Robin Pen's
CRITICAL
EMBUGGERANCE


Set Your Brain on Automatic

The light is harsh and glaring in the void of space, and the music is hollow, full of portent, and a tragically obvious Holst rip-off. The semio-exploratory craft Spare Me The Crap moves slowly through the exergeze, plying the un-space between alternate filmic realities. To every side are "film-boxes", each a self-contained alternate reality, floating at their fixed meta-statis points within the Filmverse - that 4-space, ethereal soup of potentiality fluctuations which lies beyond and within everything, sustaining the time/space continuum as we knows it (or would know it if that whispering stopped and they shut down the orbital mind-control lasers for just a moment). An incongruous "ping" echoes through the minimalist bridge, and an iridescent blip appears on the Kaleidoscope, immediately drawing the attention of the chief semiotologist, Dr Roland Barthes.

"What is it Dr Barthes?" Asks LORD FIGHTING COMMANDER GUS GRISSOM, a pathetic figure whose heroic name belies his touchingly prominent place amongst the severely vertically challenged.

"It appears to be a new box sir," says Dr Barthes. "Co-ordinates X-062 of the inverse exergeze quadrant."

"Can you identify it?" asks the COMMANDER, desperately hopping on his tippy-toes in a futile attempt to see above the edge of the instrumentation console.

"According to my credits and titles analyser, it is designated Until The End Of The World. And COMMANDER: it's a big one."

"Another one of those contemporary epics Dr Barthes?" asks GRISSOM, generously ignoring the ill-considered reference to dimensionality measures.

"Indeed COMMANDER, but there doesn't seem to be much happening in it."

"That sounds dangerously like a review, Roland. Need I remind you that regulations specifically prohibit subjective assessment in Between-Space? After all, we don't want a bias-induced worm-hole ripping through the Filmverse, now do we?"

"No COMMANDER. Sorry COMMANDER. I assure you it won't happen again."

"Very good; leave that to the Philistines on the other side. Now, set a course for the film-noir quadrant; I want to see how Bogie's doing."

As the Spare Me The Crap heaves to and moves away, our camera-eye view does not follow, but instead pans slowly round to a distant, rectangular Film-Box, and proceeds to zoom in, revealing a group of three figures seated at a table in what appears to be a grotty old cafe where the seats require re-upholstering and the heavily scratched window badly needs replacing. Two of the figures seem to be bickering, and the third one seems to be me.

There I was, a flat white steaming at my elbow - thin layer of undulating froth over subtly magnificent Brasilio-Italian coffee - and two fellow critics engaging each other, tooth and nail, sign and signifier, across the table in front of me.

"What you won't credit is that Until The End Of The World succeeded in maintaining a high level of interest by continually presenting fresh ideas and intriguing concepts."

"Bull! It was shit-boring, even with all those neat little bits to keep the mind-bogglingly simple plot from appearing as mind-bogglingly simple as it was."

"The science portrayed and the social concepts expounded were carefully constructed to support and justify an underlying mistrust of technological society."

"Get real! The gadgets were old hack and the "social commentary", was as naive as a your average volunteer for a free personality test."

"But you're failing to appreciate the film's subtle extrapolation of our contemporary fears, and its clever juxtaposition of those fears with the 'reality' of its carefully imagined future."

"Listen: as science fiction, it was dated before they wrote it. Until The End Of The World makes Space 1999 look modern and sophisticated."

"Unbelievable rubbish!"

"Go see a real movie."

"You couldn't spot a real movie if they nailed it to your face."

"Better than you could Four-eyes."

"Yeah, squid-mouth?"

"Yeah."

If not for the coffee, I'd have slept through all this; I was bored with the argument before it began. I went to the film too, and have decided I will make a judgment only when I actually see it. Which may never happen. Still, it's pointless trying to analyse a film shown in a form which almost deliberately seems to avoid helping it to make sense. At least, I hope the form was at fault; I'd hate to discover that Until The End Of The World was as meaningless and as pointless in the Longer-Than-Known-Time version as it seems to be in the Slightly-Shorter-Than-Known-Time-But-Quite-Long-Enough version that has been screening around the place. Then again, who cares anyway? Arguing about - or even discussing - the science fiction in Until The End Of The World is really a waste of a time.

That may be harsh, but the simple truth is that you're wasting your time watching science fiction movies to discover new, or even well-presented old concepts in science fiction. This becomes even more apparent when an SF-idea rich setting like that of Until The End Of The World is made listless and rather impotent by an apparent misunderstanding of the very issues that are being so loftily portrayed.

