The end of the 20th century was a fascinating time for American cinema. The directors, Wes Anderson, Darren Aronofsky, David Fincher, Bryan Singer, Todd Solondz, Paul Thomas Anderson, M. Night Shyamalan, Spike Jonze and Alexander Payne all emerged and began to make a serious impact as filmmakers in this period, alongside talented Britons such as Sam Mendes and Stephen Daldry. Quentin Tarantino and the Australian Baz Luhrmann had only made their feature debuts a few years’ earlier. Into this heady mix came Sofia Coppola with her adaptation of Jeffery Eugenides’ novel, The Virgin Suicides in 1998. Viewed from the perspective of a quarter of a century on, the film, a moderate indie hit at the time, now looks like one of the most assured directorial debuts ever made.
The Virgin Suicides is the story of the Lisbon girls, the five blonde, beautiful daughters of a strict Catholic family (their parents are played by Kathleen Turner and James Woods) living in the leafy, sunny suburbs of Grosse Point, Michigan. It is set in the 1970s, the decade of Sofia Coppola’s own childhood, a period roughly as distant from the year this was released, 1998, as the year 1998 is now from the present day. It is also the story of the local boys who watch the Lisbons’ unfolding tragedy from afar. We never get to know these boys well in the film. One of them, voiced by the actor, Giovanni Ribisi serves as the film’s narrator.
Of the Lisbon girls, we mostly get to know, Lux: a girl with an oddly bohemian Christian name for someone from such an apparently conservative family. Lux is played by Kirsten Dunst, then still a few years’ away from her success opposite Tobey Maguire’s Spider-Man trilogy although even then was, as she remains today, the most well-known of the actresses to play any of the Lisbon daughters. Lux embarks on a brief affair with local teenage stud, Trip Fontaine (Josh Hartnett). This proves to be a mistake. We later meet the adult Trip (now played by Michael Paré) who, twenty years on, never seems to have got over the experience.
As we live in an age of trigger warnings, it seems only fair to point out that the title, The Virgin Suicides is almost entirely accurate in reflecting the film’s subject matter. Despite this, I have personally never found it to be especially gloomy or harrowing. It is beautifully filmed and has a nostalgic dream-like quality fuelled by its soundtrack provided by the then-fashionable French electronic music duo, Air.
Before 1998, Sofia Coppola was best-known not only for being the daughter of filmmaking legend, Francis Ford Coppola but also for her awkward acting as Mary Corleone in 1990’s The Godfather Part III, replacing Winona Ryder at the last minute in her father’s movie. Although her performance was uneven, critical anger over this apparent nepotism saw her unfairly pilloried with many using her as a scapegoat for a belated sequel that was disappointing anyway. Happily, since 1998, she has become the acclaimed director of a total of seven films. By far her biggest hit was her second movie, Lost in Translation (2002). The film transformed Bill Murray’s career and made Scarlett Johansson a star.
The Virgin Suicides
Available on Blu-Ray, DVD and for the first time in the UK on 4K UHD & digital on 13 March 2023.
At some point after Stargate but before the Star Wars prequels came Starship Troopers. The most underrated science fiction film of the 1990s made landfall across Earth in 1998. Would you like to know more? Join Chris Hallam as he goes on a bug hunt…
A war correspondent in full futuristic military uniform reports straight to camera from a battle scene. His location is on one of the bug meteors in the Klendathu system, whose deadly inhabitants, the giant insectoid Arachnids have been launching a series of devastating attacks on the Earth.
“It is an ugly planet! A Bug Planet! A planet hostile to life…” he states before he is brutally attacked mid-rant by one of the Arachnids. He does not last long. As if personally insulted by his harsh words about its home world, the monster proceeds to tear him apart in full view of the camera
“Keep moving! Get out of here NOW!” a passing mobile infantryman – in fact, our hero Johnny Rico (Casper Van Dien) warns the cameraman – and thus in true B-movie style, us. Soon afterwards, another soldier and the cameraman are also attacked by the same creature. So, begins 1997’s science fiction romp, Starship Troopers, directed by Paul Verhoeven and based on Robert A. Heinlein’s 1959 novel of the same name.
MAN VS BROOD
It’s a familiar story. Boy meets girl. Boy joins the Federal Service, where despite the opposition of his wealthy parents, he becomes a ‘Roughneck’ i.e. an infantry man. The girl becomes an ace space pilot, but living an entirely separate life, soon breaks up with the boy.
Okay: admittedly this isn’t a familiar story. It doesn’t really matter. For this is just the beginning. Soon the lives of Johnny and Carmen (Denise Richards) are transformed by the devastating war which erupts between the humans and the Arachnids. The various entanglements between, say, Johnny and fellow Roughneck “Dizzy” (Dina Meyer) soon fade into insignificance as the film becomes increasingly focused on the devastating physical confrontations between man and alien.
Or perhaps we should say “person vs alien”? For despite being directed by Paul Verhoeven, the man who brought the world Basic Instinct and Showgirls, the society in Starship Troopers is refreshingly lacking in prejudice based on gender or, indeed, race. Only the fictional species of giant killer insectoid aliens are treated badly. And criminals. And cows.
This liberal attitude extends to a scene in which many of the cast (including Dina Meyer) stripped off in front of the camera, for a unisex shower scene. Somewhat apprehensive, the young cast reportedly only agreed to this, if director Paul Verhoeven agreed to get naked himself while filming. Verhoeven, then overweight and fast approaching sixty was happy to do so. Thankfully, no images recording Verhoeven’s gesture seem to exist.
Actress Denise Richards who played Johnny’s initial love interest Carmen was crucially absent from this scene: in fact, her character was elsewhere, and it would have made no sense for her to have been involved. This did not stop the film and others such as Wild Things (1998), Drop Dead Gorgeous (1999) and the Bond film, The World Is Not Enough (1999) launching Richards’ career as a major film star and sex symbol of the late 1990s and early 2000s.
Neil Patrick Harris – then, best known for his early 90s teenage TV role as Doogie Hauser MD – plays Carl, the gang’s slightly geeky friend, who ultimately turns out to be psychic. Harris would achieve stardom only later. Today, it is he and Richards not Van Dien, Meyer or even established characters like the late Rue ‘Blanche from Golden Girls’ McClanahan and Michael Ironside, who are easily the most famous people in the entire film.
Has Starship Troopers dated? “Hell! Yes Sir!” Some of the CGI inevitably looks less impressive now than it did at the time. And while fighting aliens in space is still very much the stuff of science fiction, a viewer today in the ae of Zoom, would be forgiven for not noticing that Carmen’s electronic conversations with her long distance boyfriend, Johnny, were anything unusual when the film was made in the 1990s.
None of these things matter. For at the end of the day, watching Starship Troopers remains an enjoyable experience. The scenes of warriors doing battle as vast hordes of Arachnids can be seen teeming over the horizon remain exhilarating, exciting, gory and fun.
The film is also immeasurably boosted by the series of short, sombrely narrated state propaganda films supposedly created by the ruling regime which appear throughout. Presented in the style of Allied Second World War newsreels, while also attempting to deploy internet type technology (the web was still young in 1997), these somehow manage to seem both old-fashioned and futuristic at the same time.
They are undeniably intentionally funny but also give us a taste of the kind of society, Johnny Rico and his friends have grown up in. It is a society which is comfortable with child soldiers and which (like the modern USA) is perhaps a little bit too relaxed about preventing its children from getting their hands on guns. It is a society in which criminals are flogged and executed not just publicly, but on live TV. It is a society in which children are urged to stamp on harmless domestic spiders by war-mad teachers driven into a frenzy by government propaganda. And as we learn early on in Johnny’s civics class, it is a society where citizenship and the right to vote are not awarded automatically, but have to be earned.
The human society in the film, Starship Troopers live in an Americanised fascist state.
The question is, is this what creator Robert A Heinlein would have wanted, either for a film based on one of his books or for human society itself?
THE STATE THEY’RE IN
One day, in the Nazi-occupied Netherlands of the early 1940s, one member of the occupying forces decided to play a cruel game to pass the time. He pointed his gun at a small boy. The boy was naturally terrified and had wet himself publicly before the Nazi stopped.
The boy was Paul Verhoeven. And he never forgot it.
More than fifty years later, he directed Starship Troopers, a film which seemed to confuse many reviewers. Some (for example, the late Jeff Vice) seemed to miss the fact that it was set in a fascist state completely. Others did recognise this, but assumed Verhoeven was endorsing fascism.
The celebrated critic Roger Ebert gave the film two out five. “Starship Troopers” is the most violent kiddie movie ever made. I call it a kiddie movie not to be insulting, but to be accurate,” he wrote, clearly deliberately insulting it. “(Verhoeven) wants to depict the world of the future as it might have been visualized in the mind of a kid reading Heinlein in 1956.” The book was actually first published in 1959. Scott Rosenberg, writing in Salon was disappointed for different reasons. It “lacks the courage of the book’s fascist conclusions.”
Let us be clear: there is no doubt whatsoever about Verhoeven’s anti-fascist intentions in the film. Nor is there any doubt that the society he and screenwriter Edward Neumeier conceived is sufficiently right-wing to be considered fascist. The military are completely dominant. There is little evidence of democracy. Corporal and capital punishment are in use. The characters’ uniforms sometimes look fascistic in design too. By the end of the film, Neil Patrick Harris practically looks like a member of the Gestapo.
The satirical elements in the film are intended to give the viewer pause for thought, drawing attention to similarities between the US and this ultra-right-wing state.
On the other hand, it is easy to see how some people might get confused regarding the film’s attitudes to fascism. For one thing, as mentioned, the very worst aspects of fascism: the extreme racism and persecution of minority groups do not seem to exist here. Unlike every other Far Right state everyone seems refreshingly progressive when it comes to gender and race. The girls and boys fight … and shower… side by side. Even though many of the girls suffer excruciating deaths as they are impaled by Arachnids at least, as they do so they can take comfort from the fact that they are doing so on equal terms with the chaps.
It also must be said that things do seem to function pretty well in the world of Starship Troopers. Everything seems to be almost perfectly set up to counter the Arachnid threat. One wonders if a more democratic, less military society would be so well prepared to combat an alien menace, particularly if they were more constrained by inhibitions over gender and race.
Actor Michael Ironside, played high school teacher turned Roughneck unit commander, Jean Rasczak recalls being puzzled by Verhoeven’s attitude.
“Why are you doing a right-wing fascist movie?” He asked. Verhoeven replied: “If I tell the world that a right-wing, fascist way of doing things doesn’t work, no one will listen to me.” He continued: “So, I’m going to make a perfect fascist world: everyone is beautiful, everything is shiny, everything has big guns and fancy ships, but it’s only good for killing fucking Bugs!”
Many fans of the book had another objection to the film. They didn’t appreciate the implication that Heinlein was a fascist at all. It seems unlikely Heinlein would have appreciated that label either. However, he had died in 1988.
If the novel and film of Starship Troopers are very different, it is perhaps not surprising. The director hadn’t read the book.
“I stopped after two chapters because it was so boring,” Verhoeven admits. “It is really quiet a bad book. I asked Ed Neumeier to tell me the story because I just couldn’t read the thing.”
Starship Troopers represented something of a turning point for Heinlein as he moved from juvenile to adult fiction. There are quite a few differences between the book and the film: there is a lot more technical detail about the troopers’ suits and Heinlein’s years of naval experience are clearly in evidence in the text. But there’s no getting away from politics: Heinlein was, in fact, motivated to write the novel after being inspired by his anger over the moderate Republican president Dwight D. Eisenhower’s decision to suspend nuclear testing in 1959. A leftist in his earlier days, by the 1950s, he was clearly firmly on the Right with many of his characters’ words clearly reflecting his own conservative outlook.
The words, “There are no dangerous weapons; there are only dangerous men,” seems like an early formulation of the National Rifle Association’s famously inane but resonant slogan, “guns don’t kill people: people do”. Heinlein is critical of the concept of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness and clearly advocates the notion of citizenry and the right to vote are earned through service and combat. He clearly advocates flogging of juvenile delinquents, using a strange analogy about a puppy to illustrate his pointy. His character, Dubois says of the 20th century: “that period was loaded with pre-scientific pseudo-psychological nonsense…half of it fuzzy-headed wishful thinking, half of it rationalized charlatanry.”
It is easy to forget he is writing in the relatively placid USA of the 1950s. Heinlein may not have literally been a fascist, but he certainly had tendencies in that direction. Had he lived to see it, he may not have liked the implication that the society in the film version was fascistic, but it seems unlikely he’d have disagreed with much about how the society functioned in the film.
On the plus side, the book shows few obvious signs of racism at all. This is reasonably unusual for an American book of the mid-20th century and very much to Robert A Heinlein’s credit.
THE RETURN OF RICO
The years rolled by. Robert Heinlein’s status as an author steadily increased. By the time of his death in 1988, the man behind Stranger in a Strange Land and The Moon Is A Harsh Mistress was regularly ranked as one of the “Big Three” of English language science fiction authors alongside Isaac Asimov and Arthur C. Clarke. The year 1978, meanwhile, had seen a teenaged Sarah Brightman release the single, ‘I’m In Love With A Starship Trooper’ with Hot Gossip. The following year saw The VCs debut in British comic, 2000AD. Unlike the pop song and as he freely admitted, Gerry Finley-Day’s strip clearly owed a lot to Heinlein’s novel, Starship Troopers.
In the 1990s, a script entitled Bug Hunt At Outpost Nine began to circulate. The script was similar enough to Heinlein’s 1959 book that a decision was to buy the rights and adapt it directly. Paul Verhoeven, the man behind the original science fiction blockbusters, Robocop and Total Recall was hired to direct.
Although not a flop, Starship Troopers underperformed at the box office. Had it been a success, it might well have become a major movie franchise. This may yet happen there is serious talk of a reboot and a script has been written. As it is, there are sequels (see the box out) but none made it to US cinema screens.
As it is, 25 years on the film looks better now than it did at the time. It’s true the acting is sometimes ropey – witness Denise Richards’ sudden dramatic recovery from apparent serious injury in the film’s closing scenes – but the film’s depiction of a militaristic American national security state anticipates the struggles of the next decade (the US not fighting Arachnids but Iraqis) and the arguably fascistic tendencies of the Trump Administration (2017-21).
As Paul Verhoeven says: “It’s a very right-wing book. And with the movie we tried, and I think at least partially succeeded, in commenting on that at the same time. It would be eat your cake and have it. All the way through we were fighting with the fascism, the ultra-militarism. All the way through I wanted the audience to be asking, ‘Are these people crazy?’
BOX OUT: HEROES, MARAUDERS AND TRAITORS..
At last! All those spin-offs and sequels in full…
Roughnecks: Starship Troopers Chronicles (1998-1999): A 36-part CGI animated TV series. Paul Verhoeven was executive producer and featuring characters (although not the voices) from the film such as Johnny and Dizzy. Ended after being beset with Bugs…er… I mean production problems.
Starship Troopers 2: Hero of the Federation (2004). TV film sequel scripted by the original film’s screenwriter Edward Neumeier (who also wrote Robocop). Richard Burgi, later of Desperate Housewives stars as Captain V.J Dax. Two-word review: it’s bad.
Starship Troopers 3: Marauder (2008) Casper Van Dien returns as Rico in this straight to DVD effort directed by Neumeier. Perhaps slightly better than Hero of the Federation, but not by much.
Starship Troopers: Invasion (2012) and Starship Troopers: Traitor of Mars (2017) Japanese computer animated films. Surprisingly, Van Dien and Dina Meyer both reprise their roles from the 1997 film in the second of these, Traitors of Mars.
Stand down Margaret: The Princess (Lesley Manville) faces up to the truth
Did you know the Queen’s sister once very nearly married James Bond?
Well, okay, that didn’t exactly happen. But in this episode, the Queen’s younger sister, Princess Margaret (the brilliant Lesley Manville) meets up with her first love, retired equerry, Group Captain Peter Townsend. And he’s now played by Timothy Dalton, who once famously played 007. You see what I mean? Dalton was, in fact, still officially cast as James Bond in 1992 the very year this episode was set. For all that matters.
It’s all quite poignant. As depicted in The Crown: Season 1, the official refusal to allow the young Princess and the divorced Group Captain (then played by Vanessa Kirby and Coupling star Ben Miles: both seen here in flashback) effectively wrecked poor old Margaret’s life. He went on to marry someone else, happily and successfully. She married too: disastrously, leaving her bitter, boozy and resentful. However, here they get to meet one final time. This apparently did happen but not in quite the way it happens here. Margaret is left shaken not stirred as he woos the living daylights out of her (apologies).
