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Wait, fantasies in space? How does that work?

It looks like this film challenge thing I’m doing with Shaun Duke is becoming a regular, er, thing. After he met my last challenge of five films which complement my Apollo Quartet – see here – he tasked me with coming up with a list of “5 science fiction films which are basically fantasies in space, but which are not Star Wars. Ugh. That are “in your opinion and by your own criteria, good movies“. I suspect this is not possible – in fact, I know it’s not – so I’m going to cheat a little and pick films that are either good within the confines of their genre, or enjoyable irrespective of their quality. Because you’re not going to get some cheesy space fantasy that stands up there with anything by Tarkovsky or Bergman or Haneke or Kaurismäki or Sokurov or… Well, you get the, er, picture.

As for “fantasies in space”… yes, well, if not Star Wars is part of the definition then it must mean dumb space operas. And I can think of many examples, but they are almost universally pretty bad. There are no doubt lots of Japanese anime examples, and some of them may even be very good, but I’m not that familiar with anime.

Anyway, after much scratching of head and rootling through my DVD collection, I came up with following five. A couple may be obvious, one or two may invoke cries of shocked disbelief, and for a few I had to take “space fantasy” to mean “complete science fiction bollocks”.

johncarterJohn Carter, Andrew Stanton (2012). The obvious choice, and one that will no doubt have a few of you choking on your doughnuts. I loved this film from the moment I saw it in IMAX 3D, and I’ve watched it several times since on DVD. The production design is gorgeous, the CGI is seamless (the Tharks actually look almost real!), and the script is polished, with a structure which is far more sophisticated than the material deserved. It’s a crying shame Disney decided to sink it because it could have been the start of a bloody good franchise. But instead we’re going to get endless shit superhero movies, a vast cinematic retconning of the Star Wars universe, and increasingly dumber Star Trek sequels. Yay for tentpole sci-fi blockbuster movies…

flashFlash Gordon, Mike Hodges (1980). There’s much that cringe-worthy in this film, from the Queen soundtrack (there, I said it) to the cheesy dialogue to half the cast clearly belonging in a much superior film to completely non-entity Sam Jones in the title role. Having said that, you won’t find more sci-fic pomp and silliness in any other movie. Von Sydow, Wyngarde and Dalton plainly belong in a much better film; Topol, Muti and Blessed seem to have found their level. Melody Anderson actually makes a good Dale Arden. It is, in fact, hard to fault Flash Gordon as a piece of cheesy sf camp, but it’s a mistake to consider it anything more than that (and unlike some people, I ask more of my movies and books than they be mere entertainment).

planete_sauavageLa planète sauvage, René Laloux (1973). No film list put together by myself would be complete without at least one non-Hollywood film. While this is not usually difficult to achieve, for “fantasies in space” it’s proven something of a hurdle. I mean, only the US makes cheesy space operas. But I believe La planète sauvage qualifies because, while it initially describes an alien world in which primitive humans exist only in the wild, it soon turns weird and philosophical and all sort of wishy-washy and bonkers. The animation and production design throughout is distinctive and strange – it’s by Roland Topor – but it suits the story. Laloux’s later animated films were a bit Métal Hurlant, but La planète sauvage displays a unique vision. Definitely worth getting hold of a copy.

duneDune, David Lynch (1985). Heresy! Dune as a “fantasy in space”? I mean, I’ve always considered Dune science fiction, in space or otherwise, and I see no good reason to change that since it meets my definition of the genre. But since I also consider Star Wars science fiction, I feel this makes Dune allowable under Shaun’s somewhat baggy definition. And yes, Dune is a good film, and only fails at being a great film because the director couldn’t match his vision. But there are clues there if you watch the “television version” (which includes around an additional 45 minutes). It’s not so much the additional story that’s on the screen, and it’s certainly not the horrible prologue with its awful artwork. But the extended scenes set in the Imperial Court display an overly mannered presentation that works at the lengths shown in the television version much better than it does in the theatrical release. Plus, of course, the production design is superb. In fact, I’ll even forgive Lynch the “weirding module” and the rain at the end because everything looks so much like Dune should look. I currently own five DVD editions of Dune, so it’s probably about time I got it on Blu-ray. But which is the best Blu-ray version…?

