The Quatermass Xperiment: an outdated science fiction / horror film that still has the power to terrify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

“Doctor Who: The Power of the Daleks” – a futuristic setting for a police-state society beset by political rivalries

Charles Norton, “Doctor Who: The Power of the Daleks” (animated version, 2016)

Originally filmed in live action in 1966, this Doctor Who adventure was the first to feature Patrick Troughton as the newly regenerated Time Lord forced to face his most deadly enemies the Daleks not long after he staggers to his feet and strains to recognise his faithful Earthling companions Ben and Polly. The trio lands on the planet Vulcan where already a colony has been established by Ben and Polly’s fellow Earthlings in a future hundreds of years after the duo’s time. Almost as soon as they land and start investigating their surroundings, the Doctor finds a dead man, murdered by another. Not long after, the Doctor and his companions are found by the colonists and herded into their settlement where they meet the Governor and his subordinates, all of whom assume that the Doctor is the examiner come to check and audit their work.

The Doctor takes an interest in chief scientist Lesterson’s work but is horrified to discover that Lesterson and his team are attempting to revive three Daleks found in a capsule that crash-landed on Vulcan a couple of centuries ago. Sure enough, as soon as the Daleks are resurrected against the Doctor’s protests, they set about in their cunning and manipulative way to direct the colony’s resources into maintaining themselves and producing new Daleks. The Daleks quickly realise that the colony is divided among the rulers and a group of rebels who plan to overthrow the Governor and his regime, and aim to exploit the political divisions in the colony.

This story was certainly not written with children in mind as the target audience: the animation is minimal and sparse and the story is driven by character and dialogue. Most of the story is carried by the colonist characters and their interactions with the Daleks: the colonists assume they have full control of the Daleks and the Daleks pretend to be subservient while always on the lookout for an opportunity to usurp those in charge of the colony and enslave the humans. This relationship might be read as a metaphor for the decline of British imperialism in its Asian and African colonies in the period in which this Doctor Who adventure was originally made (1966): the British had always assumed they could maintain their empire but through their arrogant exploitation and impoverishment of their subject peoples, and their attempts to expand their global empire to maintain their political and economic edge against rival powers the US and Germany (leading them to fight two disastrous world wars), ended up losing this empire. In most of their colonies, subject peoples fought hard for self-government and the right to make decisions concerning the use of their lands and natural resources, and then for independence when they discovered the British had no intention of sharing power with them. The difference though in the Doctor Who adventure is that the Daleks are united in their apparent subservience while plotting their own rebellion, and remain united when they seize control of the colony. One unfortunate result though of the story being driven by the colony’s unstable and seething politics is that the Doctor’s companions Ben and Polly are reduced to helpless onlookers unable to do much to help the Doctor or the colonists combat the real danger.

The story is outstanding in delineating the characters of several colonists – the sinister and power-hungry Bragen, his equally conniving No 2 Janley, chief scientist Lesterson who possibly feigns madness when his experiment unravels badly and threatens the colony, the crusty Governor and his hapless deputy Quinn who is constantly being shoved aside in spite of his protests – to the extent that viewers come to identify with them, even though these colonists are mostly greedy people engaged in a grubby power struggle. This establishes a tension – viewers know that some of these characters will be killed by the Daleks, that is a given – so when the Daleks do go on their rampage, the shock of seeing so many colonists being massacred can be overwhelming. The one thing lacking in the story is motivation: why are the colonists so keen in the first place to resurrect the Daleks and use them as robot servants? For that matter, we do not learn much about the human colony on Vulcan and why it was founded there: we have to assume that Vulcan contains minerals and other resources needed for the future human civilisation that set up the colony.

One thing that helps to lighten the seriousness of this adventure and distance viewers a little from the characters is the Doctor’s own wavering character which has yet to establish itself properly. Absent-minded, liable to wander off without warning and whip out a recorder to play during times of stress, the Doctor nevertheless retains a sharp mind and the ability to improvise a strategy to defeat the Daleks. Because the adventure under review is an animated reconstruction of the original live-action story, I cannot really comment much on Troughton’s acting against the rest of the cast; the audio recording suggests Troughton and the actors playing the colonists (Lesterson, Bragen and Janley in particular) do a good job in the parts they play, given that the plot is quite complicated but must fit within the structural parameters of a six-episode adventure where each episode lasts 20 to 25 minutes.