There’s some more dramatic licence here: we see Townsend listening to Margaret being interviewed by Roy Plomley on Desert Island Discs as if this occurred, like the rest of the episode in 1992. In fact, as all true BBC Radio 4 fans will know, that particular episode was broadcast in 1981. Plomley died in 1985, in fact, so it is rather surprising to see him still alive seven years’ later.
Anyway, it becomes clear there is still some lingering tension between the Queen (Imelda Staunton) and Margaret over the issue although this all seems to be resolved by the end of the episode. Lesley Manville is great as ever as Margaret. You have to wonder if she was ever considered as a possible option to play the Queen herself
Talking of which, the Queen has a lot on her plate this time. Royal divorces are like buses. You wait ages for one and then three come along at once. First, Anne (Claudia Harrison) wants to remarry after her divorce. This provokes anguished complaint from Margaret. If she can do it, why couldn’t I? In truth, the situations are not actually identical. Anne is the daughter of the Queen not her sister. Anne is also the divorced one in this instance, not her proposed husband. Margaret has also now been permitted to get divorced herself and could presumably remarry if she wished. Margaret also was given the option of marrying Townsend if she was prepared to relinquish all claims on the throne. That said, none of these points are brought up here and Margaret is certainly justified in feeling aggrieved. For the record, Anne’s second marriage to Vice Admiral Timothy Laurence has now lasted for thirty years. It is the most enduring of any of the six marriages entered into by the children of the late Queen Elizabeth II.
Next up, the now disgraced Prince Andrew (James Murray) announces his marriage to the toe-sucking Fergie is over (no, not the football manager or the one from the Black Eyed Peas). Worst of all, the once and future king, Charles (Dominic West) confirms his marriage is over too. Then Windsor Castle burns down. If the 1990s was the worst decade of the Queen’s reign, then 1992 was the worst year. Perhaps of her entire life.
This prompts the famous Annus Horribilis speech in which the Queen admits that 1992’s been as Francis of Assisi might have put it “a complete and utter shitshow”. The Queen Mother (Marion Bailey) objects to the speech: in a touching scene Philip (Jonathan Pryce) and the Queen defend each other. None of the conversation apparently really happened. It doesn’t really matter: the speech undeniably marked a shift away from the stiff upper lipped attitudes of the past towards the “I feel your pain” approach of the post-Diana era.
It’s that man again: Di (Elizabeth Debicki) meets Mohamed Al-Fayed (Salim Dau)
One of the fun things about The Crown is that you never know when or where each episode is going to start from. You would sort of expect each show is going to start with a caption reading ‘Buckingham Palace, 1991’ or something predictable like that. But, in practice, it’s just as likely to read, ‘Berlin, 1940,’ ‘Amsterdam, 1664,’ or ‘The Planet Osios IV, Alpha Centauri, 8162.’ (I’m exaggerating a little here. Very few episodes of The Crown are actually set in Deep Space).
This time, we open in Alexandria, Egypt, in 1946. Where is this heading? Alex Jennings makes a welcome return cameo appearance as a visiting middle-aged Duke of Windsor before we realise this is The Crown’s introduction to the crazy world of the Al-Fayed family. We witness the birth of Dodi and as the years roll by, we witness his over-sexed father Mohamed’s attempts to establish himself in British society and the resistance he encounters due to a combination of genuine doubts about his character and the usual snobbery and racism. We see him (well played by Salim Dau) buying Harrods and his and Dodi’s (Khalid Abdalla) often overlooked successes within the British film industry. According to this, they actually watched the filming of the famous opening of Chariots of Fire, a sequence once memorably described by Roddy Doyle as “a bunch of tossers running across a beach.”
We also learn of Mohamed’s apparent obsession with the by then deceased ex-King Edward VIII. He employs Sydney Johnson (Jude Akuwudike) a former black valet to the onetime monarch and see him buy Edward and Wallis’s former home. All true enough apparently. In real life, Mohamed Al-Fayed is now 93. I wonder what he makes of all this?
Anyway, later he attempts to meet the Queen (Imelda Staunton) at a racecourse but is charmed by Princess Diana (Elizabeth Debicki) instead. He likes to be called “Mou Mou.” Dodi meets her briefly for the first time too although it’s not quite the thunderbolt moment we might have expected. Dodi says little to her and Di doesn’t really seem to notice him. This is the only time they meet during this series of The Crown.
Di another day: The Princess (Elizabeth Debicki) spills the beans.
Bad news for fans of Imelda Staunton’s Queen Elizabeth II: she’s barely in this episode at all, appearing only fairly briefly at the start and again towards the end. She is, for the most part, Queen Unseen. Queen but not heard.
Never mind: instead, we get lots about Diana (Elizabeth Debicki) and old Phillip (Jonathan Pryce). Diana is hanging out a lot with her fried, Dr. James Colhurst (Oliver Chris) who acts as an intermediary between her and author, Andrew Morton (Andrew Steele) as she provides first hand material for his sensational warts-and-all biography of her, Diana: Her True Story.
The Duke of Edinburgh, meanwhile, is indulging his love of carriage-riding with family friend, Lady Penny Knatchbull (Truman Show actress, Natascha McElhone). Yes, you heard me: carriage riding. Apparently, this isn’t just something people in 1820 used to do, but a genuine hobby which rich people like to do today: restoring and then riding about in old carriages. Each to their own, I suppose.
But hang on a mo! Lady Penny is much younger than the old Duke and very attractive. Does the Queen not mind about this? Well, fear not, it all seems to be perfectly innocent. The two do achieve a genuine sense of intimacy, but not in a rude way. In a sudden burst of story, Penny does reveal to Philip what Di’s been up to. Philip is annoyed and arranges to meet with Diana and gives her a friendly warning. Don’t rock the boat, he says. And, for once, he doesn’t mean the Royal Yacht, Britannia.
But it’s too late to cancel the book now and anyway Diana doesn’t want to. This seems to mark the point where Diana goes rogue.
Live and let Di: The Prince and Princess (Dominic West and Elizabeth Debicki) go on fighting the Cold War.
It’s 1991 and the political situation is very, very different from how it is today, in November 2022.
Hard as it is to imagine now but back in 1991, Britain had been under the same Conservative government for twelve long years. I know, right? With the economy slipping into economic recession, the Tories had forced out their unpopular woman leader and replaced her with the man who until recently had been Chancellor of the Exchequer. The new Prime Minister was the youngest one so far of the entire century. So, as you can see: nothing like the current state of affairs at all.
But never mind all that, where’s the Queen?
Well, the series opens with a supposed bit of newsreel footage showing the Queen attending a ceremony marking the commissioning of the Royal Yacht Britannia back in 1957. Older readers will remember that for the first decade of her reign, the young Queen was played by the actress Claire Foy and this is the case here. The flashback ends with Foy’s Queen staring, horrified into the middle distance as if she has foreseen the images which appear in the next scene where she has transformed into Imelda Staunton. We first see Staunton’s monarch enduring the banal necessities of a routine medical examination. We are now in the 1990s and like Staunton herself, the sovereign is now supposed to be in her mid-sixties.
Of course, we already know the real problem isn’t with the Queen herself (spoiler alert: she lives for another 31 years) but with her children, three of whom are about to divorce, almost simultaneously. A frisky Princess Anne (Claudia Harrison) is already eyeing up the local talent while Charles (Dominic West) is doing his best to preserve the public face of his desperately unhappy marriage to the much-loved Princess Diana. Australian actress Elizabeth Debicki does a great job of replacing the also excellent Emma Corrin in this challenging role, often displaying a remarkable physical resemblance to the late Princess of Wales. But by this point, the marriage is clearly already doomed, wrecked by Charles’s affair with Camilla and by the fact they obviously have absolutely nothing in common.
The onetime Trainspotting actor, Jonny Lee Miller plays Britain’s Prime Minister, John Major. Major mostly sits quietly while lots of people talk at him in this episode. It is not really made clear whether this is because he is supposed to be naturally inscrutable or because he is keeping quiet because he senses he is out of his depth. Prince Charles, in this, seems to be plotting to encourage the Queen to abdicate and waffles vaguely and attempting to draw vague parallels with the decision to replace the ageing sixty-something Thatcher with the male forty-something Major. Princess Margaret (Lesley Manville) typically attempts to embarrass Major socially. Diana and the Queen are more polite to him. Sadly, there is no repeat of the scene in the Chris Morris comedy, The Day Today, in which the Queen and Major have a full-blown fight during their weekly audience together.
Happy birthday, Harrison Ford! The Hollywood legend is eighty years’ old as of July 13th 2022. Here are some ideas as to how he might have spent the day…
10am: Harrison wakes. Calista is already up and away. Ford resumes work on his draft script for Witness II: Back On The Wagon.
10.30am: Morning stroll. Ford spots Tom Selleck standing outside his house. For a laugh, he decides to shout: “Hey, mister! Were you Indiana Jones?” When Selleck turns round, looking confused, he says, “No! I didn’t think so!” and walks off chuckling to himself.
11.30am: Back at home, Ford is bored. He wonders about recreating the famous boulder scene from Raiders of the Lost Ark. He pushes one of Calista’s exercise balls down the stairs experimentally and almost hits the cat.
12.30: After lunch, Ford decides to wind up Selleck again. “Magnum! MAGNUM!” He shouts. When Selleck responds, Ford waves a Magnum Ice Cream at him and says, “You should try one! They’re great!” Selleck shakes his fist at him.
1pm: On returning home, Ford is disappointed to find the Magnum has now melted so much, he can no longer eat it. This is a shame as it was a Double Caramel and they only have a Dark Chocolate left in the freezer, which he’s less keen on. He has one anyway.
1.30pm: Ford subjects the cat to a routine Voight-Kampff test to see if he’s a replicant or not.
2pm: Results! There is only a 17% chance the cat is a replicant but a 79% chance it is a lesbian. The cat also seems to be allergic to cats.
2.30pm: Ford calls Calista at the office and asks how Fish and the Biscuit are doing and if there are any cool cases happening today. Calista reminds him patiently that she is not a Boston lawyer but a professional stage and screen actress. Ford asks to speak to Lucy Liu instead. Calista hangs up.
7.30pm: Ford prank calls Selleck and pretends to be Steven Spielberg inviting him to take part in Indiana Jones V on a day he knows he isn’t actually available.
8pm: The doorbell rings. It is Selleck! And he looks angry. Ford panics, sneaks out the back and gets into his plane. We see the plane driving past the sunset along the ground at high speed as Selleck chases behind it on foot occasionally firing a gun at it until the plane crashes into the conservatory.
According to some accounts, the current release Jurassic World: Dominion might very well represent the final faltering step in the popular movie saga which began so strongly with the classic Jurassic Park back in 1993. In truth, ending the Jurassic series now might well prove to be the best decision, But, just in case, anyone does make the brave and perhaps foolhardy decision to resurrect this dormant movie franchise, here are some potential film titles which have not been used yet…
As yet another version of his 1957 classic, The Midwich Cuckoos arrives on Sky Max starring Keeley Hawes and Max Beesley, Chris Hallam takes a look at past attempts to adapt the work of science fiction author, John Wyndham (1903-69) to the screen…
ARTICLE FIRST APPEARED IN INFINITY MAGAZINE IN 2019
In the land of the blind…
It is one of the most dramatic openings to any novel of the 20th century.
We join the narrator, Bill Masen as he wakes up one morning in hospital following a routine eye operation. The operation has been a success, but soon after removing his protective bandages, Masen realises that something has gone horribly, terribly wrong. It quickly becomes clear that the staff and patients of the hospital have all, aside from him, been struck suddenly and simultaneously blind. Worse, as he slowly ventures outside, he comes to recognise an even more horrifying truth: London, Britain and indeed, it emerges, the entire planet has been similarly afflicted. The eyesight of almost the entire human race has been irreparably damaged, failing largely simultaneously only hours after witnessing a sudden spectacular unexpected astronomical display in the sky, the night before. Only a few exceptions, such as Bill whose eyes were safely bandaged (much to his frustration) during the display, are left with their eyesight intact. Humanity has been reduced to a grim, shuffling, sightless mass by the catastrophe. It soon becomes clear: mankind is doomed. Particularly, as a lethal man-made race of giant, walking plants lies in wait, ready to take its place as the dominant species on the Earth.
So, begins John Wyndham’s classic 1951 novel, The Day of the Triffids. The novel was a huge success both at the time and in the years since, for example, making it onto the BBC’s Big Read list of the nation’s most popular novels more than fifty years later.
Wyndham’s opening directly inspired novelist Alex Garland when he penned the screenplay to Danny Boyle’s apocalyptic 2002 film, 28 Days Later. The film’s early scenes are reminiscent of the earlier book with coma victim Jim (Cillian Murphy) waking up to discover an eerily abandoned city of London (Director Boyle created the “empty city” effect simply by filming early in the morning. His main problem was preventing wayward nightclubbers from wandering into shot). In 2010, Frank Darabont deployed similar tactics as wounded police officer, Rick Grimes (Andrew Lincoln) discovers a similar catastrophe after a hospital stay in the first episode of the long-running US TV series, The Waking Dead. The series was itself based on an earlier graphic novel.
Both of these 21st century stories dealt with a world overrun by zombies. In Wyndham’s book, the planet is stalked by a different foe, the Triffids: giant man-made, walking killer plants. Already in existence before the disaster having been conceived as a botched Cold War attempt to resolve post-war food shortages, the new world order provides the Triffids with the perfect opportunity to have their day in the sun. They are equipped with lethal stings which they now deploy to good effect on the suddenly very vulnerable, newly blind human population. Our hero, Bill, a biologist, was indeed temporarily blinded by just such a sting while working on a Triffid farm, giving him the eye-injury, which ironically ultimately spared him suffering a worse fate, alongside nearly everyone else.
Later it is strongly suggested the surprise “meteor shower” which blinded the world may in fact have been the result of a Cold War germ warfare experiment released by satellite (satellites still being a futuristic notion in 1951). The light display may have been unleashed accidentally by either side with calamitous results. With the blind majority either starving or being gradually picked off by Triffifds, Bill and the few other remaining sighted are left to fend for themselves in an increasingly hostile, Triffid-filled world.
Success came relatively late in life for John Benyon Harris.
The son of a barrister, he had been born in 1903 and had enjoyed a variety of careers including farming, law, advertising and the civil service. He had also been involved in the Normandy invasion in 1944. But despite this, it’s hard not to feel he was kept afloat by his family’s money, with his novelist brother seen as more of a success than he was himself.
Arthur C. Clarke felt Wyndham’s social background was something of a flaw, robbing him of the financial desperation which for many writers helps nurture inspiration.
“John was a very nice guy,” the 2001 author later wrote. “but unfortunately suffered from an almost fatal defect for a fiction writer: he had a private income. If he hadn’t, I’m sure he’d have written much more.”
This is probably unfair. Wyndham had numerous short stories and a few books published throughout his life from the 1920s onwards, some with titles as intriguing as Jizzle (1949), Tyrant and Slave-Girl on Planet Venus (1951), Spheres Of Hell (1933 ) and (ahem) The Third Vibrator (1933).
But it was only in his late forties writing as John Wyndham for the first time that he achieved his first major success, after deciding to fuse two story ideas into one. One story was about a world suddenly struck blind. The other was about a race of killer plants.
The release of The Day of the Triffids marked the beginning of a golden period for Wyndham.
The year 1953 saw the release of The Kraken Wakes, which saw the world again imperilled, this time by an alien force which establishes itself under the sea, having dropped into the ocean from space. This time humanity is threatened by the aliens’ decision to use the Earth’s environment against it, flooding the planet by melting the polar ice caps. The book had a slightly different ending in the US where it was called Out of the Deeps.
The late Brian Aldiss described Wyndham’s works as “cosy catastrophes”. In reality, there is little cosy about any of them. If anything, The Kraken Wakes has grown more resonant in the decades since as humanity has become aware of the growing threat to our way of life by the very real threat of man-made global warming.
Wyndham moved dramatically forward in time for The Chrysalids (1955) which saw a society in thrall to Christian fundamentalism, following what appears to have been a nuclear holocaust centuries before. This event has come to be known as the Tribulation. Conventional wisdom has it that God is likely to unleash further retribution on the populace, unless the occasional mutations occur within some people are not exposed and driven out. In reality, of course, the mutations are the consequence of the nuclear war, rather than the cause of it. When a group of children start developing such mutations – notably telepathic powers – they soon find themselves in a struggle for their lives.
Psychic children also play a vital role in Wyndham’s next novel, The Midwich Cuckoos (1957) in which a race of all powerful hyper-intelligent children come to dominate a small, ordinary mid-20th century English village. The circumstances around the children’s conception are strange indeed. Every woman in Midwich simultaneously falling pregnant following a bizarre 24 hour incident when the entire village (and, indeed, anyone who tried to enter it) fell unconscious). The resulting children, all of whom seem remarkably similar and Aryan-looking, soon show signs of malevolent behaviour, further fuelling suspicions that they are the product of some alien breeding experiment in which the women of Midwich were deployed unwittingly as vessels.
