Tag Archives: science fiction

Hard to Be a God

Hard to be a God
Hard to Be a God

Format: Cinema

Release date: 7 August 2015

DVD/Blu-ray release date: 14 September 2015

Distributor: Arrow Films

Director: Aleksei German

Writers: Aleksei German, Svetlana Karmalita

Based on the novel by: Arkadiy Strugatskiy, Boris Strugatskiy

Cast: Leonid Yarmolnik, Dmitriy Vladimirov, Laura Lauri

Original title: Trudno byt bogom

Russia 2013

170 mins

Last month, the Etrange Festival presented Aleksei German’s sixth and last film, Hard to Be a God, an artistic testament on several accounts. It took the director nearly 15 years to complete: after releasing Khrustalyov, My Car in 1998, German spent seven years shooting in the Czech Republic, with additional interior scenes shot in Moscow, followed by six years of editing. He literally put his life into the film, as he died in February 2013 during the last stage of the editing, which was then completed by his son Aleksei Junior. But Hard to Be a God is more than just his final film: German had been thinking about adapting Arkadiy and Boris Strugatskiy’s successful novel virtually from the moment it was published in 1964, coming up with a first script as early as 1968, which failed to pass the filter of Soviet censorship. One can easily imagine how familiar an echo the persecution of all intellectuals in the fictional Kingdom of Arkanar might have sounded in the late 1960s when, after a relative thaw during Khrushchev’s era, Brezhnev restored the stranglehold on information and academia with new Stalin-like trials of writers in 1966.

The book tells the story of scientists supervising a planet whose evolution has reached the stage of the Dark Ages, but where the Renaissance has not happened, as we are told at the beginning of the film. All those who can read and write are persecuted and executed, and Don Rumata, the visiting observer who is forbidden to interfere, suffers because of his despair and helplessness at improving their civilisation.
In contrast to the previous adaptation of the novel by Peter Fleischmann, Es ist nicht leicht ein Gott zu sein in 1989 (which German may have seen, as Andrei Boltnev, who played the titular character in German’s 1984 My Friend Ivan Lapshin, also played Budach in Fleischmann’s film), German chose to reduce the science fiction plot to almost imperceptible hints. This invites comparison with Andrei Tarkovsky’s adaptation of another of the Strugatskiys’ novels, Stalker (1979), not so much because of the common source, but rather because both directors opted for a minimalistic treatment of the science fiction genre.

German’s cinematographic language, which he had so masterfully perfected in Khrustalyov, My Car, combines black and white wide shots reminiscent of Grigori Kozintsev’s Shakespeare films (which is not surprising, as German had studied with him) and the painstakingly precise construction of long shots and relentless camera movements already used in his previous films – which may also have influenced Aleksandr Sokurov’s Faustus (2011). The images are conjured up to present the civilisation of Arkanar in as odd and uncanny a way as possible, leaving the spectator with the difficult task of interpreting the puzzling actions that unfold on the screen. The first two shots of the film set a stark contrast: the black and white beauty of a mountain village overhanging a snow-covered lake, worthy of a Brueghel winter landscape, is immediately followed by the filthiness of the streets where two characters get happily splashed with excrement by a man using his first floor window as a latrine. Throughout the film the muddy, rainy and dirty moistness of the urban environment is echoed in the social conventions of spitting, sneezing, belching and farting, added to the bleeding, gutting and poisoning of brutish violence. Often felt as salutary for the spectator, the choice of black and white, or rather infinite shades of grey, provides a visual echo of the colour and meanness of Don Reba’s guards and ministers, who persecute all forms of culture. This disquieting atmosphere has a hypnotic effect, endlessly dragging the spectator through closed, stifling, claustrophobic indoor spaces, crowded with a cornucopia of objects scattered across rooms and hanging from ceilings, which the protagonists spend their time avoiding bumping into, while minor characters do all they can to divert attention from the main story, even making signs to the camera.