This story is definitely one of the better Doctor Who adventures, even if it seems a bit overcrowded with many good characters: it’s a story that inquires into the nature of politics and finds it cynical, petty and small-minded, and what that small-mindedness might say about the values of the society where such politics exist. While the Daleks use their own cunning and exploit the greed and the rivalries of the humans they seek to conquer, they still end up puzzled by the humans whose psychology they manipulate. Why indeed do humans kill other humans for no other reason than sheer greed for power and influence over their fellow humans?

Downsizing: an uneven satirical science fiction comedy commenting on various social, economic and political issues

Alexander Payne, “Downsizing” (2017)

For most viewers, perhaps the more interesting part of this long meandering film will be the first half in which main character Paul Sofranek (Matt Damon) decides to undergo miniaturisation for various reasons reflecting his status as a lower middle-class technocrat worker bee and the pressures that attach to that, and the actual miniaturisation process itself. The rest of the film is likely to leave audiences behind as Sofranek embarks on a journey of self-discovery and fulfillment among similarly downsized humans and is brought to the depths of existential despair and the equally dangerous highs of spiritual exhilaration in his adventures. If viewers were to tune out after the halfway point though, they will miss a great deal of satirical social commentary on the current state of the American middle class, the class system generally, climate change, the plight of refugees and outsiders in American society and cult behaviour among even supposedly enlightened communities.

Sofranek and wife Audrey (Kristen Wiig) aspire to the typically American dream of material success – good jobs with incomes that accommodate a fair-sized house in a socially upward community, good schools and colleges for any children they may have – but due to past circumstances not wholly theirs to control, Sofranek’s dream of becoming a surgeon is downgraded to his being an occupational therapist for a meat-packing plant in Omaha, and the couple’s application for a loan to buy a cheap-looking over-sized McMansion house is dashed because they don’t have the income to support repayments. Through friends, the Sofraneks hear of a community called Leisureland where they can live the life they desire: the catch is they must consent to be downsized to 15 centimetres in height to live in this tiny community – the assumption being that tiny people can exist on a fraction of the resources that normal-sized people require. This assumption has grown from experiments done in years past by Norwegian scientists searching for alternate solutions for human survival in the event of climate change and/or reduced global resources due to overpopulation and overcrowding.

Paul Sofranek himself undergoes the downsizing – the process is very clinical, machine-like, even a little industrial, yet the creepiness of it is (depending on the viewer’s point of view) either attenuated or increased by the cheery music one associates with television situation comedies of the 1950s – but his wife chickens out at the last moment. Paul thus finds himself adrift in a sterile cartoon Disneyland gated community where he has the money to afford a huge mansion with cheap reproductions of famous European paintings. He decides to move into an apartment and (after his divorce) acquires a girlfriend who later rejects him when she discovers his neighbour is a noisy Serbian called Dušan (Christoph Waltz) who throws large parties. You know the Hollywood stereotype about Serbians: they’re either outright villains or just not to be trusted. Dušan invites Paul to one such party where Paul becomes intoxicated on an ecstasy tablet, dances all night long and crashes out next morning. He meets Dušan’s cleaner Ngoc Lan Tran (Hong Chau), a former environmental activist who was arrested and shrunk down as punishment by the Vietnamese government, and who now hobbles on an ill-fitting prosthetic leg she acquired after defecting to the US in a television carton. Ngoc Lan takes Paul to meet her sick friend and he discovers that the women live in a huge slum barrio, one of several on the outskirts of Leisureland. After trying (and failing miserably) to help both Ngoc Lan and the friend with their health issues, Ngoc Lan co-opts Paul into her cleaning service – at least he gets to visit different people and workplaces, so he gladly leaves the telemarketing job he currently has – and the two run a parallel charity in which, instead of receiving payment for cleaning rich people’s houses and business premises, they take away unwanted food, medicines and other supplies for the barrio.