The Outward Urge (1959) marked something of a departure for Wyndham, not least because according to the cover, it was produced with another author, Lucas Parkes. In truth, Parkes was just another name for John Wyndham himself: he had already used this pseudonym in the past. The use of the name here does reflect a change of course for Wyndham, in this book which details the “history” of the world between 1994 and 2194. The story is told from the perspective of the Troon family who witness the continued stand-off between the west and the Soviet union culminating in nuclear war in the mid-21st century, resulting in a new world order dominated by the new superpowers, Australia and Brazil. In reality, of course, the USSR collapsed peacefully in 1991, an event Wyndham would have done very well to predict even if he had written the book in 1984, let alone 1959. The book owes something to H.G Wells’ The Shape of Things To Come (1933). Wyndham was a big admirer of the earlier science fiction pioneer.
Wyndham grew less prolific in his final years. Trouble With Lichen (1960), though not especially strong story-wise raises many interesting questions about the implications of a discovery which stands to substantially increase the duration of the natural human life-span.
Chocky (1968), meanwhile, saw a family jeopardised over concerns that what initially appeared to be their teenaged son’s imaginary friend is in fact a hyper-intelligent alien life force which is communicating with him telepathically. The books Web and Plan for Chaos (the first written around the time of The Day of the Triffids), were both published posthumously.
By the time of his death in 1969, John Wyndham had grown used to seeing his works adapted for TV, radio and cinema. This process has continued, with mixed results. The Day of the Triffids has spawned one not especially fateful film, a surprisingly compelling early 1980s BBC series and a further not very distinguished mini-series, featuring Eddie Izzard, a decade ago. The Midwich Cuckoos, meanwhile, became the monochrome cinema classic, Village of the Damned. In the 1990s, the film received the distinction of a parody on The Simpsons. The same decade also witnessed a remake by Halloween director, John Carpenter. A generation of schoolchildren were also collectively traumatised when three series of the deeply disturbing Chocky appeared on Children’s ITV in the mid-eighties.
More is sure to come. Fifty years after his death, John Wyndham’s legacy extends far beyond the actual books and short stories he left behind. His overall influence on others is impossible to measure. He is a giant of 20th century British science fiction.
World of Wyndham: A Timeline
Intro: His life and times, on page and screen…
1903: John Wyndham Parkes Lucas Beynon Harris is born in Dorridge, Warwickshire
1928-1936: Writing either as John Benyon or John Harris, Wyndham pens numerous detective and sci-fi stories
1951: The Day of the Triffids is published to huge success. The name “John Wyndham” is used for the first time
1953: The Kraken Wakes, a similarly near-apocalyptic tale follows
1955: The Chrysalids
1956: The Seeds of Time, a short story collection by Wyndham appears
1957: The Midwich Cuckoos is published
1959: The Outward Urge is published
1960: Midwich Cuckoos is filmed as Village of the Damned by Wolf Rilla starring George Sanders and Barbara Shelley
The Trouble With Lichen published
1961: Another short story collection, Consider Her Ways and Other Stories is released
1963: Film version of Day of the Triffids. It is directed by Steve Sekely and stars Howard Keel
Children of the Damned, a film sequel to Village of the Damned is released directed by Anton M. Leader, starring Ian Hendry
1968: Chocky is released this year
1969: Wyndham dies in Petersfield, Hampshire. He is 65
1981: UK TV version of Day of the Triffids starring John Duttine
1984: TV version of Chocky. Followed by Chocky’s Children (1985) and Chocky’s Challenge (1986)
1995: John Carpenter remakes Village of the Damned. It stars Christopher Reeves, Kirstie Alley and Mark Hamill
2009: Dougray Scott, Joely Richardson and Eddie Izzard features in a new Day of the Triffids TV series
“Isn’t it funny that a series called the Carry On films has stopped?” jokes the comedian, Tim Vine. They in fact stopped a very long time ago now – in 1978 – but the public fascination with them has never ceased. From the gentle but jolly black-and-white National Service comedy, Carry On Sergeant in 1958 to the abysmal Carry On Emmannuelle twenty years later, a total of thirty Carry Ons films were produced. The early films such as the most second and most commercially successful release, Carry On Nurse (1958) were written by Norman Hudis and tended to poke gentle fun at national institutions, for example, the Army, hospitals, police force and schools. A big change came when Talbot Rothwell took over as screenwriter for the the 007 spoof, Carry On Spying (1964), a development which coincided with the arrival of Barbara Windsor on the cast and the move into colour. Carry On Spying in which Windsor played Daphne Honeybutt was the last one to appear in black-and-white.
From that point onwards, the films became less innocent and more smutty. Characters started having names like Dr. Tinkle and Gladstone Screwer and the films were crammed with all the sexual innuendoes (“Ooh! What a lovely pair!” “Once a week is enough for any man|!”) which they’ve become notorious for. On the plus side, they also became notably more ambitious, parodying everything from historical epics (Carry On Cleo, the most highly regarded of the series or Carry On Up The Khyber) to the Hammer Horror series (Carry On Screaming) with mostly enjoyable results, while always remaining cheap to produce.
As the 1970s began, however, things took a turn for the worse as the changing social mores of the ever more permissive society pushed the films into the gutter. Carry On Henry (1971) was good fun and the contemporary Carry On Camping (1969) – famous for the scene in which Barbara Windsor’s top bursts off during an exercise session – was one of the most successful of the whole lot. But by the mid-70s, the quality had declined to such an extent that most of the regular cast (Sid James, Hattie Jacques, Barbara Windsor, Bernard Bresslaw) had abandoned the whole enterprise. Those familiar faces were, of course, a key reason why the films had done so well. By 1992, with many of the originals either dead (Kenneth Williams, Sid James, Peter Butterworth, Charles Hawtrey) or unwilling to be in it (Windsor, Joan Sims, Kenneth Connor, Bernard Bresslaw and others), the disastrous attempt to revive the franchise with Carry On Columbus with a new cast of rising stars such as Julian Cary, Tony Slattery and Martin Clunes was doomed from the start. Although it doesn’t gloss over the dark side of the series (the actors’ terrible pay, the miserable off-screen personal lives endured by Williams and Hawtrey), Caroline Frost’s book remains an affectionate portrait of a mostly fondly remembered national institution.
Book review: Carry On Regardless, by Caroline Frost. Published by: Pen and Sword. Available : now
This week saw Guillermo del Toro’s latest film, Nightmare Alley receive an Academy award nomination for Best Picture. An opportune moment then to reflect on the Mexican director’s quarter century or so as one of the most visually creative filmmakers around. British film writer Ian Nathan has focused on a number of the world’s most interesting movie men in these beautifully presented and intelligent coffee table books before for example,. Quentin Tarantino, the Coens and Tim Burton (all reviewed in the past on here). Now del Toro, the man behind Pan’s Labyrinth and the Oscar-winning The Shape of Water gets similar treatment. Published late in 2021, there is only a little about Nightmare Alley and the forthcoming Pinocchio which del Toro has produced for Netf;ix here yet but his full body of work to date is otherwise covered thoroughly.
Del Toro’s career has thus far been characterised by an impressive fusion of fantasy and horror. Sometimes this results in commercial but usually interesting films like Blade II, the first two Hellboy films and science fiction beat ’em up, Pacific Rim. On other occasions, it has led to other intriguing offerings such as post-Spanish Civil War ghost story, The Devil’s Backbone and perhaps his two most famous films, Pan’s Labyrinth and aquatic monster movie, The Shape of Water. Although less obviously box office friendly on paper, these have captivated large audiences too.
Filled with visually arresting images from del Toro’s career, this is yet another fascinating insight from Ian Nathan into the life and work of one of the early 21st century’s most imaginative and innovative filmmakers.
Guillermo Del Toro – The Iconic Filmmaker and his Work, by Ian Nathan. Published by: White Lion Publishing. 2021.
The pandemic has turned many comedians into authors.
It’s perfectly understandable. With many of the usual avenues of expression closed off to them, the lockdowns have provided a golden opportunity for many comics with a story to tell to finally put their words on paper. For many, it was either that or start a podcast. Little wonder then that, the Christmas 2021 books market is overflowing with comedy biographies. Harry Hill’s new autobiography is a weightier tome than his previous literary works, Harry Hill’s Whopping Great Joke Book, Harry Hill’s Fun Book or Harry Hill’s Bumper Book of Bloopers. But Fight! is a great read and I’d actually rank it alongside Bob Mortimer’s …And Away! as one of the very best comedy-themed books of the year.
As Harry himself admits, however, he is not for everyone. Chris Tarrant and Keeley Hawes are amongst those famous names who Harry has encountered who have not taken to his unique sense of humour. I myself have often been amazed how even during the long reign of Harry Hill’s TV Burp as one of the most consistently funny shows on British TV of the 2000s, a surprising number of people, many of whom I would have otherwise said had a good sense of humour suddenly became insufferably snooty whenever Harry’s name was mentioned. If you are one of those people, chances are, neither this book or even this review will be for you. Kindly go elsewhere.
For the rest of us, this is a treat, often funny, particularly in its early stages and revealing. Harry, after all, has a story to tell.
Today, with his winged collar, NHS spectacles and distinctly eccentric appearance, Harry Hill’s comic persona although well-established is hard to define. He looks like a middle-aged Bash Street Kid. Back in the 1970s, he was Matthew Hall, a bright young teenager busily engaged in developing smoke bombs and other homemade explosives with his other bored, science-obsessed school friends in rural Kent. “My interest in science was largely a by-product of pyromania” he admits now but it led directly to a medical career, something he abandoned only in the early 1990s as his love for performing live comedy took over. As Harry himself might reflect, “what were the chances of that happening eh?”
His accounts of his medical career make fascinating reading. Although he does not seem to be one of those comedians with an obvious dark side, his experiences as a doctor (including an excruciating sequence in which he makes a hash of informing a young husband that his wife had died unexpectedly) along with the premature deaths of a number of his old friends have obviously given him an appreciation of the fact life his short.
He has also clearly retained a treasure trove of memories and physical relics of his comedy career. It is interesting to learn that he often collaborated with the likes of Alastair McGowan and Stewart Lee in the 1990s: not names one would obviously associate with him now. By the end of the decade, he was a familiar face on Channel 4. Between 2001 and 2012, he enjoyed his biggest ever success with over 160 episodes of ITV’s Saturday evening “sideways look at the week’s television,” TV Burp. The build-up to the show’s commercial breaks during which a staged fight between two often very surreal rivals, incidentally, explains the book’s title. Such showdowns included; “the Archbishop of Canterbury versus the Footballers’ Wives,” “a paw versus a claw” and “who is the best vegetarian: Heather Mills or Hitler?” During the last of these skirmishes, Harry can be clearly heard shouting, “come on, Hitler!”
In the end, the strain of trawling through hours of often terrible TV to find a few nuggets of comedy gold proved too much for Harry and the other writers and the show ended. Nothing else he has done has ever proven quite as successful. Harry proves unafraid to mention his lesser successes, which include Alien Fun Capsule (essentially a less popular version of TV Burp), Harry Hill’s Tea Time (an enjoyable but little seen Sky One show) or the fun but not especially commercial 2013 Harry Hill Movie featuring Julie Walters, Sheridan Smith and pop rock band, The Magic Numbers.
He also does not shy away from mentioning his few outright failures either: these include his short-lived X-Factor-themed musical, I Can’t Sing and disastrous stints presenting Capital Radio, an attempt to revive Matthew Kelly’s Stars In Their Eyes or the filming of a never-aired pilot of an unpromising Beadle’s About style prank show.. That said, his failure to mention anything about the character Professor Branestawm or his sixteen series narrating home video clips show, You’ve Been Framed! (as far as I noticed anyway) is more surprising, however, particularly as neither of these were obvious failures. He’s has a busy life: perhaps he just forgot to mention them?
Ultimately, it is a book and a career to be proud of. Now 57, what does the future hold for the onetime Doctor Matthew Hall?
Well, there’s only one way to find out…
Book review: Fight! – Thirty Years Not Quite At The Top, by Harry Hill. Published by: Hodder Studio. Available: now.
Having once been told (wrongly) that he would never walk again during a childhood bout of polio, as an adult he directed The Godfather, the ultimate family saga and one of the greatest films ever made. Following this up with two more 1970s classics, The Conversation and at time when movie sequels were still unusual, The Godfather Part II. His all-consuming ambition almost overwhelmed him while filming Apocalypse Now, however. Although ultimately a success, the production became almost as sprawling and chaotic as the Vietnam War itself, very nearly destroying both his marriage and his career in the process. Quieter and smaller films have followed since. The Outsiders. Rumblefish. The Rainmaker.
Then, there was the daughter, Sofia. Overcoming the widespread criticism which surrounded her acting performance (stepping in for Winona Ryder) in her father’s underwhelming Godfather Part III in 1990, Sofia blew discerning audiences away at the end of the decade with her impressive directorial debut, The Virgin Suicides. Soon after that she really made her mark with Lost in Translation, a film which remains one of the most acclaimed American films of the 21st century so far and made a star of the then still teenaged Scarlett Johansson. Since then, her record has been more mixed: Marie Antoinette completely divided audiences, The Bling Ring generally underwhelmed them, The Beguiled impressed the arthouse crowd while never attracting box office numbers.
This is mainly their story but it is also the tale of the other Coppolas. Talia Shire, Francis’s sister who played Connie in The Godfather films and Adrian, the love of boxer Rocky Balboa’s life, in the Rocky films. She is the mother of director and actor, Robert Schwartzman as well as the actor and musician, Jason Schwartzman, best known for his roles in Wes Anderson films notably Rushmore as well as in his cousin Sofia’s Marie Antoinette as well as Edgar Wright’s Scott Pilgrim Vs The World and many other films and TV shows. Then there is rising star, Gia Coppola, the promising young director of Palo Alto. Her father, Gian-Carlo (the son of Francis and sister of Sofia) was tragically killed in a speedboat accident while Gia was still in the womb in 1987.
Not to forget, Nicolas Coppola, the son of Francis’s late brother, August, now known as the Oscar-winning actor, Nicolas Cage. Initially starting out in his uncle’s 1980s films Rumblefish and Peggy Sue Got Married, Cage (who took his adopted surname from the comic character, Luke Cage) is sometimes erratic (he has been married five times forging a familial link between the Coppolas, the Presleys and the Arquette acting dynasty) but has enjoyed enormous success working alongside the Coens, David Lynch and John Woo.
This is a fascinating account of a family whose own saga has become inextricably linked to the unfolding story of American cinema.
Book review: The Coppolas, by Ian Nathan. Published by: Palazzo Editions.
Alien 3: The Unproduced Screenplay by William Gibson: by Pat Cadigan; William Gibson. Published by: Titan Books.
There is quite a lot of backstory here. Are you sitting comfortably? Then I’ll begin…
To start with: this isn’t a screenplay. It is a novel. It is a novel written by Pat Cadigan based on a screenplay which was written but not used for the 1992 film, Alien 3. The original screenplay was written by the distinguished science fiction author, William Gibson who is best known for his Hugo award-winning 1984 cyberpunk novel,, Neuromancer. But his script for Aliens 3 bore no resemblance to one used for the finished film.
On this evidence, it seems a shame Gibson’s version was never put into action. For the actual Aliens 3 (despite being directed by a young David Fincher who later oversaw the two classics, Seven and Fight Club) was a disappointing failure. This is a shame because the first two Alien films, Ridley Scott’s chilling Alien (1979) and James Cameron’s action-packed Aliens (1986) remain two of the finest science fiction films ever made. But no good Alien films have been made in the years since. Perhaps you’ve only ever seen the first two movies? If so, take my advice and stop there.
Incidentally, this volume would sorely benefit from the inclusion of some sort of introduction explaining what exactly this is.
Unlike the aliens themselves, Alien 3 had a long gestation period. The Gibson screenplay was written early on, soon after Aliens (1986) had been released and proven to be a success. William Gibson’s story has a few strengths and weaknesses. On the plus side, it has a much better start than the actual Alien 3. This opened badly with the revelation that two of the survivors of the second film,, Newt and Corporal Hicks had been killed in an accident, a depressing and unsatisfactory outcome for viewers who had seen them live through and survive so much during James Cameron’s film. In this version, Hicks (portrayed by Michael Biehn in Aliens) and the android, Bishop (Lance Henriksen) both play a major role in the action. This is very welcome. More controversially, the franchise’s traditional heroine, Ellen Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) is very much pushed to the side lines here. Another weaker aspect, is the introduction of a futuristic version of the USSR, something which would already have seemed dated by the time the finished film came out in 1992, the USSR having collapsed the year before. It certainly looks dated now.
