Perfectly Natural: science fiction horror film about demonic possession of the for-profit corporate kind

Victor Alonso-Berbel, “Perfectly Natural” (2018)

No aliens, monsters, paranormal events or denizens of Hell or the 25th dimension abound here but this 12-minute short is as horrifying in its own apparently innocent, everyday-life-looking way as films about people being possessed by demons. In “Perfectly Natural”, the demon of possession exists in virtual technology, summoned by the corporate owners who employ Wanda as one of their company’s many IT workers. Wanda is encouraged to use the company’s babysitting service by her boss: the fees for the babysitting service come out of her pay packet and the service, using holograms and AI, supposedly streams knowledge, cognitive awareness and skills like knowing a second language into baby Max’s mind through a microchip attached to the side of his brow. Wanda discovers this service comes with many strings attached: it continually prompts her with emails sent to her computer to enroll Max into yet more programs that will stimulate his mind and intelligence, yet if she clicks on a tab in the emails to enroll him, she is hit with demands to cough up money. Gradually the realisation dawns on Wanda and her partner Zach that their baby has been captured by the corporation which has substituted virtual versions of Wanda and Zach not only to entertain and guide Max through the various cyber-territories he must navigate but to replace the real flesh-and-blood Wanda and Zach altogether. The child has become a real-life Snow White, dead to the world, while his parents face social censure and Wanda getting the sack if they withdraw Max from the company program.

The film proceeds in a straightforward way at a steady pace through the plot, the cast of three actors playing Wanda, her boss and Zach capably in the short time they have, which makes the film’s climax (when Wanda and Zach discover they have lost Max to the corporation) all the more despairing. They can rescue him physically but the program warns them he might suffer neurological damage if they pull him out too early – well, of course the program would say that, playing on the fear and guilt the parents will suffer if at some later time Max ends up being behind the other kids at school work.

The presentation is excellent with great cinematography and editing. The plot is a bit rough around the edges: the nature of Wanda’s work is not too clear and we have no idea how she came to be employed by the corporation. Why Wanda’s boss manages to raise her own children without subjecting them to the babysitting service is not explained: one would have thought such a service would be compulsory for all employees. Because the film has been made as a short, there is no explanation for the corporate agenda behind the babysitting service – a full-length film would be needed to show and tell, as well as detail how Wanda and Zach discover what their roles in the corporation are, what the corporation has in mind in using Max as a guinea pig, and how the parents manage (or not) to wrest Max and his mind away from permanent enslavement.

Best Friend: a short comment on loneliness, addiction and substituting virtual reality for the real thing

Nicholas Olivieri, Shen Yi, Juliana De Lucca, Varun Nair, David Feliu, “Best Friend” (2019)

In the not-so-distant future, a lonely unnamed man find solace in a drug called Best Friend, implanted into the temple near his left brow, which gives him a stack of virtual friends and girlfriend. So dependent is he on these friends, who can be available 24/7 and offer him plenty of superficial comfort and support but no real love and connection, much less advice and criticism of his addiction, that his face and physical condition display all the hollow-eyed, hollow-cheeked side effects of his psychological and physical dependence. Even his tears are coloured with the yellow chemicals leaking from the implant. On top of that, he is prepared to do anything to sustain his addiction, to the extent that when he needs to get a new batch of the liquid capsules to top up the supply in the implant and finds a queue at the nearest Best Friend store, his “girlfriend” lures him away to an illegal booth in a deserted alley supplying Best Friend at black market prices – but a stranger, equally addicted and just as determined to get his hands on the capsules, follows him, punches him cold, and seizes a shard of glass from the ground in the alley …

A comment on modern society’s need for surrogate reality instead of the real thing, loneliness and alienation, and the addictions such anomie can give rise to, this film works best as a basis for a television series or movie script but no more. The characters represent stereotypes and viewers are not invited to feel much sympathy for them. Only when the stranger appears does the film start to move in a significant direction. The shock comes when the main character is finally named by his friends … only (spoiler alert) they are different friends because he has had to get a new implant … and he appears unaffected by the loss of his previous friends.

The film makes no connection between capitalist ideology and the phenomena it describes which are products of that ideology and its assumptions put in practice: the view of capitalism that humans are essentially materialist and self-interested individuals in competition and conflict with one another, producing a dog-eat-dog world where co-operation and real social connections are treated with suspicion, yet humans still find themselves yearning for something more than the latest gadgets and entertainments. In such a world, fragmentation, isolation and alienation are not only inevitable but encouraged – because if they lead to individuals pursuing remedies that can be commodified, leading to addictions that can also be exploited for profit, they will be.

