2010s, Action-Adventure, Auteurs, Drama, Scifi

Ad Astra (2019)

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Director: James Gray
Screenwriters: James Gray, Ethan Gross

By Roderick Heath

Here there be spoilers…

James Gray has remained conspicuously earthbound throughout his career as one of American cinema’s least-appreciated yet consistently lucid and enriching filmmakers, a teller of tales rooted in a world too often crude and exhausting, with flashes of the sublime through the murk blinding as often as they illuminate. Produced by and starring Brad Pitt, wielding a big budget and spectacular special effects, Gray’s seventh feature Ad Astra represents a sharp leap in ambition, and yet it’s also an unmistakeable, remarkably unalloyed extension of his career to date, taking up his most consistent themes and painting them upon his largest canvas yet. Gray’s initial argot, evinced in Little Odessa (1994), The Yards (2000), and We Own The Night (2006), was an updated version of a brand of American film situated on the nexus of film noir and social realist drama, fare like On The Waterfront (1954), Edge of the City (1957), and The Hustler (1961). Such a stage allowed him to at once analyse dynamic processes like immigrant assimilation, upward mobility, and gangster capitalism, in conflict with the internal foils that define the individual person, matters of identity, morality, empathy. With Two Lovers (2008) he turned to a more intimate brand of character drama whilst maintaining his carefully modulated awareness of context, a mode he sustained even whilst shifting to historical settings and broader canvases for The Immigrant (2014) and The Lost City of Z (2016).

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As I noted in writing on The Lost City of Z, Gray’s films are, in essence, ghost stories set amongst the living, tales of haunting gripping his protagonists in their desperate struggles to be born anew. Gray’s fascination with characters who find themselves bound to others – family, lovers, collaborators – in voyages into folie-a-deux perversity here takes on a form that’s become borderline obsessive in current American film, even its more fantastical wings, the figure of the lost and taunting father figure. The realistic special effects adventure and science fiction movie has also known something of a boom in recent years, prefigured by the likes of John Sturges’ Marooned (1969) and Brian De Palma’s Mission to Mars (2001) and recently expanded by Alfonso Cuaron’s Gravity (2013), Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar (2014), Ridley Scott’s The Martian (2015), and Damien Chazelle’s First Man (2018). The latter film was a biography of Neil Armstrong, the epitome of the cool, calm, collected type prized by organisations like NASA and utterly inimical to a showman like Chazelle. Gray tackles a similar personality in his protagonist, Major Roy McBride (Brad Pitt), who’s famed in the ranks the NASA-supplanting SpaceCom for the way his heart rate never goes over 80 bpm even in the most adrenalin-provoking straits.

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The film’s opening sequence describes such a circumstance in a fearsomely filmed episode of spectacle, as Roy is working on a massive antenna reaching from Earth into the outer atmosphere for easy communications with deep space. A mysterious pulse of energy sweeping in from the void strikes the antenna, wreaking havoc. Amidst a rain of plummeting colleagues and wreckage, Roy manages to flip the switch on the electrical systems, preventing the whole structure from melting down, at the expense of being swept off the antenna’s side. Falling to Earth, Roy has to wait until the atmosphere becomes thick enough to stabilise his tumbling fall and deploy his parachute, trying not to black out. Even when he does succeed in releasing his parachute, debris rips holes in it, sending him into a chaotic spin, but he still manages to land without being badly injured.

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After recuperating in hospital, Roy is called to meet with some SpaceCom brass (John Finn, John Ortiz, and LisaGay Hamilton), who admire his grit and ask him to perform a mission on their behalf. Roy’s father, H. Clifford McBride (Tommy Lee Jones), went missing in the outer solar system when he led a pioneering scientific mission, the Lima Project, to search for signs of alien intelligence. Long since presumed dead with the rest of his crew, Clifford has been hailed as one of the great heroes of SpaceCom’s history and the colonising process. But now SpaceCom believe Clifford might in fact still be alive, and pursuing some kind of anti-matter research that’s sending out the energy surges and might, if it destabilises, even annihilate the solar system. SpaceCom commission Roy for a very strictly delineated mission, to travel to Mars, the outermost outpost of colonisation, and broadcast a pre-prepared appeal to Clifford to cease the surges and make contact.

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Gray’s version of a spacefaring future has a fascinating tint of the retro to it, as if torn from the pages of a theoretical book predicting space exploration and migration from the late 1950s. Visually, it’s a realistic mishmash of technologies both potential and shop-worn, showroom-fresh and salvaged for expedience. Initially, Roy is offered as the essential square-jawed action man right out of a comic book or pulp tale. The title references the Royal Air Force’s motto, at once evoking the elusively poetic as well as the valiant but narrow pretences of a martial ethos. Roy is deployed by SpaceCom, an organisation Gray amusingly initially presents as a cadre enveloped by a mix of Madison Avenue-like controlled messaging and militaristic caginess. Roy makes the voyage to the moon in the company of his father’s former colleague and friend Thomas Pruitt (Donald Sutherland), albeit one who fell out with Clifford precisely because he wouldn’t follow him to the extremes Clifford aimed for. Gray’s awesome vistas of the moon surface, with the gleaming lights of cities shining out of dark craters, gives way to Roy’s stirred contempt in noting the way the American moonbase has become something like an airport or shopping mall, replete with consumer outlets, with boles of tacky hedonism. Even the flight he and Pruitt arrived on was commercial, charging outrageous prices for petty comforts. This is one of Gray’s canniest notions, suggesting that space habitation won’t ever really take off until the profit motive compels it.

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The moon has also become another stage for human fractiousness, with the many countries claiming various sectors of it locked in a perpetual state of quasi-war for the right to mine resources and defend domain. Despite the risks, the local garrison promises to get Roy and Pruitt aboard the interplanetary rocket, the Cepheus, awaiting them on a distant launching pad. As it unfolds, Ad Astra unveils itself as a variation on Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness and its various adaptations. The use of voiceover to penetrate the lead character’s hard shell and ready habits of spouting sanctioned clichés certainly harkens back to Apocalypse Now (1979), although as an assimilation of Conrad Gray’s take feels closer kin to the Ron Winston-directed, Stewart Stern-written’s 1958 TV adaptation for Playhouse 90, which recast the tale as a generational conflict as well as a depiction of cultural collision and malformed hybridisation, making its version of Kurtz the adoptive father of Marlowe and paragon of enlightened, elevated values turned bestial shaman. Such a twist might be said to recast Conrad’s story as more specifically American, a contest between elders ensconced in a citadel of certain faiths contending with a questioning, seeking youth facing a wealth of possibility as well as the pain of impossibility. Gray has explicitly compared the film to a version of Homer’s The Odyssey a common point of mythopoeic reference for all these works, but one told from the point of view of Telemachus, the wandering, searching son.

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Certainly Ad Astra plugs into Pitt’s recent, quasi-auteurist fascination with taking on roles that explore the mystique of certain brand of fatherly masculinity, echoing in Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life (2011) and Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time…In Hollywood (2019), trying to grasp at what made the old-school ideal of manhood tick in order to assimilate its might but also excise its sick spots. Pitt, who started off as a long-haired lover boy and despite his very real talent always seemed like an actor cast for his looks first and his ability second, has finally reached a point in his career, rendered just a touch leathery by nascent middle-age, fidgety anxiousness starting to light those cover boy eyes and a sense of weary humour in self-knowledge twisting up that former perma-pout, where his lingering potential is being realised. Gray already touched on Conradian territory with The Lost City of Z but also argued with it as he presented a white, western hero who finds himself constantly nearing but never quite grasping his quasi-religious goal in the jungle rather than making his own hell. Also like his last film, Ad Astra entails revising that film’s portrait of a son so determined to live up to his father and join his myth that he eventually loses his life with him in a mission to the edge of the known. But Ad Astra is also a film that suggests Gray has a surprising affinity with sci-fi, particularly the precepts of early forays in the genre that sparked its 1950s screen craze, particularly Irving Pichel’s Destination Moon (1950) and Byron Haskin’s Conquest of Space (1955), both produced by George Pal, as well as Haskin’s later Robinson Crusoe on Mars (1964).

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Haskin’s efforts to balance a stringent portrayal of what was then the largely still theoretical nature of spaceflight with a questioning, yearning sense of its meaning formed one of the first truly important bodies of work in the genre. Ad Astra can be regarded in many ways as a highly advanced remake of Conquest of Space, enlarging on that film’s detail-obsessed realism with all the arts of modern moviemaking, whilst also assimilating the theme of father-son conflict and madness inspired by confronting the void, and pivoting around key sequences like funerals in space where the eternal and the coldly immediate are both utterly tangible. Like Robinson Crusoe on Mars, it contends with space as an existential trap where the hero(es) contend not just with solitude and survival but with the conceivable limits of existence and their search for a divine presence. In Conquest of Space the father was also a much-heralded hero of space pioneering and his son condemned to dwell in the shadow of his legacy, and finally had to step and in save the day when his father’s seemingly rock-solid psyche gives way as he becomes convinced their journey to Mars is an act of sacrilege. Sci-fi had been on cinema screens since the near-coinciding birth of both forms, but Haskin helped forge a crucial question that’s propelled the genre ever since, certainly influencing sci-fi films as different as Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) and Nicholas Meyer’s Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (1982), not just in imagery but in a central, overriding impetus, a demand for transcendental meaning in the experience of spacefaring.

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Gray obeys the picaresque structure of both The Odyssey and Heart of Darkness, as a succession of events leading Roy from the familiar world to the very fringes of the human sphere, passing through zones of lawlessness, conflict, and collapse along the way to various outposts testifying to a tenuous hold on a universe that might shrug them off. Gray mixes in aspects that retain some of the zest of a pulpier brand of sci-fi whilst twisting it to his own purposes. During Roy and Pruitt’s transportation across the lunar surface to the Cepheus dock, their moon buggy convoy is assaulted by a flotilla of vehicles from a piratical faction, in an action sequence that can be taken as Gray’s take on the helicopter attack in Apocalypse Now. It’s also, like that precursor, one of those scenes you know to be an instant classic of the medium even as you’re watching it, through Gray’s depiction of speed and force as experienced from a rigorously controlled viewpoint, concussive impacts and swift, arbitrary destruction conveyed with a woozy blend of immediacy mediated by the strange, fluidic motion of low gravity. Roy’s cool under pressure asserts itself again, taking control of his buggy and managing to elude pursuers finally with a daring leap into the depths of a crater, a breathtaking moment where the vehicle swings in a languorous arc across the vast pit, suspended between past and future, death and survival.

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The buggy lands without damage, but when he reaches the launch site Roy is forced to part with Pruitt, as he suffers a heart attack following the battle. Sutherland as Pruitt offers a paternal figure to “hold my hand” as Roy puts it, although Pruitt recalls Clifford calling him a traitor. Pruitt insists that Roy leave him and get on with the mission, passing on to him a thumb drive loaded with information SpaceCom kept from Roy, including videos that suggest that reveal, far from perishing heroically, Clifford turned despotic and suppressed a revolt amongst his crew through violent means, determined to continue research with a cabal of remaining loyalists. When the Cepheus stops to answer a distress signal from a drifting spacecraft against Roy’s initial wishes and instinct, he and the Cepheus’ Captain Tanner (Donnie Keshawarz) cross to the vessel to search for survivors, only for Roy to lose contact with the Captain as they explore the interior, in a sequence that slides steadily towards the truly strange. Roy finally comes across the Captain to find him dead, his faceplate smashed and face gnawed off by a baboon, one of a pair of such animals, desperately hungry and maddened, still alive on the abandoned craft.

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Roy manages to kill both animals and gets back to the Cepheus, only for the second-in-command, Stanford (Loren Dean), to freeze up as the ship suffers a power outage during the landing on Mars thanks to another energy surge, once more forcing Roy to assert his steady hand and land the ship. On Mars, Roy encounters Helen Lantos (Ruth Negga), the administrator of the Mars colony who nonetheless doesn’t have sufficient clearance to be present as Roy is pressed into reading SpaceCom’s prewritten pap in a broadcast to his father. On a second attempt, Roy tries a more personal message, tentatively allowed by the controllers, but when they seem to suddenly be alarmed and try to swiftly send Roy back to Earth he realises he got some sort of reply. Helen extracts Roy from the room he’s locked up in and fills in the last piece of the puzzle confirming that Clifford killed many of the people on his mission including Helen’s own parents, in the name of continuing his mission. Determined to confront his father and doubting Stanford’s capacity to fulfil the Cepheus’ mission to stop the anti-matter surges by any means including an atomic bomb, Roy resolves to reboard the ship with Helen’s help.

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Ad Astra self-evidently picks up where The Lost City of Z left off, in contending with the idea of exploration and the kinds of people who dare to make leaps into the beyond, tethering the venturesome exterior journey with an internal struggle. But where the previous film voted the explorer empathy in his social rage and visionary drive, Ad Astra counterpoints with the viewpoint of the abandoned and the betrayed. More subtly, it also extends The Immigrant’s confrontation with people on the borders of new experience whilst still mentally trapped within the old. Percy Fawcett’s determination to discover a lost civilisation and make contact with a wondrous populace at once distinct and familiar is here swapped out for the elder McBride’s hunt for alien intelligence, the quest for a confirming and affirming mirror. Gray sees pioneering as an act aimed as much in rebuke to the familiar as it is an expression curiosity about what’s unfamiliar, and as a process rooted in incapacity to live within a quotidian world, but which is always doomed to drag that world in its wake. Roy passes through the corporatized and commercialised moonbase, a scene reminiscent of Fawcett’s arrival at a jungle city with opera and slavery, surveying a zone where what was once charged with infinite mystery and potential has been colonised and subordinated by the more familiar pleasures and evils of the world. Roy notes that his father would’ve despised such a development, a cogent awareness of the debasement but also offloading any requirement to make a judgement of his own onto the moral abacus of the father figure.

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Gray’s recurring mental landscapes are a warzone in the clash between identity and aspiration, enacted by people who sign on to repeat the journeys of their mentors and forebears despite many good reasons not to. Little Odessa and We Own The Night dealt with characters for whom the natural gravity of following a family legacy is both the easiest thing in the world to obey and also something his protagonists felt to be abhorred; Two Lovers dealt with the same proposition in terms less of material values but anchored instead in desire. The Immigrant’s climactic image of two people bound by a singular concoction of love and loathing heading in separate routes returns in Ad Astra more emphatically in familiar terms. Out Gray’s characters venture to places where traits of character that allow some to thrive and others to fail are mercilessly exposed, but Gray probes a common presumption in genre entertainment where those who question can’t do and those who do can’t question. Gray achieves something passing unique in recent mainstream cinema with Ad Astra, in creating vivid experiential cinema that’s also about conveying a state of mind rather than stating them rhetorically. The stages of Roy’s journey mimic his own self-reconnaissance, the visuals, at once hyper-clear and struck through a dreamy sense of removal, of mysterious abstraction in the void, and finally of hurt gripping like a vice in a cosmos vast and echoic, at once dwarfing and inimical but also lacking any meaning without eyes to see and minds to know.

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As the pivotal figure for a tale of derring-do, Roy is initially opaque, reciting his carefully worked phrases and speeches to get approval from digitised psychological evaluations and operating with the kind of self-control and focus that’s readily mythologised as the ideal tool for government, business, and the military: a man who can do the job and obey exact parameters of behaviour as long as he holds sure the faith that the systems demanding such capacities work with flawless logic. Gray diagnoses Roy’s prized impassivity and coolness as aspects of a carefully erected psychological apparatus to guard against passion, a dam his father’s abandonment and vanishing forced him to build. Gray echoes the thesis essayed long ago in Howard Hawks’ canonical study of old and young American males, Red River (1948), where the old-school tough guy persona was found to be based in closet hysteria, a state of ferocity muzzled rather than controlled. Early in his film Gray notes Roy’s memory of his wife Eve (Liv Tyler) leaving him, a form in the periphery of his awareness, and the process of working his way out towards his father is also in part the process of working his way back to her. Being confronted with evidence that his father was not the paragon both he and SpaceCom needed him to be shakes something loose, and Roy’s hallowed calm shatters.

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And yet the process of regaining his emotional reflexes ultimately don’t retard Roy’s daring and cool, where others around him fail and flail, as Gray seeks to analyse the difference between a kind of false stoicism and a more authentic kind. Ad Astra depicts a key part of coping with grief, where emotional reality is not denied but simply existed within, like the contained capsule of air that is a spacesuit. The counterpoint of Roy’s musing voiceover and his immediate experiences are reminiscent of Terrence Malick’s in this regard, although Gray avoids Malick’s more particular approach where his characters’ thoughts winnow out poetical essentials amidst frenetic associations. Faced with evidence of his father’s destructive actions, seemingly rooted in indifference to more paltry human needs, Roy recognises the same pattern of behaviour that has defined him, and he takes it upon himself to enact an oedipal drama on a cosmic stage. The myths Roy has accepted, which prove to have also been propagated by authority in order to retain its sheen of inviolable competence and purview, demand complete reorientation of his identity. Gray here seems to be getting at something absolutely vital about our time, the way spasms of reflexive rage and denial pass through many a body politic the moment foundational myths rooted in an idealised sense of the past and communal identity are interrogated.

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Roy meets his essential counterpart and foil in Lantos, who has only been to Earth once, born and living on Mars, a biography that subtly bisects Roy’s path. Lantos is a citizen of the void, orphaned and static: alienation is the literal air she breathes. Lantos extracts Roy from a room where he’s been sequestered with a barrage of calming influences projected on the walls, like being stuck inside an animated ambient music track. Lantos’ gift to Roy is a new sense of vengeful urgency in his mission, compelling him to be the one who goes out to bring his father to account, even as SpaceCom try to bundle him off the mission once he renders proceedings personal. Lantos helps Roy in trying to get back aboard the Cepheus, a self-imposed mission that demands swimming through water-filled tunnels and climbing up through a hatch between the rocket exhausts. Even once aboard Roy finds himself in danger as the crew leap to apprehend him. The crewmembers try to shoot and stab Roy even as he protests he has no malicious intentions, but the jolts of the launching spacecraft in accidents that kill all three crew, leaving Roy alone with three corpses. This sequence, another of Gray’s superlatively executed action scenes, is also a study in the concept of aggressive action as something that works upon itself: SpaceCom, revealed as an organisation that ultimately prizes the appearance of competence and rectitude over the actuality, and its immediate representatives react with mindless aggression the proves self-defeating.

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But Roy is also forced to regard the consequences of his own actions, which see him bringing death and mayhem in a manner not really that different from his father, in the single-minded desire to reach a goal without thinking too hard about what it might provoke, his determined aspect like a too-powerful engine amongst other beings who simply drift in existence. Roy’s voyage through space to Neptune sees him almost lose his mind and body in the decay of solitude, before arriving at last at the Lima Project station. Flares of energy radiate from a dish on the hull and Clifford lurks within, king of a drifting tin can where old musicals play on screens amidst floating corpses. Clifford proves haggard and baleful but still utterly lucid and readily confessing to Roy that his obsession entirely displaced any care he had for Roy and his mother, a moment that, amongst other things, extends Gray’s motif of phony speech contending with hard, plain, honest statements throughout the film: although Clifford deals out a cold truth to Roy, at least he respects him enough to offer it. In this part of the film I felt as if Gray’s inspiration was beginning to desert him even as his essential points came into focus. It might have been fascinating if he had taken Conrad’s (and Francis Coppola’s) cue and portrayed the remnants of Clifford’s personality cult engaged in atavistic perversity at the end of the universe in their awe and cringing before a blank vastness, rather than narrowing the experience to a generational confrontation.

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Gray’s ultimate point is articulated through Roy as he comprehends his father has experienced the most gruelling loss of faith, sacrificing everything and everyone including himself for a quasi-mystical project that has yielded nothing, manifold planets of infinite variety and beauty mapped but none offering what Clifford was so desperately searching for. “We’re all there is,” Roy sums it up, with both the inference that the kind of bond tethering father to sun across the solar system is worthy in itself, but also making the task of holding onto human life both more precious and also more awful and despair-provoking, knowing what both men know about human nature, and the fragility of its toehold in the universe. As a climactic point, this wrestles with the same problem Haskin foretold in the 1950s as humanity looked out upon the universe and struggled with the loss of old limits. But it also makes a fascinating about-face from the general run of sci-fi, starting with those old Haskin films and progressing through the likes of 2001: A Space Odyssey, Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977) and many more, where the religious impulse is sublimated into a more generalised sense of wonder and possibility, as Gray confronts a frontier that provokes despair in many, the probability that we’re alone and have to make do.

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The images of Clifford and Roy hitched together in space, Clifford trying to tear loose from his son, inverts the climax of The Martian: the finite tether of human contact strained and broken, as Clifford demands the right to make his own end, obliging Roy to quite literally let go so he can drift off into gorgonized eternity. Roy has to synthesise his own good reason to return to Earth and face the music, summoning the ghostly image of his wife’s face as a reason to defy the void and launch himself through the planet’s rings to get back to the Cepheus, in the last of Gray’s astounding sequences, protecting himself against debris with a piece of panelling stripped to use as a shield. This touch seems in itself a closing of a circle even as it evokes a different Homeric figure, given Pitt played Achilles in 2004’s Troy but never got to wield that character’s civilisation-encapsulating aegis: here at last we get the cosmic hero, defier of fates. If Ad Astra sees Gray underlining himself in ways he’s usually avoided for the sake of trying to put across a film to a mass audience, particularly in some fairly superfluous concluding scenes, it’s still nonetheless a mighty, sparely beautiful, finally gallant attempt from a great filmmaker.

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1990s, 2000s, Action-Adventure, Scifi

The Matrix (1999) / The Matrix Reloaded (2003) / The Matrix Revolutions (2003)

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Directors/Screenwriters: The Wachowskis

By Roderick Heath

Read this essay or listen to the podcast

Throughout the 1980s and ‘90s, many filmmakers chased a strange new grail of pop culture: to make the first true blockbuster rooted in the new styles in life and fiction provoked by the arrival of computers as part of everyday existence. As the number of computer users grew and gave birth to happily nerdy ranks as well as the shadowy adherents of hacker culture in the real world, an imaginary refraction arrived in the literary cyberpunk genre, which had been codified if not entirely initiated by writer William Gibson. Eventually it became clear that as a potential audience conversant in new concepts grew larger and the innovation they fostered became generally familiar, a whole new movie audience was forged. Soon filmmakers were offering up the likes of Tron (1982) and War Games (1983). The former, an attempt to build a fantasy-adventure film out of novel notions like virtual reality and computer simulation, bombed at the box office, whilst the latter, a straight-laced thriller with a hacking aspect, was a big hit, but neither approach really led anywhere for the time being.

