Some thoughts regards Douglas Trumbull

Brainstorm2The news this late afternoon hit me pretty hard- Douglas Trumbull passed away yesterday. I don’t believe it had been widely known that he had been ill- for myself, it came like a bolt of the blue. For a little while, the sense of disbelief is diluted with a little hope- there have been a few times when the Internet rumour mill has gotten things wrong, and I’d first read the news of Trumbull’s passing on a forum of all places, somewhat out of leftfield, so wondered if it was just a mistake. Alas, before an hour was out, reputable news outlets confirmed it. Another one gone, of those names I used to read about as I grew up reading magazines and followed over the decades since.

Its 1978, I’m reading Starburst issue 5 (Christopher Reeve’s Superman on the cover!), and an interview by Tony Crawley with visual effects genius Douglas Trumbull. Its tied into the release of Close Encounters of the Third Kind, the then-cutting edge visual effects produced by Trumbull and his effects company. Starburst was a great magazine and its writers very good, so Crawley uses the interview to discuss Trumbull’s work on 2001: A Space Odyssey (“we thought at the time that 2001 would start a big trend. It didn’t!” Trumbull muses), and his own directorial debut, Silent Running. The interview would move on to CE3K in the next issue – ah, those cheeky old magazine days, waiting for a month for the rest of an interview (like Fantastic Film‘s multi-issue Alien interview with Ridley Scott). But it was enough to get me fascinated with Trumbull, who I wasn’t particularly familiar with. For one thing, at the time, I hadn’t seen 2001: A Space Odyssey. I actually saw Silent Running before 2001, thanks to it airing on BBC TV over the Christmas holiday of 1977 schedules (me basking in a sci-fi movie season, benefiting from a sudden Star Wars-fuelled interest in sci-fi movies, even if those of us in the UK provinces wouldn’t get chance to see Lucas’ film until early 1978). The interview was really interesting, particularly Trumbull’s observations of the film industry and his projects -like one titled Pyramid– that he couldn’t get made after his first film.

1978. Before Paramount struck a desperate deal with him to rescue Star Trek : The Motion Picture, before his company was hired to shoot the effects for Blade Runner, before he made the ill-fated Brainstorm, after which he vowed to leave the film industry all together, tired of all the studio politics.

Douglas Trumbull was something of a hero to sci-fi geeks of my generation. He didn’t direct many films, and neither he did he turn his hand to the effects work of many films: its just that the ones he was involved with were so seminal. Instead he turned his attention to amusement park rides/experiences, and technological advances (Showscan etc) as an independent entrepreneur. He was an advocate of Pure Cinema; the possibilities afforded by cinema as an audio visual experience, as opposed to a traditionally narrative one. Hence he was involved in the audience-confounding lengthy effects scenes of Kirk arriving at the Enterprise in Dry Dock, and the journey into the Cloud, in Star Trek: The Motion Picture. It was something he likely learned from Stanley Kubrick while being involved in the visual effects for 2001: A Space Odyssey (for which Kubrick cheekily took home the effects Oscar, much to Trumbull’s annoyance).

Heck, I bought and recently watched the 4K edition of Star Trek: TMP mostly just to re-watch Trumbull’s effects in the best way possible; those moments of Pure Cinema, once the easiest of critical targets for what was dubbed at the time Star Trek: The Slow-Motion Picture, are for me the best things in that film. Some of us buy the films he was involved with just out of our sheer love of the images he created.

Who didn’t gasp at the first glorious reveal of the mothership in CE3K?

In September 1982, I’m watching Blade Runner for the first time in the ABC cinema in town, and my jaw drops, literally, at the opening shot of the Hades landscape of LA2019. I mean, literally drops in awe. It is the cinematic equivalent of falling head over heels in love, an astonishing, arresting moment that will never leave me. Films don’t make our jaws drop anymore. Maybe CGI advances have made huge spectacle commonplace, pushed the boundaries of what’s possible so far over the horizon nobody is ever truly amazed anymore. But back then, wizards like Trumbull took our breath away.

