Saturday, 25 February 2017

The Last Days On Mars

Cast: Liev Schreiber, Elias Koteas, Romola Garai, Olivia Williams, and Goran Kostic

Director: Ruairi Robinson

94 minutes (15) 2013
Widescreen ratio 2.35:1
Universal DVD Region 2

Rating: 4/10
Review by Andrew Darlington

On Mars “a shrunken sun sank below the horizon and darkness came. Stars gleamed hard and bright through the tenuous atmosphere. A meteor dug a small crater under the palest of moonlight.” In his introduction to New Writings In SF #13 (1968), John Carnell comments, “once, many years ago, the author Sydney J. Bounds worked in the engineering department of London’s Underground system but gave it up for the more precarious life of a full-time writer.” By the time I met Bounds in his book-crammed Kingston-upon-Thames home, he was surviving proudly and impecuniously as a professional story-smith by a strategy of writing at an impressive rate for every available market. Royalties from movie-rights would at least have enabled him to buy a newer typewriter. But he died on 24th November 2006, before this adaptation of his short story went into production.

Archivist Roy Kettle points out that “Bounds didn’t write many novels – just five, but he wrote 100+ short stories which almost invariably appeared only in British SF magazines and original anthologies. However, rather out of the blue, one of his stories, The Animators, was picked up and made into The Last Days On Mars in 2013 (a few years after his death). I rather think it was because the screenwriter, Clive Dawson, spotted it in the anthology where it first appeared because he had the book for the reprint of Arthur Porges’ The Ruum which, apparently, he’d hoped that Hammer Films would make with his screenplay.”

The anthology – Tales Of Terror From Outer Space (1975) was a Fontana paperback original edited by that devotee of the esoteric and the macabre, R. Chetwynd-Hayes, as part of his Tales Of Terror anthology series. And it’s startlingly good, with more than a passing glance at our Red Planet solar system neighbour. Ray Bradbury’s I, Mars introduces the escalating madness of the last survivor of a Mars colony haunted by phone calls from his earlier self. Then Robert Bloch’s carny huckster Ace Clawson gets devoured by a real-life Girl From Mars. For just the 45p cover-price there’s also Bob Shaw, Brian Aldiss’ breathtakingly audacious Heresies Of The Huge God, Ralph Williams’ The Head-Hunters (from Stories For Tomorrow, 1956) anticipating the Predator movies franchise, Robert Sheckley, and Arthur C. Clarke, as well as Porges’ nail-bitingly tense thriller The Ruum (reprinted from The Magazine Of Fantasy & Science Fiction, October 1952) – with prospector Jim Irwin relentlessly pursued by an implacable alien weapon left behind in the Canadian Rockies some hundred-million years ago.

The Animators comes around midpoint, previously unpublished, but later picked up and reprinted in Creepies, Creepies, Creepies edited by Helen Hoke (Franklin Watts, 1977). And Ruairi Robinson’s movie shows the advantage of taking an 11-page short story and expanding it, rather than attempting to compress a full novel down to movie-length. There are some minor switches in the interests of racial diversity and visual appeal, a couple of gender reassignments to Bounds’ originally white all-male personnel, but the plot development holds together remarkably well during its transfer to the big screen. The deserts of Jordan stand in for the Martian landscape, with occasional vegetation digitally removed.

“Sidney J. Bounds has had much experience in dealing with assorted horrors, as his many anthologised stories will testify, and he handles The Animators with his usual skill,” comments Chetwynd-Hayes. “The scene is set on the ill-fated planet Mars, but the end results are hell-bent for Earth.” And there are some obvious reference points, John Carpenter’s Ghosts Of Mars (2001), where the dead spirits of an extinct Martian civilisation are unleashed to possess the bodies of the miners responsible for disturbing their tomb. And the David Tennant Doctor Who episode The Waters Of Mars (2009), in which a water-borne virus infects and corrupts the human colonists of the bio-dome, which must be destroyed before the ‘Flood’ contagion can reach Earth. Although it’s worth bearing in mind that Bounds story precedes them both, and teases around the rim of speculation. Nothing as outrĂ© as extinct Martian cities, merely the possibility of long-dormant microbiological organisms suspended deep beneath the regolith for the millions of years since the warmer wetter Mars that NASA Rover-probes indicate.

The jaunty tones of Jack Hylton’s Blue Skies Are Around The Corner (1938) deliberately contrasts the gathering storm-front beneath authentically dour Martian skies, dust-waves of “the first big one of the season” approaching to engulf Tantalus Base One in which the eight-strong crew have been sitting out their six-month stay... with the 19 remaining hours ticking away before they’re lifted off to the orbiting ‘Aurora’ for “six-months home in a floating coffin.” Until the darkness closes in, Mars swallowing up the puny human toe-hold on the world, leaving only the airlock lens illuminated to resemble a single prescient eye.