But overall, this remains an enjoyable mixture of science fiction and horror: Pat Cadigan, who wrote this prose version, is an accomplished and talented Hugo-award winning author herself. It would be easy to mock: “In space, no one can hear you yawn…” But, in truth, this a good novel in its own right and an intriguing footnote on the history of film, shedding light on a great cinematic What If…? which might so easily have been.
WRITTEN BY: CHRIS HALLAM. FIRST PUBLISHED IN GEEKY MONKEY MAGAZINE IN 2017
From Batman to Beetlejuice and Big Fish to Big Eyes, Tim Burton’s unique movie combinations of fantasy, sentimentality and horror have illuminated our cinema screens for over thirty years now. But with nearly twenty full length films under his belt and Burton himself approaching his sixties, how long can the magic continue?
WORDS: CHRIS HALLAM: TRY SAYING HIS NAME THREE TIMES IN FRONT OF A MIRROR AND SEE WHAT HAPPENS (BASICALLY NOTHING)
Almost nothing about Tim Burton career makes any sense.
Consider: much of his appeal rests in part on the maverick oddball nature of his work. The release of a new Tim Burton film is an event, with many people eagerly making a point of seeing everything he does. He is hip in a way neither Disney or Pixar could never be.
Yet, In reality, his reputation as an outsider seems odd. He has never been an obscure or unpopular director. His films nearly always do very well at the box office and always have done. He is currently ranked seventh on the list of the biggest grossing directors in Hollywood. Indeed, partly thanks to his outlandish Edward Scissorhands-like appearance is probably more recognisable than any of the other six with the possible exceptions of Steven Spielberg and onetime Happy Days star Ron Howard.
The world isn’t supposed to be like this. Offbeat, funny looking directors with unhappy childhood memories might direct one or two cult classics but that’s usually about it. Burton has directed hit after hit after hit for years and years and years. He has directed a film more or less every other year since the mid-Eighties.
At a time in which Hollywood has often been often accused of lacking inspiration and originality, Burton has frequently demonstrated he has both in droves. Although it’s true, he usually doesn’t write his own screenplays (Edward Scissorhands being an exception), Burton has always drawn far and wide for his sources of inspiration. The visual look of his films is frequently remarkable with impressive visuals even on his worst films like Planet of the Apes (2001) and Alice in Wonderland (2010).
Most of us will probably now feel we have our own preconceived notions of what to expect from a Tim Burton film. Yet really we have no idea what to expect. Miss Peregrine’s School For Unusual Children (2016), for example is nothing like his previous film, Big Eyes (2014) nor is that like and Frankenweenie (2012) and so on. There is really no good trying to guess what he might do next. Although it might be worth placing a bet that Jonny Depp will be in it.
For all his success – his combined grosses have exceeded those of George Lucas, J.J. Abrams or any of the Harry Potter directors – there seems little logical about how Burton’s films have performed at the box office. Alice In Wonderland (2010) for example, is far from Burton’s best film but it is by some way his biggest grossing blockbuster. His Planet of the Apes (2001) is also one of Burton’s biggest grossing films but might actually be his worst. Other much better films such as Ed Wood (1995), meanwhile, came close to flopping entirely,
Another oddity is the lack of correlation between Burton’s critical success and Oscar recognition. Generally speaking, with the notable exceptions of Planet of the Apes, Dark Shadows, Alice in Wonderland and Mars Attacks! all of Burton’s films have been well received by the critics, often overwhelmingly so. Yet not one Tim Burton film has ever received an Academy Award nomination for Best Picture. Two of his films, The Corpse Bride (2005) and Frankenweenie (2012) have received Oscar nominations for Best Animated Feature, but that’s it. Even allowing for the Academy’s traditional antipathy towards sci-fi and fantasy (nearly all of Burton’s films could be defined as the latter), this oversight seems surprising.
In short, screenwriter William Goldman’s old adage that in Hollywood “nobody knows anything” seems truer than ever when applied to the career of Tim Burton.
Burton’s feelings of being an outsider are not an act. Despite being born to apparently “hypernormal” parents in Burbank, California in 1958, he felt lonely and retreated into a fantasy world of his own imagination from an early age.
“When you don’t have many friends,” he later mused of his early life. “You’re at a distance from the rest of society, you’re kind of looking out of a window…But there’s enough weird movies out there so you can go a long time without friends”.
Burton later played homage to the B-movie horror movies of his youth in films like Ed Wood and Frankenweenie. Soon he was making as well as watching films. One such animation Stalk of the Celery Monster (1979) attracted the attention of Disney.
Paul A. Woods has written that “though he has sometimes dumped derision on the Disney name (Burton) is also a child of Uncle Walt,” and it is certainly true that while often a frustrating period for him, his years at Disney producing short dark films like Vincent and the later remade Frankenweenie were crucial towards the evolution of the unique combination of sentimentality and gothic horror which became Burton’s trademark. That said, by the mid-Eighties, he had left Disney and was directing his first full length feature film.
British audiences have never entirely “got” Pee-wee Herman. A children’s character created and played by Paul Reubens, he was never popular in the UK, his status later overshadowed by Reubens’ 1991 arrest for indecent exposure at an adult cinema where he was “enjoying” the film Nancy Nurse Turns Up The Heat. Reubens has since come back even recently resurrecting the Pee-wee character. Burton was generous to the disgraced Reubens even during his difficult period, giving him roles in Batman Returns (1992) and The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993).
But all this was in the future. Pee-wee’s Big Adventure (1985) was a far from inauspicious debut for Burton proving a critical hit and making an impressive $40 million on as budget of $7 million. But it would be Tim Burton’s next film which would see his distinctive style really coming to the fore for the first time.
Beetlejuice (1988) was an unusual film by any standard. For one thing, the two likeable young romantic leads (Alec Baldwin and Geena Davis) are killed off in the first ten minutes, the star (Michael Keaton) has only eighteen minutes of screen time, for another. It is also contains a surprising number of moments of horror for a PG rated comedy. The waiting room scene, for example, features a scuba diver with his leg still down the throat of a shark and a chain smoker who appears to have burnt to as cinder after an accident while smoking in bed.
Beetlejuice was almost a horror film and occasionally it shows. It was also a glorious success and launched Burton further along an impressive directorial career which continues to this day.
Though none of his films are full blown horrors, this dark element is a regular feature of Burton’s work. Though sentimental, the title character of Edward Scissorhands (1991) certainly looks he should be a horror character and seems like a Frankenstein’s monster stitched together by a creator played by Vincent Price. The casting of the horror legend (in fact, in his final role) is no coincidence, of course. The late Christopher Lee another horror iconic movie veteran also appeared in five Burton films. Sleepy Hollow (the first of Lee’s Burton appearances) based on Washington Irving’s The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, the tale of the headless horseman is closer to being a horror than any of Burton’s other works, while the animations The Nightmare Before Christmas (in fact, directed by Henry Selick) and The Corpse Bride as well as the live action Miss Peregrine’s Home For Peculiar Children all contain unsettling elements which expose Burton’s love of horror.
Appearing in nine of his films to date, Johnny Depp has become synonymous with Burton’s work. Though as a famously good looking film star, Depp has proven a good fit for Burton’s out of kilter world view, effectively becoming Robert De Niro (or, if you prefer) Leonardo DiCaprio to Tim Burton’s Martin Scorsese. Burton’s former partner Helena Bonham Carter has also been a regular collaborator appearing in seven of his films since the start of the 21st century.
If there was a point where Burton might have been expected to have “sold out” it was with Batman (1989). Having enjoyed early successes, one would have expected being given the reins to Warner Brothers’ massive superhero franchise would have crushed any independent spirit out of him, like hiring Orson Welles to direct Star Wars or perhaps more aptly hiring David Lynch to direct Dune. But instead Burton did what all the best directors do, making Batman a hit while clearly marking his own independent stamp on the end product. He also produced a film that was considerably darker than any superhero film Eighties cinema audiences were used to. In Batman Returns (1992) Burton produced a sequel, still darker, weirder and more Burton-esque than what had gone before.
WHEN BURTON GOES BAD
Every director has a few turkeys in their closet but in truth, Tim Burton has far fewer than most. Even where his films have gone down badly, the record is so mixed it’s hard to write them off completely as total flops.
In 1995, after a decade of spectacular directorial success, Burton experienced his biggest ever box office failure with his biopic of Ed Wood. Wood, played by Johnny Depp, was notoriously “the worst film director ever” behind such cinematic monstrosities as Plan 9 From Outer Space. Burton himself chose to take the experience as a salutary lesson: “Any of my movies could go either way, they really could, and so the line between success is a very thin one,” he said. “Who knows, I could become Ed Wood tomorrow.”
But in truth, Ed Wood is a fine film and well-reviewed at the time. Martin Landau even won an Oscar for his portrayal of the has been horror legend Bela Lugosi, the only acting performance in a Burton film to ever receive one. Perhaps audiences were simply put off by it being in black and white.
“Hi Jack: loved you in Mars Attacks!” joked the late Robin Williams to Jack Nicholson at an award ceremony. This was funny, of course, because supposedly Tim Burton’s sci-fi comedy was so awful, Burton’s first major flop (Ed Wood, had at least, been cheap to make) and surely a source of embarrassment to Nicholson who had taken two roles in it. At least, that’s the story.
In reality, Mars Attacks! (1996) is Burton’s most divisive film, sitting in odd comparison to the much duller but much more successful box office smash Independence Day which was released at about the same time and which it comes across almost as a direct spoof of, even though it isn’t. Speaking personally, I and the mostly student audience I saw it with in Aberystwyth laughed our heads off at it and many people love Mars Attacks! to this day. I would suspect it went down better in the UK than in the US. But lots more people seem not to and on reflection it is perhaps a bit of a mess. “Often what I think is funny, other people don’t find funny,” Burton admits, perhaps explaining why few of his other films have been pitched as full-blown comedies.
Less equivocation is needed in summarising Burton’s “reimagining” of Planet of the Apes (2001). Tim Roth gives a good villainous (unrecognisable) performance. Most of the make-up is decent and Danny Elfman’s score is fine. But that’s it as far as good points go: the film is otherwise irredeemably horrendously dreadful. One wonders what the hell Burton was thinking.
It’s not actually just that the Planet of the Apes suffers by comparison with the 1968 version of the story. Even if you don’t like Franklin J. Schaffner’s earlier film (which despite it’s marvellous ending does rather go on a bit), Burton’s film is still awful, hampered by a weak lead performance (Mark Wahlberg), a botched and doomed attempt to make Helena Bonham Carter’s ape more attractive than the others (moral: apes are generally only attractive to other apes), a dreadful script and an ending which makes no bloody sense whatsoever. It is Burton’s worst film. Ten years later, Rupert Wyatt made the far superior reboot Rise of the Planet of the Apes (2011) perhsaps rubbing salt into the wound. But against all the odds, The Apes of Roth proved a hit. Critically mauled, Burton’s film was nevertheless the ninth biggest movie at the box office of 2001.
Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (2006) was another hit but many feel it is unbalanced by Johnny Depp’s overly sinister portrayal of Willy Wonka (a performance reportedly based on Michael Jackson). Comparing Willies can be a controversial game but most viewers seem to prefer the late Gene Wilder’s Wonka from the 1971 version of Roald Dahl’s classic children’s story. Alice In Wonderland (2010) is also something of a mess and generally overuses CGI, yet it too was a big hit: indeed Burton’s biggest hit to date.
Only one film in fact Dark Shadows (2012) based on an obscure US TV series of the Sixties and Seventies about a darkly gothic family, constitutes both a commercial and critical flop. With Burton having directed nearly twenty films to date his really isn’t a bad record.
And truth, be told, even Dark Shadows isn’t all that bad.
Ultimately, probably the worst that could be said of Tim Burton is that while he has undoubtedly produced an impressive overall body of work, it is harder to identify an individual movie of his which is universally revered as a truly great film. For what it’s worth at the time of writing, not one of Burton’s films ranks in IMDB’s 250 Top Rated Movies. This might also explain why none of his films have yet received any Best Picture nominations. It could also simply be that his films are too offbeat for the Academy.
This is to dwell on the negative, however. Tim Burton’s career has been a magical glorious success. Burton turns sixty next year and we can only hope he continues to direct with such aplomb as he approaches old age.
For let us picture the following: Beetlejuice smiling malevolently as Lydia (Winona Ryder) says his name a third time. The mournful look on the face of Edward Scissorhands. The young Edward Bloom (Ewan MacGregor) looking up to Karl the giant (the late Matthew McGrory) in Big Fish. The Caped Crusader confronting the Joker. A Martian invader gleefully vaporising more victims. The macabre humour of Sweeney Todd.
The fact that there are simply too many good Tim Burton films to discuss here is testament to his brilliance in itself.
THE BURTON FACTOR
Which Tim Burton film is the most Burtonesque of them all? Watch as our unscientific survey settles the matter once and for all. And remember, the final score is based on how ‘Burtonesque’ the film is: not how good it is. So there!
Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure (1985)
Did Danny Elfman do the score?: Yes. Are any major Burton regulars in it?: No. Is it animated?: No. Musical?: No. Funny?: Yes. Scary?: No. Summary: Generally ore of a Pee-wee Herman film than a Tim Burton one although some Burton trademarks are already in place. Burton Factor: 4.
Did Danny Elfman do th score?: Yes. Are any major Burton regulars in it?: Yes: Michael Keaton, Winona Ryder, Catherine O’Hara. Is it animated?: Mostly not. Musical?: No. Funny?: Yes. Scary?: Fairly. Summary: The distinctive blend of comedy and humour is already there. Burton Factor: 9.
Did Danny Elfman do the score?: Yes. Are any major Burton regulars in it?: Michael Keaton, Jack Nicholson. Is it animated?: No. Musical? Well, aside from Prince. Funny?: A little. Scary?: Slightly. Summary: Gentlemen! Let’s broaden our minds! Tim retains his credentials even when going all blockbustery on us. Burton Factor: 8.
Edward Scissorhands (1991)
Did Danny Elfman do the score?: Yes. Are any major Burton regulars in it?: Johnny Depp, Winona Ryder. Is it animated?: No. Musical?: No. Funny?: Scary?: Ish .Summary: The essence of Burton. He even looks a bit like him. Burton Factor: 10.
Batman Returns (1992)
Did Danny Elfman do the score?: Yes. Are any Burton regulars in it?: Michael Keaton. Michael Gough is also in this and a few others. Christopher Walken and Danny DeVito also return later. Is it animated?: No. Musical?: No. Funny/Scary?: A bit of both. Summary: Batman + 10% added Burton. Burton Factor: 9.
Tim Burton’s The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993)
Did Danny Elfman do the score?: Yes. Are any Burton regulars in it?: Catherine O’Hara, Paul Reubens and Danny Elfman. Is it animated?: Yes. Musical?: Yes. Funny?: Yes. Scary?: Kinda. Summary: What’s this? The most Burton-esque film of them all and he didn’t even direct it! Burton Factor: 10.
Ed Wood (1994)
Did Danny Elfman do the score?: No. Are any Burton regulars in it?: Johnny Depp, Sarah Jessica Parker, Jeffrey Jones. Is it animated?: No. Musical?: No. Funny?: Yes. Scary?: No, despite gothic elements. Summary: An enjoyable homage but none of the usual fantasy elements. Burton Factor: 6.
Mars Attacks! (1996)
Did Danny Elfman do the score?: Yes. Are any Burton regulars in it?: DeVito and Nicholson return from Gotham, Sarah Jessica Parker. But most of the large cast are non-Burtonites. Is it animated?: Partly. Musical?: When I’m Calling You Oooo-oooo. Funny?: Yes. Scary?: No Summary: A bit of an odd one even by Burton’s standards. Burton Factor: 6.
Sleepy Hollow (1999)
Did Danny Elfman do the score?: Yes. Are any Burton regulars in it?: Depp, Michael Gough, Walken, Jeffrey Jones. Is it animated?: No. Musical?: No. Funny?: No. Scary?: Yes. Summary: It seems odd that this is the only one with Christina Ricci in. It sort of feels like she should be in all of them. Burton Factor: 7.
Planet of the Apes (2001)
Did Danny Elfman do the score?: Yes. Are any Burton regulars in it?: Helena Bonham Carter. Is it animated?: No. Musical?: No. Funny?: Not intentionally. Scary?: No. Summary: More sci-fi than most Burton efforts. Also: RUBBISH. Burton Factor: 4.