All’s Fair at the Fair: a utopian view of materialism, seductive advertising, over-consumption and futuristic trends

Dave Fleischer, “All’s Fair at the Fair” (1938)

Best known for their Popeye and Betty Boop cartoons, US animators Max and Dave Fleischer occasionally made animated shorts with biting wit and satire. “All’s Fair at the Fair” is a rare piece made in colour (and fairly soft colours at that) about an elderly couple, Elmer and Mirandy, from the sticks who drive into the city in their horse-drawn cart to visit a “World Fair”. Regular city folks either whiz past Elmer and Mirandy in their souped-up cars or arrive by train at the fair packed in sardine-tin carriages. Elmer and Mirandy leave their horse and carriage to the tender mercies of a car-parking valet (who uses a crane with a giant magnet to dump the horse and carriage into a junkyard) and explore the various beguiling offerings. They watch a machine pump out houses almost in the manner of a 3D-printing machine. They drink orange juice made from an orange grown in double-quick time by another machine, prefiguring GM food and food production. The couple are attended and groomed by various robots on separate assembly lines for men and women: they are groomed, shaven, powdered and literally reshaped (in Mirandy’s case, in a suspicious-looking Iron Maiden contraption) so that when they meet again, looking half their ages, they barely recognise each other. (I must have missed some tiny part of the cartoon where robots injected the couple with blood and plasma drawn from babies and young children, and used liposuction to suck out the fat and flab from the couple’s bodies.) They are taught the latest dances by robot dancing-teacher guides. At every step of the way, the couple pay a dime to use the services offered. Cars come out of vending machines and woollen clothes straight from the sheep can be made up faster than the incredulous couple can sneeze.

The look of the film is soft with pastel colours and buildings in curvy Metropolis-inspired Art Deco style. Details are emphasised as well as the general appearance, as you’d expect in a simple and uncomplicated plot where the main characters are physically transformed and rejuvenated. The futuristic contraptions and their products and services turn out to be surprisingly prescient. Capitalism reigns throughout the film in the form of mechanical hands begging for money and in vending machines that can spew out the most impossible goodies. Fortunately Elmer and Mirandy seem to have brought plenty of cash to splurge on being pampered and buying things they don’t really need.

I’m sure in a period in which the world was just coming out of a global depression, and farmers were still very poor, this cartoon about the seductive blandishments of materialism aimed at goggle-eyed innocents, unaware that they are being exploited, and the over-consumption that results, must have left quite a few 1930s audiences red-faced in recognition that they also fell for similar brainwashing from mass advertising.

Aniara: a disappointing critique of human society in a spaceship on a doomed voyage

Pella Kagerman, Hugo Lilja, “Aniara” (2018)

An ambitious project to bring a poem by the Swedish poet / author / former sailor Harry Martinson (who co-won the Nobel Literature Prize in 1974) to the big screen, “Aniara” tells the tale of a spaceship transporting colonists from a future Earth ravaged by the effects of climate change and environmental destruction to Mars where new homes billed as a Promised Land are waiting for them. Just as you’d expect though, a bit of space junk from some long-forgotten satellite or previous space journey hits the ship and sends it off-course into the deeper recesses of space. To make matters worse, the crew has had to eject the ship’s nuclear-powered fuel reserves to avoid an even worse catastrophe. From then on, Aniara sails farther and farther towards the outermost limits of the cosmos in a vain attempt to find a planet whose gravitational pull can be used by the crew to manoeuvre the ship around and send it back to Earth or to Mars.

In the meantime, while the crew hope to find this planet, a ship employee known as Mimaroben (Emelie Jonsson), hereafter MR, has been tasked with looking after the passengers’ psychological health by operating a giant machine called Mima which can read people’s thoughts and draw on their memories and dreams to create virtual reality worlds in which their owners can participate. For a few weeks, Mima operates perfectly but after the accident, more and more people want to use Mima as a form of escape from the frustrations of waiting for help or rescue or good news from the Aniara crew, and Mima eventually breaks down completely from the overload of painful memories and nightmares. MR is blamed for Mima’s breakdown and is briefly imprisoned, along with one of the crew, navigator Isagel (Bianca Cruzeiro), but both women are released a year or so later. By then, they have formed a couple and get to share accommodation.

As the weeks roll into months and the months roll into years, in spite of constant reassurances by Captain Chefone (Arvin Kananian) that all is well, people’s hopes turn into despair and the glittering consumerist society on Aniara – it is outfitted like a giant passenger cruise liner – breaks down. In various chapters that take place during the ship’s lifetime, people turn to religious cults for guidance and reason for living; some of these cults seem to be no more than excuses for sexual orgies. Isagel becomes pregnant in one such orgy and gives birth to a boy. While the child gives hope to both MR and Isagel, Isagel later becomes depressed at the thought that the child will live his entire life in an artificial environment; viewers can tell 10 parsecs away what tragedy will befall both Isagel and the baby.

MR spends her time teaching esoteric space mathematics to child and teenage passengers in the hope that some of them will learn enough to become part of the Aniara crew. In her spare time, she tries to cheer up Isagel and help bring up the baby, assist the crew where needed and rework part of Mima to create a beam screen of natural Earth landscapes around the ship for passengers to view.

