Barbican Comic Forum
Empire film podcast is currently running a regular “save our cinemas” feature which invites listeners to give shouts outs to cinemas that are good and possibly struggling. It’s an interesting challenge because where I live almost every cinema is owned by a faceless corporation and in any case they are all pretty similar, so it’s hard to look back at the cinemas of my youth in the South London area as anything particularly special. Indeed for my whole childhood the forces of darkness threatened to build a multiplex near the ruins of the old Crystal Palace site and much to be disappointment it never happened. So instead I regularly schlepped over to Purley Way on the worst side of Croydon to see the latest films, which because it was a multiplex was more likely to have Men in Black than a back-to-back showing of the Three Colours Trilogy.
Prior to that my cinema of choice was the Odeon in Beckenham, but all I can remember about watching films there is seeing Judge Dredd and Batman Forever in 1995 and really enjoying them, pitched as they were to 15 year old boys like myself. And when I say enjoy I mean like hilariously fond memories of seeing films that by any metric are absurdly stupid. Yet somehow Batman Forever inspired me, and who has invoked the famous catchphrase “I am the law” at one stage or other. I looked into the screen and the screen looked back in to me. I still watched the Three Colours Trilogy though, cos I am pretentious and also Irene Jacob…
And I wonder if it wasn’t the best time ever to get into movies. As it happens the exact street I associate with my post-Batman high, was also where my friend described the plot of Se7en a year later. His description was actually worse an more lurid than the movie actually was and he implied that you were basically watching 100 minutes of vicious torture. So of course I eagerly watched it at the first opportunity, stealing myself for howls of anguish, but instead, lack of gruesome hoot notwithstanding, I recall afterwards thinking “that’s one for the Top 10.” An hour later I recall being mesmerised by Usual Suspects and wondering “why… why have we been going to see fucking Judge Dredd when these sort of movies are coming out, and coming out at such a rate than the 2 I have seen this evening have frantically raised the bar for my cinematic expectation.”
In that same year I saw Heat, Leon and Pulp Fiction. The last 2 came out in 1994 but I had to wait for the video release, and more importantly I had no idea these movies existed. The marketing cannon was not aiming these movies at me when they could still get me to see The Mask, and Speed and suchlike. Presumably someone’s big brother or clued up parent was pointing my friends in the right direction, because all of a sudden I was hit with a tidal wave of 90s crime movies that I don’t think I have ever gotten over.
And that’s my question: has anyone gotten over it? Is it (a) just that whatever you are into when you are 15 will always shape your taste or (b) was 1995 a year when something snapped and movies, particularly crime movies, were just let loose. I say crime movies but 12 Monkeys came out that year, also Clueless, Toy Story, Before Sunrise, La Haine, Ghost in the Shell, Mighty Morphin’ Power Rangers: The Movie! Banger after stone cold banger. Perhaps it’s both? Perhaps my golden era of cinema happens to be an actual golden era of cinema. I know that time in my life is the well from which I deeply draw my nostalgia, but it also seems like we are all still trapped there. For that same year I went to see Foo Fighters on their first U.K. tour and man if that band, and the Manics, and Radiohead aren’t still haunting the headline slots as festivals 25 years later as if they were somehow relevant. But maybe that’s just the way my brain perceived the world. Popular culture as defined by Jonathan never left 1995 (or at least the sweet spot from In Utero in 1993 to Final Fantasy 7 in 1997) and that’s the faded wallpaper that will forever cover the inside of my skull. It’s not just the bar from which all things are judged but the foundation text I’m referring to when interpreting films.
I was watching Mission Impossible: Fallout earlier and it’s a great movie, but it’s heritage is straight from the mid-90s. It’s not a complaint I am just starting to worry that it will be impossible for me to consume new content if it deviates too far from that template. But then it is difficult to be original. I recall in an earlier post mocking the Robert Pattison movie High Life, what with it sounding completely bananas, but perhaps space sperm experiments circling a black hole will be a hackneyed cliche in the 20s. Certainly 1995 didn’t have weird space sex movies, except of course for Apollo 13.
Jurassic World 2: Fallen Kingdom (2018)
There is a cliche in comics where after some panels of trash talking a writer will apparently just leave a note for the artist saying “add fighting here” which I imagine is pretty rare but also a shame since it implies fight scenes are easy and not worth the writer’s time.
That being said it is hard to decide whether Fallen Kingdom writers didn’t use the same technique or perhaps (more likely) the producers made a lot of fight scenes and then called some writers to add some story around the edges. It certainly feels like the plot of the movie is just the bookends to some spectacular but formulaic action sequences, which mean that the finished movie is a 90 minute chase scene with a prologue an epilogue, and various Basil Exposition characters in the middle. But as someone always says in any Jurassic Park write up life finds a way and even on this barren ground there are some really interesting green shoots of story telling.
