Ghost in the Shell (2017)

Let’s get this first part out of the way:

If there is one thing I’m tired of in the realm of film and television, it’s pre-emptive complainers trying to de-rail everything before it even comes out. with any review of this live action American/Chinese Ghost in The Shell film, everyone has drawn battle lines in regards to the elephant in the room of “Hollywood whitewashing”; in fact, I would say you were almost expected to take a side, and if you took a side that many didn’t like you’d get lectured by the other. It’s annoying that folks are getting in fights and “unfriending” each-other because of opinions over a goofy sci-fi film, but that’s our modern society I guess. Some popular reviews from major sites didn’t even talk about the film, they just reviewed everything that was in some way perceived as racist to stoke the outrage fires, this honestly comes across like they never actually watched it.

I’m not going to dwell on this topic too much because I can see both sides and don’t think arguing over whether or not Scarlett Johanson should or should not be cast as The Major actually addresses the actual problem that Hollywood has with representation. The internet witch hunts and rage were nearly identical to what people attempted to do with both recent Star Wars films, and even last years re-boot of Ghostbusters, and I honestly don’t care anymore. I’d rather discuss a film based on an anime/manga property that I’ve loved for upwards of 20+ years, and how it turned out.

/end rant

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Ghost in The Shell has been a favorite of mine for a VERY long time. I recall being first introduced to it through my older stepbrother that loved cyberpunk stuff – he had the original Masamune Shirow manga laying around at some point when I was visiting and I was enthralled by what I saw. Not too long after that, I was able to rent the anime adaptation from one of our local video stores and was hooked on the franchise from that point forward. every continuation has been something I get really excited about – all the movies, games, TV shows etc. That said, I was torn when they announced that a western adaptation was going to be produced a few years ago.

Readers may recall that I’m pretty vocal about my dislike for most anime adaptations because they don’t treat the source material with respect and are generally bad (Dragonball Evolution is the king of this). That goes for live action adaptations produced in Japan itself. I am always annoyed when they discuss a possible Akira remake because the two directors that were vocally lobbying for it seemed determined to completely alter the entire premise of the story into something else. I recall at one point, the script going around had Kaneda and Tetsuo, protagonists of the film, gender swapped and made into former lovers – nope! Any such fears that I had with Ghost in the Shell were calmed when the released the first trailer – the logo was there, scenes appeared to be adapted directly from the 1995 film, characters looked almost correct – “wait?! was this going to be okay somehow?” the controversy I touched on above was something that troubled me a bit, but I figured I’d give it a shot and see what happens.

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Quick verdict – Ghost in the Shell 2017 is good, not great, and it’s not deserving of the critical heat it’s getting online.

An argument can be made that many of the visual flourishes in this film seem like a road often traveled, somewhat dated, nothing new. That’s by design, as many scenes are literally directly lifted from the 1995 film – keep in mind that the source material is nearing thirty years of age if you go even further back to the comic. it’s filled with typical cyberpunk aesthetics, and much like steampunk, or post-apocalyptic fiction – straying too far from the agreed upon tropes is never a great idea. Most “cyberpunk” properties follow a set groundwork laid by much older films like Blade Runner, books like Neuromancer, and the like. Ideas like megacities run by huge militarized corporations, dingy slums filled with bright holographic neon lights, weird Asian and Western culture amalgamations and the idea of trans-humanism seem passe today, but we seem to be ever closer to that very reality. it might not look the same, but in many ways cyberpunk is closer to our modern society than it was back in the 80’s.

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I mentioned that some scenes were directly influenced by the Mamoru Oshii film of the same name, and I would even go as far as to say that this was almost a shot-for-shot remake of that very film with a little bit of some of the sequel material sprinkled in. This is a double edged sword in many ways, as seeing scenes like the building infiltration, the spider mech fight, and the cloaked fight with the hacked garbage man was cool, but a lot of those scenes were a lot cooler and more fleshed out in the original film. This was because there was a decent amount of new material – some adapted from the comics or TV series taking up the runtime. Reading reviews online, a constant complaint I kept seeing was that “The Major got a new backstory” which is funny because Hideo Kuze and his revelations at the end of the TV series factor into this film quite a bit, meaning that people have not seen Stand Alone Complex and should not be commenting on it as if they are authorities on the matter.

For much of the film, we know The Major as Major Mira KIllian – a cyborg created by a large robotics company named Hanka Robotics. She was a survivor of a refugee boat accident – something that left her family dead and herself severely injured. Her brain was the only thing salvageable from her body, so it was put in a new body as a second chance at life as long as she’s cool being basically sold to the government as a weapon. Of course, this is all BS and the driving force behind The Major trying to piece her previous life back together.

Much like the backstory stuff, I saw people complaining that the inclusion of Hanka was a new addition to the franchise, but they were actually an organization from the original comic, although not as major as here. In both versions they are a VERY bad company, as the comic version of Hanka was caught in a scandal where they were dubbing the ghosts of children into a mass-produced consumer robot to achieve a greater sense of human personality. Here, without going into too much detail – they are trying to create a race of perfect soldiers with human brains in a cybernetic body, where they get these brains could be an issue.

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In some ways, making Hanka Robotics a major plot point in the film is actually going against one of the major philosophical ideas from the original manga. In a world where the internet is literally in and around you at all times, and cyber-warfare is something even low-level street thugs dabble in from time to time, old ideas like national sovereignty and borders are basically obsolete. Section 9 always skirted a fine line between acting within the scope of normal law enforcement, and treating the Networks as a free for all that the old ways stood against. Leaving out some of this diplomatic and political intrigue sort of boils down the role that Section 9 and Hanka have as nothing more than a Corporation acting as The Government and Section 9 acting as their willing lap-dog. I guess in some ways that’s a telling indictment of the current status-quo with our own corporations, but something that I wanted to point out as a major difference. Hanka is also a convenient way to have a blatant “villain” rather than the numerous ephemeral “gray area” antagonists the material usually features.