While writing about wizards, and ‘magicians’…

Its 1984, and I’m watching a VHS rental of Douglas Trumbull’s Brainstorm. Its a film not without its faults, but it deserves some love, as I wrote here, but that evening I am swept up by it. So much so that for a few glorious moments I’m absolutely in thrall of it. I believe every moment of its glorious finale in which a character ascends towards Heaven, accompanied by a host of Angels and rising Souls, courtesy of Trumbull’s effects wizardry. Its almost a religious experience; I’m a Believer. James Horner’s fantastic score -it was the same night I fell in love with James Horner’s musical genius-is swelling in its end titles.

Then the tape stops, and the television cuts to what’s showing on BBC television, and its Paul Daniels Magic Show. I’m suddenly back to mundane, banal reality with a horrible bump. I’m almost dazed. It was only a movie after all, and the Paul Daniels show is the ‘reality’ I’ve returned to. I’ll never forget that abrupt shift. I was so into that film, so convinced and carried away by it, and the return to a reality so brutally banal. I’d laugh about that moment for years after with my mate Andy. Part of me loves Brainstorm and thinks its the “Greatest Film Ever (Other Than Blade Runner, Obviously)”.

That’s the magic of Douglas Trumbull.

Excuse me, I now have a date with my Blu-ray copy of Brainstorm

The 2021 List: April

So there goes April. and I watched all of eight ‘new’ films/TV shows. Yeah, I’m still re-watching ‘old’ stuff, but my general apathy/weariness continues.

Books are good. I’m currently reading J W Rinzler’s excellent ‘The Making of Planet of the Apes’, which I bought from Amazon for £18 a week or so ago- at that price its almost giving it away, considering what magazines cost these days. With its on-set photographs and old-fashioned (pre-2001/Star Wars) pre-production paintings/storyboards, its really evocative of the 1960s and something of an escape to the myth of simpler times. I’ve really enjoyed the fascinating story of its long gestation period. I’d never really appreciated what a hard sell it was in the early 1960s to sell a film project featuring talking apes. In hindsight it seems a perfectly natural premise for a series of films but when one considers it in an time pre-Star Trek, even, its quite remarkable the film ever got made. Great book- its a lovely reminder of those retrospective articles in Cinefantastique, Fantastic Films and Starburst that I enjoyed reading (albeit with its 300 pages, this book is much more detailed, Cinefantastique‘s in-depth articles notwithstanding).

Hey, we had the Oscars this month. More nauseating than ever. Privileged and pampered millionaires preaching some more. I’m not sure they ‘get it’, after the year so many of us have had. I suppose its all true that the rich just get richer and the poor poorer because looking at their expensive gowns and suits and haircuts the pandemic and its economic woes doesn’t seem to have affected them very much. Instead I rather think it has put into sharp focus just how much of another country/planet Hollywood really is, and how increasingly distant it is. Those Planet Hollywood restaurants have a very apt name indeed, indicative of a truth I didn’t really appreciate. 

Or maybe I’m just getting old, and tired of the game.


46) The Flight Attendant


41) Chelsley Bonestell: A Brush With The Future (2018)

42) Secret Behind the Door (1947)

43) The Tunnel (Tunnelen) (2019)

44) Anti-Life (2020)

45) Stowaway (2021)

47) Voyage of Time (2016)

48) The Heist (2013)

The Abominable Heavy Metal Movie

heavy1Those Satanic Algorithms of Netflix caught me out last night, as I noticed in its recommendations the Heavy Metal movie, a film I first saw it on VHS, sadly on a regretted sell-through copy rather than a rental, many moons ago. I’d been curious of watching the film for years (it came out in cinemas back in 1981) and was expecting something quite special – I recall a glowing review in Starburst magazine when the film came out. I don’t know what they were watching (or what they were smoking) but goodness me that VHS was a shocking disappointment. I was somehow expecting something like the imagery of that picture above, which that damned Starburst review splashed across its pages as if that’s how the whole thing looked. I mean sure, in hindsight I was clearly an idiot- you could make that imagined movie that ran in my head look like that today, with CGI etc, but back in 1981, on the limited budget typical of any animation back then? Impossible. Instead we got jerky, flat and horrible animation, and even worse, crudely assembled and adapted stories with imagery that was just about sex and titillation.

Sure, the film obviously knew its audience, or at least assumed it knew the readership of the original magazine: as it turned out, I think they were proven wrong as the film deservedly flopped. Over the years, who knows, maybe young boys loved the movie, but I’m pretty certain women must have hated it, and rightly so: each female character is pretty much just a sex object and spends as little time as possible stripping off and having sex. Its like the very worst it could possibly be, and in this day and age would have the producers of the new mightily progressive Dr Who in hysterical fits.