Firstly, moving away from Indiana Jones meets West World and into a horror suspense is an interesting decision. While the baddie dinosaur in the original Jurassic World just felt like Mega-T-Rex, the baddie dinosaur in Fallen Kingdom has a creepy malevolence which lends itself to this horror angle. Indeed the intention is clearly a cool dinosaur filled Resident Evil adaptation, with weird little girls creeping around the walls, unethical underground experiments that are literally underground, debates about these unethical experiments, and weird glass encased specimens all serving to echo the sort of dark science the whole series should be more rooted in.
One of the best episodes of anything ever was Episode 2.1 of Utopia which shows the back story of the main characters including how Carvell raised terrifying psychopath Arby by experimenting on him as a child. The betrayal of Carvell’s fatherly duties by regarding his son with a mixture of horror and professional attachment is haunting and horrible, even as he is notionally trying to reduce his son’s more violent desires he is turning him into a zombie. Midway through Fallen Kingdom, the aforementioned weird little girl (herself a victim of similar exploitation) watches diary footage of Owen Grady training the raptor Blue and gaining the creature’s affection. Only Owen is emotionally manipulating the Raptor and describes its affection as “compliance” and sees it as tolerance of weakness. It’s undersold in the movie but it’s kind of chilling to see how even the heroes have to reckon with their complicity in the reckless exploitation of the dinosaurs, but also how they knowingly raised deadly killers just to see if they could, once again faking to ask if they should. They are just as much to blame for the horror as the bad guys, maybe more so, and they know it. Later in the movie they act to protect the girl from the evil business-man bad guy and he, fully understanding the monsters they are just scoffs at their self-delusion. And those beats feel like the nose of a good story peaked briefly through the trees to distract us from the by-the-numbers 2D action movie that was lurking behind us all along.
Speaking of book ends, while it is easy for every prophecy of doom to seem more poignant during the COVID-19 crisis, Jeff Goldblum’s rant at the end is pretty telling:
“We’re causing our own extinction. Too many red lines have been crossed, and our home has, in fundamental ways, been polluted by avarice and political megalomania…. This change was inevitable from the moment we brought the first dinosaur back from extinction. We convince ourselves that sudden change is something that happens outside the normal order of things, like a car crash, or that it’s beyond our control, like a fatal illness. We don’t conceive of sudden, radical, irrational change as woven into the very fabric of existence.”
Now as an environmental campaigner I strongly argued against bringing the dinosaurs back, but was widely shouted down. So I hope you people are happy. While I agree with the spirit of the quote, what seems clearer is that avarice and megalomania aren’t the pollution, they are the engine causing the pollution. Moreover pollution is not a conscious force but a creeping poison, and this the message of this film and the original movie: that the apocalyptic nightmare looks like wicked men trying to do bad things, but actually our blind meddling and out delusion will cause us to be be consumed by the chaos we unwittingly created. The escalation of Fallen Kingdom of having to adjust all our quotidian procedures to deal with a new threat does at least seem very relevant. Although if you want terrifying and relevant, your time would be better spent re-watching Utopia. No dinosaurs in Utopia tho.
Mission to Mars
Directed by Brian De Palma
Yeah yeah I know. It’s crap right? Twinned with the Red Planet as to why Hollywood thought it was a bad idea to make moves about Mars. (And thus why they renamed John Carter of Mars to just… John Carter. LOL)
And yet – and I’m saying this knowing that I’m at serious risk of losing any respect that anyone might still have for me – when I first heard the news that Ennio Morricone had died: this was the first film I thought of. I mean: obviously yeah there are plenty of films which are much better and much better Morricone scores (my personal favourites = The Thing for that eerie beautiful simplicity that sounds like the Jaws theme if it took sleeping pills and For a Few Dollars More with the climatic music box scene which is basically next level in terms of cinema most notably in how it just dances beautifully around and over the whole diegetic / non-diegetic thing in a way that I don’t think has ever been equalled?).
But yeah – Mission to Mars. It’s very much not the best film ever. And I don’t think I’d ever actually recommend that anyone ever watch it because I know if I did they would come back to me and say: “why the hell did you recommend that I watch that? It was crap” and I would just have to stand there and nod. And yeah if I was going to compare it to anything then it would be a shitty airport paperback where you can tell that the only reason the person wrote it is because they were contractually obliged or whatever. And yet. And yet. It’s a film that I’ve now watched twice and would watch again voluntarily and I’ve even brought the DVD lol. So what gives?