In the novel the real experiment is not observing the barbarians’ evolution, but determining whether the evolved scientists from Planet Earth are likely to regress to a state ruled by emotions. Unsurprisingly, the film’s climax – Don Rumata’s bloody intervention – is reduced to one unique killing, the rest being relegated to an ellipsis, which is probably why German renounced the alternative title of History of the Arkanar Massacre. Rumata’s failing is inscribed into the film’s framing structure: it opens and closes on a snowy landscape, but the innocence of the initial lake is contrasted with another snow-covered countryside where death is omnipresent. A further framing element is the Duke-Ellington-like jazz music played by Don Rumata on an odd and anachronistic clarinet, the only tangible sign of his modernity, rejected by Rumata’s slaves plugging up their ears, and the last words of the film, a little girl complaining that the music makes her retch. But the spectators will know better: this three-hour baroque and nauseous journey through mankind’s worst nightmares is a lesson in cinema and humanity that one is not likely to forget.

This review was first published as part of our Etrange Festival 2014 coverage.

Pierre Kapitaniak

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Format: Cinema

Release date: 26 September 2014

Distributor: Arrow Films

Director: Leigh Janiak

Writers: Phil Graziadei, Leigh Janiak

Cast: Rose Leslie, Harry Treadaway, Bem Huber

USA 2014

87 mins

In what was one of the highlights of the Discovery Screen programme at Film4 FrightFest, newly-married couple Paul and Bea arrive at her family’s cabin in the woods for their honeymoon. Although she hasn’t visited the cabin for years, her memories of the place are positive, and quickly the two settle into a peaceful routine: walks in the woods, pancakes for breakfast and the discovery of marital routine. However, each night when they fall asleep, a strange light starts circling the cabin. One night, when Paul wakes and fails to find Bea next to him, he heads outside to look for her, and things start to take a turn for the worse.

Effectively a slow-burning two-hander, Honeymoon is an impressive lesson in stretching a meagre budget to build up tension and unease. With strong lead performances, the film works best when it is exploring the marriage at a micro level: what works as an alien intrusion in their lives can also stand for the dissolving of their relationship due to changing personalities. It is this ambiguity, further emphasized by the surprise meeting of an old acquaintance of Bea’s at the local diner, that gives the film its sharp edge.

Director Leigh Janiak is terrific at creating atmosphere early on: although the cabin and the woods initially come across as peaceful, welcoming locations, it’s the contrast with what happens when the couple go to sleep that unnerves the audience. The encounter at the diner only adds to the sensation that something is wrong. As Rose Leslie’s Bea becomes a mystery even to her husband Paul, it’s the drip by drip delivery of clues that makes watching Honeymoon an exercise in unbearable tension.

This review is part of our Film4 FrightFest 2014 coverage.

Building to a convincing and eye-popping climax, Honeymoon is the sort of low-budget film that manages to frighten without ever resorting to cheap jump-scare tactics like some of its big-budget counterparts. The intense focus on Bea adds further intrigue to this genre offering at a time when finding strong female leads is still a rarity.

Evrim Ersoy

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The Congress

The Congress
The Congress

Format: Cinema

Release date: 15 August 2014

Distributor: Studiocanal

Director: Ari Folman

Writer: Ari Folman

Based on the novel: The Futurological Congress by Stanislav Lem

Cast: Robin Wright, Harvey Keitel, Paul Giamatti, Danny Huston

Israel, Germany, Poland, France 2013

120 mins

Ari Folman’s follow up to Waltz with Bashir (2008) is an idiosyncratic masterpiece, highly ambitious in its scale and complexity, and fuelled with dazzling animated beauty. In a daringly intimate performance, Robin Wright plays herself, an acclaimed actress just past her prime with a market value diminished to zero, her previous stardom being long buried in Hollywood history. When her agent, Al (Harvey Keitel), tells her she’s being given one last chance by her studio, Miramount, Robin reluctantly agrees to a meeting, unknowing what this final offer entails. The plan is to motion-capture Wright, to copy her body, feelings, memories, and gestures in order to create a digital alter ego that can easily be adjusted to fit into any blockbuster, TV show or commercial as required by the studio. As part of the deal that promises her both a generous pay-off and the guarantee of eternal youth on screen, the real Robin Wright must retire with no claim as to how her virtual self is being used in the future. At first, she refuses, but family constraints force her to reconsider.