So anyway, idiocy once again got the better of me and I pressed ‘play’ on the remote, wondering if that movie was really as bad as I remembered. Sometimes old films surprise you by being better than you recall; maybe its the familiar face of an old actor, or old styles of the time. Most of the time its as bad as you feared, but sometimes its even worse. This was the latter.

Such a shame. Even back in 1981, the magazine deserved better. I think the true Heavy Metal Movie would be an assembly of the best segments of Netflix’s own Love, Death + Robots that came out last year. Infact, it occurred to me that I would be much better off re-watching some of that than rekindling old horror-experiences of this movie. But it was late, it was a worknight, so I cursed those Netflix algorithms and stopped the regrettable play through of this terrible movie, hoping I’ll never have to suffer it again.

Alien 4K UHD

alienAh, Alien– just thinking about the film throws me back to summer 1979, reading Fantastic Films magazine  absolutely goggle-eyed at the imagery- you have to remember, absolutely nothing that looked quite like it had ever appeared on film before (except, curiously, for the Victorian-bent tech of First Men in the Moon in 1964). Alien really was something new, a trend-setter and showstopper, one of those cultural pivot points that rarely happen now in these more jaded times- and of course a neat adult response to Star Wars. It wasn’t the technology of Alien‘s film-making that changed things (as opposed to how technology-driven modern film-making has since become, it was using all the old tricks and methods of so many films before and after), but rather the sophistication with which Ridley Scott approached its otherwise derivative b-movie plot (essentially a haunted house/monster on the loose story in space). The coverage of those issues of Fantastic Films really opened my eyes to the craft and art in genre films- its interviews with Ridley Scott in those issues (particularly the extensive examination of the Alien storyboards Scott drew) really fascinated me, and sealed my interest in Scott’s films forever after.

ff2I wasn’t really familiar with Heavy Metal at the time, but Alien was definitely the very first Heavy Metal movie in approach and artistic worth. It was adult and dark and gritty and quite overloaded with visual information. Even today some forty years later it’s amazing not just how well Alien holds up, but also how it surpasses much of what we see now. The Nostromo bridge, the messroom, the corridors, it’s incredibly convincing, a work of art. That’s quite seperate to the impact of Giger’s nightmarish creations: never was a films title so apt. Alien really was alien, its Lovecraftian pseudo-sexual horrors as disturbing now as they ever were. I almost wish it stood alone, that there were never any sequels or any prequels, that Alien could just stand there, a one-off classic.

Its certainly the best way to watch it today. Just soak up and savour the mystery of that derelict craft and the alien space jockey, and the glimpses of the creature itself as it preys on the Nostromo crew. Try to forget the mythology that followed after with all its contradictory noise.

So that summer of 1979- like some kind of fool, I was of course madly anticipating actually watching the film, but as the September release date of the film neared here in the UK I learned that it was rated ‘X’ by the BBFC, partly no doubt for the films intensity but more for the use of language- swear-words were a big no-no in the old days of Blighty (actually things might not have changed so much in the years since). So having read all the film magazines, as we used to do in those pre-internet days, the film became this forbidden object, a tantalising mystery- and of course this was in those dark pre-VHS days when films came to the cinema and then went, lost for years before even a glimmer of hope of a possible tv screening. I didn’t actually see the film until it turned up on television*, on a Sunday night following the 1982 World Cup final on ITV. In pan and scan, nevermind the dreaded ad breaks (didn’t have a video recorder back then, so recorded the film onto audio cassette to listen to after- only hardcore/older geeks possibly understand what that was all about).

So perhaps it was fitting that last night, another Sunday almost thirty-seven years later, slowly slipping towards the fortieth anniversary of the films 6th September UK release date, I watched the film again, only this time in yet another format- 4K UHD.  I have to say, the film looked gorgeous, the best I’ve yet seen it, one of the best catalogue films I have seen on 4K disc. The HDR isn’t distracting, instead tastefully managed to increase the sense of depth to the picture and really improving some of the miniature shots (such as the Nostromo touching down on the planetoid with its lights blazing in the stormy murk). The colour balance and saturation of the film seemed improved, and the 4K image certainly allowed more appreciation of the films many visual details. I’d say this presentation seemed pretty much definitive to me, and I really enjoyed the film again.