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In the 1990s the possibility of virtual reality immersions and artificial intelligence seemed imminent, exploited in trashy fare like The Lawnmower Man (1992), Disclosure (1994), and Virtuosity (1995), whilst the arrival of the World Wide Web resulted in updates of the ‘70s paranoid thriller with such entries as The Net (1995) and Enemy of the State (1999), as well as bouncy, digitally enhanced heist movies like Sneakers (1992) and Hackers (1995). The more serious, engaged, imaginative literary takes on a seemingly imminent future union of the human and the machine, the real and the simulated, struggled to gain ground when anyone tried to translate them into cinema, in part because of the failure of films like Tron and Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner (1982). Scott’s film swiftly proved cyberpunk’s cinematic style guide for ambitious young directors, and dark, perverse, gothic-technocratic visions of the near-future proliferated in the mid-‘90s. The likes of Kathryn Bigelow’s Strange Days (1995) and David Cronenberg’s eXistenZ (1999) failed to attract viewers for being too weird and spiky in their approach. ‘90s It-Boy Keanu Reeves saw potential in the cyberpunk style, but his first attempt at riding it for a pop hit, with 1995’s Johnny Mnemonic, proved an embarrassing debacle despite being written by Gibson himself.

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Meanwhile sibling filmmakers Larry and Andy Wachowski had become a hot property in Hollywood with their script for Assassins (1995) and their debut feature, Bound (1996). Infamously, rising star Will Smith turned down the lead role for The Matrix, a project based in the Wachowski’s general obsession with not just computer gaming and cyberpunk fiction but also Japanese manga and anime and postmodernist philosophy, a heady stew Reeves proved more attuned to. To keep down the costs of making the film, which would require some groundbreaking special effects, the production was shifted to Sydney, where it was filmed almost simultaneously with a very similar-sounding project, Alex Proyas’ Dark City (1998). Much like George Lucas a quarter-century earlier, the Wachowskis staked everything on a hugely ambitious leap from down-to-earth fare to epic science fiction filmmaking. The brothers were rewarded as 1999 rolled around, and The Matrix suddenly became the eye of the blockbuster zeitgeist, not outdoing the return of the Star Wars franchise that year in revenue, but certainly stealing all its cool-kid thunder. Why did The Matrix score a bullseye where so many others missed?

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Series protagonist Thomas A. Anderson (Reeves), whose hacker alias Neo eventually becomes his preferred name, is offered as a wage slave functionary in some general purpose corporation office block. He spends his nights locked in his apartment, driven to penetrate the veil of estrangement and falsity he senses around him, and trying to contact legendary hackers glimpsed speeding through the networks. Before we meet Neo, we see one of those legends, Trinity (Carrie-Ann Moss), battling policemen and mysterious government agents in a seedy downtown area. Trinity is a swashbuckling dissident with superhuman powers, powers the agents also wield. Trinity races to a phone booth as one agent runs her down with a truck, and seems to vanish from the pulverised rubble. Neo gets an email offering him answers to his inchoate searching, and meets Trinity in a nightclub. She soon introduces him to Morpheus (Laurence Fishburne), who gives him a choice between maintaining the existence he knows and awakening to a daunting new truth. Neo is arrested and interrogated by the leader of the agents, Agent Smith (Hugo Weaving), who terrifies Neo by somehow sealing up his mouth and implanting him with an electronic bug that becomes a biomechanoid parasite.

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After Trinity removes the bug, Morpheus brings Neo out of the reality he knows, which is actually the Matrix, a computer simulation of the late 20th century. Robotic intelligences, created by mankind but grown too smart to control, long ago won a cataclysmic war for control of the Earth. Faced with a decimated and perpetually clouded world, the central AI unit, called the Source, started exploiting a blend of fusion power and tapped human bioenergy, requiring billions of humans to live swaddled in amniotic chambers, kept lulled by the Matrix. Morpheus believes Neo is “The One,” a prophesised saviour figure with the power to subvert and subordinate the Matrix, and has sought him to fight on the behalf of the one free human outpost left, the subterranean city of Zion. Neo is brought aboard Morpheus’ hovercraft, the Nebuchadnezzar, which travels via ancient underground tunnel and sewer networks. He meets the ship’s crew, including Cypher (Joe Pantoliano), and is schooled in how to bend the rules of the Matrix and battle within the digital world. Eventually Morpheus takes him to meet the Oracle (Gloria Foster), a mysterious entity in the Matrix who told Morpheus he would find the One and Trinity that she would fall in love with him. But the Oracle tells Neo that he isn’t the Messiah, just a naughty boy.

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The Wachowskis had signalled with Bound, a tale of lesbian lovers trying to outwit one woman’s gangster boyfriend for survival and profit, that their ardour for film noir tropes and new-age mores was more than skin-deep. Where the Star Wars films had purveyed their inspirations like Joseph Campbell as intellectual background radiation, The Matrix films flaunted their conceptual literacy and awareness, down to touches like having its hero grab a copy of Jean Baudrillard’s Simulacra and Simulation, one of the heady tomes the Wachowskis gave their cast to explain their notions, and a storyline that referenced philosophical ideas from the likes of Plato and Descartes. Great wads of all three films, particularly in the heroes’ exchanges with the various sentient entities floating around the Matrix like the Oracle, are devoted to dialogue affecting dissemination of abstract philosophical ideas around choice and perception, most of which are cardboard. The film’s most famous metaphorical confrontation comes when Morpheus presents Neo with a simple choice, between returning to the life he knows by taking a blue pill or confronting the underlying reality with a red pill, a notion that cunningly repurposes the old Counterculture notion of drugs as gateways to new perceptions.

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But where other filmmakers tackling similar material kept their thinking relatively intimate, the Wachowskis dreamt up a dystopian mythology and used it chiefly as a pretext for spectacular action scenes. The Wachowskis were freely harvesting tropes, of course, particularly from manga and anime. Echoes of Ghost in the Shell (1995), Galaxy Express 999 (1979), Akira (1986), and many more are detectable in the concern with unholy fusions of the organic and mechanical and detachment of spirit from flesh. The notion of do-or-die conflict played out in an unreal world had precursors too, in stuff like The Undead (1957), Dreamscape (1983) and A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984), although those films’ basis in the plasticity of the psyche was rejected. The Doctor Who fan in me long knew a suspicious recollection of that show’s classic episode “The Deadly Assassin” from 1976, where the Doctor linked his mind with his home world Gallifrey’s mainframe computer, called, yes, the Matrix, to do battle with an evil foe in a surreal netherworld. Hiring master Hong Kong fight choreographer and director Yuen Woo-Ping to arrange the fight scenes gave a patina of honest connection with wu xia films. The influence of Frank Herbert’s Dune novels is likewise detectable, particularly in the theme of a nascent superbeing who may or may not represent a liberating force of renewal, and twists of story like Neo being blinded only to discover another way of seeing, whilst Zion resembles Herbert’s concept of the Fremen civilisation.

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Most importantly, the Wachowskis offered style. The look of The Matrix became its instantly identifiable signature, taking ‘90s alt-culture affectations to a refined limit, with its heroes wrapped in black leather and long spaghetti western overcoats, and eyes hidden behind gleaming sunglasses. Trinity is the intensely fetishized emblem of all, somewhere between a teenage boy’s idea of a lesbian motorcyclist and a rave club dominatrix, delivering crane kicks in zero-gravity and giving displays of the now much-mocked “superhero landing” pose. The look imposed by Dick Pope’s cinematography was as dark and chitinous as a beetle’s back, with cinematography washed in green filters to signify the Matrix environs and pale blues for the real world. This aspect was enhanced by the Oscar-winning visual and sound effects. Some of these were deployed on relatively familiar sci-fi vistas, like the dramatic revelation of the human pod farms, the Nebuchadnezzar negotiating ruined labyrinths, and the squirming, squid-like ‘Sentinel’ robots the Source employs to police and chase enemies. But the effects that instantly became cliché devices in the contemporary directorial arsenal included ‘ramping’ effects that shift camera speeds in mid-shot and move around characters gyrating in slow motion, used to portray the Matrix warriors’ ability to distort perception of time to the point where they can dodge bullets.

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Despite all the hullabaloo, I’ve never felt more than lukewarm towards The Matrix and its sequels, and often much less. For films that inspired such obsessive generational loyalty and oodles of po-faced commentary, they’re often incredibly dumb, and staunchly refuse to mine their theoretically infinite malleability, with their basis in a simulated reality, for anything but the most obvious tweaks on action movie clichés. Time has ironically invested The Matrix films with a more interesting subtext than those they so urgently tried to force upon the viewer back when. Larry and Andy Wachowski are today Lana and Lilly, and the films’ obsessive portraiture of an exterior reality that refuses to match up with inner identity now seems immediately inspired by the siblings’ struggle with gender identity. Indeed, they found a uniquely dramatic way of turning that struggle into an experience that allowed a vast audience to grasp and relate to their lot. Even the near-doppelganger pairing of Reeves and Moss seems to channel this quality, fractured pieces of a whole who border on the asexual. The visions of human bodies riddled with steely portals and subsisting within pods of goo weaponised the body horror of David Cronenberg, so strongly fixed as it was in the anxieties stirred up the changed sexual mores of the 1960s and ‘70s. The Wachowskis wanted to base their drama in a distinctively paranoid, anti-authoritian worldview where the bad guys, with their suits and earpieces, look like Secret Service agents and stand as emblems of malfeasant power. The narrative promised nerdy boys the world over they too could rewrite reality, become all-powerful, and net a hot sporty girlfriend if they only learned to code well enough.

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But to me The Matrix films were foiled rather than empowered by their desperate desire to hang with the cool kids and deny their nerdy roots. There is no sense of normality to subvert in the first film. At the outset we get some shots of Neo ensconced as an office cubicle, only to be quickly driven out of it. We only get pop signifiers of social drudgery and reality breakdown rather than engaging it for any sense of personal angst or mounting disquiet. Neo’s briefly-glimpsed freak friends are all cool, kinky party types – basically the same types he breaks out of The Matrix to hang with. The Wachowskis attempt to blindside the audience with Neo’s surreal experience with Smith and the bug, but the mystery isn’t teased for very long, and the sequence where Trinity and others extract the bug from him sees them using a stupid-looking gadget that looks like it came out of some other, lost steampunk movie. Once he does escape the Matrix and begins his evolution into superhero, Neo doesn’t have to master any real abilities or struggle with his identity. The Wachowskis have to invent an entirely unnecessary wrinkle by having the Oracle deny his being The One, to provide the vaguest tension. By the end of the trilogy Neo is still as flat, bland, and numbingly “cool” a hero as he was at the start, an avatar for level-up warriors the world over. Also, I wish some of the slow-motion kung-fu fights didn’t remind me so much of Clouseau fighting Cato in the Pink Panther films.

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Whilst the Wachowskis seemed genuine in their progressive credentials, the world they created had a rather fascistic aesthetic and pivoted on adolescent paeans to those turned on and turned off from reality, the shallow, self-congratulatory aspect of their allegories has been thoroughly demonstrated by the way everyone from the far left to the far right has subsumed its red pill/blue pill schism. Anyone has the right, The Matrix ultimately told too many people, to reject the world one shares with other people and substitute one’s preferred way of seeing. Relics of genuine head cinema like The Trip (1967), The Last Movie (1971), or Alejandro Jodorowski’s films were wild portraits of fractured personalities trying to understand their own perverse and destructive selves as well as the crudity of the world about them. By contrast The Matrix offers a profoundly reassuring message: it’s all those people’s fault. The propelling basis in Countercultural outlook is sapped of colour, fun, and imaginative purview, with shiny technocracy, broad paranoia, and chic violence in their place. The notion of a bunch of radical warriors battling wicked, assimilating forces in a flying ship has an odd similarity to Yellow Submarine (1968), but this was more like Basic Black Submarine. The films were built around some of the more annoyingly shallow aspects of the ‘90s alternative zeitgeist, particularly the kind of collegiate nihilism that had been a dominant mood since Kurt Cobain’s suicide, to which the films can only really respond in terribly weak fashion at the end when Smith asks why Neo puts up with so much pain and hopelessness and he replies, “Because I choose to.”

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The Wachowskis worked hard to keep the Matrix contained by some relatively hard and fast rules. The Source only has a limited ability to interfere with the flow of action in the simulated space, which is a bit hard to swallow but necessary to justify the entire proposition. In one of the trilogy’s more memorable lines, it’s revealed that the Matrix was made to resemble the ordinary human world of 1999 because the first version, a becalmed utopia, was rejected by the humans sharing it. Fractiousness, violence, and discord are part of human nature, demanding the concession of forms of pressure relief like The One and Zion. There’s some irony here given that the Wachowskis were determined to create a fantasy universe that sates such desires: rather than gift their heroes any abilities to have surreal fun with the Matrix, to undercut the fascist chic with absurdism, the Wachowskis keep them caged by generic conventions, and send them into battle instead with guns and other conventional weapons. An essential aspect of the classic martial arts drama is the theme of a character mastering spiritual strength in accord with achieving physical prowess, but the Wachowskis undercut this by making such prowess a mere download away. “I know kung fu,” Neo gasps, one of Reeve’s better line readings as he captures Neo’s ability to process new realities at speed as well as a certain delight in such a gift. And yet, despite the films’ affectations of thoughtfulness, there’s never any real interest in questioning what such warlike arts achieve. The focus and stylisation dismisses most of the other human consciousnesses in the Matrix, and it’s stated outright that they’re all to be considered enemies because the Agents can suborn them at will, which raises some interesting ethical questions that are generally ignored. Bring on the guns, lots of guns.

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Undoubtedly, the Wachowskis tried and succeeded in tapping into the sense of eddying entrapment a lot of young outsiders felt in that superficially calm but deeply anxious lull between the fall of the Berlin Wall and 9/11. Whilst The Matrix decries dull conformism and illusory consumerism, nonetheless the Wachowskis’ method is purveyed in a manner that cuts across the grain of their message, by making their heroes utterly conformist in affect, in settings that are stiflingly brand-aware. Moreover, the Wachowskis suggested in the early reels of The Matrix they lacked the patience to properly build a gallery of characters and worldviews, failings demonstrated all too painfully in the sequels as they tried to expand their universe and ask us to care about Zion and its inhabitants in spite of only introducing them in the most cursory and clumsy manner. Most of the crew of the Nebuchadnezzar look like escapees from Burning Man in the real world and Krautrock stars when in the Matrix, and are instantly forgettable. When Cypher turns traitor and kills most of them by disconnecting their Matrix jacks when they’re immersed, it’s impossible to really care. The best non-technical aspect of the first film is Pantoliano, unsurprising as the Wachowskis had already worked with him on Bound and knew he could give a juicy villainous performance on tap. Where the other actors tackle their deep and meaningful dialogue like wading through treacle in heavy boots, Pantoliano offers what might be the only actual fillip of genuinely engaging acting in the trilogy as Smith courts him to turn traitor in a fancy restaurant: he meditates with deft humour on how the steak he’s eating isn’t real but he doesn’t care because it’s so preferable to the slop they eat on the Nebuchadnezzar.

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In a similar fashion, the movies are much more engaging inside the Matrix than without because there the Wachowskis are free to purvey their love of shiny decadence and reality-contorting imagery, but once the game’s given away it’s hard to care that much about what’s going on inside a giant video game, in large part because there’s no interest in the stakes such battles have for the oblivious unfortunates stuck in it. Foster’s intelligent, measured performance as the Oracle almost helped the character overcome its basis in magical negro cliché. Mary Alice had to take over for the last film as Foster died between shoots, but she acquits herself well too, ably suggesting an entity that stands as the weary but soulful repository of all faith. Weaving’s Smith was another strength, if a fairly broad one, his blandly drawling Yankee accent wielded to sinuous effect as he diagnoses the human condition as being the same as a disease. This presages the character’s ironic evolution by the second two films into just such an entity, a perfect engine of ego remaking everything in his image. Weaving brings just enough smug and irksome evil to his role to invest climactic sequences with some rousing need to see him brought down, as he tortures the captured Morpheus only to invite Neo and Trinity’s wrath. As the Sentinels zero in on the Nebuchadnezzar and Neo is shot by Smith in the Matrix, all seems lost, but Trinity’s kiss in the real world revives Neo in the false, and he finally taps his powers as The One, able to tear Smith to shreds from the inside and escape in time so the ship’s crew can halt the Sentinels with the blast of an electromagnetic pulse. The very last image reveals Neo, after vowing to the Source to bring the pain, flying like Superman across the Matrix skyline: at last the naked, boyish power fantasy has hatched.

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Despite his films’ much more naïf and playful approach, it was telling that George Lucas was beginning to dismantle the Chosen One template with a purpose, to increasing howls of protest, at the exact same time the Wachowskis were greeted as heroes by remaking it for a digitised generation. Whilst the follow-up would do some interesting things with the concept, it never is explained just how being The One works, especially as Neo eventually finds he has powers in the physical as well as simulated worlds. The archaic names littered throughout the series feel less like nods to mythical archetypes than mythopoeic bingo, and the series, for all its intellectual affectations, keeps eventually falling back on stale bromides like “belief” and “hope.” The hardest-headed character in the trilogy, Lock (Harry Lennix), who commands Zion’s armies, is offered as an odiously inflexible figure for failing to see the value in all these. Bound still stands as the Wachowskis’ best film in very large part because it’s their most intimate: there the little myth of self-discovery and the fight for agency had a genuinely convincing scale and sense of urgeny. The failure of their later films to cohere, resulting in the ragged if fascinating mess they co-directed with Tom Tykwer, Cloud Atlas (2012), and displays of empty showmanship in Speed Racer (2008) and Jupiter Ascending (2015), confirmed the siblings had become entrapped by their most famous creation, forced to subsist in a style of moviemaking against the grain of their subtler but preferable talents. The miniature tribute in Cloud Atlas to their signal hit stands as superior for being briefer, punchier, and more to the point.

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Regardless, The Matrix proved so big and unexpected a hit that the Wachowskis were swiftly encouraged to expand their one-off tale into an ambitious trilogy, and two sequels were released within months of each-other in 2003, The Matrix Reloaded and The Matrix Revolutions. The Matrix Reloaded surprised me at the time, as it revealed the Wachowskis as willing to take chances with their property and expand their scope rather than simply continue their original, straightforward dynamic. The Wachowskis this time were confronted by a challenge that often awaits fashioners of cool dystopias, in trying to step out from behind that shield and try to come up with a vision of the opposite. This time they got to portray Zion, envisioned as a gritty, crowded, tenuous space for human life that nonetheless has a utopian aspect, sustainable, harmonious, free of racism and sexism, and led by genuinely wise elders, including Hamann (Anthony Zerbe) and West (Cornel West). The episode’s most divisive scene sees the Wachowskis intercutting between a communal happening where the Zion folk party down with increasingly orgiastic overtones, and Neo and Trinity having sex in their home; physical exultation, communal joy, and weird sexuality are given a uniquely uninhibited place in a Hollywood blockbuster.

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Unsurprisingly, however, the Wachowskis immediately put all that aside and get back on message. The Wachoswkis introduced one impressive-looking new hero, Jada Pinkett’s Niobe, Morpheus’ former flame and a brilliant pilot. The former Agent Smith is now a liberated force, invested with some of Neo’s power and free to set about subsuming every other entity in the Matrix. He even manages to implant his consciousness into a living human, Bane (Ian Bliss), who carries out acts of sabotage in the real world. Perhaps the biggest chance the Wachowskis took, and their most inspired, came at the climax, where Neo encounters the Matrix’s designer program, called the Architect (Helmut Bakaitis), who represents cynical power and corruption by looking like the tycoon on the Monopoly board game box. The Architect informs him that the concept of The One was an invention designed to deal with a cyclical system flaw based in the tendency of humans to rebel sooner or later. So he and the Oracle, another master program, solved the tendency by giving the humans a saviour figure and allowing a certain number to set up rebel enclaves to keep this tendency within controllable limits, eventually wiping them out when they get too large and dangerous and starting the process over. The original’s power fantasy of liberation and subversion is then actually revealed to be a calculated concession that only reinforces the Matrix’s hegemony, and Neo is eventually expected to choose between saving Trinity’s life or working with the Architect to secure the next foundation of Zion with a small number of humans to ensure the species doesn’t die out.

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The plot of The Matrix Reloaded was pretty thin by comparison with the incident-heavy instalments on either side, depicting the attempts of the heroes to track down The Keymaker (Randall Duk Kim), a program who can get them into a locked building where the Oracle tells them they can find valuable knowledge, which proves to be the abode of the Architect. Meanwhile Zion prepares for an attack by a colossal armada of Sentinels. The film exists mostly to string together show-stopping action set-pieces. The episode’s failings as narrative only become clear with the third instalment, wasting whole reels with more pseudo-philosophising and feckless character interaction. Most tiresome is the crew’s encounter with two more Matrix entities, sleazy potentate The Merovingian (Lambert Wilson) and his concubine Persephone (Monica Bellucci), who hold the Keymaster captive. It’s hinted this pair were predecessors of Neo and Trinity as a corrupted One and his mate. Their general function is to tread water between fight scenes with games of mind and libido, as the pompous Merovingian extemporises on the illusion of control, illustrated as he feeds a woman a digital aphrodisiac, and Persephone blackmails Neo into giving her a taste of the sugar he gives Trinity, much to Trinity’s smouldering irritation.

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All this is painfully silly, and wastes running time that could be used better detailing some of the characters it wants us to accept as new and additional heroes. These include Niobe, Lock, Morpheus’ new computer wiz Link (Harold Perrineau), Link’s wife Zee (Nona Gaye), and Kid (Clayton Watson), a young lad Neo brought out of the Matrix who wants to help in the city defence. None of these characters registers as much more than a faint echo, despite the fact that the third part leans on all of them to sustain its drama. But what Reloaded does right is worth cataloguing. In addition to giving the template new dimensions, it offers the series’ most visually ingenious and sustained action scenes. An early fight between Neo and the multiplying Smiths stretched the digital effects to the limit in playing like a cyberpunk kung fu take on the “Sorcerer’s Apprentice” scene from Fantasia (1940). A battle between Neo and the Merovingian’s goons in a mansion expands on the original’s zero-gravity tussles with better effects and a more fluent sense of staging and motion.