Big Fish (2003)
Did Danny Elfman do the score?: Yes. Are any Burton regulars in it?: Bonham Carter, Deep Roy, Danny De Vito. Is it animated?: No. Musical?: No. Funny?: Not really. Scary?: No. Summary: Moderately Burtonesque. Burton Factor: 6.
Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (2005)
Did Danny Elfman do the score?: Yes. Any Burton regulars in it?: Depp, Bonham Carter, Christopher Lee, Deep Roy. Is it animated?: No. Musical?: Yes. Funny?: Intended to be. Scary?: No. Summary: Ingredients: 50% Dahl. 50% Burton. Burton Factor: 7.
The Corpse Bride (2005)
Did Danny Elfman do the score?: Yes. Are any Burton regulars in it?: Depp, Bonham Carter, Christopher Lee, Deep Roy. Is it animated?: Yes. Musical?: Yes. Funny?: A bit. Scary?: Creepy. Summary: A Nightmare Before Christmas One and a Half. Burton Factor: 8.
Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street (2007)
Did Danny Elfman do the score?: No, all Stephen Sondheim. Are any Burton regulars in it?: Depp, Bonham Carter. Is it animated?: No. Musical?: Yes. Funny?: Yes. Scary?: Gory. Summary: A good choice for Tim B. Burton Factor: 8.
Alice In Wonderland (2010)
Did Danny Elfman do the score?: Yes. Are any Burton regulars in it?: Depp and Bonham Carter, Christopher Lee. Is it animated?: Lots of CGI. Musical?: No. Funny?: A little. Scary?: No. Summary. Burton’s biggest hit. Curiouser and curiouser… Burton Factor: 8.
Dark Shadows (2012)
Did Danny Elfman do the score?: Yes. Any Burton regulars in it?: Depp and Bonham Carter in their fifth Burton film together in a row. Eva Green. Is it animated?: No. Musical?: No. Funny?: Scary?: A bit. Summary: Burtonesque, certainly, although the formula seems less potent than usual. Burton Factor: 7.
Did Danny Elfman do the score?: Yes Are any Burton regulars in it?: Quite a few on voices including Winona Ryder. Is it animated?: Yes. Musical?: No. Funny?: Yes. Scary?: Eerie, yes Summary: Resurrected from the age of Burton past. Burton Factor: 8.
Big Eyes (2014)
Did Danny Elfman do the score?: Yes. Are any Burton regulars in it?: No. Is it animated?: Mostly not. Musical?: No. Funny?: No. Scary?: No. Summary/rating: With very little fantasy element at all, you might easily not notice who the director is. Burton Factor: 2.
Miss Peregrine’s Home For Peculiar Children (2016)
Did Danny Elfman do the score?: No. Are any major Burton regulars in it?: Eva Green. Is it animated?: No. Musical?: No. Funny?: No. Scary?: Yes. Summary/rating: Burton fans will recognise the mixture of childhood fantasy and horror. Burton Factor: 7.
THE ELFMAN COMETH…
He is the Elfman, or rather Danny Elfman. Ten things you may not have known about Tim Burton’s favourite composer…
Elfman has scored all but three of Tim Burton’s eighteen studio releases to date.
The exceptions were: a) Sweeney Todd, which is based on a musical by Stephen Sondheim. b) Miss Peregrine’s School For Unusual Children, was scored by Matthew Margeson and Mike Higham as Elfman had a scheduling conflict due to scoring Alice Through The Looking Glass, James Bobin’s sequel to Burton’s own Alice film. c) Ed Wood: Howard Shore scored this one as Elfman and Burton had briefly fallen out.
Danny Elfman provided the singing voice for Jack Skellingon in The Nightmare Before Christmas. He also voiced Bonejangles in The Corpse Bride and the Oompa Lumpas in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.
He used to be in a rock band called Oingo Boingo. In recent years, he has complained of hearing loss as a result. He is 63.
He composed the iconic TV themes for The Simpsons and Desperate Housewives.
He has composed loads of film scores for many other films too amongst them Nightbreed, the Men In Black and Sam Raimi Spider-Man films, Oz The Great and the Powerful, The Girl On The Train and many many more.
Martian invaders who mercilessly destroy everything in their path. A scientist who develops the power to make himself invisible. A machine which can transport the passenger though the fourth dimension: time. Just where here would be without Herbert George Wells? 150 years after his birth it’s impossible to imagine the world of science fiction without the books H.G. Wells wrote and the many films they inspired.…
By the time H.G. Wells died in 1946, the world was trembling in awe at the destructive power of the first atomic bombs and reeling from the impact of two devastating world wars. But at the time of his birth in 1866, horses were still everywhere and telephones and motor cars were still the stuff of futuristic science fiction. Even when Wells grew up and wrote the hugely imaginative books which made his name in the 1890s, the first aeroplanes were still yet to fly.
No one had ever seen a film when H.G. Wells was growing up either but this didn’t stop him enjoying them as an adult. According to author Alan Gallop, (author of The Martians Are Coming!):
“Wells loved everything about movies and moviemaking. He liked the company of film directors and producers, screenwriters and pretty actresses.”
This is a good thing as Wells’ books, particularly his most famous early books (which Wells described as “science romances”) always attracted a huge amount of interest from filmmakers and indeed the cinema-going public. Wells himself, of course, would not live to see most of these films, let alone get involved in the production but we can.
And as we shall see in the next few pages, some were better than others…
The Time Machine
(Book: 1895. Filmed: 1960, 2002)
Some people say it is better to travel than to arrive. This is certainly true in the case of George Pal’s enjoyable 1960 adaptation of Wells’ first novel, The Time Machine. For fun though the movie is, it is never better than during the Oscar-winning scenes where the hero (Rod Taylor, also of Hitchcock’s The Birds) experiences time travel for the first time.
Although generally less political than the book, the film followed the novel reasonably closely despite a few minor changes. The initial events are switched to the New Year period of 1900 (several years after the book was published). The previously unnamed time traveller becomes “George” in the film, presumably in honour of Herbert George Wells, “Herbert” perhaps not being judged a sufficiently heroic name. The personalities of George’s colleagues are also filled out and a later sequence in which the time traveller witnesses the Earth in its final days, suffering beneath a huge pre-supernova sun is wholly omitted from the film version.
But the essence of the book remains. The time traveller invents the machine and travels to the distant and random futuristic year of 802701 (mark this date in your calendars please). He finds the world inhabited by pleasant but intellectually vacuous flower children known as the Eloi who live a Garden of Eden type existence. Blond and pretty, they are not so much Children of the Damned as Children of the Dumb and spend their days swimming, flirting and ignoring all the world’s books which have subsequently turned to dust on their shelves. Their lives are spoilt only by the blue subterranean albino gorillas known as the Morlocks who despite a commendable work ethic, enjoy eating Eloi on their lunch break.
The time travel scenes are great. Although a bit inconsistent – some of the things George witnesses from the machine, (such as the clothes on the dummy in the nearby shop window) change at a different rate than others – there is truly something magical about the way the days flicker by. Nearby flowers visibly bloom and close and the seasons roll by beautifully in these scenes. In a notable variation on the 1895 novel, George also gets the chance to witness the unhappy consequences of not one, not two but three world wars during the 20th century segment of his journey bumping into his friend’s son (Alan Young) in both 1917 and again, shortly before a nuclear attack in the then still futuristic year of 1966,
One happy consequence of a nuclear war in 1966 had it actually occurred, would have been that no one would have had to see the terrible version of the story made by Wells’ great-grandson, Kung Fu Panda director Simon Wells in 2002. In this version Guy Pearce plays Dr Alexander Hartdegen whose trip to the future from New York this time is inspired by a desire to save his fiancée from a premature death: a very loose adaptation of the book indeed. The human race this time is devastated not by atomic warfare but by an accident in which the moon is accidentally destroyed in 2037 (again, mark this date in your calendars). In the far future, the Eloi Vs Morlock rivalry persists but now includes short-lived singing sensation Samantha Mumba playing one of the Eloi and Jeremy Irons as an intelligent chatty Morlock.
In fairness, the 2002 film isn’t all awful. But the time travel sequences are duller than in the 1960 film and somehow the film robs the story of all its charm.
Even Samantha Mumba can’t save it.
The Island of Doctor Moreau
(Book: 1896. Filmed: 1932, 1977, 1996)
There’s no getting away from it: The Island of Doctor Moreau is a bit of an odd book. Yet more than a century on, it is still widely read because it tackles ethical issues which are still relevant today. It’s also remains a cracking good read despite being one of Wells’ darkest novels.
The story tells of a shipwrecked young man who finds himself marooned on an island inhabited by the notorious doctor of the title, a vivisectionist living in exile after a scandal. But they are not alone. The marooned sailor soon discovers the disturbing results of the mad doctor’s experiments all around him. Unlike Dr Doolittle, Moreau doesn’t talk to the animals. He conducts hideous experiments on them and tries to turn them into humans.
The book inspired both a Simpsons parody and the name of the hip hop band House of Pain, but cinema has served it less well. Wells himself personally hated the first feature length version of the novel (there had been two earlier silent versions), which was filmed under the title The Island of Lost Souls, as he thought Charles Laughton’s camp performance as the doctor pushed it too far towards being just a horror movie.
As critic Philip K. Scheuer wrote at the time: “There is no fooling about Island of Lost Souls. It’s a genuine shocker, hard to shake off afterward. As art, it begins and ends with Charles Laughton”.
In fact, this production, which also featured Dracula star Bela Lugosi, is now rated highly, Kim Newman describing it as “the most comprehensively (and admirably) horrid of all the classic horror films from its period”. It is also considered the best of the three main Moreau films. Although, to be fair, the competition is not exactly very stiff.
If the 1977 version starring Burt Lancaster and Michael York was something of a disappointment, the third version (also called The Island of Dr Moreau) filmed by John Frankenheimer in the centenary year of the book’s publication (1996) was a famous cinematic disaster.
Many were amused by the casting of the by then very obese and somewhat past his best Marlon Brando. A common joke ran, “Have you heard Marlon Brando’s playing the title role in The Island of Dr Moreau? He’s playing the island.” But there were many other problems too as the production ran horrendously over-budget amidst a plague of weather problems and a dramatic falling out between the veteran director Frankenheimer and star Val Kilmer.
Frankenheimer who had directed The Birdman of Alcatraz in his prime was quite vocal about his leading man once stating: “There are two things I will never do in my life. I will never climb Mount Everest, and I will never work with Val Kilmer again. There isn’t enough money in the world.” Frankenheimer was as good as his word and died in 2002 without doing either of these things.
The resulting flop spawned the 2014 documentary Lost Souls: The Doomed Journey of Richard Stanley’s Island of Dr Moreau (Stanley had been the original director). Perhaps unsurprisingly, the documentary is much better viewing than the film itself.
The Invisible Man
(Book: 1897. Filmed: many times)
It’s one of the oldest jokes in the world: have you seen the Invisible Man? In fact, the story has been filmed so many times, chances are you probably have seen The Invisible Man in some form or another. Whether it resembled the original source material or was even called The Invisible Man remains to be seen (no pun intended).
The story centres on Griffin, a student whose life is effectively ruined after he discovers the means to make first his cat, then himself invisible. The dream of many, for Griffin, the experience quickly becomes a nightmare as he is forced to cover himself in bandages and turn to a life of crime in order to survive. The methodology behind Griffin’s breakthrough is intriguing: he makes himself invisible through a combination of adjustments to his skin pigmentation and to the refractive index of the light which reflects off him. It would never actually work in reality but is convincing enough in the context of the novel.
The 1933 film version of the story starring Claude Rains and directed by the legendary James Whale with a script by R.C Sherriff is still considered a classic. Rains became a star despite barely appearing on screen. H.G. Wells again wasn’t keen though. In his book H.G. Wells: Another Kind of Life, (published by: Peter Owen), Michael Sherborne relates:
“Wells showed some ambivalence towards the movie when he said of the script, “I am told that Mr Sherriff’s version was the thirteenth prepared. I should be amused to see the other twelve versions.”
But even from then onwards it is difficult to keep track of all the numerous knock offs and sequels which quickly emerged in its wake. The Invisible Man Returns (1940) was one and The Invisible Agent (1942) another and Abbott and Costello Meet the Invisible Man (1951) another still. Yet with the likes of The Invisible Woman (1940) and The Invisible Ghost (1942) and loose adaptations such as TV’s The Invisible Man (1975), John Carpenter’s weak Chevy Chase and Daryl Hannah comedy Memoirs of An Invisible Man (1992) and Paul Verhoeven’s Hollow Man (2001), all we can say with any certainty is that The Invisible Man has been adapted far more loosely than any other Wells’s work.
And most of these are best left unseen.
The War of the Worlds
(Book: 1898. Filmed: 1953, 2005)
Not many science fiction stories are set In Woking.
Much of the epic power of H.G. Wells’ famous story of Martian invasion comes not just from the sheer scale of the tripod-led alien attack, Wells imagined but from the fact he based it in such realistic surroundings, namely around his own home turf of Surrey. It is thus somewhat disappointing that both the big screen versions of the story followed Orson Welles’ lead (see the Mars Attacks! sidebar) in relocating the action to the present day United States.
Perhaps Wells’ book was simply too far ahead of its time for its own good: it is harder to imagine alien heat rays incinerating people on the streets in late Victorian times, simply because we know historically that this didn’t happen.
Seven years before he turned his hand to directing H.G. Wells’ Time Machine, George Pal produced a full colour version of the story set in California starring Gene Barry and Ann Robinson and geared towards a world now familiar with the horrors of world wars and coming to terms with the new atomic age. Indeed, the full force of the US military-industrial complex is unleashed on the Martian invaders and an atomic bomb is, indeed, dropped on them at one point to little avail.
It is true Pal’s film (which was actually directed by Bryon Haskin) bears little resemblance in many respects to Wells’ novel. But this isn’t necessarily a bad thing in itself: great though Wells’ story is, the 1953 film is undeniably a classic science fiction movie in its own right. Unusually, the film itself spawned a sequel in the form of an often surprisingly gory TV series produced and set a full thirty-five years later running from 1988 until 1990.
Like George Pal’s earlier film, Steven Spielberg’s War of the Worlds (2005) starring Tom Cruise and Dakota Fanning (with narration by Morgan Freeman) was a smash hit vividly bringing to life the struggles of a Californian construction worker as he struggles to protect his family from the Martian foe. But unusually for Spielberg, the characters are fairly uninteresting. It is thus hard to really care about anything that happens. It thus ends up being rather dull, special effects or not.
The story continues to inspire filmmakers, however, with a number of versions being produced in the decade since Spielberg’s film. The most interesting of these have followed the mockumentary route. War of the Worlds – The True Story (2005) cleverly interweaves archive footage with the action to make it appear as if Orson Welles’ 1938 broadcast was actually based on real events. Similarly, The Great Martian War 1913-1917 (2013) was cleverly presented in the form of an episode of a docudrama on the History Channel.
The First Men in the Moon
(Book: 1901. Filmed: 1902, 1919, 1964)
While no one has actually travelled through time, made themselves invisible or fought off invaders from Mars, people have walked on (rather than “in”) the moon, first achieving this in 1969, more than twenty years after Wells’ death. Wells cannot claim to have invented the idea, however, French author Jules Verne for one had in fact written the books From the Earth to the Moon (1865) and Around the Moon (1870). Worse, Verne (an old man by 1901) criticised the science behind Wells’ book which relied upon a fictional element called “cavorite” to get the rocket to the moon. He felt the methodology in his own books which saw a rocket being successfully got to the moon after being blasted out of a huge cannon, seemed far more plausible.
In truth, however quaint either version might now seem, it is worth remembering Wells’ book in which two adventurers travel to the moon and encounter a bizarre subterranean insect-like species dubbed “the Selenites” was published in the same year Queen Victoria died and two years before the Wright brothers achieved the first ever manned flight. Wells had been born, the son of a Kent shopkeeper in 1866. The fact he was imagining moon landings at all is pretty impressive.
The book also inspired a landmark of early cinema, A Trip To The Moon (1902), a legendary work evoked in Martin Scorsese’s Hugo or (if you prefer) the Smashing Pumpkins video Tonight Tonight and essentially a mash up of Verne and Wells’ stories. Another silent film version of Wells’ book appeared in 1919.
Then, just five years before Apollo 11, came another fun version of the story featuring Edward Judd and Lionel Jefferies. An old man in a retirement home watches footage of American astronauts landing on the moon on TV. The astronauts are astonished to find a Union Jack already flying on the moon! This prompts a flood of memories from the man as he recalls how he, his fiancée and an eccentric inventor first travelled to the moon, wearing diving suits in 1899.
The Shape of Things to Come
(Book: 1933. Film: 1936)
This is the odd one out in this selection. For one thing, Wells wrote the book much later in his career than everything else mentioned here. He also was technically involved in the production of the film which had its title shortened to Things to Come. The film was only loosely based on the book, however, and the true extent of the elderly author’s influence on such dynamic figures as producer Alexander Korda is open to question.