Later Paul and Ngoc Lan travel with Dušan and his skipper friend Konrad (Udo Kier) to Norway to meet members of the original tiny community in an idyllic fjord forest setting. However the people of this community receive news about methane releases in Antarctica and decide that the global extinction of humans is about to begin so they prepare for a transformative event that appeals to Paul.

The cast puts in excellent performances with Hong Chau and Christoph Waltz being the most outstanding. Ngoc Lan’s broken English skills hide a cunning and manipulative personality who knows exactly what she wants. Dušan is a louche playboy who makes his money in the grey areas between what’s legal and what’s not but he, like Ngoc Lan, turns out to have a heart of gold. Damon’s acting is rather more limited in style and expression but his character represents an everyman stereotype, not too bright, and limited in knowledge and expression, perhaps because he has trained for a narrow occupational specialty and was shunted into a niche where he is expected to stay, though changing circumstances mean he will eventually become redundant. Through his adventures with Dušan, Ngoc Lan and Konrad, Paul comes to appreciate humanity as a whole, to learn compassion and true tolerance (as opposed to tolerating people’s presence), and to realise that his purpose in life is to keep on listening and learning, to put others’ needs above selfish desires, and to help others not so fortunate and privileged as he is. True social change comes not from following fads and movements promising utopia but from working with others to improve society as is.

There are so many social, political and economic issues treated in satirical ways in “Downsizing” that the film can only deal with them in a superficial way. The result is that the plot lurches from one issue to the next: first, we have overpopulation as an issue; then come miniaturisation and one social issue that arises from that (will tiny people have the same rights and freedoms as normal-sized people if they shut themselves away in tiny communities?); the class divisions in Leisureland are another, signifying that even tiny communities are not utopias but merely replicate the economic and political structures of their original source communities; doomsday cults are another issue. Far from being a solution to climate change and overpopulation, miniaturisation is simply another means to social avarice and meaningless consumerism. The point could be made though that overpopulation is not itself a problem: the real problem is that the wealth of the Earth is unevenly distributed among peoples due to the economic and political systems that we have which ensure that a wealthy few not only acquire more than they deserve but are prepared to defend what they have to the point of enslaving or killing others to keep their wealth and acquire more. In this respect, the miniaturisation project goes some way (but only a little) to redistribute some of the wealth to a few lucky have-nots – but even they are seduced by the dream of having more. (And if the film’s science were accurate – which it is not – miniaturisation wouldn’t even be considered as one panacea to the unequal distribution of resources: tiny humans would need to eat more, several times their weight even, and thus by sheer necessity take up more resources for their size, simply to keep warm.) True redistribution comes from caring for others and sharing with others, not from isolating oneself in a luxury retirement-village gated community or in a hippie village anticipating an apocalyptic scenario and acting as a doomsday cult, and this is the difficult lesson Paul must learn.

For all its faults and limitations as a tale of self-discovery and redemption, “Downsizing” may eventually attain lasting cult status: it presents issues of varied social, economic and political import, and at the very least prompts serious thinking on these issues, even if it itself fails to answer them adequately.

Animation and live action make “Doctor Who: Shada” a better story than the original plot would suggest

Pennant Roberts, “Doctor Who: Shada” (2017)

Not often do particular adventures in the long-running “Doctor Who” television series which first ran from 1963 to 1988 and was then resurrected in the early 2000s achieve mythic status of their own through an unusual set of events but the story of “Shada”, originally scripted by the legendary Douglas Adams (he of “The Hitch-hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy” fame), is almost as famous as its creator: the 6-episode adventure had to be abandoned after several hours of filming due to industrial action at the BBC in 1978. Over the years the story was reworked in several formats including two audio plays, an animation (or two) and a novelisation. Finally in 2017 the BBC completed the adventure by combining the live-action segments with animation of the missing segments, based on the original script, and using special-effects technology that was available to the original TV crew filming “Shada”.