Rewatching films can always be a curious experience, as you can take different things from them with every viewing- this time around, I seemed to appreciate some of the acting quality. Ian Holm was brilliant, as was Veronica Cartwright too- both are superb character actors with a sense of understated reality. They seem natural and effortless performances and convincingly ‘down to Earth’ (albeit that might seem strange considering the film’s setting). As a whole I’d say the films casting was a masterstroke in general- the characters are quite underwritten by the script but each actor brings something to each part. Compare the trucking Nostromo crew to any of the characters in Prometheus or Alien Covenant, say, and you’ll get what I mean (damn- I intended not to refer to those prequels at all and I’ve gone and bust it). The casting grounds the film in a sense of blue-collar reality, and while the smoking may seem a little incongruous these days, it’s certainly another layer of reality that carried weight back in 1979. The world has changed but Alien won’t, it’s a part of film history locked in time and thank goodness for that.

A curious thought though, that forty years ago I would be reading all those magazines, Fantastic Films, Starburst etc) and getting photographic glimpses of the film, and I’d read the Alan Dean Foster novelization, and the film would be frustratingly yet held back for another three years. And here I was some forty years later rewatching the film again. If I was around forty years from now, no doubt I’d still be rewatching it. Films, afterall, can be forever- well, the best of them, certainly. But maybe I’ve just bought Alien one last time in one last format.

* prior to the network premiere, indeed some time before as I recall. maybe in 1981, I was looking at records in my local HMV when I noticed that they were playing Alien on a television sitting on the shelf near the till (it must have been a sell-through VHS tape, which were wildly expensive at the time, before rentals took off and the idea of actually owning a film became rich fantasy). It was near the chestburster scene, and needless to say I stuck around awhile to see it in the corner of my eye while pretending to examine vinyl copies of albums. Vinyl, VHS, record stores… it’s a long time ago indeed, and I was so nervous that this was an ‘X’ -certificate film that they were surreptitiously screening that everyone in the shop of any age could see. Was I ever that young/naive? 

Cinefantastique, July-August 1982

I’ve waxed lyrical before about the old film magazines I used to buy as a teen – Fantastic Films, Starburst, Starlog etc- and how things have changed so much in the internet age. We have so much information now, and of course docs and commentaries on discs, that some of the mystery of movies has been lost somewhat. Film mags were like little glimpses into a hidden world. I’d pore over photographs and read interviews and look at pre-production art (the paintings of the late Ralph McQuarrie for Star Wars was likely my first experience of that). I loved reading all that stuff every month, read them, then re-read them. I’ve kept most of my old mags and many of them are stored up in the loft out of casual reach but some are handy and I sometimes get them out for a read. The news articles are glimpses of the publishing date and what was going on, the reviews sometimes funny in hindsight, sometimes perceptive, but always the behind the scenes stuff is priceless, even now.

20160528_164507-1So anyway, I picked up an issue of Cinefantastique to read, the double-issue of Blade Runner and Star Trek: Wrath of Khan. Reading the article about Blade Runner really took me back. That film was so big, so mysterious and magical to me back then. It is so odd to read interviews likely taken in 1981 talking about creating this incredible world of 2019 that must have seemed so long away at the time, and here we are now, with it just around the corner.

It was quite intense though, re-reading this article from 1982; I was experiencing the same old-forgotten feelings of awe and wonder I used to feel about Blade Runner back then.  Feelings triggered by the spread above or the one below that featured a Syd Mead painting that was printed everywhere at the time but always fascinated me.

I used to stare at it; the colours, the design-work… all that ambition and work that went into that film. The detail and layering that Ridley Scott employed- its rather usual now, as films are now more sophisticated generally than they were back then, certainly regards art-direction. People seem to forget how ground-breaking and important Ridley Scott’s work on Alien and Blade Runner was, how much that has impacted everything we see today- it wasn’t just how ‘pretty’ the photography and imagery was, it was all that layering and detail. It looked so real.

20160528_164528The Cinefantastique article, like the Cinefex one about the films effects, was a goldmine of imagery and information about this incredibly powerful film (it remains my most intense experience at the cinema) that somehow, at the time, was so quickly forgotten when it had failed at the box office.