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The highpoint of the movie, and the trilogy in fact, is a chase scene on a city freeway as Trinity and Morpheus steal the Keymaker away from the Merovingian, trying to outfight and outrun his dreadlock-haired, white-skinned twin henchmen (Neil and Adrian Rayment) and an Agent whilst careening down the busy roadway. Here the Wachowskis finally give Fishburne some properly badass stuff to do, from slashing a car to pieces with a samurai sword to kickboxing an agent on the roof of a semitrailer. Cunningly, the Wachowskis keep Neo out of this until he manages to swoop in and save Morpheus and the Keymaker from the midst of a slow-motion crash. Whilst this sequence serves no real narrative function, it’s as intricately orchestrated and cleverly visualised as special effects action scenes get, and moreover represents the best example of the series’ driving idea: the apparently stable and familiar universe suddenly and casually perverted. Finally Neo saves Trinity rather than choose work with the Architect, and proves his powers as the One include the capacity to pluck a digital bullet from her gut and restore her to life. Once returned to the real world and forced to flee Sentinel robots consuming their ship, Neo discovers his power over the machines has crossed over, and he destroys several Sentinels with pure willpower, at the cost of almost killing himself.

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The second film leaves the story on a cliffhanger as Neo lies in a coma next to the Smith-possessed body of Bane. The Matrix Revolutions sees Morpheus talking Hamann into letting him take a ship to rescue Neo from the digital netherworld he’s stuck in, over the objections of Lock, who marshals Zion’s scant military strength to hold off the Sentinel horde. After Morpheus, Trinity, and the Oracle’s bodyguard Seraph (Collin Chou) manage to force the Merovingian to release Neo, Neo meets with the Oracle, who assures him she represents the part of the Matrix that wants to find a new solution to the schism of human and machine. Neo senses where his path now leads: to find a way to oblige the Source into calling a truce. As Zion’s warriors, including Zee and Kid, fight off the attack, Morpheus and Niobe dash to bring the last remaining EMP bomb on their ship, and manage to knock out the first wave of robots, at the price of leaving the city barely defensible against the rest. Meanwhile Neo and Trinity continue alone to the heart of the robot city. Neo is blinded when the revived Bane-Smith makes his play to kill him, but Neo discovers he has a psychic link to the Source which means he can see electrical patterns, and he defeats the possessed man. Trinity is killed when their ship crashes into the city, leaving Neo to confront the Source alone. Neo strikes a bargain to save the Source from being completely subsumed by the infection that is Smith if the Source will call off the onslaught on Zion and accept coexistence.

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Revolutions tries damn hard to give the trilogy an epic-sized ending, as the battle that began in the Matrix’s simulacrum finds its climax in mighty clashes of grimy, clanging hardware, and human blood, sweat, and tears. But the most interesting flourish in this instalment comes early as Neo hovers in a vision of limbo that looks like a subway station, a visually effective use of the banal to signify the metaphysical. The mission his friends launch to get him out of there sees the directors ply yet another gravity-defying shoot-out and a hyperbolic display of Tarantino-esque gun-pointing to get the Merovingian to ensure his release. This all makes painfully clear how quickly the Wachowskis were running out of ideas. The conclusion is hurt beyond redemption by the Wachowskis’ incapacity to orchestrate human drama with the same dexterity they bring to the visual. Rather than portray Zion’s fight as an adjunct to the adventures of our familiar heroes, the Wachowskis instead fill the bulk of the episode with the efforts of a bunch of barely introduced and entirely uninteresting characters as they wage war at deafening volume. As FX spectacle it’s well-done, but it’s thumpingly witless and uninventive in execution. The Wachowskis extend their penchant for Japanese sci-fi concepts as the defenders mount mecha war machines, but their defences seem excruciatingly poorly-planned and ineffectual given the nature of an entirely predictable attack. Neo and Trinity are sidelined for great tracts of running time, and Morpheus is literally reduced to a passenger, watching Niobe as she steers with great intensity. Pinkett’s embodiment of tight-jawed determination is impressive, but she’s barely characterised or given a line of dialogue beyond the odd random platitude.

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The Wachowskis were still taking some chances, however. In sending Neo and Trinity out to try and pull off a coup outside of the Matrix where they’re so accomplished and powerful, the filmmakers avoid leaning on their established dynamic, particularly as Neo tries to end the war by making peace and finding common ground rather than simply destroying his foe. But it also becomes clear the Wachowskis were retreating from trying to come up with a truly clever way of resolving their drama. The climax sees Neo and Smith fighting yet again, this time watched by an army of Smith’s doppelgangers and seeing the pair punch it out in the rainy sky. The visuals are spectacular but the sequence represents a total dissolution into empty-headed bombast, which, on top of the already overlong and empty Zion battle, mostly has the effect of boring the hell out of me. Even the aspect of tragedy aimed for here as Trinity and Neo die for their cause doesn’t register with any punch because, despite Reeves and Moss trying their hardest to invest their characters with a certain tremulous, stoic intensity, they’re barely more substantial than they were six hours of cinema earlier. We’re told they love each-other, and that’s about it. And therein lies the ultimate irony of The Matrix films. For all their attempts to grapple with what makes us human, they too often make it feel like the machines won long ago.

Standard
1980s, Action-Adventure, Crime/Detective, Scifi

RoboCop (1987)

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Director: Paul Verhoeven
Screenwriters: Michael Miner, Ed Neumeier

By Roderick Heath

Like many a filmmaker who, having gained stature and plaudits in their native land, heard the siren call of new shores, fresh stories, and better paydays, Paul Verhoeven vacated his place as the most lauded director in the Netherlands to fight for a place on the totem pole in Hollywood. His first film there, the medieval adventure Flesh + Blood (1985), hardly stirred a ripple, but the title was to prove a veritable mission statement for the way Verhoeven would heartily embrace a new career by pushing it to the max. Verhoeven’s lack of timidity as a Hollywood director who notably refused to deal in the usual pretences expected of transplanted auteurs was hardly surprising in light of the movies he had made in the Netherlands. Their number included his sex farce debut Wat Zien Ik (1972), about a prostitute’s misadventures, Turkish Delight (1974), his spectacularly vulgar take on the romantic tragicomedy, and his fetid, delirious melange of horror film, erotica, and metaphysical angst, The Fourth Man (1983). He had offered some films of more restrained temperament, including the historical class-clash epic Keetje Tippel (1975) and the Oscar-winning war film Soldier of Orange (1977). But something in Verhoeven’s overheated sensibility couldn’t be contained too long by such relatively straight-laced fare.
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So when he went Hollywood, Verhoeven went big. Where Hollywood executives told him the audience wanted sex and violence, he would serve double portions, as part of an outlandish mixture of often gross mockery, earnest melodrama, and sleight of hand in tackling Verhoeven’s deeper interest in the politics of body and soul. He didn’t appreciate Ed Neumeier and Michael Miner’s script for RoboCop when he first read it, but his wife did, pointing out to him the barbed skepticism aimed at the emerging corporate dominance, and the theme of the Christ-like saviour. The film was destined to be a smash hit and would place Verhoeven on top for a time until he pushed his tendencies just a little too far for critics and audiences alike. But RoboCop, perhaps his greatest film and a remarkable balancing act by any measure, has never lost its cachet as a cult film sprung out of most surprising soil, standing alongside The Terminator (1984), Aliens (1986), and Predator (1987) in the holy sepulchre of ‘80s sci-fi action but also outstripping them in the force and clarity of its ideas and provocations. Great science fiction is usually part imagination, part reportage, with the best extrapolating trends of the moment of conception and projecting them into a fictional future that if done well can retain that seer-like mystique.
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Like many other movie-mad kids I watched the movie into the ground back when, and like many such relics of a misspent youth it tends to sit around, a must-own for the movie collection but also a little like part of the furniture. RoboCop hasn’t lost its pure, grade-A Columbian potency or its scabrously funny, cruelly satirical purview. Nonetheless time has changed how I relate to the movie: the general mayhem and specific blend of idealism and cynicism, so perfectly in synch with a teenage mindset, gives way to a deeper empathy for hero Alex Murphy, a family man torn away from identity and family – what does age do, but make us feel like pieces are being cut off us and remaking us into hardened things we don’t quite recognise, whilst stealing away things we love? RoboCop’s prognosticative edge seems near limitless, anticipating contemporary concerns of automation and artificial intelligence, the loss of public sovereignty over our institutions, the debasement of social discourse and the media, the unhinged power granted corporations in our lives and the grim spectre of government being annexed by businesspeople – all wrapped up in RoboCop’s shiny, sardonic shell. Even some of the film’s more dated references, like jokes related to Ronald Reagan’s Star Wars project, have gained a new window of relevance, whilst others, like the indictment of a city like Detroit being first built and then trashed and then gentrified at the expense of the inhabitants according to the whims of capitalism, never stopped being immediate.
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Over and above its satirical aspect, RoboCop is of course also a gloriously unhinged pulp adventure that finds whacked-out poetry in the notion of a normal man, his body appropriated for corporate use, transformed into a Kevlar-coated knight. RoboCop’s insidious genius is immediately signalled by the use of TV news reports and ads to frame the action, Greek chorus gone smarmy and commercial: the cold opening offers Media Break, a news programme that takes the pattern of news reduced to capsules and soundbites to an extreme – “You give us three minutes and we’ll give you the world!” – filled with biting bits of futuristic geopolitical info, like the apartheid South African gone belligerent and nuclear, and the “Star Wars Orbiting Peace Platform” that fouls up, at first comically and then scorching a section of California to a cinder. This device also lets Verhoeven summarise the film’s basic plot and background with sublime efficiency. Interspersed are fake ads, grounding futuristic phenomena in familiar packaging, like one for mechanical heart transplants, and sketching out a future society where the phenomena of all kinds – human, machine, news, marketing – are dissolving into a grotesque and lawless stew. On to the real show: the setting is a futuristic Detroit where the infrastructure of the working class’s livelihoods has been reduced to cavernous shells whilst a new elite of corporate overlords rule on high.
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A massive corporation with the delightful nonentity name of Omni Consumer Products, or OCP, has taken over the privatised police force of Detroit, a city that has degenerated into a rundown, crime-infested, Hobbesian hellhole. The cops are outmatched by criminals toting heavy weaponry also made by OCP who manufacture military arms, and the police are slowly being starved of resources by their new masters. OCP’s barely hidden agenda is to rebuild Detroit into the new and shiny Delta City, whilst also hoping to replace the human police with robotic workers, cheaper, easier to maintain, and utterly unquestioning of authority. This project hits a speed bump however, when OCP’s number two man Dick Jones (Ronny Cox) parades the product of his R&D lab before the company board and the company chairman, referred to only as “The Old Man” (Dan O’Herlihy). The hulking, prototype robotic law enforcer ED-209 machine guns unfortunate executive Kinney (Kevin Page) to a bloody pulp during a simulated exercise to demonstrate its abilities. Mid-grade executive Bob Morton (Miguel Ferrer), assigned to develop contingency projects in case of the ED-209’s failure to perform, steams in to steal Jones’s thunder and capture the Old Man’s interest with his alternative: his notion is to create a cyborg incorporating the brain and know-how of a real policeman.
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Morton is already busy trying to orchestrate the ready providing of a good test subject, by restructuring the police force and putting good candidates into dangerous positions. One such candidate, Alex Murphy (Peter Weller), arrives for duty at Detroit’s most hazardous precinct, and is partnered up the station’s hard-ass commander Sgt Reed (Robert DoQui) with the equally tough Officer Anne Lewis (Nancy Allen). The partners soon swing into action, chasing down a team of bank robbers commanded by the malevolent and ambitious Clarence Boddicker (Kurtwood Smith), and pursue them to an abandoned steel mill. There, Lewis is knocked out and Murphy, after gunning down one of the crew, is bailed up by the rest and used for target practice by the gang, before Boddicker gives him a coup-de-grace in the head. Rushed to hospital, the medical team can’t save Murphy’s life, but his organic remains become the indispensible central component in Morton’s exercise in Frankensteinian public utility service.
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The savage boardroom sequence offers startling violence amidst arch mockery of corporate culture that has strong overtones of mirthful lampoons from days past like Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter? (1956) and How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying (1967), where young go-getters try to impress the man upstairs with wacky notions. The Old Man gives a speech of hollow self-congratulations met with applause, particularly from the eagerly brownnosing Morton, and hides his face in shame after Jones’ hiccup before admonishing him oh so solemnly, “Dick, I’m very disappointed.” The conceptual starting point is the same as Brett Easton Ellis’ American Psycho as the corporate world is revealed to be an arena of literal life-and-death competition, replete with cocaine orgies and blood-spattered exercises in free enterprise from these upstanding captains of industry, but it’s also a zone of slapstick absurdity, as the Old Man cradles his head in cringing embarrassment in the face of Kinney’s demise. “We steal money to buy coke and sell the coke and make even more money,” says Boddicker’s lieutenant Emil (Paul McCrane), which he holds as basic business acumen, and Boddicker and crew attempt a hostile takeover of a mob drug business.
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Street-level capitalism is soon revealed to be working in harmony with the glass citadels of corporatism, for Boddicker works under the protection of Jones, who offers him the rights to control all the crime proceeds in Delta City. “Good business is where you find it,” Jones and Boddicker both parrot, one of the many catchphrases that recur throughout the film, way-stations of commercialist mind colonisation: everyone in the film, well before Robocop first marches out to battle, is already brainwashed to a certain extent. Glimpses of television in this future are either ads, chop-chop news, or bawdy, soft-porn sitcoms, disgorging another catchphrase, “I’ll buy that for a dollar!” Not, of course, that RoboCop was so unique in terms of its targets when it was released. Corporate honchos, snotty yuppies, and government heavies were kicked about in quite a few ‘80s action films, victims of a lingering suspicion of authority, a hangover in genre film reflexes from the counterculture era but gaining a more blue collar basis in the era of the common man (a couple of years later, in Leviathan, 1989, for instance, a female corporate boss gets a sock in the face from Weller, playing one of the workers she left to die).
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What makes RoboCop so striking in this regard is the way it coherently envisions its future world. The threat of collapse into anarchy is both imminent but also manufactured. The Old Man crows about changes to taxation that have allowed corporate growth at the price of running down civic infrastructure, to which the proposed cure-all is corporate governance. Meanwhile the assailed, under-resourced, cost-ineffective police are driven to the point of considering a strike, something Reed considers utterly verboten. RoboCop is a product intended, like ED-209, to render messy human components to the system unnecessary. And yet Morton’s idea needs the human element. RoboCop’s near-future has hues of dystopia and the shining prospects of renewal on the horizon seem to promise only new dimensions in iniquity. In terms of the science fiction genre in general and in more specific conceptual terms, the entire narrative can be seen as the stage before the construction of the great city of Metropolis (1926).
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In this landscape Murphy is a plain anachronism, a competent cop with a sturdy home life and an old-school delight in the mystique of the western hero, recreating the signature gun-spinning move of his young son’s favourite TV character, T.J. Lazer, protagonist of a sci-fi western blend, and admitting to Lewis that “I get a kick out of it.” Rebirth as RoboCop ironically remakes the gunslinger as futuristic hero, but as a 21st century myth, or at least a 1980s anticipation of one, the context is infinitely more questioning about the actual meaning of such heroism – what was the Old West hero but precursor and defender of more efficient exploitation of the land? RoboCop depicts the search for freedom in immediate and gruelling detail, perceiving the entire world, never mind the computer chips and LED screen that feed fragments of corporate circumspection to Murphy, as a trap of conspiring paradigms. It doesn’t seem at all coincidental that Jones and Boddicker’s association closely resembles that of Frank and Morton in Once Upon a Time in the West (1968), hired gun and business potentate learning from each-other with mutual yearnings to be the other. The true cleverness of RoboCop, and the source of its power, lies in Verhoeven and the screenwriters’ precise feel for what to make sport of and what to take seriously, playing their hero and the other cops absolutely straight. This approach allowed Verhoeven to extend his obsession with the mysterious blurring of the sacred and profane to emblematic extremes.
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Verhoeven’s visual patterns constantly stress the act of seeing, experiencing, processing, and also the limitations imposed upon them. Verhoeven repeatedly returns to Media Brief bulletins and commercials without warning, assaulting the demarcations between standard movie narrative and meta-commentary, between movie-watching as self-evident flow and self-critical process. Point-of-view shots are a constant motif. These kind of shots were increasingly common in this brand of ‘80s sci-fi action movie, the red-drenched viewpoint of the Terminator, the infrared gaudiness of the Predator, evoking new ways of seeing the world through technological media. Verhoeven renders them more purposeful in terms of his hero’s experience. He obliges the audience to spend much time watching this world through Murphy-RoboCop’s eyes, or from those who look on at him with blends of heartache and fear. Murphy’s death and resurrection are first-person events, his viewpoint maintained as doctors try to save his life, in alternation with incredible close-ups of Weller’s glassy blue eyes. Flashback memories take on dimensions of spiritual symbolism, the sight of his wife and son waving to him from the driveway of his house as he drives away becoming a more permanent and piercingly wistful evocation of loss.
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Murphy’s transformation into RoboCop continues in this vein, experience reduced to brief snatches of online awareness, enough time to observe his creation team and overseers like Morton in all their crass and clumsy humanity. RoboCop is supposed to be a completely pliable tool, without memory or sense of self, only a series of simple and unswaying directives to guide his actions. As Murphy-RoboCop rises from his seat to the applause of the technicians and executives, his vision is pixelated by video feed and criss-crossed by targeting grids and computer read-outs, with a viewpoint that’s rigorously linear and straightforward, Verhoeven’s subtle jab at the drab functionality of much Hollywood filmmaking. But dream and memory come to disrupt the way of seeing OCP impose upon him, making the film, in its way, a new paradigm for the classic surrealist creed. Verhoeven cleverly extends the feeling of displacement and the shock of the new as the cops dash through the halls of their precinct trying to catch a glimpse of the outlandish newcomer in their midst, a gleaming hunk of technological force, a masculinised answer to the sleek robot Maria of Metropolis. One of the most logical throwaway details also contains one of its sharpest gags, as RoboCop has to consume a paste close to baby food to keep his organic parts alive, humanity at last perfectly infantilised and rationalised. The film found a way to weaponise David Cronenberg’s dank dreams of body perversion and intrusion.
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RoboCop is sent out to snare the bad guys – one of Verhoeven’s many circular motifs suggests something of Murphy’s spirit is still within RoboCop as he drives out of the precinct car park with sparks in his wake on the steep ramp. Verhoeven compresses vignettes of totemic pop vigilantism into gems of black comedy here, as he offers several hilariously hyperbolic versions of the kinds of street crimes reported breathlessly on nightly news and in cheesy movies. A stick-up man with a machine gun terrorising a market. A pair of denim-clad rapists. Disgruntled former councillor Ron Miller (Mark Carlton) holding the mayor hostage. The stick-up man is easily sent flying into a refrigerator as his bullets ricochet off RoboCop’s armour. More wit is required to take down the rapists: RoboCop successfully shoots between their victim’s legs to make mincemeat of an offending member. The hostage-taker is dragged through a wall and punched out a window (one of my favourite parts of the film is the terrorist’s list of demands to the negotiating cop outside, including fresh coffee, his job back, and a new car, and the cop’s assurance: “Let the Mayor go and we’ll even throw in a Blaupunkt.”) So successful are RoboCop’s forays that Morton’s hubris becomes outsized, crowing to the media that crime will be wiped out in 90 days and dissing Jones in the executive washroom at OCP without realising the target himself is in a toilet stall. Morton is soon assured he’s truly earned an enemy, but doesn’t quite realised how dangerous an enemy until Boddicker barges his way into Morton’s house, shoots him in the legs, and leaves him to watch a DVD of Jones gloating as a bomb ticks down to zero.
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Just prior to getting his goose cooked, Verhoeven gleefully portrays Morton and a pair of models indulging lashings of snow white and fetid sexuality, in a scene that feels eminently like the filmmakers probably witnessed such a scene or perhaps even indulged it somewhere in the Hollywood hills: “God I love to be with intelligent women,” Morton crows to the dimwit pair before snorting coke off one’s tits, summarising the mindset of the executive sexist with cruel exactitude. Boddicker and his crew, by contrast to the corporate corsairs, are a multiracial bunch of scumbags and overgrown school bullies who enjoy turmoil and tormenting, evinced as they sadistically blow pieces off Murphy, and later Emil threatens a geeky gas station worker (“Are you some kind of college boy?…Think you can outsmart a bullet?”). They’re logical end-products of a society based around dumbing things down and celebrating ruthless muscle. That process is in itself a product of the torturing dualism that Verhoeven constantly perceives in the human condition. People at the pinnacle want the seamy pleasure those as the bottom can give them; those at the bottom wish to drag everything down but then ascend in its place. By the time the cops do actually strike and leave the streets to the marauders, the crew unleash their casual destructive impulses with an impunity reminiscent of Verhoeven’s antihero in Turkish Delight, a madcap incarnation of impulse and basic organic hunger detached from all natural feeling for higher function, as well as the ensnared bisexual protagonist of The Fourth Man, who finds himself trapped between sweat-inducing desire and beckoning transcendence.
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Murphy meanwhile experiences the return of consciousness as a digital glitch, the face of his killer leering at him in fuzzy dream, wrenching him out of repose and driving him out into the night, with Lewis’ attempt to reach the man within – “Murphy, it’s you!” – ringing in his ears. Encountering Emil as he robs the gas station, mutual recognition spooks both men, and the device of recognition is, of course, a catchphrase: Murphy’s favourite quip, perhaps also culled from T.J. Lazer, “Dead or alive, you’re coming with me.” Some of the film’s funniest jokes are also its least subtle, like the constant repetitions of the diminutive of Jones’ first name, and the key object of consumerist fancy, the 6000-SUX sports car, a car that fulfils the dream of conspicuous consumption – it nicely meets Miller’s criteria for his dream car that it give “really shitty gas mileage.” Verhoeven returns to the first-person style as Murphy for an amazing sequence where his trash satire and poetic sense of elusive memory work in perfect tandem, following the breadcrumb trail back through Emil’s arrest record through to what used to be his home. Here he finds a smarmy salesman guiding him through his house on video screens, reducing the setting of his life to a series of metrics and brand names, whilst the ghostly memories of his wife (Angie Bolling) and son (Jason Levine) loom before him, conjured out of the past and dissolving again. Murphy, in his prowling distress, punches in one of the salesman video screens, the first overt act of revolt against the overwhelming web of choking commercialism and phony pleasantry glimpsed throughout the film. Characteristically, Verhoeven eases back from the emotional crescendo with a return to comedy whilst still managing to step up the narrative pace as he makes a crash-cut to a nightclub, as Murphy hunts down another of Boddicker’s associates, Leon (Ray Wise). Leon tries to kick the cyborg in the balls but of course gets only some broken toes for his pains and the dancing denizens hoot in approval as Murphy drags Leon out by his hair.
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One of Verhoeven’s master strokes was in casting, putting actors in vividly counter-intuitive roles, like casting the eternally girlish Allen as a tough cop, Cox, best known before this as the dreamiest member of the rowing foursome in Deliverance (1972), as a raging, strutting prick, and Smith, who mostly had played cops in various TV shows before this, as a brutal bandit king, utilising his aura of intelligent authority with an extra layer of antisocial acidity, converting all his lines into little arias of cruel humour. Weller had been circling the edges of stardom for a few years before being cast as Murphy, in cultish fare like Of Unknown Origin (1983), in which he played an everyman doing battle with a giant rat, and the title role of Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the Eighth Dimension (1984), where he played a polymath pulp hero; the diversity of such parts signalled both Weller’s skill as an actor and also his peculiar physiognomy, spindly, slightly hangdog, but equipped with soulful eyes and cupid lips. The latter feature being just about all you can see of him throughout RoboCop and so vital to his presence, some remnant of the human, the romantic, amidst the technocratic fantasia. Weller’s ingenuity as an actor is vital to selling RoboCop, in the mechanical gait of the character, the way he seems to struggle against his new form and then to use it effectively express his rage and distress as he begins to regain his memory. Somehow he manages to make all the stages of his role effectively expressive – from the all-too-vulnerable Murphy to the grimly stoic cyborg to the blank, haunted, quietly resolved remnant that emerges towards the end.
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Murphy’s crashing of a business meeting between Boddicker and a drug kingpin (Lee DeBroux) sees him wipe out a small army of hoodlums, and bash Boddicker around until he tries to warn off Murphy by telling him Jones looks after him, but it’s rather the reminder that Murphy is a cop that saves Boddicker’s life. Instead he casts him to Reed and heads off to arrest Jones, but soon finds a wicked limitation placed upon him – the incapacity to take action against an OCP employee, ingrained in his programming. In this future there is quite literally one law for the rich and another for the rest. Murphy has to elude an ED-209 set upon him by Jones – fortunately, that monstrosity, in what feels like a grand joke aimed at decades worth of impractical robots in movies, can’t negotiate the stairs – and then is almost shredded by the combined fire of ranks of cops called out to deal with the apparently rogue cyborg. Basil Poledouris’ tremendous scoring reaches an apogee here in the grand yet mournful evocation of mecha-Christ crucified over and over again. Lewis manages to snatch Murphy away and helps him self-repair and recuperate in the same steel mill where he was first shot up, and Jones sends Boddicker and crew after him, equipped with explosive shell-lobbing guns. Verhoeven, via Murphy and Lewis, dishes out nasty comeuppances to the criminals, but with a seething overlay of perverse, Looney Tunes-esque comedy: Emil, immersed in the contents of a well-labelled vat of toxic waste, is reduced to a grotesque mass of melting flesh before being run down by Boddicker; Leon is blown to smithereens by Lewis just as he whoops in triumph after trapping Murphy under some junk, and Boddicker gets skewered in the throat by Murphy’s data plug when he gets just a little too close to crow over his pinioned opponent, a deadly steel spike that also looks like an installation art take on flipping the bird.
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What holds RoboCop together is the conviction with which Verhoeven and Weller celebrate their heroes, the cops both human and augmented, even as just about everything around them is revealed to be some sort of sham. When Verhoeven would return to a similar blend of high cynicism and straight-laced thrills on Starship Troopers (1997), a lot more people didn’t, or wouldn’t, get the joke even as Verhoeven unsubtly clad his spacefaring warriors in Nazi-esque uniforms. Such a lapse that time around was due in large part because Verhoeven offered no wriggle room between the fascist precepts of his future society and the aims of the heroes obliged to live in it; on the contrary, the film unstintingly states that their qualities and desires are rather exactly fulfilled and expiated by that society, and infers a similar dynamic can seduce all of us. That quality in some ways makes Starship Troopers the more sophisticated and slyly unsparing as a ransacking of genre film, but in another sense the lack of such tension foils it; it can’t thrill in the way RoboCop can, and so isn’t as effectively two-faced. Murphy returns to OCP Headquarters to handle unfinished business, blowing up the ED-209 with quick efficiency – somehow Tippet and the sound effects team manage to turn the death reel of the decapitate robot, which collapses with a ratcheting click of its wayward toes, into a hilarious moment – before bursting into the company boardroom to brand Jones as a killer before the Old Man and all the other corporate sharks. But Murphy cannot fire, not until the Old Man delivers the true assassination according to his world’s values, by firing Jones as he holds a gun to his head.
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This conclusion offers rowdy, crowd-pleasing flourishes with a sarcasm so complete it circles right back around to earnestness, as Morton’s executive pal Johnson (Felton Perry) gives Murphy and thumbs-up, and the Old Man slides back into western flick argot – “Nice shootin’ son.” The executives, like the audience and Murphy himself, in the end desperately want and need the western hero to exist even when it completely cuts against the grain of all logic. Similarly, Murphy’s final, simple, smiling utterance of his name carries enormous power precisely because of the farcicality, the grotesquery that surrounds him, and the hilariousness of the context only sharpens the sting of Murphy’s self-reclamation. RoboCop was such a hit that inevitably it spawned sequels, but just how essential Verhoeven’s touch had been, and how smart Miner and Neumeir’s writing had been, was soon confirmed. The first follow-up, Irvin Kershner’s RoboCop 2 (1990), proved a disastrous mess which just about everyone involved blamed everyone else for, retreading most aspects of the original but this time with the foulness turned up full and the stabs at humour and excitement utterly leaden. Weller refused to return for the third instalment, released in 1993, helmed by Fred Dekker, so Robert John Burke was cast in the role instead. This time the result swung too far in the other direction from the second entry, playing more like an extended TV pilot with goofy humour and a broad approach. Still, it did actually manage to provide a worthier follow-up. Jose Padilha’s would-be thoughtful but actually merely verbose and heavy-footed remake from 2014 tried to turn its own by-committee, brand-exploiting status into the very subject of its riff, but neglected everything else, and simply reduced proceedings to a crying bore. Some prototypes, it turns out, just can’t be reproduced.