What the BBC ends up with is a story true to the quirky if low-brow charm of the original TV series, and possessed of all the wackiness one expects of a story penned by Douglas Adams: the central if hilarious conceit of the story is that a lovable if dotty and absent-minded English professor of physics, pottering about in his office and library at Cambridge University, is in fact a hardened intergalactic arch-criminal on the run from an outer-space gulag. But such is the mysterious Professor Chronotis (Dennis Carey), whose name tells viewers that the professor maybe outside the dimension of time as we know cheerfully serving a cup of tea to postgraduate physics student Chris Parsons (Daniel Hill) who drops by to borrow some books for a project. One of the books Parsons takes is a strange book written in mysterious script which Parsons discovers is not made of materials available on Earth; indeed its molecular structure is completely alien to Earthlings and the age of the book suggests that it only exists when time is running backwards!

While Parsons dashes off with the book, in another dimension a scheming megalomaniac villain called Skagra (Christopher Neame) travelling in a spaceship steals the minds of his fellow voyagers in a white sphere and goes to Earth to find Chronotis’ book – the very book Parsons has taken – whose script, once deciphered, gives instructions to travel to Shada, the prison planet created by an advanced alien species called the Time Lords to house their worst criminals; there, Skagra hopes to find and release a prisoner called Salyavin who has the unique ability to project his mind into those of others and rearrange their jumbled thoughts and direct them to more other pursuits of his making. Ultimately Skagra hopes to hoover up a stack of the most advanced minds of the universe with his little crystal ball and with Salyavin’s abilities on his side (or maybe in the sphere) use those minds to rearrange the universe’s affairs to his liking.

Unfortunately as with all such schemes, Skagra’s plans for shuffling the mental deckchairs around are threatened by the intrusion of the Doctor (Tom Baker), the time-travelling Time Lord, his Time Lady friend Romana (Lalla Ward) and their cyber-pooch K9. When the Doctor, Romana and K9 find and team up with Chris Parsons and his female physics tutor pal Clare (Victoria Burgoyne) to find the mystery book and return it to Gallifrey’s Panopticon archives (centuries after Chronotis had stolen it), Skagra has already made off with the item and the adventure settles down to a drawn-out chase that zig-zags from one end of the universe to another, involves Romana being kidnapped by Skagra (but not being tied to train tracks), has Romana and Clare trying desperately to link Chronotis’ stolen TARDIS machine to the Doctor’s TARDIS so the Doctor can traverse the link while the machines are whirling around in the time-space continuum, and (of course) features fearsome hulking monsters of molten lava. The story also includes a few head-scratching anomalies that don’t quite make sense – how could Skagra and his mind-sucking ball not discover Chronotis’ true identity after clearing out his head? – but sssh, we mustn’t let such errors in logic get in the way of a ramshackle adventure oozing plenty of slapstick and occasional wit along with a metal dog, a dumb computer driving Skagra’s ship and part of Cambridge University going missing for a day or two.

The animation style pays respect to the famous shoe-string budget of the original live-action TV show by being minimalist to the point of parsimony in the way characters move and speak. Effects are used if they were already known at the time of the original 1979 filming for “Shada”. The plot places a huge amount of emphasis on dialogue and clever editing techniques over action and viewers need to follow the dialogue quite closely to catch the jokes and in-jokes, and the Doctor’s crazy conversation about how dead men cannot threaten live people with the computer on Skagra’s jet that all but fries the machine’s circuit-boards.

Overall, the acting is adequate for the job when all that the job requires is chasing an evil master-mind from one end of the cosmos to the other in giant spaceships or pint-sized TARDIS machines. Carey’s professor is reduced to making endless cups of tea and Romana is often forced to play a damsel-in-distress role and spends huge amounts of time standing about in Skagra’s spaceship listening to his speeches about how he’ll run the universe more efficiently. Chris and Clare have even less to do than Romana does apart from getting themselves into trouble.

