Thursday, January 29, 2009

Through a Glass Brightly

It’s been a busy week, not that I’m complaining. Although I do wish that when you have to correspond with producers in America they would appreciate the different time zones. Still it was my own bloody fault, starting off the conversation quite late in the day over here. Now that email has become communication’s tool of choice it’s better than the days when the fax machine would start squawking at one or two o’clock in the morning.

With everything going on, I haven’t had a chance to voice an opinion on the home stretch Battlestar Galactica, which looks like its all going to end in tears, the mind-boggling return of Lost or the arrival of Blown Deadline’s astonishing Iraq War drama Generation Kill. I suppose that pretty much gives the game away on where I stand when it comes to these dramas. Otherwise I pointlessly tried another episode of 24, because I’m obviously a bigger idiot than I initially thought, and have repeatedly tried to get beyond the first six minutes of BBC3’s Being Human without shouting, “Fuck off you useless cunts!” at the screen.

When there has been time free during the past couple of days, I’ve spent most of it writing longwinded replies to other folks’ blogs rather than come up something new here. The most recent one involved discussing science fiction films that look horribly dated. There may be more of that to come next month because the weekend has been set aside for a trip to Mister Mark’s where a bunch of us are going to immerse ourselves in a science fiction marathon, watching the great SF movies that the BBC used to show but now don’t. It may mean stepping on the rose-tinted glasses of our youth but these things have to be done.

Luckily these are the films from the 1950s and 60s, like Forbidden Planet, Invasion of the Bodysnatchers, This Island Earth and Them. And though it may not fit the time period, just for the hell of it I think we’re starting off with The Amazing Screw-On Head to get us in the mood. The stories may be ropey in places, especially when it comes to the “science” parts, but one thing going for them is that these films haven’t dated as badly as many that followed in their path.

Forbidden Planet got it right, with Walter Plunkett’s costumes and Cedric Gibbons and Arthur Lonergan’s marvellous production design creating a look that wouldn’t diminish with time. Just over a decade later Kubrick took the same approach with 2001: A Space Odyssey, even if the date would ultimately work against him. But looking back on the “sci-fi” movies of the early to mid-1970s, with people wandering aimlessly about in highly impractical, brightly coloured clothes, it makes you wonder not only were the various filmmakers were thinking of but what they had taken to reach that decision.

Did anyone really think the future would be spent wandering aimlessly around pristine environments beneath a gigantic domed roof? HG Wells may have suggested that such a sterile environment was the shape of things to come, but it only really works, I suppose, if Jenny Agutter is around to get her kit off at various points in the proceedings. And at least it’s better than being chased through the fields by a bunch of marauding monkeys on horseback. Star Wars was fantasy, so really who gives a shit about that. Instead it wasn’t until Ridley Scott got behind the camera for Alien and Blade Runner, paying great attention to the art direction, that people started to take their view of the future seriously.

One thing that struck me when I first watched Blade Runner, which very rarely gets mentioned, is how natural light is put to use. In previous films the future was bright, Ridley Scott flicked the switch and made it gloomy. Audience members complained that if was always set at night, Scott countered that the darkness covered the cracks that the budget couldn’t stretch to fill. But I always saw it as an integral part of the story. Light was currency. Tyrell, atop his pyramid, couldn’t afford a real owl (unless none existed) but he did have the sunlight. In fact when Deckard has to conduct the Voight-Kampff empathy test on Rachel there is even too much light.

On street level it would obviously be a different story. The opening “Hades” shot suggested that the environment was seriously buggered by industry. But beyond that it’s a simple matter of how far sunlight could penetrate. I can remember being in New York on a late spring day, walking out of Times Square into one of the cross streets and going from being bathed in bright light into deep shadow, from warm to cold. If that can happen in contemporary times, in Scott’s extrapolation of a sprawling, futuristic Los Angeles, with towering edifices bunched close together, even without factoring the perpetually overcast sky into the equation, depending on the time of day and position of the sun natural light would barely register.

It was having this in mind that made me laugh out loud not only at Tim Burton’s depiction of Gotham City in the ludicrously awful Batman, but the film adaptation of Judge Dredd with its overly bright streets of Mega City One. Then again, that movie was so utterly bilious the lighting was the very least of its problems.


At 8:48 am, Blogger DraconianOne said...

Curiously, I was having a conversation about those very same sci-fi films only last week and lamented the fact that they no longer seem to get shown on television any more. If I recall, they were shown at about 6pm on BBC2 in the early 80s. I remember watching This Island Earth (notable at the time for being the film ET watched), seeing George Pal's War of the Worlds for the first time and being scared witless by the original Invasion of the Body Snatchers. Halcyon days.

I've watched a few of them again recently and they have dated but mainly because of the filming styles and sensibilities have changed. This Island Earth, it turns out, is absolute crap but has some memorably imagery. War of the Worlds is still pretty good but there are some questionable scenes at the beginning with some very dubious dialogue. Invasion of the Body Snatchers is something I still think stands the test of time and it's hard to watch Forbidden Planet and take Leslie Nielsen seriously. Or Robbie the Robot for that matter. Or the fact that it's based on The Tempest which I fucking hated. But it's still effective in other ways. I'll be interested in seeing what your own ubiquitous take on them will be.

At 1:36 pm, Blogger Stephen Gallagher said...

"Did anyone really think the future would be spent wandering aimlessly around pristine environments beneath a gigantic domed roof?"

Hey. I've been to the Trafford Centre. It is that very Hell.

The great thing about old SF is that it seeded the imagination rather than trying to sate it. It had no choice, because resources were so poor.

There's nothing in the entire mighty arsenal of Industrial Light and Magic that can affect my adult self the way a spaceship on a string or a man in a cardboard robot suit gripped my 12-year-old soul.

At 2:04 pm, Blogger Good Dog said...


I'm off to relive a little slice of childhood and will report back, unless I'm found walking down a desert road, mute with fear.


We'll be thinking of you.

It's time to switch on the theremin and away I go!


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