So, in this sense at least, this monumental film by Wim Wenders - with its screenplay by Wenders and Peter Carey, who should have known better - is a disappointment. For all its apparent dealings with science and sociology, the film is little more than the meandering adventures of a misunderstood son and his relationship with his "mad scientist" father, albeit amongst lots of lovely scenery, and boasting a pretentious ending entrenched in the most ludicrous of pop psychology. And it's all the more disappointing because much of the movie was rather pleasant to sit through, even while managing to adroitly elude the trappings of cohesiveness.

Tight zoom and cut (mercifully briefly) back to the bridge of that redoubtable bark Spare Me The Crap, where comms have just intercepted a strange and faintly surreal transmission.

"Attention . . . attention . . . all crew members prepare for landing. In sixty fractions of a megon we'll start the landing manoeuvre. The intensity of the gravitational field will be maintained at the wave moment of force G-7. Synchronize the meteor rejector on the electro-magnetic control device. Apply neuro-vascular tension. Suppress cortical area X . . . Y . . . Z, and set the automatic controls."

This extraordinarily wonderful piece of pseudo-scientific clap-trap came, word-for-word, from Mario Bava's bizarre but rewarding 1965 sci-fi horror flick Planet Of The Vampires. It may sound ridiculous, but it has as much relevance to the ideals of science fiction as do the central concepts presented in Until The End Of The World. And yet, Planet Of The Vampires seems to be able to get away with it far more easily (though with a chuckle or two from a contemporary audience). Why? Because it does it with style; and style is what science fiction film is all about. SF cinema is not about ideas (though they're generally welcome there): it's about execution.

Now, I'm not claiming such thoughts represent the ideals of SF cinema; good god - by no means! Good science fiction in film is often a wonderment to behold, but is so rare that if you're looking for innovative science-fictional concepts, you'd almost do better reading the back of a packet of instant noodles or a copy of New Idea. In fact, the good ideas in SF movies are generally on par with the ideas in bad SF novels.

But I'm not treading any new ground here, so why bring it up? Well, though I often whinge and moan about the current state of SF in commercial cinematic art, I keep writing about this shit. And the reason must be obvious to all of you who persist in reading these indulgent rants: I love it! I love this shit. I love every putrid moment and wallow in the dire filth that makes up the bulk of sf cinema. Give me more! Give me more! Why? Because, no matter how vile and loathsome it may be, sf film generally contains at least a tiny, pathetic dribble of style. Yep: I'm a style junkie.

Science fiction is generally referred to as a genre. I prefer to think that SF in cinema operates in a different way: parasitic on other genres, distorting them to adopt its forms, like forcing them to wear some fantastic, freaky costume 1. And the cut and quality of that suit is determined partially by budgetary constraints, but more importantly by directorial stylistics. In film, good SF can consist of good ideas, but more often, in fact almost inevitably, it's simply good style.

Alien is one of the best SF movies ever made, and it doesn't have a half-decent SF concept in it; style makes all the difference. Them, It Came From Outer Space, Planet of the Apes, The Empire Strikes Back, War of the Worlds, Blade Runner, Metropolis, Andromeda Strain, The Incredible Shrinking Man, Altered States, Back to the Future 2, Planet of the Vampires, 2001: A Space Odyssey, Mad Max 2, Solaris, Videodrome, Brazil, Aliens, Forbidden Planet, Westworld, Terminator, Robocop, The Fly, Android, The Time Machine, Alien3 and many, many others are similarly examples of the triumph of style over content.

Obviously, the judgment of a film's stylistic worth is at least partially a matter of personal taste, and the list I've just reeled off doesn't contain everything I consider good SF cinema on the basis of style. This "Favourites List" of mine was, to a large extent, the basis of the selection guide I recently formulated for Perth's Lumiere Cinema's "Sci-fi Blockbuster" movie marathon (June 5th and 6th, 1993). Thus the list is not intended to comprise the "best" of SF cinema (which would include many foreign language and animated films), but simply to represent a compilation of fantastic cinema that, while perhaps varying widely in form and quality, is nevertheless entertaining because of its stylishness. The choices were also influenced by known and suspected availability, the desire to promote work that suffers from little or no big-screen time, as well as the hope that this won't be the last of such cinematic celebrations to take place here. My hastily thrown together list was as follows.

FIRST CHOICE

Alien (1979) 117min
Nothing needs to be said about this one. It's simply a must.

Outland (1981) 109min
Sean Connery plays a sheriff in a space-suited version of High Noon. Very cinematic techno-thriller set on Jupiter's moon Io. Good Alien-like designs and effects. Has not been on a big screen in Perth for close to 8 years.

Terminator (1984) 108min
Better, faster, shorter and without the dull middle section of the sequel. Hasn't been on the big screen in a very long time and a lot of people have only seen it with commercials.