The Congress is released in the UK on DVD + Blu-ray on 8 December 2014 by Studiocanal.

So far, The Congress might appear as a vicious, darkly cynical take on the movie industry in the digital age and how Hollywood treats its ageing goddesses. What then happens, however, about 50 minutes into the film, is best seen first-hand. Loosely inspired by Stanislaw Lem’s The Futurological Congress, and again combining animation and live action to puzzling effect, Folman jumps forward 20 years to find the real Wright aged and out of business, while her alter ego has become one of the biggest action heroines on screen as ‘Rebel Robot Robin’. Invited to Miramount’s Futurological Congress, the actress must pass into a strange animated zone, which opens an entirely new, imaginary universe of its own, crowded with celebrity doubles who escape their daily misery through drug-induced hallucinations; it’s a place that visually blends the style of 1930s Betty Boop cartoons and the trippy aesthetic of Ralph Bakshi’s Cool World. At the same time, Folman slows down the action to plunge into something darker, deeper, more inventive and more existential than merely teasing the Hollywood system to the core. Soused in gorgeous imagery and surreal, intoxicated melancholy, the second half of The Congress meanders gracefully between philosophical, religious and ideological reflections on the human condition, yet despite minor flaws, never loses sight of its original premise. The film is a fiercely original, bold and riveting meditation on the future of the silver screen and the stars that make it shine.

This review was first published as part of our 2013 Cannes coverage.

Pamela Jahn

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Almost Human

Almost Human
Almost Human

Format: DVD

Release date: 4 August 2014

Distributor: Metrodome

Director: Joe Begos

Writer: Joe Begos

Cast: Graham Skipper, Josh Ethier, Vanessa Leigh

USA 2013

80 mins

Joe Begos’s debut feature Almost Human is an alien invasion splatter film made by a horror fan for horror fans. Right down to the fantastic poster art by Tom Hodge, this is a pure genre project with no desire, or ambition, to find a mainstream audience.

Begos’s potential was spotted when his first short film, Bad Moon Rising, was shown before Adam Green and Joe Lynch’s Chillerama at Frightfest 2011. Almost Human was conceived soon after and shot for the measly budget of $50,000.

The film is set in the 80s – October 15, 1987 flashes up on the first title card – so that’s technology out of the way from the get go. And the aliens are invading from minute one – no slow build here. Seth (played by Graham Skipper) has just seen his friend get sucked up into a beam of light and he’s hurtling along the road at night towards his friends’ house. Naturally, Mark (Josh Ethier) and Jen (Vanessa Leigh) don’t believe him. They argue until a loud ear-piercing noise paralyses them. Mark is drawn outside the house by an otherworldly force. Seth must watch his second friend disappear in a flash of light.

Fast forward two years and Seth is still haunted by that night and now dreams of Mark’s imminent return. All this action is brilliantly crammed into the first 10 minutes. Hunters find Mark, coated in a grey slime, naked in the woods, but he’s not quite the man he was. Their curiosity is met with death. Our anti-hero of the movie is born. Mark marauds through the town trying to piece his old life back together, but people have moved on. Almost everyone who crosses his path meets a cold, gruesome end. It’s old-school buckets of blood rather than CGI after-effects, and Ethier’s performance, for all its simplicity, is great – like a ginger-bearded Arnie from the first Terminator. While people are murdered, the rest of the town get into a froth over Seth’s paranoia and delusions – which mostly only serves to slow, rather than add to, Mark’s unfolding story.

The film is a potpourri of influences: Invasion of the Body Snatchers, Fire in the Sky, Alien, anything by John Carpenter (most notably given the subject The Thing) and UK cult classic Xtro. The weight of these horror favourites on Begos’s writing and directorial mind means he never entirely rises above them, although this is no huge crime for a first feature.