By necessity, the narrative is broken up into chapters that provide snapshots of the gradual deterioration of human society on board the ship, as crew and passenger expectations of a quick, easy and luxurious trip turn into despair and despondency, leading to violence, the proliferation of religious cults, substance abuse and addiction, and suicide. At the same time, due to the episodic nature of the narrative, there is no indication in the film of people gradually overcoming their differences and forming associations to help one another across the class divide or the crew hierarchy, in spite of Captain Chefone’s increasingly despotic and irrational behaviour. Directors Kagerman and Lilja are clearly no believers in people’s ability to overcome lifetimes of imbibing capitalist and consumerist values and ideologies. Unfortunately the film does a poor job as a study of trauma, due in part to its structure: no reason is given as to why so many people form cults or try to kill themselves – it’s as if the directors have assumed such behaviours are inevitable and always follow in a closed environment of extreme need where there is no hope of rescue, so viewers are expected to go along with such plot stereotypes. The result is a very shallow movie.

Character development remains at a woeful level of superficiality and the romance between MR and Isagel doesn’t quite come off as genuine, but as a sop to identity politics. The conflict between MR and the increasingly capricious and incompetent captain seems equally shallow, and MR’s astronomer friend (Anneli Martini) who foresees the ship’s doom is wasted as a character. There should have been plenty of room in the narrative for panics arising from food shortages or a breakdown in some essential item (such as the water supply or the electricity) but strangely the film-makers opted to miss opportunities for testing character and people making decisions that could spell life or death for the whole population and which point to future directions for society on board to develop towards. Can people overcome despair and lack to find comfort in their own imaginations, resources and one another, and combine to create a new co-operative society with better leadership and better decision-making abilities? The film suggests not.

In all, while the cinematography, design and the special effects were very good, much of the science behind “Aniara” is quite dodgy – there is no explanation as to where water for washing sheets and clothes comes from, and in a future where ships routinely take people back and forth between Earth and Mars, surely a technology for cleaning things that does away with water would be more credible – and the sociology is riddled with cheap stereotyping. There is no attempt to explore and criticise capitalism and social hierarchy in the film even though capitalism provides the context in which the Aniara ship sails on its doomed voyage: people did have to pay to board the ship and enjoy its luxuries, and MR was expected as an employee to provide a service passengers had already paid for. The film is a great disappointment.

The Hole: an ultimately unsatisfying film about isolation, alienation and yearning for connection

Tsai Ming-liang, “The Hole / Dong” (1998)

Its theme of yearning for connection and hope in a dystopian urban environment of the near future, where an extraordinary social crisis has led to extreme government action that isolates and alienates individuals, is rather too obvious so “The Hole” opts for an idiosyncratic presentation combining elements of moody post-apocalyptic science fiction, nostalgic musical fantasy that pays homage to 1950s Hong Kong singer Grace Chang and a minimalist plot relying heavily on the talents of its two main actors Yang Kuei-mei (as the Woman) and Lee Kang-sheng (as the Man) to supply the action, the dancing, the skimpy dialogue, the emotion and the comedy. While the slow plot may disappoint viewers and skirts quite close to boredom, its very minimalism may provoke a lot of discussion as to whether “The Hole” can be regarded as a depressive dystopian picture, a satire on modern society where everyone at once wants to be alone yet secretly yearns for connection or a bizarre musical comedy escapade.

Around the year 2000, Taiwan is hit by a mystery viral plague spread by cockroaches that apparently causes people to behave like cockroaches and eventually drives them insane and kills them. The government evacuates healthy people to quarantine camps but some choose to stay in the city and are corralled into apartment blocks. In one such apartment block live two unnamed people, the Man who occupies one flat and the Woman who lives in the flat below his. Constant pouring rain causes problems in the block: a plumber enters the Man’s flat to find the cause of a leak and digs out a hole in the Man’s living room floor. He leaves the hole there without apparently making a future date to return to fix it. The Woman, trying to cope with water leaking from various points throughout her flat, is unimpressed with the hole appearing in her ceiling. The hole becomes the catalyst for the characters to make contact with each other by assuming various roles: initially it is the avenue by which they become aware of each other, leading to fantasies of connection and possible romance (as demonstrated in the musical numbers); it is also the source of their frustration with each other, as the plumber fails to return to finish his job and the noises that the Man makes upstairs annoy the Woman; the hole becomes the means by which the Man becomes aware of the Woman being potentially infected by the virus; and in its last manifestation it is a beacon of hope and optimism.

The pace is slow with little happening until the last few moments so much viewer attention is directed to the isolating and isolated dank and dark concrete-jungle environment in which the characters live. The Man runs a food store that receives incredibly few customers save for an elderly gent whose favourite brands no longer exist and the Woman spends all her time mopping her floor, ripping wet wallpaper off her walls and eating instant noodles: how totally atomised their lives must be when all they can look forward to each day is emptiness and silence! The cinematography relies on long take after long take that emphasises the characters’ total isolation and alienation. Even the bright and colourful musical numbers, fantasy though they are, with agile male dancers in tuxedoes and a trio of back-up doo-wop girl singers, take place in the apartment block’s elevator, stairways and gangways, and in one flat, as though to suggest that, no matter how dreary people’s lives may be, they can still take refuge in their imaginations and that refuge may be closer to reality than they realise.