Standard
1970s, 1980s, Action-Adventure, Family Films, Fantasy, Scifi

Galaxy Express 999 (1979) / Adieu, Galaxy Express 999: Final Stop Andromeda (1981)

Ginga Tetsudô Surî-Nain / Sayônara, Ginga Tetsudô Surî-Nain: Andromeda Shûchakueki

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Director: Rintaro
Screenwriters: Kon Ichikawa, Shirô Ishimori; Hiroyasu Yamaura

By Roderick Heath

Leiji Matsumoto isn’t a household name outside of Japan except to fans of manga and anime, Japan’s beloved, specific styles in cartooning and animation. But for anyone who does love those art forms, he’s been one of pop culture’s most vital figures, and even those who don’t might still have felt his influence in their childhood TV watching and their contemporary moviegoing. Matsumoto, born in Fukuoka in 1938, helped spark a popular sci-fi boom and a revival of the romantic early style in the genre called space opera, a few years before Star Wars (1977) officially did the same thing in the west. Matsumoto’s love of the space opera mode took some time to gain traction in his early career, and he gained his breakthrough with Otoko Oidon, a manga about a young man struggling to get into college. That project might seem light years away from Matsumoto’s later repute for fantastical dreamings, but rooted all his work in authentic reflections on rites of passage for boys struggling to achieve manhood and define what that means. Matsumoto’s success was sealed when he was hired to develop a concept by a producer for a tale about space travellers on a desperate mission to save the Earth from alien assault. Matsumoto’s take saw a wrecked World War II battleship rebuilt as a spaceship, a bizarre notion that nonetheless proved the key to the idea’s success. A TV adaptation of Matsumoto’s manga, Space Battleship Yamato, or Star Blazers as it was called for its first English-language dub, became a perennial touchstone for anime.

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Space Battleship Yamato defined Matsumoto’s unique touch, his fascination for combining the super-futuristic with the bygone and antiquated, a sense of possibility and longing at once childlike and sophisticated, and vigorous, spectacular action colliding with dreamy lyricism. Matsumoto soon began producing a clutch of beloved characters who evolved to share a fictional universe in his manga and various adaptations for television and cinema, including Galaxy Express 999 and Space Pirate Captain Harlock, making him one of the first artists of his kind to really embrace what is now called intertextuality. The French electronica outfit Daft Punk so idolised Matsumoto they talked him into directing Interstella 5555 (2003), a feature-length tale woven around the music from their album Discovery. Matsumoto’s style transposed a very personal and localised sensibility onto happily harvested concepts and tropes from a global tradition in sci-fi and fantasy. Growing up in the midst of war and resulting devastation profoundly impacted upon his creative attitude, and his beloved franchises gained much of their power from an informing anxiety about the tragedies of defeat and loss and the irreparable state of lost innocence and youth. Galaxy Express 999 was first made into a popular TV series and then adapted into a film version by Rintaro, one of the storied hands of anime who had first gained repute working on morning children’s programming perennials Astro Boy and Kimba the White Lion series in the 1960s, adaptations of another legend of manga and anime, Osamu Tezuka.

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Rintaro (born Shigeyuki Hayashi) became chief director on the TV version of Matsumoto’s Space Pirate Captain Harlock, and went on to helm many successful anime series and films including a chapter in the acclaimed Neo-Tokyo (1987) and Metropolis (2001). Rintaro worked with Matsumoto, who was credited as planner on the film and, most interestingly, the director Kon Ichikawa, maker of such classics as The Burmese Harp (1956) and Fires on the Plain (1959). Ichikawa had started his career in animation and began dipping his toe back into the field in the ‘70s, and served here as supervisor and co-screenwriter with Shirô Ishimori. Ichikawa’s talents for adaptation and feel for mediating a poetic lustre meshed with Matsumoto’s vision and Rintaro’s visual skill. Galaxy Express 999 revolves around a similar motif to Space Battleship Yamato, a spaceship voyaging through the void built to resemble a far less sophisticated piece of technology, in this case a steam train, in a storyline replete with picaresque discursions but always arcing towards an ultimate confrontation with a formidable foe. But the martial valour and warlike spectacle of the other series were swapped out here in favour of images and ideas more redolent of westerns, and an overall aesthetic that pushed Matsumoto’s romantic and sentimental streaks to the fore.

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Matsumoto’s sci-fi style had a host of readily recognisable inspirations, including the Victoriana dreaming of Jules Verne and H.G. Wells and space opera of E.E. ‘Doc’ Smith and Alex Raymond, but he also drew on more specifically Japanese properties, particularly the novel Night on the Galactic Railroad by Kenji Miyazawa. There’s a strong similarity in sensibility, too, to works like the poet Hagiwara Sakutarô’s poem “Night Train,” and the opening chapter of novelist Yasunari Kawabata’s Snow Country, where the act of travelling by train takes on near-spiritual dimensions, being dissolving into a near-ethereal state of communion. From Sakutarô:

Near daybreak in the dark
Fingerprints chill on the window
Like a soft spill of mercury
White glimmer on the mountains
Passengers hang between sleep and waking
Over them the light-bulbs
sigh with fatigue
(…)
Unexpectedly
we draw close in sadness
and gazing at the eastern clouds
watch light touch
a nameless village in the mountains.

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Galaxy Express 999 unfolds in a future where humankind has achieved tremendous technological leaps to colonise many nearby planets and travel to distant galaxies. But a new force is taking hold and redefining existence, as an increasing number of people are travelling on the famous Galaxy Express 999 transport to its distant, scarcely-seen final stop to swap their frail mortal shells for cybernetic bodies, and conflict between the finite and the virtually immortal seems to be nascent. Young Tetsurô Hoshino (voiced by Masako Nozawa) is an orphan living a hardscrabble existence on the streets of an Earth city called Megalopolis. Tetsuro harbours relentless ambition to get off the Earth again and track down the nefarious robotic overlord Count Mecha (Hidekatsu Shibata), who murdered his mother for sport when they accidentally strayed into his hunting grounds whilst traversing a distant colonial planet. Idolising the outlaws of space whose faces he sees on posters, including Captain Harlock and his fellow pirate Emereldas, Tetsuro wants to obtain a robotic body of his own so he can stand a chance in battle with the Count. He tries to steal a pass for the Galaxy Express from a passenger at a ticketing office, bringing down the wrath of law enforcement.

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Tetsuro glimpses a mysterious woman during his escape, and she helps him evade the cops and hide in her apartment. Tetsuro is startled by the woman’s resemblance to his dead mother, and the woman, whose name is Maetel (Masako Ikeda), agrees to help him achieve his goals. She buys a ticket for Tetsuro and becomes his travelling companion as the Express blasts off into space. The inherently dreamlike conceit of an intergalactic craft that looks like a rattling old steam train is mediated through some expertly deployed technobabble as the engine, actually an incredible, self-aware piece of engineering, sustains all within an “anti-energy infinite-source electro-magnetic barrier.” More importantly, as Maetel explains to her young charge, it’s an aesthetic choice that means the same thing to its passengers as to the movie viewer: it’s designed to foster a sense of nostalgic delight to offset the intensely alienating sensation of travelling deep space and encountering a vast and teeming cosmos.

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Tetsuro gets to know the train’s crew, including its assiduous Conductor (Kaneta Kimotsuki), a squat, glowing-eyed entity in an official uniform, and the attendant Claire (Yôko Asagami), a robotised girl whose body is made of transparent crystal. The Express stays for the length of one day on each planet it lands on, which can be, in Earth time, a couple of hours or a couple of weeks. When it lands on Titan, which has been colonised and terraformed into a lush and rustic backwater, Maetel is kidnapped by some bandits headed by the bristling old warrior Antares (Yasuo Hisamatsu), who is dedicated to battling off the encroachment of the robots and raises a gang of children, all orphans made by Count Mecha. Ignoring Maetel’s pleas for him not to risk himself by chasing her, Tetsuro tracks down the bandits, who test both him and Maetel with x-rays to see if either is a robot; surprisingly, Maetel proves to be entirely human. Tetsuro encounters an old woman (Miyoko Asô) living alone in a cabin, and she finds him so similar to her long-lost son Tochirô in his fighting spirit that she gives him two of her valued possessions: a battered-looking hat, and a laser pistol, the only one of its kind capable of killing robots.

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The movie narrative reproduces the episodic storyline inherited from the manga and TV series, as the Express moves from planet to planet. The filmmakers turn this to their advantage, as each new world reflects as aspect of Tetsuro’s psychological journey as well as his external quest, whilst also suggesting encapsulations of different epochs in recent history. The crude arcadian beauty of Titan blesses Tetsuro with a grandmotherly figure and allows him to step into the shoes of the missing Tochirô to gain a more specific identity, and accumulates the garb and convictions of a mature being. When he and Maetel next disembark on Pluto, which is used as a giant refrigeration unit to keep the discarded mortal shells of the robotised humans, Tetsuro encounters Shadow (Toshiko Fujita), a robotised woman who fills the job of caretaker for the ice cemetery to be close to her own human body, a beautiful corpse she keeps in a glass coffin to pine for and worship. Desperate for human contact, she tries to claim an unwilling Tetsuro as her child, but Maetel fends her off. Maetel herself seems fascinated by something in the ice which Tetsuro doesn’t get to see. Here lurks the threat of frigid emotional stasis and a frightening surrogate mother figure who provides a distorting mirror to Maetel in the role.

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The gritty frontier atmosphere of Trader’s Fork reproduces a western feel and exploits that genre’s suppressed evocation of rootless melancholy to convey Tetsuro’s alienation as he encounters other characters, like the sad chanteuse Ryuzu (Noriko Ohara) and the real Tochirô (Kei Tomiyama), who share his state of exile and longing. Tetsuro gains a peculiar family in the form of ambiguous but devoted Maetel and the train’s crew of oddballs, and fearsome friends and comrades in the form of Harlock (Makio Inoue) and Emereldas (Reiko Tajima), who both intercept the Express and find their fates linked to Tetsuro’s. Antares has told Tetsuro that only Emereldas knows where Count Mecha’s wandering Time Castle can be found at any time, so when her spaceship flies by the Express Tetsuro brings it to a halt with a blast from his pistol and soon finds himself confronting the fearsome female pirate, who proves, despite all to be defined once more by a pining absence, longing for a lost lover who proves to be the sickly, dying Tochirô. Tetsuro finds Tochirô in the wastes of Trader’s Fork and helps him achieve his dying ambition, uploading his consciousness into a computer system so he can serve as the navigation system for his comrade Harlock’s space ship. Harlock turns up shortly after to thank Tetsuro for giving his friend’s mortal remains a burial, and repays the favour by beating up some of Count Mecha’s goons who have attacked Tetsuro.

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Tetsuro is the hero of Galaxy Express 999, but it’s Maetel who is its most obsessive locus of images and pivotal figure, and the ultimate example of Matsumoto’s obsessive figure of femininity. Her iconography is exact, with her cascading mane of blonde hair and huge, long, limpid eyes, and all-black garb of fur coat and cap, resembling some fey-gifted young Russian Countess riding the Trans-Siberian circa 1900, the centrepiece of the film’s uniquely Proustian take on sci-fi adventure. She’s dogged by an air of inexplicable melancholia, her mystique in seeming both infinitely enigmatic and yet deeply familiar embodying a half-forgotten ideal from childhood. Willowy and fragile-looking, she nonetheless constantly proves more powerful than she seems. She’s at war with her own identity in profound and disturbing ways, as it’s revealed she’s the daughter of Queen Promethium (Ryôko Kinomiya), the terrifying, witch-like mastermind and controller of the robot horde. A weirdly dichotomous charge wells up when Tetsuro accidentally walks in upon her in the shower, and Maetel comes to occupy a perverse Freudian nexus as, alternatively an echo of Tetsuro’s mother, avatar for a worldly big sister, and a dream of first love.

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This aspect makes Galaxy Express 999 feel crucially similar to Jaromil Jires’ Valerie and Her Week of Wonders (1970) in contending with the intensely protean experience of adolescence where the roles of life and the people who fill them blur into commonality. In the series Tetsuro was a small, naïve boy, where in the film he’s on the cusp of adolescence. It’s ultimately revealed that Maetel is actually inhabiting a cloned reproduction of Tetsuro’s mother’s body, which doubles down on the perversity. The other female characters – the wretched Shadow, haunted Ryuzu, sweetly transparent (literally) Claire, brooding, powerful Emereldas – all resemble her (aptly, in one of his revisits to his creation, Matsumoto revealed Maetel and Emereldas are twin sisters). This is certainly partly because of Matsumoto’s famous basic template for his romantic heroines, but it also makes perfect sense given they can all be seen as reflections or distillations of the essence of a cosmic feminine Tetsuro chases across the void but can never quite take a proper grip of as he matures. Tetsuro’s physique sharply contrasts his partner’s, a short urchin with a round face and squiggle of a nose, he almost becomes lost to the eye once he dons his complete signature costume, with overcoat and hat reminiscent of Clint Eastwood’s in his Sergio Leone westerns.

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Tetsuro himself has many doppelgangers and brothers in spirit, from Harlock, who stands as an idealised version of the man he’d like to be, Tetsuro, whose boots he steps into, and Antares, the grizzled old warrior who’s taken on duty of care to a host of waifs with the same tragic story. The theme of life journey conjoins with Matsumoto’s anxious confrontation with the forces of modern transformation, which had gone through a breakneck process in his youth: the Galaxy Express itself belongs to an evocation of a pre-war world and dreams of gilt splendour as glimpsed in the retro classiness of the great railway station Tetsuro and Maetel pass through, even in the surrounds of the glittering superstructure of Megalopolis. The new and the old are in constant dialogue throughout, both in terms of physical entities and the gap between action and remembering. Tetsuro’s desperate desire to grow up and take on the evils in his universe is constantly retarded by a growing awareness of the ephemeral nature of his life. Maetel carries a device that allows one person to tap into the dreams of another, a sublime metaphor for the act of creating and sharing art itself, and also a vessel for mutual comprehension, or lack of it, for the characters: Tetsuro’s maturation is measured in part by his choice not to tap into Maetel’s dreams, for all his desire to parse her foreboding opacity.

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Matsumoto’s gleeful mix-and-match of ages and styles is even justified in terms of his tale’s internal logic as the characters are all desperate to locate themselves through clinging on to pieces of the past, to familiar and amusing things that subvert the impersonality of an oncoming state of total, alienated modernity, embodied by the robot people. The tavern full of toughs all weep in listening to Ryuzu’s song of longing for lost childhood. It’s not until they reach their destination in the Andromeda galaxy that they confront a shining, alien, inimical bastion of pure modernity that just so happens to look like any sleek new train station or airport, a setting equated with the loss of identity, physicality, and the pleasures of liminal existence. The robotised people Tetsuro encounters are all haunted by their loss of it, like Claire, who gained her crystal form to please her mother, or driven into utter hysteria, like Shadow, or completely lose humanity, like Count Mecha. Ryuzu testifies to abandoning her human body to please the count and eventually evolving into a spiritual force with power over time itself, but losing in the process all sense of tangible existence. The basic theme could be read Rintaro and Matsumoto’s next-generation burlesque on the comfortable power fantasy of Tezaku’s Astro Boy as well as mediating the post-human disquiet of arguably the most famous anime works, Akira (1987) and Ghost in the Shell (1995).

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Despite being produced on a relatively small budget, Galaxy Express 999 proved the biggest hit of the year at the Japanese box office upon release, a sea-change moment that coincided with Hayao Miyazaki’s debut on Lupin III: The Castle of Cagliostro in announcing cinematic anime’s arrival as a potent cultural force. Miyazaki’s later films would often sport his particular brand of young heroine who combine the qualities of Tetsuro and Maetel. Galaxy Express 999 was soon taken up by New World Studios and became the first anime film in many years to be released in the US, albeit in a sharply truncated form. The animation style of the film is fairly limited because of the budget, and yet it’s a stream of visual pleasures, particularly the ecstatic sequence when the train takes off for the first time, Tetsuro’s enthralled perspective conjuring the sight of his mother in the stars set to a theme song provided by the band Godiego, best known for scoring the cult TV show Monkey; the band were experts at creating a sound at once carefree and wistful. There’s a strong echo of Yellow Submarine (1968) throughout, not just in the basic conceptual conceit but also in the evocations of a fantasy landscape built out of the detritus of a nostalgic perception of the world, a child’s vision of adult realms inflated and transmuted into the stuff of dreams.