For gorehounds attracted to this DVD, the social contract does not demand originality, or complex, emotional character arcs. There’s enough slimy goo, shots to the face, knives in the neck and faces caved in with rocks to keep them entertained and coming back for repeat viewings. Like the opening 10 minutes, the final 10 are a blast as Mark’s true mission and identity come to the fore.

Almost Human played well to audiences at Toronto‘s Midnight Madness, Sitges and Fantastic Fest. These are Legos’s film kin, and if that’s you too, you’ll have a ball watching this with friends over a cold one.

Stuart Wright

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The 10th Victim

10th Victim
The 10th Victim

Format: DVD + Blu-ray

Release date: 10 March 2014

Distributor: Shameless Entertainment

Director: Elio Petri

Writers: Tonino Guerra, Giorgio Salvioni, Ennio Flaiano, Elio Petri, Ernesto Gastaldi

Based on the story by: Robert Sheckley

Original title: La decima vittima

Cast: Ursula Andress, Marcello Mastroianni, Elsa Martinelli, Salvo Randone

Italy 1965

90 mins

A man chases a woman through some of New York’s least populated streets, occasionally firing a gun at her as she playfully hides and beckons him on. He is stopped by a policeman, but, as he has the correct license, is allowed to proceed, following her into a club, where she seems to have disappeared among the chic clientele. The entertainment arrives, a statuesque blonde in silver metal mask and matching bikini, who gyrates her way through the crowd, pausing to bump and grind and slap various men around the face. She approaches the gunman and proceeds to do the same, thoroughly distracting him from his quest, then suddenly shooting him dead with the twin guns built into her bikini top. She has won The Contest. She is Ursula Andress. Welcome to Elio Petri’s The 10th Victim, produced by Carlo Ponti, based on a short story by the great Robert Sheckley. It’s a variation on the ‘bread and circuses’ strain of SF, in which the future masses are distracted from war or revolution by violent spectacle (think Rollerball, Death Race 2000, The Hunger Games), but it’s a more 60s, hyper-stylised live action cartoon variation, a swingin’ romantic comedy with lives on the line, featuring a bleach-blond Marcello Mastroianni rocking a pair of shades versus Andress in a hot pink batwing number.

From its New York opening, the film moves to Rome where Andress, with media team in tow, has, according to the rules, become the hunter, with Mastroianni computer-selected as her victim. While our Ursula seems to be making the contest pay for her, Marcello is skint after a punitive divorce. She wants to engineer a photogenic demise for him at the Temple of Venus. He wants to survive, preferably unmarried. The rest of the film plays out as a game of cat and mouse in a series of staccato scenes, as the couple dance around, and inevitably fall for each other.

The Shameless disc comes with the usual plethora of groovy trailers, plus a half-hour featurette with Kim Newman and Petri’s wife talking about the film.

At times it resembles a demented Bond movie where the set designers have taken control of the script, at others it is like some futuristic offshoot of La Dolce Vita (it shares the same screenwriters.) Petri frames Rome to look sleek and strange and modernist, with most of the cast draped in black and white against blocks of primary colour. He fills the backgrounds of his scenes with loosely choreographed action: gladiators, musicians, dancers, killers. It’s a knowing piece of pop art cinema. Comic books are referenced frequently, (particularly Lee Falk’s The Phantom), the backdrops are filled with Op art and sculpture, artifice and unreality are consistently foregrounded, the crass commercialism of this modern world is mocked remorselessly, but this modern world still looks like a hell of a lot of fun.

While the backgrounds still fizz and excite, it has to be said that some of the foreground action hasn’t dated either. Some of the media satire is a bit blunt and obvious, the marriage/divorce obsession just seems odd, and often the whole thing just doesn’t feel as sharp or funny as it needs to be. Having said that, it sure as hell isn’t boring, managing to bubble through its moments of dysfunction and disjointedness with pure energy. There’s a pleasant freeform ramshackle vibe, it feels simultaneously over-stylised and under-rehearsed, and the leads seem to be enjoying themselves immensely. Mastroianni is a cartoon of taciturn indifference, but given to wild mood swings of snarling rage and sentimentality. Andress mostly plays a sense of frustrated determination, a would-be seductress/killer foiled by Marcello’s manoeuvres, looking pretty damn fabulous at all times. A shot where she walks out of the sea in imitation of her Honey Rider moment is, of course, engineered into the proceedings. Petri seems to be largely an unknown quantity, even to Euro-sleaze aficionados. I caught his A Quiet Place in the Country a few years back, and remember its star Franco Nero opining at that event that Elio was like Italy’s Kubrick, a master who made comparatively few films, all markedly different, and all great. On the strength of that, and this, I look forward to checking out the rest of the man’s work.

