Nightflyers Season One (2018)

nite1.jpgI’m scared, really quite terrified. The possibility that someone, somewhere, might do the unthinkable and actually unleash a second season of this batshit crazy abomination has me shaking. Usually I’d be content that common sense will prevail, and that in a world in which Firefly and so many others got canceled, there is no way something as diabolical as this rubbish might get renewed for a second season: Nightflyers (‘from the mind of George R.R. Martin’ we are told, as if that’s different from his pen or typewriter)  is a truly terrible, awful show.

In episode six, I think I’m watching a season one episode of Space:1999 and that all the years since 1975 never happened, and it is one of the most confusing and disorientating viewing experiences- I swear it could be an actual unfilmed ‘lost’ episode from that old Gerry Anderson show repurposed for Nightflyers. Its also the most miserable attempt at what the tv execs call ‘a bottle episode’ I have had the misfortune to see in years. Imagine for a moment going back to all the hoary old cliches of that dated old show, and how daft tv sci-fi was back then, the nonsensical ‘science’, the twists and revelations that you could see a mile off, the hammy acting… dressing it up in 2018 clothing and CGI and… It could be the worst 40+ minutes I have endured for years this side of the new Dr Who. 

The whole miserable season of ten episodes felt like that, to be honest, and if I had the time to write all the things wrong with it I would be here all night and it would be a terrible slog of a post. Oh ok, I have the time I guess. Lets get on with all the horror (remember, I watched this so you don’t have to):

The show starts with a scene of dramatic chaos. That’s dramatic as in lots of flashing lights and moving shafts of light from unfathomable sources (because, hey, this is THE FUTURE and this is still 1982?).  A blonde woman (Gretchen Mol, so utterly wasted) is chased down spaceship corridors by a bearded guy with an axe doing a maniacal impression of Jack Nicholson’s worst The Shining excess. There’s a struggle, she flushes a warning message out the wastedump and she kills herself.

nite2.jpgSo we then go back in time, and we won’t see this scene proper until episode 9, I think. But it was so gripping of course we’re going to stick at it for the next 8 episodes to see how we get there and why the hell all the bad shit happened to the good ship Nightflyer. Except, when we do get there it still doesn’t make any sense or explain why it happened. That bearded guy goes crazy and tries to kill two people (arguably succeeds) and in the following episode all is forgiven. I mean, wtf? This show does that shit ALL THE TIME.

In the last episode, the ship is about to blow up, the flashing lights are REALLY flashing like crazy, there’s steam and explosions and people dying and wounded being carried around in circles, and at the same time in the cabin where the woman killed herself, cleaners are mopping up the blood and tidying the room. I mean, wtf? There’s a gigantic alien motherfucking spaceship out the window and the ship is going to explode and someone’s on clean-up duty? Nothing. Makes. Sense.

Wait. Breath. Relax. This is a dream. Its not real. Nightflyers cannot be real. I’m in an episode of Black Mirror, surely?

Here’s a list of some of the daftest cliches in NIGHTFLYER-

1. He’s a goddamn robot. I won’t tell you who, but I could have forgiven them casting Yaphet Kotto in this if it meant him reprising his line from Alien, it’s all it was missing. Although of course the audience likely figured it out before the stupid characters.

2. He’s a goddamn Hologram.

3. The ship is possessed by its dead owner. She’s dead, she’s black, and she’s pissed. And she lives in a virtual Irish mansion. She’s a virtual/AI/ghost haunting the ship from a virtual ghostly castle, of course she is, carry on.

4. Oh, and her bully dad is prowling the castle because she’s been a naughty girl. No, seriously this is a virtual/AI/ghost with daddy issues on a spaceship racing into the void.

5. Turns out the bald guy on the bridge had a thing for the dead bitch who’s haunting the ship. I smell trouble in the name of love.

6. Shafts of light, piercing almost every scene, blinking/flashing lights on walls everywhere else. Because yes this is The Future and there is steam. Of course there is steam. Every spaceship has steam filling corridors, especially when things are tense.

