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Space movies

I saw a list recently of “space movies” and the first film on the list was… Star Wars. I like lists, and though they usually make me angry I also like bad lists – because they inspire me to create my own. After all, if you’re going to put together to a list of “space movies”, then you’d expect “space” to play a major role in the film. And yes, there’s the Death Star and the Millennium Falcon running away from the Imperial space destroyer and that final space battle and it’s space opera which even has the word “space” in it… but is Star Wars really a “space movie”?

There are plenty of films – not just Hollywood ones, either – where space or space travel forms a major portion of the plot, or is indeed the actual subject of the film. Having said that, any list of films which comprises almost entirely Hollywood output, bar one or two token world cinema entries, is also going to generate rage. I’ve forgotten how many times I’ve seen Tarkovsky’s Solaris as the token non-Hollywood sf movie in a lists of sf movies. Tarkovsky was a great director, no doubt about that, but he made two other sf films – all of which is beside the point, as there are a huge number of non-US and non-Anglophone directors who have made science fiction movies, many of which are excellent.

All this is, of course, a somewhat long-winded way of introducing my own list of “space movies”, ie films that are space-related – inasmuch as they are about space exploration, or the setting is space for at least more than half of the film. I have, as is my wont, tried to avoid the obvious and commercially safe choices…

space_odysseySpace Odyssey: Voyage to the Planets (2004, UK). This is my go-to for near-future space-based science fiction. It’s a television dramatisation of a near-future Grand Tour, made chiefly by the BBC. It’s hard to find these days, but it’s definitely worth hunting down a copy. The CGI hasn’t aged especially well, the acting is not great, and the talking heads often slow things down… but much of it was filmed on the Vomit Comet and it does a top job of presenting life aboard a spacecraft travelling about the Solar Sytem. In fact, it does a top job of presenting all the technology required to visit all the planets of the Solar System. Good stuff.

apollo18sdApollo 18, Gonzalez López-Gallego (2011, USA). Okay, so the rock monsters are a bit silly, as is the, er, plot. But this is still the best fictional presentation to date of an Apollo mission on celluloid. And it also scores highly because it shows a Soviet LK and gets it absolutely right. This is the proper way to do a space movie… even if it’s in service to a hoary old plot. Admittedly, it’s a found footage movie, and it’s never quite made clear how they found the footage, given we’ve never been back to the moon… but never mind.

cargoCargo, Ivan Engler & Ralph Etter (2009, Switzerland). This is a polished piece of sf from a country not really known for producing science fiction movies. The story takes place aboard a starship on its way to an Edenic colony world, which is closed to the masses teeming in space stations orbiting a poisoned Earth except as a prize in a lottery. En route, the film manages to pull in most modern sf movie tropes, but it handles them well and even manages a few – albeit somewhat predictable – scares along the way.

eolomeaEolomea, Herrmann Zschoche (1972, East Germany). Deutsches Film-Aktiengesellschaft made four big-budget – for East Germany – sf movies during the late 1960s and early 1970s. They’re a bit dippy, but they did go all out to make good-looking, globally-minded intelligent science fiction. Eolomea is perhaps the best of them, a mystery about the plan to settle the eponymous exoplanet and a space station that has suddenly gone silent. Some great 1970s retro-futuristic production design, too.

testpilotpirxTest Pilot Pirx, Marek Piestrak (1979, USSR). AKA Pilot Pirx’s Inquest. Based on the character created by Stanisław Lem, this sees Pirx take a trip to the rings of Saturn, with a crew which contains one or more androids – but he doesn’t know who is which. It starts as a weirdly-paced future thriller, before turning into a space movie that strives for accuracy in some areas but gets it bizarrely wrong in others. And, like most Eastern Bloc sf movies, the future is assumed to be a world of peaceful multinational cooperation, unlike in US films. The soundtrack is also surprisingly ahead of its time.

ikarieIkarie XB-1, Jindřich Polák (1963, Czechoslovakia). The titular spacecraft is sent on a long mission to Alpha Centauri, and various incidents happen en route, including one member of the crew going mad. The production design reminds me a little of Raumpatrouille Orion in places, and there’s plenty of Anglophone films that were later influenced by it – perhaps because, unlike Hollywood sf films of the time, it had an intelligent script.

frau-im-mond-loresFrau im Mond, Fritz Lang (1929, Germany). Not the first ever sf movie, that was Georges Méliès’s Le voyage dans la lune in 1902 (which is worth seeing), but Lang’s silent epic Frau im Mond is considerably more realistic and famously gave us the rocket launch countdown. It perhaps spends overmuch of its length laying out the background to the moon shot, and the scenes set on the lunar surface are unsurprisingly not especially accurate, but I’m pretty sure it’s the first actual space movie.