There are a few differences like this that are not huge deal breakers, but sort of “dumb down” the ideas from Ghost in the Shell to a more palatable product for those looking to see an action popcorn movie rather than a philosophical look into trans-humanism. I’m not annoyed by this in any way because no two versions of Ghost in the Shell are exactly alike. The manga, the Oshii films, The TV series, and the recent Arise films are all different parallel versions of this story, and none of them are very much alike to be honest. I actually prefer the TV series Stand Alone Complex, to the films and dislike the manga sequel. with a franchise like this, there are many ways to look at the story – something for everyone.

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When it comes to casting, I absolutely loved the job they did. And yes, Scarlett Johanson did a fine job no matter what internet folks want you to believe. Pretty much every character from section 9 is present aside from Paz, seemingly replaced by a new character named Ladriya, I’m pretty sure she’s not from any previous version, but could be wrong. Takeshi Kitano (As Aramaki) is my favorite Japanese actor, and having him be such a badass in this film was awesome. He has, by far, the best line in the entire film where he chumps out an entire squad of armored assassins with a briefcase and quips “Never send a rabbit to kill a fox”. I wanted to clap at that very moment, but that probably would have made everyone mad in the theater.

Chin Han is also great as Togusa, perhaps my favorite character from the TV series. He’s not a major part of the film by any means, but I was glad to see him in there. Finally, I wouldn’t be able to discuss this without talking about Batou, as played by Danish actor Pilou Asbæk. I’ve somehow missed him up to this point, but he was really good – he really captured the character and was perhaps the truest to the source material of anyone in the film.

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I’ve already written a lot here, and I don’t want to spoil more than what I have since the film does have a few mysteries and twists. To reiterate from above Ghost in the Shell 2017 is a good, but not great film that stayed close to the source material with a few alterations. Yes, these alterations sort of “water-down” some of the themes of the source material itself, but this was a summer popcorn flick, I was never under the assumption that this was going to be a complex film for jaded otaku. I enjoyed the casting despite the online backlash, and would be up for a sequel if one ever materializes. That is unlikely as the film hasn’t really caught the box office on fire, but who knows. I am sad that there was no reference to any sort of mobile tank unit like the Fuchikoma / tachikoma / Uchikoma /or Logikoma units from the numerous iterations of the franchise. This was no surprise as they are not present in the 1995 film either unless you count the spider tank.

I’d say ignore the haters and see this for yourself – I’m not saying you’ll like it, but it’s not the bucket of dog turds everyone wants it to be.

 


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H. G. Wells’ The War of the Worlds (2005)

I was thinking recently about what films I would love to see the new season of MST3K riff, and one film immediately came to mind – one that not many people have likely heard of or seen. You see, I’m a connoisseur of bad movies, and I always love collecting them in order to obliterate everyone in bad movie marathons. Gems like Manos: Hands of Fate and Robo-Vampire are my usual ammunition in such contests, but I honestly think H. G. Wells’ The War of the Worlds is worse. You might be sitting there while thinking “that 2005 The War of the Worlds film with Tom Cruise was alright though….” but that’s a different film that is somewhat better than the topic of today’s discussion.

Our story goes back to sometime in 2001, and some message-board I was reading at the time was keeping tabs on an upcoming War of the Worlds film. It was supposed to be a modernized re-telling of the original story and more of a horror movie than any version prior. Everything was rolling strong until the events that occurred on September 11, 2001. Pendragon films, the studio behind the picture posted the following to their ebsite in the aftermath.

 Since events of 11 September…


Pendragon Pictures’ principals are concerned over a rumour that production of WAR OF THE WORLDS is about to resume on October 8th. Director Timothy Hines expresses dismay at the rumour, “It is absolutely not true that War of the Worlds is about to resume. The reality is that we are massively reworking the script in the wake of the World Trade Center disaster and we will not be able to go before the cameras for a little over a year.”

The Pendragon principals lost a close friend and investor in WAR OF THE WORLDS in the World Trade Center attack. 

Timothy Hines goes on, “It has been a very difficult time for everyone. The whole world was touched by the WTC experience. For us personally those planes slammed directly into our lives. We lost a very close friend and have been in mourning. We also watched portions of our fictional screenplay being played out on September 11th. I knew immediately we couldn’t do War of the Worlds as conceived. It was a strange time. I found myself weeping on the phone with Michele Jeffers at Foundation Imaging. They were great in that they wrote off some of the effects work we had built for War of the Worlds. The fans of War of the Worlds will be very pleased with the direction we are taking, but I won’t just slap it out there. War of the Worlds deserves care and time and there is no other way I could do it.”

Pendragon Producer Susan Goforth adds, “The script has to be rewritten from the ground up. This new version will be a true and accurate adaptation of the Wells classic story placed in its original 1898 setting. It’s been emotionally difficult for us to see sets and thousands of preparations scrapped. But Timothy has made the right choice.”

It’s really a shame, because this was a piece of concept art:

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Timothy Hines was also posting stuff like this prior to the old film being scrapped:

“The fans of War of the Worlds will be very pleased with the direction we are taking, but I won’t just slap it out there. War of the Worlds deserves care and time and there is no other way I could do it.”

– 7th October 2001

“Everyone has come away from the script telling us that when we film this story, it will be the most frightening movie ever made.”

– 6th June 2001

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Now this wasn’t a bad thing necessarily, having a period drama version of the original story would be amazing if done well. As long as the script is there, something like this could be a huge hit. It took until 2005 for the film to finally surface in trailers and press clippings and it did not look good. due to the delay, Steven Spielberg had swooped in with his own film, and one by Asylum pictures was also in the works. it seems that Pendragon had to get the movie out there, and boy they did! Everyone knows that you can’t adapt a book 100% to a movie, because if you do it will be a horrendous borefest. If you want a case-study in that fact, look no further than this movie.

Before we get to that, I wanted to touch base on one of the most baffling things associated with the production of this film – the Amazon scandal it was part of. It seems Hines, or someone else working for Pendragon Studios (then later trolls) decided to flood Amazon.com with over 3500 fake 5 star reviews, one of which actually implied that film made a lady stop being lesbian and another that said the film was a religious experience.You see, this film was ONLY available on Amazon and Wal-Mart for some reason (probably because it’s bad) and they wanted to ensure bad reviews got buried. next thing you know, the film is top of Amazon’s film ratings and is selling like hot cakes to people that think it’s the Tom Cruise film most likely.