7. There’s cameras all over the ship. The captain is watching everyone. Lets have sex. Let’s leave the light on. Lets ignore that red lens gawping at us. Lets get upset about feeling betrayed when I remember the captain is watching everyone. Wait. Is that a camera in the shower cubicle?

8. She’s not a girl. She’s a goddamn bio-engineered spacewoman who cries on demand and falls for the captain only -gosh he’s a hologram, no he’s a robot no he’s her goddamn brother! Actually, no, he was a hologram, he was a robot, and yes, he is her brother! Oh no! The ghost haunting the ship is her mom! I. Kid. You. Not.

nite4.jpg9. He’s a goddamn telepath. These guys are sulky and dangerous, but he’s brought his gorgeous therapist along for the ride. He has the hots for her.

10. Oh the irony about how big space is but how it’s such a small world- the chief scientist knows the therapist. There were lovers, years ago. Of all the spaceships in all the world we have to meet on this one, I know one telepath in a crazy spaceship doesn’t mean a hill of beans but this is my spaceship, and this is my telepath, and this is my hill of beans blah blah (I think I may have Space Madness myself at this point). You just know these two cute ex’s  have the hots for each other and will be in bed before episode 7.  It can only end one way. The therapist is a secret telepath. Gazooks!

Wait a minute. Let’s talk about the elephant in the room, and I’m not talking about Event Horizon, although of course it is sitting over there in the corner. The central premise is that our chief scientist has detected an object outside our solar system and he has deduced it might be alien spaceship because it moves in a very off and peculiar alien kind of way. He joins the crew of the Nightflyer and brings a telepath with him because he has deduced only a telepath can communicate with the aliens who he has named the Volcryn. He has also deduced that the Volcryn can solve all humanity’s problems because they are alien and smart. All the way through this bloody show I was trying to figure out why the aliens were called the Volcryn and why everyone thought they could save humanity and why a telepath had to be aboard and why the scientist…. He’s a mad scientist, of course, because they all are in these things aren’t they. And he wants to go home to his dead daughter. Who he sees all the time. She’s wearing a red coat and Don’t Look Now but…

11. Have I mentioned the bee-lady in the dome? There’s this blonde hippy scientist in the dome (there’s more than one dome, yes there are forests, no this isn’t Silent Running, because damn they forgot the droids) who is friends/talks with the bees because obviously the bees are the most intelligent creatures on the ship at this point, well bee-lady she gets cosy with the bearded botanist and she gets pregnant and that doesn’t end well, really, space pregnancies seldom do and apparently there’s only one doctor/nurse available and she’s got herself a lung full of alien spore (well, whatya gonna do, shit happens) so with alien spores threatening the ship and no medical professionals to save the day, which is odd, you’d think they would have a medical team on a big spaceship to treat people attacked by bearded botanists with axes…

nite3.jpg12. That bearded botanist with the axe. A security team eventually (I mean eventually, he’s like gone all The Shining for half-hour butchering the crew and dismembering the robot before anybody with a gun turns up) catch him and they confine him to his cabin. To his bloody cabin! Where anyone -including mad scientists- can just open the door and recruit him for First Contact because only a murderous botanist can figure out alien telepathy shit.

13. Now, funnily enough, on a ship big enough to have a crew of hundreds (although we only see roughly seven at any one time?) there is only one escape pod and it’s only big enough for one person. Its like they never learned anything from the Titanic. Or Event Horizon, which was bloody brilliant compared to this rubbish. So with the Volcryn now outside wondering what the frack is going on with this Earth ship that’s turned up and is now about to self-destruct, everyone with any sense, including the Evil Ghost Bitch who has at this point possessed the I.T. expert (no, seriously, its true, if you survive bearded botanists with axes and alien spores you’re just likely to suffer a case of possession instead), yeah she is racing to the escape pod…

and then… well, no, I can’t spoil it for you.

