Sunday Moment of Zen: The Film Theme

Since shortly after the reign of Charles I, the BBC has had a half hour long film review show called Film XXXX. Admittedly the early years were less a show more an elaborate set of tapestries and plays, it is after all difficult to review a medium that’s still several centuries away from being invented, but they persevered. By the time the 1980s, and I, rolled around it was an actual TV show about actual films with an actual presenter; Barry Norman.

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NanoJourno Update: Day 28


Today’s count is…wow. Look


The Dark Knight Rises



The Possession

The Muppets

The Bourne Legacy


Totalling 9,632 words. From a standing start.


Also they’re all pretty good. The Muppets one is a little hinky and a couple of the others need an edit pass but I’m pleased. Also…the Battleship one is the longest so far by a mile and of course I end up sort of defending it whilst mocking it a lot.

The remaining list is:

John Carter

The Hunger Games

The Avengers

The Amazing Spider-Man (See?! Pedantic SFX commenter from months ago?! I remembered the bastard hyphen! And always will because of you, so…thanks actually:))

End of Watch


I have NO EARTHLY clue how I’m going to write about The Avengers. But I don’t need to worry about that right now. Night everyone:)

Let’s Push Things Forward – NanoJourno

A few years ago I wrote a novel. I like it, quite a lot actually, because it’s exactly the sort of thing I would write if I wrote a novel. The protagonists are a pragmatic female detective, a peppery male journalist and a dutiful, if reluctant and put upon big guy. It’s set in York. It opens with an impossible murder and closes with Leeds Bradford airport being torn apart by the secret creatures that live at the top of the atmosphere. It’s fun, and knockabout, and a little bit like John Wyndham and early ’80s Doctor Who, with a light sprinkling of end of the century conspiracy theories and UFOlogy for good measure. I like it a lot. So did my beta readers.

No one else did.

Which is a problem when trying to write fiction for pay and even more of a problem when it happens over and over again. A friend of mine used to have a postcard he’d hold up when he read my stuff saying ‘Where’s the plot, Al?’ and another saying ‘Who’s the bad guy?’. Another friend once very kindly pointed out to me that I was actually writing a graphic novel and I can paper several rooms of the adorably ramshackle Victorian terrace we’re currently renting simply by printing out every rejection slip I’ve ever had. Every other writer is the same, of course, but here’s the thing. In the space of the last three years, as well as pretty much constant emotional turmoil ranging from a divorce to a job so unremittingly horrific that I found it difficult to show up at all for my last four weeks, I’ve seen countless writers, good friends, contemporaries, get book deals and go on to success. David Tallerman, Louise Morgan, Adam Christopher, Vincent Holland-Keen and more have gone on to the bigger and better things they utterly deserve.

I haven’t. Not through want of trying, God only knows, but I think that’s the point. I’m trying too hard and as a result every failure, every knockback hurts like the first one and all that ever does is slow me down and make me more reluctant. The end result is that the last time I completed a piece of short fiction was just over a year ago and the last time I sold a piece of short fiction? I’m reasonably certain the last Presidential elections in the US were just gearing up. It’s not a great track record, let’s face it.

In fact, the major success I’ve had in fiction terms was back in 2006 or so, when I did NanoWriMo and I wrote The Angel Stream. Just under 70,000 words in four weeks, with the carrot of a Homestar Runner messenger bag at the end of it. The bag never appeared, but the book did, and that’s got me thinking. You see, NanoWriMo is next month and I want to do something, I just know I don’t want to go near fiction for some considerable time.

So why not NanoJourno? Why not set myself a journalistic task of similar size which I must try and complete inside 30 days. I’ve even got two lined up, as you can see;#

Dead Air: Pseudopod Outros 2012
A collection of my closing essays for Pseudopod for the year. These are all stored and need some cleaning up, as well as the simple logistics of getting them arrayed in the right order.

Dead Screem: A Collection of Essays About The Movies Of 2012
I’m doing, or trying to do, unusual perspective essays about each movie I see at the theater this year. It’s a challenge and I’m hilariously behind but a solid month would see this done, prepped and out on SmashWords or the Kindle store, I’m sure.

So that’s the stick, but what about the carrot? Well, they don’t make Homestar Runner messenger bags any more but there is this. Also, I’m open to the idea of setting myself four, weekly goals, which if I hit I get smaller carrots as rewards. Because trust me, there are plenty of things I could go for.

Regardless, I want, and need, to get something big done this year. Which is where you come in. Is there a project you’d prefer to see? Do you have any ideas as to what you’d like to see in there? All the usual contact details are below and I’m honestly looking for advice here. Let me know what you think, I’ll let you know what I decide and November should be a fun month.

Want to talk to me about the article? Come see me on Twitter at @alasdairstuart or email me.

48 Hour Magazine: Pledge, Turn, Prestige, Monster

This is the piece I submitted to the first 48 Hour Magazine, a fascinating project put together by a group of editors who decided to see if they could take a magazine from concept to proof in 48 hours, the concept for the zero issue being the word ‘hustle’.  I put this together, on magic, JJ Abrams and narrative structure and, whilst it didn’t get in, I’m pretty pleased with it.

Pledge, Turn, Prestige, Monster

Magic tricks are the slightly more reputable sibling of con tricks and are designed along the same, basic structure. ‘That structure was articulated by Christopher Priest in his novel The Prestige and is defined as the pledge, the turn and the prestige. The pledge is the promise of something extraordinary, the turn is the apparent revelation and the prestige is the actual reveal, the moment you realise that the magician was never standing there, that the silk scarf has become a bird. It’s a simple, elegant framework that can be applied to everything from making a coin disappear to walking through the great wall of China and it’s also one of the secrets of JJ Abrams’ success.