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That quality is apparent in settings like the towering, cavernous halls of the Express’s railway station, and echoes on through the film’s visions of surreal splendour. Shots of the train speeding across the face of the Earth and amongst the stars and planets, and descending through the cloudy atmosphere of Titan. A Plutonic landscape of hazy grey clouds and hovering moons with thousands of human bodies locked in the ice. The abstract green sworls and winging snowflakes around Tetsuro and his mother as she dies, her hair shimmering in the wind, and the appearance of Count Mecha and his hunters with their single huge glowing eyes. The grotesque sight of Tetsuro’s mother’s body mounted and stuffed in Mecha’s banquet hall, in the midst of his faux-gothic castle. The stark, near-featureless faces of Shadow and Queen Promethium, whose dress is bedecked with stars and whose appearance most clearly echoes a figure out of Noh. When Tetsuro finally locates the Time Castle thanks to Emereldas, he sneaks into its halls and finds that Ryuzu is Mecha’s concubine and servant, and is promptly surrounded by the Count android guards. But Antares appears, having followed Tetsuro, and helps him annihilate Mecha’s guards and finally, heroically blows apart the shield Mecha and Ryuzu hide behind, whilst Ryuzu fatefully betrays Mecha by refusing to transport them in time, giving Tetsuro the chance to shoot the Count dead. Ryuzu grievingly strips down to her robotic body and lies with Mecha as he and his castle crumble into a rusty pile of scrap.

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Success against Mecha does not sate Tetsuro’s anger, however, as he now believes robotisation is a scourge destroying all that’s worthy about life. He resolves to travel on to the last stop on the Express’s route to the machine planet and destroy it to. But he’s in for a rude shock as he learns the name of the planet is the same as his travelling companion, and learns from the robots who meet him at the station that although he’s killed the robots’ hero Count Mecha, he’s nonetheless a very fit candidate to be turned into a cybernetic component of the planet’s vast machine complexes. Stung and betrayed, Tetsuro smacks Maetel and is strapped to an operating table under Promethium’s approving gaze. But Maetel’s own, ultimate purpose finally reveals itself: she carries with her an amulet device containing the stored consciousness of her father, who is appalled by what Promethium has become, and intends destroying the machine planet, having stored up an explosive lode of energy to do so. Harlock and Emereldas throw in their support, attacking the planet with their pirate vessels to give their comrades a chance. Maetel falters on the very precipice of destroying her mother’s empire, so Tetsuro has to help her throw the amulet into Promethium’s power supply, whereupon the planet begins to disintegrate. Maetel and Tetsuro manage to get back to the Express, but find Promethium has managed to get aboard too. Rather than let her kill Tetsuro, the only person she ever felt was truly her friend, Claire grabs the Queen and detonates her own robotic body, blowing both of them up. Tetsuro pockets the only piece of Claire remaining, a piece of crystal shaped like a teardrop.

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Maetel’s considered act of parricide, however necessary, cruelly mimics Tetsuro’s own orphaning, releasing them both from the obligations of identity but also now needing to reconstruct themselves: for Maetel this means recovering her original body. And of course, being as they are a pair who love each-other but who cannot reconcile it to any familiar life role, they’re doomed to never quite meet in any sense, and Maetel delivers Tetsuro back to Earth and leaves again on the Express after a jolting moment when she kisses him on the mouth. In a moment reminiscent of the finale of David Lean’s Summertime (1957), Tetsuro runs alongside the Express as it departs, with Maetel gazing back at him, becoming the ghost of all things lost in growing up. It’s one of cinema’s great tragic finales, so of course there had to be a sequel. Adieu, Galaxy Express: Final Stop Andromeda was released two years later. Far from releasing the galaxy from robotic domination, Tetsuro’s actions prove to have sparked all-out war between humans and mechanicals. Hordes of robots are laying waste to Megalopolis, and Tetsuro is now one of a ragged and weary band of resistance fighters cowering in the ruins. Tetsuro settles down in a muddy puddle in his disheartened and exhausted mindset, only for the old, tough commander of the unit to tell him he might as well be choosing death. One night whilst gazing up into the sky, Tetsuro sees the familiar glowing green squiggle that is the Express’s wake coiling through the sky, but no-one’s seen it land on Earth in ages.

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Nonetheless Tetsuro soon receives a device from a dying runner carrying a voice message from Maetel calling him to board the Express. The rest of his unit volunteer to help him get by the robot patrols to the station, at the cost of their lives: the old commander uses his dying breaths to make sure the Express can take off. Tetsuro soon finds, to his bewilderment, he’s the only passenger on the Express and that Maetel is not on board. The Conductor introduces him to Claire’s replacement, a robot maid named Metalmena (Yôko Asagami), who claims to have taken the job to get a chance to get hold of “the most precious thing in the universe.” The Express makes its first stop on the planet La-Metal, where the human settlers are battling the robots. Tetsuro is wounded by a flying robotic sentry and saved by a guerrilla unit, and he becomes friends with an alien warrior, Meowdar (Kei Tomiyama). The duo explore a ruined castle and find huge portraits hanging on the wall that look startlingly like Promethium and Maetel, and Meowdar tells Tetsuro the rumour abroad that Maetel has taken her mother’s place as controller of the empire. Tetsuro is so enraged by this notion he slogs Meowdar. The two are almost captured in a robot ambush, but the appearance of Harlock’s ship helps them escape. Parting as friends, Meowdar leaves Tetsuro at the La-Metal station, where Maetel appears, striding out of the steam plumes, entirely unchanged.

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It’s not explained why Maetel never recovered her body and with the portrait on the castle suggesting she’s always looked this way, the cloned body idea seems to have been dropped (pedantic consistency of detail was never something Matsumoto’s properties have been famous for anyway). Tetsuro is joyous upon seeing Maetel again, but becomes increasingly perplexed and aggravated as she fends off his questions and encourages him to leave the Express. The train has strange encounters with other vessels. A craft the Conductor calls the Ghost Train bullies its way past the Express, much to the engine’s shame and chagrin. A spaceship commanded by a menacing cyborg calling himself Lord Faust (Tôru Emori), who seems to have a specific interest in Tetsuro comes next. Maetel almost gets herself killed leaping between the two when Tetsuro tries to shoot Faust, and his spaceship explodes from damage Tetsuro’s gun makes. Tetsuro makes it aboard the Express and Maetel is plucked on the edge of death from space by Emereldas, turning up in the nick of time. During a stopover on the heavily industrialised planet of Mosaic, Tetsuro sees the Ghost Train parked and thinks he hears the sound of a music box belonging to Meowdar, but he can’t break into the menacing craft. Maetel finally reveals that she didn’t send the message that brought Tetsuroi aboard the Express, and someone wants him to come to the true capital of the Machine Empire, Great Andromeda. Soon enough the Express gets there and Tetsuro learns that Meowdar wasn’t wrong: Maetel really has returned to take her mother’s place as queen, and Promethium’s remnant consciousness is still sustained as part of the planet infrastructure.

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Adieu, Galaxy Express is darker and punchier in many respects than its predecessor, kicking off with scenes of grimy warfare and cyberpunk terror that sharply anticipate oncoming preoccupation with apocalyptic imagery in much acclaimed ‘80s and ‘90s anime. The plot leads into a revelation that evokes Soylent Green (1972) as well as carrying strong holocaust connotations as Tetsuro learns that the energy pills the robot people take to sustain themselves contains life force drained out of captured humans, ferried to Great Andromeda on the Ghost Train. The film also displays increased directorial ambition from Rintaro working with crisper, more fluid and confident animation, apparent in an emphasis on dreamlike ellipses like the fades in and out of black interspersing the credits with the opening scenes and flashing, mono-colour backgrounds the envelope Tetsuro in moments of pain and crisis, and some cleverly animated battle sequences, including a nod to North by Northwest (1959) as Tetsuro is pursued by a flying robot sentinel. The Express’s arrival at Great Andromeda, passing through barriers of time, space, and energy, becomes a dazzling psychedelic interlude, particularly well-scored by electropop artist Osamu Shoji. Both films are marvellously scored at that, the first replete with syrupy beauty by Nozomi Aoki and the second with Shoji’s spacier synthesiser strains.

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But Adieu, Galaxy Express noticeably lacks the sense of poetic metaphor that made the first film so striking, and wields a more generic edge to its animation concepts at times. The absence of Ichikawa’s input on the sequel tells, and the plot essentially boils down to a retread of the original’s, with appearances by the likes of Harlock and Emereldas feeling like afterthoughts. The best call-back is the most minimal, as Tetsuro catches a glimpse of Shadow still watching over her frozen charges in silent pathos. Maetel doesn’t turn up for a good fifty minutes, which means the film lacks its obsessive pole to Tetsuro’s for too long. Still, it’s just as desperately romantic and outsized in its evocations of dire emotional straits, becoming particularly gruelling as Meowdar and Metalmena die, and offers up moments of deliriously transformed emotionalism like Harlock’s mouthless female alien crewmember weeping spherical, crystal tears. Rintaro offers ideas reminiscent of Mario Bava’s Operazione Paura (1966) in his portrayal of a malign mother punishing a hostile world and following a relentless quest for power ever since she and an infant Maetel were exiled from their home on La-Metal, a tragedy suggested as in Bava through portraits on the walls of a ruined castle. High gothic paraphernalia and technological Gotterdammerung collide as Maetel once more confronts her mother and steps into her shoes – if only, as it proves, to access a sanctum and find out the truth behind the fate of the human captives. Metalmena’s object of desire proves to be Maetel’s body itself, hoping to transfer her consciousness into it, but learning just where the power capsules she likes consuming come from drives Metalmena to attack some of the robot guards, getting herself terribly wounded but earning Tetsuro’s admiration.

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Adieu, Galaxy Express also goes memorably for broke in a spectacular finale when an even more formidable threat than Prometheum and the mechanical empire appears, a force dubbed Siren the Witch, an all-consuming cosmic void attracted by the wealth of energy on Great Andromeda. As Siren begins sucking in everything in its path, the crews of the Express and the pirate ships have to try and make headway whilst not using their computer systems or other sophisticated machinery, which means for the Express quite literally driving its engine with coal in the boiler. Meanwhile Tetsuro has to duel the looming Faust upon the train roof, trying to use the lesson he learnt for Meowdar about listening for robotic enemies rather than looking for them. Tetsuro wins the duel, only for Faust to reveal, as he drifts off into Siren’s maw, that he’s Tetsuro’s long-lost father: it was he who arranged Tetsuro’s journey so they could fight out the basic battles between human and mechanical, old and young. There’s such wild spectacle here, with an undercurrent thrusting the material back into the correct zone of Oedipal frenzy, that it makes up for the feeling of déjà vu, and also suggesting the ultimate irony that a Matsumoto property was suddenly in debt to George Lucas rather than vice versa.

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A bittersweet coda beholds the wastes of Great Andromeda, reduced to the frozen asteroid it was originally, the ghost of Prometheum’s consciousness still clinging to it in delirious longing for her daughter’s touch, who stands upon the planetoid with Tetsuro regarding the waste. The most interesting, tantalising, painful idea constantly repeated throughout the two films is the awareness that gaining anything, from victory over evil to achieving maturity, usually requires losing something just as vital, and to exist means being gnawed at eternally by that sense of loss. Inevitably, Maetel parts from Tetsuro once more, now with the stated awareness that she’s a wanderer in time whose job it is to help other boys grow up, and Tetsuro’s last wail of her name from the departing Express still carries with it the charge of loss even as a final title declares he’s become a man at last. Anime has grown a lot as a school of cinema since these films, but they stand as estimable, defining classics in the style. Mainstream worldwide cinema perhaps owes them a debt both immediate and through their influence on the mode – would the filthy, glistening world of Blade Runner (1982) exist otherwise, or the fierce images of human softness in the clutches of robotic hellspawn in The Matrix films, the poetics of Wong Kar-Wai (his 2046, 2004, borrows a lot from the Galaxy Express 999 concept as well its obsession with the ephemeral, and his The Grandmaster, 2013, references it in a key scene), or even perhaps the “King of the World” scene in Titanic (1997)? At any rate they’re marvellous lodestones for the gregarious pleasures of anime, and at their best attain that rarest of conditions for popular art, the feeling that they’ve cleaved off and kept safe a piece of a collective unconscious, like that shard of Claire’s heart Tetsuro keeps in his pocket.

An English-language dubbed version of Galaxy Express 999 can be viewed here

…and the sequel, Adieu, Galaxy Express 999: Final Stop Andromeda here.

Standard
1970s, Action-Adventure, Scifi

The Land That Time Forgot (1975) / At The Earth’s Core (1976) / The People That Time Forgot (1977) / Warlords of Atlantis (1978)

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Director: Kevin Connor
Screenwriters: Michael Moorcock, James Cawthorn, Milton Subotsky, Patrick Tilley, Brian Hayles