H.G. Wells was determined about one thing: the film should in no way resemble Metropolis, up to that point, the leading science fiction film of the era. Wells regarded Fritz Lang’s film as “ignorant old fashioned balderdash” and told the filmmakers that “whatever Lang did in Metropolis is the exact contrary of what we want done here”.
In H.G, Wells: Another Kind of Life, (published by Peter Owen), Michael Sherborne argues:
“…though Wells was credited with masterminding the film, his artistic control was limited. Wells defended the film in public, but was disappointed in private. He complained that the film-makers had side-lined him…had damaged his prestige with the half-educated audience he was trying to influence. However, there is nothing to suggest that the film would have turned out any better if Wells had exercised greater control.”
The novel takes the form of a futuristic history book which looks back on an imagined history starting in 1933 when the book was published and lasting until 2106. Even allowing for the volatile political environment of the 1930s, Wells is uncannily close to near total accuracy in his prediction that a Great War would break out over a crisis in Danzig in January 1940. Such a crisis did indeed spark off World War II in September 1939, only three months earlier than the war Wells envisaged. Thereafter, inevitably, the novel departs from what actually would happen in reality, Wells’s war proving inconclusive and lasting a full decade, before being followed by a plague and a continuation of the 1930s Great Depression. Miserable as these sounds, Wells ultimately envisages a world moving towards a form of utopia under a world government, a prediction which reflects Wells’s socialist outlook.
Things To Come – which starts the war in December 1940 – remains an impressive spectacle. Audiences at the time were terrified by the images of British cities being subjected to aerial bombardment, scenes which would be replicated in real-life just four years later. It is listed in the book, 1001 Movies You Must See before You Die where Barton Palmer comments, “It captures the anxieties and hopes of 1930s Britain perfectly, chillingly forecasting the blitz that would descend upon London.”
Mars Attacks!: Orson Welles and the big broadcast of 1938
No one would have believed that in the last years of the 1930s, a radio adaptation of H.G. Wells’ War of the Worlds published over forty years before, would trigger a widespread panic when broadcast on the radio in the United States. But this is exactly what happened.
Beginning with a series of news reports interspersed between segments of supposedly scheduled classical music performances, listening to it today, it is easy to see why anyone listening to the broadcast in October 1938 would have been fooled, especially if they had tuned in half way through. This was, of course, in an age where audiences had no TV, internet or mobile phones with which to verify the alarming reports they were hearing.
The broadcast had generated a major panic, probably fuelled by the decision to use real US place names, notably Grover’s Mill, New Jersey in the script. Some people bizarrely claimed to have “seen” the alien invaders. Others seemed unclear if Martians, Nazis, Communists or Japanese had been attacking. Heart attacks induced by the panic were reported. Underlying anxiety about a probable imminent European war to some extent explains the whole phenomenon.
But as Orson Welles, the man behind the adaptation was quick to emphasise; the show had not been intended as a hoax. As he delivered the final lines of the live performance, Welles (no relation to H.G. Wells, despite their similar surnames), was concerned to see a number of police entering the studio. He subsequently proved surprisingly disingenuous about the effects of the chillingly convincing broadcast pointing out there had been several assurances that the work was fictional throughout. These were assurances which listeners might easily have missed and indeed, many obviously did.
For a short while, Welles feared that his career as a hugely talented actor, director and writer was over. In fact, the broadcast was the making of him. Soon, he would direct and star in Citizen Kane, the film that would permanently isolate him from the Hollywood establishment but which would in time be regarded as the greatest movie ever made. He delivered numerous great performances in the likes of The Third Man and Touch of Evil, grew to be physically huge and ended his days voicing Unicorn in Transformers: The Movie (1986).
H.G. Wells himself was not impressed. His US agent hinted at legal consequences over both the lack of faithfulness to his original work and also that “Mr H.G. Wells personally is deeply concerned that any of his work should be used in such a way, and with totally unwarranted liberty, to cause deep distress and alarm throughout the United States”.
Later, Wells met the young man behind the drama and his attitude softened. A surge in sales of The War of the Worlds now advertised as “the book that terrorised the nation over the air!” probably helped.
Source: The Martians Are Coming!: The True Story of Orson Welles’ 1938 Panic Broadcast by Alan Gallop.
All’s well that ends well…
H.G. Wells achieved a lot in his life, advancing attitudes on socialism, universal government and writing many non-fiction or non-science fiction books in addition to the ones mentioned here. But it is his impact on the world of science fiction for which he will always be best remembered.
The 1979 film Time After Time sees Malcolm McDowell playing Wells himself as he travels in his own time machine to present day New York in pursuit of an escaping Jack The Ripper (David Warner). The story, based on a novel by Karl Alexander, is soon to be remade for TV.
In reality, though this is obviously fiction, Wells was certainly the first person to write about a physical machine which goes through time. In short, without Wells it is doubtful we would ever have had the DeLorean of Back to the Future or the Tardis or the grandiose alien invasions of Independence Day.
Science fiction undoubtedly owes H.G. Wells an enormous debt.
It was the TV version which got me first. Yes, I know this isn’t what I’m supposed to say. The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy was, first and foremost, a radio series. It was here Douglas Adams first introduced us to Arthur Dent, Ford Prefect, Marvin, life, the universe and everything and all the rest back in 1978. In fairness, as I was less than two years old then, I think I can be excused for not tuning in on the opening night. However, yes, I am fully aware that it was original I should have come to first, not the TV re-tread. But, to be honest, I was never a big radio listener as a child or even now really. It was thus inevitable I’d find it on TV first, after glimpsing a tantalising extract of a sequence about Vogons on Noel Edmonds’ Telly Addicts first. The series itself was a repeat showing. I was again (probably) too young for the original screening when I was just four in 1981, particularly as my younger brother seems to have been born virtually simultaneous to the broadcast of the first episode. I was nine years old by 1986. And while, I know, the TV version has its critics, it remains one of the greatest viewing experiences of my life. Why? Well, let’s begin at the beginning. The title sequence is brief but strangely brilliant. There’s just something wonderful about the use of The Eagles’ Journey of the Sorcerer. Check out the full version on You Tube. To be honest, I think the way it is used very sparingly as the theme tune to both the show on radio and TV works much better than the full-length version which to me sounds overlong and overindulgent. Why is there an astronaut floating around in the titles when there aren’t any in the actual series? I don’t know. It doesn’t matter. I still like it. Then there’s the late Peter Jones’ masterful narration. A clever trick is how the narrative of Adams’ overall story is cleverly merged with that of the contents of the book, that is The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy, the book within the book. And Jones did a great job. Even Stephen Fry, a real-life friend of Adams, couldn’t really compete in the film version.
Then there’s the book itself! So marvellously realised on screen, it still looks great today, thirty-six years later. If there is anything better in existence than the Babel fish sequence, I am not aware of it. And the book. A portable digital source of information? Remind you of anything? You probably have something very similar in your pocket right now. Then, there’s the cast. With the exception of the excellent (and still very prolific) Geoff McGivern who was replaced by the equally wonderful (but for some reason, far less prolific) David Dixon as incognito visitor from Betelgeuse Ford Prefect and the late Susan Sheridan who was replaced by Sandra Dickinson in the perhaps underwritten role of Trillian, the main cast were mostly drawn from the original radio series too. And while Martin Freeman did a reasonable job as the hapless Arthur Dent in the 2005 film version, for me, Arthur Dent will always be the exasperated but well-mannered version played by the wonderful Simon Jones. The series is not perfect, of course. The terrible prosthetic on Zaphod Beeblebrox (played by Mark Wing-Davey, son of the late Anna Wing, best known for playing EastEnders matriarch Lou Beale) proves definitively that two heads are not always better than one.
The story also fizzles out somewhat. There was talk of a second series which never came but in truth a narrative arc was never the greatest strength of a story originally conceived as a weekly serial by an overworked twentysomething Douglas Adams. There are other quibbles. Marvin, the paranoid android, who gave his name to a Radiohead track isn’t strictly speaking paranoid. But again, who cares? Forty-two. So long and thanks for all the fish. Don’t panic. Life, the universe and everything. The Restaurant at the End of the Universe. I would argue the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy series in whatever form it takes, has injected more memorable phrases into the English language than anything else in the past fifty years.
THE WIT AND WISDOM OF DOUGLAS ADAMS (1952-2001)
“Anyone who is capable of getting themselves made President should on no account be allowed to do the job.”
“For a moment, nothing happened. Then, after a second or so, nothing continued to happen.”
“Time is an illusion. Lunchtime doubly so.”
“I refuse to answer that question on the grounds that I don’t know the answer.”
(On religion): “Isn’t it enough to see that a garden is beautiful without having to believe that there are fairies at the bottom of it too?”
“Reality is frequently inaccurate.”
“The ships hung in the sky in much the same way that bricks don’t.”
“I’d far rather be happy than right any day.”
“All opinions are not equal. Some are a very great deal more robust, sophisticated and well supported in logic and argument than others.”
“I love deadlines. I love the whooshing noise they make as they go by.”
“It can hardly be a coincidence that no language on earth has ever produced the expression, ‘As pretty as an airport.”
During a forty year career, the fertile mind of Michael Crichton created numerous stories featuring deadly plagues, rebellious robots and resurgent dinosaurs. With a new TV version of Crichton’s Westworld striding boldly towards us this October, Geeky Monkey takes a look at the work of a man who left a huge indelible footprint on the history of science fiction…
WORDS: CHRIS HALLAM
In November 2008, with the news dominated by the election of Barack Obama, another news story could easily have slipped by unnoticed: Jurassic Park author Michael Crichton had died aged just 66.
As the man behind one of the biggest cinematic hits ever, Michael Crichton was a towering figure in every sense (he was 6ft 9). But he had a somewhat mixed record as both an author and of director of science fiction.
Michael Crichton wrote books, directed films based on his own books, directed films based on other people’s books, directed films not based on his or anyone else’s books and saw his own books adapted by other directors. Not all of the novels or directorial projects are of the type which piques Geeky Monkey’s interest: for example, neither Disclosure or Rising Sun fit into the sci-fi or fantasy bracket and so don’t expect them to be discussed much here. But whether good or bad, Crichton’s medical experience was always evident. Whether it was a version of one of his own books or one of his own original screenplays, it was as if Michael Crichton had injected himself into every frame.
The Andromeda Strain
Book (1969). Filmed: 1971, TV version: 2008
The danger that humanity may be threatened by an unstoppable outbreak of an incurable and fast spreading disease is sadly one of the more plausible apocalyptic scenarios. Crichton tackles this head on in his breakthrough novel, which centres on the aftermath of a space satellite’s return to Earth. It soon emerges that everyone in the surrounding Arizona area where the satellite has crashed down is dead, some of them having died in bizarre mysterious ways. A dispassionate scientific analysis begins: was the satellite harbouring a deadly microorganism?
Published when Crichton was still embarking on a medical career in his twenties (he apparently once overheard two senior doctors discussing his own book), The Andromeda Stain made Crichton a star. It achieves the difficult feat of being both scientifically credible and a compelling enjoyable read.
And, happily, the film wasn’t bad either. Directed by Robert Wise (the man behind the not very similar Sound of Music although he would later do the first Star Trek film), The Andromeda Strain was largely faithfully brought to the screen and was notable for its early use of special effects from 2001: A Space Odyssey wizard Douglas Trumbull. A modest box office hit, it is still very watchable and became an influence on everything from Outbreak (1995) to Contagion (2011) the last of which saw an apocalyptic plague start after Gwyneth Paltrow shook hands with a chef who hadn’t washed his hands after some bats pooed on the food he was about to serve.
Sadly, a “reimagining” of the book staring Benjamin Bratt worked less well as a TV mini-series in 2008. A very loose adaptation indeed and very unmemorable: The Amnesia Strain might have been a better title.
The Terminal Man
Book: 1969. Film: 1974
The second Crichton sci-fi book to be adapted drew direct inspiration from his medical career:
“I saw a patient in a hospital who was being treated with electrodes implanted in the brain, hooked up to a monitoring computer,” Crichton later wrote. “I thought this treatment was horrific and I was amazed that the research seemed to be going forward with no public discussion or even knowledge. I decided to write a novel to make such procedures better known.”
The experience (of a treatment which is now no longer carried out) provided the basis for The Terminal Man. The novel centres on one Harry Benson who undergoes a futuristic version of electronic brain implantation similar to that witnessed by Crichton to cure him of the epileptic seizures he has begun to experience since suffering injuries in a car accident. Benson soon becomes incredibly violent as a result. Critically well received as a book, despite receiving some criticism for linking epilepsy to violence, the film which starred George Segal is generally less well liked. Roy Pickard has argued (in the book Science Fiction At The Movies) that it is in some ways superior to anything in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. Despite this, Crichton was aggrieved that he lost his role as director to Mike Hodges, the man who would later direct Flash Gordon (1980). Crichton later admitted that he liked The Terminal Man less than any other books.
Sequel: Futureworld (1976)
TV series: Beyond Westworld (1980)
HBO TV series due: 2016
Imagine a holiday in which you can sample the thrill of being in ancient Rome, medieval England or the Wild West. Peopled by robots, Delos, the holiday resort in Westworld, offers all of these things and more. Our heroes (played by Josh Brolin and Richard Benjamin) are drawn to the wild west sector where an android gunslinger played by Yul Brynner (wearing the same outfit he had earlier worn in the western, The Magnificent Seven) is obligingly shot down to please the tourists every day.
But then the robots start going wrong. Previously obliging medieval serving wenches become uppity and slap their clients (“My Lord forgets himself!”) while the robots all over the three worlds suddenly go into revolt, Brynner’s gunfighter becoming especially lethal…
Hands up if you jumped to Westworld in this feature straight away? If you did, we certainly don’t blame you. Westworld is Crichton’s most fun pre-Jurassic Park creation. It was the first film ever to use CGI (on a limited scale). It was also the first to demonstrate Crichton’s talent for imagining futuristic theme parks and then have them go horribly wrong.
Indeed, there is an element of the Jurassic Park issue here – scientists have used technology which they don’t really understand leading to an ultimately deadly environment. As one Delos scientist explains: “We aren’t dealing with ordinary machines here. These are highly complicated pieces of equipment, almost as complicated as living organisms. In some cases, they’ve been designed by other computers. We don’t know exactly how they work.”
Crichton originally conceived Westworld as a novel but ended up writing it as a screenplay and directing it as a film where it soon enjoyed success. Crichton had nothing to do with the 1976 sequel Futureworld starring Peter Fonda which lazily attempted to recreate the formula of the original on a larger scale even featuring Brynner’s gunfighter only in a rather pointless dream sequence. The 1980 TV series Beyond Westworld was a flop too. Featuring a plot to use the androids of Delos to take over the world, the show was canned after only three out of five episodes had been aired.
The new HBO series Westworld due out later this year looks much more promising, however, not only in terms of cast (it features the distinguished likes of Sir Anthony Hopkins, Ed Harris, Evan Rachel Wood, James Marsden and Jeffrey Wright) but in terms of depth.
Judging by the trailer, the new series not only promises to explore the three worlds of Delos in greater detail but promises to be a dark intelligent affair featuring Blade Runner style mediations on the nature of existence. If the series lives up to the promise of the trailer, it seems likely Crichton himself would have approved.
Apes have a difficult legacy on film. For every King Kong (1933), there’s a King Kong (1976). For every Planet of the Apes (1968), there’s a Planet of the Apes (2001).
Congo sadly slips into the “awful” category thanks largely to some terrible acting performances from Tim Curry and Ghostbusters’ Ernie Hudson, but also because, in common with the aforementioned Dino de Laurentiis King Kong remake and, indeed, Greystoke: The Legend of Tarzan, Lord of the Apes (1984), it is rendered ridiculous by the use of silly looking gorilla costumes. This was just about acceptable when Planet of the Apes came out in 1968 but was already pushing it a vit, in the 70s and 80s when King Kong and Greystoke used them. By 1995, soon after the release of Crichton’s own CGI-filled Jurassic Park, it looked completely absurd.
Congo, is in truth, not one of Crichton’s better books anyway. After a series of mysterious deaths occurs in the Congo, an expedition is sent out which discovers a dangerous race of hyper-intelligent human-gorilla hybrids. Although definitely science fiction, Crichton attempted to inject some of the feel of the 19th century adventure story like H. Rider Haggard’s King Solomon’s Mines or Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Lost World (a name Crichton would consciously poach later).
Crichton actually sold the film rights in 1979 before completing the book and was optimistic about Sean Connery being cast. But the film didn’t end up being made until Crichton’s post-Jurassic boom period and Connery didn’t appear.