Let’s go back a bit. Death by fire no wait he survives that has a bath and is fine.

nite5So anyway, since I’m feeling brave and my medication is now settling in for the night,  let’s go back to episode six,  which I like to call the Space:1999 episode because it pretends all the growing up that sci-fi did between 1975 and 2018 never happened. Our heroes stumble upon a derelict ship that happens to be drifting on the same course the Nightflyer is taking. So our hapless heroes from the Ghost Ship Nightflyer go over to the mysterious derelict last seen near Jupiter (was this in Event Horizon? Or was it Sunshine? So many homages, it’s hard to keep track) to try salvage its computer brain (one size fits all spaceships) and after fourteen years there are still survivors on board – but all the survivors are old ladies with Space Madness who are on a women-only crusade to live in peace on another planet and drain men of their, er, vital essences in order to grow clones for meat, as they sure as hell are not vegans, no sir not on this spaceship. Calling Captain Kirk- sorry wrong franchise…

Remember. I watched this so you don’t have to. Netflix really should be ashamed.

 

Ready Player One (2018)

The problem with Ready Player One is that it is, essentially, four different stories, and the film-makers concentrated on the wrong one.

rp1aStory one: Its 2045, and its a dystopian world of economic collapse and (presumably) environmental disaster. People seem to be mostly poor and living in over-crowded shanty-towns, and unemployed. Everyone -and I mean, seemingly everyone– seems to spend their waking hours in a virtual world called The Oasis. Reality is so desperately depressing that escape is everything, even if its only virtual. But that, pretty much, is all we know about 2045. We don’t know any details of the social-political climate, who’s in charge, who’s paying the bills. The company behind The Oasis is the richest on the planet, worth trillions, but its not clear how it makes any money, because The Oasis seems to be free. The film doesn’t not examine why everyone feels the need to escape into a virtual world or how that might mirror our own current preoccupation with our ‘escapes’ be it films or television or video games. We see nothing of any counter-culture that might perceive The Oasis as a threat or blight on society and the world, or if humanity escaping to this virtual haven means it has given up on reality and we are all doomed. The Oasis is there, and everybody’s playing it- that is the world of 2045.

rp1bStory two-  genius recluse James Halliday (Mark Rylance), in the mid 2020’s creates a virtual world, The Oasis, that in a bleak and downward-spiraling world becomes a bright haven for a desperate humanity. Halliday was a solitary child who grew up a secluded life in the 1980s and whose only comfort was predominantly the 80’s pop-culture of that decade, and so The Oasis is dominated by that culture. Somehow this obsession seduces everyone who experiences The Oasis. It becomes a 1980s Heaven.

READY PLAYER ONEBut Halliday, although the richest man on Earth at this point, is deeply unhappy, sinking into morose regret for what he considers is his biggest mistake- not having the courage to have a relationship with the one love of his life- KIra, who ended up marrying his one-time business colleague, Ogden Morrow (Simon Pegg). His obsession in creating a virtual world seems to have stopped him from living properly in the real world, and he only realizes in his old age that reality is better than virtuality. Perhaps it finally dawns on him that his invention overtaking the world is detrimental, humanity obsessed by his virtual world and not dealing with reality’s problems. But instead of shutting down The Oasis or sharing his wisdom, he instead creates a magic virtual quest to find an Easter Egg hidden within The Oasis, involving three magic keys and clues and riddles that er, might do something like making someone fabulously rich. The he dies.

rp1d.pngStory three- Nolan Sorrento during the mid-2020s works as a lab/office assistant to Halliday and Morrow at Gregarious Games, the company that makes The Oasis. A lowly assistant who fetches the coffee, somehow this downtrodden rat becomes the CEO of Innovative Online Industries (IOI), the second biggest company in the world and rival to Gregarious Games, as if his whole life has been one hellbent on revenge over his old bosses who didn’t care for his coffee. Seriously, his rise through the ranks to lead a rival company sounds a better story than anything else in Ready Player One. I want to see how he did it, because he’s patently a jerk and an idiot, but at least it’d be interesting to see the snake on his corporate climb and see the trail of misery in his wake.