By Roderick Heath

Movies like Star Wars (1977) and Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981) stand large as templates for contemporary blockbuster cinema, for better and for worse. But I’ve long thought of them rather as a culmination in popularity for a neo-pulp movement in cinema that sparked to life in the midst of a moviemaking era generally celebrated today for its tough and arty sensibility, a time when doses of pure escapism and wonderment were sometimes hard to come by, especially for young moviegoers. The neo-pulp mode was initially sparse but doggedly popular, and was practiced by some old stalwarts of the movie industry. Neo-pulp was distinguished by a cheery but essentially deadpan take on material more often played as outright camp during the late ‘60s pop sensibility. Roger Vadim’s film of the naughty comic strip Barbarella (1968) adopted a pseudo-camp attitude but also purveyed pure pulp imagery, and might well have started the movement. Ray Harryhausen kept his brand of retro sci-fi and fantasy going with entries like The Valley of Gwangi (1968) and The Golden Voyage of Sinbad (1974). George Pal’s final film as producer was a slightly tongue-in-cheek revisit to pulp fare, with Doc Savage: Man of Bronze (1975). Robert Stephenson’s The Island at the Top of the World (1974) saw that old-timer concocting Jules Vernian adventures for Disney, in the process laying down a blueprint Disney still refers to and detectable in the likes of TRON: Legacy (2010) and the revived Star Wars films. Not every contemporary special-effects-driven epic counts as neo-pulp but some certainly are, like John Carter (2012) and Pacific Rim (2013).
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Edgar Rice Burroughs, a master of the old school, passed away in 1950, having lived long enough to see his most famous character Tarzan become a pop cultural legend. By the 1970s his kind of fiction was generally written off as an archaic embarrassment as science fiction, fantasy, and the other genres that had flowered in large part thanks to writers like Burroughs were getting all grown up and self-serious. One of the loveliest flowerings of the neo-pulp cinema started in 1974, however, when British director Kevin Connor joined forces with producer John Dark to make three adaptations of Burroughs’ works, The Land That Time Forgot, At The Earth’s Core, and The People That Time Forgot. The appeal Connor’s films wielded for young viewers who might have caught them in the movie theatres at the time of their release or on video years later (as I did), their proliferating populace of dinosaurs and monsters, is today serviced in that regard far better by the Jurassic Park films and their ilk, but without the charm or, frankly, the ideas; struggling through the tepid franchise expansion of Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom (2018) made me long for these films.
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And not just for nostalgia; they’re lovingly crafted little odes to a modestly executed but pure and wholehearted variety of fantastic cinema and their literary roots. The big difference between Connor’s films and those of Steven Spielberg, George Lucas, and their inheritors was less one of sensibility than one of budget. These were films too cheap to afford Harryhausen’s exacting, laborious stop-motion techniques, and far too early for CGI, so Connor’s crafty special effects teams, led by stalwarts like Derek Meddings, made use of models, puppets, and animatronic effects. Also, there was a certain pride exhibited by such straitened inventiveness that felt motivated by a slightly different spirit to the drive towards greater realism in special effects Connor’s Hollywood heirs wielded. Connor’s works insist on a certain delight and sense of aesthetic fertility in artifice rather than realism. In that regard they feel just as anticipatory of self-conscious artists of falsity like Terry Gilliam and Michel Gondry as they do of Guillermo Del Toro and Peter Jackson.
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Connor still directs movies for television today and has known a long and hardy career, but he’s nonetheless a filmmaker who I’ve always felt might have become much more. He’s also never really gained any kind of due, despite making these several dogged cult works, including these films, the black comedy horror film Motel Hell (1980), a work that replays The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974) as a more overt and stridently freakish lampoon of fast food industry aesthetics, and the memorably bizarre miniseries Goliath Awaits (1981). If Connor had an identifiable interest in the fantastical projects he took on, it was his delight for worlds in miniature, characters cut off from the greater continents of humanity and obliged to adapt quickly and fiercely to harsh terrain and weird social outgrowths. Connor worked his way up in the British film industry, becoming a sound editor and working with a swathe of great directors, before making his directing debut for Amicus Productions, a film company set up in Britain by American impresarios Milton Subotsky and Max J. Rosenberg, best-known for a string of anthology horror movies. Connor debuted with one, From Beyond the Grave (1974), before Amicus made a play for a bigger audience by backing Connor in making The Land That Time Forgot.
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The adaptation arrived with a stamp of genre literary cred. Moorcock, one of the most colourful and prolific figures of contemporary sci-fi and fantasy, had gained his first writing jobs penning Tarzan stories, and eagerly paid tribute to his roots by penning the script for the film along with James Cawthorn. Moorcock’s surprisingly sober, literate contribution to the film backed up Connor’s energy and skill in stretching a tight budget a long way. The Land That Time Forgot also gained an unexpected boost from obtaining American star Doug McClure, who name remains a byword for good-natured cheese. McClure had a brief spell of attention as an ingénue in movies in the late 1950s but had mostly found a niche in TV. After initially hesitating, McClure eventually signed on for Connor’s movie, only to find he’d gained a whole new niche playing two-fisted heroes fighting off rubber dinosaurs. McClure brought an open, straightforward quality to his heroic characters that was ill-placed in the more shaggy and eccentric ‘70s but turned out to be perfect for this kind of movie.
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McClure plays Bowen Tyler, doyen of a shipbuilding family from Santa Monica, who finds himself shipwrecked after the British passenger ship he’s aboard is torpedoed by a German submarine, the U-33, in 1916. Cast adrift in a lifeboat along with shell-shocked fellow survivor Lisa Clayton (Susan Penhaligon), Tyler soon links up with another boat filled with British sailors from the ship. They successfully board the U-33 when it surfaces and surprise the crew, managing to take it over. The submarine’s captain, the intelligent and gentlemanly Von Schoenvorts (John McEnery), is locked away, but his wily, malevolent second officer Deitz (Anthony Ainley) sabotages the sub’s compass, fooling Tyler into sailing the sub close to a rendezvous point with their supply ship. After seemingly being outwitted by the Germans, Tyler and the sailors are imprisoned, but Lisa breaks them out and Tyler vengefully torpedoes the supply ship. This saves Tyler and the rest from being shot as pirates, but also leaves the sub lacking food and fuel. Drifting with the current into Antarctic waters, the U-33 encounters a fringe of ragged cliffs. Von Schoenvorts believes this must be a land first reported by a Italian explorer, who named it Caprona after himself.
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Taking a chance by sailing the sub up an underground river, they soon discover the island’s interior is a lush and fertile space heated by volcanic activity and inhabited by an astounding array of organisms, from microbes to massive dinosaurs to stages of human development. The various nationalities from the sub agree to work together to escape the island. Lisa and Von Schoenvorts, who share a passion for scientific enquiry, tackle the mysteries of Caprona’s abundant and perplexing life forms. Tyler and the sailors set themselves to the more practical tasks of finding food, drinking water, and a source of oil they can refine into fuel. They’re helped in this by Ahm (Bobby Parr), one of the hominids of Caprona, who also guides their understanding of what’s happening on the island through his own belief he will spontaneously pass into a higher stage of human development, moving from the primitive state of Bo-Lu to the more sophisticated Sto-Lu and then the superior Ga-Lu. The castaways are obliged to fight off hungry dinosaurs, but find the various hominid tribes more dangerous and deadly. A volcanic eruption finally destroys the equilibrium between species and tribes. Deitz seizes a chance to grab control of the U-33, imprisoning the Brits, shooting Von Schoenvorts, and stranding Bowen and Lisa on the island, only for the submarine to explode and sink as he tries to sail it away across Caprona’s boiling central lake.
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The film’s opening commences an ouroboros-like storytelling conceit that links to the narrative concerns, as Bowen hurls a canister containing his testimony from Caprona’s cliffs into the ocean. Connor tracks the canister on its voyage across dark rolling oceans under the credits, ending when the canister is retrieved from rocks by an old salt. Connor weaves a marvellous sense of atmosphere throughout The Land That Time Forgot, with the early scenes conveying a sense of lonely, near-numinous isolation for the warring parties and their oceanic adventures, believably transporting them from realistic immediacies of seagoing warfare to a place of sequestered wonder. Bowen and Lisa are first glimpsed resolving out of a dense fog bank, bedraggled and stunned by their sudden plunge into a world of hurt. Connor’s background in handling movie sound makes itself apparent in the subtlety with which he purveys the film’s first third, emphasising the omnipresent thrum of the submarine’s engines, avoiding incidental music during fight scenes, lending proceedings a tense, intimate feeling. The early fight scene where Bowen and the sailors try to take over the sub gains for this approach, punctuated by the sudden bark of a gun that saves Bowen’s life, which proves to have been fired by Lisa, roused from her daze to snatch up a dropped pistol and intervene in a struggle.
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Moorcock wasn’t happy with the film – what sci-fi writer ever is? – but his influence on the script is plain in touches like making Lisa a potent intellectual, and the odd dashes of intelligence apparent in the dialogue, as when Lisa asks Von Schoenvorts if his proposal the microbes in Caprona’s streams have a purpose could be construed as indulgence of German metaphysics, only for the Captain to retort it’s his version of British empiricism. Moorcock also preserved the most intriguing aspect of Burroughs’ book, the aspect that most distinguished it from a precursor like Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Lost World, which was Burroughs’ depiction of Caprona as a land where every organism is connected to each-other and to the land as a kind of colossal, animate, metamorphosing entity. Connor and his special effects team wring as much flavour and piquancy as possible from the elemental appeal of World War I-era technology clashing with dinosaurs, and museum diorama-like depictions of a carnivores and horned herbivores clashing. At one point the sailors try to fend off a pair of hungry Allosaurs stalking their number, and elsewhere Bowen and Von Schoenvorts stand off a pair of bullish Styrachosaurs to give their fellows time to reach the sub, and menace turns to pathos as the sailors loose the sub’s deck gun on the animals, killing one. Von Schoenvorts warns Bowen that their own fate might be connected with the natural processes at loose on the island, a warning underscored by the sight of a tear slowly leaking from the eye of the dead animal.
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There’s a great sense of humour, too, in moments like when the crew sit down to uneasily make a meal of a plesiosaur they were obliged to shoot dead when it tried to eat Bowen. Somewhat jarringly, McEnery, a well-known actor, was post-dubbed by Anton Diffring; one reason for this I saw somewhere was that the producers felt McEnery overacted outrageously, but I suspect it was rather because he didn’t play the part as sufficiently Teutonic. Connor’s excellence as a scene builder is repeatedly demonstrated during sequences other directors might have thrown away. The U-33’s gruelling underwater voyage to penetrate Caprona sees the craft slamming against stony walls and struggling against a seemingly malign current. The faintly spacey, eerie quality that defines a great deal of mid-century British sci-fi mates surprisingly well with Burroughs’ American gusto via Connor’s sense of staging and atmosphere. When he surveys the ape-men hiding in the long grass and watching the interlopers, and contemplates the lonely camp fire of the sailors amidst a grand and primal Capronan night, Connor conveys a sensation that recurs throughout the movie, that of something balefully and patiently lying in wait. That lurking force that proves to be nature itself, noting the competition of species and tribes with a detached eye and then rebooting the whole process with intermittent gotterdamerungs.
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The last section of the film deals out some pretty familiar adventure movie shtick as Bowen saves Lisa from some Galus who take her captive, and the island begins its great convulsion: papier-maché boulders tumble and two-fisted gallantry proliferates. But there’s still a strange intensity to the epic finale, in which the island convulses with metaphysical rage: Connor’s careful construction in slowly ratcheting from a whisper to a scream is fulfilled as the tale reaches explosive crescendo, the submarine meeting its fiery end imbued with tragic gravitas by composer Douglas Gamley, amidst scenes of lava consuming the dinosaurs and decimating the seemingly stable and fecund life. Burroughs’ idea, which was to dramatise evolution as an idea, is well-sustained by The Land That Time Forgot, into its last moments as Bowen and Lisa give themselves up to the unique logic of the island, trekking north according to the flow of all life, last glimpsed clad in furs and hurling their missive to the waves on the way to becoming Adam and Eve for a smaller, more volatile world. The film’s concluding images of survival and surrender to a new yet familiar logic of life have a haunting patina that’s very rare in the genre, a quality bound to be despoiled by revision. Sure enough, Connor later made The People That Time Forgot, a sequel roughly based on Burroughs’ two follow-up novels, didn’t follow immediately. Despite the success of Connor’s films, Amicus folded during production, so the film was bought up and released by AIP.
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The People… is a much lesser affair all round, entirely lacking Moorcock and Cawthorn’s touch in the script, if still a moderately entertaining outing. This entry depicts a rescue expedition mounted by Bowen’s friend Ben McBride (Patrick Wayne), in the years following the war’s end, following the recovery of Bowen’s manuscript. The expedition is bankrolled by a newspaper magnate, which means Ben is obliged to bring along the magnate’s journalist daughter Charly (Sarah Douglas), as well as his own wartime pal and plane engineer Hogan (Shane Rimmer), and inquisitive scientist and fellow veteran Norfolk (Thorley Walters). Brought close to Caprona on a ship by the hardy Captain Lawton (Tony Britton), the adventuring quartet board an amphibious aircraft and fly over the great ice-clad cliffs, only to be attacked by a pterodactyl, which dogs them until it catches its beak in their propeller, forcing a rough landing. Whilst Hogan remains with the plane to repair it, Ben, Charly, and Norfolk start inland. They soon encounter Ajor (Dana Gillespie), a Ga-Lu who belonged to a tribe Bowen and Lisa made friends with and helped advance into bronze-age civilisation. But this stirred the anger of another advanced tribe, the Nargas, who wiped out the tribe, spirited Bowen and Lisa to their citadel. After a regulation series of tussles with the island’s men and monsters, Ben, Charly, Ajor, and Norfolk are captured by the Nargas. They find Bowen also imprisoned there, with Lisa having since been sacrificed to the Nargas’ volcano god, a fate Charly and Ajor are quickly doomed to as well.
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The People… mostly leaves behind the inquisitive aspect and moody evocations of The Land… in favour of very straightforward action-adventure shtick. A theme mooted in the early scenes, the process of recovering from the war for Ben, Hogan, and Norfolk, who find a much grander stage to be heroes on, is not invested with the same pertinence the war background of The Land… achieved. The notion that Caprona is alive and working to prevent anyone escaping is reiterated but otherwise new ideas and enlarging concepts are mostly absent. The title’s promise to venture into a more sociological wing of this fantastical creation goes no further than offering the Nargas, who dress like samurai and have a deadly religious fixation, with the elided irony that in this clash of modern rationalism and atavistic faith, the faith has a point, as Caprona starts erupting in a hissy fit when it doesn’t get its sacrifices. Certain recent exercises in franchise expansion have learned little from its demonstration of the desultory effect of bringing back beloved heroes of earlier instalments only to serve them poorly and kill them off with little gravitas. Dinosaur action is minimal and the production team had been reduced to recycling models. Where Moorcock had simply made Lisa the smartest person on the island, The People… dedicates itself, like a lot of genre films from the time, to mediating the women’s lib movement by having proto-feminist Charly squabble with he-man Ben, at least until she gets freaked out by a spider. Gillespie, better known as a pop singer, had appeared in a very similar part a few years earlier in Michael Carreras’ delirious The Lost Continent (1968), is an adolescent boy’s wet dream with her pneumatic physique encased in leather garb.
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The People That Time Forgot occasionally feels like a rough precursor to the spasmodic craze for sword-and-sorcery films the early 1980s would see with the likes of Conan the Barbarian and The Beastmaster (both 1982). Still, despite the lack of ambition and wit, it flickers with moments of jaunty good fun, like Norfolk intimidating a hulking Nargas opponent with some expert fencing skills, and one of Connor’s well-sustained suspense sequences as the plane struggles to take off in the midst of an exploding landscape. Wayne is a toothpaste smile and Ken doll physique without a personality to match, but Douglas, who would later usually play villains in films like Superman II (1980) and Conan the Destroyer (1984), gives a breezily charismatic performance as a heroine who seems a bit like Peanuts’ Lucy grown up and tossed in with giant lizards. Once our heroes stage an escape, dump the Nargas’ evil high priest (Milton Reid) into the volcano, and flee across country, Bowen dies standing off the Nargas warriors long enough for the others to get away, allowing a sliver of effective pathos when Bowen admits he’s always been trying to live up to his fondness from childhood games with Ben for playing the hero. The rest of the heroes manage to escape at least, and Hogan delights in the notion of introducing a bewildered Ajor to the exotic climes of Cincinnati.
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In between the two Caprona films, Connor and Amicus made another Burroughs adaptation, At The Earth’s Core, this one tackling another of the author’s fantasy zones, the world of Pellucidar, a great cave deep in the Earth inhabited by humans and strange life forms. Burroughs wrote many Pellucidar novels, including one where Tarzan descended to the hidden realm. The script, written by Subotsky, briskly and efficiently gets through the business of introducing heroes David Innes (McClure) and Professor Abner Perry (Peter Cushing) as they embark upon testing their huge experimental drilling machine, the Iron Mole. Financing the vehicle’s construction has been David’s gift to Perry for teaching him and his father geology, an education that’s made the Innes clan rich in mining. David and Perry take the Mole for a test voyage in Wales, but find it works too well, as they can’t turn it around before they’ve descended deep into the Earth’s interior, and crash out into the Pellucidar cavern.
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The duo are pursued by a colossal bird monster and then captured by a gang of chattering subhumans called Sagoths, who oppress the humans of Pellucidar on the behalf of the more monstrous rulers of the land: the Mahars. The Mahars are a race of psychic, anthropomorphic ramphorynchus, who like being fed human sacrifices and need an army of slaves to maintain their city, which is built over volcanic channels to exploit the great heat, vital to incubating the Mahars’ spawn. Perry is put to work transcribing ancient Mahar tablets and gains knowledge of their society and weaknesses. After falling for the captive princes Dian (Caroline Munro) and accidentally spurning her in a faux pas, David breaks out and forges an alliance with Ra (Cy Grant), a hunter belonging to one of Pellucidar’s many, disunited tribes, convincing him to try bringing together the humans to battle the Mahars.
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Connor’s films weren’t the first to purvey the joys of reviving an older tradition in genre storytelling. Richard Fleischer’s adaptation of Jules Verne’s 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (1954) had kicked off a run of retro adaptations including Byron Haskin’s From The Earth to the Moon (1958) and William Witney’s Master of the World (1961). But Connor’s films revolve around the luxury of evoking a bygone era’s idea of technological accomplishment and discovery with a sense of awareness of how they graze against modern concerns, an approach that feels like particularly vital stepping stones towards today’s steampunk mode. The Iron Mole in At The Earth’s Core, has an aspect of super-futurist technology realised with the polished brass and plate iron charm of Victoriana. The wonderful opening credit sequence depicts the construction of the Iron Mole from its beginning as a stream of molten metal to the final technological monster being wheeled out of the assembly plant, a grand statement of scientific faith. The music score, by former Manfred Mann member Mike Vickers, expertly evokes the dichotomous spirit apparent in Connors’ films by alternating passages of weird, throbbing synthesiser music, giving his score accord with the contemporary modes in prog rock and early electronica as well the spacey, eerie vibe of the BBC TV sci-fi tradition, and big, garrulous orchestrations that anticipate John Williams’ work for Lucas on Star Wars in evoking vast horizons and adventure.
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At The Earth’s Core was my favourite movie ever when I was seven years old, but it’s long had a bad reputation otherwise. Both reactions are due, I think, to the fact it’s probably the purest entry any filmmaker has managed in transposing the feeling of the classic pulp sci-fi and fantasy magazines onto the big screen. Most other films in this mode are pallid pretenders compared to Connor’s sense of illustrative verve and punchy action set-pieces, and the ever-so-faint way the film acknowledges its own absurdity whilst playing things, generally, dead straight, outwitting the likes of Flash Gordon (1980). In contrast to the sober, location-shot approach of The Land That Time Forgot, At The Earth’s Core instead aims for and squarely hits an atmosphere of hallucinatory colour and strangeness achieved on the sound stage. Cushing, who would go on to bridge traditions by appearing in Star Wars a year later, gives a peach of a comic performance as Perry, a gangly, punctilious savant who finds himself initially overwhelmed by Pellucidarian peccadilloes but soon enough fashions himself a bow and arrow with his spectacle cord used as a string and sets to work bringing down fire-breathing toads.
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At The Earth Core wields a wry sense of humour about the old-fashioned values at play as David is obliged to play by Pellucidar rules in matters of courtship, which means he has to battle Dian’s rival suitor Jubal, “the Ugly One” (Michael Crane): “Never mind the Queensbury rules!” Burroughs’ imperialist sensibility, wherein good-looking white guys arrive in strange lands and set about setting things right, is mediated through a more contemporary sense of fellowship as David convinces Ra to try and unite the fractious human tribes and realise their own strength before the insidious evil of the Mahars. Perry commands David during the fight. Connor’s direction is at its most inventive here, in sequences like one in which David and Ra spy upon the Mahars as they mesmerise their sacrificial victims before pouncing upon them, conveyed in intense zoom shots upon blank beatific faces and beady saurian eyes with piercing electronic whines on the soundtrack. The special effects are particularly, happily cheesy throughout, but loaned a peculiarly tactile intensity in scenes like the battle between two hulking horned monsters who fight over a human snack.
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Another quality of this series all the entries shared was being photographed by the great Alan Hume, who worked wonders won a low budget, often utilising hand-held camera effects to give the films their muscular, immediate look. At The Earth’s Core also deploys some time-honoured fantasy adventure canards like the compulsory arena battle where David and Ra are chained up to be devoured by a pet monster, only for David to break loose and slay the beast in a goofy tussle, whilst Ra strangles a vengeful Mahar with his chains. Connor articulates the straightforward, cheer-along simplicity of the liberation-and-overthrow fantasy exceptionally well but shades it at the very end as the victorious humans survey the exploding Mahar city with the knowledge it cost the life of Ra and other brave souls. The melancholy streak continues as Dian declines to go with David and Perry to the surface world for fear she won’t thrive there, but the very last shot, under the end credits, strikes a cheery note as the Iron Mole drills its way up through the White House lawn and sets two guards scurrying about in Keystone Kops-style panic.
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Warlords of Atlantis, the last of Connor’s weird fiction series, stands apart from its predecessors in not being a proper adaptation of Burroughs. It is rather a newly-concocted tale in a mould that could easily have been penned by Burroughs, Abraham Merritt, or a swathe of other writers of their time. The storyline was instead written by Brian Hayles, who’s best remembered to posterity otherwise for creating canonical Doctor Who antagonists the Ice Warriors, and indeed the film itself strongly resembles a lot of early Doctor Who. Connor opens with a vision of a fiery red comet plunging into Earth’s atmosphere and frightening the Neolithic human inhabitants before plunging into the ocean. Around 1900, a ship called the Texas Rose steams out into what is called the Bermuda Triangle, nominally to test a bathysphere built by Greg Collinson (McClure yet again) and designed by his scientist friends, Professor Aitken (Donald Bissett) and his son Charles (Peter Gilmore) for underwater exploration. What the Aitkens aren’t telling Greg, or the rather scurvy crew of the ship, is that they’re hunting for signs of the lost civilisation of Atlantis, and Greg and Charles recover a remarkable relic made of solid gold when they take the bathysphere down. But when it’s hoisted aboard, the relic sets the minds of the crew towards mutiny and homicide, and the Professor is shot in the back.
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The appearance of a giant octopus from an underwater prevents further violence, as the monster snatches most of the crew from the deck and drags the bathysphere with it into an underground system of caves where the inhabitants of Atlantis live. They meet gold-haired guardian Atmir (Michael Gothard), who escorts them through the underworld, bypassing cities that have fallen prey to decay over the centuries, before reaching their capitol. Charlie is taken in hand by the statuesque Atmir (Cyd Charisse – yes, you read that right), who wants to add his great mind to the pool of their knowledge. The Atlanteans prove to be Martians trapped after their attempt to migrate from their dying planet and so have been steadily manipulating the evolution of human society in a warlike direction, anticipating the eventual creation of technology that will allow them to move on at last. They’ve been capturing and enslaving humans to upkeep their crumbling cities and battle off the hordes of mutant monsters spawned by their energy sources, gifting them surgically-provided gills to survive their rigours, and our heroes encounter the lost captain of the Marie Celeste, Briggs (Robert Brown) and his daughter Delphine (Lea Brodie).
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Hayles’ script gives the established formula a shot of new ideas and some depth of concept and hints of parable. The Martians are portrayed as effetely detached aristocrats enabled by an enslaved underclass, and paranoid concepts like the notion the rise of Nazism and the Cold War are devices to service the needs of a hidden ruling class. Charlie’s tour through the high echelons of the Martian society seems him encountering levitating meditators and granted a terrifying vision of the future when he has a crystal helmet placed on his head that shows him the Martian-engineered horrors of Nazism and nuclear war the oncoming century hold in store, whilst draining off his mind to make him a part of the Martian gestalt. Such ideas offer a different perspective on the retro adventure ideal: where writers like Burroughs, Merritt, H.G. Wells, Arthur Conan Doyle and their like had found cogent ways to express delight and disquiet in nascent modernity, Warlords of Atlantis betrays a slightly heavy contemporary heart over where it all led. The simple liberation fantasy of At The Earth’s Core is swapped out for a more forbidding sense of evil forces at work in human history, and our heroes are happy merely to escape the Martians’ clutches.
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Warlords of Atlantis is a frustrating attempt to expand the series’ scope, however. The underground cities, the Martian tech, the colossal monsters which nudge closer towards Toho kaiju this time around – all have a splendid vividness and flavour in their threadbare hype. But where the Burroughs adaptations were distinguished by their ability to both provide a rollicking pace and relax within their little constructed worlds, Warlords of Atlantis rushes through its most interesting concepts and images, and clumsily drags out climactic action scenes, as in a scene where Atmir bombards our heroes with energy bolt after energy bolt without quite managing to hit their big, fat target of a bathysphere, and then the octopus returns to the surface to torment them some more. Connor’s next film, Arabian Adventure (1979), saw him move properly into outright fantasy for an enjoyable, if minor, adjunct to the series before he headed for Hollywood. Films like these are generally a punchline today. They’re tacky and goofy and soft targets for lampooners, and the sort of bad-old-days fare genre fans tend to cringe at. But to me, they contain far, far more of the essence of the fantastical than so many of their inflated children.

Standard
1960s, Action-Adventure, Comedy, Scifi

Planet of the Apes (1968)