I mean – mostly I think it’s Brian De Palma. And in fact Mission to Mars is kinda a great summing up of his filmmaking style in general. Like I think I’ve already articulated this idea in this Film Club a few times before but basically my thinking is: films are basically like albums. And each scene is basically like a song. And the best films are those that realise this and make sure that every scene has a cool idea or an interesting hook that kinda pulls you along and takes you to different places (or at least that’s how I like it anyway lol). And Brian De Palma? Well shit LOL – he’s like a band that puts out albums where you can tell for most of the tracks they don’t really care and pretty much it’s just a case of “will this do?” but then now and again will do something so amazing and beautiful that it makes your heart go all funny. All of which is to say: that yeah Mission to Mars is a crap film but oh my god there’s moments that are extremely fucking cool.
Like: the film starts off like it’s going to be a blast with this kinda semi-Goodfellas single tracking shot around a BBQ that must have taken about a week to set up but just feels so light and effortless that it kinda gives you a tingly feeling (it kinda makes you think: “oh wow – this is going to be really good” but do not be fooled! It’s not going to be really good – it’s actually gonna be kinda crappy). Then there’s this crazy shit that happens on Mars with this giant cool looking wormhole-looking thing that also makes you go “oh wow – this is really going to be really cool!” (DO NOT BE FOOLED)
I understand that maybe you shouldn’t read too much into casting and all that – but I think it’s worth pointing out that this is a movie that stars Gary Sinise who (no offense Gary Sinise) looks like a creepy sex pest kinda guy. Like I’ll admit that I’ve never actually smelt him but I’m willing to bet that he smells of way too much of cologne and inappropriate touching. There’s also Don Cheadle who always feels to me like the most inauthentic actor in the world and has only ever seemed real to me when he was playing Captain Planet. And oh shit – the main guy from Sliders (what the hell is the main guy from Sliders doing in a film? I mean – who’s next? Screech?) So yeah – there are some signs that you know it’s not going to be good.
And yeah it does kinda keep you guessing all the way up until the end when finally there’s this big reveal and you think oh shit maybe this is going to be really good – and then it just kinda turns into this incredibly sub-sub-2001: A Space Odyssey thing only dumbed down by a factor of “wow this is really very quite dumb” and CGI Aliens who look like they come from a 90s poster extolling the pleasures of smoking dope.
And then Gary Sinise flies away in a spaceship to no doubt make creepy sexual advances on new alien civilizations. But whatever. I’ve ruined the end for you now so you don’t have to worry about watching it.
But fuck it – before all that about a third of a way into the movie there’s this scene that is actually good and makes me want to forgive both the movie and Brian De Palma for everything that comes after… Actually I guess technically it’s two scenes but they both come right after another so what the hell. And hell if we lived in a kind and just world these scenes would be on youtube for everyone to enjoy (and I wouldn’t have to have brought the DVD) and I could just post the link and save everyone and myself a whole bunch of time – but that’s not the world we live in. Sigh.
But yeah – anyway – there’s basically this bit where everyone is floating around happily in zero gravity but also running around this giant wheel like they’re in 2001 and when it starts you think oh well done – nice homage but then it just keeps on going and going and eventually gets to the point where you’re like: wait a second how the fuck did they do this? I mean unless Brian De Palma literally built a space station there’s moves that Gary Sinise and the guy from Sliders are making that basically seem impossible. Oh – and then they get hit by a micrometeoroid and that’s when shit starts getting really cool. Basically they slowly start running out of air and they can’t find the leak and everyone is slowly dying and – oh yeah here’s the bit where I finally start tying things together – this really fucking cool Ennio Morricone score starts playing and it sounds like a church organ having a heart attack and it can’t breathe and it’s slowly dying and it’s just… beautiful. My words can’t really do it justice – but it’s up there with cool best underrated movie scenes for sure.
And then right after that there’s this whole thing with Tim Robbins (oh yeah sorry I forgot to say – Tim Robbins is in this too) that basically manages to do the whole of Gravity is about 10 minutes in a way that’s massively overwrought and heightened that it feels like it’s from a Charlton Heston movie from the like the mid 20th Century or something and yes I do mean this as a compliment. If you can watch it without gasping then I don’t believe you. It’s really good.
In conclusion: don’t watch Mission to Mars. It will only disappoint you. But also it’s got some really cool stuff in it so maybe you should watch it so you can go wow. I don’t know. It’s up to you. But hey you know – it’s probably better for your brain than The Martian. LOL
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