battleBattle Beyond the Stars, Jimmy T Murakami (1980). Space operas – sorry, “fantasies in space” – don’t come cheesier than this rip-off of Star Wars. But it does possess a certain charm all its own, whether it’s because its plot is a beat-by-beat copy of The Magnificent Seven, or that the hero’s spaceship looks like a pair of breasts, or Sybil Danning’s double entendres, or the fact George Peppard was clearly pissed throughout the film, or that the entire thing looks like a series of episodes from a bad sf television series. But as low budget space operas go, it’s an enjoyable example. And Richard Thomas actually displays some impressive acting chops. The fact the script is by John Sayles also helps.

There are a number of other films I could have chosen, but it would have been stretching a point beyond breaking to describe them as “good” – such as… The Humanoid, Aldo Lado (1979), in which Richard Kiel plays the title role in an Italian Star Wars rip-off with production design that’s a weird mashup of 1970s near-future science fiction, Star Wars and Flash Gordon… Or Starcrash, Luigi Cozzi (1978), which manages to make zero sense but does include the immortal line, “Imperial battleship, halt the flow of time!”… Or Barbarella, Roger Vadim (1968), which has not aged well despite being based on a French bande dessinée… Or even Andrzej’s Żuławski’s Na srebrnym globie (On the Silver Globe)… Or spaghetti sci-fi Star Pilot, Pietro Francisci (1966), which apparently inspired some elements of Star Trek…

ETA: After much thought, I’ve decided on Shaun’s challenge. Five non-English language films featuring space travel, not including Solaris. Oh, and no more than two of them from Japan.

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Moving pictures, #8

The Blu-ray was starting to crackle and fill the screen with static when you ejected a disc, and its remote control was seriously irritating me with its bad design and hard-to-figure-out-what-button-was-what; and the old stereo was just sitting there doing nothing since only the DVD-player had been plugged into it… So I had a bit of a clear-out. I bought myself a new Blu-ray player, one that can play all regions of DVD and Blu-ray, from mrmdvd.com, and chucked everything else away. I also bought myself a soundbar, but it turned out my 18-month-old television didn’t have the necessary new-fangled output for it, so I had to cancel the order. Gah. Backward compatibility FTW. Not. Anyway, the corner of the living-room now looks a lot tidier, the new player works very well indeed, and, of course, I’ve watched my Criterion Blu-ray of All That Heaven Allows*…

europa_europaEuropa Europa*, Agnieszka Holland (1990, Germany). A Jewish boy is captured by Soviets while escaping Germany, grows up in a Soviet orphanage, but is then captured by Nazis – and pretends to be an Aryan German. It’s based on a true story, and protagonist Jupp (AKA Solomon Perel, AKA Josef Peters) first acts as translator to front-line Wehrmacht troops, but is then sent to a Hitler Youth school. Where he falls for an Aryan mädchen, a dubbed Julie Delpy… except she wants a child for Hitler but Jupp can’t let her see his todger because he’s circumcised and that’ll reveal him as a Jew. This is all based on a true story – in fact, the real Jupp appears as himself in an epilogue set in Israel in the year of filming. But I never quite felt the film got across the fear Jupp must have been feeling as he masqueraded as a Hitler Youth. The hate, not to mention the rejection, of his position was there, and some of the lengths Jupp went to in order to disguise his race, not to mention his reasons for doing so, were certainly horrific. This is an excellent film, and if it fails occasionally in the implementation, it’s still a story that demands to be told. Definitely worth seeing.