POTA01

Director: Franklin J. Schaffner
Screenwriters: Rod Serling, Michael Wilson

By Roderick Heath

Although overshadowed in appreciation amongst high cinephiles by Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, 2018 brings the fiftieth anniversary of another hugely popular and influential science fiction film: Franklin J. Schaffner’s Planet of the Apes. 1968 was a pivotal year for sci-fi cinema, as the success of the two films coincided with Ralph Nelson’s Oscar-winning Charly, helping to make a genre which had known a vogue in the 1950s, but remained generally regarded as trashy and negligible, suddenly gain a level of respect. These films also helped inaugurate a new phase in the genre, and Planet of the Apes arguably had the greatest impact on the following decade or so of sci-fi films. Thanks to its heavy emphasis on satirically tinted speculation about where the human race had come from and where it was going, the film helped provoke an age of allegoric, often dystopian sci-fi that was to a certain extent drowned out by the arrival of Star Wars (1977) but which has never really gone away. The Apollonian, transcendental fantasia that was 2001: A Space Odyssey gained its shaggy, cynical sibling in Planet of the Apes, a more overtly popular approach to genre that nonetheless squarely struck the zeitgeist and proved a huge hit, spawning four immediate sequels, a 2001 remake helmed by Tim Burton, and then a new series of acclaimed variations on the original film’s string of sequels, inaugurated by Rupert Wyatt’s Rise of the Planet of the Apes (2011).
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Planet of the Apes owes its status in turn to the peculiar battery of creative hands who made it, and the way it remixed some familiar genre modes into something new. Author Pierre Boulle was best-known outside France in the 1960s for penning the novel Le Pont de la rivière Kwaï, a book based loosely on true events and inspired by Boulle’s own time as a prisoner of the Japanese military during the war. The novel provided the basis for David Lean’s 1957 epic film The Bridge on the River Kwai, for which Boulle himself was awarded an Oscar for its screenplay, although the script had actually been penned by blacklisted writers Carl Foreman and Michael Wilson. In spite of the seemingly wide conceptual gulf between that novel’s recent, worldly concerns and the fantastical territory annexed by Boulle’s 1963 book La Planète des singes, the similarities are telling in the emphasis on captivity, mutually uncomprehending cultures, and shoe-on-the-other foot reversals of imperialist domain and dominance. Boulle took on a basic sci-fi what-if conceit, in this case, the notion that the relative place on the power scale of homo sapiens and other great apes was reversed.
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Rod Serling, who had gained rare standing as a TV dramatist even before he created and hosted the weird fiction anthology show The Twilight Zone, loved those kinds of inverted familiarities, and his famous show is still a by-word for ironic, sting-in-the-tail narrative punch-lines. Arthur P. Jacobs, an up-and-coming producing talent at Twentieth Century Fox, had seen potential in Boulle’s novel and hired Serling to adapt it. Serling’s unique ideas were retained although Wilson was later hired to revise the script, in part because Serling’s script reproduced Boulle’s concept of a sophisticated ape society, which would have been too expensive to film. Wilson’s revisions strengthened the project overall, however, in part because he found clever ways to dovetail the mercenary needs of budget with the conceptual grafts Serling had made to Boulle’s basis. Charlton Heston, looking to escape the treadmill of outsized historical epics he had become synonymous with, became interested in the project, and he recommended Schaffner to helm it, as he had directed Heston in the sober, dramatically intimate medieval tale The War Lord (1965). Schaffner had served in World War II and was an unlikely filmmaker to appeal to the counterculture-inflected pop culture of the era. But his fascination and affinity with characters violently at odds with a greater society was another factor that allowed him to put Planet of the Apes across to the crowd. Most of his subsequent films revolve around prickly protagonists who have become detached from civilisation around them due to a blend of both exterior hostility and interior rebellion, and who are left trying to knit together their identity and sense of meaning in the face of ruination.
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In Planet of the Apes, Taylor (Heston) perfectly exemplifies this figure, a misanthrope who ponders at the outset whether “Man still makes war upon his brother” and who ventures into space in search of “something better than Man.” A prologue strikes a meditative, even dreamy note, as Taylor prepares for his great trip, that is, about to enter cryogenic stasis to sleep away his craft’s long voyage through space, along with three other astronauts, Landon (Robert Gunner), Dodge (Jeff Burton), and Stewart (Dianne Stanley). “Time bends,” Taylor notes: “Space is boundless. It squashes a man’s ego. I feel lonely.” Taylor, as we learn in good time, is a man both at odds with his world, his species, his nature, and an apt representative of such; his reaction against a universe that weighs upon identity and a rival species that denies it is to kick back with ripe arrogance, all the traits he condemned coming out with instinctive readiness. The space voyage, unfolding behind credits in pulses of energy and colour, betrays an impulse identical to that shared by 1968 brethren 2001: A Space Odyssey and Barbarella, in conflating space travel with psychedelic voyaging. Here it’s most explicitly treated as a trip into the self, to emerge in what Taylor will eventually call a madhouse. The astronauts have been sent out to colonise the stars with their mobile, in-the-name-of-science orgy: “She was to be the new Eve,” Taylor later states, “With our hot and eager help of course.”
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Awakening is rude indeed. The spaceship plunges into the atmosphere of whatever planet it’s stumbled upon in its wanderings, and crash-lands in a lake, in the heart of a desolately beautiful landscape. Stewart is dead, a withered corpse thanks to a crack in her cryogenic capsule: the sight of her ghastly remains is accompanied with a weird screeching sound, and for a split second we’re in one of Roger Corman’s Poe films, the encased body of the departed feminine emitting a creepy memento mori. But the sound proves to actually be a different malediction, as seals fail and the lake water comes pouring in: the oneiric is invoked only to be displaced by the palpable. The three men paddle ashore after watching their last link to the world they’ve left sink, and begin a trek across lifeless and barren surrounds. Taylor is quietly exultant to be at loose in the great unknown and teases the all-American Landon, whilst Dodge “would walk naked into a live volcano if thought he could learn something no other man knew.” Eventually the men encounter a beautiful totem, a single growing plant, close to where menacing scarecrow-like figures have been set up, confirming something intelligent lives on the planet and wants to defend it domain. The astronauts enter the fringe of a verdant tropical area that might as well be Eden. Eden has its inhabitants, wild, harmless-seeming, mute humans who steal the astronauts’ clothes as they bathe. “If this is the best they’ve got around here, in six months we’ll be running this planet,” Taylor announces.
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Famous last words. The humans stand still and listen as if alerted with some preternatural instinct. A strange and terrible sound echoes out of the underbrush. A wild and violent hunt begins. The hunt sequence is a masterful bit of cinema, tying together the graphic clarity of Leon Shamroy’s photography, Hugh S. Fowler’s editing, Jerry Goldsmith’s percussive, jangling scoring, and Schaffner’s shaping. The first half-hour’s general air of ambling mystery and punch-drunk discovery, where the framing of the three survivors often sees them threatening to ossify into the landscape of jagged stone like Tolkien’s trolls, gives way to a sudden assault of precise violence and surging threat: the shock of fight-or-flight necessity gives new, ironic potency to the question of survival where before the trio of discoveries barely knew whether it was worthwhile staying alive. The sequence builds to its big reveal, the sight of an anthropomorphic gorilla riding on horseback, armed with a gun, captured in a zoom shot reproducing Taylor’s viewpoint with both a sense of conveyed shock as well as iconic exactitude. Dodge is shot dead, Landon hauled away in a net, and Taylor shot in the neck. “Smile!” one of the gorillas tells his fellows in the hunt as they pose for a photo, provoking ironic laughter as the inversion is complete, the dead humans trophies for smugly triumphant hunters. Taylor’s bedraggled shorts, made of strange material, attracts assessing eyes, saving him from the usual fate of captive human specimens: gruff, workaday doctor Galen (Wright King) saves his life by giving him a transfusion from a human female, at the request of inquisitive scientist Zira (Kim Hunter).
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Part of the success of Planet of the Apes, in terms of audience appeal, lies in its familiar aspects. High-minded notions and stinging satirical ideas are grafted on a narrative that has obvious affinities with any number of exotic adventure tales by the likes of H. Rider Haggard or Edgar Rice Burroughs. A heroic explorer is plunged into a strange land and tormented, and must survive with his wits and forge alliances to survive. Many such stories already had a faint through-a-glass-darkly qualities as they zeroed in on fantastically framed metaphors for social structures, with heroes who encounter fanatical high priests or swaggering warmongers, often in a way that caricatured “primitive” civilisations being encountered by imperial colonisers but which also attempted to comprehend the similarities and often arbitrary differentiations between different societies’ ways of knowing. Planet of the Apes satisfies on the basic level even as it tries to be more rigorous and overt in presenting the ape society as a mocking mirror of familiar things. This is partly justified by the way the ape society is defined on a most fundamental level entirely by reaction.
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Planet of the Apes has an evident basis in a very European style of satirical comedy, one that revels in perversions of social practices and expectations: there is, for instance, a certain similarity in effect to Luis Bunuel’s surrealist comedies where a bourgeois family might invert habits of eating and defecating, or the tradition of Rabelais where priestly orders could be founded to explore sin in all its most delightfully vulgar dimensions. Serling and Wilson’s revisions and Schaffner’s visualisations didn’t just make the tale more cinematic and popular, however, but also repositioned it in a more distinctly American tradition. Indeed, they helped create perhaps the best-known and popular version of a theme that had been explored in Thomas Cole’s “Course of Empire” series of paintings which depicted the rise of a society from aboriginal hut dwellers to high civilisation to decaying, shattered ruins. Cole helped defined a peculiar brand of morbidly ecstatic fascination with the notion that national greatness was a finite thing, a state of mind that dogs the American political imagination (tellingly, the film’s sequels extended the Americanisation by rendering them more and clearly as parables for race). Planet of the Apes hit upon a narrative structure that allowed all stages to be seen at once: the prelapsarian simplicity of the humans, the inquisitive, Aristotelian minds of Zira and her husband Cornelius (Roddy McDowall), the hypocritical self-righteousness and stolidity of most of the mature ape society, and the mocking, burned-out husk of the old world Taylor stumbles upon, that singular, crystallising image which makes sense of everything that has come before.
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The ape society is explored in quick, deft strokes, but solidifies to the point where it quickly begins to feel intimately familiar, in its prejudices, its outlook, its wilful blind spots and its sophistications. The apes are defined by a general blend of accomplishment and strange lacks – the apes are superlative at surgery and ballistics but believe flight impossible and maintain intense taboos, like their avoidance of the wasteland the astronauts landed in, which the apes call the Forbidden Zone, ostensibly because of its desolateness but also because the bones of the past poke out of the ground there. Their chief scientist, Dr Zaius (Maurice Evans), is also their “Defender of the Faith,” a priestly enforcer of orthodoxy. The apes’ stature as cruel masters of the apparently simple and harmlessly devolved humans is not just reflexive arrogance but an official aspect of their communal identity, defined by their legendary Lawgiver who handed down his Sacred Scrolls, filled with imprecations against man and unhealthy forms of knowledge. Cornelius, an archaeologist, is already flirting with blasphemy when he’s confronted with Taylor, as his ventures into the Forbidden Zone to make exploratory digs have turned up the remains of an advanced civilisation filled with to obscure relics. When Taylor finally sees these, he recognises the craftsmanship of his own species, defined by both its arts and its weaknesses. One of the film’s longest, drollest sequences sees Taylor, Zira, and Cornelius hauled before a panel of officials, all staffed by pompously mandarin orang-utans including Zaius and a chairman (James Whitmore) who orders Taylor gagged when he tries to explain himself.
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Sequences in which the apes use both overt physical brutality and a battery of cultural and linguistic cudgels, like the extended use of circular logic from a state prosecutor, to keep Taylor silent reveal the film as still razor-sharp in analysing and depicting the manner in which hegemonies are enforced over subaltern voices, and closed loops of pseudo-logic wielded to dismiss disturbances to them. The scene’s punch-line, improvised by Schaffner on set, sees the orang-utan adjudicators reproducing the proverbial figuration of the three monkeys who hear, speak, and see no evil. Taylor suffers for some time before he can even compel his captors to that degree, as his injury leaves him mute for a time, trying to communicate with Zira, who dubs him “Bright Eyes” for his eager, communicative expressions. Taylor’s efforts to establish contact include writing his name in the sand when he’s jammed into an exterior pen, only for his fellow humans to foil him in their clueless mimicry and ready violence. Zaius completes the act by erasing a remaining portion of Taylor’s words, a clear signal that he knows a lot more about Taylor and what he represents than he’s letting on. Zaius, nimbly played by Evans, plays Grand Inquisitor protecting his kind from transgressing in the same ways that humans have, when they progressed out of what Cole called the “Arcadian or Pastoral State” stage of civilisation, the one considered ideal by many Enlightenment thinkers. The Lawgiver stands as a Moses figure wielding stern and intractable laws, although the film’s sequels would eventually circle around to a point where Cornelius and Zira’s son Caesar would emerge first as a Maccabee and then as a Christ figure, embodying the chance of reconciliation and evolution, and also the eternal pain of the idealist before the persistence of base instinct.
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Cornelius and Zira are two of the best-realised characters in sci-fi cinema and one of the most appealing couples in movies in general, with McDowall and Hunter ingeniously projecting enough intelligence, humour, and foibles onto their characters to render them more human than human. Many kids who love this film, like myself back when, perhaps did so because they’re almost a perfect concept of what you hope your parents might be like – open, eternally curious, loving and, whilst hardly unafraid of the expectations of the world beyond, nonetheless finally sufficient unto themselves in their convictions and will. They appeal through their curiosity, their openness to where thought and experience lead them, their familiarity as a loving couple – constantly bickering and yet gripping each-other’s hands in moments of fate – and as individuals facing severe crises in facing breaks with their society. Zira is the more intransigent of the pair, the bolder, the one whose outspokenness Cornelius is compelled to try and dampen down: they’re conceived as a pair of young campus academicians where the wife’s attraction to radical causes is counterbalanced by the husband’s circumspection. His very reasonable anxiety gains political inferences as they’re both faced with punishment for taking their mutual discoveries to logical conclusions, evoking both the bygone days of religious heresy tribunals and the much more recent phenomena of McCarthyism. Cornelius is both a bold and visionary being in his field but also one with a notably timorous anxiety, an awareness of how one wrong word or gesture could trash his and Zira’s future together.
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Speech is a afforded status as a weapon of power and identity with singular force in the film: Taylor’s famously outraged cry as he dangles in a net, “Get your stinking paws off me, you damn dirty ape!”, are his first since being taken prisoner. The cry shocks and astounds his captors and rocks the very presumptions their world is based on to their foundations, and similar moments resounded through the follow-ups, like Nova crying out Taylor’s name, suggesting when it’s already too late that humans can rise again from their waned and pathetic state, and Cornelius recounting the fateful moment when an ape slave emitted the word “No” to his human masters. Taylor forms an attachment with the human woman whose blood he received when Galen saved his life, dubbing her Nova (Linda Harrison). Nova is a mute and uncomprehending yet expressive being, fluidic in her in reactive empathy. Confronted by the unexpected annoyance of a man of her species speaking, she presses her fingers to his lips. Of course, power is measured by more direct scales too. Taylor is beaten, netted, shackled, stripped. His understandable response is nonetheless tinged with aspects of hypocrisy, as he takes Zaius captive and painfully binds him, stoking protest from Zira and Cornelius, on the grounds that Taylor was assumed to be inferior whereas Taylor knows well Zaius is a very intelligent being. Then again, real hate and real contempt can only be evinced between the intelligent, and Taylor knows something Cornelius and Zira do not, that Zaius knew well what he was, and did not care.
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When he manages to stage a breakout from the holding pens, Schaffner uses the ensuing chase scene not just to give the film’s long middle act a jolt of action, but also to give further insight into the ape society, as Taylor crashes a funeral for “an ape to remember” and eludes pursuers in the halls of a museum where stuffed humans are set up in illustrative dioramas, and Dodge’s body is now one of the exhibits. The style of the ape city conflates Mediterranean city-state acropolis and adobe architecture, suggesting a sophisticated, intimate society that has remained purposefully close to roots in natural forms, and Schaffner’s camera explores it with dynamism, dollying and weaving its way along with his actors through columned spaces and striking vertiginous angles in observing the frantic tussles of bodies, human and ape. Part of the success of Planet of the Apes, of course, stemmed from the groundbreaking prosthetic makeup created by John Chambers. Where Kubrick’s labours on 2001: A Space Odyssey invented a newly convincing argot for portraying space travel, Chambers managed something similar on a far more intimate scale, creating a convincing non-human set of characters that nonetheless allowed the actors to mediate and transform their performances: although today the media has advanced to the point where the makeup looks a bit rubbery in blu-ray prints, it’s still invaluable in creating the context of this illusion, the feeling that Zira, Cornelius, Zaius and the rest are real and palpable beings.
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Schaffner’s work on Planet of the Apes vaulted him into Hollywood’s upper echelons. After making the interesting if facile political study The Best Man (1964), a film that might have earmarked Schaffner for a career similar to John Frankenheimer’s, Schaffner revealed here a great eye and talent for evoking space and scale on the cinema screen that soon earned him comparisons to David Lean, although his approach to dramatic essentials remained rather more conventional. His 1970 Best Picture champ Patton (1970) is dotted with moments of raw visual power achieved with fearlessly wielded big movie infrastructure, but more often feels like the kind of TV play Schaffner had begun his career making, greatly inflated. Soon he was helming big-budget epics like the unwieldy Nicholas and Alexandra (1971) and Papillon (1973), which rivals Planet of the Apes as his best film. Schaffner’s stature as a maker of big-budget epics and studio flagship films during an unsettled, rambunctiously creative era in Hollywood earned him a critical lethargy that’s never really dispelled, and it is true he settled into making entertaining but heavy-footed prestige pictures like his academic take on Islands in the Stream (1976) and the fun but lumpy thrillers The Boys From Brazil (1978) and Sphinx (1980).
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And yet Schaffner earned his stature marrying the lightest edge of New Wave-era and pop art-influenced optical inventiveness to the familiar, architectural solidity and straightforwardness of big-budget Hollywood film on Planet of the Apes. This is evident in its opening scenes, with visions of deep space and time travel expostulated through vaguely trippy light and colour effects, a crash-landing that’s depicted in a series of dizzying, spiralling, point-of-view shots, and of course the very last shot, an encapsulating visual ideogram that functions as a perfect pop-art emblem. Something of the same spirit is also visible in Patton’s famous opening with its hero presented as a free-floating placard before a colossal American flag. Schaffner’s energetic camerawork here is another plus, like the spectacular helicopter shots that punctuate the crash scene, wheeling away from the downed spaceship as it sinks into the lake, its metal hull a glistening obelisk of manufactured beauty in the midst of a red, rugged landscape of great rock forms, an image that locates the nexus between the western, as Schaffner evokes John Ford’s vistas, and sci-fi. The film’s connection with the western genre, just beginning to wane at the time precisely because the revisionist urge taking hold of academia and culture creators was starting to press some uncomfortable points in the genre’s basic appeal, is an aspect of Planet of the Apes signalled in Schaffner’s annexation of Ford’s landscapes. In keeping with the film’s cinematic translation of Cole into genre film terms, Planet of the Apes portrays what could be called a radical decolonisation of the American landscape, delivering it up to the apes who, as the series continued, became a catch-all metaphoric emblem, ranging from Catholic dogmatists to black power militants.
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The casting of Heston as Taylor was one of the film’s great coups, and not just because as a big, strong, intelligent actor he could retain bristling force even when his character is voiceless and unclothed. Heston brought with him a strong association with a squarer genre of film he was trying to get out of. By this time in his career every step he took carried with it the memory of Moses and Judah Ben-Hur and El Cid, titanic protagonists who stood as interlocutors between the human and divine and the individual and the historic. Heston had been trying to work his way around this image, playing a very ordinary man caught up in big events in 55 Days in Peking (1963) and crumbling he-man in Major Dundee (1965). But none of those roles quite played on it as deftly and cruelly as Planet of the Apes, where Taylor is eventually compelled to see his own powerless triviality in the face of biblical-scale evidence of Armageddon and reapportioning of Creation. Taylor’s swaggering arrogance at the outset stems not from certainty that he’s a fit representative of a noble race but rather his status as self-appointed rebel and critic. It requires being treated like chattel to move him to defend his species: “He was here before you – and he was better than you!” he accosts Zaius as they explore the relics of the old civilisation – only then to be forced to behold just how right he was at first, victim of a cosmic-scale joke. Taylor’s various eruptions of rage, including his climactic bellow of “Damn you all to hell!”, hinge upon Heston’s ability to play great twisted masses of muscle and emotion right out of a Michelangelo painting. Heston had just played Michelangelo, in Carol Reed’s The Agony and the Ecstasy (1966), and several scenes here almost play as parodies of that film and Ben-Hur (1959). Where the great artist travelled out alone into the landscape in Reed’s film and saw the elements of his great artistic parable etched out in the sky, communicating divine will to a translator Genesis, here Taylor beholds rather the wreckage of his own civilisation, the rescinded will and proof of his own, perfect impotence.
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The Planet of the Apes series stands out as perhaps the most pointedly and thoroughly misanthropic major sci-fi property proffered by a major Hollywood film studio. The series was driven along by the conviction that humankind is doomed not merely to destroy itself but then repeat its mistakes when given the chance to avoid them, whilst the apes are our possibly, morally superior inheritors, but still evince the same grim traits even after all efforts to suppress and retard them. Although the series eventually circled around to a point of ambiguous optimism, the problems of will to power are diagnosed as the true original sin, something generations and species try to claw out of their makeup without sure success. The series leavened the bitterness by several means. The apes are usually attractive in their ability to seem both rather cute and nobly charismatic even when they’re being obnoxious or destructive, whilst the first film in particular offers a lot of humour. The more self-conscious comedy injected into the script, with dialogue like “Human see, human do,” and introducing Zira’s hippie nephew Lucius (Lou Wagner), who throws out lines like, “You can’t trust the older generation!” and “Beards? I don’t go in for fads,” was reportedly provided by uncredited writer John T. Kelley. These supply the film with a self-lampooning edge, and although it nudges it towards flippancy now and then, it might well have helped to sell it to a mass audience in taking care of the humour value inherent in the storyline on the film’s own terms, as well as giving the film extra appeal to the young audience of 1968. Superior jots of humour come more from the fruitful coincidence of character and situation, as with Zira’s admission that Taylor is “so damn ugly” before allowing him to kiss her in gratitude – and the hiss of jealousy Cornelius gives as they do. Or my favourite off-hand moment, the ape priest officiating at the funeral Taylor crashes, left staggering in bewilderment as all hell breaks loose in the midst of a solemn ceremony.
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The darker aspects of the tale are hardly obscured. Humans are ruthlessly slaughtered, vivisected, and grotesquely maimed by the apes. Even kindly Zira makes a living cutting up specimens, her humanitarian interests placed nonetheless at the service of a genocide-minded, theologically-justified state program. Taylor is appalled when he finds Landon has been rendered an idiot by Zaius’ brain surgery, a deft move by the Chief Scientist and Defender of the Faith to get rid of a troubling specimen after another makes himself known to the whole city. Taylor himself is aware his attraction to Nova could be considered something close to bestiality as he tries to puzzle out just how awareness is left in his species (“Do you love, I wonder? Can you love?”), whilst his caging and separation from Nova, the closest thing he has nonetheless to a companion, wickedly reproduces the state of general alienation (“Lots of lovemaking, no love.”) that is his recollection of his own world. Zaius is at once aggravating in his stiff-necked self-righteousness and magnetic in his assured authority, thanks in large part to Evans’ canny performance. The upshot of the entire storyline eventually demonstrates that he is, if not right, then operating from a very reasonable point of view: there really is good cause for the apes to fear humans, to maintain a regime of wilfully repressed knowledge in the fear that one day apes will follow in their footsteps, like a medieval theocrat frightened of what new fields of horror new worlds and new ideas will open up.
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Taylor helps Cornelius and Zira prove their notion that the planet was inhabited by a human civilisation before apes as they flee authority and enter the Forbidden Zone’s wastes, pursued by Zaius and his gun-wielding fellows. He even manages to outwit Zaius and use him as leverage to ensure his own escape. But Zaius calmly reclaims authority and condemns his young colleagues to trial and disgrace anyway, in the belief that he might just be saving their future. Meanwhile Taylor rides away with Nova into the sunset, only to be confronted a great, rusted, blasted hunk of metal that mocks everything he’s done: the Statue of Liberty jutting from the beach sand. This was hardly the first time such an image had been deployed, but it still wields incredible power thanks to the way Schaffner deploys it, leaving it until the very last shot until just what has humiliated Taylor so vividly is seen, and seen, tellingly, through Nova’s blank, estranged gaze, before the fade-out comes with only the sound of breaking waves playing on the soundtrack, evoking one of those counterculture-era albums where the band mockingly remains silent “on the anniversary of World War III.” It’s one of those rare twists that makes perfect sense of what has been seen before – really, Taylor was pretty thick not to realise it before – and also an improvement on Boulle’s ending, an ending which Burton restored to his remake only to be met with dim stares of bemusement.
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In the days before franchising became so common in moviemaking, Planet of the Apes spawned a string of sequels fuelled by a fervent fan base. The first sequel, Beneath the Planet of the Apes (1970), takes up where the first film ends. Although entirely watchable, the whole project has a rushed and clumsy feel, as if the film was shot before anyone thought it out properly, whilst Ted Post’s direction lacked personality. The episode’s best aspect was its most novel, offering a society of terribly scarred, psychic human mutants who live in the ruins of old New York and whose literal worship of the atomic bomb presented a clever tweak on the apes’ abhorring theology. Heston’s limited involvement saw James Franciscus cast as Brent, a bland fill-in for much of the running time, and Cornelius and Zira only feature briefly (with David Watson filling in for the absent McDowall). The nihilistic climax has a certain aptness in taking the series’ themes to their grimmest possible consummation, whilst restaging the end of Bridge on the River Kwai on an apocalyptic scale, as Taylor avenges the murdered Nova and Brent and dies cursing Zaius by igniting the mutants’ cherished doomsday bomb. This conclusion also took to a limit the apocalyptic note found in immediate precursor films of the age like The Wild Bunch and Castle Keep (both 1969). But it all plays out in a rushed, impatient manner, like the production ran out of time and money, and the filmmakers just decided to kill everyone, whilst the ban-the-bomb motif swallowed up all dramatic and satiric nuances.
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The third episode, Escape From the Planet of the Apes (1971), was faced with the unenviable task of giving the series new life. The British screenwriter Paul Dehn, who had written Beneath…, brought something of the British sci-fi tradition with its distinctive fascination for social dynamics to the series, and he managed to extend it through the clever ruse of having Cornelius (played again by McDowall) and Zira revealed to have escaped the Earth’s destruction thanks to a fellow savant, Milo (Sal Mineo), who found and repaired Taylor’s spaceship, and accidentally travel back in time to the human age. Competently directed by former actor Don Taylor, Escape… is good fun as it observes the impact of the two simian harbingers upon 1970s Earth society, with great jokes like Zira finding accord with feminists, and Eric Braeden’s villain mirrors Zaius in his conscientious but covertly hysterical choice to perform monstrous acts. The film turns tragic as the beloved couple are murdered in the name of heading off ape dominance, although the impact is blunted by the rather predictable way it all plays out, in an entry that fails to wield anything like the conceptual breadth of the first two entries. The final reveal that their infant son Milo has found haven with a kindly circus owner Armando (Ricardo Montalban) opened the door for a fourth film, Conquest of the Planet of the Apes (1972), which saw hardy old pro J. Lee Thompson take over as director and bring some real muscularity to proceedings, and Dehn filled out a scenario sketched out in the previous film describing how apes came to be first domesticated, enslaved, and then quickly evolve into thinking beings and begin revolting.
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Although lacking the furtive wit of the earlier movies, Conquest… proves perhaps the ballsiest and the most urgent: Thompson’s energetic direction subversively recreated news footage of urban riot and revolt and links it justified rage over the legacy of slavery and oppression. The now-grown Milo (also played by McDowall) rechristens himself Caesar and leads his fellows in insurrection after Armando is killed by an increasingly fascistic state. A reshot finale took some of the edge off, but did again allow a fifth episode to be made. Battle for the Planet of the Apes (1973) is set after war has devastated the old human cities: now Caesar oversees an uneasy cooperative commune peopled by both apes and put-upon humans. As thuggish gorilla warrior Aldo (Claude Akins) stirs up prejudice and conflict, a gang of armed, radiation-scarred human survivors attacks the commune, sparking a fight that feels, very appropriately, like an attempt to portray the last war of history as looking a lot like the first, a tribal squabble fought with any weapon at hand. This under-budgeted entry tries to ply an okay script in the face of a scrappy production, with a rushed climax. The grand narrative ends on a note of tentative optimism, as Aldo’s carnage convinces Caesar that apes share the same dark heart as humans, denying any species’ exceptionalism. Centuries later, the Lawgiver (John Huston) is seen speaking to an audience of both species, suggesting that the timeline has been successfully deviated. But the ultimate weapon still lies in the hands of the mutants (as shown in an initially excised, later restored scene), and the last shot depicts Caesar’s venerated bust releasing a solitary tear, in fear the warlike impulse will never be entirely extinguished. This very capstone to the series is a bit corny, but does finally annex the metaphysical zone the series had long evoked. Whilst the individual entries were certainly uneven, as a whole the Planet of the Apes series still stands as near-unique in mainstream sci-fi cinema, as a cycle that stood assured on very human foundations whilst following its ideas through with weirdness, toughness, and intelligence.