Abrams’ entire career is based on not just a fascination with misdirection and magic but an instinctive understanding of this framework. Lost, Alias and Fringe, the three TV shows he’s best known for all embrace it and interestingly, each one also uses the three stage framework within their pilot episodes. In Lost, the Oceanic 815 survivors not only realise something is wrong with the island but that they’re not alone, in Alias Sydney Bristow not only realises she’s working for the opposite side but becomes a double agent whilst in Fringe, Olivia Dunham not only discovers what the Pattern is but that her colleague Agent John Scott is deeply involved in it. Pledge becomes premise, turn becomes plot, prestige becomes cliffhanger. The three stage magic trick melds with the three act narrative structure to create something intricate, detailed and, in the long run, immensely rewarding.

This is the connective tissue that holds Abrams’ work together as shown by the teaser trailer for his new film, Super 8. It opens with text informing the viewer that in 1979 a section of Area 51 was closed before cutting to a train speeding through the night. We learn that the materials stored at Area 51 were being moved overland to a secure location as, on screen, a pickup truck smashes through the barrier and runs headlong into the train. The train is derailed, cars ripped apart before, finally, silence falls. The text returns, informing us that next summer ‘It Arrives’ as the camera tracks through the wreckage to a large, sealed container with US Air Force stencilled on the side. The side of the trailer deforms and is then thrown outwards as the camera cuts to a close up of a Super 8 film lens with film flickering past it before fading to black.

Now, as pledges go that’s pretty spectacular. In less than two minutes we learn that something awful was moved from Area 51, something unthinkable happened that freed it, that the creature is large, strong and angry and that the film will have something to do with a Super 8 camera. Straight away we get science fiction and horror mixed with conspiracy thriller and a human element, all without meeting any of the principle characters. The message is clear; next summer, innocent people will witness something awful, try and survive it and you’ll be first in line for a ticket.

It’s a classic set up and one Abrams has used before, most notably with the original Cloverfield trailer. With no name and almost no credit text, it was a cut down version of the party scene from the start of the film, culminating in the Statue of Liberty’s head being hurled into the street. Once again, it’s a pledge, a hint of something remarkable designed to intrigue, get the audience’s full attention and bring them closer before the turn.

The teaser trailer for Abrams’ Star Trek uses the turn beautifully, opening with close ups of men constructing something immense as sound bites from the history of space exploration play. It’s only in the final shots, where the camera pans up over the saucer section of the USS Enterprise, Leonard Nimoy says ‘Space, the final frontier’ and the familiar refrain plays that it becomes clear what’s being trailed and the true nature of what you’ve been watching becomes clear. It even throws in a self-deprecating, cheeky prestige as the Starfleet crest appears to the sound of the transporter and the first bars of the original series theme tune before fading out to be replaced by two words:

Under Construction

This wry, self-deprecating sense of humour is just another means of disarming the audience and putting them at ease. It’s also an immensely clever move with Star Trek in particular because it feeds into the affection for the series and the status quo it represents.

Abrams then takes great pleasure in both honouring and subverting that status quo throughout the film, most notably in the opening sequence where the Kirk we meet is revealed not only to be James T. Kirk’s father but has to sacrifice himself in order for his wife, son and friends to survive. It’s a brutal sequence, difficult to sit through even after multiple viewings and there’s a case for it being the film’s turn. After all, everything changes as a result of it and the rest of the film is spent exploring those changes.

However, the real turn arrives at roughly the halfway mark, by which point the sense of familiarity has returned. There are changes certainly; James T. Kirk is a darker, brasher version of his old self, Spock is more emotional but still a genius but they’re fundamentally the same people. The Enterprise looks more futuristic, the special effects are more impressive but, fundamentally, it’s still Star Trek, still familiar, still safe.

Then Vulcan is destroyed.

In a single moment, Abrams, along with scriptwriters Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman change the rules, alter one of the most intricate fictional universes in decades forever and force the audience to pay full attention as they realise that everything is different now. The building blocks, the accepted wisdom of decades of fiction are changed into something new and dangerous and exciting which still, somehow, manages to honour what’s gone before it. This isn’t just a textbook example of how to successfully reinvigorate a franchise, this is magic at it’s purest, taking something that the audience think they know and turning it on its head. It’s the assistant disappearing, the needle going through the balloon, the card appearing inside the sealed box. This is the turn, positioning the audience for the final revelation, the prestige.

The best example of a prestige in Abrams’ work is arguably the end of the pilot episode of Fringe, which deals with both the mystery deaths of everyone aboard an international flight from Berlin and the serious injury of FBI Agent John Scott, caught in an explosion at a storage facility linked to the incident on the plane. Scott’s friend, and lover, Olivia Dunham’s refusal to let him die leads her to defy protocol, track down reclusive genius Walter Bishop and his son, Peter, get Bishop released from a mental asylum and, finally, to both the person responsible for the incident and a cure for Scott. The episode is, by all weights and measures, over, the series’ premise established as Olivia is offered a job investigating Fringe Science cases full time, Walter is reinstalled in his old lab and Peter slowly begins to accept his father.

Then John Scott gets out of bed, goes to the perpetrator’s room and suffocates him. At almost the same time, Olivia discovers evidence that Scott was complicit in the attack, tracks him down and a car chase ensues. Scott is fatally injured and his last moments are spent apologising to Olivia and telling her to ask why.

This by itself would be enough, but the episode’s final scene really drives home the unknown territory the series is running headlong towards. Nina Sharp, the head of Massive Dynamic, a pseudo-Microsoft company helping the government investigate Fringe Science is shown Scott’s body. She asks how long he’s been dead, is told and, after pausing for a moment, says ‘Interrogate him.’