Meanwhile, in a last-minute ruse before nightfall, Marko Petrovic (Bosnian-Serb actor Goran Kostic) returns to investigate the test-site of an earlier bore-sample that seems to indicate the presence of ancient microscopic bacterial life. Intent on keeping the discovery for himself he uses the pretext of fixing a broken sensor. Richard Harrington watches him from the clunky Mars Bug, until he’s shocked to see a sinkhole opening up to swallow the geologist. Using the second Bug, an already irritably fraying Captain Charles Brunel (Elias Koteas), is “barely holding it together” as he and Lauren Dalby (Yusra Warsama) prepare to undertake a rescue. Dalby disobeys protocol and climbs down the pit. She also disappears. Both of them are dead, but not for long. Soon, there are two sets of footprints leading away from the pit.

Liev Schreiber, who plays Vincent Campbell, has a heavyweight CV that includes the Scream horror trilogy. Welsh-born writer-actor Tom Cullen – who plays Harrington, also has presence and some impressive movie credits, including an episode (The Entire History Of You) of TV’s Black Mirror and – for those who like that sort of thing, the faux class-nostalgia of Downton Abbey. Olivia Williams – who plays vexed confrontationally-barbed colleague Kim Aldrich, worked with Roman Polanski on The Ghost Writer (2010). They are part of a strong cast. The eerie rasp of over-exerted breathing inside helmets is effective, as is the claustrophobic hallucinatory descent into the sinkhole’s soft-focus darkness.

In Bounds’ story it is Shorty Pugh’s body that Harrington retrieved from the pit, and buries in a shallow grave. Exposure to the bacteria reanimates the corpse. “Then, slowly, it set out across the flat and desolate land with plodding steps. A naked dead thing that moved across the night-dark dust, moved steadily on a direct course for the distant Base.” In the movie the shattered helmet results in the same condition, unsuited zombies Marko and Dalby cross the rift valley back towards base with driller-killer instinct. But, although there’s a fair amount of furious action-hazard, the space helmets and chaotic red-light alert-strobing sometimes limits expressiveness and make it difficult to tell who’s doing what to whom, or why. And there’s no clear confrontation with the reanimated dead, just hints and glimpses of charred and rotting features obfuscated behind shattered face-visors. Where more clarity would help punch out the story there’s no gratuitous shock-horror, no Walking Dead or Z Nation moments. No George A. Romero zombies.

Brunel is wounded – Kim’s microscope betrays the bacterial cell-division infection in his bloodstream, his face tracked with shadow-lines of contagion, before he turns violent, and dies. Taking the precaution of strapping his body down, they inject an antidote, he twitches against his restraints, but the retroviral effect is temporary. The survivors retreat from the resulting mayhem to the hydroponics dome, using a conduit to return through blood-trails and wreckage to transmit a sky-link Mayday distress-call to the orbital ISC Mission Control, only to be pursued back by the zombie Marko. “I was planning on taking a lot of unnecessary risks,” quips Campbell with bitter irony.

Eventually only three remain – Vincent Campbell, Rebecca Lane (male expedition metallurgist in Bounds’ tale, now played by Romola Garai), and panicky mission psychologist Robert Irwin (British actor Johnny Harris of The Imaginarium Of Doctor Parnassus, 2009) escaping across the Mars night in a solar-powered Bug with battery-power dropping, intent on reaching the lift-off point, with that hanging Cold Equation that she’s infected. “It’s too late for her,” protests Irwin. Should they leave her? Campbell says no. She resolves the dilemma by running off and suicides by removing her helmet. Following her footprints in Mars-sand, Campbell reluctantly stoves her head in with a stone to pre-empt her reanimation.

A significant difference here is that in the short story Brunel is the last die, and “later, no longer human, he joined the living dead aboard the ship. It rose into the purple sky on a column of flame and on course for Earth.” The movie is a little more nuanced. Campbell arrives at the shuttle lost in swirling dust, only to find that the zombies got there first, leaving a trail of dead. As they ascend to orbit, he struggles with an infected Irwin, before ejecting him through the airlock. Little spheres of tainted blood float in space. “This must end here. We can’t let it get back to Earth,” he insists. Campbell messages his report, and prepares to burn up on re-entry. Mars must remain a quarantined world. Unless Mission Control rescues him first..?