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2010s, Action-Adventure, Film Noir, Scifi, War

Solo: A Star Wars Story (2018)

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Director: Ron Howard
Screenwriters: Jonathan Kasdan, Lawrence Kasdan

By Roderick Heath

From the moment it was announced, Solo: A Star Wars Story was dogged by ill omens, and the feeling it would prove the runt of the revived Star Wars litter. The troubled production, which saw initially commissioned directors Phil Lord and Chris Miller sacked and Ron Howard hired in their place, seemed to confirm it. Lord and Miller had proven their way with zesty, rapid-fire action comedy on the surprisingly good animated hit The Lego Movie (2016), and were undoubtedly hired to give the franchise a jolt of unruly humour and scruffiness in comparison with the core new trilogy, which has been unfolding with a stately gravitas that feels increasingly strained and lacking a real storytelling compass. The fact that Solo: A Star Wars Story signed up Lawrence Kasdan, who worked on series classics Episode V – The Empire Strikes Back (1980) and Episode VI – Return of the Jedi (1983) as well as helping out with the first of the new films, Episode VII – The Force Awakens (2015), was at least a promising move, for Kasdan, as well as being a fine screenwriter, is a talent who knows the full lexicon of classic movie references that form the series template, and like the property’s creator George Lucas, made films like Body Heat (1981) and Silverado (1985) that paid tribute to such classics but also reflected an independent, modernising spirit. Kasdan was joined in writing duties by his son Jon, a move that only fleshed out a feeling of continuity.

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There was also a certain sense of aptness in Howard stepping up to the plate, as he had starred in Lucas’s American Graffiti (1973) long before he started directing in his own right, and directed the Lucas-conceived and produced fantasy epic Willow (1987). Nonetheless, the fact that Lucasfilm turned to Howard to save their film excited few. Where Lord and Miller had the aura of fresh, exciting talent, Howard has proved one of Hollywood’s true survivors, one who every now and then makes a strikingly good movie like Apollo 13 (1995), but more often turns out bland and indifferent fare. His tepid Oscar winner A Beautiful Mind (2002) made him a prestige filmmaker, and the price everyone paid for that was a string of clumsy movies like The Missing (2003) and Cinderella Man (2004). His 2013 racing biopic Rush was a surprise that confirmed Howard still had some verve and, moreover, authentic visual flair, but his In the Heart of the Sea (2016) was a clumpy melange that betrayed Howard’s tremendous technical craft remained in thrall to wayward scripting and ill-focused impulses. The sense of sustained legacy evinced in teaming up Howard and Kasdan was fitting at least for a project that, like Gareth Edwards’ Rogue One (2016), casts its mind back to the epoch in this legendarium between the end of Episode III – Revenge of the Sith (2005) and the start of Episode IV – A New Hope (1977), the high-water time of the evil Galactic Empire, and the early days of a beloved figure.

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Han Solo, as a character, was always the figure that kept the first Star Wars trilogy anchored in both a more recognisable sense of reality and also in a slightly different fantastical universe to the high fantasy and space opera realm the rest of it belonged to. The figuration of Luke Skywalker and Han was a little reminiscent of Raphael’s depiction of Plato and Aristotle, with budding Jedi and dreamer Luke cast as Plato with finger pointed to the heavens, and Han as Aristotle, pointing to the ground and the way things actually are. Luke was cast in the mould of classical knights errant and saga heroes; Han was the more quintessentially American and modern figure, sly, worldly, cynical, sceptical, a creation in the mould of hardboiled figures from the pen of writers like Hammett and Hemingway and splitting the difference between the urban warriors of Humphrey Bogart and frontier sentinels of Gary Cooper. Han brought to Star Wars a quality of contrast, in his values and outlook, that sharply reflected not just a sensibility within the series, as the living by-product of the Empire’s diminution of wonder and hope following the extermination of the Jedi and the old Republic, but also offering the more sceptical audience members their surrogate, and their gateway, through which they could enter this realm without feeling twee. In this regard, Han remains a figure somewhat without parallel in the saga, with some troubling impact upon subsequent films, where everyone is expected to be a true believer.

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Recounting the adventures of young Han was, then, a good idea, but also one that posits its own specific challenges, not least of which was finding a star who could match Harrison Ford’s blend of flinty attitude and supine cool in the role. Ford was 35 years old when the first film was released, and had already in his life veered from early promise to dismissal and resignation. He had been tested like his character, and found ways to survive under a hard shell. Lucas had first cast Ford as the cowboy hat-wearing-dude who arrives in town to challenge his rivals to a drag race in American Graffiti. Casting Alden Ehrenreich, a discovery of Francis Coppola who cast him in his little-seen but impressive personal drama Tetro (2009) and since gained notice in films like the Coen Brothers’ Hail, Caesar! (2016), was one of those moves that felt remarkably right. He’s certainly no lookalike for Ford, but he held the promise of bringing something like Ford’s cocksure sturdiness and bruised joviality to the part, and whereas many actors today specialise in seeming boyish into middle age, Ehrenreich suggested remarkable maturity even as a teen. Solo: A Star Wars Story initially quotes both of Lucas’ first two features, THX 1138 (1971) and American Graffiti, in synthesising a suitable biography for Han.

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Han is introduced as a youth leading a hardscrabble life on a kind of space Detroit, the spaceship-building planet Corellia, a world of grand, grey metal monstrosities, labyrinthine in both geography and systems of oppressions. Here Han both subsists through and finds self-realisation in his gift for speed, jacking speeders and valuables under the nominal patronage of the grotesque alien crime queen Lady Proxima (Linda Hunt). Han however is dreaming of escape, and during a scam enacted on Proxima’s behalf has obtained a vial of refined hyperfuel, the hugely valuable, potent stuff that drives the engines of the Empire’s fleet. Han plans to flee along with Qi’ra (Emilia Clarke), a fellow street criminal and his first love. First the duo have to slip Proxima’s clutches, when they’re caught by her goons and accused of hiding her share of their loot, and then the Imperial functionaries who check all people leaving the planet. Han’s deft exploitation of Proxima’s dislike of sunlight and his great, if slightly overconfident, ability behind the wheel get them to the brink of triumph. But Qi’ra is snatched back by Proxima’s heavies just after Han has passed through a security barrier, and her screamed demands for him to keep going are matched by Han’s resolve to return and fetch her once he’s hit the big time.

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Han signs up to the Imperial military, hoping to become a famed pilot, but three years later he’s found serving as a foot soldier in a grim and incoherent campaign on a planet called Mimban, a giant ball of mud. Han encounters a team of criminals, led by Tobias Beckett (Woody Harrelson) and his partners Val (Thandie Newton) and Rio Durant (Jon Favreau), posing as soldiers, and begs to be included in their plans and help him get off the planet. When he goes a step too far in threatening to blow their cover, Beckett has him arrested: Han is sentenced as a deserter to be thrown into a pit with “the beast,” a hulking, bedraggled monstrosity that we all recognise as, of course, Chewbacca (Joonas Suotamo). Han wins over the mistreated and enraged Wookie by proving he knows a little of his language, and they break out, chained together Defiant Ones style. Rio talks Beckett and Val into delaying their departure with their loot long enough to pick them up, more for the potential muscle a Wookie can bring to their team.

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The gang’s raid on the Imperial arsenal proves to have been a stepping stone in their efforts to steal a big load of coaxium on the behalf of Dryden Vos (Paul Bettany) from a moving train shipment on the planet Vandor, but the mission goes awry as the gang is attacked mid-mission by a team of rivals, led by the masked and menacing Enfys Nest, a foe who constantly harries Beckett. Rio is killed and Val blows herself up in her determination to see the plan through. Han is pressed into saving Beckett and Chewbacca’s lives with his piloting skills even as he earns Beckett’s enmity by dumping the coaxium load to avoid hitting a mountain. Han agrees to help Beckett ward off Dryden’s wrath, and they improvise a new scheme the gangster approves: they plan to head to the planet of Kessel, where unrefined coaxium is mined, steal a quantity, and transport it as quickly as possible to a friendly refining concern before it degrades and explodes. Because they need a ship capable of making the dash, they approach charismatic corsair Lando Calrissian (Donald Glover), and Han attempts to beat him in a card game to obtain his ship, the Millennium Falcon. After Han fails thanks to Lando’s gifts at cheating, Beckett agrees to cut Lando in on the profits, so Lando and his droid co-pilot L3-37 (Phoebe Waller-Bridge) join them on their mission.

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I’ve been intensely frustrated by the revived Star Wars franchise. J.J. Abrams’ energetic but enervatingly slavish series opener and Rian Johnson’s perversely glum, twitchy Episode VIII – The Last Jedi (2017) were lovingly produced, highly watchable films, but seemed determined to strip out all remnants of colour and originality from the series and replace them with dull technocracy, televisual dramatic precepts, and ever-narrowing horizons of imagination. Rogue One wielded some tremendous imagery but floundered with a lukewarm script and forgettable protagonists. Here, something of Lord and Miller’s pointillist sense of detail and lampooning sensibility are still apparent in touches like Lando narrating self-mythologising memoirs, and Han’s attempt to fool Lady Proxima with a thermal detonator, only for her to announce he’s actually holding a rock and making clicking sounds with his mouth. Solo: A Star Wars Story has fun remixing and calling back to vital, previously glimpsed junctures in Han’s life, like a moment of passion inside the Falcon, interrupted in a manner recalling Han’s first kiss with Leia in The Empire Strikes Back. Early in the film, Han glimpses an animated recruiting poster for the Imperial services which blares out a version of John Williams’ immortal Imperial March reconfigured as a heroic anthem. There’s a quality implicit in this flourish that struck me as more genuinely understanding and simultaneously witty yet reverential in its intrinsic delight in the Star Wars universe than anything that’s appeared in the series since Disney took it over.

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Solo: A Star Wars Story also makes some real effort to try and bring back some ingenuity of spectacle and background liveliness to the franchise. Where Abrams’ regulation cantina scene in The Force Awakens was remarkably flavourless, Howard and the production team here locate Lando in a frontier saloon festooned with the bones of massive animals, drenched in shadow and smoke with polymorphous aliens hovering the margins, a bustling, genuine dive that recalls the kind found in 1970s western films but revised into something stranger for a film that mediates science fiction with the western just like Lucas’s long-ago opener. The environs of Corellia and Mimban, which resembles a World War I battlefield, are grimly beautiful and feel right as forges for Han’s dexterity as a survivor, negotiating a criminal overlord deliberately reminiscent of Jabba the Hutt and contending with Imperial officers who direct him on to attack trivial and obscure targets, a notion that unexpectedly also nudges Han into territory shared with literary figures like Yossarian and Gunner Asche. Whilst Rogue One strained to offer a novel perspective on the Empire, this manages the trick much better, perceiving the age of the Empire and its labours as an absurdist enterprise based on propaganda and degradation, its fringes devolving into fiefdoms controlled by organised crime and fractious rebel organisations.

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The film manages a feat Rogue One here didn’t quite pull off, which is to entertainingly illustrate the start of the decline and fall of the Galactic Empire, envisioned at first as a set of robotic tantrums from droids, and gaining dizzy fervour as Chewbacca is reunited with fellow Wookies, enslaved in the Kessel mines; revolt and collapse are incipient, old crimes set to be repaid, renegades forged by a once-mighty society’s breaking down into corrupt fascism now defining their own realities. Long before this film came out, jokey memes were circulating online about the compulsory points the film would have to touch upon in regards to the dribs and drabs of backstory known about Han from before his fateful encounter with Luke and Obi-Kenobi. Sure enough, we get all of them: here’s Han’s first meetings with Chewbacca and Lando, here’s his first sight of the Falcon, here’s the Kessel Run and why doing it in “twelve parsecs” was a big deal (explaining along the way what this means as it refers to units of distance rather than time). Han’s connection with the Falcon is revealed to be based in personal nostalgia and class pride, as he mentions his father used to build this model of spacecraft “before he was laid off.” We get an aside explaining just how our hero earned his peculiarly descriptive surname, given to him by a patronising Imperial recruiter who notes the young recruit’s lack of family or identity.

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Solo: A Star Wars Story moves at such a rocketing pace that some of these episodes inevitably seem a little compressed and robbed of the titanic stature they seem to have when wielded as suggestive history, which is a problem backtracking preludes often face. Compared to the leisurely evocations of masculine interaction and ratcheting tension Howard Hawks and screenwriter Leigh Brackett could evoke on the likes of El Dorado (1967), what we get here is so rapid-fire there’s little chance for a real sense of solidarity and frenemy intensity to grow between the characters. Glover’s Lando in particular seems ill-served by this, reducing Billy Dee Williams’ great portrayal of a slick, shifty, but hearty and ultimately decent rascal to a rather thin foil. Although Glover is one of the most engaging and multifaceted presences on the contemporary scene, and he masters Williams’ dazzling bullshitter’s smile, he eventually feels more than mildly miscast. On the other hand, Han’s fractured relationship with Qi’ra, who he finds to his surprise is now one of Dryden’s associates as members of the crime family called the Crimson Dawn, plucked from the dregs on Corellia, is the most interesting Star Wars has offered since Anakin and Padmé, particularly as it faces the thorny problem as to how it relates to Han’s growth.

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The flourish of killing off a female true love as a defining moment in a male hero’s life has become a noxious cliché, although it can be hard to separate from the traditions and demands of basic storytelling precepts of emotional involvement, and realistic and urgent motivation. I’ve seen that done well before, particularly in Barry Levinson’s Young Sherlock Holmes (1986) (a film that’s feeling increasingly like a template for the whole of current pop culture), but Howard and the Kasdans manage to sidestep this trope whilst still adding the finishing touches to Han’s sourly expectant worldview and eventual comfort with separateness. They do it not by killing Qi’ra off but revealing her as finally choosing another destiny for herself as Dryden’s successor, a criminal queen who makes her play to rise to the top of her chosen heap rather than subsist on the margins like Han. There’s a smart echo here of another retro template, films like Angels with Dirty Faces (1938) where the two kids from the wrong side of the tracks choose their mutual paths, given a modern tweak where the love interest is the femme fatale and the friend to whom bonds linger across vast gulfs of morality and expectation.

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It helps that Ehrenreich and Clarke have something like the bodied allure of proper movie stars. Han and Qi’ra’s kiss isn’t the only romantic moment the franchise has seen since its revival, after whatsit and whosis were at the end of Rogue One and Finn and Rose in The Last Jedi. But it is the first to make a real impression, even if the romance is necessarily defined and retarded by inevitable transience. Howard has sometimes been a little too eager to pick up modish directing habits, like the irritating action scenes in The Missing, and Solo: A Star Wars Story is replete with some excessively fast editing that feels alien to the Star Wars style guide. One would expect that Howard would wield little grasp on the faintly poetic, dreamlike edge that defines the series at its best. He evinces a real eye, however, for serving up the sorts of landscapes that evoke Lucas’s creation in its scenes of civilisations clinging onto the edge of vast abysses and hewn out the matter of a harsh universe, littered with traces of vanished forebears in signs like unknowably old standing stones, and the detritus of a vast galactic network of industry, war, and crime. Best of all, Howard restores some authentic Saturday matinee energy to the brand, and builds sequences with classical rigour. The train heist is the best action set-piece this series has seen since the finale of Revenge of the Sith, a tremendously well-sustained and visualised episode blending frantic swashbuckling and vast landscapes as the conveyance rockets along mountain flanks, pivoting on its axis in a way no familiar train does, constantly threatening to hurl our heroes to their doom even as Stormtroopers rain blaster bolts on their heads, with Nest’s band of aerial pirates in pursuit.

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Compared to the flatness of Abrams’ thin, hurried recreations of Lucas’ situations and Johnson’s tony approach, Howard proves himself, for all his air of practiced and familiar competence, simply better at this sort of thing. Likewise the extended movement in which the gang wreak havoc on Kessel and then make their flight to immortality of a kind offers real delight in pure movement and exponential absurdity. Helping give this great movement thrust is the inspired character of L3, a droid who’s passionately involved in preaching rights for robot kind and in love with her charming boss despite her protestations. Unleashed upon the unsuspecting Empire, she inspires all the droids on Kessel to rebel, in the sort of sequence, rowdy and crowd-pleasing and child-like, Star Wars was built on. L3 is shot down in battle and Lando uploads her memory into the Millennium Falcon’s shipboard computer to make use of her navigational knowledge, offering an ever so slight wisp of strange spirituality and sexuality to both Lando’s and Han’s relationship with the ship, and contextualising the Falcon’s virtual personality and spasmodic quirks. The Kessel run is a loopy episode that pays overt tribute to the asteroid field chase in The Empire Strikes Back, with snatches of Williams’ score heard on the soundtrack, but complicates it as a charge into murk and chaos where colossal tentacled monstrosities hide and holes in the fabric in reality wait for spaceships lurk in wait.

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The Kasdans’ feel for the root genres at play here is genuine, transmuting regulation scenes from westerns, including a confrontational card game and a train robbery, into the fuel of fantastical imagery. The elder Kasdan was credited as co-screenwriter on The Empire Strikes Back with Brackett, a writer who made her start penning pulp sci-fi and noir tales in magazines and then became a noted screenwriter for the likes of Howard Hawks. Brackett helped impose upon Lucas’s evolving property some authentic old-school flavour and sense of legacy. Kasdan repays the favour here as he works in an elaborate tribute to Brackett’s most famous sci-fi story, Black Amazon of Mars, as Solo: A Star Wars Story works up to a revelation Nest is actually a woman. Han forging a rough alliance with her offers another echo of an influence, positing Solo: A Star Wars Story as the outer space equivalent of Rick’s history of gunrunning for the good guys mentioned in Casablanca (1942), an act of nobility evinced even in an officially cynical resume. The gang’s encounters with Dryden in his roving nightclub-cum-spaceship belong more properly to noir films where the nefarious kingpin lurks behind a classy front. Han’s fractious relationship with Beckett and Lando exacerbate the resemblance to Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969) as a seriocomic riff on genre clichés, and the final confrontation between Han and Beckett as friends who nonetheless must face each-other’s guns recalls the climax of Vera Cruz (1954).

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Arch deployment of referential touchstones are of course not new to Star Wars, but what’s particularly interesting here is that whilst Johnson’s nods to Kurosawa and film noir undoubtedly reflected personal interest, they sat hovering in quotation marks whilst refusing to click into gear with an overall story thrust that didn’t have much to do with them. Howard and the Kasdans actually make their fetish points operate in coherent genre narrative terms, making Han not merely a dramatis persona and archetype but a knowing condensation of multiple strands of pop culture history, a creature who breathes the atmosphere of a certain danker, darker fictional sensibility, whilst still making them all serve a hard-charging storyline. Bettany offers an elegant performance as the smooth, gentlemanly, yet utterly ruthless criminal overlord, another nexus of sci-fi and noir: the final battle that defines the film unfolds not on a grand landscape but in the confines of his office, played out in terms of intimate violence in a manner that remains very true to this inspiration.

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This finish helps lay down a blueprint for a new wing of the franchise that presents a peculiar new bridging point between the underworld and the metaphysical power of the Force. It’s revealed the mysterious chieftain of the Crimson Dawn is Darth Maul, the bifurcated henchman last seen plunging into a shaft at the end of Episode I – The Phantom Menace (1999), now a part-android crime boss. This twist makes for gratuitous fan service, of course, granting new life to a spikily memorable villain who many felt never got to strut his stuff as much as he deserved. By the time Han confronts Beckett, who betrays him and still intends to kill him and yet still represents the closest thing to a family he has left, the man Han becomes is clearly nearly complete, with a tense smirk and poised readiness. A shoot-out is imminent, except that Han shoots Beckett before the older man can do it to him. The gag here is obvious as a play on the infamy resulting from Lucas’s revision of his original film from 1997, which altered Han’s confrontation with Greedo, where he shot the bounty hunter from under a table. Lucas’ change was in line with his increasingly strong intent to remake the series in a more responsible, family-friendly mould, but it offended fans who felt the whole point of Han as a character was his canny, unsentimental toughness.

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Solo: A Star Wars Story restores the roguish side to Han’s character, but the script doesn’t simply play this pivot for a nasty joke. It is rather the moment in a tale that’s as much the tragedy of a valiant young man’s education in the cruel necessities of surviving a corrupt universe as it is the origin story of a hero: Han holds the hand of his dying father-enemy and Han watches Qi’ra fly away to her own chosen fate, as he faces a future of improvised exile. The film ticks off the last two necessary stages in Han’s journey as he journeys to lay claim to the Falcon for keeps and plans taking up a job offer from Jabba. It’s telling that in contemporary screenwriting patterns the shyster side of Han’s character, glimpsed fleetingly in the original character, is now very much a cosmic state of being in contemporary pop culture, and his cool, insouciant aspect, the aspect of Han that was most in touch with the older models, now feels so alien even Kasdan can’t quite bring it to bear. So, does Ehrenreich succeed as a Ford stand-in? Not really. But what’s important is that Ehrenreich is entirely persuasive and potent in his own right. It does seem unlikely given all the stumbling blocks it faced, but to my mind Solo: A Star Wars Story proves easily the best film yet from the Disney-managed franchise, the first to feel at all authentically grounded in Lucas’s sensibility and also to really enjoy itself as a pure, unselfconscious piece of pulp moviemaking. Not every choice and flourish is an act of genius or great creative originality. Like the Millennium Falcon herself, it’s a hunk of junk, cobbled together through expedience and flashes of inspiration, and somehow all fits together in a way that’s a total blast.

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