This single moment brings together the mystery surrounding John Scott, the allegiance of Massive Dynamic and the research into communicating with the comatose and dead that Walter successfully uses earlier in the episode to not only set the rest of the series up but neatly place the viewer and Olivia on the same page. Neither know what’s going on and both find themselves wanting answers as the episode finishes. Or to put it another way, the circle is closed, the trick is finished and everyone leaves the theatre asking how it was done.

Pledge, turn and prestige, each not only mapping onto the three act dramatic structure but changing it into something rich and strange. Abrams and his collaborators take this still further, incorporating the elements of magic and misdirection not only into their films and TV series but how these stories are marketed and presented. This is magic not only as a storytelling framework but a tool, a means of not only writing and constructing stories but selling them to an audience. It’s not always successful but it’s always interesting and, with Abrams linked to several major new projects, it’s an approach that’s clearly working. Just remember, the rabbit isn’t always in the hat, and the hat may not be a hat at all.

The Things We Carry, The Things We Lose: Nowhere Boy

Adolescence is skin deep invincibility. You find yourself clamped to the handlebars of a motorcycle with the throttle jammed open, hurtling towards adulthood, sex, money, furniture and everything in between. You can’t turn, you can’t stop and if you slow down the only thing that will happen is every other driver will laugh at you.
Because make no mistake you’re not alone. You’re trapped in a flock of people in exactly the same situation with exactly as little control as you. Some of them will be friends for life, others will be people you would happily see dead or maimed or worse. Some will be both. All of them are as frightened as you, as out of control as you and all of them, without exception are looking for something to make them feel better. The fastest way to do that is, of course, to laugh at the other people in the race, the ones who are slower, the ones who are frightened, the ones who are different.

You can’t stop, you can’t turn around and you can’t get off. So you change your focus, you change your definition of what control is, you change yourself. Survival becomes all about totems, about objects and styles and culture that have tremendous, vital significance for you. For one friend of mine, that came through classic horror and Goth make up, for another it was a saxophone and an East German army jacket. For me, at first, it was books, then a leather jacket, then film. You survive however you can, whether that’s through playing the sax, learning how to draw Egyptian eye makeup or knowing about a film three months before your friends do. The icons and totems change and fall away but the need for them, to make something about your life your own never does and often they define you as much by their absence as their presence.

It’s absence and what happens when you become aware of it that lies at the heart of Nowhere Boy. The story of John Lennon’s teenage years, adapted from the book by his sister, it follows the future Beatle from the loss of his uncle through to his departure for Hamburg with the band that would become the Beatles. From an absence to a departure, it follows Lennon with unrelenting, unblinking intensity through the worst, and arguably most important, years of his life.

Adolescence sits in the no man’s land between confidence and terror and the film shows us both those extremes in the first ten minutes. Lennon begins the film happy, relaxed and innocent as his Uncle gives him his first harmonica lesson. This is Lennon unfettered but also Lennon undefined, a happy, cheerful, charming young man whose life comes to a crashing halt when his Uncle dies. In one of the film’s most affecting moments, he breaks down in front of his aunt the day after his Uncle dies. She firmly, but not unkindly, tells him off, says it’s just the two of them now and hands him a tea towel. Lennon stares at her for a moment, then begins to dry the dishes. A widow and a child, united by the one thing they won’t talk about, by a smiling Banquo with a harmonica in his top pocket.

The death of his Uncle, the absence in his life, wakes Lennon up, sacrifices his innocence for his awareness. He becomes aware of the odd nature of his life, of the fact that he lives with his aunt even though his mother is still alive. His need to find answers, to discover the truth behind that arrangement in turn leads to him becoming aware of his priorities; family before school, his future before everything else. Trapped, it seems, in a house with an aunt that doesn’t love him near a mother that doesn’t want him, Lennon can rely on one person; himself. Therefore, it only makes sense he make himself a success because clearly no one else will.