Mad Max 2 (1981) 96min
See Alien.

Tremors (1990) 90min approx
Highly enjoyable monster movie with good, fast effects and intelligent humour. Successfully captures the feel of the '50s alien invasion movies, but with a contemporary self awareness. Fast becoming a cult film on video, but never shown on the big screen in Perth.

Hardware (1990) 90min approx
Modestly impressive little cult movie with lots of sub-culture attachments (eg. Iggy Pop as the voice of a radio DJ in the background). Very pretentious and ambitious; interest-ing to watch as they try to pull it off.

Forbidden Planet (1956) 98min
Just one of those film you have to show.

Star Wars (1977) 121min
For a generation who've never seen it on the big screen and for those who want to recapture the original experience. Big screen is the only way this should be seen.

SECOND AND THIRD CHOICE

Split Second (1993) 90min approx
Very good looking, low budget British near-future thriller set in a flooded London. Slick and entertaining, the cinematography is the main star, despite Rutger Hauer finally seeming to enjoy a film again. Hardly screened in a cinema - if at all - which is a big pity because, despite a messy and rather banal ending, this is quite visually rewarding.

Akira (1986) 120min approx
Not the best of Japanese animation but the most accessible to the unprepared Western mind. It's incredible to look at, has an innovative storyline - at least in film terms - and a style that just makes it a trip, albeit a long one. Pity the English dubbing sucks the big one.

Star Trek: The Motion Picture (1979) 132min
Long and slow, but still the most visually grand of the series. Trekkies tend to pooh-pooh this one, but I think it gets a bum wrap. Well worth seeing on the big screen for its effects and soundtrack (though the less tolerant may well nod off during the lengthy middle sequence). Visually stimulating, but no action movie.

Andromeda Strain (1970) 131min
Classic hard-SF movie about a virus from space infecting a town and scientist trying to find a way to destroy it. Very much into the machinery of science, but moves along like a detective story with the time running out. A bit long, but very involving.

Life Force (1985) 101min
British SAS versus beautiful naked space vampires and London streets full of cannibal zombies. Done over-the-top with a huge budget and a straight face, but with an awareness that it's all rather silly. Great gore effects and recognizable Shakespearian actors all over-acting.

Bad Taste (1989) 90min approx
Aliens package up everybody in a small New Zealand town to sell to an intergalactic fast-food franchise. First film by the man who made Meet The Feebles and Brain Dead. Really cheap, really silly and really gross. Has a great ending, but worth seeing just for the exploding sheep.

Aliens (1986) 137min
Fast, furious, very stupid and very popular, but you should show only one "Alien" film, and the first is a much better cinematic experience.

Videodrome (1982) 89min
David Cronenberg's SF-horror flick dealing with the evils of television. A great cult film, but can numb the brain somewhat.

Dark Star (1974) 83min
Humorous cult classic. Great if you haven't seen it before but feels a bit slow if put alongside too many pacey films.

Dune (1984) 140min
Huge, expensive epic with massive sets and special effects, where nothing happens except lots of weird characters stand about look very serious. David Lynch's Twin Peaks in space. Design-wise, it's a treat, but it feels longer than it is and it ain't a short movie.

Escape From New York (1981) 99min
Personally, I think this is a load of crud, but it's become a cult film, with Kurt Russell's lead character Snake Pliskin inspiring dozens of cheaper, trashier SF flicks.

Flash Gordon (1980) 115min
Bright, wildly designed, this film tried to re-capture some of what made Barbarella famous. Works to some degree, but suffers from being made safe for juveniles. Worth seeing for a laugh or to sing along with the Queen soundtrack.

Spacehunter: Adventures into the Forbidden Zone (1983) 90min
OK adventure-yarn with mutants on motorcycles and some nice design work. Only really worth it if the 3-D version is available.

The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai (1984?) 100min approx
Action movie with Peter Weller as nuclear physicist, test pilot, brain surgeon, rock musician hero. Made to become a cult movie, it falls short in some respects, though it has definitely picked up a small following.

Deathrace 2000 (1975) 85min
Very violent, futuristic road-kill movie from Roger Corman's stable of cult schlock, featuring black comedy, visual puns and the standard allotment of mid-'70s exploitation devices. Stars David Carradine, and features Sly Stallone in the bad guy role I'm sure he's hoping no one remembers.

Android (1982) 80min
Made on a shoe-string, this received rave reviews, and some consider it one of the better SF movies. I think it's ordinary, though Klaus Kinski is always good to watch.

Rollerball (1975) 129min
The action and violence scenes are superb but this is slow in between, and a rather long film overall.