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Totally a real mustache guys!

This was the era of look-alike films at video stores to trick old people, a business plan championed by companies like Asylum Entertainment – the guys behind such “mockbusters” as Snakes on a Train, The Land That Time Forgot, Transmorphers, AVH: Alien vs. Hunter, The Da Vinci Treasure, Battle of Los Angeles, and Paranormal Entity. H. G. Wells’ The War of the Worlds fit right into the mold.

The film is basically comically bad in every way possible. Usually first time directors decide to do a small movie to get their ears wet, and if it that’s popular, go ahead and get more funding for something bigger. Hines decided to tackle an epic war film right of the bat. I could possibly handle the horrendous special effects had the acting been anything better than community theater acting. And by horrendous special effects I mean late-night Christian children’s programming graphics.

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Then we have the plotting of the film, which moves at such a glacial pace, that the film seems 12 hours long. It’s honestly VERY true to the book, but it’s true to a fault because it makes everything nearly unwatchable. The plotting can be summed up as follows:

  • Main character hears about aliens
  • main character walks somewhere for 5 minutes
  • main character talks to somebody
  • walks back for another 5 minutes
  • sees some alien thing that is completely useless to the film because….
  • MORE WALKING!
  • CGI Tripod blows up GCI houses
  • repeat for 3 hours….

 

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Another major flaw is realism. The story takes place in Victorian/Edwardian England, about the time of the Boer Wars, but everyone is either dressed as if it is an American western or in a World War II era war movie. this can be overlooked as me being a snobby history major looking for things to whine about, but the costuming is so inconsistent it almost looks like this was directed by multiple people. also, NOONE is British or able to pull off a convincing accent. Most people have some ridiculous sing-songy fake cockney accent this side of Mary Poppins or a faux Royal Accent that makes everyone sound like a bad community Shakespeare play. There is even a guy who must have a Scottish and Irish split personality, because he switches between both at will.

And don’t get me started on the main actors fake mustache that falls off either.

Here is one of the better scenes in the film if you want to see some of the glory within:

 

 

One of these days, I might have to give Pendragon Pictures another chance as they apparently took another stab at the premise with a docudrama called War of the Wolds: The True Story (2012). I’m under no impressions that the film looks amazing, but it at least looks interesting, and the special effects look marginally better. It seems to use the same footage as this film mixed with new stuff, so maybe the editing will mask any other problems the film had.

It allegedly won some awards, so it might be passable. Either that or Timothy Hines is the modern day Ed Wood.


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The World’s End (2013)

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Before I get to my review of this film, I’d like to share a little story of persistence paying off for once. The World’s End came to select theaters nearly two months ago, leaving me in an annoying predicament. I live about one hour and a half (minimum) away from a theater that would carry a limited release movie, and with gas prices in late August pretty high, I was dreading the extra trip. A few days before we were planning on driving up to a participating theater, I was involved in a car accident that destroyed my car and mildly injured my arm and ribs; needless to say – we didn’t go. This is also the reason I haven’t blogged on here for a bit, sorry about that to anyone that wondered where I disappeared to.

Pretty soon, I had a new car and was feeling better, just in time to discover that the limited release we were annoyed by, was even more limited and only one theater in the whole city carried it, and it was smack dab in the middle of a high-traffic shopping district that was taken over by a week-long art fair. I made my peace about waiting for the eventual DVD release and let the whole thing slip my mind. That was until I received an email that made my day. You see, I had forgotten the fact that I sent an email to my local theater essentially asking them to attempt to get the movie in a late run,but assumed I’d never hear back. Here is the exchange:

From me:

“A few years back, this theater did not get a movie called ‘Hot Fuzz‘ on release day, but acquired it on a limited basis a few months later. I was wondering if a new movie by the same studio/cast/director ‘The World’s End’ would get the same treatment? I really do not want to drive two hours to see this film, and would prefer supporting you guys. So, I implore you, please get this movie for at least a few days since this is a college town and I think it will do well.”

and here was the response:

“Hi Stephen, The distributor of World’s End, Focus Features released their film very limited. I’m presently trying to secure the film to open in [your town] on October 4. Please keep an eye on our website for showtimes. Thank you for contacting [Carmike Cinemas] “

I have to hand it to Carmike Cinemas, they actually took the time to look into my query, answer me, and I was able to see my movie in my own town. Yeah it was late, but I was there. So anyway, moral of the story is, it never hurts to ask sometimes, and in my case it worked out. Now the question is, did I enjoy the movie?

I’ve been a big fan of pretty much everything that Simon Pegg, Edgar Wright, And Nick Frost have done for quite a while. Ever since I reluctantly rented Shaun of the Dead nearly a decade ago, I’ve been hooked. I think what draws me to their material is that they may look like typical genre films on the surface “oh look it’s ANOTHER zombie film”. But upon further watching, one will notice heart that few comedies have. These aren’t just vague genre parodies like that dead horse that the Wayans Brothers and company keep beating (Scary Movie, Epic Movie, Meet The Spartans etc.) these are deep films that just happen to be funny.

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Fans have dubbed these genre-busting films as the “Blood and Ice cream Trilogy” or “The Three Flavours Cornetto Trilogy” either way, these are solid in every way. Shaun of the Dead was their take on the horror genre, and while it dished out the gory zombie action in spades, the film was more about what it means to grow up and be a man. Their spiritual sequel Hot Fuzz followed suit and took the action / buddy-cop film skeleton and placed what was essentially an unconventional love story between two friends into the mix. So what about The World’s End? At first glance it looks like a science fiction film, but is really about the dangers of nostalgia and how one really can’t ever go home again.