This combination of selfishness and confidence, of absolute determination and complete lack of focus is what drives Lennon. He wants something desperately and at first he’s convinced it’s a relationship with his mother. The scenes between Lennon and his mother Julia are arguably where the film is at its strongest, the two playing off one another in a way that’s both sweet and unsettling. Ann-Marie Duff plays Julia as a desperately cheerful, unfettered woman who runs headlong at her teenage son with a combination of joy and crippling guilt. There’s an air of courtship, of romance to the scenes, of two people trying desperately to fit eighteen years of relationship into a few weeks. The scenes, and the characters, feel fragile, hysteria always present just beneath Julia’s laughter, rage beneath John’s wry smile. These are two damaged people trying desperately to fix themselves through the other’s company and they never quite manage it.
A lesser film would have concluded with the inevitable apocalyptic argument but here that arrives not longer after the mid point. Lennon discovers the truth about his past, about the horrific choice he was asked to make between his mother and his father and he does exactly what anyone would in that situation; he explodes, raging at the people around him, at the world he’s trapped in, at the fact that God chose James Dean to be James Dean instead of him. This is Lennon unfettered, Johnson nailing the Beatles’ savage combination of fury, humour and blistering intellect.
For all his bluster though, Lennon finds a measure of peace. The film tilts around this confrontation, the view of each character changing as we learn about the complex relationship between his mother and aunt, and the love they both have for him. Kristin Scott-Thomas’ Aunt Mimi is still strict but there’s a compassion to it, a tempering of both her emotions and John’s as she takes gradual steps towards reconciling with her sister. There’s something uniquely English about the way the two women make up, neither saying anything yet both working to find common ground and where Johnson and Duff are emotive and expressive, Scott-Thomas is the quiet, reticent emotional core of the scene and the film.
Lennon’s perspective, and the audience’s view of him, also change at this point. A young man who has been defined by absence, of a father, a mother, school, affection, is suddenly defined by the thing he most wants; attention and through that, love. He realises that his mother wasn’t what he was looking for, that what he really needs is to define himself on his own terms. The rock star attitude becomes tempered with real ability, real dedication. By the time we see the Quarrymen play their first gig, it’s clear that Lennon has changed his totems, swapping the absence of a conventional family for the swagger and theatricality, the attention and crucially, adulation, of a performer.
Even this, though, isn’t enough and one of the film’s best scenes comes after the gig as Lennon is introduced to a young Paul McCartney. The casting of Thomas Sangster, who Johnson worked with before on the under rated Feather Boy for the BBC, is something close to genius. The two have an an instant bond, part adversarial, part affectionate, one all rock and roll bluster, the other all quiet, sad focus. McCartney is broken in a unique and complementary way to Lennon, losing his mother to cancer where Lennon lost his father to the Merchant Navy and together the two form begin to form something like a whole. Lennon has the swagger and the raw talent, McCartney has the focus and the patience to teach him and the tempering effect he has on Lennon is revelatory, especially on Lennon himself. For the first time he sees himself from another persepective, the slight, quiet McCartney slipping past his size and bluster to reveal not only what he wants but how to get there. For the first time, Lennon realises that a good look, an attitude and his own talent aren’t enough, that he not only needs a band, but needs to be challenged. He’s still brash and over-confidence but for the first time Lennon’s able to see not only where he’s going but also that he can’t get there alone.

Then Julia dies. In the cruellest possible way, at the cruellest possible location and time. Lennon is defined by absence once again, and, once again, is unfettered. The confident, Elvis-quiffed almost rock star is revealed to be just another totem, just another icon clutched in the hands of a terrified, angry boy who can’t believe he’s here, again. The rage that’s never far from the surface bubbles over into violence and Johnson shows us it all, shows us that everything up to now has been a front, that Lennon’s still broken, still alone.

But no longer alone. The hair, the attitude, the anger all fall away as we see Lennon realise that he’s part of something larger than himself now, that he’s defined by the presence of his band more than the absence of his family. It’s still not right, it still causes him almost incalculable pain but for the first time he’s bigger than it, stronger than it. For the first time it’s something he can define and understand instead of something that defines him.

Nowhere Boy is a film about how we define ourselves and how we’re defined, about what we choose and what’s forced upon us. It’s a film about the events that defined a man who helped define generations of music and musicians. Most of all though , it’s a film about the crucible of adolescence, the glory and the terror of realising that you’re clamped to the motorcycle but you’re not the only one. It’s rarely fair, it’s never easy but none of us go through it alone and sometimes that’s enough.

Where’s Al?-The Bigger on the Inside Edition Part 1

It’s been a busy few weeks, so busy, in fact that ‘Where’s Al?’ needs to be broken up into two entries. First off, let’s take a look at what’s been going on at Hub, Pseudopod and Escape Pod recently..

Orrin Grey’s ‘The Worm That Gnaws’ followed Mark Felps’ ‘Raising Eddie’ at Pseudopod. It’s a great piece, a period story about the very real and very supernatural dangers of grave robbing.

Blake Vaughn’s ‘The Leviathan’ was up next and is one of my favourite Pseudopod stories in a while. It’s a piece about what it’s like to brush up against something unknowable on both the intimate and the supernatural scale and reminded me more than a little of Ray Bradbury’s classic ‘The Foghorn’.

Things got meta the week after that with the debut of the first ever Escape Artists metacast. It’s interesting listening, with Ben our CEO, Steve, our founder, Rachel the co-editor of Podcastle and myself all contributing with details of where the company stands, what processes go into making an episode and how we feel about doing the work.

The week after that, Felicity Bloomfield’s haunting ‘Wave Goodbye’, a story that balances first world guilt with third world horror to terrifying effect.

Regulars’ was up next, with Frank Oreto deftly using the social contract between barkeep and customer to focus the deep, personal horror of the piece.

Jim Bihyeh’s ‘Reservation Monsters’ followed it, exploring Navajo culture with tremendous subtlety and atmosphere.

Most recently ‘Got Milk?’ by John Alfred Taylor explored what happens when you don’t notice reality start to curdle until it’s much, much too late. I narrated this one as well as introduced it and it’s a blast, simultaneously very funny and utterly revolting

I also spent a month in the woooorlld of tomorrow! Or Escape Pod as we like to call it, where I guest hosted four episodes. The first ‘Cathargo Delenda Est’ by Genevieve Valentine is a story about what happens when something is about to happen, that moment before the singularity, before everything changes.

Skinhorse goes to Mars’ by Jay Lake was up next, a highly entertaining combination of demented pulp invention and grounded, almost Firefly-like universe building.

The Monkey Will Never Get Rid Of Its Black Hands’ by Rachel Swirsky followed it, which I also narrated. This, to my mind, is one of the best stories we’ve ever run, a fascinating, troubling combination of alternate history, seething fury and vast human tragedy.

Finally, ‘Sinner, Baker, Fablist, Priest; Red Mask, Black Mask, Gentleman, Beast’ by Eugie Foster is yet another in a run of massively inventive, intelligent stories from Eugie. This and Rachel’s piece are two real highlights in what’s been a very strong year for all three podcasts.


Issue 95 kicked off with ‘Last Flight’ by Malin Larsson as well as a look at the Vampire in fiction by our new columnist Janet Neilson and reviews of Star Wars: The Clone Wars episodes 19-21 by Richard Whittaker.