While silly eccentricity is to be expected in a script by Douglas Adams and with an actor like Tom Baker, the underlying theme of “Shada” is very serious: how do societies that pride themselves on their humanity towards less fortunate others deal with individuals who have committed dangerous crimes harmful to individuals and communities and who in many countries would have been subjected to capital punishment. Is it ethical for the Time Lords to freeze their most notorious criminals, and the criminals of other planets, and put them in cold storage on a barren prison planet and then pretend that such people never existed? Is there not a better way to treat criminals, even the most brutalised and hardened ones, in a decent way while still keeping them away from the public as much for their own sake as for the public’s sake? What exactly has Salyavin done that warranted deep-freezing him on Shada in the first place and was the punishment justified? (And how did he manage to escape?) Unfortunately the treatment of this issue is beyond Adams’ ability to work with and so the theme is very undeveloped. Far too much racing after Skagra and the stolen book dominates the story’s running time and at times certain scenes or characters can remind viewers of similar scenes and characters from previous Doctor Who adventures.

For all that, “Shada” is a decent enough story that actually works better than the plot would suggest as a result of combining live action and animation.

Ghost in the Shell (dir. Rupert Sanders): generic origin story makes anime adaptation tired and formulaic

Rupert Sanders, “Ghost in the Shell” (2017)

In adapting a major Japanese anime series into a potentially lucrative movie franchise, Hollywood opted for a standard origin story in which a main character, turned into a cyborg for a counter-terrorism unit, has recurrent memories of her past and tries to trace these memories in order to understand where she has come from and what she was originally. In the process she discovers she has been lied to by the very people who remade her and who employ her as a counter-terrorism operator. For some reason the knowledge and awareness the cyborg gains as a result of knowing her ancestry and where she comes from make her dangerous to her employers so they set out to destroy her.

That’s the live-action film “Ghost in the Shell” in a, er, nutshell and a very boring and generically Bladerunner-esque nutshell it is too. The actors do what they can with the material and the cyborg Mira Killian (played by Scarlett Johansson in sleepwalking mode) is far more robot than human but the plot narrative they have to grapple with shows signs of having been worked over so many times in other films that what should have been an exciting first film of many to come ends up looking rusty and in need of panel-beater treatment instead. The usual devices of gunfights, a buddy relationship with another cyborg Batou, a plot twist in which a supposed villain reveals his true nature and Killian’s true nature to the astonished Killian herself, and ham-fisted attempts to use a generic Japanese megalopolis as a major character in the film pad out the story but ultimately the film comes across as very tired, formulaic and – horror of horrors – outdated.

While the plot brings up themes deemed to be relevant to American mainstream movie audiences – the notion of memories being part of one’s identity and individuality, Killian’s eventual determination not to be defined by her memories but by her actions, the idea that self-awareness, self-knowledge and knowing one’s origins can be dangerous in a society where people can be owned and lied to by corporations – it doesn’t leave much room for an investigation of how humans augmented with cybernetic attachments endowing them with superhuman abilities might cope and even change and adapt to their attachments and abilities psychologically so that the boundaries between what is human and what is artificial disappear and a true cyber-human fusion is born. This is probably one of the things that fans of the original anime series were hoping for. Even so, Mira Killian / Motoko Kusanagi’s origin story deserves a much better treatment by being combined with the philosophical speculations that the anime series is known for and following the implications and consequences of such a combination.

Blade Runner 2049: an absorbing and leisurely film on future societal trends despite a thin plot and lack-lustre characters

Denis Villeneuve, “Blade Runner 2049” (2017)

In its own leisurely way, “Blade Runner 2049” is a very absorbing, even hypnotic film with stunningly beautiful sets that describe a post-modern Western society on the edge of collapse and obsolescence as it plunders and cannibalises its own past with hyper-technological bombast. Decay abounds whether it is in the breakdown of law and order, the casual mix of peoples from previously different societies reducing so-called “diversity” into a bland and artificial mono-cultural blur, and that false heterogeneity’s parallel in the uneasy blend of humans, replicants and anthropmorphic holograms, none of which has a greater claim than the others to possessing anything equivalent to or symptomatic of a soul. The pace is slow enough that viewers can take in the vast urban and semi-urban vistas of a futuristic society and (with their imaginations) fill in the gaps in the thin plot and make allowance for the superficial characters played by workman-like actors.