No blue skies around the corner. As an adaptation of Bounds’ story, it would have been nice if the film could have been a tad better. But would Syd have approved? Chances are he would. He’d certainly have enjoyed becoming part of the Universal Studios continuity back to Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi. And at least it would have enabled him to buy a newer typewriter.

Wednesday, 22 February 2017

Doctor Strange

Cast: Benedict Cumberbatch, Tilda Swinton, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Rachel McAdams, and Mads Mikkelsen

Director: Scott Derrickson

115 minutes (12) 2016
Widescreen ratio 2.35:1
Disney DVD Region 2
[Released 6th March]

Rating: 8/10
Review by John Paul Catton

First, I have to declare some vested interests; I’ve been a fan of Marvel Comics ever since I was about six years old. Having said that, I realise that I’m not exactly the target audience for this film as Doctor Strange is aimed at a new generation of fans. It’s trying to introduce a new character into the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and also trying to bring in mainstream moviegoers more familiar with Star Wars or Harry Potter. So here it is at last, directed by Scott Derrickson (The Exorcism Of Emily Rose, 2005; The Day The Earth Stood Still remake, 2008) and written by Jon Spaihts, C. Robert Cargill, and Derrickson himself.

I admit that I went into the cinema with a sense of cautious optimism. I was determined to give it a fair chance, but hopefully not be too much of a gushing fanboy about it. I also didn’t want to dismiss it too quickly if it didn’t meet up to my expectations. A live-action Doctor Strange film, with cutting edge CGI to do justice to the trippy visual concepts featured in the comics, has been one of the most anticipated events in ‘superhero movie’ history. So how could it live up to the hype, the promise, and the dreams that we’ve had ever since the 1970s? Fortunately, it’s brilliant. 

It’s not just ‘interesting’, or ‘fairly good considering the Hollywood formula’, it is awesome in every sense of the word. After 15 minutes I went into a trance state and stayed there for the next hour and a half (IMAX 3D cinema, you see). Doctor Strange is intelligent, scary, witty, touching, and visually gorgeous. It’s got all of those things in spades, because it’s striving to be accepted as a character piece, not just a plot-driven spectacle. In my opinion it succeeds, because of Benedict Cumberbatch’s Doctor Strange. He’s incredible - and utterly convincing. By the end of the film, you are in no doubt that he is the Master of the Mystic Arts. He’s ably supported by Chiwetel Ejiofor, Rachel McAdams, Benedict Wong, Tilda Swinton, and Madds Mikkelsen in the cast, with each actor’s performance fresh and full of energy.

Unless you’ve been living in the Dark Dimension for the last couple of years, you’ve doubtless heard of the controversies regarding the casting of The Ancient One, Wong, Mordo, and even big Ben himself as the title character. The PC sniping put Derrickson in an impossible ‘lose-lose’ situation, which he constantly acknowledged and explained in interviews. Well, we all know how Hollywood works! Go in with an open mind, and just watch the film for the quality of the acting.

Despite my enthusiasm for the story, there are still things with which I was disappointed or puzzled about. There is the matter of the pacing. We first see Kaecilius steal pages from the Book of Cagliostro, which presumably takes place before the film’s main action. Then we see Strange’s car accident, his rehabilitation, his search for a cure, his journey to Nepal, his training with the Ancient One, and then Kaecilius turns up again to kick ass. How long did Strange’s spiritual journey take before he became Master of the Mystic Arts? What was Kaecelius doing during the time? Did it take months, or even years, to decipher the spells written on two pages of parchment?

This nitpicking, however, doesn’t detract from enjoying the movie as a whole. A huge thank you must go to visual-effects supervisor Stephane Ceretti (responsible for the Oscar-nominated VFX in Guardians Of The Galaxy, 2014) for creating a cinematic experience that comes close to recreating the psychedelic creations of the original Doctor Strange artist, Steve Ditko. The influences of those visual effects reads like a huge shout-out to the history of film and art trippiness: Inception, The Matrix, Altered States, 2001: A Space Odyssey, M.C. Escher, Mandelbrot set fractals, and of course Ditko himself. It’s no wonder that Ceretti and his team have received another Academy award nomination. 

Okay, so I might have veered into fanboy gushing after all, but the thing is - audiences actually want to see this succeed; even the individuals who didn’t take to Cumberbatch’s portrayal of the Doctor secretly want to see people love it. This is going to be the story that will fascinate a new generation of dreamers, just as the comics did. 