CGI was briefly considered but ruled out. But in truth gorilla suits are only part of the problem with Frank Marshall’s frequently ridiculous film. It would have been all over the place anyway, good special effects or not.
But against all odds, Congo didn’t flop. It was a solid commercial hit.
Perhaps the least remembered of any of Crichton’s film, some would argue that as a critical and commercial flop, Looker is best skipped over quickly. The film sees Albert Finney play a plastic surgeon who becomes suspicious after a series of already beautiful models approach him seeking minor and indeed apparently imperceptible physical alterations. He becomes even more intrigued after the models start being murdered and he finds himself under suspicion of killing them. What is going on and how are the sinister Digital Matrix research firm involved?
Though not a success, Looker deserves to be remembered for one reason at least: the film featured the first ever CGI human character. Filmsite.org’s Film Milestones in Visual and Special Effects explains:
“The visual effects in Michael Crichton’s high-tech science-fiction thriller featured the first CGI human character, model Cindy (Susan Dey of The Partridge Family fame). Her digitization was visualized by a computer-generated simulation of her body being scanned – notably the first use of shaded 3D CGI in a feature film. Polygonal models obtained by digitizing a human body were used to render the effects.”
Not bad for 1981.
It is a well-known fact that actor Tom Selleck was forced to turn down the role of Indiana Jones due to his contractual obligations to the hit TV series Magnum P.I. Selleck’s disappointment at what might have been is only to understandable and obvious: a number of subsequent films saw Selleck apparently trying to emulate Harrison Ford in Indy-type roles. Runaway, directed and written by Crichton, is quite different, however. On paper at least, Selleck seems to be emulating Ford in another film entirely: Blade Runner.
Selleck plays Sgt. Jack R. Ramsey, a police officer in a near future environment in which household robots have become commonplace. Aided by his enthusiastic young partner (played by Cynthia Rhodes), Ramsay is part of the “Runaways Unit” dealing with robots who have malfunctioned, known as “runaways”. Most of his work is quite mundane, until one day he finds himself investigating something that should be impossible: a robot who has broken his programming so dramatically that he has committed murder, having wiped out a whole family. What would Brian from Confuse.com say? It’s certainly enough to make Metal Mickey turn in his grave.
Runaway certainly isn’t terrible and perhaps the Blade Runner similarities are only superficial. In one respect, it is like Blade Runner, however: it flopped. And unlike Blade Runner, its reputation has not soared in the years since.
“An adventure 65 million years in the making” would be the tagline for the film of Crichton’s biggest success Jurassic Park. And though none of Crichton’s works actually took that long to produce (obviously), many did have a long gestation period. Crichton began writing Sphere back when he was in his twenties, seeing it as a potential companion piece to The Andromeda Strain. As it turned out, he didn’t finish it until the late 80s, having basically got stuck, the film appearing a full decade after that.
Sphere begins from an intriguing premise with the discovery of a mysterious craft bobbing along at the bottom of the beautiful briny sea. A mystery begins: is the craft from Earth? Is it an alien ship from space? Or could it even have been sent back in time from hundreds of years in the future?
The book of Sphere was actually decent and with veteran director Barry Levinson (best known for Rainman) at the helm and a cast led by Dustin Hoffman, Sharon Stone and Samuel L. Jackson (the last actor by then far more famous than he had been when he appeared in a supporting role in Jurassic Park five years before) the movie version really should have been the same.
Sadly, it was not to be: Sphere was fatally dull.
Rotten Tomatoes damned it thus: ”Sphere features an A-level cast working with B-grade material, with a story seen previously in superior science-fiction films.”
Sphere sank without trace to the bottom of the box office ocean.
As the 1980s neared their end, Crichton then in his late forties might have looked back on these years with some sense of disappointment. None of his books had been adapted into films during the decade, the three films he had directed himself during this period (Looker, Runaway and 1989’s non-science fiction Physical Evidence) were all failures and he would never direct any more films. Despite the novels Congo and Sphere, Crichton was still best known his 1970s work and he was clearly less successful than some younger emerging novelists like Stephen King and John Grisham .
But as a new decade dawned, Crichton’s life was about to change forever…
Book: 1990 Filmed: 1993
Jurassic Park: The Lost World
Book: 1995 Filmed: 1997
Steven Spielberg is famed for knowing what the public want before they even know it themselves. Whether it’s sharks, cute little aliens or heroic archaeologist cum adventurers, Spielberg has his fingers on the pulse of the film-going zeitgeist. He had known Michael Crichton since the seventies. When Crichton began talking about his latest unfinished novel about a theme park populated by resurrected dinosaurs, Spielberg was very interested. Recognising that CGI technology was at a point where it could bring Crichton’s vision brilliantly to life, he bought the rights.
The results almost speak for themselves.
As Gloria Hunniford famously put it, in Jurassic Park the special effects are so good “’you can’t tell where the fake dinosaurs end, and the real ones begin.” But the film is not just a special effects bonanza. Spielberg both took things away and added things to Crichton’s book and screenplay: a child being killed by a dinosaur early on was deemed too horrific, Attenborough’s creator Hammond is less sinister in the film than he was in the book, the famous shuddering glass of water in the first great tyrannosaurus rex scene is largely down to Spielberg’s masterful direction, not Crichton’s prose. But the book and the idea were Crichton’s and he deserved the millions he made from it.
Jurassic Park is the biggest grossing film of all time on its release worldwide and is currently the 21st on the list which is unadjusted for inflation, the only film which is over 20 years old to be in the current top 50. Jurassic World from 2015 is at number 4 (all these figures come courtesy of Box Office Mojo).
Or in other words, you have seen Jurassic Park, your dentist has seen Jurassic Park and anyone anywhere currently in your range of vision has seen Jurassic Park unless they are a baby, a dog or Audrey Hepburn in an advert on your TV.
Indeed, probably virtually everyone in your mobile phone address book has seen it. Don’t believe us? Call them now and check. Go on. We can wait. We’ll still be here when you get back.
In 1994, Crichton achieved a first. Jurassic Park was number one at the box office, E. (which he had also created) was number one on US TV and Crichton’s novel Rising Sun (also made into a film soon after) was at the top spot in the book charts. Top of the book bestsellers, the TV ratings and the box office charts. No one has ever achieved this triple whammy before or since. A very tall man anyway, Michael Crichton really did seem to stand astride the world like a colossus.
Little wonder he was soon under pressure to do a sequel. The Lost World Jurassic Park was Crichton’s first and only sequel and he made compromises: Jeff Goldblum’s Dr Ian Malcolm returns, for example, despite being killed off in the first book (but having survived the film). In truth, the sequel was far from Crichton’s best book and is probably one of Spielberg’s worst films. But it was a huge box office hit and two more films have appeared since.
Michael Crichton wrote many books in his last years, some of which (although only one more sci-fi book) were filmed. But creatively, he never scaled the heights of the Jurassic Park again.
A truly rubbish film, it seems a shame to end with Timeline, a silly adventure based on Crichton’s enjoyable sci-fi thriller about a group of modern day scientists traveling back in time to 14th century France to rescue their professor.
Crichton’s final years saw him produce more science fiction. Prey (2002) is a thriller dealing with the threat posed by the creation of artificial life and nanobot technology. The rights have been bought by 20th Century Fox although Prey has never yet been filmed. State of Fear (2004) centres on a plot to commit mass murder by a gang of eco-terrorists. By this point, Crichton, now in his sixties, had nailed his colours firmly to the mast of those who like President George W. Bush were in total denial about the existence of climate change. Many felt Crichton’s promotion of his own views on this subject rather marred the novel.
Next is er… Next(2006) which centres on the genetic experimentation on animals. It is, incidentally, nothing whatsoever to do with the Nicholas Cage sci-fi film Next of 2007 which was in fact based on a Philip K. Dick story. His final unfinished sci-fi work Micro (published posthumously in 2011) meanwhile is being planned as a film by Dreamworks.
Nearly eight years after he died, Crichton’s legacy is undeniably mixed with some huge successes and some epic failures. Some films based on his books were terrible as were some of the films he directed himself and indeed some of his own book were quite bad.
But with the Westworld and Jurassic franchises flourishing to this day, Crichton’s contribution to science fiction is undeniable. He wrote science fiction in the truest sense, using his medical expertise to inform hugely entertaining stories. And when at his best as in The Andromeda Strain, Westworld or Jurassic Park, Michael Crichton could be very entertaining indeed.
Box out: Also by Michael Crichton…
Michael Crichton didn’t just write and direct science fiction. Here are just some of the other many strings to his bow…
The young doctor?: A Harvard Medical School graduate, Crichton spent years on clinical rotation in hospitals but never formally gained a licence to practice medicine, choosing to write instead. He came to believe many patients took too little responsibility for their own health.
Weird science: He was sceptical about man-made climate change or global warming. but was interested in aura viewing and clairvoyance.
Tall stories: He wrote some early books under the pen names Jeffery Hudson and John Lange (“lange” is the German word for “long”: Crichton, as mentioned, was very tall). Michael also wrote a book with his brother Douglas under the name “Michael Douglas” in 1970. By coincidence, the now famous actor Michael Douglas (who had still largely been unknown in 1970) would later star in Coma (1978), a medical thriller directed by Michael Crichton as well as Disclosure (1994), a controversial film based on Crichton’s bestselling novel.
Twister (1996): Crichton co-wrote the screenplay for the tornado-based drama starring Bill Paxton and Helen Hunt. He was aided by his then wife Anne-Marie Martin (he married five times). The film was the second biggest grossing film of 1996 and certainly the biggest grossing film of that year which didn’t feature Will Smith repelling an alien invasion.
TV star: In 1994, Crichton created and produced the medical TV drama ER. He only wrote the first episode basing it on a script he’d first written in 1974. He effectively launched a show which would last until 2009.
Dr Who?: The name “Dr Ross” appears at least four times in Crichton’s writing. Most famous is Dr Doug Ross the role which made George Clooney’s name in ER. In Congo (1980), the main expedition to uncover the cause of the mysterious deaths is led by Dr Karen Ross (she is played by Laura Linney in the film). Both the book and film of The Terminal Man (1972/1974) feature Dr Janet Ross, Benson’s attractive psychiatrist (Joan Hackett). In Zero Cool (1969), an early Crichton book (written as John Lange), Dr Peter Ross is a radiologist and the main character.
Other big non-sci-fi successes for Crichton were The Great Train Robbery (1975) filmed by Crichton himself as The First Great Train Robbery (1979) starring Sean Connery and Rising Sun (1992) and Disclosure (1994), both later made into films, the former also starring Connery.
The 13th Warrior (1999) starring Antonio Banderas is based on Crichton’s 1976 novel Eaters of the Dead (1976). Crichton himself took over the reins as director uncredited from onetime Die Hard director John McTiernan when the film ran into trouble. But he still could not stop it from becoming one of the biggest cinematic flops ever made.
Regardless of whether he was making heist thrillers, anti-war dramas or historical epics, director Stanley Kubrick was always a force to be reckoned with. However, it was his move towards science fiction and horror in the sixties and seventies which brought out his true genius as director and saw the creation of four of his greatest films. But what was the price of Kubrick’s lifelong battle for perfection? Over the years, the director’s obsession with power and control brought him close to the brink of madness…
WORDS: Chris Hallam
It’s easy to see why some people might think director Stanley Kubrick (1928-1999) was an obsessive, controlling character. It’s there in his work. As the journalist Lewis Jones has noted; “All his films have an intensely painstaking air, an overpowering feel of perfectionism. They are all hugely ambitious… and all his films are driven by some kind of fear – fear of war (Paths of Glory, Dr Strangelove, Full Metal Jacket), of crime (A Clockwork Orange), of computers (2001), of creative failure and madness (The Shining), or sex (Lolita, Eyes Wide Shut)”.
The image of Kubrick as an obsessive telephone-fixated recluse may be an unfair stereotype. It is, after all, perfectly possible to feature certain recurrent themes in your work without necessarily exhibiting them within your own personality. There is also something of a lazy media tendency to label any celebrity who doesn’t do regular interviews “a recluse”.
Between 1963 and 1980, effectively the middle period of his career, Kubrick, already an established director, thanks to the likes of The Killing, Paths of Glory and Lolita, embarked, intentionally or not, on an exciting new journey. With the notable exception of his period piece 1975’s Barry Lyndon, Kubrick departed from real world scenarios as the subject matter for his films. Dr. Strangelove occurs against the backdrop of imminent nuclear war. 2001 and A Clockwork Orange both depict very different versions of the near future, while The Shining is set in a world in which ghosts and the supernatural exist.
It was undeniably the most creative period of his entire career. But it was also the period during which Kubrick’s own behaviour reportedly grew most eccentric. As Kubrick’s subject matter increasingly moved further and further away from real world scenarios, did his own grip on reality start to loosen too?
Dr. Strangelove (1964)
In October 1962, the Cuban Missile Crisis brought the world closer to nuclear war than ever before. To give just one example, on learning that the Soviet Union had deployed nuclear missiles on the island just 80 miles off Florida, the initial reaction of President Kennedy’s team was that the US should invade Cuba. The president’s brother Bobby talked them out of it fearing the US would come across looking like a bully. Thirty years later, it was revealed: officials on Cuba were under orders to launch a nuclear strike on the US if they had attempted to invade. That’s how close the world came to nuclear holocaust.
Clearly, then, an obvious topic for a film comedy.
Nor was Stanley Kubrick, the obvious choice to direct a comedy. Although well-established in the movie business by his thirties, Kubrick who had directed Spartacus (1960) and the controversial Lolita (among other things) was not associated with comedy at all. Indeed, despite directing Dr. Strangelove, rated in 2000 by the AFI as the third best US comedy film of all time, he still isn’t. Ask anyone to describe Kubrick in ten words: more likely than not, the words “funny” and “hilarious” will remain unused.
The film did not start out as a comedy. Kubrick was fond of adapting novels as the basis for his films, in fact, every single Kubrick film after 1955’s Killer’s Kiss was based on a book (in the case of 2001, the short story The Sentinel was expanded by its author Arthur C. Clarke during production). Dr. Strangelove Or How I Learned To Stop Worrying And Love The Bomb, to give it its full title, was based on Peter George’s 1958 novel Red Alert released as Two Hours To Doom in the UK. The novel was quite different from the eventual film in that it was deadly serious, did not feature the character Dr. Strangelove at all and had a completely different ending. Nevertheless, the essential point that a US general goes mad and attempts to launch a pre-emptive nuclear attack on the USSR, is the same as the film (neither were directly based on the Cuban missile crisis). Kubrick increasingly came to recognise the dark humour in the Cold War arms race and with the help of co-writer Terry Southern, turned it into a comedy.
He was, of course, immeasurably helped by the comedy genius of his friend, the actor Peter Sellers. Kubrick indulged Sellers somewhat and would often be rendered hysterical by Sellers’ ad-libbing on set. Sellers’ role in Lolita had been massively expanded from a very small one indeed in Nabakov’s book and had ultimately unbalanced the film. In Dr. Strangelove, Columbia Pictures insisted Sellers be cast in multiple roles as he had in Jack Arnold’s 1955 film The Mouse That Roared. This time, Sellers was given four roles including that of the missile-riding Major Kong. In the end, Sellers struggled to master the Texan accent and feigned a sprained ankle to get out of the Major Kong role. But he still did an impressive job on the other three assigned to him: the wheelchair bound ex-Nazi of the title, US president Merkin Muffley and perhaps most successfully, plucky British Group Captain Mandrake.
Madness is never far away in Kubrick’s films. In Strangelove, the whole real life scenario is as mad as the concept of Mutually Assured Destruction (M.A.D.) itself, General Jack D. Ripper’s insane fear of bodily fluids is frighteningly convincing, while general Buck Turgidson (George C. Scott) and the Doctor himself are clearly little more balanced.
Kubrick originally planned to end the film with a custard pie fight (perhaps rather like the end of Alan Parker’s Bugsy Malone) and even got to the stage of filming it it but the sequence was never used. Peter Sellers’ own life was certainly plagued by personal instability and Peter George who had written the book and helped with the screenplay committed suicide in 1966. Was Kubrick suffering with private demons of his own?
In his biography, John Baxter argues Dr. Strangelove arose from Kubrick’s fear of nuclear war:
“His fears were legitimate, but they also smacked of the paranoia that would increasingly characterise his life and work…because he so distrusted his own mental mechanism, he came to distrust machines also. His films, always preoccupied with systems that fail and plans that don’t succeed, increasingly dealt with the same problems but on a global or cosmic scale…”
He could also be a hard taskmaster putting his set designer Ken Adam through hell creating the sets for the film. But Kubrick got results. The War Room, in the film, in particular, looks amazing,
“Moscow gold could not have produced better propaganda,” wrote one conservative US newspaper about the film. But it was a hit and like many Kubrick films, it would prove initially controversial before eventually achieving classic status.