Mark Stafford

Read our review of Elio Petri’s Investigation of a Citizen above Suspicion.

Under the Skin

Under the Skin
Under the Skin

Format: Cinema

Release date: 14 March 2014

Distributor: Studiocanal

Director: Jonathan Glazer

Writers: Walter Campbell, Jonathan Glazer

Based on the novel by: Michael Faber

Cast: Scarlett Johansson, Antonia Campbell-Hughes, Paul Brannigan

USA 2013

108 mins

Scarlett Johansson is an alien. I first noticed her as the gawky teenaged misfit in Ghost World then as the object of Billy Bob Thornton’s chaste affections in The Man Who Wasn’t There. Of late her programme of world domination has involved a brief creative partnership with Woody Allen, a number of odd bathroom mirror selfies, a spunky anti-Paltrow fixture in the superhero maxi-franchise The Avengers and interminable and politically suspect adverts for SodaStream. And yet in the midst of the busy vortex of a career that is in danger of spiralling into the celebrity stratosphere, there are still these playful excursions into art-house territory. Earlier this year she voiced Samantha – taking over from Samantha Morton – in Spike Jonze’s Her, a silky Siri whose initial PA/best friend with booty call benefits becomes the object of Joaquin Phoenix’s metrosexual affections. The flimsy elevator pitch premise is imbued with something more, partly because of the shift of focus in the third act to Johansson’s rapidly developing persona. In a coy joke, Samantha begins as a happy female slave – a Jeeves to Phoenix’s Bertie – but as she learns and communes with her own kind this intimacy, which a star of Johansson’s magnitude trades in, is superseded by the altitude she is soaring. This trajectory could be matched by an audience member who recalls her best friend role in Ghost World but now sadly recognises her unattainable ascension in the current culture.

If Jonze’s film is a more-in-sadness-than-anger meditation on the revenge of ineffable female glamour, then Under the Skin features a nightmare retelling of the same star quality. Here Johansson is a predatory alien who prowls Glaswegian streets in a white transit van searching for young men who will not be missed. The cold and unattractive grit of the setting and the impenetrable accents contrast with Johansson’s apparently vulnerable slumming. Playing against her glamour, she adopts a BBC Radio One English rather than utterly other-worldly American and sports a fur coat and a mop of dark brown hair. And yet she is warm and inviting, friendly, unthreatening and fatally attractive. It is once trapped that she can apply her mesmerizing charm, tempting her victims to their doom.

In his first film in a decade, Jonathan Glazer has produced a darkly fascinating work of art. A Roegish trip, the film is an intense abstract horror story. Time and again our sympathy for and fascination of Johansson are manipulated and provoked. Even as we are aware of her antagonistic role and essential vicious otherness, we can’t help but feel for her as she falls over in the street, or is bustled into a nightclub. She is – after all – Scarlett Johansson. She is the misogynist’s wet dream: a bewitching femme fatale, a destroyer of young men, venereal disease made flesh, a prick tease whose ultimate punishment fulfils an atavistic nastiness the film doesn’t shy away from. Sexiness is the opposite of sex, becoming, like Oscar Wilde’s cigarette, the perfect pleasure by being utterly unsatisfying (and incapable of satisfaction).

And yet as Glazer’s underrated Birth explored the obsidian angles of a woman grieving, so Under the Skin escapes the vegetarian parable of the original novel and becomes an utterly beguiling retracing of the word glamour back to its witchy origins.