All the books that would be written when the film was eventually reappraised were years away back then (though I have always wondered why no-one ever produced, in the long years since, a definitive ‘Art-Of’ book for Blade Runner). I used to re-read these same articles over and over in the years before any of that happened. Naturally as the years have passed,  some of the interviewed people are no longer with us, but it’s interesting too to see on-set photos Ridley Scott at work (he looks so young!) and read his comments and know how his career later progressed. He was intending to keep on making these incredible genre films back then, but the failure of Blade Runner and Legend put paid to that. I remember though, back at the time, reading this stuff- imagine, Ridley Scott following up Alien and Blade Runner with other ‘adult’ genre films, and George Lucas still busy with the Star Wars films (it wasn’t a Trilogy back then, we thought there would be several of them), Spielberg making genre films like CE3K, Raiders, ET… what an amazing time that was, some kind of Golden Age or something, I was just too young to really ‘get’ it.


As an aside, regards these magazines being time-capsules of when they were printed, this issue of Cinefantastique also featured articles on Fire & Ice (Ralph Bakshi’s animated feature he did with Frank Frazetta), Something Wicked This Way Comes (prior to all its release/re-edit problems), Videodrome, the original Hawk’s The Thing, and a spread of McQuarrie paintings from a film still titled Revenge of the Jedi. Short features on upcoming films like Xtro, Brainstorm. Poltergeist, Firefox, Greystoke are a reminder of what else was going on and what would be future VHS rentals. They were good times indeed.

I mentioned this issue also featured Wrath of Khan– here’s a photograph from that issue that really got me excited when first reading it. The effects boys at ILM uncrating the Enterprise miniature from Star Trek: TMP prior to shooting Khan’s effects. God, that kind of stuff really blew me away back then- I mean, this isn’t just a model- this is the bloody Enterprise. Its funny considering the access to so much behind the scenes stuff we have with special features on discs and the internet now, but things like this photograph were mind-blowing back then.



Happy 36th, Saturn 3

Dedicated to Gregory Moss and all the bad films that some of us love

Sometime back in 1980, or maybe 1981 (its over 30 years ago, anyway) I found a hardback copy of the Saturn 3 novelization in my local library. I knew of the film from reading mags like Fantastic Films and Starburst, and while I hadn’t seen the film, I knew from the reviews the film was pretty dire. Curious, I took the book out and read it, and was surprised to find that I really enjoyed it. It was an interesting piece of science fiction with a Frankenstein theme, about a robot going rogue on a distant science station near Saturn. It even had a surprisingly bleak (well, bittersweet, anyway) ending that I found quite poignant.

Some years later, I caught the film on its first network tv screening. Alas, the book that I remembered  was far better than the film.


So here we are, decades later, and Saturn 3 has a very minor part in sci-fi film history, I’m sure it’s mostly been forgotten, rarely even turning up on late-night tv. But even films like Saturn 3 have fans; there’s certainly no shame in it- indeed, there are several bad/unpopular films that I really like, although I don’t count Saturn 3 among them. I don’t think anyone consciously makes a bad film, and it’s nice to think that all that effort spent on a bad film somehow gets rewarded by someone somewhere being a fan.

Fellow blogger Gregory Moss, whose opinions I value is a big fan of Saturn 3 and created a website about the film and its troubled history. Even people who love the film have to admit that Saturn 3 is one of those films where the behind the scenes story is actually more interesting and rewarding than the film itself. When a special blu ray edition was being planned in America, the discs producers hired Greg to record a commentary track for the disc. Smart move, really- a knowledgeable and enthusiastic fan can give a better commentary track than a film’s producer or director, particularly if they’d rather forget the film completely than share in how they got everything so very wrong.

Unfortunately for me, the disc would be Region A, and here in the Region B UK I didn’t have a multi-region player.However, a few months ago Greg announced on his blog that a German label had licensed both the film and the American discs special features for a release in Region B-freindly Germany. I immediately ordered it; a handsome steelbook edition with a price that was actually quite reasonable. Saturn 3 is a film I would never ordinarily buy, and I’d rarely if ever have the urge to rewatch it, but I was really curious about Greg’s commentary track. Maybe there is something about a fellow geek’s love of a movie that gets other geeks eager to share in it, I don’t know. Maybe it was the nostalgic pull of a film more than 35 years old, a film from that other age that was my youth, a film as old as my teenage self feels distant.