Ryan Gosling plays K, a replicant blade runner of a new breed made strictly to obey, who is employed by the Los Angeles Police Department to retire old-model replicants in the Los Angeles of the year 2049. During one such retirement of a farmer, Gosling discovers a box buried beneath a tree. When the box is collected by the LAPD and the skeletal remains within are examined by its forensic investigators, an astonishing secret is revealed: the skeleton is that of a female replicant who apparently gave birth to a child and died during its difficult delivery. Since such a technological achievement has remained secret for decades, K’s superior Lieutenant Joshi (Robin Wright) orders him to seek out and kill the child that was birthed. K visits Wallace Corporation, the company that has acquired the old Tyrell Corporation and its intellectual rights to manufacture replicants. Wallace Corporation founder Niander Wallace (Jared Leto) discovers in the old Tyrell Corporation archives that the dead female replicant is Rachael, an experimental prototype who disappeared with a former blade runner known as Rick Deckard. Wallace desires to know more about Rachael and the child she had, as such knowledge will benefit his production of replicants, and orders his assistant Luv (Sophia Hoeks) and his minions to secretly follow K wherever he goes.

This sets in train two searches, K’s search for the child which turns out to be linked to his own origin, his purpose in life and another search for Rick Deckard himself, with Wallace Corporation hot on his heels tracking wherever he goes through his hologram companion Joi (Ana de Armas), herself manufactured by Wallace Corporation subsidiary Joi. K’s journey turns out to be a subversive Hollywood comment on how everything that appears in films ends up being linked to the plot: a bit depressing for this viewer, because it means various aspects of the film’s plot become predictable. Suffice to say that K’s discovery of the child (now adult) is mind-blowingly banal and that once he fulfills his mission, he becomes superfluous to the police force, his society and an underground revolutionary movement that had uses for him but which have all now dispensed with him. After all, he is just a replicant whose purpose is to do as he’s told.

While the plot is thin and the characters are not all that memorable, they do serve to highlight the film’s themes and messages which are many and various. Climate change and its effects are significant for part of the film’s plot and its look as is also the futuristic society’s inability to be sustainable as it continually generates waste. Significant also is the society’s two-faced attitude towards women: while Wright may play K’s boss, Hoeks’ character Luv is as menacing and vicious as villains come, and women lead an underground rebel movement, the film also presents women as commodities to be exploited by corporations for profit. Joi (the hologram) exists purely to pleasure men and K’s trip to a dead Las Vegas reveals the city as a bizarre hyper-erotic Babylon pleasure-dome for jaded billionaires before its collapse. The society’s complete control over its citizens has an unexpected result: true originality and innovation in culture are no longer possible, and society is reduced to plundering its past for inspiration. Even Hollywood understands satire as it ransacks its own old movie archives for ideas. The original “Blade Runner” film’s themes about what being human means and the paradox that replicants have more vitality than humans do are still present but are less significant.

The film’s open-ended conclusion suggests another sequel may be in the works as not all loose ends have been tied. Some minor characters in “Blade Runner 2049” are clearly under-utilised and may return in a third film. If a third film is made, and then a fourth, and so on (!!!), at least viewers can enjoy the views and atmospheres of a never-ending franchise past its use-by date if not increasingly thread-bare plots and one-dimensional characters.