Issue 96 featured ‘Obsession’ by Jo Thomas as our story and featured my look at Ivan Reitman’s flawed but fun Evolution in our Big Screen Future feature. It’s not a perfect movie, but I’d contend any film which allows David Duchovny, Seann William Scott and Orlando Jones to sing ‘Play That Funky Music, White Boy’ has got to have something going for it. The issue is rounded out by a review of Star Wars: The Clone Wars episode 22 by Richard Whittaker.

Issue 97 featured ‘The Locked Room’ by Gaie Sebold and Martin Owton. The reviews section was given over to a Blockbuster round up covering Harry Potter and The Half Blood Prince, GI Joe: The Rise of Cobra, Terminator: Salvation, Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen and Orphan. The issue was rounded out by Gary McMahon’s excellent Bleeding Words column, looking at the difficulties of transitioning from the small press to the big leagues.

Most recently, issue 98 featured an exclusive; ‘The Clockwork Hunter’ is a short story by Andy Remic set in the same universe as Kell’s Legend, his new novel from Angry Robot. It’s a fantastically nasty, very odd fantasy world delivered with Andy’s usual flair and this story is a perfect chance to see if it’s your thing.

The reviews cover Sarah Pinborough’s superb The Language of Dying, Neil Blommkamp’s fascinating District 9 and a combined review of Inglourious Basterds and Shorts. I’m a big fan of movie reviews at the best of times, you may have noticed, but the Inglourious Basterds review is something genuinely very special. I don’t agree with some of the points raised in it but I’ve yet to see another review approach the film as an exploration of film itself in quite so much depth.

The other stand out review this issue is a double header, as both Janet and I take a look at Personal Effects: Dark Art. A fascinating, transmedia novel that comes with a packet of documents that inform the story and sits in the centre of a cloud of websites that allow the reader to interrogate the story, it’s the print debut of podcasting giant JC Hutchins. Check out the reviews to see what we thought of it.
The issue is rounded out by another Big Screen Future, this time looking at James Cameron’s The Abyss. To my mind it’s not only Cameron’s best film but also the one that his new movie, Avatar, appears closest to in terms of approach. Whether Avatar will be instantly successful, in the way The Abyss wasn’t, is going to be fascinating to see.

So that’s what’s been going on with the podcasts and Hub recently. Check back tomorrow for a break down of what else has been going on.

Happy Anniversary, Doctor Banzai: The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the Eighth Dimension

The pantheon of heroic scientists contains some of the greatest names in science fiction; Professor Bernard Quatermass, Professor Henry Jones II, The Doctor and many more. But there’s one in particular who has strode across the world for twenty five years, a man whose genius is matched only by his compassion and musical ability; Doctor Buckaroo Banzai, who celebrates his 25th anniversary this year.

Written by Earl Mac Rauch, directed by WD Richter and starring some of the iconic names of the ‘80s and earl y ‘90s, The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across The Eighth Dimension was released in 1984 and gradually acquired cult status. It’s the story of Buckaroo Banzai, an orphaned genius, scientist, musician and martial artist who splits his time between performing high end brain surgery, developing a way of passing through solid matter and playing slightly seedy clubs in New Jersey with his band, the Hong Kong Cavaliers.
As the film opens, Buckaroo has perfected the Oscillation Overthruster, a device that allows him to move through the invisible dimensions contained within solid matter. But even as he celebrates his success, an age old war is about to reignite on Earth, a war that connects the Orson Welles’ War of the Worlds broadcast with a spaceship orbiting high over the Earth and Buckaroo’s Oscillation Overthruster. Years ago, something awful arrived from the Eighth Dimension and now it wants to go back…

Buckaroo Banzai presents the absurd with an absolutely straight face, filtering the standard 1950s ‘Two fisted scientist’ through Miami Vice and the start of the cult of personality to create something genuinely unique. Buckaroo is a superhero whose costume is a sharp ‘80s suit, a man for whom medicine comes as easily as physics, martial arts and aeronautics. He’s utterly deadpan, utterly driven and played with absolutely perfection by Weller. His deep, sonorous voice combines with Mac Rauch’s script to present a man who is both incredibly clever and at the same time slightly distanced. In the hands of a lesser, or at least less eccentric, writer this would turn him into the absolutely standard tortured genius of science fiction, able to take his place along side Quatermass as a man who is never allowed and never allows himself to enjoy his achievements.
But Rauch and Weller have different plans for the good doctor. Instead, he becomes a genuinely admirable figure; a smart, competent, compassionate man able to face the almost lunatic dangers of his world safe in the knowledge that there’s very little he can’t out think, out build, out sing or if needed out fight. He’s the Doctor with a regular circle of friends, Quatermass in a better suit. He’s arguably the best of all the heroic scientists and is certainly the best dressed.
The Hong Kong Cavaliers are a vital part of both Buckaroo’s success and that of the film. A near roll call of some of the best character actors of the last thirty years, they include Clancy Brown as the unflappable Rawhide, Jeff Goldblum as the oddly cowboy-clad New Jersey, Lewis Smith as the impossibly good looking Perfect Tommy and Pepe Serna as the relentlessly cheerful Reno Nevada and they all get a chance not just to register but to shine. Goldblum’s nervous doctor who can sing and ‘dance a little’ is particularly good fun, a man desperate to fit in and somehow managing to do so whilst never quite taking off the cowboy outfit. Smith’s platinum blonde, Billy Idol-a-like and Brown’s relaxed, informal scientist/commando are equally as likeable. There’s an air of Doc Savage and his friends to the way they interact, combined with an offhand, relaxed humour years ahead of its time. These men are the forerunners of Buffy’s Scooby gang, the crew of the Serenity and the command staff of the reimagined Galactica, a group of people so comfortable with each other you have no problem accepting the idea of hard rocking scientists with guns and their own volunteer army.
The rest of the cast are as impressive, especially Ellen Barkin as the improbably named Penny Priddy and John Lithgow as Doctor Emilio Lizardo and John Whorfin, the Lectroid dictator who takes over his body. Lithgow in particular throws himself around the set with maniacal glee, a bulky Peter Lorre with an appalling Italian accent and a fondness for referring to humans as ‘monkey boy’ and his maniacal performance is a great counterpoint to Weller’s relentlessly calm Banzai. However it’s Carl Lumbly who steals the show as John Parker, an envoy from the Black Lectroids who is endlessly compassionate, slightly inept and wildly eccentric. Lumbly, like several other cast members, is adept at stealing a scene by doing almost nothing and he’s on top form here.