Kubrick’s eternal struggle for perfectionism had begun.
2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)
The success of Dr. Strangelove gave Kubrick the power to do pretty much anything he wanted. He thus decided to settle permanently in the UK, grow a beard, team up with science fiction author Arthur C. Clarke and make the most ambitious film ever made.
Nearly fifty years after it first appeared, 2001 has lost none of its power to both awe and baffle audiences. Even the fact, the year 2001 has long since passed hasn’t really changed this, though it must be said, for a man who predicted that the first moon landings would occur in the year 1970 as far back as 1945 (he was only one year out as they happened in 1969), Clarke managed to be some way out in his prediction of how far advanced space technology would be just 33 years hence. It is doubtful that even by 2101, we’ll be as flying to Jupiter as the film suggests. We certainly weren’t by 2001 as Clarke, though not Kubrick sadly, would live to see.
The film rather defies conventional story synopsis, but broadly speaking some apes in prehistoric times are excited by the arrival of a large black monolith. The monolith seems to have a civilising effect on them and soon they are able to demonstrate impressive examples of cinematic match cut technique. Much much later, in the year 2001, in fact, a ship is sent to investigate another such monolith which has appeared on Jupiter. The mission goes wrong when the ship’s computer HAL (voiced by Douglas Rain) malfunctions and kills most of the crew before being gradually shut down by sole survivor Dave Bowman (Keir Dullea). This surprisingly touching sequence is probably the best loved of the film. Counterculture hippies of the time, however, preferred the psychedelic lightshow precipitated by Bowman flying into the monolith. And then a giant space baby appears, something which er… obviously needs no explanation.
Not everyone liked the film at the time. Roger Ebert later wrote that: “To describe that first screening as a disaster would be wrong, for many of those who remained until the end knew they had seen one of the greatest films ever made… But not everyone remained. Rock Hudson stalked down the aisle, complaining, ‘Will someone tell me what the hell this is about?’ There were many other walkouts, and some restlessness at the film’s slow pace…” A producer’s wife threw up during a screening although that might not have been because of the film. Influential critic Pauline Kael dubbed it “monumentally unimaginative” but unlike many things from the 1960s, the film has aged well and is now considered one of the greatest ever made. Though not “full of stars” (Leonard Rossiter is about the most famous person in it), it was a big hit at the time too, ultimately inspiring an okay sequel (2010 directed by Peter Hymans in 1984), Solaris, essentially a Soviet version (remade by Steven Soderbergh in 2002) and influencing everything from Interstellar (2014) and The Martian (2015) to TV’s Red Dwarf.
The film was the making of special effects guru Douglas Trumbull but he didn’t enjoy working with Kubrick at all. In the generally sympathetic documentary, Stanley Kubrick: A Life In Pictures (2001), made by Kubrick’s brother-in-law, Trumbull says:
“After working with Stanley on 2001, I swore I’d never work for anybody again. Stanley was a hell of a taskmaster. He was difficult. He was demanding. His level of quality control was astronomically close to perfectionism…his mind was so insatiable. I saw that he lived his work 24 hours a day, seven days a week. I think he had a hard time keeping up with his own intellect.”
Demanding… perfectionist ..insatiable Turnbull would not be the last person to use these words about Stanley Kubrick.
A Clockwork Orange (1971)
Kubrick’s next film was also a science fiction film set in the near future. But it could hardly have been more different from 2001.
Based on Anthony Burgess’s 1962 novel of the same name A Clockwork Orange tells the tale of four young thugs in a violent Britain of the late 20th century. Aside from Alex DeLarge (Malcolm McDowell) who loves the music of Beethoven, the gang seem to have no interests other than drinking milk and inflicting acts of violence and rape upon the surrounding populace.
Like the book, much of the film’s dialogue is in Nadsat, a futuristic slang, derived from Russian and Yiddish, devised by Burgess. Although different in certain key respects, the film actually follows the book very closely with large sections of the text reproduced almost verbatim. Despite this, Burgess was annoyed that the substantial attention and controversy the film attracted, transformed a book which he had considered a very minor work into easily the most famous thing he had ever written.
Malcolm McDowell, the young star of Clockwork Orange had a famously complex relationship with Kubrick. On the one hand, McDowell loved playing a part he felt (perhaps rightly) he had been born to play and developed a strong friendship with Kubrick during filming. On the other hand, it was a tough shoot. McDowell suffered cracked ribs during filming and at one point was temporarily blinded when his cornea was scratched accidentally.
At one point, McDowell found the director alone in his office listening to something on his headphones. Some Beethoven perhaps? McDowell wondered, wrongly.
“Another near miss at Heathrow,” Kubrick reported. The director had a tremendous fear of flying,
Kubrick, was in turn, greatly amused when McDowell spontaneously began singing “Singin in the Rain” during one violent scene and immediately bought the rights so Gene Kelly’s most famous song could be used in the film. Kelly had previously been on friendly terms with Kubrick. He blanked him the next time he saw the director and never spoke to him again.
McDowell, then in his late twenties was himself deeply hurt by the brutality with which Kubrick severed all ties with McDowell once production was over. Some of McDowell’s interviews in the years afterwards reflect some bitterness when discussing the director, even bizarrely claiming Kubrick was very badly organised in one.
What happened next couldn’t have helped. After a year of showings, Kubrick withdrew the film from release in the UK. It would not be shown again in the UK (legally) until the year 2000, a year after Kubrick’s death.
McDowell is now in his seventies and has had a good and varied career from playing the lead in Lindsay Anderson’s public school based If..(1968) to recent performances in Amazon Prime series Mozart in the Jungle. It would be understandable, though, if he was a little aggrieved that his most iconic performance was withdrawn from public view in his homeland until he was well into his fifties.
The suppression of the film did not happen because of its lead actor though. For many years, the official line was that Kubrick had intervened due to a number of copycat attacks allegedly linked to the film. Controversy continues to reign as to whether these widely publicised attacks really had been inspired by the film anyway. But in in fact, Kubrick had made the decision on police advice after a series of death threats made towards him and his family.
Kubrick’s next effort Barry Lyndon (1975) is the odd film out here, an 18th century set period drama which flopped on release but has since received considerable critical acclaim. But it was Kubrick’s next film which would see move back away from reality and towards the horror genre and which would bring out the greatest excesses in his character.
The Shining (1980)
Author Stephen King has never liked the film of The Shining much.
Speaking earlier this year, King said:
“The character of Jack Torrance has no arc in that movie. Absolutely no arc at all. When we first see Jack Nicholson, he’s in the office of Mr Ullman, the manager of the hotel, and you know then he’s crazy as a shithouse rat. All he does is get crazier. In the book, he’s a guy who’s struggling with his sanity and finally loses it. To me, that’s a tragedy. In the movie, there’s no tragedy because there’s no real change.
“I think The Shining is a beautiful film and it looks terrific and as I’ve said before, it’s like a big, beautiful Cadillac with no engine inside it … I kept my mouth shut at the time, but I didn’t care for it much,” said King.
King has a point. Nicholson’s Torrance seems crazed even before he begins his job interview for the position at the Overlook Hotel. Whether King did keep his “mouth shut” at the time is more questionable, author Roger Luckhurst says King “conducted a press campaign” against the film at the time of its release.
What’s not in doubt is that The Shining was a tough shoot. “cast and crew… quickly tired of the relentless regime,” writes John Baxter. “Scatman Crothers (who played caretaker, Dick Halloran) had no experience of working methods like Kubrick’s and found the multiple takes gruelling…Kubrick demanded eighty five takes in the middle of which Crothers broke down and cried in frustration. “What do you want Me. Kubrick?’ he screamed.” What do you want?!”… Nobody was sure if the exhausting system bore fruit or if it didn’t simply prop up the mystique of a director who would go to any lengths to achieve his ends.”
Thanks to the Making of the Shining documentary made by Kubrick’s daughter Vivian we get an unstinting portrait of life on set. The footage is all the more remarkable bearing in mind Stanley insisted on approving it first (not an unreasonable demand in the circumstances). Kubrick insisted some scenes unflattering to him and some shots of some members of the cast doing cocaine be excised. But the sequences in which Jack Nicholson intervenes to prevent Kubrick badgering the ageing Crothers are still there as are Kubrick’s relentless haranguing of female lead, Shelley Duvall, at one point accusing her of “ruining the whole movie”. Duvall, had an especially tough time and is in the Guinness Book of Records for enduring 127 takes before one scene was completed.
There were also reportedly incidents off camera, director SK (Kubrick) not endearing him to the author SK (King) by reportedly calling him at all hours to ask him random questions.
“I think stories of the supernatural are fundamentally optimistic don’t you?” Kubrick reportedly asked King at one morning at seven. “If there are ghosts, then that means we survive death!”
“How the hell does that fit in with the picture?” King asked, perhaps not unreasonably.
“I don’t believe in hell,” the director answered.
Kubrick again, got results. The set for the Overlook Hotel hotel was then the largest ever built at Elstree up to that point and looks spectacular.
“Who wants to see evil in daylight through a wide-angled lens?” complained critic Pauline Kael, spectacularly wrong once again. “We are not frightened.”
But, of course, we were and are. The Shining is now held in higher regard than almost any other horror film. Like Coppola after Apocalypse Now, Kubrick was not quite the same afterwards.
Kubrick made fewer and fewer films over time. Four Kubrick films were released in the sixties, two in the seventies, two in the eighties (seven years apart) and Eyes Wide Shut completed at the end of the 1990s and at the end of Kubrick’s life. Kubrick regretted the fact he was not more prolific. Full Metal Jacket had a brilliant first forty-five minutes but neither it nor Eyes Wide Shut are amongst his best films, Unrealised projects included AI (2001) a sci-fi film later made by Spielberg, though a disappointment and a biopic of Napoleon. It has been argued Kubrick saw himself as a Napoleon-like figure, obsessed with power and terrified of defeat.
Kubrick’s widow Christiane Kubrick has gone to some lengths to argue that her late husband’s controlling reputation is undeserved. In an interview with journalist Lewis Jones she said:
“Yes, Stanley was a perfectionist, but not in the nerdy way that is sometimes reported. And the actors were on his side, because he wanted them to feel that there was all the time in the world.”
There is certainly some truth in this last claim. Actors such as Jack Nicholson and Malcolm McDowell who initially struggled with Kubrick, often ended up amongst his keenest champions.
Kubrick’s portrayal as a paranoid loner also does not generally fit in with the contented family man he so often seems to have been. His unparalleled decision to withdraw A Clockwork Orange from UK distribution, does seem to have occurred not as a result of megalomania but from genuine concern for the wellbeing of himself and his family.
And yet, there is evidence here too, home video footage of Kubrick bullying his children from behind the camera as if he is on a film set. Then there is the 17-page list of instructions for looking after his cats while he went on holiday. well-meant but undeniably obsessive.
Mental illness is, of course, not an issue to be treated flippantly. Just because Stanley Kubrick made films about people as unbalanced as Dr. Strangelove or as violent as Alex DeLarge or Jack Torrance, it does not follow that Kubrick was in any way like that at all. Indeed, he definitely wasn’t.
But did he have a tendency to be paranoid, bullying, obsessive and controlling? The evidence is too strong to suggest otherwise. And as this was undoubtedly essential to his method. We would not have his brilliant array of films otherwise.
Section: What exactly is science fiction anyway?
There has been plenty of discussion about exactly what science fiction is over the years. Thankfully, discussing her own book Onyx and Crake in The Guardian in 2003, Margaret Atwood sorted the matter out forever. “Science fiction has monsters and spaceships; speculative fiction could really happen,” she told the paper. “Oryx and Crake is a speculative fiction, not a science fiction proper. It contains no intergalactic space travel, no teleportation, no Martians.”
Is that all clear? No? Well, it shouldn’t be because it isn’t true. Sci-fi may contain intergalactic space travel, teleportation and Martians but these certainly are not essential ingredients for anything to qualify. The Terminator, The Time Machine, Planet of the Apes and Jurassic Park contain no one of these things. Yet all are clearly science fiction.
Intergalactic space travel, teleportation and Martians incidentally are all things which COULD exist in the future. Test tube babies didn’t exist when Huxley wrote about them in Brave New World. Cloning also didn’t exist once outside the realm of science fiction. And spaceships exist already.
In fairness, there are different definitions around. For the purposes of this feature, science fiction will be defined as any piece of fiction where the major problem has a clear scientific explanation. Clear? So The Thing is science fiction and horror as it has aliens in Apollo 13, meanwhile, is based on real events so is not.
This is tricky in the case in the case of Dr. Strangelove but thankfully film journo, Angie Errigo has already written about this:
“Dr. Strangelove is a black comedy,” he wrote. “It’s a savage, surreal political satire. It’s a cautionary Cold War tale. It’s a suspense farce. And it is also science fiction. Sci-fi is not confined to stories of space exploration, the future, or extra-terrestrial life. Science fiction is speculative fiction about human beings exploring themselves and their possibilities. Crucially — and this is the science bit — it often does this by dealing with humans dealing with technology. Technology running away with us is the basis of Dr. Strangelove.”
I would add that 2001 is clearly sci-fi as it clearly based around a high technology future. Stephen Spielberg appears to deny even this in the film Stanley Kubrick: A Life In Pictures (2001) but let’s ignore that for now. A Clockwork Orange is also set in the future and is also science fiction as are both Atwood’s A Handmaid’s Tale and Onyx and Crake whether Atwood wants them to be or not.
Which just leaves The Shining. Which has no scientific basis whatsoever. But it is definitely horror and Geeky Monkey magazine covers that. Happy now?
So you want to make “it” as a hot young movie reviewer? Then why not try following these ten easy steps…
1. Do not just recount the plot of the film
A surprising number of wannabe critics fall into the trap of simply retelling exactly what they have just seen, perhaps to show that they have at least watched the darned thing and understood it. But while a short summary of the early stages of the film is actually not a bad way to start, generally speaking, you should try to break off before any major plot twists start happening. The use of the phrase “spoiler alert” should not be necessary in any decent film review. Unless it’s the title of the movie.
2. Be a protractor: find the right angle…
Whether you want to begin with a summary of the premise or not, at some point you’re going to need some sort of angle to begin from. In the case of the James Bond film Spectre, for example, you could try one of the following…
Historical: “It has now been 53 years since James Bond first appeared on our screens…”
Daniel Craig: “This is Daniel Craig’s fourth outing as the world’s favourite secret agent, matching Pierce Brosnan’s total, ahead of both Dalton (two) and Lazenby (one) but still way behind Connery and Moore (seven apiece)…”
Bold expression of opinion: “First, the bad news: Sam Smith’s new Bond theme is rubbish.”
Comical misunderstanding: “Fear not! It may be Halloween, but despite its title, Spectre is not a horror film.”
Of course, an opening line is not enough in itself. You need to be able to back up your arguments.
3. End as you begin…
Although not essential, a good clever trick is to return in your closing sentence to the subject you brought up in the opening one. So using the above lines you could go with…
“On this evidence, the Bond franchise is good for another fifty years yet.”
“Perhaps then, as with Brosnan or, if you prefer, Steve Guttenberg on the Police Academy films), Craig’s fourth Bond film should also be his last.”
“Thankfully, unlike Sam Smith’s banshee-like caterwauling – I counted no less than four cats leaving the cinema during the title sequence alone – Spectre is an unalloyed delight.”
“On reflection, perhaps Spectre is a horror film after all. Spectre? Sphincter, more like.” (Actually, perhaps don’t do this one).
4. Avoid cliche
The Bond franchise is quite vulnerable to this sort of guff: “a film that’s guaranteed to leave you shaken, not stirred” (what does this even mean?) “Bond proves once again that he has a licence to thrill”, “out of 8, I score Spectre: 007.” And so on. Avoid.
5. Do not overdo the waffle
A bit of preamble is good but don’t overdo it.As McFly famously did not sing “It’s Not All About You”. Surprisingly, some people might actually want to hear about the film at some point.
6. Read other reviews
Try Googling “Chris Hallam reviews” or better still, “movie reviews” generally and read the results. Other than writing reviews yourself and perhaps watching films, reading professional reviews is the best tutorship you can receive. Other than actually being tutored by a professional critic obviously. Reviews of films can also often be found in those weird papery version of the internet you can get now: books and magazines.
7. Consider your goals: who is reading your review and why?
There is no need to disappear up your own arse about this but you should bear in mind your audience and what they want. My view is that they want to know a bit about the film while also being briefly entertained. These are the seven golden rules if you want to make “it” as a hot young film reviewer. Good luck!