Here’s a curious fact; Saturn 3 was released on February 15th, 1980. It shares my birthday (the day, not the year, you understand); so this year on the day that Saturn 3 celebrates its 36th birthday, I’m celebrating my 50th (as if anyone ever really celebrates being 50 years old). So happy 36th, Saturn 3.


Films were different in 1980. Science fiction films especially so. Back in 1980, the shadow of Star Wars loomed large over science fiction films. It is nowhere more obvious that Saturn 3 dates back to 1980 than in its opening shot; a star-field is broken by a giant spaceship (spacestation?) that passes by overhead slowly filling the screen. Its as if the producers thought every sci-fi film had to start like that ionic opening from Star Wars (demonstrated by Alien too, just several months before). Unfortunately the visual effects of Saturn 3 were pretty dire even by 1980 standards- today they are horrible reminders of how truly special the special effects of ILM and Trumbulls EEG were back then.

Looming larger over Saturn 3 than even Star Wars is Ridley Scott’s Alien, released several months earlier in the summer of 1979. It seems that everything that Alien gets right, Saturn 3 gets wrong. Scott struggled himself getting decent effect shots completed for Alien, limited by the technologies available this side of the Atlantic, but got away with it with careful photography, shooting around the limitations set on him (Scott shot many of the effects himself). Saturn 3 fails spectacularly- the miniatures are terrible, they are shot terribly, they are composited terribly (grain is everywhere, mattes fail  and stars bleed through some of the spaceships, there’s all sorts of errors that abound).

More importantly, Scott knew that his film would succeed or fail simply with its title character. Luckily he stumbled upon, by way of Dan O’Bannon, H R Gigers disturbing art and a team was assembled with Giger to create one of, if not the, most successful movie monsters of all time. Even then Scott knew he had to be careful to shoot around the creatures limitations lest it be revealed to be, ultimately, a tall thin guy in a rubber suit.

Hector, the giant humanoid robot of Saturn 3 that goes rather awry, is in fact a  pretty good piece of design. It certainly looks authentic and the fact it lacks anything like a human face (or robotic approximation of one) works in its favour. But even its biggest fans will admit that it suffers from the technology of the day. You can always tell that the film is being edited around whatever workable footage the crew could get, and if rumours are to be believed, it was largely those difficulties shooting the robot that exasperated the actors and got the first director fired.

The story of John Barry’s involvement in Saturn 3 and ultimate exit from the project is a sad one that I won’t go into here (see Greg’s website for more). My own most personal link with Saturn 3 is John Barry and the news of his passing that I read in Starburst at the time. For a teenage geek like me who loved movies, John Barry was something of a minor hero. Its funny thinking back on it now, but back then I knew the names of costume designers and effects guys like my school friends knew and idolised football players. So when I read the news of his passing and what happened to him with Saturn 3, it was very sad, and I cannot think of Saturn 3 without feeling that sadness and remembering him. It’s easy for me to state that John Barry deserved better, that perhaps if Saturn 3 was a smaller film with a cast of unknowns with less egos involved, that he might have stayed with the production and it ended up a better film. But this is the real world in which great production designers don’t necessarily make great directors and where films only get greenlit with ‘name’ actors attached, and time is money in film-making and difficult shoots require difficult decisions.

sat5As it is, Saturn 3 is a pretty bad film that hasn’t aged at all well, but it is an enduring reminder of how beautiful Farrah Fawcett was. She’s actually cast well as Alex and the part suits her- there is an innocence and other-worldliness to her that comes across, but I don’t think she looks particularly comfortable at times with co-star Kirk Douglas as her lover Adam. Her casting as a love interest with the-then-64 year-old Douglas is astonishing really. I don’t think a film would get away with it these days but it isn’t just a casting oddity; the age gap is in the script. I think her character is actually supposed to be younger than Fawcett was at the time (33 I think), she certainly seemed younger to me in the novel, as I remember.