The cast, combined with Richter’s direction and Mac Rauch’s script turn the film into something truly wonderful. From the moment Buckaroo activates the Oscillation Overthruster to the final scenes on the Hong Kong Cavaliers tour bus you feel as though you’re looking through a window into a different world. It’s escapism in the purist sense, a look at a world which is both infinitely more dangerous and somehow far more appealing, watched over and defended by a genius and his best friends, all of whom put their trousers on one leg at a time.
There’s a sense of barely contained glee at getting away with producing something so odd that suffuses the entire film, especially the end credits that see Buckaroo and friends marching in time across the Sepulveda Basin. It’s a perfect summation of what’s gone before, as we see the world’s best dressed genius joined by friends both human and alien, alive and dead. As he leads them across the basin it becomes clear this is the reason why Buckaroo wins, the reason why he’s such an enduring figure even now. On his own he’s incredible, but with his friends, he’s exceptional.

So happy anniversary Doctor Banzai. You don’t just keep the world safe, you make it much more interesting. And remember, wherever you go, there you are.

Better Eyes Than That: The Avatar Trailer

James Cameron is coming home. The director of The Terminator, Terminator 2: Judgment Day, Aliens and The Abyss Cameron was, along with Ridley Scott and John Woo, pivotal in creating the grammar of action and genre cinema in the ‘80s and ‘90s.

Whilst Scott favoured worlds that were both functional and richly detailed and Woo became ever more fascinated by the heroic ideal and how that could be represented through balletic, creative violence, Cameron remained unusually practical. A former special effects technician who’d learnt his trade working with Roger Corman, Cameron’s combination of invention, vision and willingness to get his hands dirty led him to work with the likes of Ron Cobb to create futures which were incredible and tangible, brave new worlds where the rivets weren’t just visible, they were vital.

Cameron’s return to the genre is a project he’s been working on for over a decade. Initially written in 1995, Avatar was put on hold until special effects were advanced enough for the film to be properly realised. That time has now come and after years of speculation, the film was previewed this week, through a trailer and 16 minutes of footage shown at IMAX cinemas worldwide.

The response, so far, has been unsurprisingly negative as the unusual combination of hype and secrecy surrounding the project has raised expectations impossibly high. There is, inevitably, already talk of it being the biggest flop of the year and that it may signal the end of Cameron’s career.

I disagree, because I think Cameron’s been here before.

The Abyss is his least well-regarded film but arguably his best. The film follows a group of oil rig workers and Navy SEALs as they find themselves caught between natural disaster, human frailty, the very real possibility of nuclear war and a first contact situation on the ocean bed, combining all four to create what is arguably Cameron’s best and most human film.

It also features one of the the single most influential scenes in 1990s genre cinema. At the film’s halfway mark, the crew discover a tentacle of mobile water snaking its way through their badly damaged rig and their reactions tell us everything we need to know about them. Coffey, the SEAL team leader is terrified, Bud, the rig foreman is shocked and fascinated and Lindsay, the rig designer and his wife is completely unafraid. In one of the film’s best moments, the tentacle mimics Lindsay’s face and seamlessly, without any fanfare, we begin to communicate with an alien race. It’s the moment the clocks stop, the moment the new age begins and it’s heralded by nothing more than an alien water tentacle sticking its tongue out.


What’s less obvious is that special effects technology changed at the same time. The water tentacle was one of the earliest examples of practical CGI, neatly sidestepping the limitations of the technology by relying on a basic, elemental substance and texture. Simple, effective and unlike anything seen before, it was the moment that arguably opened the door for everything from the Quidditch games of Harry Potter to the subtle recreation of period San Francisco in Zodiac. It’s less a scene, more a hinge around which over a decade of films turn.

Which brings us to Avatar and to Jake Sullivan smiling with two mouths and two different faces.

Avatar is Jake’s story. A paralysed former marine, he’s given a chance to walk again as part of the Avatar program on Pandora. The only world where an incredibly valuable mineral has been discovered, Pandora is as beautiful as it is hostile and the Avatars are an attempt to even the odds. Grown from a combination of their pilot’s DNA and that of the Na’vi, Pandora’s dominant race, Avatars are ‘flown’ by pilots in a secure location, allowing them to interact with and, in theory, survive the Pandoran ecosystem.

They’re also, from a practical point of view, entirely fake. The film uses a combination of motion capture and computer graphics to create most of Pandora, including the Avatars themselves. Unsurprisingly, they’ve also become the focus of much of the film’s early negative buzz, critics citing the Elvish appearance of the characters and their opaque skin as highlighting instead of hiding their artificiality. Neill Blomkamp’s acclaimed District 9 has also been used as a comparison, the ‘Prawn’ aliens of Blomkamp’s seething Johannesburg more integrated, more real and somehow more alien than Cameron’s stylised Na’vi.