The film centers around an estranged group of high-school friends that have slipped out of touch with each other in the twenty years since graduation. Their paths separated after an ill-fated contest called “The Golden Mile” in their old stomping grounds, Newton Haven. The idea was to stop at all twelve pubs on a tourist list and drink at least one pint at each one. Sadly this was not meant to be, and the night went sour. They got into fights, had to escape said fight, and even lost one of their own in the scuffle. Their “leader”, a man named Gary King (Simon Pegg) has decided to get the whole gang back together, but a lot has changed since the early 1990’s. They return to their hometown to find it different, and everyone acting like robots. And as you guessed, that’s because they are robots.

Simon Pegg portrays Gary King, the aforementioned “leader” of the group. He has changed very little since high school, and seems to be at a perpetual state of adolescence. He wears the same clothes, has the same car, and even the same cassette tapes he enjoyed as a youth. This fact saddens everyone else, because it is immediately obvious that he never moved on from his younger days. He’s very untrustworthy, and somewhat careless in personal business and external relationships. This is a nice change of pace for Pegg, as the last two movies showed him as the “straight man” or “hero” and Nick Frost occupying the bumbling friend role.

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In fact, Frost portrays what could be possibly seen as the straight laced man of action in this movie with Andy Knightly. He is the least fond of Gary, now that they are older, because of an “incident” that occurred when they were younger. You do eventually find out why there is tension between the two, but that’s later in the film and has importance to the plot. Andy is fun because he is pretty boring until the villainous robots appear, and a few drinks make him into their “incredible Hulk”.

The cast is rounded out by more “Cornetto Trilogy” mainstays: Paddy Considine plays Steven Prince, someone that could be considered Gary’s Rival from school. They seem to get along fairly well despite this fact. Martin Freeman plays Oliver Chamberlain, the brother of Gary’s high school fling Sam (as played by Rosamund Pike). Finally, Eddie Marsan plays Peter Page, who was fairly meek in his youth and was bullied a lot.

Since this is a science fiction film about invading robots, one would assume that there are some cool special effects involved, and that person is correct. About twenty minutes into the film, Gary gets into an altercation with a young man in a pub restroom resulting in the man’s head popping off and a thick blue liquid spraying everywhere. From this moment on, we are treated to some really brutal and exciting fight scenes. Being a wrestling fan, I was pleasantly surprised to see everyone’s fighting abilities were seemingly based on professional wrestling moves. Gary delivers a killer “Rock Bottom” popularized by Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson when he was in WWE. We also saw elbow drops, suplexes and even an “atomic drop”. As you can imagine, an assault such as this will result in limbs being ripped off, chests exploding and even heads being lopped off. It’s okay though, they’re just robots.

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The fun of the cast and the hilarious battles doesn’t get in the way of telling a good story. We seem a few quite dramatic scenes in the film, and especially one featuring Peter Page. At the pub where the robots finally show themselves, Peter runs into an old school bully – one that ruined his life back then. The man seemingly ignores Peter, not recognizing him at all. Peter slips into an abyss of depression since this man did more to hurt him than he can imagine, and yet doesn’t even remember him. There are even more scenes like this peppered throughout the film, that show the actors’ dramatic chops and make this film stand out against other comedies.

Longtime fans of these movies will be pleased to see tons of cameos from people from previous films and TV shows. These cameos aren’t too obtrusive and usually result in someone with a small role like Mark Heap who worked with the guys in Spaced. Other callbacks include references to the “wall gag” that appears in all three films, the Cornetto ice cream reference, and even the classic epilogue that usually only exists on the DVD special features. I did hear people whining that Bill Nighy was not involved, but they need to listen closer. He was the voice of a VERY important character at the end of the film.

I loved The World’s End and am glad I got to see it in theaters after such a long wait. I can’t really say how it ranks with the other two films as I basically like them equally and for entirely different reasons. I am glad to see the characters shifted around from the norms seen in the last few films. Showing that Nick Frost isn’t just a wacky one-trick pony sidekick was awesome, and I’m glad to see him in a more dramatic role. Here’s hoping that this “trilogy” isn’t over and all these guys work together again at some point. Maybe after Ant Man, Edgar Wright will need another excuse to hang out with his buddies and entertain us once again.

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As a bonus here is Gary’s favorite band, Sisters of Mercy, with the song that constantly pops up in the movie. Enjoy!

Threads (1984)

“In an urban society everything connects, each person’s needs are feed by the skills for many others, our lives are woven together in a fabric, but the connections that make society strong also make it vulnerable”

 

A while back, I reviewed a 1965 faux documentary called The War Game that really creeped me out. I’m usually immune to the most brutal of all horror films as I seem unable to take the subject matter seriously, but the way The War Game was done got to me. The visceral bleakness of the subject matter and the realistic portrayals of human suffering put me in a similar mood as to when I originally watched Schindler’s List years ago. When I checked my comment box later on, I noticed a common thread (no pun intended) in most comments – I had to see a later film called Threads, because it also hits you like a ton of bricks. I’m no masochist when it comes to movies, so watching something just to make myself feel bad was out of the question, but I did want to see this. With all the North Korean sabre rattling as of late, I think I’ve been getting a taste of the uneasiness and fear felt during the worst parts of the cold war. In a weird way, I feel that watching stuff like this can “educate me” on what not to do, how bad people will act, and who you can trust.

While The War Game was essentially a strict documentary styled production, Threads actually has some semblance of a dramatic narrative in place. The plot focuses on ordinary people living in the city of Sheffield, and more specifically on a couple of young lovers that find themselves at the gateway of real adulthood. With an unplanned pregnancy looming, Ruth Beckett (Karen Meagher) and her boyfriend Jimmy Kemp (Reece Dinsdale) decide to get married, get a house, and all of the other things responsible people do in that situation. Their happiness is cut short as a crisis looms in the Middle East.

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In a fairly realistic manner, the news leading up to the impending disaster is shown slowly in the background with nobody really paying too much attention until it’s honestly too late. The signs are all there that the world is on the brink of utter collapse, but it’s just sort of washed over. People go about daily activities with the news on, glance at newspapers, and listen to the radio albeit only passively. Let’s face it; Jimmy and Ruth have bigger things to deal with in their immediate lives than world events. They have to deal with family pressures such as questions on whether they should get an abortion and if they can support a child. The news is the last thing they care about.