rp1eStory four- uber-geek dead-end orphan Wade Watts spends all his time in The Oasis, his virtual alter-ego Parzifal trying to decipher the clues/riddles that will lead to the keys to Halliday’s fabled Easter Egg. He befriends Art3mis, a beautiful girl-avatar who fortunately is also a  girl in the real-world (and hey, incredibly pretty too although she doesn’t think so and she secretly seeks self-validation and the love of a good guy so you can guess where that goes) but she is also cool at videogames etc and together with his own group of teenage virtual super-heroes they go on a great adventure in The Oasis and try to thwart the attempts of IOI to secure the Egg and control of The Oasis for its own nefarious corporate ends. BIt like Harry Potter for videogame geeks.

So they went with story four and shoved the rest into dull exposition/skimpy background details. Maybe they went with the right choice. It looks pretty.

The thing is, all the attention seems to be on The Oasis and its spectacular CGI effects and all the nods to pop-culture references (there’s Robocop! look there’s Valley Forge from Silent Running! Look there’s a pod from 2001 hiding in the background! He’s driving a goddam Delorean! etc etc) and its really very boring surprisingly quickly. And as you might expect, its so full of crazy shit being thrown on-screen its hard most of the time to tell whats going on. I was surprised because I thought Spielberg would have demonstrated more control and keyed things back, but he seems too enamored of his CGI toys that he gets quite carried away. Bit like how Pete Jackson lost his shit on The Hobbit films.

Meanwhile in the real world there’s possibly a more interesting story or stories to tell but this isn’t that movie. This is Tron x100 (even though, ironically,I can’t recall an actual Tron reference, funnily enough) full of cartoony extravaganzas that made me yearn, funnily enough, for the Matrix films.

So its not a bad film. Its just pretty dumb. But I guess its just that kind of dumb spectacular blockbuster entertainment with one-dimensional characters and simple plot-lines and a comfortably-predictable story. But this is Spielberg. He made Minority Report, Close Encounters, Jaws, Raiders of the Lost Ark– as far as pop-culture/ sci-fi/fantasy movies he’s much better than this. Maybe I should cut this film some slack instead of it bugging me for what it isn’t.

But deep down, I wish Joe Dante had made this movie. My God it would have been bloody incredible, I’m sure. Crazy, irreverent, clever. Everything that this film really isn’t, unfortunately.

(But it looks nice).

Silent Running OST by Peter Schickele

 

silentrunning_isc369_600a

December 1978, and BBC2 is showing a season of science fiction films over the Christmas holidays, a reflection of the cultural impact of Star Wars, a phenomenon in America hitting UK cinemas that Christmas. For a geeky science-fiction-crazy kid like me, it was something like heaven, all those late-night science fiction films every night; 1950s classics that I knew and loved and others quite new to me. One film new to me made a particular impact on me- Douglas Trumbull’s remarkable 1972 eco-drama, Silent Running. It made an emotional connection with me, in no small part due to the evocative music of Peter Schicklele and the songs featuring Joan Baez. Hey, I was twelve.

On a subsequent airing on another BBC2 science-fiction movie season (how I miss those movie seasons) I recorded the entire Silent Running film onto my mono cassette deck. We film geeks kind of did that kind of nonsense back in the days when videotape seemed, well, the stuff of Star Trek; we’d re-live the film experience by listening to it and running the film back in our minds-eye. I kept that cheap old C90 cassette safe for years, listening to the score mostly.

One time, I was in Birmingham and the HMV there was selling the Silent Running soundtrack album (the Varese green vinyl release). I nearly bought it, but money was tight (I was still in High School back then, back in the days of 50p pocket money) and I was caught in the heady thrill of buying Robert E Howard import paperbacks from the city’s sci-fi bookshop, so the REH books won and the album was left behind. How many times I regretted that decision (almost as much as failing to buy the Blade Runner issue of Cinefex, although the eventual book reprint halted that particular recurring nightmare). How was I to know those REH paperbacks would be around for a few years, later reprinted several times in later editions, but that album would disappear forever, quickly going out of print?