John Bleasdale

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The Machine

The Machine
The Machine

Format: Cinema

Release date: 21 March 2014

Distributor: Red & Black Films

Director: Caradog W. James

Writer: Caradog W. James

Cast: Toby Stephens, Caity Lotz and Denis Lawson

UK 2013

90 mins

British sci-fi film The Machine (2013), written and directed by Caradog W. James, is set during a new Cold War with China. Scientist Vincent McCarthy (Toby Stephens) is tasked with finding the most convincing artificial intelligence implant to build super-efficient combat androids for the Ministry of Defence.

The enigmatic replication of human presence via artificial means is a stalwart sci-fi theme. Today, the technology is not so much a vision of the future as a reflection of contemporary research, as robotics genius Hiroshi Ishiguro has shown with his development of his uncanny Geminoids which have a lifelike presence and are designed purely to be used in benign social settings. Compassionate creativity in opposition to the mindless use of this technology in the military sector is at the root of The Machine. McCarthy and his co-researcher Ava (played by Caity Lotz) find that their talents can only be securely and richly funded by defence budgets. Ava is a hyper-intelligent robotics scientist, who, through her sophisticated programming, generates a softly spoken deluxe computer capable of emotional nuances of wonder and contemplation that outshine her clumsy contemporaries. Together they work on a super computer that will function as the brain for an assassin droid to help fight the Chinese.

The Machine is released in the UK on DVD + Blu-ray (R2/B) by Anchor Bay on 31 March 2014 .

The film scores on its remote, minimal style. Nicolai Brüel, director of photography, creates some brooding pools of light that shape the mysterious, dark, labyrinthine base, which are remindful of the nuclear genre classic Edge of Darkness (1985), directed by Martin Campbell. There is also an interesting subtext around the voice. McCarthy has been experimenting with ‘rescued’ veterans with brain trauma. They are given implants to restore some of their sensorium. The implant renders them mute but they have evolved to communicate via a covert language that sounds like garbled electronic data generated by transmitted thoughts – a glitch in the hardware that enables them to form a rebellion. Through this, the filmmakers signal that in a not so distant future there will be ‘a new order’ organised via speech disguised as silence.

In all, The Machine is a stylish contender among sci-fi films that explore the inscrutable question of whether artificial consciousness can exist. Its contemporary edge comes from the fact that it highlights the rapid technological development that has taken place. What was once thought of as science fiction is now science fact.

Nicola Woodham

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Format: Cinema

Release date: 8 November 2013

Distributor: Warner Bros.

Director: Alfonso Cuarón

Writers: Alfonso Cuarón, Joná Cuarón

Cast: Sandra Bullock, George Clooney

USA, UK 2013

90 mins

Remember Alien‘s classic poster tag line ‘In space no one can hear you scream’? It would have also been the perfect fit for Alfonso Cuarón’s Gravity which, arguably, is one of the most breathtakingly beautiful and mesmerising films out in cinemas this year. That is, if you are willing to suspend your disbelief at the door and take the film at face value. And most likely, you will. Because from the moment you’ve put your 3D glasses on, Gravity embraces you with its awe-aspiring CGI heart and soul. ’Life in space is impossible’, we are told, along with a summary of plain facts: 372 miles above Earth’s surface, there is no air pressure, no oxygen, and no atmosphere to carry sound. And it’s that very sense of fatal, lonely isolation that Gravity radiates, with an instantly disarming charm and cinematic virtuosity.

Though essentially a two-hander, with George Clooney as the well-versed astronaut Matt Kowalsky (Clooney being his usual smart, irresistibly charming self) and Sandra Bullock as the overly committed, new-to-space scientist Dr. Ryan Stone, who are caught in an accident while they are out in space repairing a satellite, this is really Bullock’s film. With their shuttle destroyed and all connection to Houston and soon to each other lost, she drifts through the scary, silent darkness of the universe, fighting her way from one space station to the next in the slowly dying hope that she might be able to return to Earth, all alone with her troubled soul on her mission to survive.