A remarkably fresh-faced Harvey Keitel is in fine form as the snake that enters Eden, but his performance is hampered by being dubbed over throughout the film by English actor Roy Dotrice – although I am tempted to suggest the strangeness of his voice being so ‘off’ actually helps the film in a way. Captain Benson is clearly odd and deranged and his voice not matching the face we know so well just makes him even more untrustworthy and suspicious.

sat4Kirk Douglas is fascinating; there are all sorts of real-world subtexts going on in the background of the films storyline. Here is a once-major star at the tail end of his Hollywood career clearly in denial of (or indeed raging against) his own age/mortality/twilight career. I mean, he’s in love scenes with the pin-up girl of the 1970s who is more than 30 years younger than he is. Funnily enough, Douglas spends more time with less clothes on than Fawcett, which is either very brave or foolhardy considering his age (maybe he still thought he was Spartacus). The dark side of me thinks it was the casting of Fawcett that got Douglas into signing on for the film, which adds another layer to the already rather dark subtext of all the characters in the film lusting over Alex. Adam is in a long-term loving relationship with her, even though their age difference makes it look ill-judged, Keitel’s Captain Benson brazenly and openly admits he wants to have recreational sex with her (and even seems to try to ply her with drugs), and once Benson’s brainwaves are programmed into Hector, the robot wants her too.

It’s bizarre and disturbing; in Alien, the creature simply wants to kill, but here, well, I’m not sure exactly what Hector has planned for Alex but it surely isn’t pleasant and is likely worse than simply just killing her. It’s HAL 9000 with a libido for goodness sake. Makes me wonder if the film-makers knew what they were getting into in the first place. This film really could have gone dark places but it isn’t that kind of film at all, which undermines the entire thing. Replacement director Stanley Donen (the films producer) was more familiar with musicals and lacked the ability to maintain much suspense. Comparisons here between Saturn 3 and Alien are even more striking- Alien is a brutal masterclass in tension but Saturn 3 is very, very weak. Which is odd really, as what Hector has planned for Alex is much worse than what the Alien has planned for Ripley. Imagine what someone like David Fincher could do with this kind of stuff, or Cronenberg.

You see, that’s the damned thing with Saturn 3– there’s a sense that there is, somewhere, a very good film here. With better effects, a more balanced script, a better director, maybe a less star-studded cast, who knows? (Who am I kidding all thats a completely different movie!). The whole twisted sex thing with Alex caught between an old man/father figure, a young creep and a deranged robot is an adult and challenging subject matter that deserved an adult thriller. Maybe even something as dark and adult as Body Heat. Imagine if Saturn 3 turned out like some kind of noir-ish ‘Body Heat in space’. Now there would be an interesting movie, even with the cast it has. Something hotter, darker, psychological.

But mainstream sci-fi films didn’t do that sort of thing in 1980 (indeed I don’t think they would be allowed to do that sort of thing even now), so Saturn 3 certainly isn’t that kind of movie. At the very least it needed to be as thrilling and intense as Alien, even if just a robot-on-the-loose kind of thing, but it falls way, way short. It’s a pretty bad film really, but yeah, it does have its fans. So I’ll join them today in raising a toast to this bad movie- Happy 36th, Saturn 3; you could have been a bloody disturbing movie.  And I’ll spare a thought for John Barry, and the film he actually wanted Saturn 3 to be. Barry’s Saturn 3 wouldn’t have been the dark sexual thriller I think it could have been. It might have been better.

Maybe the remake will be that disturbing movie. I’m thinking of that line at the end of Robocop; “they can fix everything,” only more along the lines of “they can remake everything” Yeah, even the clunkers like Saturn 3. Its only a matter of time, right?

It’s not even a movie (not in the old sense): Mockingjay Part 1.

mock1I remember back when The Empire Strikes Back was released, back in the summer of 1980; it was criticised by some for having a poor structure. Films generally have a beginning, middle and end (at least they used to- these days some films are more like serials that might make perfect sense when viewed in a Blu-ray boxset but prove rather more problematic viewed as individual entries). My reference to TESB however isn’t chiefly because it was the middle part of a trilogy, moreover it was how the film was structured itself. I recall John Brosnan pointing out in his TESB review in Starburst that in an ordinary movie, the battle of Hoth would have been the grand climax. Instead it was placed in the first third leaving everything beyond it rather anti-climatic, even the duel between Luke and Vader (which itself, when you think of it, ends without any real resolution). Back at the time I was your typical teenage Star Wars-nut and thought Brosnan was talking nonsense; TESB was even better then the first Star Wars in my eyes, and Brosnan’s talk about film-structure flew over my head. But over the past few years I’ve thought back to Brosnan’s comments.