The Congress: good ideas and astute criticism of Hollywood and technology undone by a confused narrative

Ari Folman, “The Congress” (2013)

Partly based on Stanislaw Lem’s novel “The Futurological Congress”, in which the central character suffers from both delusional and actual mental states, Ari Folman’s film is split between live action and animated action reflecting its heroine’s existence in both the real world and the virtual world and her own mental state, wavering between delusion and reality. Robin Wright (played by the real Robin Wright) is an actor notorious for her fickleness and unreliability that have cost her many lucrative film roles, to the chagrin of her agent Al (Harvey Keitel), and which have reduced her to living in a caravan with her children Sarah and Aaron (Kodi Smit-McPhee), the latter suffering from Usher’s syndrome which is slowly destroying his sight and hearing. Try as she and Dr Barker (Paul Giamatti) might, the boy’s condition is irreversible and her circumstances force her to agree to a humiliating proposal by Miramount film studio representative Jeff Green (Danny Huston) to sell the film rights to her digital image and emotions in return for a huge sum of money, on the condition that she never act again. Considerable wrangling between Robin on the one hand and Al and Green on the other takes up about a third of the film and this section is filmed in live action, culminating in the scene where Robin is being digitally screened and Al subtly manipulates her into displaying her emotions by professing his apparent (if actually harsh and castigating) affection for her and revealing to her her fears.

Having sold her image and emotions to Miramount – the studio uses these to create a science fiction character “Rebel Robot Robin”, starring in a franchise of SF films, against the original Robin’s wishes – Robin spends the next 20 years caring for her ailing son and devoting her life to good works. She then travels to Abrahama City to renew her contract  and to speak at Miramount’s “Futurological Congress”. At this point the film turns into an animation with all the crude riot of colour and Hollywood 1930s animation style it can muster. Robin learns that Miramount has developed technology enabling anyone to turn him/herself into a digital likeness of her (Robin) and while she agrees to allow this in her new contract, at the Congress itself, she denounces this technology that commodifies individual identity. At this point, rebels opposed to the technology invade the Congress and Robin only narrowly escapes with the help of animator Dylan (Jon Hamm) who has always loved her digital image.

From here on, the animated Robin has several adventures in both the real world and the digital world (plus another digital world which could be a representation of a state beyond death – she does appear to die in one scene) in which among other things the real world is revealed as a post-apocalyptic dystopian ruin in which real human beings stumble around as though zombies, living in poverty and delusion, while a small elite (including Dr Barker) lives in airships floating above them. At this point, Robin determines to find her son Aaron but this means having to leave Dylan, with whom she has fallen in love, permanently.

The film pores over themes such as the loss, manipulation and crass commodification of individual identity; the domination of the cult of celebrity in Western societies; the use of drugs to escape reality and enter an artificial world where identities can be changed as casually as clothes; and various freedoms: freedom of choice, freedom to be and freedom to choose one’s path in life. One notes the irony in which Robin’s freedoms are constrained by her past actions, the unfortunate circumstances and Al’s manipulative chatter that force her to agree to sell her name and image and to pour out her emotions to Hollywood for peanuts, yet future others are free to buy her digital avatars and become them, if only temporarily and at a price. Hollywood is satirised as a greedy corporate machine. In later scenes, the film makes some subtle criticisms about how a techno-fetishistic society cannibalises past pop culture figures to prop up a shallow belief system, in which to possess the appearance of something is considered as authentic as being, and how this supposed culture substitutes for an actual impoverished culture in which a small elite exists in comfort and prosperity at the expense of a permanently deluded and severely enervated majority.

While Wright, Giamatti, Huston and Keitel are all very good actors, their talents are very much squandered in this film which -ironically enough – spends more time wallowing and losing its way through the crude animation sequences and not enough on the live action scenes where it seems the real horse-trading of one’s identity and authenticity is taking place. Ultimately one comes away from this film feeling that over two hours’ worth of viewing have been wasted on very muddled work. Good ideas and astute criticism of Hollywood and technology are undone by a confused narrative that probably should have ended or taken a very different direction – and one not necessarily animated – after Robin’s scanning. How ironic that with its themes this film should have foundered on its dependence on a live action / animation split.