Taking the power of long, unbroken takes and seemingly limitless CGI imagery to a new dimension, Cuarón wisely alternates the settings between claustrophobic ship interiors and the boundless expanse of the cosmos, while never losing sight of the incredible beauty of Earth as seen from space, unashamedly putting it all in, from strikingly rendered scenes of sunrises to the northern lights from orbit. But while there is no denying that the film clearly underestimates audiences’ intelligence in terms of plot and character depth, everyone in for a unique cinematic ride against the backdrop of the abyss of outer space will have a fantastic time.

This review was first published as part of our LFF 2013 coverage.

Pamela Jahn

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Format: Cinema

Screening date: 10 November 2012

As part of SCI-FI-LONDON APOCOLYMPIC weekender

Dates: 9-11 November 2012

Venue: Stratford Picturehouse

Director: Brandon Cronenberg

Writer: Brandon Cronenberg

Cast: Caleb Landry Jones, Sarah Gadon, Malcolm McDowell

Canada/USA 2012

108 mins

Brandon Cronenberg hasn’t exactly gone out of his way to distance himself from his father’s work here. His first feature has weird medical practices and perverse ideas aplenty. In a world where the hysteria surrounding celebrities has spawned a number of spin-off industries well beyond the racks of gossip magazines, you can buy pounds of lab-grown celebrity meat, celebrity skin grafts, and, in the clinic where Syd March (Caleb Landry Jones) works, get yourself infected with genetically modified exclusive celebrity diseases. Syd’s an effective salesman, trusted in the company, but he’s got a little dirty business on the side, infecting himself with the valuable maladies and passing them on to his underground contacts. Unfortunately, one of the new infections proves to be far more virulent than he expects, and he finds himself a seriously sick and seriously desirable man, with criminal and legitimate interests vying to exploit the strange new superstar virus coursing through his veins. As Malcolm McDowell informs him, ‘I’m afraid you’ve become involved in something sinister’.

If we must make comparisons with his dad’s oeuvre, and, y’know, it’s begging for it, then Antiviral continues in the vein of the 80s Scanners/Brood/Videodrome period, though it lacks their pulpy forward momentum and energy, and takes a while to get going. What it does have is a well thought through look of gleaming white surfaces and strange technology, a lot of woozy discomfiting camerawork and a fantastic sound design that pulses and throbs menacingly, combining to create a queasy subjective experience. Cronenjunior sets out to make you unwell watching his film, and has succeeded admirably: it builds into something truly troubling. He’s aided hugely by the extraordinary-looking Caleb Landry Jones, pale of skin and red of hair, who adds flesh and blood to an intentionally blank and unknowable lead, stripped entirely of past and personal clutter. Good stuff, very promising, though I’d steer well clear if you have a thing about needles – and don’t expect a McDonalds tie-in campaign…..

Antiviral screened at the London Film Festival last month.

Mark Stafford

The Fly

The Fly

Format: Blu-ray

Release date: 19 May 2008

Distributor: 20th Century Fox

Director: David Cronenberg

Writers: Charles Edward Pogue, David Cronenberg

Based on the short story by: George Langelaan

Cast: Jeff Goldblum, Geena Davis, John Getz

USA/UK/Canada 1986

96 mins

Our cinemas are presently teeming with transformation, infested with the umpteenth spawn of Stan Lee, Marvel and DC - underwhelming Spiderman, the Avengers ad nauseam - so it is perhaps worth having a quick spew. Comic books give us transformation, clean, wreathed in steam and colourfully costumed, but the flip side of such adolescent power fantasies is the disgust of mutation; dirty, gooey and possibly fatal.

David Cronenberg’s The Fly begins with Howard Shore’s wonderfully bombastic B-movie score striding through the titles and immediately places the movie in highly strung melodramatic territory. Cronenberg’s gore-fest was based on the 1958 black and white horror film, which itself was based on a George Langelaan short story published a year earlier in Playboy and was directed by Kurt Neumann and scripted by Shogun author Jim Clavell. Cronenberg’s up-to-date reimagining (long before the horrific verb ‘reboot’ had seen the light of day) was an unexpected critical and commercial hit on its release in 1986. It was the film that brought body horror into the mainstream. But gruesomeness aside (only for the moment), The Fly is a chamber piece, a relationship drama, which infests adolescent hopes of transformation with the corrosive vomit of mutation.

