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Tag Archives: Science fiction and fantasy films

The latest in a series of writers recommending under-appreciated films available to stream highlights a schlocky late 70s Star Wars rip-off

When the Emperor of the First Circle of the Universe (that is, Christopher Plummer, in a patent leather suit beneath silver armor, a cape and oven mitt-like gloves) wants to calm his worried son (David Hasselhoff) during a climactic moment, he steps forward amid a room full of warriors and slain robots and bellows: Imperial Battleship stop the flow of time!!!

It is an apogee of trash brilliance unrivaled anywhere else in the galaxy.

The Star Wars big bang created a universe that is still expanding, but never was the fiery scream of that first eruption felt more furiously than in the late 1970s. Producers far and wide hitched their fortunes to the Millennium Falcons hyperdrive, to varying measures of financial and artistic success.

It got Star Trek (the far superior of the two franchises) back into business, with the curiously terrific Star Trek: The Motion Picture in 1979 and begat Battlestar Galactica in 1978, Flash Gordon in 1980 and Buck Rogers in the 25th Century in 1979.

But these are the more respectable titles. On the lower budget shelf came Battle Beyond the Stars (penned on assignment by John Sayles), Galaxina (starring Playboy playmate Dorothy Stratten) and one of the all-time pieces of junk, Italys Cosmos: War of the Planets.

In the middle of all this is something that demands further study. Mixing low-budget schlock with genuine design brilliance is Starcrash. Produced at Romes Cinecitt Studios in 1978 and distributed by Roger Cormans New World Pictures, Starcrash was directed and co-written by future Dario Argento collaborator Luigi Cozzi (credited as Lewis Coates)

In addition to Plummer (only in a few scenes, whispering his ludicrous lines with a true thespians straight face) and Hasselhoff (dashing, and wielding a cheapo green lightsaber) is a nervous police robot with a wacky American Southern drawl, a goon named Thor with green makeup on his face (but not his neck), and the real reason this movie is as remembered as it is: Caroline Munro.

Munro, already known for appearing in Hammer Studio films, the Ray Harryhausen Golden Voyage of Sinbad and as Bond villainess Naomi in The Spy Who Loved Me, is Stella Star, a bikini clad smuggler with Patrick Nagel-like makeup and eternally blown-out hair. Though her voiced is dubbed by Candy Clark (Plummer referred to her accent as one you could coot with a fookin knife when I asked him about Starcrash in a recent interview), her charisma still blasts through the screen. Yes, it is absurd that all the men are wearing spacesuits or typical high fantasy gowns, but she wears her various skintight, fabric-light outfits with confidence and verve. She is a vision of vertices, a striking image on her own, but even more so against the primary colors of the various interplanetary interiors and spaceship bridges of the film.

At her side is Akton, played by former child preacher (and subject of an Academy Award-winning documentary feature) Marjoe Gortner. Resembling a lovechild of poultry magnate Frank Purdue and Foreigners Lou Gramm during his Jukebox Hero peak, Gortner is a baffling pick as a leading man, but he does have access to cool, neon-like laser magic and a red-and-black rubbery outfit.

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From Wuhan-400, the deadly virus invented by Dean Koontz in 1981, to the plague unleashed in Margaret Atwoods Oryx and Crake, novelists have long been fascinated by pandemics

According to an online conspiracy theory, the American author Dean Koontz predicted the coronavirus outbreak in 1981. His novel The Eyes of Darkness made reference to a killer virus called Wuhan-400 eerily predicting the Chinese city where Covid-19 would emerge. But the similarities end there: Wuhan-400 is described as having a killrate of 100%, developed in labs outside the city as the perfect biological weapon. An account with more similarities, also credited by some as predicting coronavirus, is found in the 2011 film Contagion, about a global pandemic that jumps from animals to humans and spreads arbitrarily around the globe.

But when it comes to our suffering, we want something more than arbitrariness. We want it to mean something. This is evident in our stories about illness and disease, from contemporary science fiction all the way back to Homers Iliad. Even malign actors are more reassuring than blind happenstance. Angry gods are better than no gods at all.

In Homers Iliad, the Greeks disrespect one of Apollos priests. The god manifests his displeasure by firing his arrows of contagion into their camp. The plague lasts nine days, brief by modern epidemiological standards. When the Greeks make amends and sacrifice sheep and goats to Apollo, the plague is cured.

Seven centuries later a plague struck Periclean Athens, killing a quarter of the citys population and setting the city-state on a path to military defeat at the hands of Sparta. Thucydides, the Athenian historian, has a simple explanation for the epidemic: Apollo. The Spartans had cannily supplicated the god and he in return had promised victory. Soon afterwards, Spartas enemies started dying of the plague. Hindsight suggests that Athens, under siege its population swollen with refugees, everyone living in unsanitary conditions was at risk of contagion in a way the Spartan army, free to roam the countryside outside, clearly wasnt. But this thought doesnt occur to Thucydides. It can only be the god.