While there’s much to commend the film, its central characters remain flat due to the slow and sparse narrative, which permits little character development. The resolution to the characters’ problems seems overburdened with visual allusion (even though viewers can see it coming from a mile away) and ends in a sentimental music number. This is the kind of slightly experimental art film that you see once but no more than that. The film’s examination of the human condition comes across as rather superficial, a bit stereotyped and ultimately unsatisfying. Passively accepting a government restriction that forces the film’s characters to endure isolated lives without meaning or hope of change, renewal or freedom, and to retreat instead into an endlessly repeating fantasy world, seems to be the film’s main message; if rebellion occurs, it is only by accidental chance.

A stale and confusing plot and dreary characters in “Starship Troopers: Traitor of Mars”

Shinji Aramaki, “Starship Troopers: Traitor of Mars” (2017)

Multiplying not quite as fast as the enemy Arachnids did in the original Paul Verhoeven “Starship Troopers” film are the sequels, of which “Starship Troopers: Traitor of Mars” is the fifth in the series and the second to be mostly computer-animated. Two actors who appeared in the Paul Verhoeven original, Caspar van Dien and Dina Meyer, return to take up their parts voicing Johnny Rico and his high school friend Dizzy Flores. In this fifth installment, Rico has been demoted to the rank of colonel and ordered to train a unit of rookie troopers on a Martian satellite. The human citizens of Mars are tired of the never-ending war Earth wages against the “bugs” (hereafter known as Bugs) and want out of it. Sky Marshal Amy Snapp, desiring political support to destroy Mars, concocts a plan to use an underground Bug nest on Mars as an excuse to destroy Mars and lay the blame on General Carl Jenkins, whom she arrests and holds prisoner.

A confused narrative follows during which the Bugs launch attacks on the trainee unit (who fail two missions), Rico is lost on Mars (where he meets a hologram of Dizzy broadcast to him telepathically by Jenkins) and is later rescued by the trainee troopers, and together Rico and his squad defuse Snapp’s Q-Bomb and publicly reveal Snapp’s scheme to destroy Mars. In defusing the Q-Bomb, the troopers overload a weather control tower and turn it into a huge bomb that explodes and wipes out the entire Bug infestation on Mars. Meanwhile Jenkins escapes from his captors with the help of pilot Carmen Ibanez and has Snapp arrested and imprisoned. For his efforts, Rico is promoted to general and he and his young team are tasked with the unenviable job of keeping Mars free of Bugs.

As might be expected of a sequel following other sequels in a series of which the original satire and political commentary have either evaporated or been overwhelmed by an emphasis on action, violence and explosions, the plot with its two parallel strands dominates, and everything else such as character development, dialogue and even (to some extent) design and computer-animated performance is treated superficially. Of course the dialogue and the characters are expected to be stereotyped in nature, given that the “Starship Troopers” films are set in a futuristic society dominated by rigid and highly conformist militaristic values that permits no individuality. Indeed, the reason Amy Snapp wants to get rid of Mars is that its human settlers prize their freedom and democratic values, and desire their independence from Earth. The Bugs are drained of any redeeming qualities and act like a vast unthinking horde of scuttling giant insects.

Aside from the intriguing politics, in which a character attempts to seize power as if she was starring in a game show and news reports are treated as advertisements (with that hoary line from the first “Starship Troopers” film: “Would you like to know more?”), this sequel adds nothing new to the series or to space-opera science fiction generally. The fun, zest and glee that should be present are missing and what we have instead are boring one-dimensional characters and a tired and confusing plot. The animation may be technically advanced but characters, especially female characters, lack distinctive facial features and resemble Barbie-styled dolls.

It would seem that in this film, and in Japanese anime films generally, an invisible wall has been hit and found difficult to scale and breach: current Japanese-made films seem to feature quite limited and stereotyped characters, and their plots and themes repeat one another to the extent where they become banal and superficial. Joy and energy are in very short supply and story-lines rarely do justice to technically brilliant work.

Carrying a heavy legacy of numerous interpretations of Batman in “Batman: Return of the Caped Crusaders”

Rick Morales, “Batman: Return of the Caped Crusaders” (2016)

The series of Batman films by Tim Burton and Joel Schumacher in the 1990s and by Christopher Nolan in the early 2000s, along with the various animated television series featuring the character and the astonishing array of criminals¬† he fights in not-so-fair Gotham City, revived interest in the goofy late 1960s live-action television comedy series starring Adam West and Burt Ward as the Dynamic Duo. The two reunite (well, at least their voices do) together with Julie Newmar, reprising her role as Catwoman in the TV series, in a new animated adventure that parodies the old television show and throws a sly dig or two at the more recent Dark Knight movie trilogy. This film is intended as a fun nostalgia trip back to the 1960s television show for fans who perhaps find Christian Bale’s portrayal of the Dark Knight in Nolan’s trilogy disturbing with the character using almost any means at his disposal, whether ethical or not, to nab his enemies whether they deserve the brutal punishments he deals out or not.