queen_of_bloodQueen Of Blood, Curtis Harrington (1966, USA). This is one of those films Roger Corman cobbled together from footage from a pair of Soviet sf movies – in this case, Небо зовет and Мечте навстречу – with US-filmed material starring John Saxon, Dennis Hopper, Judi Meredith and Basil Rathbone. Florence Marly plays the title role, an alien vampire stranded on Mars who is rescued by a mission from Earth. Although considered a B-movie, Queen Of Blood rises above its humble origins – those astonishing Soviet visuals, Meredith’s equal treatment alongside Saxon and Hopper, and Marley pulling a star turn as the alien vampire.

o_the-day-after-tomorrow-into-infinity-dvd-gerry-anderson-f508Into Infinity, Charles Crichton (1975, UK). AKA The Day After Tomorrow. A live-action made-for-television film by Gerry Anderson, it describes the maiden voyage of Altares, the first human spacecraft to travel at the speed of light. The dialogue is mostly exposition, there’s an explanatory narration by Ed Bishop, and, to be fair, the plot is somewhat on the dull side… but I remember loving it as a kid, and although a recent rewatch did reveal many of its flaws it still fired the sense of wonder I recalled from all those decades ago.

royalspaceforceRoyal Space Force: Wings of Honneâmise, Hiroyuki Yamaga (1987, Japan). An anime film about a space programme on an entirely invented world, and which ends with the first launch of a crewed rocket, should surely qualify for this list. I only watched this for the first time recently, and I wasn’t that taken with it – but in the weeks since I found myself thinking more kindly of it, and I’m even considering getting hold of a copy of my own.

There are some others I could have included, one or two of which I might even hold in higher regard, but for this list I wanted a good geographic spread.

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Moving pictures, #17

Six months into the year and I’m on my seventeenth film post already. And it’s not like I include every film I watch here – I don’t, for instance, bother writing about films I’ve seen before, or crappy ones on Movies24 that I find myself watching on a Sunday afternoon after my brain has given up the ghost… Anyway, as usual asterisked films are from the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list (or at least the version of the list I’m using).

flight_from_ashiyaFlight from Ashiya, Michael Anderson (1964, USA). Richard Widmark is a tough-talking USAF Rescue Service pilot stationed in Japan. Yul Brynner is his Japanese sergeant and medic, and George Chakiris is a pilot lieutenant with confidence issues. A Japanese ship goes down in a fierce storm, and two Rescue Service Grumman HU-16 Albatross seaplanes are sent to rescue them. As they fly to the site of the sinking, and begin searching for survivors, flashbacks cover important events in the past of each of the three main characters. It’s melodramatic, but surprisingly dull, stuff. Suzy Parker has a not-much-more-than-walk-on part as Brynner’s latest flame, and the aerial sequences aren’t too bad; but other than that, this isn’t even the sort of film you’d stop to watch if you were channel-hopping on a lazy Sunday afternoon. Disappointing.

royalspaceforceRoyal Space Force: Wings of Honnêamise, Hiroyuki Yamaga (1987, Japan). I know only a little about anime, and have seen only a dozen or so of the best-known ones and, of course, pretty much all of the Studio Ghibli movies… but I’m open to learning more. So when David Tallerman recommended a handful of titles I should add to my rental list, I picked two of them and this was the first that arrived. And… while the world-building in Wings of Honnêamise was cleverly done it wasn’t enough to offset that style of overly-broad humour and the characters mugging all the time common to much anime that I find really hard to take. The launch sequence at the end, however, where Honnêamise’s first crewed rocket makes it into space while an air and ground battles rages around the launch pad is actually really good. I’m not sure if it’s worth sitting through near enough 100 minutes of the film to get to that point, but even now, weeks after watching the movie, that sequence sticks in my memory. Perversely, thinking about it for this post is sort of making me want to have another go at watching the film. Apparently, a sequel titled Aoki Uru (Uru in Blue) is finally in preproduction, after a number of aborted previous attempts, with a proposed launch date of 2018.