Between then and now there have been prodigious advances in medical science. We understand contagious disease vastly better, and have a greater arsenal of medicine and hygiene to fight it. But in one respect we havent advanced at all. We still tend to see agency in our pandemics.

Disease has no agency. Bacteria and viruses spread blindly where they can, their pathways facilitated by our globalised world. We, meanwhile, bring to the struggle our ever-improving drugs and hygiene. With Covid-19, experts insist, your two best bets are: wash your hands often, touch your face never. But people do not warm to the existential arbitrariness of this. Just as the Peloponnesian plague was seen as evidence that the gods were angry with Athens, so HIV was seen by a deluded minority as Gods judgment on homosexuals. Of course, HIV spreads wherever it can and cares nothing for your morals or sexual orientation.

This attribution of agency is clearest in the many imaginary plagues science-fiction writers have inflicted on humanity. In place of gods we have aliens, like those in Alice Sheldons chilling and brilliant short story The Screwfly Solution (1977). A new disease provokes men to begin murdering women en masse. At the storys end we discover an alien species had introduced a brain infection so that the human race will destroy itself and the aliens can inherit the emptied planet. Its a story about what we now call toxic masculinity and it says: its not gods we have angered, but goddesses.

A scene from The Andromeda Strain (1970), directed by Robert Wise. Photograph: Universal/Kobal/REX/Shutterstock

Sometimes the alien plague is less picky. In HP Lovecrafts The Colour Out of Space (1927; recently filmed, starring Nicolas Cage) an alien infection arrives via meteorite, wastes the land and drives people mad. In Michael Crichtons The Andromeda Strain (1969) potentially world-ending contagion falls from outer space. This bug repeatedly mutates as Earths scientists try to combat it. Were doomed or would be, if it werent for the tales germus ex machina ending, in which the alien spontaneously mutates into a benign form.

If its not aliens behind our world-threatening plague, then it is probably that other SF stalwart, the mad scientist. Dozens of zombie franchises start with a rogue scientist infecting the population with a genetically engineered bioweapon virus. In Frank Herberts The White Plague (1982) a geneticist, pushed into insanity by the murder of his family, creates a pathogen that kills all humanitys females. A cure is eventually found, but not before the worlds population balance has been shifted to leave thousands of men to every woman.

In Joanna Russs feminist masterpiece The Female Man (1975), Whileaway, a gender-specific virus has wiped out all the men, creating an effective utopia for women left behind, procreating by parthenogenesis and living in harmony. By the novels end it is hinted that the man-destroying plague was actually engineered by a female scientist. Never mind the antibacterial handwash: it is patriarchy that we need to scrub out.

So characteristic is assigning agency to pandemics in todays culture that a video game such as Plague Inc (Ndemic Creations 2012) styles its players not as doctors attempting to stop the spread of a pandemic, but as the sickness itself. The players mission is to help their plagues spread and exterminate the human race. In HG Wellss seminal War of the Worlds (1898) and in its various modern retellings, including Independence Day (1996), the virus is on our side, destroying alien invaders that lack our acquired immunity.

One of the most striking twists on this conceit is Greg Bears novel Blood Music (1985). A scientist, angry at being sacked by his lab, smuggles a virus out into the world in his own body. It infects everybody, becomes self-aware, and assimilates everybody and everything to itself: human beings and their infrastructure melt down into a planetwide sea of hyperintelligent grey goo. It sounds unpleasant, but its actually a liberation: the accumulation of concentrated consciousness, our own included, punches through a transcendent new realm. The plague becomes a kind of secular Rapture.

The mad scientists of Channel 4s Utopia hope their germ will wipe out humanity. Photograph: Collection Christophel/Alamy

If on some level we still think of contagion as the gods anger, these stories become about how we have angered the god about, in other words, our guilt. When Rick Jaffa and Amanda Silver planned their reboot of the Planet of the Apes franchise, they decided an agent, a neuroenhancer spliced into simian flu, would both raise the apes level of intelligence and prove fatal to humans. The resulting movie trilogy (2011-17) was more than just a commercial hit; it proved an eloquent articulation of broader environmental concerns. The few surviving humans move through the films lush rejuvenated forestscapes, compelled to confront avatars of humanitys generational contempt for the natural world.

The plague that has destroyed us has uplifted these animals, given them wisdom, and they are angry with us why wouldnt they be? Its a common genre trope. The scientist in Alistair MacLeans The Satan Bug (1965) is an environmental fundamentalist who hopes his germ will wipe out humanity. The mad scientists from Channel 4s TV drama Utopia (201314) and Margaret Atwoods Oryx and Crake trilogy are both driven by the same animus.