This peppering in of plot progression is done with fake archival news footage and other reports shown to set the scene. If one pays attention, the crisis escalates as Iran falls to a military coup, only to have Russia capitalize on the situation. Due to the complex web of alliances with other countries, places like America get dragged in early on. American bombers try to help fend off the Russian threat, inadvertently causing nuclear war to erupt. Russia first attacks the aforementioned bombers, and then gets hit with a retaliatory attack on an occupied air base. Russia launches an EMP attack over the North Sea, and follows it up with a barrage of strikes on key tactical points in all NATO countries with Sheffield being one of the targets.

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So that’s how the mess really starts, but that isn’t the real point of the film – now we get to see how messed up everything gets on a human level. Before the bombs go off protests ravage the streets of Sheffield as people from government positions try to calm the tension with claims of prosperity due to industrial growth – but this is Sheffield, one of the places hit worst by Margaret Thatcher’s mining industry clamp-down. Full-on riots erupt in East Germany and a mass exodus of large population centers commences. People go crazy to stock up on food, water and other basic necessities until the bombs hit. And boy do they hit. They hit hard, and not even Jimmy comes out alive.

I won’t spoil anymore of the plot here, but all I will say is simply that things get bad – really bad. And when you think you have seen the gloomiest, most depressing thing in Threads, they throw another fast ball at you. Scenes such as a Husband-less Ruth having to cut the umbilical cord of her own child with her teeth are the worst. One really gets a sense of despair and pain in this movie that you usually don’t end up with in other films. That’s why I compared this to a horror film earlier, as guys like Freddy Krueger don’t scare me. There is not a real-life demon killing random people in their dreams, but the stuff in this movie – it could happen. Threads is the ultimate disaster movie, and possibly one of the most depressing movies I’ve seen.

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Would I recommend Threads? Possibly, but only if you can handle this kind of movie. While it doesn’t exist as some kind of gore-filled exploitation movie, the plot is so bleak that I doubt my own wife could watch it without exploding into a fountain of tears. It reminded me of things such as the whipping scene in The Passion of the Christ, not really that bad in comparison to other movies, but so emotionally intense that it’s hard to sit through. While The War Game was shocking in the sixties, Threads has escalated the shock value to a level that I don’t think has been matched by another disaster film. Most films in this genre of speculative fiction turn into heroic action tales of a hero kicking a volcano’s ass or a scientist that saves everyone from a storm, Threads is watching the human race shrivel up and die.

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Quatermass 2 (1957) a.k.a. Enemy from Space

After the immense success of the first Hammer Films Iteration of the Quatermass saga, The Quatermass Xperiment, it was nearly two years before another film was produced in the series. Hammer attempted to get another one off the ground, but Nigel Kneale (who got no money for the first film) vetoed the idea immediately. Kneale felt that his creation had been abused the first time around, and wanted more control over what the BBC did with his material. Hammer went on with a film in 1956 anyway called X the Unknown. The movie, starring Dean Jagger as a new character essentially the same as Quatermass, did decently well, but failed to reach the critical and monetary heights of its predecessor. Hammer dropped the whole “X” related X certificate gloating in their marketing, and worked with Kneale himself to produce a new screenplay that would see Brian Donlevy back in the saddle for another adventure. Enter Quatermass 2 or Enemy from Space as it was called overseas.

The title card
The title card

The plot of Quatermass 2 is largely the same as the previous television version Quatermass II, with a few changes made for a shorter runtime, and a much larger special effects budget. I would say that this TV-to-movie remake is actually far closer to the original TV version than the first Quatermass film and more of a science fiction piece, as Quatermass Xperiment was definitely altered to be horror. Professor Quatermass is once again trying to improve the human race through his scientific endeavors, this time by trying to gather support for Moon exploration and eventual colonization. He is sidetracked early on by budget setbacks as well as the discovery of a curiously large amount of meteorites falling recently in the area, a fact that really piques his interest. He goes to an area where the impacts have been the most numerous only to find that there is a destroyed city and an ominous government facility (which looks similar to his planned moon colony) in its place inhabited by people with “V” shaped marks on their skin.

"and here is where I'll store my shoe collection"
“and here is where I’ll store my shoe collection”

I loved The Quatermass Xperiment with one quibble – Brian Donlevy wasn’t “cup of tea” when it came to potential actors playing Quatermass. He was a bit too harsh and unlikeable, a fact that led to me likening him to “[…] Hugh Laurie’s Doctor House M.D. fighting aliens […]”. My fears were tested in one of the very first scenes involving Quatermass and his “crew”; we see him throwing a suitcase down and belittling his associates like a bully. He insinuates that they are wasting his time, and they may lose their jobs. It was here that I feared the worst – not only was Donlevy back, but he was gruffer than ever. Then he softened, he apologized and explained the predicament they are in. From here on we have a “better” take on the character. Quatermass is still “no nonsense” as with the first film, but none of the borderline bipolar personality disorder is there. I think it may be up to Kneale’s writing here that Donlevy seems to be a bit more “level” as this script was essentially written with his TV character in mind, but whatever the reason – I’m happy.

"It's only a model"
“It’s only a model”

As I mentioned earlier on, Quatermass 2 is not as much of a horror film as its predecessor, though it does keep some of the horror trappings in place. Much like the mutating astronaut in the first film, there are many shocking scenes that really put the viewer on the proverbial “edge of their seat”. I think one of the most shocking moments has to be a scene towards the middle of the film involving Quatermass leading a group of “inspectors” through the government-run domed city that lay on the ashes of a small town. A member of parliament named Vincent Broadhead, as played by Tom Chatto, wanders off during the investigation as he realizes that they are being shown things that the dome dwellers want them to see. Upon attempting to gain access to one of the domes, he is covered with a thick black tar-like substance that ultimately kills him. His prolonged death, complete with a tumble down a series of stairs and ladders and accompanied by stinging 1950’s horror music, is pretty gruesome and holds up here with other similar death scenes of modern films.