In a strange way, that odd structure of TESB would prove rather prophetic though. Films really don’t have that beginning, middle and end anymore; not always anyway. Of course TESB had not just put its traditional grand climax in the first third, it also ended on something of a cliffhanger,.Again, this was very unusual at the time, but Star Wars was famously based on old movie serials, so people could get their heads around what Lucas was doing. But I don’t think anyone back then could have predicted how films would eventually make TESB look rather normal, its then-odd structure rather mundane. Imagine Lucas saying back then “someday, all films will be made this way”- people would have thought he was crazy, his huge successes at the Box-Office notwithstanding. But now, people have become used to films lacking any real resolution, indeed, some entire films are just a tease for the next one. Were people coming out of screenings of Interstellar thinking that all their questions will be answered in the next one, only to be frustrated when informed that’s it, its just Interstellar, that was The End, there is no sequel?

I was thinking about all this watching the most recent film in The Hunger Games series, Mockingjay Part 1. I don’t know much about the books, but I understand that there are three in the series and the third book Mockingjay is being split into two movies. Its all very The Hobbit (not forgetting the last Harry being split into two or indeed the next entry in the Divergent series).

I won’t go into how cynical it all seems regards maximising ticket sales in cinemas or further along with the DVD/Blu-ray sales. What concerns me is how it effects the individual films themselves. Mockingjay Part One is not a bad film, indeed, in some ways its the most interesting of the Hunger Games series I’ve seen. But it is inevitably hamstrung by the decision, right or wrong, artistic or purely business-based, to split its original book’s story into two. Essentially Mockingjay is, by its very nature, the beginning and part-middle of a bigger story. There is no resolution here. Characters are being introduced, arcs being set up, that will not come to fruition until the second part. It makes for  very frustrating experience, especially in light of having to wait another year for the conclusion (I much preferred how Warners managed the two Matrix sequels, released, as I recall, only six months apart?).

hob3Moreover, I do think the second part itself will also suffer, as these films usually do. It won’t have much time (or feel any need) to set events up, it will likely leap into the storyline in a rush to the grand finale. That might be fine, or indeed welcomed, by fans, but it won’t really be functioning like a ‘proper’ movie. It’ll be the second part; the middle and end to a larger story. Maybe I’m alone in thinking in how annoyed I was by the beginning of the third Hobbit movie, leaping into the Smaug attack on Laketown, shoving a noisy climactic sequence into the beginning of a film where I should have been settling into it, not having my senses assaulted from the very start. For myself, that entire sequence was ruined by not having any build-up. CGI suffers without dramatic storytelling around it as it is; here there was no build-up of tension, no raising of dramatic effect, no context. It was just “Bang-here we go, have a visual effects reel before we start the movie proper!” That sequence should have been the end of the second film, giving that film a much-needed climax, and the third film allowed to set up its own arcs/storyline for its own climax. Good business for Warner/MGM maybe but lousy artistic sense; it spoiled two movies and crippled what should have been a highlight.

Mockingjay Part One rather meanders through two hours (!) leading to an inevitable tease promising a ‘proper’ conclusion that leaves it inevitably wanting. It doesn’t function as an exercise in traditional storytelling. Being split itself in two surely risks alienating its audience- I wonder how many people stayed away, preferring to wait until Mockingjay Part Two is released? I was tempted to delay watching the Blu-ray until the second film gets released on disc next year but my curiosity got the better of me. But even then, to (eventually) watch the entire Mockingjay story will require something like four hours over the two parts. What is the sense in that? Does the storyline deserve that much screentime, can it carry all those hours? How many people will ever watch both in one sitting? Is it always doomed to be two parts over (at best) two consecutive nights? Would it just work better as a two and a half-hour movie, or even one approaching three hours in one whole, with its own beginning, middle and end? Don’t we as an audience deserve that? Shouldn’t we be demanding that?

Somehow none of these trilogies/serials feel like ‘proper’ movies any more, but splitting the individual parts of these trilogies/sagas into two just makes it even worse. Where will it end?  A three-part Hobbit movie? Ahem.