The CD format arrived, and over the years so many soundtracks got transferred to that format leaving the pop and click of vinyl behind. Surely Silent Running would get released on CD someday. Years, decades passed, inexplicably it never turned up, just like a CD release of the Tron soundtrack.  Eventually even the Tron soundtrack saw a release on CD (hurrah!), but Silent Running? I’d frequent Film Music forums raising its non-release as some kind of tragedy or crime, bumping old threads over the years. No-one seemed able to explain its absence. As the CD format itself neared the end of its days in favour of digital downloads and streaming its become increasingly unlikely that it would ever get a release. And then-

December 2016, and Intrada have released the Peter Schickele soundtrack of Silent Running on CD for the first time. Last month when Intrada  announced its release, rather out of the blue, of course exchange-rates and the dangers of customs be damned, I had to order a copy.  It arrived in the post today. Its probably one of the most expensive single CD’s I ever bought (although I got away without a customs sting, thank goodness). But of course its worth it. Its an incredible thing, hearing it at long last, crystal-clear on CD, holding the case in my hand. Seeing the artwork, reading the title Silent Running… Maybe there is a Santa.

From 1978 to 2016 its been 38 years. Holding this CD means a lot. Forgive an old fool the nostalgic passions dating back to his twelve-year old self. But anybody who fell in love with this movie over the years will understand the emotional connection with that music.

As it turned out, all the masters for the score and album were long-lost, which explained why a CD version was never released until now- this release entailed a transfer from an original mint vinyl copy of the original Decca album of 1972. Its amazing what those engineering wizards can do, because this sounds fantastic.

Well, I guess the only thing left is a complete Blade Runner release by Vangelis. Who knows? After Silent Running has finally seen the light of day on this amazing CD, anything, surely, is possible. 38 years. Crikey.

Silent Running (1972)

silentrI first saw this film back during, oh, Christmas 1978 I think. The BBC was doing a season of sci-fi films over the holiday period, no doubt timely following the runaway success of Star Wars (which we in the UK, outside London at least, didn’t get to see until early that year).  The funny thing is, that movie season of pre-Star Wars sci-fi films would prove more interesting than many of the films that would actually follow Lucas’ space-opera in a wild sci-fi goldrush that has pretty much continued to this day. Other films during that movie season included Dark Star, a few 1950s classics, and Slaughterhouse Five. I remember the latter being somewhat odd, but would love to see it again, only it never seems to get an airing anywhere. But anyway, Silent Running…

Douglas Trumbull’s Silent Running is a firm old favourite for many sci-fi fans, particularly those of my generation anyway, and there’s a few reasons for this. First and foremost is because of Douglas Trumbull himself, a guy who’s really something of a genre hero akin to the late Ray Harryhausen. I’m sure Trumbull would be embarrassed at a comment like that, but Trumbull was one of the effects supervisors on 2001: A Space Odyssey, and would later work on the visual effects of Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Star Trek: TMP, and set up the effects work on the seminal Blade Runner before working on the ill-fated production Brainstorm. Silent Running was Trumbull’s directorial debut.

Silent Running is a low budget/high concept movie. You don’t see so much of those any more. Usually its high budget/low concept these days.  In our era of throw-away, bubblegum blockbusters, such movies as Silent Running are a rarity. Highly ambitious in spite of its limited budget, Silent Running shares kinship with other such films of its time as THX:1138 and, more recently, Moon. Films with ideas and perhaps a cautionary message, something to linger in the viewers mind afterwards. Its not by chance that it also dates  from the early 1970s, that last great hurrah of the serious American Film. I believe the story has it that a Studio head, inspired by the success of low-budget/indie hit Easy Rider, gave a number of young promising film-makers a million dollars each to just go and make a movie. Trumbull went away and made Silent Running. It never made any money, so such noble and ambitious gestures as letting film-makers go and make movies was put away as a silly idea, and the Studios got on with other ways of making money and movies.