"You don't look so good, you have a cold?"
“You don’t look so good, you have a cold?”

I commented that Hammer films was pretty good at making their science fiction and horror films look more realistic than other films of the time, and much of this can be chalked up to the production’s director and cinematographer being ahead of their time. The director, Val Guest, utilized many cinema verite’ (documentary style cinema) techniques such as hand-held cameras and location shooting in an oil refinery to great success. His cinematographer, Gerald Gibbs, picked great locations and framed shots worthy of far more expensive films. I’m not a huge fan of “day as night” scenes that populated these older films, but some of these are really well done. Others, as one might expect, looked like they film daytime through a pair of sunglasses rather than a convincing night shoot.

"this night time sun is so bright!"
“this night time sun is so bright!”

The main change in the plotline of this film against its source material happens at the end of the story. In the original TV serial, Quatermass and his assistant Pugh donned spacesuits and flew the Quatermass 2 rocket to an asteroid heading towards the earth. This final act was very silly and made the original piece fall apart in about every way. This has been replaced with the launch of the same rocket modified into a nuclear warhead in an unmanned state, and an escape from multiple 200 foot creatures. This finale resulted in something similar to a “kaiju film” from Japan – a man in a suit stomping over a model of a city. I actually preferred this ending, as it makes the alien threat a bit more…well… threatening.

"there goes the neighborhood!"
“there goes the neighborhood!”

Overall, I really enjoyed Quatermass 2. Unlike the first part, I can compare both the TV series and the movie to each other fairly well as the entire TV version survives. All of my problems with the first Quatermass film – mostly Brian Donlevy – have disappeared entirely in this production. I know that many regard Quatermass 2 inferior to the first in every way, but I disagree. Not only is it on a far larger scale, it has better acting, and more thrills. It will be quite a long time before another Quatermass film pops up, but if the hype is anything to gauge I’m in for a treat. Next up on “Quatermass Week” we have both versions of Quatermass and the Pit, a beloved favorite of many.

"One angry mob, at your service!"
“One angry mob, at your service!”

X: The Unknown (1956)

… or The Quatermass film that wasn’t…

 

After the successful release of The Quatermass Xperiment essentially re-launched Hammer Films, they attempted to get another slice of the proverbial pie, by doing a sequel the very next year. Hammer had a huge stumbling block in the way as Nigel Kneale, the man behind the original BBC dramas, wanted nothing to do with this. The BBC had sold the film rights to Quatermass out from under him for the first installment, a fact that soured him towards both companies completely. This coupled with the casting choices of the first film, changes to plot compared to the TV version, and his lack of monetary compensation meant that Hammer was not allowed to use his character for a sequel. Hammer decided to keep the silly “X-rated” promotional tactics going and created what essentially amounts to a “ripoff” of their own film franchise. X: The Unknown starred Dean Jagger as Dr. Adam Royston, a character that seems to essentially be a stand in for Quatermass had this been a true sequel.

Title Card
Title Card

Aside from the problems associated with Kneale, this film had another huge controversy that put this production into jeopardy. The film’s first director was An American film director by the name of Joseph Losey (credited as Joseph Walton at the time). Losey had basically fled Hollywood to make films in Europe as he was added to the infamous “Hollywood Blacklist” that denied work to communist sympathizers in the industry. Everything was running smooth until Jagger, an American actor himself, refused to work with Losey. This resulted in Losey’s departure from the film two days into production due to “illness”. Since Hammer had spent the majority of the budget acquiring such a renowned actor as Jagger, it seems that it was a situation of “either he goes or I go” with Jagger winning out. The job went to Leslie Norman soon after.

"you smell something?"
“you smell something?”

The plot of X: The Unknown follows Dr. Royston, a scientist from an Atomic Energy Laboratory at Lochmouth, as he investigates a troubling situation involving a threat to the human race. The British Army has been conducting radioactive material detection drills at a remote Scottish base in what appears to be a mud pit. These seemingly harmless training exercises (they involve a game of “hide and seek” with a Geiger counter) somehow attract a creature from a subterranean lair, leaving two severely radiation-burned soldiers in its wake. This creature can apparently vanish and feeds on radiation. It then goes on a rampage and grows larger and larger in a similar fashion to the creature in The Blob. In fact, this movie was so much like The Blob, that I assumed it was a direct copy, only to find out that X: the Unknown was actually made two years earlier! Sadly, due to production issues, a squandered budget, and other issues, this movie remains quite obscure, and The Blob became of classic of it’s time.

"That's enough playing in the mud for today!"
“That’s enough playing in the mud for today!”

I mentioned that Royston was a stand-in for Quatermass, but that’s not completely true. Thankfully the production team came up with a slightly different take on the lead character – making him an atomic energy specialist rather than a rocket scientist. Jagger takes on this role in an entirely different manner than Brian Donlevy in Quatermass, acting a bit softer, even eccentric to a degree. When we first see Royston, he gets in trouble for wasting time on an amateur made experiment seemingly made from Meccano model sets. He allows his subordinates to do his real work, the work he’s getting paid for, while he tests radiation’s effect on radio waves, something dubbed an “anti-radiation device”. The fact that they show this scene for so long, makes you realize that this will be important later on, maybe this “frivolous” experiment won’t be so “frivolous” after all (wink wink!). I really liked the character of Dr. Royston, and almost wish they did more with the character.

Sadly, I was not a huge fan of this film for many reasons, but most notably the cast. Dean Jagger is easily one of the best actors in this film, and had he been surrounded by a great cast, things could have been different. There are a few people that simply made the whole production seem like a cheesy “monster of the week” flick. The acting in some places reminded me of just about every 1980’s “slasher film” – overacting in every scene and actors being a caricature of a real person. All the tired tropes you can imagine like the dumb soldier, the slutty nurse, and the jerky government official are in place, and none of these seemed like a fleshed out character – more like a prop of some sort. I commented how I liked the “realism” of the original Quatermass TV serial and the subsequent movie. There is really none of that here, as the writing, acting, and plot seems exactly like any other B-movie of the time. While I can’t really commend his acting here, this film is notable for the inclusion of a VERY young Frazer Hines playing a kid named Ian. Frazer later went on to play one of the most beloved “companions” in Doctor Who – Jamie McCrimmon!