shock_aweAntichrist, Lars von Trier (2009, Denmark). I’m really not sure what to make of von Trier’s films. There was much to admire in Antichrist, for example – including a scene supposedly imagined during therapy that was pure Sokurov – but it’s always like 4 and 5 makes 10. Admittedly, the final credits revealed Antichrist was dedicated to Tarkovsky, which made some of it understandable (including that Sokurov-ish scene), but some of von Trier’s signature touches seemed to work much better than others. A couple lose their child, and the husband – Willem Dafoe – persuades the wife – Charlotte Gainsbourg – that they must go to an isolated cabin in the woods. Then it all goes a bit strange. In von Trier’s favour is that his films bear, if not demand, re-watchings. There are elements in this one, for example, which don’t initially seem to make sense. But there’re also those which plummet toward the schlocky, which other von Trier films have suffered from. After so much metaphorical and allegorical payload, the film turns into art house horror, and it does tend to undo what’s go before. It’s not that von Trier does not have the courage of his convictions – if there’s one thing this film does not lack throughout its length, it’s conviction – but it often feels like he does’t have enough confidence in his allusiveness, or feels a need to shock the viewer as if whatever judgement a film may receive will depend entirely on that shock value. When you look at earlier films, such as Europa, the shocking end felt of a piece with the story, and if it seemed melodramatic it was at least in keeping with the movie’s aesthetic. But in Antichrist, the horror doesn’t quite blend… and I can’t decide if that’s a deliberate provocation or an unintended artefact. I suppose the fact I can’t tell at least demonstrates von Trier’s importance as a director…

Lisa-And-The-Devil-blu-rayLisa and the Devil, Mario Bava (1973, Italy). I have enjoyed the odd Mario Bava in the past, and I do like the fact they’re very much movies of their time and not particularly gory… so I bunged a few on the rental list, and one of them dropped through the letter box. Also, of course, Elke Sommer. While Lisa and the Devil had its moments, and a story that actually wasn’t too bad, this was pretty cheap entertainment and not a film that’s worth watching more than the once. A tourist lost in Toledo stumbles across an antiques shop in which a creepy-looking Telly Savalas is buying an item. Later, having failed to find her friends, she accepts a lift from a couple in a limousine. The car breaks down outside a creepy-looking mansion… and the butler there proves to be Telly Savalas. It’s all something to do with an aristocratic family, a dark secret, and a demon or something. Apparently, the film was recut to resemble The Exorcist in the US and bombed because… everyone thought it was a rip-off of The Exorcist. Duh. More for fans of Bava or bad 1970s horror, I suspect.

daysofheavenDays Of Heaven*, Terrence Malick (1978, USA). I really wanted to like this, Malick is a very visual director and this is one of those not-very-commercial-successful Hollywood film where the auteur seems to win out over the usual crass Hollywood product. There’s also a (mostly) good cast too. But it really didn’t work. It felt like substandard DH Lawrence transposed to 1920s Texas, and the lovely cinematography was not enough to save it. Richard Gere and Brooke Adams move to Texas from Chicago in 1916, and find work with a local farmer. He falls for Adams, so Gere persuades her to marry him so the two of them can live the good life at the farmer’s expense. It ends badly. Duh. This is a film rightly praised for its cinematography, but the story was slow and uninvolving, and even in 1978 Gere might make a good lead in a rom com but he didn’t have the chops for something as serious as this (unlike Same Shepard, who played the farmer). Disappointing.

masculinMasculin Féminin*, Jean-Luc Godard (1966, France). I have mixed feelings about Alphaville and I absolutely adore Le Mépris, but I can’t really say I’ve seen anything else by Godard that I’ve liked. Including this one. The problem with a lot of Nouvelle Vague cinema is that its characters are self-absorbed to a point that makes them unsympathetic and dull to watch. (The same is also true of a some of Rohmer’s earlier films.) As for plot, well, that’s just bourgeois. (I jest, as I actually agree that plot is over-rated.) Anyway, Masculin Féminin is a series of discussions, monologues, diatribes and pontificating by a young man who enters into a relationship with a young woman, and her two flat-mates, who does not share his tastes or politics. I vaguely recall there being lots of polo-neck jumpers and arguments in corridors. It was all a bit yawn.