Sometime in the near (?) future, Freeman Lowell (Bruce Dern) is one of four astronauts on board the Valley Forge, a state-of-the-art spaceship which is part of a convoy carrying giant domes containing Earth’s last forests. In a prescient nod to the crew of the Nostromo, his fellow astronauts are bored employees, simply doing what is their job, numb to the importance of their mission. Lowell, however, loves the forests in the domes and sees his task as a noble enterprise, confident that one day they will be able to return the forests to the blighted Earth.

However, the stark truths of budget cuts and political expediency back home results in the mission being cancelled. The astronauts are instructed to jettison and destroy the domes and return to Earth. Lowell snaps and before the last dome on the Valley Forge can be destroyed, he kills his fellow astronauts and breaks away from the rest of the convoy, faking an onboard malfunction.

The remainder of the film is pretty much a character piece, in which Lowell spends his time with his only remaining company, three drones (who prefigure the design of R2 D2) who he renames Huey, Louie and Dewey. Trumbull cleverly adds nuances of character to these drones in how they behave and react to Lowell, and even eliciting some sympathy when one is destroyed and another damaged. Lowell instructs the drones on caring for the forest, and even programs them to play poker. Despondent and clearly feeling guilt at having killed his human crew-mates, Lowell becomes increasingly lethargic and detached, until  he discovers the forest is dying, and has to solve the crisis with the help of the drones.  Inevitably his crime catches up with him when the convoy tracks him down and he has only one course of action left to him in order to save the last remaining forest.

Naive has much of the film may seem today, its ecological theme nonetheless is as relevant now as it was back then, indeed, perhaps even more so. Its production design is clever and impressive, the miniature effects work fine if inevitably somewhat dated (although Trumbull did do one thing Kubrick failed to do in 2001, in bringing Saturn to the screen). When you really think about it the film kind of breaks down- there is no mention of artificial gravity or how the forests are expected to survive cosmic radiation or solar flares, or why the convoy is in deep space rather than Earth or Moon orbit, or the sheer costs of the enterprise. Maybe that is simply because of when the film was made, how innocent we were back then and more sophisticated now. Dern is simply magnificent in his role, but the other human actors come across as stilted, or even wooden, failing to convince. The drones, meanwhile, are simply wonderful and clearly a major inspiration for George Lucas and his team.  But the film is charming nonetheless.

Maybe its the music. I have no idea how well the music score translates away from the film, but Peter Schickele’s folksy score, complete with songs featuring Joan Baez, is incredibly evocative within the movie. Its a score which fits its movie like a glove. Very much of it’s post-sixties/hippy/folk-music era, on the one hand its horribly dated but on the other its just perfect, like another character in the film. I remember seeing a vinyl copy of the soundtrack in town once, many years ago, in a sale, and nearly bought it. Over the years since I have often regretted being too careful with my money, and always frustrated that it has never been released on CD.

On Blu-ray the film looks better than it ever has, but that’s not to say its without its problems. Most of it likely stems from the source, but much of the front projection work really suffers in HD, with wild grain buzzing around in places. Otherwise much of the normal live-action stuff, those shots  minus any of the processing work, look fine. A little soft in places but on the whole detail is otherwise excellent. I guess the film would look better after a full restoration but lets face it, that’s simply never going to happen with such a minor, ‘cult’ film as this.  Its certainly much better than any previous DVD release.

Extras are fine, mostly dating back to the earlier DVD releases, but it does include a great 48-page booklet with rare photographs and artwork, and some text interviews to accompany those on the disc. The Making of Silent Running, a 1972 on-set documentary nearly an hour long, is included, and is a sobering reminder of just how old this film is, and how impressive it is in retrospect.  In all its an excellent package, and even features an isolated music and effects to keep those of us curious about the score happy.