Frazer Hines as Ian
Frazer Hines as Ian

One can immediately tell that this film has a small budget, but the effects, what little of them there are, are at least competently done. For around half the movie we barely see anything other than burn make-up on someone’s back. It’s pretty good makeup, but we’re comparing it to the mutating man in Quatermass, so there really is no contest. The majority of the movie has no real scenes that warrant the X-rating the movie got. That was until the aforementioned “slutty nurse” and “horndog doctor” come into play, making out with no cares in the world like they are in a Jason Vorhees movie. The monster attacks the doctor leading to a rather silly close-up shot of the doctor yelling:

"ahhhhhhhhhh!"
“ahhhhhhhhhh!”

 

Followed by a wax head melting to show a skull underneath – pretty grisly for a 1950’s movie!

 

Remember kids: don't open the Ark of the Covenant!
Remember kids: don’t open the Ark of the Covenant!

But for every good effect like this one in place, there are ones not quite there. They aren’t bad, like dressing a dog up like a dinosaur, but they involve the monster so it’s really unfortunate. I honestly thought that there would never be a monster reveal and would find out that it was invisible all along. When the movie FINALLY reveals the creature one hour into the 72 minute film, it is a blobby stop motion creature. I’m not saying that it was the worst thing I’ve seen, but it’s underwhelming after all the hype. They do some decent shots of it placed into the background of scenes and oozing over fences, but small-scale model shots of it up close aren’t as good.

don't leave kids unattended in monster attacks!
don’t leave kids unattended in monster attacks!

All in all, I felt that X: the Unknown was not as good as it could have been.  After the numerous problems behind the scenes and a script that wasn’t really there, what is left is a film desperately trying to play “catch-up” with its predecessor. Much of the plot is largely the same, except with a larger body count this time around and a slightly different monster. We never find out what the monster is, and the whole movie ends with Dr. Royston using his “anti-radiation” experiment to kill the creature, something you see miles away. This really goes to show how special the right script and director can be in a film like this, and I can see why it was set right for the eventual return of Quatermass. Hammer wised up and got Kneale to work with them, hired the original director, and some of the actors from the first film. They basically pretend that X: The Unknown never existed.

I think we can sum the whole thing up with a bit of dialog from the end of the film:

Elliott: “what was that?!”
Royston: “I don’t know, but it shouldn’t have happened…”

Movie Poster
Movie Poster

 

The Quatermass Xperiment (a.k.a The Creeping Unknown) (1955)

When we last saw Bernard Quatermass, he was fighting an alien threat in a dingy low-budget studio, but imagine what would happen if money was sunk into the project! I usually have reservations for these TV to movie conversions, as the production companies had a tendency in those days to “mess up” the original plot and characters. I recall watching the Peter Cushing Doctor Who and the Daleks movies, and not really liking them too much for this very reason. They were bright and colorful, but somehow were also soulless and bland. In the case of Quatermass, however, only two episodes of the serial exist today, so watching a film based on the original script is amazing, as I can now see what happens after the slow and talkative first few episodes. So here we have The Quatermass Xperiment, from Hammer films – can it live up to the original?

The Red "X" poster flaunting the X-rating
The Red “X” poster flaunting the X-rating

Before any Grammar Nazis try to correct me, dropping the “E” in the title isn’t a typo on my part! Hammer Films deliberately went for an “X-Certificate” rating (nobody permitted under the age of sixteen) with the release of this film. This included branding all the posters with a huge red “X” to make them stand out. This audacious plan was met with reservations within the BBC and Hammer Films, but ultimately was a success. The Quatermass Xperiment was one of the first films from the ailing production company to be sold overseas (as The Creeping Unknown) and basically kicked off their “Hammer Horror” line, which became synonymous with the company.

One will immediately notice that the character of Bernard Quatermass isn’t the same reserved thinking man that he was in the TV serial. Now played by Irish-American actor Brian Donlevy, the character was reinvented to be gruff and more action oriented. According to Wikipedia: “’Donlevy, in his own words, specialized in “he-men roles–rough, tough and realistic’”; a far cry from the way the late Reginald Tate carried the role. Basically think of Hugh Laurie’s Doctor House M.D. fighting aliens, that is Donlevy’s Quatermass to a tee. At first I wasn’t too thrilled with this take on the character, but when viewing the movie as a whole – Donlevy’s take works best with the movie. The entire serial’s tone has also shifted to go along with the new Quatermass; it’s darker, dingier, and more grotesque. This honestly reminds me of the evolution of Doctor Who; specifically in that once the show changed to a 45 minute format, the character became more of an action hero.

brian-donlevy-bernard-quatermass-hammer-1955
Quatermass is not amused

The plot has been changed around a bit as well, mostly for time constraints. This condensed time means that things that took an entire episode to explain before had to be cut down. An example of this is: in the serial, episode one was mostly dialog between Quatermass and his assistant about how distraught they all were because of the disappearance of the rocket. This segment was completely removed meaning that the movie kicks right into gear when the rocket crashes to Earth (in an awesome special effect scene). Better special effects and more money also mean that scenes involving dialog to explain a situation can be replaced with an effect shot, a scene change, or an action scene. Since I don’t have anything to compare it to, I will state that the rest of the film is definitely more of a horror film than a science fiction film, thus explaining most of the aforementioned differences. The plot centers on the transformation of the creature and it wreaking havoc, not Quatermass and his team.

the-quatermass-xperiment-crashed-rocket
Oops!