All of this may well prove to be true, after all there’s as much danger as glory in being the first one through the door. But for me, the Avatars are as fascinating and I suspect will prove as pivotal as the water tentacle of The Abyss. The reason, I suspect, lies in the space between Sam Worthington, Jake Sullivan and Jake Sullivan’s Avatar.

Unsurprisingly Worthington, the film’s star, is front and centre for almost all the trailer but what’s more surprising is that there’s only one line of dialogue throughout. As a result, the viewer is naturally drawn not only to the special effects but to the physical acting on display and one moment in particular. There’s a shot of Jake, sitting next to the tank his Avatar is suspended in, bathed in the blue light coming from it. He looks at it for a long moment, then smiles. It’s a fascinating moment, not least because of how much Worthington communicates with that smile. There’s abject wonder, intense satisfaction and recognition there, all wrapped up in under a second of screen time.

It’s particularly fascinating when viewed with a moment that comes later in the trailer. Jake has been downloaded into his Avatar for the first time, a gangly, nine-foot tall creature of incredible power tempered only by inexperience. He stumbles and puts a colossal hand against the glass of the observation room nearby then looks up, smiles a wide, predatory smile filled with teeth and utters the one line of the trailer:

‘This is great.’

It’s the same man, the same face, the same smile but wider, wilder and a little more intimidating. It’s a startling moment, clearly Jake, clearly Worthington but somehow something bigger, something different, something new. It’s a moment of startling parity between actor and character as Sam Worthington’s performance, like Jake Sullivan’s thoughts are filtered through to a new, different body. It’s also a moment, like the water tentacle, around which I suspect the next decade’s worth of science fiction cinema will turn.

Magnificent Desolation: Moon

MoonThe Apollo program died the moment Neil Armstrong’s flickery cathode ghost touched down on the moon’s safe and uttered one of the most famous phrases in human history. Everything that followed him, from the genial charm of Al Bean’s Apollo 12 crew to the ‘successful failure’ of Apollo 13 and the arrival of Harrison Schmitt, the only scientist in history to walk on the moon on Apollo 17, was an afterthought, an also ran, second place. The moon had been reached and it was summed up perfectly by Armstrong’s pilot, Buzz Aldrin; magnificent desolation.

Moon, written by Duncan Jones and Nathan Parker and directed by Jones takes this vague disappointment and makes it the centre of the film. The story cleverly places our satellite in the last position it can appear new; as somewhere remote, dangerous, but ultimately mundane. A workplace with spacesuits, a mine face populated by robots. This moon is busy, certainly, but still empty, still desolate, but no longer devoid of human presence.
The story follows Sam Bell, played by Sam Rockwell. Sam is the token human presence at Sarang Moonbase, serving a three year term where his biggest responsibility is to periodically empty the Helium 3 tanks of the robotic harvesters he looks after and ship the gas back to Earth. Sarang is the front line of modern science, instrumental in keeping Helium 3 as the number one, ecologically sound, clean fuel used on Earth. Sam’s job is equal parts janitor and astronaut, frontiersman and manual labour and the paycheque more than makes up for the three years of his life spent in alone.
Sam, as we first meet him, is as well adjusted to his job as he can be. He keeps a botanical garden using old food boxes as planters, is constructing a precise scale model of his hometown, works out regularly and lives for the video messages from his wife. With two weeks to go he’s a serene, placid figure whose one concern is his growing health problems. He’s beginning to hallucinate and whilst he can still do his job, he’s becoming very aware that something is wrong. Matters come to a head when he sees a woman walking, suitless, on the lunar surface. The ensuing accident cripples his rover and leaves him badly injured.
Sam wakes up in the infirmary. He’s told by the base AI, GERTY, that he had an accident, was able to get back to Sarang but appears to have suffered minor brain damage. GERTY runs some tests, makes sure he stays in bed and leaves him be.

But Sam Bell, the second time we meet him, is a different man. He’s concerned, agitated, curious. He gets out of bed early and hears what sounds like GERTY talking to Earth, except the live satellite link has been down for weeks. He can’t remember making sections of the town model and when he notices that one of the Harvesters has been immobilised, is hugely frustrated to be told he can’t go out to fix it. Filled with nervous energy and seemingly unharmed from his accident, Sam fakes an atmosphere breach and leaves the station.

In the airlock, there’s an empty hangar where a spacesuit should be.

When he reaches the Harvester, there’s a rover trapped under its treads.

In the rover is a man with Sam Bell’s face.

Sam Bell is a placid, calm man who sees things that aren’t there and has only two weeks left to serve. Sam Bell is a nervous, energetic, angry man who is two weeks into a three year contract. Both think they’re the real Sam. Both want answers. Both are being lied to.

The genius of Jones’ film is that the desolation that Buzz Aldrinr esponded to is not only present but lies at the heart of both versions of Sam. The banality of their existence is not only a comfort but, it’s revealed over the course of the film, a positive influence on both of them. The younger Sam is driven to the point of obsession, angry, bad with people and on the verge of losing his wife. He’s barely able to keep still where the older Sam is barely able to move, lacking the benefit of three years of monastic life at Sarang.
The older Sam has the tranquillity but lacks the drive. He’s a man who has done nothing but look himself in the face for three years and as the film progresses, he’s the one who becomes strong enough to confront the very personal aspects of the situation. Young Sam is concerned with where he’s going, whether he’s real, whether he’ll get back to Earth. Older Sam is concerned with where they’ve been, happy to find out whether they’re real and able to deal with the truth far better than young Sam. One of the film’s finest, most poignant moments comes from this and is, appropriately, an absence. Old Sam makes contact not only with Earth but with the daughter that he has spent three years watching grow up, only to find her a fifteen year old young woman. Rockwell’s face is a master class of silent, complex acting as he struggles to deal with not only this information but his own voice, off shot, asking who’s on the phone.