Having invested ourselves with the crown of all creation, coronavirus arrives to puncture our hubris. Think of the computer intelligence Agent Smith inThe Matrix (1999), played with sneering panache by Hugo Weaving: humans, he tells Laurence Fishburnes Morpheus, are incapable of developing a natural equilibrium with their environment: You move to an area and you multiply and multiply until every natural resource is consumed. In this telling, we are the virus.

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An ambitious franchise-starter offers only the smallest of pleasures, mainly thanks to the star himself, while mostly descending into cliche

It is the Hollywood screenwriters great misconception that self-consciously acknowledging cliche in a script neutralizes it. When one character does something hackneyed and another remarks on that quality, thats the author of their dialogue signaling that they know the score and that theyre with us. But unless such a comment does something with the recognition of its artifice, channeling that towards auto-critique or deconstruction or postmodern what-have-you, it just seems like the writer couldnt be troubled to think of anything better. Calling out their own hack tendencies can make a person seem clever and savvy just as easily as it can make them seem like a hack.

Theres a whole lot of winking going on in Bloodshot, David SF Wilsons silver screen take on the flagship superhero of 90s alt-comics outfit Valiant. Though his origin story introduces him as a lethal combination of flesh and technology, the man born Ray Garrison (Vin Diesel) actually fuses little more than RoboCop to Wolverine. The script goes through the factory-issue beats for any star vehicle about a supersoldier stripped of his memory and converted into a killing machine, an oddly specific setup to be so well trodden. Theres a loving wife as silent as she is blond, an eccentric murderer dancing around to Psycho Killer by Talking Heads, the barked vow to find and destroy the men responsible. After the first act winds up and our hero gets reborn, the lab techs responsible for converting Garrison into the unstoppable force known as Bloodshot mutter about how they went strictly by the book in concocting this scenario.

Unfortunately, the rest of the film fails to do anything with this trite simulation beyond plug it in to a story equally bereft of imagination. While sinister robot-handed scientist Emil Harting (Guy Pearce) and his lackeys pull the digital wool over Garrisons brains eyes, their reality feels no realer. Everyone speaks in a pseudo-techno dialect that only breaks up the long strings of jargon with pat affirmations of thin archetypes. Garrison gains the obligatory Sturdy Female Ally in fellow augmentee KT (Eiza Gonzlez), and a flavorless rival in the cybernetically enhanced Dalton (Sam Heughan). The film doubles up on tokenized comic relief, between bad nerd Eric (Siddharth Dhananjay) and good nerd Wilfred (Lamorne Morris, doing a dreadful and inexplicable English accent).

Theyre all taken to school by Diesel, outdoing the entire cast in terms of sheer magnetism even with part of his characters brain turned off. He delivers his every line with the gravitas of a platoon leader preparing his troops for certain death, and his rubble-gargled voice goes a long way toward selling it. His physical attributes prove a great boon to the film at large, particularly in the pair of standout fight scenes mounting the lone argument for this films existence. Diesel has the build and gait of a person who could conceivably be the recipient of a bionic boost. His punches look like how they sound. The standout sequence, a slow-mo ballet involving an overturned flour truck and a fistful of crimson flares, brings out his brutality via hypersaturated music-video expressionism.

Eiza Gonzlez and Vin Diesel in Blooodshot. Photograph: Graham Bartholomew/AP

That constitutes the height of Wilsons stylistic flair, the overall lack of which betrays him as a VFX technician first and rookie director second. Its not hard to see why he was tapped for the job, CGI showcase that it is. He milks that skill set for all it is worth, from the many synthetic limbs to one impressive shot in which an Italian port vista materializes from digital nothingness. Hes never more in his element than when a computer geek rotates a 3D holo-model of an environment hes building; in fact, this qualifies as the sole moment in which the film evinces a lived-in, authoritative perspective. Wilsons direction otherwise hews on the side of the expected, staging each scene as if hes trying to create minimal obtrusions while the post-production team does their stuff.

A report last year announced Valiant Comics plan to build a connected universe around their intellectual property, making Bloodshot the vanguard of a grittier counterpart to the Marvel-industrial complex. That would explain why Diesel doesnt assume the characters trademark pallid skin and scarlet eyeballs until the climax, along with the mercenary tinge of an ending that shamelessly sets itself up to be built on. Franchises must be earned, by putting forth something that audiences could conceivably see themselves spending hours on over a course of years. Aside from the singular brawn of its leading man, this would-be springboard has nothing much worth launching. Its a stack of wormed-over action tropes, and to make matters worse, the movie knows it and yet does not know enough to spare us its missteps in the first place. Our collective memories of Wilsons blunt-force feature debut wont last much longer than Garrisons.

  • Bloodshot is released in the US and UK on 13 March

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