Sleeper (1973) 88min
Woody Allen in a weird future. If you want a comedy, this is the one.

Altered States (1980) 102min
A visual roller-coaster ride but heavy going at times and very cerebral (after all, it is Ken Russell.)

Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977) 135min
This very engaging movie includes some of Spielberg's best work, and is a visual delight besides. However, it is a little long in the context of a marathon, though worth considering if the non-special edition is obtainable.

Green Slime (1968) 90min
Japanese/American co-production about silly- looking monsters invading a space-ship. Depending on your mood, this is one to laugh with, or at.

Battle Beyond The Stars (1980) 104min
Roger Corman's Star Wars Cash-In, remaking The Seven Samurai/The Magnificent Seven in space. Moderate fun for a low budget flick.

Brazil (1985) 142min
Visually stunning but mentally exhausting. Not ideal amongst a plethora of other films.

Runaway (1984) 100min
Tom Selleck as a cop who specialises in stopping rogue robots, chasing Gene Simmons (Kiss) who plays a mad scientist with deadly robot spiders and personalized bullets that go around corners. Enjoyable.

Fantastic Voyage (1966) 100min
Submarine is shrunk and injected into a living human body. Raquel Welch in a wet-suit made it hot for its day. Dated but engaging.

Saturn 3 (1980) 87min
Stupid special effects but with interesting designs which includes a killer robot as the central menace. Features Farrah Fawcett in all her bimbo glory and Kirk Douglas - looking really old - as the love interest.

The Thing (1982) 109min
A fan favourite with very impressive monster and gore effects which stand up well against today's standards. With rather effective tension and regular shock moments, it's a creditable semi-remake of the 1953 Howard Hawks classic

MAGIC-IF-YOU-CAN-GET-IT MATERIAL

The Thing From Another World (1953) 85min
A great '50s flick from Howard Hawks, featuring the style he used to help make Humphrey Bogart and John Wayne famous. It is the stylistic precursor to much of the contemporary Monster Movie Movement and great fun to boot.

It! The Terror From Beyond Space (1958) 69min
Would be great alongside Alien - which has been occasionally accused of borrowing heavily without acknowledgment - while being different enough not to detract from it.

War of the Worlds (1953) 85min
Well, it's the classic, isn't it? Does it need another reason?

It Came From Outer Space (1953) 80min
Arguably the best and most enthralling alien invasion movie to come out of American Cold War paranoia. Made in 3-D and one of the best at it, but no less effective shown flat.

This Island Earth (1955) 86min
Another unarguable classic with one of the most famous of alien suits: the "MutAnt".

Them (1954) 93min
This classic features the FBI versus the giant ants in a very enjoyable Red Terror analogy. Effectively mixed creepy moments, monster attacks and a semi-documentary style. Aliens owes this a lot, with some scenes virtually identical in the two.

Tarantula (1955) 80min
Next best to Them if you can't get that.

Monster Zero (1965) 96min
One of best and most outrageously fun Japanese giant rubber-suit monster movies.

Destroy All Monsters (1968) 89min
The ultimate in silly Jap rubber-suit movies. Stars all the major box-office monsters of the time, including Godzilla. Even more outrageous than Monster Zero.

So, that was my list as presented to the Lumiere Cinema (with the addition of a couple of films raised in discussion with the cinema). Amusingly, I might as well not have bothered with the "second and third choice" list, as the final list is largely based on the "first choice" and the "magic if you can get it" material, with the inclusion of a few choice episodes from '60s TV shows. [The final program consists of Star Wars, Tremors, It Came From Outer Space (showing in 3-D), Alien, Forbidden Planet, Dark Star (substituted for Hardware because of the latter's R-rating), This Island Earth and an episode each from Star Trek and Lost in Space.]

But enough of this; time for some audience feedback. What do you think of the list? What would your list have included? How would you have chosen to celebrate the cinema's portrayal of science-fiction? Would you run festivals of James Cameron, John Carpenter or Ridley Scott; play the Star Wars and Alien trilogies until your brain implodes; get drunk and watch Hell Comes to Frogtown, Starcrash or Angelica Jagger's unbelievable performance in Robot Holocaust? Write and let me know. I might even run the results in "CE", although I can't promise anything.

And when the party's over, once you've sat through the best SF cinema of the moment - once the disbelief-suspension drives in your own semio-exploratory vehicle have red-lined just that once too often - dock, disembark, trot off to your local video library, and check out how Bogie's doing.





Originally appeared pp. 54-59, Eidolon 12, April 1993.
Copyright © 1993 Robin Pen.
Reprinted by kind permission of the author.


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