Neither of them are real. Neither of them are first. Neither of them are important.

This is the information he keeps from young Sam, recognising that the younger version of himself needs the anger, the energy, the absence of knowledge in order to get where he needs to be. It’s a sin of kindness as well as one of omission and it gives the ending a bittersweet tone it desperately needs.

Rockwell’s work as the two versions of Sam Bell is extraordinary, there’s really no other way to describe it. The slightly distant serenity of older Sam is present in every element of the character from his over long hair and the physical damage he takes to the moment he receives a message from his wife. Rockwell is completely focussed on the screen, living for a woman who is a quarter of a million miles away and, unknown to him, fifteen years ago. A lesser actor would have played this Sam as child like or senile but in Rockwell’s hands he’s a gentle, smart man who is coming to the end of his life and coming to an acceptance of that.
The younger Sam, in stark contrast, is a character wrapped in an elaborate joke. Spending much of the film in his Lunar Industries jumpsuit and aviator sunglasses he’s every inch the hero astronaut, complete with close cropped hair and constant, desperate need to find out more. He’s energetic where older Sam is tranquil, tensed where older Sam is relaxed. He has potential but no peace and it’s that which ultimately gives him the tools he needs to get to the end of the story.
In essence, Rockwell is playing one man as both father and son and the honesty with which he does it is affecting without ever seeming mawkish. These men have the same memories, the same experiences but an entirely different outlook and the script is at its best when it demonstrates that. Young Sam’s initial plan, to wake a third clone and kill him so one of them can escape unnoticed to Earth and the other can serve out his term is shot down by his older compatriot not because it won’t work, but because they don’t kill. It’s a simple moment of absolute knowledge, a remarkable piece of scriptwriting where a character is in essence having an externalised moral discussion with themselves and again it’s one of the film’s best scenes. By the end of the film, Sam has been given that rarest of gifts; knowledge not only of where he’s going but what he’ll be like when he gets there and finishes the story as a combination of his two incarnations; a young man with the energy and anger to deal with his new life tempered by experience, self knowledge and compassion.

Were the film just a conversation between two incarnations of Rockwell it would be impressive. However, Kevin Spacey as the voice of GERTY provides a fascinating counterpoint for the character. A blocky, functional computer that can move around Sarang on a ceiling rail, GERTY looks like HAL from 2001 redesigned by the NASA of the 1980s. The only sop to human contact is a small screen where he communicates using a variety of smiley faces.
Once again, the genius of the film lies in this minimalism, as GERTY communicates a complex series of emotions through less than ten still images. Spacey’s warm, expressive voice gives the AI a strength which varies from intimidating to comical and finally remarkably human. When faced with the knowledge that Sam has met himself, GERTY asks whether he might be imagining things and at times appears to view Sam as an asset of the company and nothing more. A lesser film would have used this to make GERTY an adversary but he’s anything but, instead acting as a soldered Ariel, a figure who observes everything and helps Sam not because he wants to, but because he’s programmed to.
Even there though, the film leaves room for doubt. GERTY’s willingness to help could also be read as guilt or dissatisfaction over presiding over the murder of the previous Sams. His final action, offering Sam his reset switches to ensure no record of the events at Sarang will survive is again open to interpretation; on one hand it’s the final act of an AI who is programmed to help its human colleague first and protect their employer second. On the other, it’s a form of voluntary lobotomy, perhaps even the end GERTY has been working towards, a final binary absolution.

The film’s minimalist nature allows Rockwell and Spacey to drill down to the essence of their characters and also allows Jones and Parker to place it in the rarified atmosphere between contemporary science fiction and cyberpunk. Sarang is a resolutely functional base and even Sam’s personal effects seem dated and worn, his small bunk, stainless steel shower and battered chair owing as much to Red Dwarf as they do to Alien. This is the world of tomorrow in its most mundane sense, a future which is almost exactly like the presence in every way.
But this minimalism also means the few hints of the outside world stand out far more than normal. Dominique McElligott and Kaya Scodelario as Sam’s wife and daughter offer hints of an outside world that is as enticing as it is unreachable whilst the excellent Matt Berry and Benedict Wong give Lunar Industries an utterly convincing passive aggressive face as Overmyers and Thompson, the two executives in charge of the operation.
It also means that the film becomes a metatextual piece, the themes of cloning, isolation and corporate espionage applicable both to its own universe and others. It’s almost impossible to not view Sam as an early Replicant, an industrial genetic android with a short lifespan and a single job to do. Like Roy Batty, Sam wants more life but unlike the antagonist and, arguably, hero of Blade Runner, he gets that life without any blood on his hands. Likewise, the three man ‘rescue squad’ dispatched to the moon to help repair Sam’s Harvester could easily be viewed as a Blade Runner division kept on permenant retainer.
Much like Sam, the more the viewer digs, the more questions are raised. Is every base on the moon run by a version of Sam Bell? Was the original Sam complicit? How many times has this happened before? How many other people have been cloned?

The film answers none of these questions and is stronger for that. In fact, it’s single misstep comes in the closing credits as voice over news reports tell us that the young Sam made it to Earth and that Lunar Industries are being indicted for crimes against humanity. It’s an unnecessary complication to an almost inconceivably elegant, exploration of one man’s life played out against a landscape that is both defined and released by two words; magnificent desolation.