continuumContinuum, Richie Mehta (2013, Canada). AKA I’ll Follow You Down. Physics professor Rufus Sewell says goodbye to wife Gillian Anderson and son (who, twelve years later, grows up to be Haley Joel Osment) and heads for a scientific conference in Princeton, but never returns. It turns out he’s actually invented a time machine, and he uses it to travel back to the 1940s in order to meet Albert Einstein. But he is mugged and killed before he can return. Fortunately, Osment is a genius and he manages to figure out his dad’s arcane physics and so build a replica of his time machine. Which he then uses to go back in time to save Sewell. It’s hardly the most original plot in media science fiction – at least half a dozen sf television series have used it more than once throughout their runs – and it’s all played very low-key… But Osment is too much a genius to be really plausible – and that’s after you’ve swallowed Sewell inventing a time machine. Meh.

adams_ribAdam’s Rib*, George Cukor (1949, USA). Much as I enjoy screwball comedies, I’ve never really seen Spencer Tracy as a screwball romantic lead. He never quite seemed light enough on his feet, if you know what I mean. But here he is with Katherine Hepburn, as a married couple who are also lawyers who end up opposing each other in court. She’s defending a woman who took a potshot at her philandering husband, he’s the prosecuting attorney. The result is a battle of legal wits and domestic rivalry in the court room. To be fair, I thought Tracy and Hepburn were better in Desk Set – while the film was not especially witty, it was in Technicolor – Technicolor! – and there was a giant 1950s computer in it. It was also a bit, well, sweeter. (And Tracy played a good curmudgeon.) Anyway, I’ve seen Adam’s Rib, so meh.

theislandThe Island, Pavel Lungin (2006, Russia). Amazon insisted on recommending this film to me – repeatedly – because I’d bought, or searched for, films by Aleksandr Sokurov. I checked it out on Wikipedia, and it looked like it might appeal… so I bought a copy. And it did appeal. During WWII, Germans board a Russian coal barge and force the crewman to shoot his captain. The Germans then mine the barge. The crewman survives and is wracked with remorse for killing his captain. The film jumps ahead thirty years. The crewman, Anatoly, is a monk on the tiny island on which he washed ashore. He is also something of a Holy Fool, and tells people things which then come true. He looks after the monastery’s boiler, is perpetually filthy, and talks back to the monastery’s abbot. But one day an admiral brings his daughter to be exorcised by Brother Anatoly… Some films take you by surprise not simply because of the way they’ve been shot – and The Island is indeed beautifully shot – but because of their story and what they say. And The Island certainly did that. I was initially expecting something like one of Béla Tarr’s movies – I seem to recall the phrase “slow cinema” being used in reference to Lungin – but The Island soon became something very different. I now want to watch more films by Lungin. But, since he’s Russian, very few of them have been released in the UK – only this one, in fact. Gah.

paddngtonPaddington, Paul King (2014, UK). This was pretty successful last year, so I thought it might be worth a go. I should have known better. Yes, I remember the Paddington Bear cartoon from my childhood, but this was some bizarre story that didn’t seem to know in which decade it was set. An explorer in “deepest, darkest Peru” finds some talking bears, and years later the child bear heads to London to find the family of the hunter. Though the film was sent in the present day, it only made sense – talking bears notwithstanding – if it was sent in the 1940s. And everything in the plot was structured as if the story were set in the 1940s. It made for a weird disconnect between plot and visuals, and even the modicum of wit couldn’t rescue the movie from total crapness. And comedy cross-dressing? When was the last time a movie featured that? Whatever happened to the British film industry? All it seems capable of turning out these days are mockney gangster movies, execrable upper middle class rom coms, and appalling comedies. Those “quota quickies” they banged out during WWII? Most of those are better than this shit.

hudHud*, Martin Ritt (1963, USA). Paul Newman plays the ruthless and self-centred son of a rancher, and he’s more concerned with making money than anything as profit-jeoparding as principles (such as, for example, not drilling for oil on the land). So Hud sleeps around, gets into fights, argues with his dad, patronises his younger brother, and generally presents as one of those arsehole characters Hollywood likes to build films around because they’re good for winning awards. (Hud, incidentally, was nominated for seven Oscars, but only won for best actress, best supporting actor and best cinematography.) Working my way through the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list has introduced me to films, and directors, I might not otherwise have seen and which I have greatly appreciated and admired. But it has also resulted in me watching a great deal of middle-brow Hollywood output that I would otherwise have quite happily not bothered seeing. Hud is one such movie. Oh, the scene where they massacre the cattle because it has foot and mouth disease is affecting, but centring the film on an unlikeable prick doesn’t to me feel like it adds anything useful or interesting. I’m sixty percent of the way through the list now, and I suspect of those I’ve seen I’d only consider around a quarter truly belonged there.

1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die count: 601