The first half-hour of this film is rather slow and hews closely to the original TV series’ formula in which the criminals are introduced early on and their dastardly plan of dominating the world (with a stolen ray-gun that replicates its victims) is sketched out in some detail. With the criminals being none other than Catwoman, the Joker, the Penguin and the Riddler colluding to rule the Earth, the film harks back to the 1966 movie in which the foursome were also plotting a takeover of Planet Earth. Batman and Robin are soon hot on the quartet’s trail but the villains have a surprise for them both. After the obligatory fight scene at a derelict factory (that used to make TV dinners!) in which title cards of POW! BAM! and SPLAT! have to pass by, Catwoman knocks out the heroes with her feminine wiles and hair-spray and the two end up as a possible main course in a giant TV dinner on a moving conveyor belt taking them into a microwave oven going full blast. Catwoman administers Bat-nip to Batman, expecting that its intended effect of turning him into something crooked with none of his usual cheesy Boy-Scout wholesomeness will take effect straight away. Instead Batman suffers a delayed reaction to the Bat-nip; but when it does begin its malign influence, the results can be very drastic. Batman’s alter-ego Bruce Wayne fires faithful butler Alfred Pennyworth and insults Aunt Harriet. The super-hero deposes Commissioner Gordon and Chief O’Hara with clones of himself created with the replication ray-gun seized from the super-villains. Before long, Gotham City is over-run with Batman clones dishing out their own warped forms of justice and faithful side-kick Robin is forced to team with Catwoman to get hold of the antidote to the Bat-nip and cure Batman of the drug that has unleashed his dark, unethical side.

The plot is a throwback to a story in the old 1960s TV show in which Catwoman had scratched Batman (or so she believes) with a drug that turns him into a near sex maniac and Catwoman’s partner in crime. The clever twist in this plot is that the film uses it to reference and comment on the Dark Knight films and other interpretations of the super-hero in the comics and in other movies and TV shows: as bad guy, and free of moral inhibitions, Batman uses excess violence as a first resort in confronting and finally sending the Joker, the Riddler and the Penguin to Arkham Asylum where they are forced to work alongside other known Batman villains. Once the twist comes, the film goes off on a loopy tangent referencing various gags from the TV show (such as Batman and Catwoman’s secret romance and the problem of what to do with Robin) and introducing more improbable twists that all but turn the plot into hierarchical layers of a game. The Bat-nip administered to Batman turns out to have been nobbled by the Joker; Robin and Catwoman’s near-demise in the Bat-cave’s atomic reactor is foiled by Robin’s prior application of the Bat anti-nuclear isotope protection spray (or whatever the darned gadget was called) because he foresaw that the bad Batman would try to use the reactor to despatch him and Catwoman; and Alfred reveals to Robin that his sacking was a signal to him from Bruce Wayne that he (Wayne) was a victim of mind-control.

Silly as it is, the plot races merrily along although once it is foiled and the Batman clones disappear, the fim enters a long denouement in which Batman and Robin still have to fight their enemies on top of the Penguin’s airship. Catwoman opts to risk her life escaping the long arm of the law courtesy of an even longer industrial chimney-stack.

The animation is not too bad but it looks much the same as other animated Batman movies and TV series like “Batman: the Brave and the Bold”. The original 1960s show’s cozy and goofy charm seems to be lost on the animators: Gotham City is shown as a dark, forbidding city with mostly empty streets, and Robin’s tendency to utter his trademark “Holy ___!” expletives reaches the peak of really ridiculous referencing when, on seeing Catwoman’s Catmobile, he exclaims “Holy Faster Pussycat, Kill Kill Kill!” Elsewhere Robin blurts out “Holy unsatisfactory ending!” when Catwoman proposes (in a clear reference to the happy ending of “The Dark Knight Rises”) to Batman that they meet in a restaurant in Europe to take tea together. The TV series’ fondness for alliterative expressions and Batman’s aphorisms of advice to Robin about such things as why we should not jaywalk and why building up one’s upper body strength is so important to crime-fighters can become a bit wearying – as does the constant iteration of the TV series’ theme music – when these appear POW-POW-POW, leaving viewers not much time to marvel at the silly appropriateness of the utterances in their context.

Adam West’s sometimes frail and quavering voice reminds audiences that the actor was in his octogenarian years at the time of filming (and he was not well either) while Burt Ward rattles off the teenage Robin’s lines with the same intense and uptight emotion he mustered half a century earlier. Equally octogenarian Newmar does, well, workman-like (or should that be workwoman-like?) work on Catwoman’s lines. Wally Wingert as the Riddler pins down the original portrayal of Frank Gorshin’s exactly, and the other voice actors playing the Joker and the Penguin are adequate but not outstanding for their jobs.

The film is rather over-long and perhaps it’s too self-referential and plunders the various multiple interpretations of the character over the decades. As an exercise in nostalgia, it’s not too bad and for many viewers it will comes as a breath of fresh air after the grimness of Nolan’s Dark Knight films. It could have been done better and with less of a burden than it was forced to carry.

The Quatermass Xperiment: an outdated science fiction / horror film that still has the power to terrify

Val Guest, “The Quatermass Xperiment” (1955)

Filmed well over 60 years ago (at this time of writing), this film of alien-human possession remains a timeless inspiration in its not unsympathetic portrayal of a helpless astronaut overcome¬† by an extraterrestrial infection that turns him into a monster. While we modern Western audiences might laugh at the crude special effects and the naif plot, “The Quatermass Xperiment” was something of a revolution in fusing together genuine Gothic horror and science fiction, and demonstrated that the film-going public had an appetite for science horror films with often morbid themes and plots. Apart from its more dated and hokey sections, the film rockets along at a brisk pace with a tight plot and a brusque set of scientist and police characters working against time to determine the nature of the danger they have to tackle and how to get rid of it.