Geena Davis is the ambitious journalist Veronica Quaife, who belatedly realises she’s onto a major story when she snags Seth Brundle, a goggle-eyed and socially inept young scientist, at a conference and he takes her home to show off his latest invention: teleportation devices. Completing the ménage í  trois of filigree-named protagonists is Stathis Borans (John Getz), Veronica’s ex-lover and current editor, who at first is sceptical and jealous.

‘I’m onto something big, really big,’ Veronica tells him. ‘What? His cock?’ Stathis replies.

In a sense though, Stathis is right. He’s the hairy truth teller. Everything in the film is motivated by sex, despite Seth’s ludicrous suggestion that his invention has been spurred by the fact he got motion sickness on his tricycle. This is a B-movie horror plot complete with a monster, a mad scientist and a spunky girl reporter, but somehow when it was being teleported from 1958, a tiny relationship drama must have got into the machine and the two were fused. Seth is obviously lonely, which explains his otherwise insane indiscretion in blabbing to the beautiful Veronica. He is the virgin of the piece - unworldly and naí¯ve, with his wardrobe full of the same clothes and his ‘cheeseburger’ dinner date invitation. Whenever he steps out of his laboratory, things are going to go wrong, be it drinks receptions or arm-wrestling contests. His relationship with Veronica is immediately intense and swiftly marred by petulant and adolescent jealousies.

Veronica, with her can-do no-bullshit approach, is the mover and shaker. She is the one who seduces Seth, in her own time and on her own terms. ‘You’re cute,’ she tells him, but only once he’s proved his chops as a scientist. She is the one with experience. She has perhaps used sex in the past, having - after all - slept with her boss and decided to stop sleeping with her boss, while keeping her job. Stathis could easily have been taking advantage of his position. He is the sleazy, hirsute chancer, cheerfully sneaking into Veronica’s apartment to take a shower. ‘Was passing… felt a bit grimy,’ he says. Despite Veronica’s protestations, perhaps they are meant to be together. There are sparks in their exchanges, compared to the puppy love Veronica enjoys with Seth. She cuddles Seth and coos about his flesh, like an old lady who steals babies (her comparison!). Seth is like their baby, a troublesome genius who shouldn’t be allowed out on his own and who ultimately longs to be joined to her and be completed by her. Seth (the romantic) wants to consume her totally, whereas Stathis just wants to fuck her.

The goo of the make-up effects is still impressive today, but none of that matters if we don’t care about the characters, as was to be proved by the sequel, which was directed by the make-up artist Chris Walas to make an interesting but ultimately forgettable film. Cronenberg’s success here, helped by several career-best performances, is to drop fully realised characters into the B-movie plot. Seth’s disintegration as a human being is played out tragically. At first, he feels benefits from the experiment gone wrong: super strength, increased sexual performance etc. but soon comes to realise that it’s a disease, a kind of cancer. His mutation isn’t a clean Peter Parker transformation. To be fair, The Amazing Spiderman does give Parker some sticky moments, but they are more for comic effect than fuelled by body disgust.

Seth is not simply turning into something. That in itself wouldn’t be all that bad. Waking up one morning to find yourself a giant cockroach is amply better than waking up one morning to find yourself a rubbish mix of cockroach and man. The speed of Seth’s deterioration and his desperate attempt to retain some semblance of humanity even as he becomes Brundlefly give the film something like a tragic grandeur. Veronica’s disgust and loathing, as exemplified by her maggot dream, is tinged with pity. Stathis, finally, is also transformed. He becomes the hero of the piece, albeit an ineffective one, trying to protect Veronica and, as a consequence, suffering his rival’s jealous bile.

In the end, the only fatality of the film is Seth himself, who to some extent achieves his ambition of being the first insect politician and retains some degree of humanity (and some call on our sympathy) even in his final moments.

John Bleasdale