Monday, 20 February 2017


Cast: Tom Hanks, Felicity Jones, Ben Foster, Sidse Babett Knudsen, and Irrfan Khan

Director: Ron Howard

121 minutes (15) 2016
Widescreen ratio 1.85:1
Sony Blu-ray regions A B C

Rating: 7/10
Review by Christopher Geary

A sequel to The Da Vinci Code (2006) and Angels & Demons (2009), this latest adventure properly begins with Prof. Langdon (Tom Hanks) waking up injured in what appears to be a Florentine hospital, where he’s suffering from apocalyptic visions while being stalked by a female assassin. Initially, our genius hero’s amnesia (the word ‘coffee’ remains on the tip of his tongue, but he instantly recognises a Botticelli painting) complicates puzzles he must solve in the pursuit of a biotech weapon that threatens plague - a virus with culling capacity. “Killing billions to save lives? That’s the logic of tyrants.”

Colourful and exotic locations abound, after a train to Venice, and a W.H.O. jet flying to Istanbul, and Inferno rattles along with plenty of spectacle and action, and slick stunts, worked carefully into sundry detailing of its code-breaking, puzzle-solving plot. But there seems no easy humane solution to humanity’s looming crisis of global over-population. Is the billionaire super-villain’s cause just? Should an inspired genius attempt mass-murder to save the human species?

Although these movies are often silly and frequently preposterous, they are thrillers not documentaries, and should not be expected to maintain strong narrative logic when they are dealing with the layering of fantastic themes, and the engrossing mysteries of belief systems. Nobody (and movie critics are especially included!), ever demanded that every Sherlock Holmes, James Bond, and Indiana Jones picture made perfect sense, and those iconic heroes are, quite obviously, the main inspirations for the character of Langdon, so why dump vitriol upon this trilogy of screen adaptations of Dan Brown’s novels?     

The bonus disc includes two featurettes (21 minutes each), one about the overpopulation debate, and one exploring the literary influence of Dante’s epic poem Divine Comedy and its relevance to horror and the future of our species. 

Monday, 6 February 2017

Deepwater Horizon

Cast: Mark Wahlberg, Kurt Russell, Gina Rodriguez, Kate Hudson, and John Malkovich

Director: Peter Berg

107 minutes (12) 2016
Widescreen ratio 2.35:1
Lions Gate blu-ray region B

Rating: 8/10
Review by Steven Hampton  

This disaster movie is based on a true story from 2010 about an oil-rig fire, regarded as the worst environmental tragedy in American history. Actor turned director Peter Berg has a chequered career behind the camera that really started with the stag-night comedy of ensemble farce Very Bad Things (1998). He followed that cult success with the more populist and under-valued action thriller The Kingdom (2007), which firmly established Berg as a name to watch. Superhero parody Hancock (2008), was a feature all but ruined by the typically dismal Will Smith’s gurning efforts, and sci-fi adventure Battleship (2012) proved a bit too derivative of Transformers, Independence Day, and War Of The Worlds to avoid pigeonholing as brainless popcorn entertainment. Happily though, the gritty war story Lone Survivor (2013) salvaged Berg’s reputation as a director capable of balancing serious action with heartfelt drama.       

Continuing his partnership with star Mark Wahlberg as the producer, Berg gathers a top notch cast of seasoned veterans including Kurt Russell and John Malkovich for key roles in this biopic. Deepwater Horizon manages to pull together a vaguely documentarian style, packed with the sort of technological detailing previously seen in movies like The China Syndrome (1979), and a grittily realistic sense of heroism reminiscent of cinematic landmarks highly critical of corporate malfeasance such as The Towering Inferno (1974). Despite its raft of obvious genre touchstones - lifeboat queues during the fire-storm are bound to recall Titanic (1997), this is an impressive Hollywood production with a solidly engaging build-up of suspense before the awesome pyrotechnical effects of an industrial accident where “hope is not a tactic” for survival.

Early in this movie’s terrible day at work, there’s the minor shock of a bird strike on the big helicopter that flies a shift of replacement crew out to the Deepwater Horizon oil-rig, and this blatant bad omen is unsubtly echoed by the intrusion of another avian doom-bringer when a pelican crashes through a window into the drilling platform’s support ship. These two admittedly curious but not particularly strange incidents are forgivable as film-making elements of narrative foreshadowing and cultural symbolism. They both fit perfectly into an evocative action drama about mankind’s hubris when faced with geological forces that prove fatal when underestimated. The movie’s sudden descent into a metaphorical hell of shouting and panic is superbly orchestrated, as the rig’s crew are trapped in nightmarish mayhem lit only by fire. The crisis could have done without its praying scene, but that’s a peculiarly American affectation which, perhaps unintentionally, indicates that many of the social problems in the USA are rooted in the big wishes of traditional beliefs not the wisdom of modern practical rationality.