I mentioned the special effect shots being pretty cool earlier, and for an older film they do not disappoint. Most 1950’s era science fiction films had terrible costuming and set design in my opinion; Quatermass stands heads and tails above a lot of them. Granted, most of my knowledge of films in this genre of this era are the kind of movies that would end up on Mystery Science Theater 3000. I don’t think I’m alone in thinking that most 1950’s science fiction is sort of camp. There is one effects shot in particular towards the middle of the film that got my attention. Quatermass and his crew are studying a grainy film that was taken onboard the rocket during the ill-fated flight. At one point, one of the astronauts walks up onto the wall – suggesting a low-gravity environment of some sort. It couldn’t have been a huge special effect, but a remarkable one in its simplicity. I’ll even excuse that the crew seems to be piloting the craft by turning a series of steering wheels mounted on the far wall.

quatermass-astronaut_walks-on-wall
Lionel Richie’s “Dancing on the Ceiling” was a big hit on the ship

There are some truly grotesque horror shots in the film, ones that definitely lead the movie being branded X-rated at the time. While there isn’t any gushing blood or gore, there are things like shots of dead bodies with their skulls caved-in and an entire zoo of dead animals left in the wake of the monsters rampage. I was actually pretty surprised at a few of these considering the puritanical nature of most film violence at the time, and now can see how Hammer got its shocking reputation early on. The creature make-up is also pretty impressive at times. When we finally get a good look at the transformation Victor Carroon has undergone (as played by Richard Wordsworth ), he has his arm bandaged up, and the now swollen mass of cactus like spikes and putrid flesh in its place is a bit unnerving.

quatermass-hammer-1955-monsters-arm
“You look fine, just walk it off, man!”

It was also during this scene that I truly saw the influence that this movie has had on later pop culture. Doctor Who has used a similar “man turning into a monster” plot most notably in The Lazarus Experiment, and much earlier in The Ark in Space. Other shows and films such as The Fly (the newer one) and even an anime film I love called Akira all seem to have been somewhat influenced as well, directly or not is up to speculation. This really shows that Nigel Kneale really had the pulse of televised science fiction and horror under his belt, as he seems to have basically influenced most of it for the last sixty years!

So there we have it, it wasn’t the first piece of film cast into the Quatermass catalog, but it was definitely the one that got the property noticed. Not only has the plot from this movie been used over and over countless times, but I haven’t seen anything more influential to other science fiction and horror for a while. As I stated, I’m not sure I like Donlevy as much as Tate in the role of Bernard Quatermass, but the two characters couldn’t be any more different. Aside from the plot, it’s honestly better to think of the film and the TV show as separate entities; a fact that is hard for me to do, but the quality of this movie makes it easier. I’m not a huge horror fan, much less older horror movies, so any film of the genre that keeps my attention must be good. Hammer Films went on to make two more Quatermass films, both of which I will be looking at on here! Come back again tomorrow as I take a look at the TV version of Quatermass II, continuing “Quatermass Week!”

quatermass-monster-final-form-1955-hammer
These Texas cockroaches are HUGE!

Attack the Block (2011)

 

As much as I like big budget sci-fi films, there has been a sad trend lately where they all have to cost hundreds of millions of dollars with no substance, and many fall by this fact. In the case of John Carter of Mars, Disney set it up so that it would have to gross over 600 million smackaroos just to break even (!), a fact that makes me mad and reminds me that these Hollywood folks have no idea what they are doing. It’s no wonder that some of the better, more talented directors of our time have had to deal with smaller budgets in foreign markets and as a result have come up with better films.  Recently we had District 9 from South Africa, District B-13 from France (neither are related ..lol), and a new movie (for me) called Attack The Block from Great Britain. These films struck me as far more endearing than a lot of recent big budget Hollywood sci-fi films in that they did not rely on cookie cutter action heroes, and looked a lot “cooler”, more vibrant, and more expensive than their Hollywood brethren.

Since I mentioned atypical heroes, nothing can get less “mainstream” than a gang of juvenile delinquents. And no I don’t mean the whitewashed leather jacket and cigarette smoking kind of delinquent found in many 90’s teen movies trying to be edgy (or the Fonze); we’re talking foul-mouthed criminals that deal drugs and get in fights. In fact, we first find our group of protagonists engaging in a mugging at knife point! In no way does the film try to glamorize this fact, or lessen the fact they these are generally bad people, and this becomes a big plot point in the film. This mugging is broken up by an alien crashing into a nearby car, to which our gang of reckless heroes kicks it’s skull in. what they don’t know is that their arrogant display of faux invincibility has brought repercussions that they couldn’t dream of. In their quest to make a ton of money selling the dead alien, they have unwittingly brought an alien invasion to their council tower block.

This plot set up vaguely reminds me of the initial set up for the immensely popular anime film Akira, in which a biker gang composed of drug dealers ends up saving the world. This always seems to work better for me than your normal action plot in that it has built-in character development. Why waste time coming up with a way to have your chiseled jawed dopey eyed action hero fall from grace, when you can have your heroes literally start out at the bottom of the barrel. Our main character Moses, as played by John Boyega, is struggling to avoid falling into the traps of organized crime within his community. He’s getting increasingly into worse activities like drug dealing via the local self-styled “boss” of the flats Hi-Hatz. He feels bad about trying to mug the aforementioned nurse Sam, and we follow the character as he “grows up” and realizes that there are always effects for the things you do.

Aside from the plot, Attack the Block succeeds in having a good-looking alien menace to contend with. Instead of human-like creatures we have a race of gorilla-wolf monstrosities with no eyes, glowing teeth, and shaggy black hair. The animalistic nature of these creatures coupled with the few gory scenes of people getting ripped out throats makes these guys fairly intimidating. Good thing our rag-tag gang of misfits has a ton of “teenager weapons” like Katanas bought off the internet, illegal fireworks, and super-soakers filled with gasoline.

Last, but not least, we can’t forget the great job in directing that Joe Cornish did. It was amazing to realize that this was actually his first big film, although he did help write the very awesome Tintin movie last year. Nothing is wasted in the direction, and it doesn’t feel padded out at all. The flashy up-tempo style reminds me a bit of other UK directors like Edgar Wright and Guy Ritchie, but not so derivative that it seems like a copy. If Cornish decides to revisit this movie, I would love to see a sequel, as it ends in a sufficient manner to end the narrative, but leaves it open to more alien killing “badassery.”

Bottom Line: this has been on Starz lately here in the U.S., check it out!

Here’s a trailer from Youtube: