Last Week

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                                              Great Scott! Those Mattes!

Well there goes another week in the mad tumble towards what some people are still hoping will turn out to be Christmas. Regular readers may have noticed a wee drop in the number of reviews being posted lately- its partly because I’ve been turning my attention to watching television shows this month, which obviously take more time to watch than a movie does. This week, though, much of my time has been taken up with other distractions, including watching Back to the Future and its sequel, the imaginatively titled Back to the Future Part II which have just been released on 4K UHD (I’ll likely get around to the third entry sometime today). Visually these films are rather more problematic than some catalogue releases on 4K UHD, which I gather is partly down to the filmstock used at the time and the optical effects, which is a particular problem with the second entry. I remember watching the film at the cinema and being wowed by those visual effects, particularly the flying cars (at the time seeming much more sophisticated than the flying car sequences in Blade Runner) and the clever split screen techniques. Watching them on this 4K presentation, some shots still impress but goodness some are pretty terrible, really: in some places the optical effects leave the flying cars looking like smudgy animation and at other moments almost pasted on like cut-outs. I don’t know if its a degradation of the original elements, or an inevitable consequence of 4K resolution and HDR making mattes etc much more problematic, but some of that once so impressive stuff looks fairly dire now and quite distracting. If anything, it makes those flying car sequences in Blade Runner all the more impressive as they seem to hold up much better (probably a case of the more simple shots being easier to realise back then, or the digital trickery that was applied to the restoration for the Final Cut).

I do have to wonder though about how this film originally looked in the cinema, my memories of it- were we so much more forgiving? Or is it something to do with how we watch films now on these 4K panels. Back when I saw the film it was blown up on a huge cinema screen, and yet still seemed to hold up better than now on my unforgiving OLED- or is it really just how I’m remembering it? Was my old VHS copy, say, simply much more low-resolution, low-contrast and therefore much more forgiving itself, too?

Fortunately the films themselves remain quite fun and endearingly old-fashioned- once all blockbusters were made this way; there’s a sense of innocence to them that was possibly cynically calculated for all I know, but nostalgia certainly clouds over some of the bad points. In some ways Part Two seems eerily prescient- the middle section looking rather uncannily Trumpworld- I’ll never see those alternate 1985 sequences the same way as I used to.

But thinking of how the films effects turned out some thirty years later on 4K UHD, and how problematic these BTTF films have been on home video over the years (some purists reckon the Blu-rays were unwatchable), made me think about home video and owning films. I remember a time when owning a film was impossible, frankly, and a time when expensive early VHS tapes were sold (I recall seeing a copy of Jaws in a cardboard slipcase for sale for something like £76 in a posh department store in 1982). Eventually films could be found more cheaply, early examples being the Cinema Club range I remember seeing in Woolworths. One of the latter included 2001: A Space Odyssey, a copy of which I had for Christmas one year.

But of course it wasn’t really a case of owning the movie, not properly. That copy of 2001 I had was on a pan and scan, horribly fuzzy VHS- if Kubrick himself ever had the misfortune to watch a copy I’m sure he would have been mortified. Which makes me wonder how film-makers re-watch their films and what they really think of some of the home video editions over the years, but that’s really another conversation entirely.

So anyway, it wasn’t really owning a copy of the film properly- more like owning a second-rate approximation of 2001. One could argue that of all the formats, the only version where I came really close to owning a genuine proper copy of Kubrick’s epic is the 4K UHD released late last year, which looks utterly gorgeous and certainly far superior to how those Back to the Future films look in 4K. Which is where filmstocks used over the years, and how certain prestige films were shot over the decades, complicate matters (Vertigo, for instance, is a revelation in 4K UHD).

Some great, classic films, some of which are my favourites, have been released on 4K UHD over the past few years, surely the last home video format we’ll ever be asked to buy, and which some of us are fortunate to watch on pretty large, sophisticated 4K panels. Returning to that £76 copy of Jaws I looked at in that department store so many years ago, I’m pretty confident it looked bloody horrible compared to the excellent 4K UHD disc of the film that came out earlier this year. Are we REALLY owning definitive copies of our favourite films now, ironically at the end of physical media?

See You Yesterday (2019)

Hmm, another Netflix Original, but one of the better ones, providing you can get your head around two teenagers inventing a time machine in a garage. If you can get your head around that, the various time travel paradoxes of old are pretty routine but the film itself has plenty of heart and a big load of energy. Certainly it could teach the writers of Avengers: Endgame a thing or two about constructing a dramatic and involving time travel yarn that is easy-flowing and not liable to cause a headache.

Infact, the only real criticism I have for this film is the ending- somehow I’d totally lost track of time (yeah, how ironic) and thought there was still twenty minutes or so of the film to go, when the credits suddenly came up in what felt like mid-scene. It completely caught me off-guard, as the film (and I’ll be vague enough to try to avoid spoilers here) suddenly seems to end, if not on a cliffhanger, then somewhere that possibly even hints at a sequel. In hindsight, it was intellectually perhaps the perfect place to end it, and doesn’t really need a follow-up- its simply leaving a character in a kind of loop, always doomed to try changing the past to no avail, which is rather neat and quite dark when you think it over. In the moment though, when the credits came on, I was rather annoyed thinking it something of a cheat.

In anycase, this one is well worth a watch, particularly for an early cameo by Marty McFly himself, Michael J Fox,  playing a science tutor, who closes his cameo with a one-liner that is just priceless. It also rather indicates the Back to the Future-inspired story that follows, but there’s a little more added to the mix that might surprise. Time travel can still be a fun ride, but this film also assures us of the consequences, and has some valid and important social messages alongside the time-travelling escapades. Its time paradoxes are nothing new, but it still managed to seem like a breath of fresh air. Yeah, I enjoyed it.

Mirage (2018)

mirage1.jpgThis Spanish production now airing on Netflix as a Netflix Original (original title Durante La Tormenta) is a surprisingly satisfying entry in the time travel genre. As usual for these time travel/alternate timelines/time paradox movies, its very difficult to summarise the plot without it seeming too convoluted and/or, well, just plain daft. The trick with the best of them is to just suspend your disbelief enough to hook you in, and that’s what this film does quite well.  Maybe the fact that its a Spanish film with subtitles actually helps, because although the film has inevitable nods to 1980s Amblin films and Back to the Future in particular, it still looks and sounds very European, thereby maintaining a sense of originality and keeping some distance from the American genre that partly influences it.

So do I risk trying to unwrap the plot somehow without it seeming ridiculous? The basic premise concerns a strange electrical storm that settles over a suburban area in 1989, lasts for three days and then returns some twenty five years later, setting up a loop in time through which a young mother, Vera (Adriana Ugarte) is able to warn a twelve-year old boy, Nico, of an impending accident in 1989 and thus save his life. Unfortunately, her good deed of saving the boy has set up a new timeline, and she awakes no longer married to her husband and no longer the mother of a daughter. Indeed, while she has memories of her original timeline’s life, she has no memory of her ‘new’ life, and is desperate to somehow re-set the timeline and get her original life back- and more importantly the life of her daughter, who no longer exists. Complicating matters somewhat is a murder connected to the original death of young Nico, which threatens to dilute the central drama of the film with what initially seems a rather superfluous plotline that ultimately ties it all together.

On the whole its a successful yarn, albeit with a few plot contrivances that don’t really hang together too well in hindsight, certainly when given examination afterwards, but hey, at least this is a film that leaves you thinking by the end.  It handles its inherent paradoxes pretty well, and is an entertaining film- indeed, the cynic in me ruefully expects an American remake would have been on the cards had this not appeared on Netflix giving it the wider exposure it has no doubt received, making that Hollywood treatment largely redundant. Its a pretty good time travel adventure which is maybe a little overlong (suffering from trying to manage all those seperate plot threads, no doubt) with an emotional pay-off that doesn’t really connect (well, it didn’t with me) but up to that, its involving and has plenty of twists. Well worth a watch.

 

Loving the Alien

alien1.jpgAlien (1979) – Blu-ray

So I watched Alien again. The last time I watched the film was just before Prometheus was released. Back then I was cautious about what Prometheus might be, what its effects on Alien might be. This time, well, I was pretty much of the same mind, watching it for the first time since Prometheus, wondering what it would like with the knowledge of Space Engineers etc sullying my experience of it.

I won’t go on about Prometheus, it’s a divisive movie and certainly not all it might have been. As time has gone on, I look back on it with a some disappointment- it is really two films conflicting for supremacy. Its partly a (‘proper’?) science fiction film about human evolution and how that was orchestrated by alien Engineers, and it is partly an Alien prequel, handicapped by having to put all those references to Alien in it whilst maintaining some kind of logic. I hope Ridley Scott’s next attempt, Alien: Covenant, gets it right next time by being either one or the other (it certainly seems to be going the route of  full-on Alien prequel, which isn’t necessarily a good thing in itself).