Professor Quatermass (Brian Donlevy), an irascible and obsessively driven rocket scientist, is conducting an experiment that involved sending three men into outer space some months ago. The rocket crashes back on Earth and Quatermass and his team discover that two of the crew have either died or disappeared, and the third man, Victor Caroon (Richard Wordsworth), is seriously ill. Caroon is whisked into the care of Quatermass’s colleague Dr Gordon Briscoe (David King-Wood) who is puzzled by the various changes in Caroon’s biochemistry from the blood samples he takes. Caroon’s wife Judith (Margia Dean) decides to sneak her husband out of Briscoe’s office and sets off a chain of horrifying incidents culminating in the wipe-out of all animals in a city zoo overnight. Reports of strange sightings in inner London convince Quatermass and the police, led by Inspector Lomax (Jack Warner), that Caroon is rapidly changing into a more monstrous life-form.

The science is very dodgy indeed – if the film were to be remade, Caroon would be subjected to very strict quarantine procedures undertaken by the military, and enormous secrecy would surround the quarantine, such that it would be done either in an underground laboratory or a facility located on a remote island – and the monster’s nature is deliberately so protean, taking on characteristics of all its victims as it changes and matures, that its transformation (while highly inspirational for later films like John Carpenter’s notorious 1982 flick “The Thing”) stretches plausibility. A monster that feeds on familiar Earth life-forms must not be all that alien after all and the creature conceivably could have hitch-hiked a ride on Caroon’s rocket from Earth before being blasted by bursts of radiation that allowed it to enter the rocket and destroy the crew. The film shows very little of the monster until the very end, using suggestion and artful cinematography, such as portraying night-time scenes from the monster’s point of view, to suggest a horror far beyond what one’s own nightmares can conjure.

While most of the acting, including Donlevy’s performance as Professor Quatermass, is workman-like, Richard Wordsworth’s performance as the doomed Caroon, wracked with physical and mental pain at the transformation he surely knows he is undergoing, is heart-wrenching and elicits much sympathy from this viewer. London in the 1950s – a poor city, post-industrial in parts, with a very socially conservative culture not much changed from Victorian times – is a significant character in its own right in giving the monster plenty of hiding places to fool Quatermass and the police while it grows and changes form. The showdown between Quatermass and the monster at Westminster Abbey is less spectacular than it should be in such a venue, though perhaps having the monster shimmy up Big Ben to bat off RAF planes was considered too derivative of Hollywood sci-fi stereotypes.

Despite having saved planet Earth from a plague of similar gargantuan slime-mould critters, and presumably having been presented with the bill to clean up the snail trail slime left around London, Quatermass vows to continue with his experiments and sends a second rocket into outer space. This attitude may reflects the view, widespread around the world during the 1950s, of scientists as being rather remote from the concerns of the world and obsessed with pursuing their studies and experiments without thought for the consequences of their work. Quatermass’s determination can also be interpreted as defiance in the face of the fear and possible threat of unknown alien forces; after all, the only way one can deal with such forces is to confront them directly. Apart from this, Donlevy’s Quatermass seems a hard-bitten man, more gangster than scientist, and this unsympathetic portrayal contrasts well with Wordsworth’s Caroon who inspires pity.

The authorities’ reaction to news that a fast-growing and changing monster is on the rampage in the British capital can be quite chilling, with London put into lockdown, all electricity cut off in its metropolitan area and information about the monster deliberately withheld from the public. Britain even then was much closer to becoming a police state than many people supposed.

The film offers plenty of tension and terror in the way it builds up to the confrontation between scientist and giant slime-mould with a plot that plays out like a documentary rather than drama. While it surely needs a remake with more credible science, I fear something of the terror and paranoia of the original film will be lost.

 

The Andromeda Strain: a lesson in how situations and the clash of characters generate drama and tension

Robert Wise, “The Andromeda Strain” (1971)

Although made over 45 years ago, this science fiction film about a team of scientists battling to identify and contain an extraterrestrial microscopic life-form before it brings death and destruction across Earth can still teach modern movie-makers a lesson or two (or even more) about how to draw out drama, tension and pace from situations and the clash of characters and personalities without resorting to contrived or stereotyped plots, sub-plots, or character types. There are no preachy messages or big-name actors playing themselves in roles tailored to their limitations. While there’s a huge emphasis on special effects and modern technology, these aspects are appropriate and subordinate to the narrative. The minimalist style of the film throws viewer attention onto the plot and its cast of characters. The plot may be mundane but the care given to plot details and how a group of people with particular personality quirks and weaknesses work together in a situation they cannot control and which quickly becomes urgent and life-threatening flesh out the thin plot and manage to make it absorbing. The film’s ultimate message – that humans have less control over nature and the Earth’s systems than they realise – is very humbling indeed.