bela_tarr_collectionThe Man from London, Béla Tarr (2007, Hungary). After watching on rental thirty minutes of Barr’s Sátántangó in which nothing happened, I decided I ought to buy one of his films in order to give him a fair go – and from what I’d read, his style of film-making was likely to appeal. So I bought The Béla Tarr Collection box set, which contains three of his films, and this was the first of them I watched, coincidentally with a friend who was also new to Tarr’s movies. It made for an interesting experience. The story of The Man from London is apparently taken from a Simenon story, and it was a while before we nailed down the setting. But the movie also proved a welcome antidote to most Hollywood films, in that the pacing was leisurely, if not glacial, the cinematography was lovely, it was black and white, and the only way to watch was to patiently let it slowly unfold. It was a little off-putting to have one of the actors dubbed by a Fox brother – they have way too distinctive voices – but given the stately progress of the story it actually seemed to fit really well. I’m told some of Tarr’s films are real exercises in endurance, but this was an excellent introduction to his oeuvre. And I still have two more films to watch in the box set…

planete_sauavageLa Planète Sauvage*, René Laloux (1973, France). A highly-regarded science fiction animated film that happens to be on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list… so why not buy a copy? On Blu-ray? So I did. And, well… I was expecting weird, the cover of the Blu-ray alone is enough to prime a viewer for weird. And, it has to be said, I do like me some weird in my cinema. But while it struck me that the story of La Planète Sauvage was fairly routine, and something you might find in a bande dessinée or Polish sf story… the animated design by Roland Topor definitely qualified as strange. On an alien world, giant blue aliens – like the one on the Blu-ray cover – keep humans as pets, though there are many “feral” humans about. A baby human is adopted as one such pet by a young alien girl, but somehow manages to follow the electronic teaching she receives and so becomes educated. He later escapes and meets up with a group of feral humans, and persuades them to fight against the aliens… As allegories go, this is pretty in-your-face, and the idea of using sf to hide what you really want to say and make it palatable was past its sell-by date in 1973. But La Planète Sauvage still presents a unique vision, and is worth seeing for that (even if some of the short films included on the Blu-ray are a bit too much Métal Hurlant, and so less interesting).  Nonetheless, worth watching.

baron_bloodBaron Blood, Mario Bava (1972, Germany/Italy). Another 1970s Bava horror film that, er, stars Elke Sommer. A young American man with a toothsome smile visits relatives in Austria, where he learns about a castle which used to belong to an ancestor, called, er, Baron Blood. Sommer plays an archaeologist investigating the castle’s history while it is being refurbished. She and young American man, while acting about, read out a curse inflicted on Baron Blood, and then read out the words meant to lift the curse. So the baron comes back from wherever he was… and after killing a few people ends up as Joseph Cotton in a wheelchair. This is pretty much standard 1970s Euro horror fare, and if it isn’t, it certainly fits my idea of what it might be. It was kind of fun, but even for Bava it was pretty weak.

shock_aweMelancholia, Lars von Trier (2011, Denmark). You know where science fiction literalises metaphors? Now imagine that depression was a giant planet on a collision course with Earth… Von Trier has said that the story of Melancholia was inspired by his discovery that people with depression remain calmer during crises than people not suffering depression. Which revelation actually leads to three readings of the film. As your actual science fiction, it’s nonsense – the near approach of the rogue planet Melancholia, and its effects on the Earth, are not in the slightest bit scientifically accurate. As genre, it’s hard to imagine a literalised metaphor more in your face than a giant planet about crash into the Earth. However, seen as a study of Kirsten Dunst’s character, in the face of the collision with Melancholia… The first time I watched the film, I took the first reading, despite the fact the story is mostly about Dunst’s wedding, subsequent breakdown and recovery with her sister’s family (also the hosts of the wedding and reception). And the planet Melancholia crashes through the story like a giant implausible thing of implausibility. It all looks absolutely gorgeous, of course, but your suspension of disbelief is in sore need of a hook to hang it on. However, a combinations of readings two and three a) renders it a much more interesting film, and b) allows you to appreciate the lovely cinematography for what it is. I thought Melancholia much better on this rewatch than I had the first time I saw it. I still need to work out what von Trier is doing with his films, but he’s certainly one of the more interesting directors currently making movies.

1001 Movies To See Before You Die count: 577

* For the record, the colours are gorgeous, but the picture is so precise it appears slightly grainy, and the shadows and dark areas tend to block out a little. And I really need to get a soundbar or something. Oh, and the film itself is still brilliant.