein to our suspension of disbelief was Batman (the movie made to justify it's promotion). A film that's great to look at, it's sense of bizarre style plays close to the gloriously grotesque. The slight touch of overacting and the attraction of outrageous theatre greases your cautious approach and you slide into the richness of Gotham as smoothly as the Dark Knight swirls his cape, up on the building ledge amongst the silent gargoyles. Alas, this is as far as young master Burton goes before succumbing to the inevitable fate of these "visual gallery" pieces. Not even the clearly established fantasy of the setting (not to be confused with that thing called the "real world") could save it from the dreaded curse, thrust upon floundering creativity by that deceptive activity known as the rewrite, that thing that comes in myriad forms too ghastly to describe, that knobbler of imaginative cinema and eater of the SF soul, Contrivance.

Somewhere around the two-thirds mark, Batman became utterly unconvincing, as though a celluloid virus had suddenly riddled it with disease (an image David Lynch might appreciate). Before the film was over, the main strings suspending our disbelief had snapped, the guts had tumbled out and the sorry carcass was left dangling hollow from the rest. Contrivance had struck again, sad to see (sadder was Ellison's rapturous review which stopped just short of out'n'out orgasm). Thus the conclusion and the dire warning: watch out for contrivance, and if you see it where people are filmmaking, run out into the streets, stop cars and scream "It's here! It's here!" before fleeing to the hills; pretty close to the way Don Siegel wanted Kevin McCarthy to do it before he was forced to change the ending.

But for the moment, let's all get up on stage, arms around each other's shoulders and sing: "I'm a shit spider and I'm okay . . ."

Originally appeared pp70-73, Eidolon Issue 01, May 1990.
Copyright © Robin Pen, 1990. All Rights Reserved.
Reprinted with kind permission of the author.