A satellite crashes to Earth near a small town in Arizona and the town inhabitants promptly drop dead from a mysterious disease that turns their blood into powder. Only a drunken old man and a bawling baby survive the infection. The two are brought to a secret underground laboratory called Wildfire where a team of four scientists drawn from different scientific and medical disciplines study them and the remains of the satellite to learn more about the xeno-organism. The scientists themselves have undergone an elaborate series of decontamination procedures through four floor levels to reach the fifth and lowest level where the actual laboratory is located. This level also contains an automatic nuclear-powered self-destruction mechanism to stop all infectious organisms from escaping. One of the four scientists, Dr Mark Hall (James Olson), is given the key to turn off this mechanism.

The scientists identify the xeno-organism, which they dub the Andromeda strain, and discover its unique properties that enable it to grow and mutate rapidly. The xeno-organism quickly changes into a form that eats through the laboratory’s plastic and rubber seals, setting off the facility’s self-destruction mechanism. Dr Hall has only minutes to turn off the mechanism when the scientists realise that the organism can absorb the energy of a nuclear explosion and turn into a super-colony that might wipe out all life on Earth.

Some of the hard science and medicine can be implausible and if the original novel were to be written now rather than nearly 50 years ago, its writer Michael Crichton (of “Jurassic Park” fame) would incorporate current scientific and medical advances to make the novel more realistic: for example, the baby and the old man’s survival would now be attributed to their having vulnerable or weakened immune systems that did not over-react to the organism. This reasoning would be consistent with the hidden message in the film which is that the elaborate procedures that safeguard the people working in Wildfire from virulent microorganisms turn out to be their potential doom when an alien organism escapes their control. Wherever possible, computer and other technologies in the film are used to their utmost potentials: computers are not just used to crunch out data and statistics, they are also incorporated in scientific analysis and to describe (in text and animations) the nature of the alien organism under study.

The cast of actors is credible in the level of restraint they exercise and in the way they flesh out their characters. All the scientists are ordinary people with easily bruised egos, prejudices and weaknesses which they try to hide. One of the scientists, the cantankerous Dr Ruth Leavitt (Kate Reid), has an epilepsy problem which threatens the safety of the Wildfire laboratory when she experiences an epileptic fit caused by flashing red lights while performing an experiment on the alien organism. Dr Mark Hall displays quiet and unexpected heroism in his quest to shut down the self-destruct mechanism in spite of tremendous obstacles in his path from the fifth level to the third level of Wildfire.

At one point in the film, Leavitt and fellow scientist Dr Charles Dutton (David Wayne) accuse team leader Dr Jeremy Stone (Arthur Hill) of wanting to use the team’s findings about the Andromeda strain to develop bio-weapons. Indeed, the whole Wildfire laboratory itself seems to be under the control of the US military which says something profound about how the United States perceives its role in guarding or protecting Earth from possible alien contact: aliens are to be regarded as potentially threatening rather than as possible partners in exploring and understanding space, and perhaps understanding our place and purpose in the universe.

The film is noteworthy for its restrained use of special effects that emphasise the virulent nature of the alien organism and how colour is used to define the different levels of the Wildfire laboratory. Special mention should be made of the use of an electronic avant-garde music soundtrack to emphasise the film’s technical approach to its plot and themes. Funnily, while much of the film is drawn out and devoted to detailing the elaborate procedures the scientists follow to observe the laboratory’s hermetic nature and in the way they conduct their experiments, the way in which the alien pathogen is brought under control seems hastily written and not very well explained.

Even though the technology featured in the film looks very antiquated, the film itself has not dated a great deal and much of it – and the attitudes expressed towards the alien organism – still remain relevant. Microorganisms from outer space are still to be regarded with horror and dread, to be held at bay or wiped out altogether, rather than as life-forms that could enrich Earth’s ecosystems.

The Shape of Water: a magic realist mash-up of several genres lays on identity politics and self-indulgence too thickly

Guillermo del Toro, “The Shape of Water” (2017)

Inspired by the famous Hollywood classic “The Creature from the Black Lagoon”, Mexican director Guillermo del Toro delivers his homage to that film and Hollywood’s Golden Age in this magic realist mash-up of horror, science fiction, romance, spy thriller, musical and political / social commentary.¬† The main plot – a “Beauty and the Beast” recreation – is straightforward and quite thin, and the Beast is very much under-utilised to this viewer’s disappointment. What makes the film work is the various little sub-plots, several of them admittedly very undeveloped little hints to the point of being stereotypes, that flesh out minor characters and make them interesting in their own right, with a subtle message about how people live and cope in a highly restrictive and conformist society. The film is set in the early 1960s during the Cold War at its most paranoid and thus becomes a criticism of the current world political climate in which Russia is being constantly demonised by an American empire whose politics, economy, culture and influence are in severe decline.