So Alien. Well, thankfully I can report it isn’t ruined by Prometheus, even my favourite scene of the Space Jockey reveal. Fortunately Alien is its own thing, a utterly gorgeous Lovecraftian horror, and no meddling of the chronology/mythology can spoil that. To be honest I’m of a mind that everything else -prequels, sequels, everything- is all some other alternate universe anyway. Alien works best as its own, unique thing. Its a beautifully shot, wonderfully designed, perfectly cast/acted film about space truckers stumbling upon an alien derelict and unwittingly unleashing their own doom. Thats all that it is. Rather like fans of Jaws (and I count myself among them) can watch that film blissfully discounting the existence of its own horrible sequels.

Its the conflict between art and commerciality.  Each is a perfect work of art and each has been subjected to the normal Hollywood methodology of milking a successful property for every dollar it can make. As fans we are always tempted by the prospect of ‘more’ but rarely is that ‘more’ ever properly realised, rarely does that ‘more’ really mean more of what we love and admire. I think one example of where that worked was Star Wars and The Empire Strikes Back, or maybe Back to the Future 1 & 2, but such examples are rare (I rather hope Blade Runner and its as yet-unnamed sequel proves to be another, but we’ll have to wait and see).

alien2I think that what helps Alien remain so unique, so indomitably unaffected by Prometheus or the sequels  is that it is so much a product of the 1970s. It looks and feels and sounds so different to everything else that has followed. The cast is middle-aged, down to earth and ‘real’, they don’t seem like a cast of actors, and even the usual roles each performs seems against type (so very 1970s). Tom Skerritt’s Dallas is the nominal leader but he’s really an ineffectual one, laid-back to the point of being disinterested in what is to him just another job. That tired, job-like attitude to travelling between worlds infects most of the characters, at once a Dark Star-inspired commentary on the soulless astronauts of 2001 and riposte to the heroes of Star Trek.  If the audience expects Dallas to be the leader, the hero by example, the source of a solution, they are rather mistaken. In most of his decisions, Dallas is usually proved wrong. Its an example of authority being fallible, another ‘1970s thing’ I think in the post-Nixon era.  That last point is further echoed in the conspiracy of Ash and ‘the Company’ using the crew as expendable pawns in an investigation of the alien- it’s not a plot point really convincing or successful but its a further example of the film being a product of its time.

Of all the films that have followed it, I don’t think there has ever been as convincing an ensemble, it’s a major part of the sense of reality of the film.  Likewise the slow pace, or the (mandated by the limits effects tech of the time) strictly functional visual effects that don’t pull us out of the film by being ‘wow’ moments. The horror of the Giger-designed creature is more from what we don’t see than what we do. A film today would feel more inclined to show us everything and ‘wow’ us with impressive visuals, as Prometheus did. If characters in Alien behave dumb, we don’t really mind, they are ordinary people who are terrified or not aware of their real situation; if the characters in Prometheus behave dumb, its because they are stupid (or written badly).

And the Jerry Goldsmith score; what a wonderfully unsettling, perfectly toned work. Even the uses of his earlier score from Freud, something Goldsmith himself was annoyed by, seems perfect- that fragile, haunting melody that accompanies Dallas crawling through the air ducts (I bought the soundtrack to Freud on CD some years ago- it sounds very much like the score to an Alien sequel that never was).

Well here’s a reality check:  Alien is some 37 years old now. That fact alone feels scarier than anything in the bloody movie but yeah, 37 years old and yet to be equaled as a sci-fi horror film. I’m not going to suggest it is a classic like Citizen Kane or Gone With The Wind or 2001 but its surely up there in that group of films as far as being  in a league of their own, never to be really equalled.

ff137 years ago… I remember picking up this issue of Fantastic Films, arrested by the image on its cover and the unsettling pictures inside of strange alien places and unusual-looking spacesuits. It was the start of a long love affair with what would be one of my very favourite films. I remember reading the Movie Novel of the film, in hindsight a remarkable way of experiencing a film that has sadly been made redundant by home video (I would have loved, and would still love, a Movie Novel of Blade Runner for example).

So Alien lives on, in spite of and utterly independent of, Prometheus and any of the other Alien-themed spinoff films. Its an unsettling, powerful piece of work that somehow transcends its b-movie origins. Long may it reign.