Mash-up of all previous Alien franchise flicks delivers an uneven story in “Alien: Covenant”

Ridley Scott, “Alien: Covenant” (2017)

British director Ridley Scott must have taken all the criticisms of “Prometheus” to heart as he has delivered a new chapter in the pre-Ripley sub-set of the Alien franchise that at least boasts a half-decent story, even if it looks like a mash-up of all the other Alien films ever made plus parts of Scott’s own “Blade Runner” and “Gladiator” to boot. This second installment in the complicated meta-narrative now poses questions about the purpose of one’s existence, what it means to be human as opposed to being a robot, and the presumption of humans in playing God to the extent of colonising and terraforming far distant exoplanets for the benefit of humans (and at the expense of the native life-forms) and of creating sentient beings to be used as slaves and machines. These questions partly compensate for flaws in the film’s plot and characterisation, and enable the film to be treated with a bit more respect than its predecessor.

The spaceship Covenant is on a mission to find a new Earth-like exoplanet to settle, its colonists (most of whom exist in embryonic form in cryogenic tubes) fleeing a planet ruined by warfare and environmental catastrophe caused by human greed and selfishness. A cosmic storm damages part of the ship and causes some colonists (the adult ones) to awake from hyper-sleep. They repair the damage but lose their captain when his pod is engulfed in flames. The crew aren’t too enthusiastic about going back into deep sleep and start looking for something to do. On cue, their craft alerts them to a signal coming from a planet in the galaxy they are heading towards – and this signal is apparently human. New leader Captain Oram (Billy Crudup) decides over the objections of second-in-charge Daniels (Katherine Waterston) to go down to the planet to investigate the source of the signal. The two take a group of colonists – including the Covenant‘s resident android Walter (Michael Fassbender) down to the planet which initially presents as a paradise of high mountains, beautiful lakes, fields of wheat … but no birdsong or insect chatter.

The reasons for the lack of fauna soon become apparent as the search team is set upon and decimated in often gruesome and gory fashion by various representatives of the protean Alien species. Their space-explorer vehicle is damaged and they are forced to rely on a mysterious hooded figure who turns out to be one of the two survivors from the previous “Prometheus” flick. What the Covenant search team discover about this prophet-like figure and the activities this sinister person has been engaging in is at least intriguing as well as horrifying …

A capable cast gets thrown away not only by the necessities of the plot and overall concept but by sketchy one-dimensional characters. Even Oram and Daniels are not too well delineated themselves: by making gob-smackingly stupid decisions early on, Oram makes himself a marked man and Daniels’ character has to fight against comparison with the tougher, more world-weary Ellen Ripley of past Alien flicks. (Admittedly if the Covenant crew had more than half a brain of intelligence among them to depend on, there would be no plot and no victims for the Alien creatures to play with.) In playing the two characters of David and Walter, Fassbender has no choice but to excel, and excel he does without chewing up too much of the scenery: that’s a job for the monsters who carry it out with enthusiasm and slavering relish. The androids play their good cop / bad cop routine efficiently and through their interactions the issue of the differences between humans and robots is highlighted. For a brief moment, David is confronted with the possibility that to be fully human not only means being able to create but also being less than perfect, and that what he creates has the potential to run away from him.

In the film’s last half hour, replays of “Alien”, “Aliens” and “Alien 3” become rather too obvious to the point of banality and Daniels’ chases of not one but two aliens aboard two ships have the air of being tacked onto the film’s plot at the last minute to satisfy the bean-counters financing the film. Not for the first time (and certainly not for the last time), the critters get blasted through airlocks to join their other siblings into space junk orbit around some unfortunate planet – one wonders what David would make of all this interstellar pollution created by the unthinking and selfish human beings he comes to despise.

As in “Prometheus”, the Covenant crew make a lot of silly mistakes for the purpose of moving the plot forwards and providing meat for the gore and the violence. Silly in-jokes abound as well – was it necessary for an alien to dispose of two people in a pointless shower scene?

Nevertheless the film is beautiful to look at and the technology and special effects can be very stunning. The film ends on a cliff-hanger note that can be foreseen several hundred light-years away. One hopes the next two chapters will improve on “Alien: Covenant” though I am not holding my breath. One major improvement would be to boot Ridley Scott from the whole Alien franchise and let Neil Blomkamp (of “Chappie” and “District 9”) get on with his alternative Alien Version 3.1 in which Hicks and Newt from “Aliens” survive and somehow thrive.