The film bears comparison with del Toro’s earlier “Pan’s Labyrinth”: both begin and end as Gothic realist fantasies about fairy princesses born as fragile humans who undergo trials that test their mettle to prove they are worthy of their royal heritage. Elisa Esposito (Sally Hawkins) begins life as an orphan baby found beside a river with neck injuries that prevent her from being able to speak. She grows up mute and finds work as a cleaner at a secret government science laboratory in Baltimore. Fellow worker Zelda (Octavia Spencer), an African-American, befriends her and learns how to interpret Elisa’s sign language for the other staff and their employers. Outside work, Elisa lives alone in an old, dilapidated apartment above a movie theatre next door to unemployed graphic artist Giles (Richard Jenkins) with whom she shares a love of old musicals and romantic comedies.

Not much happens for a long time until the laboratory receives a strange creature captured in South American by US Colonel Richard Strickland (Michael Shannon). Curious, Elisa discovers the creature is an amphibious humanoid (Doug Jones) and feels pity for it, especially as Strickland treats it cruelly by administering electric shocks with a cattle-prod. She secretly visits the creature and though neither can speak, they form a fast bond.

On discovering that Strickland has been ordered to kill and dissect the creature for any anatomical features that might benefit the US in its race against the Soviet Union to put humans into space, Elisa determines to rescue and eventually free the creature. She enlists Giles in an elaborate scheme to get the creature out of the facility. Zelda is quickly co-opted into helping Elisa and Giles as is also Dr Hofstetler (Michael Stuhlbarg), a scientist who happens to be a Soviet spy and who has been ordered by his handlers to kill the creature against his beliefs that it deserves to live for further study.

Elisa keeps the creature in her bath-tub at home and plans to release it into the city canal when the rains come and the canal opens into the sea. Meanwhile Strickland searches for the creature and interrogates the two cleaners without much success. An incident involving the creature, Giles and the artist’s two cats reveals the creature’s ability to heal wounds and delay some symptoms of advancing age. Over time, Elisa and the creature become romantically and sexually involved but as the days pass, the creature’s health deteriorates and Strickland begins to close in on this very odd couple in his search, especially once he discovers Hofstetler’s Russian identity after the scientist is shot by his handlers and tortures him for information about who is holding the creature and where.

The acting is very good with the stand-out performance being Michael Shannon’s tortured Strickland who, although a villain through and through, manages to elicit sympathy as a man who desperately desires approval and acceptance in a culture and a hierarchy that demand a great deal of him and more. He lives what del Toro imagines a typical social-climbing upper middle-class life-style in a stylish house with a submissive wife and two rambunctious children, and gives in to a salesman’s smooth pitch to buy the latest model Cadillac. What happens to the car later on helps emphasise Strickland’s existential torment as a human hamster who has willingly chained himself permanently to a never-ending capitalist wheel of constant material consumption and the need to prove himself to his superiors, his family and society at large. At some point in the film, after the grilling he gets from his superior, Strickland seems to realise that his situation is hopeless, that no matter how hard he tries he will never gain the approval he has sought all his life and this realisation throws him into a blind rage against Elisa, Zelda, Dr Hofstetler and the creature that endangers them all.

Elisa, Zelda and Giles are essentially marginal characters who through no fault of their own will never be accepted by a highly racist, prejudiced and judgemental society and who are more or less resigned to living on its edges. Elisa and Giles find relief from life’s daily grind through their friendship and their love of old Hollywood flicks. The actors playing these characters invest them with quirky spirit, with the result that viewers come away feeling that Zelda especially is a much under-used character. Dr Hofstetler comes across as a man of conscience despite his duplicity.

The cinematography is often very imaginative with ingenious segues from one scene to another suggestive of dreaming or seeing something through water. Dark colours emphasising the paranoid Cold War atmosphere and the characters’ isolation prevail throughout the film. In spite of all this, del Toro inserts comedy and a fantastical sequence in which Elisa gives vent to her dream of starring in her own B&W musical playing a Ginger Rogers to Fred Astaire … and guess who plays the Astaire role!

True, parts of the plot are forced – how does the creature manage to learn sign language so quickly? and Elisa’s scheme to rescue the creature and the help she gets from Zelda and Hofstetler strains credibility – and the identity politics aspect is painted very thickly. There’s no reason to assume that gays, handicapped people, non-white people and others who don’t conform to the heterosexual white alpha male archetype will readily help one another against a common foe in a highly stratified society as early 1960s, pre-Civil Rights America. Male characters tend to have some weakness or character flaw while female characters are steadfast with inner strength despite outward vulnerability. For some viewers, the film packs in far too much in the way of different genres, that some sub-plots appear stereotyped, and Elisa’s fantasy musical dream sequence may stretch patience too far.

Above all, as social and political commentary and criticism, the film is shallow and offers no new insights or perspective on US capitalism as a system that divides and then slowly grinds and destroys people, and through its hostility towards other social and political systems (such as Communism) and nature generally, distorts those other systems and draws them into a downward spiral of mutual paranoia, suspicion and further hostility. Compared to “Pan’s Labyrinth”, this particular fairy tale is lacking in punch.

The obsession with past Hollywood glories is becoming a feature of many Hollywood films now and draws this viewer’s attention to the general decline in the movie industry, in its ability to create or find new stories to tell and new or revitalised ways of telling them. Poaching movie directors as well as actors from foreign countries to the detriment of their film industries is another indicator of decline.